Peter King is on a well-deserved vacation. So off the bench I come. In this week’s Monday Morning Quarterback, we’ll hear from Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore on his new team and growing family. We’ll chat with the game’s most underrated defensive lineman, Green Bay’s Mike Daniels, and get his take on why fans notice Ndamukong Suh more than him. Atlanta’s Robert Alford will also tell us what it feels like to have made an iconic Super Bowl play only to have it diminished in defeat, and you might be surprised who helped Alford become the NFL’s most improved cornerback last season.
But we start with the most dynamic running back in the NFC and why he’s interested in Le’Veon Bell’s contract negotiations with Pittsburgh.
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David Johnson Has a Looming Problem
Let’s be honest: intelligence is rarely emphasized when discussing running backs. It’s not because they’re dumb. Ninety nine percent of all NFL players are explicitly not dumb. It’s just that, more than any position save for maybe a man-to-man cover corner, a running back is regarded for his physical traits. Can he break tackles? Make defenders miss? In traffic, can he locate space and then accelerate?
Cardinals third-year star David Johnson, who is as rich in these traits as anyone in football, understands. A lot of running “comes from instincts, especially in the heat of the battle, heat of the game, where you don’t have time to think,” Johnson told me over the phone recently. “It’s all reaction.” But a player still must put himself in the right position to react.
Johnson does consistently. When he speaks, his football IQ shines through. He explains, in fine detail, how different defensive fronts impact where his eyes go on running plays. He points out that, because of his receiving prowess, he must also read coverages. Those reads differ based on where he lines up. And sometimes his routes are determined by the read.
Amidst this talk, Johnson and I got into a discussion about what he describes as Arizona’s “bread and butter” run play. Twenty-three double, they call it. An inside zone run with two tight ends aligned side by side. There are various double-team blocks across the board, depending on the defense’s structure. And, the real kicker: Larry Fitzgerald. The 14th-year receiver motions down, behind the tight ends, and is responsible for blocking one of the second level defenders (either a linebacker or a safety, again depending on the defense’s structure). Johnson described the nuances of this play in a quote long enough to exhaust a person scrolling through it.
That description mentioned several things I heard a few weeks ago sitting in on the Rams’ offensive coaches meetings for my 24 Hours with Sean McVay story. Most notably, the importance of the runner keeping his shoulders square. Even if the back is bouncing an inside zone run to the outside, staying square is vital because it influences defenders in ways that give linemen easier blocks. Blockers obviously help a ballcarrier, but a ballcarrier must also help his blockers.
I asked Johnson if, growing up, he would he have believed that one day he’d be in the NFL and running a bread and butter play that hinged on the blocks he gets from, of all people, superstar wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald?
“It’s definitely hard to believe,” says Johnson. “Every time we’re in practice, every time I see him do what he does, it’s mesmerizing. Sometime I catch myself daydreaming watching him, not really paying attention to what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Fitzgerald, of course, has plenty of receiving habits for Johnson, perhaps the game’s best pass-catching back, to emulate. Johnson is a bona fide weapon from anywhere in the formation, be it out of the backfield, in the slot or out wide.
“I’m just trying to do better than last year,” Johnson says. “Trying to get 1,000 (yards) receiving, 1,000 rushing. I was close last year.”
I ask him where he ranks himself among NFL backs. He said: “I’m definitely going to have to say I feel like I should be number one. If there’s a player in the NFL who doesn’t feel that way, they definitely should not be in the NFL. I feel like I should be number one, especially with the season I had last year, helping out the team. And I still have a lot of room to improve.”
The only other player with Johnson’s diversity of skills is Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell, who this spring was slapped with a $12.1 million franchise tag and has one week remaining to figure out a long-term deal with the Steelers. Johnson, of course, has an interest in these negotiations. Bell’s contract will help set the top end of the running back market. Johnson’s deal expires after the 2018 season.
“I hope he gets the deal he deserves,” Johnson says. “I hope it’s going to be the type of deal that cornerbacks get and quarterbacks get.”
There are problems with Johnson’s situation, which he’s aware of but doesn’t fret about. For starters, he’s simply underpaid. Arguably the most valuable non-quarterback offensive player in football, he has a 2017 salary (including prepaid bonuses) of almost $800,000. In 2018, his salary is just south of $900K. Johnson is worth about 15 times that much. But such is the nature of a rookie contract. Teams who can find stars in the mid-rounds of the draft (Johnson was a third-rounder) gain a huge financial advantage. The player’s second contract eventually corrects things.
But this brings us to the second part of Johnson’s problem: he’ll be 27 when negotiating that second contract. For a running back, that’s the back half of middle age. A 27-year-old at any other position is presumed to have five or six years left in his prime. Teams negotiating with Johnson will try to argue that he’ll hit the infamous running back wall at 30, like so many before him. Johnson doesn’t have as much tread on the tires as most backs, but that won’t stop teams from at least initially trying to negotiate this way. They may want to discuss money commensurate with a three- to four-year deal. A running back’s value can get minimized on paper.
“That is so true,” Johnson says. “I feel like, especially now, with the running backs we have in this league, we’re going to definitely change the mentality of the running back and those contract deals. We’re going to definitely make it (understood) that running backs are more important than you’d think. Everyone thinks it’s a passing league, but I think running backs are starting to show up and show out and prove that you need a good one to be a capable team.”
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Stephon Gilmore: Personal and Professional
Imagine one day signing a five-year, $65 million contract with the world champion Patriots and having it be the second biggest thing to happen to you that day. That’s the reality for former Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
Immediately after signing with the Patriots on March 10, the free agent raced to the airport and caught a flight to Charlotte, where he and his wife Gabrielle make their offseason home. (Gilmore grew up about a half hour away in Rock Hill, S.C.) Gabrielle was in labor with their second child (first daughter), who, coincidentally, would be named Gisele.
“I got there at the easy part when she’s pushing and had been numbed with the epidural,” Gilmore said. “I wasn’t there when she was in pain; I was there when she was about to push.”
And has she noted the convenience of your timing?
“Oh yeah, she’ll always remember that,” Gilmore laughs. “Luckily her mom was there. She’s a nurse so she took care of her and she was okay. I got back just in time so it wasn’t too bad.”
Merging football life and personal life is nothing to Gilmore. When he and Gabrielle married in July 2014, among the wedding’s groomsmen were Alshon Jeffery, Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney. Add the groom and you have one wedding with four South Carolina Gamecocks turned full-fledged NFL stars. (In describing his wedding party to me, Gilmore listed everyone and then explained, “Melvin, Alshon and Jadeveon are still in the league.” Thank you, Stephon.)
Gilmore earned the Patriots payday because he’s a lanky, physical man-to-man corner. That fits New England’s system. In Buffalo, he played a lot of Quarters coverage, which is a matchup zone—emphasis on the matchup part—in Rex Ryan’s defense. “When we were running Cover 4 (i.e. Quarters), it was pretty much man,” Gilmore says. “I mean, that’s how we played it. My technique wouldn’t change, just my leverage would change sometimes, depending on the coverage.”
Gilmore played only on the defensive right side in Buffalo. In recent years, the Patriots have matched up their corners. Malcolm Butler, whom Gilmore may have been signed to replace but is back for at least one more year, has traveled with the opponent’s quickest receiver. Logan Ryan, who left for Tennessee in free agency, has traveled with the bigger, more physical receiver. Presumably, Gilmore will assume Ryan’s duties, though part of what got Ryan paid in Tennessee is his ability to cover the slot.
In Buffalo, “I didn’t play the slot much,” Gilmore says. He believes he can, though. “I’m pretty sure playing outside is harder. I’ll do whatever the coaches want me to do.”
It’s unusual to hear someone argue that covering the slot is easier than covering the perimeter. But on the perimeter, “nobody is out there, you’re on an island most of the time,” says Gilmore. “You are responsible for that third of the field, especially in man-to-man. In the slot, you have to be a little quicker, but now they’re putting bigger receivers in there. You’re closer to the line and closer to the 10 players on the field and you can use that to your advantage.”
The Patriots, of course, can never be counted on to do what you expect, so it’s possible their cornerback roles will shift. Gilmore says it hasn’t been decided yet.
Or maybe it has and he’s just being mum. Though he’s only been in Foxboro for four months, Gilmore has nearly mastered The Patriot Way. “I don’t want to tell too many of my tricks,” he says. Knowing he won’t be willing to compare Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan on the record, I instead ask how many times he’s been asked to compare the two.
“Too many times,” he laughs. “They’re two different guys. Two different personalities. That’s all I can say. Two great coaches.”
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Mike Daniels is Ndamukong Suh With Uglier Job
Green Bay’s Mike Daniels could very well be the NFL’s most improved defensive lineman over the past three seasons.
“It’s funny you say that, about me improving at every stage of my career,” Daniels said over the phone from his home in New Jersey. “My kids and my cousins just got done playing Madden, and obviously they want to play as the Packers. That’s the team that they all root for. And they came downstairs screaming, ‘Pop! Pop!’ or ‘Mike! Mike!’ I’m like, ‘What is it?” They say to me, ‘On the game they just said you get better every year!’ I think that’s awesome that people take notice of that. I take pride in my craft, man.”
The NFL is in the golden age of interior defensive linemen. The defensive tackle and 3-4 defensive end positions are stacked. Daniels falls into this group, though not necessarily into one division or the other. The Packers are unique. Instead of playing a 4-3 or a 3-4, defensive coordinator Dom Capers plays variations of both. And because he likes to play with extra defensive backs, he often settles for what amounts to a 2-4 front in nickel. Capers will play this lightened nickel package even if the offense is in its usual running down personnel. The only way this can work is if your defensive linemen do the dirty work.
“You ask the casual fan, he’d say ‘Oh yeah, Ndamukong Suh’s way better than Mike Daniels,’” Daniels says. “But when you look at schemes, he and I have two different jobs. What Suh does is going to get seen more. What I do, it doesn’t really get seen. You have to look at the amount of double-team blocks (that Packers defensive linemen face).”
Suh’s Dolphins play a 4-3, one-gap scheme. Suh is tremendous at fighting double-teams, which he sees frequently. But, bigger picture, Miami’s scheme allows for him to penetrate. When Suh makes a play, it jumps out on television. Daniels’s assignments tend to be more nuanced. His plays stand out on film, but TV camera angles don’t always capture it.
I ask Daniels if he’ll allow me to put words into his mouth. Before he can answer, I proceed. “I get the sense you’d enjoy playing 3-technique on the weak side in a 4-3 scheme,” I say. This is known as an “under front 3-tech,” a position that shoots the gap and draws a lot of one-on-one blocks.
“Coming out, people said to me ‘you’re a natural 4-3 under front 3-tech,’” Daniels replies. “That’s where other big-name defensive tackles are. But I don’t care. I’m a pretty good square peg in a 3-4 round hole.”
Daniels, who is very loquacious, doesn’t say much more on the subject. “Politics and scheme, those are the two things I don’t talk about,” he explains.
His diplomacy is not surprising. For one, though it’s never talked about, Mike McCarthy, not Belichick, is the NFL’s most paranoid coach when it comes to trade secrets. Daniels doesn’t acknowledge this, but I’ve bumped into it several times pursuing Packers projects over the years. Two, Daniels is one of those old-school guys who exhorts the virtues of lining up and just knocking your opponent into the dirt. Guys like that don’t publicly yearn for a more glamorous role.
Guys like that do, however, harbor small grudges and use them as fuel. Daniels brought up the challenges of his road. He grew up in South Jersey but did not even receive a scholarship offer from nearby Temple. In fact, the only major university to do so was Iowa. Daniels went there and didn’t start until late in his career. He stood out, but with concerns about his size, he fell to the fourth round of the draft. Then he didn’t play much early in his NFL career. That’s not uncommon for young Packers defensive linemen, but so what?
I say to Daniels, okay, fair points all, but what’s also true: lately, football people have recognized you as one of the game’s best. And, even better, you got a four-year, $42 million extension in December 2015. So why do you still care about all that old stuff?
“You never forget where you come from,” he says. “A person without a past does not have a future. You would be extremely foolish to relax. Or get complacent because you’ve had a minor amount of success. Because in the grand scheme of things, there’s a lot more to life. There’s a lot more you can do. There’s a lot of greater things that can be done in this world. And to get complacent because you met one goal? Well I think that’s very foolish.”
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Robert Alford’s Well-Known Tutor
The NFL’s most improved cornerback over the course of last season was Atlanta’s Robert Alford. After Desmond Trufant tore his pectoral in Week 9, Alford, an up-and-down fringe starter for much of his four-year career, assumed Trufant’s duties and began traveling with No. 1 receivers. In the elevated role Alford didn’t just survive, he thrived. This included covering the slot, which he hadn’t done much before. The Falcons, having stumbled upon a second No. 1 corner, wisely locked him up in December with a four-year, $38 million extension.
I recently asked Alford what was behind his 2016 improvement.
“It was more film study,” he said. “Everyone wanted to say when Tru went down that my game elevated. But I felt like my game was improving as the season went on, whether he was there or if he wasn’t there. I didn’t feel like that was a big thing that played a part in it, in me improving each and every week. I just went with that mindset.”
NFL players don’t grow as a film student on their own. Like anything else, it’s something they’re taught. I asked Alford who taught him. “My DB coach Marquand Manuel,” he said. “I also had a friend named Ryan Clark.”
You mean the former Steelers safety?
Interesting. The most improved cover corner in football attributes much of his progress to what he’s learned from a retired safety.
“(Robert) is giving me too much credit,” Clark told me, “because I don’t play football; he does.” Clark, who now works as an analyst for ESPN, works with a handful of NFL players, watching their tape and providing feedback, and when possible, training with the guy. Tracy Porter, Clark’s former Washington teammate, was his first pupil. Included in today’s group are Giants safety Landon Collins and Bills first-round rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White.
“There are so many different training facilities and different people doing this type of work now I decided if I was going to work with DBs, I’d work on it as a whole. Some guy that went to school for kinesiology and got his masters in something else and went to school to learn how to train people doesn’t understand the intricacies of playing the defensive back position.”
The arrangements are often made through Performance Enhance Professionals, a training facility in Arizona (the same place Steelers linebacker James Harrison trains, Clark points out). In Alford’s case, the connection went way back. Alford’s older brother, Fred Booker, was Clark’s teammate at LSU. Alford knew Clark before either man reached the NFL.
“It’s probably more informal than you think,” Clark says. “These guys are like my little brothers. Like my friends. It’s about so much more than just training them, about so much more than their success at football. Although it is huge. I enjoy when they play well. When I’m sitting at press row at the Super Bowl and Robert Alford is picking off the greatest quarterback of all time for a pick-six, it felt good to be there. It felt good to feel like I had some part in that journey.”
It's not surprising that Clark would bring up Alford’s Super Bowl pick-six. I had asked Alford if there was a single play that best illustrated his growth as a student of the game. That’s the one he identified.
On that play, the Patriots were in a three-receiver bunch, with the receivers crisscrossing on their releases at the snap. This tactic, which naturally defeats coverages like the man-to-man that Atlanta played more down the stretch, is a staple of New England’s. On this play, Alford recognized that his receiver, Julian Edelman, was running a crossing route. The Falcons had an extra free defender, safety Keanu Neal, in the shallow middle of the field. Instead of trying to fight through all the congestion and chase Edelman, Alford let him go, knowing that Neal was there to pick him up. Now Alford was the free defender, which allowed him to read Brady and jump his throw to Danny Amendola.
Had the Falcons held on and won, this would have been the defining play of Super Bowl 51. Instead, it’s a footnote. A bitter footnote?
“I’m happy with it,” Alford said. “Not everyone gets to pick off Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. Not everyone is able to get to the Super Bowl and get an interception. But I’m moving on. As you said, we didn’t win it.”
Alford also can’t help but remember that this same sequence nearly played out again later in the game. But this time, Alford failed to catch the interception.
“I wish I could’ve gotten that second one back,” he said. “I wish I could’ve gotten my head around in time and snagged that one. Maybe the game would’ve turned out differently.”
It’ll be interesting to see Alford’s role in 2017. Trufant is back now and, judging from the five-year, $69 million contract they gave him this offseason, the Falcons see him as their No. 1 corner. Alford undoubtedly will start, but where will he primarily line up?
“I have no idea. Like Coach (Dan) Quinn said, going into training camp, it’s a competition. For everyone. No one has a spot. So we won’t know that until after the last preseason game. But I would loveto be inside in our nickel coverage.”
That’s where Alford played in Super Bowl 51, against the league’s shiftiest slot receiver, Edelman. It’ll be lost in history, but it’s evident on film: Alford won the battle against Edelman that day. The Falcons likely now have a premium slot corner.
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Quotes of the Week
“I like to say it’s the Lovie Curse. Because since he left, (the Bears have struggled). He got fired being 10-6. I think they fire him either way. Even if we go to the playoffs, I think they fire him. I don’t think the GM liked the way he coached the football team. The guy’s a winner. I love playing for him. I don’t know what the identity of that team is. They sign (Mike) Glennon, then they draft a kid No. 2. I don’t know what (they’re doing). It’s confusing.”
—Brian Urlacher, on CBS Sports Radio's Tiki and Tierney Show, on the identity and struggles of his former team.
“I’ve never been a ‘yes’ guy. Now, can I be someone who can talk things over and work it out? Yes. I know Jay (Gruden) well and Bruce (Allen) well. And I know there are going to be times when we may not agree. That’s a good thing; that’s what scouting is all about.”
—Doug Williams, to the Washington Post, on Washington's new front office structure and his role as senior vice president of player personnel
“A lot of people kill Eli—and I’ve been one to look back and kind of have fun with it a few times, too—but he always has this face. People are like, ‘Why is he always looking like that?’ And I truly believe it’s because he’s always thinking. Like he is one of the smartest guys I’ve been around. And I’ve been around some smart quarterbacks. [Ryan] Fitzpatrick, extremely smart. Even Jay Cutler, extremely smart. Eli Manning, I’ve never seen anything like this guy. His brain never stops.”
—New Giants receiver Brandon Marshall, on quarterback Eli Manning. Marshall recently shared a video on Instagram of the two studying film together over FaceTime.
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Stat of the Week
There have been 79 quarterbacks drafted with a top-20 pick since 1970. Only one of those QBs, Peyton Manning, has been name first-team All-Pro more than once. And only five others have earned the honor even once: Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Jim Kelly, Bert Jones and Terry Bradshaw.
And an additional note on another top-20 drafted QB: Carson Wentz attempted a total of 612 passes in four years at North Dakota State. In 2016 with Philadelphia, he attempted 607.
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Factoid That May Interest Only Me
Having an effective play-action scheme doesn't necessarily mean you need an effective running game. A stat to chew on: The top five teams in yards per pass on play-action snaps last season were Washington, Atlanta, San Diego, New England and Minnesota. Those same five teams’ ranking in yards per rush: 9th, 5th, 26th, 25th and 32nd.
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Tweets of the Week
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Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note
I love sushi and live in a state known for potatoes. When I travel for work, I try to eat as much raw fish as possible. Usually this rockets me past Time Inc.’s per diem, putting my personal credit card into action. I don’t care. You have to capitalize on your opportunities, even the ones created by overspending for fancy food that later leaves you still feeling a little bit hungry.
I used to prioritize sushi only when in coastal cities. But now any city will do. There’s no further proof than the fact that last week in two-and-a-half days in Phoenix, the unofficial most landlocked big city in America, I ate sushi four times. And guess what? It was tremendous. At a place called Iron Chef, which was five minutes from where I stayed and seven minutes from the home of Patrick Peterson (the purpose of my trip), I had what I’m prepared to classify as the best Rainbow Roll of my life. And for reasons I never learned, it was all 40 percent off.
Good prices weren’t uncommon on this trip. If you ever want a bargain, visit Phoenix in the dead of summer. Sure, temperatures rose into the mid-110s, making it literally painful to wear black leather shoes outside. (The tops of my feet would burn.) But my room, which was a full apartment on a golf course, was less than $100 a night. And it had a fridge, which meant that in addition to sushi, I could continue drinking milk on this trip. Those who have traveled with me know I couldn’t ask for anything more.
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Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think so whatif Dak Prescott used a high-tech printer to forge his own autograph. (So far, this has only been alleged.) Is it wrong? Sure. Does it matter? No. Autograph culture is weird. Certain people get worshipped so much that they can add value to an artifact simply by writing their name on it. Unless an autograph is a personal gift you received, there’s a certain phoniness to the whole thing anyway.
1a. I say this as someone who grew up collecting autographs. I had a knack for purchasing the signatures of soon-to-be disgraced athlete. Hanging on my wall: a signed photo of Barry Bonds before the steroid allegations; a signed photo of Michael Vick before dog-fighting; a signed photo of Kobe Bryant before Colorado; a signed photo of Brett Favre before Jenn Sterger and the Jets; and a signed photo of Tiger Woods before Thanksgiving 2009. Strangely, these are pretty much all of the autographs I own. I wouldn’t buy Prescott’s autograph now; I like the young man and want him to stay on top.
2. I think Michael Bennett’s assertion that 49ers second-year pro DeForest Buckner will soon be a defensive MVP is reasonable. Buckner has a great frame and played with much better leverage in the second half of last season. My guess is he’ll play Bennett’s role in San Francisco’s new Seahawks-style scheme. That means snaps as a 5-technique on running downs and 3-technique on passing downs.
3. I think Albert Breer said it best: Derek Carr’s contract is evolutionary, not revolutionary. The Raiders were wise to get it done when they did.
3a. I also think Carr will be better in 2017 than he was in 2016. He was a markedly sharper quarterback over the second half of last season.
4. I think Zach Orr was tremendous as Baltimore’s linebacker last year and it’d be great to see him have a long, fruitful career. But something about his efforts to return after retiring from a congenital neck and spine condition doesn’t feel right. The Ravens have seen a player defy some doctors’ orders and return after a life-changing injury before: tight end Dennis Pitta, who had fractured his hip twice in 2013-14. After sitting out 2015, Pitta caught 86 passes last season but recently re-injured the hip, ending his career for good and, probably (though hopefully not) creating more challenges for his long-term day-to-day life.
5. I think Aaron Rodgers is still the most difficult quarterback in football to reconcile. I was watching film the other night with one of my research guys, Allan Uy. What kept standing out was how often Rodgers left wide open receivers on the field. And these weren’t receivers who got open just because Rodgers extended the play. They got open within the context of the play’s design. And they were getting open because the play call was beating the coverage concept. Which means that Rodgers, reading the coverage, should have anticipated them being open. Rodgers leaves throws on the field almost every game. Other players who do this tend to be backups or fall out of the league (see Kaepernick, Colin; or Griffin, Robert). The difference? Rodgers stillmakes plays, even on the snaps where he misses plays. He is a unique talent and an impossible QB to classify.
6. I think Eric Decker is just a role player. He can be highly productive in the right role and scheme. (He was at his best working the slot for the Jets.) But he doesn’t change the makeup of Tennessee’s passing game.
7. I think I used to believe that Kirk Cousins would be with Washington long-term. But hearing informed people around league talk, I now think Cousins will eventually be a 49er (after 2017).
8. I think the Lions got it right with their new uniforms. And I love that they brought back the throwbacks with the simple blue jersey, silver helmet, no logo or outlining.
9. I think the Patriots are the most improved Super Bowl champion I’ve ever seen. How often does a high-scoring club remake its offense after winning the title and come away even more dangerous than before?
10. I think Peter King should be both institutionalized but also given a bronze statue outside of SI’s offices for writing this column each week. I’ll be recovering from it until Labor Day.
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The Adieu Haiku
(Editor’s note, Part 1: Andy submitted the following Haiku when he originally filed the column.)
A few years ago my boss
Started writing Haikus at the end of his famed Monday columns.
Now I feel pressured to do it but haven’t enough “right brain” for it.
(Editor’s note, Part 2: After he learned about the 5-7-5 format for Haikus, Andy submitted this final version.)
Peter likes Haikus.
So they made me write one here.
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