- An explanation of why the battle in Houston is made more complicated by the presence of a win-now roster. Plus more QB developments to watch in New England, Denver, Carolina and Indianapolis
- More notes on the Joe Flacco injury in Baltimore (and the obvious Colin Kaepernick dot-connecting), the Lucky Whitehead mess in Dallas, the new GM in Kansas City and how the medical community views the latest NFL-CTE news
Tom Savage is listed atop the Texans depth chart at quarterback. And Savage was the best quarterback at the team’s first training camp practice on Wednesday. So does that mean Savage will be the starter Sept. 10?
Answering who will be under center when the AFC South champs open against Jacksonville is complicated. But the reason why it’s complex is pretty simple: Houston isn’t like most teams that aggressively move to draft a quarterback in the first round.
Between 2008 and 2016, 24 quarterbacks were drafted in Round 1, and only one (Tennessee’s Jake Locker) failed to start a game as a rookie. Conversely, just one of those 24 quarterbacks went to a playoff team, and that guy, Denver’s Paxton Lynch, owed both of his rookie starts to injuries to the starter (Trevor Siemian).
So that two of the three quarterbacks drafted in this year’s first round, Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, landed with playoff teams makes the 2017 draft an anomaly. And that one of those two, Watson, went to a club without a returning starter at the position makes the Texans quarterback derby my No. 1 story to watch as I embark on my camp trip this morning.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll check in on the Cowboys and the Cardinals, since they got an early start on camp; we’ll kick the tires on the Chiefs new general manager; we’ll enlist a neurologist to help us dig through the latest study on CTE from the doctors at Boston University; and we’ll give you a few more guys to watch the next few weeks.
But we’ll start with my overarching camp storylines, specifically ones that will help color the actual season. And to me there’s very little question that topping the list is the Texans and what they do with their quarterback position, a revolving door for the franchise since Matt Schaub was traded after the 2013 season.
When I touched base with Houston coach Bill O’Brien after his team wrapped up Day 1 on the field Wednesday, my first question centered on how the team’s spot as a contender could affect his decision-making. And whether fairness to the team’s bevy of in-their-prime vets will have an impact on his call.
The answer was “Yes.”
“It’s always about the team. It’s always about the team,” he said. “It’s always that way, whatever decision we make. So Tom Savage is No. 1. But he knows that he has to go out there and earn it every day. And that’s what’s best for the team.”
And as for where Watson is, O’Brien said, “There’s no doubt he’s ahead of schedule. He’s put a lot of time in, and he’s doing a good job.”
So here’s what else I’ve been able to glean about the situation, and how it’s played out over the past three months.
Watson’s pace in picking up the offense has impressed everyone in the building, from his understanding of protections to route reads to the run game. Maybe the big thing is that while he makes rookie mistakes, he’s done well not to repeat them. Watson is more confident now than he was, and he finished his first practice day in West Virginia—the Texans are holding camp at The Greenbrier Resort to escape the Houston heat—without a major mental error.
The Texans’ belief in Clemson’s ability to prepare players for the NFL plays into the confidence in Watson. DeAndre Hopkins headlines the alumni chapter, and certainly assimilated quickly under O’Brien (he also played two years for Gary Kubiak). But there was also D.J. Reader last year—he became a starter on the defensive line as a rookie—and now Watson’s rookie classmate Carlos Watkins is showing well early this year. Some saw Watson as a “spread” quarterback pre-draft. The Texans certainly never pigeonholed him like that.
All you have to do is look at the investment to know there’s no question that Watson will eventually start, whether it’s this year or not. But it should be said that the coaching staff views Savage as having more ability than a typical stopgap journeyman. I wrote last October that Savage was turning a corner. And my feeling is, if not Brock Osweiler’s contract, he’d likely have been the starter then. As it is now, the Texans love his arm talent and size, so it’s not like they have to manage any physical shortcomings.
Watson’s presence has positively affected Savage. Naturally, it put pressure on the vet, and he’s responded well.
If Savage holds serve, we probably won’t hear much about a decision coming on this. He’ll just remain in place as No. 1. Two keys for Watson to overtake him: 1) showing he can execute the offense at a high enough level to give the other 10 guys in the huddle the best chance; and 2) avoiding turnovers.
Most times a team drafts a quarterback in the first round, and the tie would go to that player. In this case, because the team’s in win-now mode and naturally less willing to ride out a rookie’s ups and downs, I think that’s in reverse.
So if Watson’s going to be the starter, it’s going to have to be clear that he’s the best guy for the team now, and not just the one who is best for the franchise long-term.
And while we’re here, five more things I’ll be keeping an eye on over the next few weeks as I hit the camp circuit …
• Has the gap between Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo closed? The Patriots declined to sell high on Garoppolo, which creates a likelihood this is a “me or him” situation in 2018. In the spring, Brady remained well ahead of Garoppolo. That, and the next few weeks, will be a part of the team’s long-range decision-making, which is why I see the Pats keeping their 25-year-old a backup as the most underrated storyline of the past six months.
• Who’s the starter in Denver? Von Miller, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Co. aren’t getting any younger, and the Broncos sure wouldn’t mind squeezing another title run or two out of the prime of their edgy defensive group. This year, their chance to make that happen rides on the improvement of a revamped offensive line, and, of course, either Lynch or Siemian. The good news is that new/old coordinator Mike McCoy brings a system that can adapt to the skill sets of different quarterbacks.
• The environment in Seattle. Seth Wickersham’s May piece on the Seahawks’ clashing has been a talking point for the past two months, and it’ll continue to be one until they start playing games again. The key to change isn’t about Russell Wilson or relationship-building. It’s on the whole offense to carry its weight. These conflicts aren’t uncommon on defense-dominant teams. Better offensive production is almost always the fix.
• Quarterbacks’ shoulders. Cam Newton will be managed at the start of camp in Carolina. Andrew Luck has been shelved for the time being in Indy. I wouldn’t make a big deal of either—both know the systems they’re in, and these shoulder surgeries are intended to fix issues over the long term—but you know plenty of people will. What’s more important is whether they can bounce back off subpar years once they are back to full speed, and I think each has a better team around him.
• Atlanta’s Super Bowl hangover. We’ve been through this plenty. One thing not to undersell, though, as far as the Falcons’ ability to handle the hangover is the presence of Dan Quinn, whose strengths as a coach—relating to and motivating players, and leading a program—should play right into handling it. As GM Thomas Dimitroff said to me, “There’s no question they do. It’s almost like it was destined to be that way.” Remember, last year, Quinn had pulled off a similar trick, and the Falcons were able to compartmentalize a 2-7 finish to the 2015 season.
FIRST AND 10
1. We made a big deal out of who wasn’t at Giants OTAs in the spring. So here are two important guys who were there the whole time – cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive tackle Damon Harrison. Given their paychecks, and places on the defense, that kind of thing does matter, because it sets the tone for everyone else.
2. All eyes in Atlanta may have been on Devonta Freeman, but trust me when I say the Falcons were just as happy to have free safety Ricardo Allen sign his exclusive-rights free-agent tender. Allen hoped for a new deal this offseason, didn’t get one, participated in the spring anyway, and dealt with pre-draft rumors that Atlanta would replace him. He’s been a pro through all of it.
3. Good luck to ex-Browns/Bengals/Patriots wide receiver Andrew Hawkins. We’ve done plenty on him on the site the past few years—and I’d encourage you to listen to the podcast I did with him in December—and if you’ve paid attention, you know he’ll be successful no matter what he winds up doing. One possibility out there for him is to engage on a track to become an NFL general manager.
4. Robert Griffin III didn’t get a second year in Cleveland, but that doesn’t mean he left there on bad terms. As I understand it, he did the work asked of him, was fine as a teammate, and showed his talent. It was just clear he needed time. After he worked out for the Chargers (that door is probably closed now after the Bolts dealt for Cardale Jones), it’s worth wondering if he’ll ever get that time.
5. Speaking of the Browns, one of the guys I’m most interested in seeing, as far as how his team will use him, is their second of three first-round picks, Jabrill Peppers. The early vision has been to deploy him the way that new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams used Blaine Bishop for the Oilers/Titans back in the 1990s.
6. Seems weird to have three teams—the Vikings, Saints and Redskins—in such a fragile long-term position at quarterback. All three have starters in contract years. The Saints can’t franchise Drew Brees next year. It’d cost the Redskins $34.47 million to tag Kirk Cousins again. And the Vikings have both Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater coming up. Sets up an interesting 2018.
7. Word is the Broncos’ new five-year deal for John Elway has a base in the neighborhood of $6 million per year, with upside to go beyond that. And that would mean the result of this negotiation was what so many other GMs and personnel people hoped it would be. Previously, no GM had crossed the $4 million per barrier. And this one puts them a little closer to the coaches.
8. GM Ryan Pace made it clear that Mike Glennon is the starter in Chicago, and that’s a good move. The Bears need to figure out what they have in Glennon in the short-term, given their investment. And while Mitch Trubisky made strides in the spring, some of those were learning to spit out a play call in the huddle and take a snap from center, so he can use the time to learn in the background.
9. All eyes will be on Blake Bortles at Jags camp, but it may be more important to see how tackles Cam Robinson and Branden Albert, and tailback Leonard Fournette are able to change the offense’s identity. If they can help realize Doug Marrone’s vision—he explained to me he wants a group than can run it at the defense, even when the D knows what’s coming—Bortles’ job gets much easier.
10. If you talk to the people in Minnesota about the makeup of the roster, Dalvin Cook’s name keeps coming up. He’s one of the guys I’m most excited to see on my trip. Absent off-field missteps, and whispers about the company he keeps, there’s no way he’d have been available to the Vikings with the 41st pick.
1. Ravens hoping for the best on Flacco. So on Wednesday night, news broke that Joe Flacco is battling back soreness, and will miss some time. As I’ve heard it, there’s a decent chance he may not be out too long. Doctors have told Ravens’ officials that most cases like Flacco’s clear up with a week of rest. The bad news? Flacco is 32 years old, and back problems like these tend to linger, and so the chance it could flare up again is there. That isn’t great for a team that already lost Kenneth Dixon, who was expected to contend to be the lead back, and will open camp Thursday with Ryan Mallett set to take the first snap.
I don’t need to tell you where this is going next: Could Colin Kaepernick be added if Flacco’s injury winds up taking longer to heal? There are two pretty obvious connections here. One, Kaepernick was drafted by and played for John Harbaugh’s brother Jim in San Francisco. Second, Kaepernick’s greatest success there came with Greg Roman as his offensive coordinator, and Roman just so happens to be the new senior offensive consultant in Baltimore.
Kaepernick’s name has at least come up, one of a handful the team has discussed kicking the tires on in wake of the injury, but the hope remains that a little downtime will take care of Flacco’s back. Given their fortunes injury-wise already this calendar here—remember what happened with rising young linebacker Zach Orr, too—Baltimore could use a little luck.
2. How the Cowboys addressed the mess. After a messy few weeks, and the strange circumstances surrounding receiver/return man Lucky Whitehead, you’d figure Cowboys coach Jason Garrett would have to address the off-field missteps with his players. And he did at the outset of camp.
According to those there, most of it sounded like what Garrett has told the media—that the team has a high standard, puts a premium on personal accountability and so on. But Garrett did break stride at one point, and conceded to his players that, for a while, the Cowboys did have the wrong types of guys in the program, and it went without saying who he was referencing (Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain, etc.). Garrett did it to emphasize that he believes that they have the right kinds of guys now, which made the past few weeks even more frustrating for the club. And it also explains why they moved quickly on Whitehead, who was borderline both from a character standpoint and to make the roster.
The bottom line is after a string of missteps that Whitehead often failed to take responsibility—most prominently, he slept through a Saturday meeting and walkthrough, and was left off the team’s December trip to play the Giants as a result—his issues began to exceed his productivity. Given the fireworks of the last few weeks, the team felt it had to move swiftly. And it just so happened that this was the one where Whitehead actually wasn’t in the wrong.
Now, there’s very little question that Whitehead’s declining on-field value, particularly after the team draft Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown, played into this. That trigger finger wouldn’t be quite as itchy with Dez Bryant or Ezekiel Elliott, obviously. Just as clear was that some players could use this sort of message. It’s too bad it just happened to come in a pretty clumsy way.
3. Cardinals’ camp questions are clear. Quietly, there’s a belief in Arizona that this is its most complete roster of the five that coach Bruce Arians and GM Steve Keim have put together in the desert. But as the Cardinals joined the Cowboys in getting a head start on camp this week (the two play in Canton a week from Thursday), there are also a slew of big questions to be answered in Glendale.
The obvious one centers on what Carson Palmer, 37, and Larry Fitzgerald, 34, have left. But if some others are answered affirmatively, the feeling is that the balance of the group could help make everything easier on the two elder statesmen. First, the Cardinals need better health from John Brown, and for impressive rookie Chad Williams to push Jaron Brown at receiver. Second, they need the improved depth they believe they have on the offensive line, after spending four picks in the last two drafts on linemen, to manifest itself. Third, they need Rodney Gunter and Robert Nkemdiche to build on strong springs, with Calais Campbell gone. And fourth, they need to find an answer to the age-old question of who plays opposite Patrick Peterson (Justin Bethel and Brandon Williams will get a crack at the spot, and the team had veteran Brandon Flowers in for a visit Wednesday).
If all that works out? Well, then the job of star back David Johnson gets easier, a young defense gets better (and there’s confidence that rookies Hasaan Reddick and Budda Baker will be ready to go), the pressure is off Fitzgerald, and the team is in position to bounce back from a year during which the Cardinals would admit they didn’t handle high expectations all that well. And that could set the stage for a nice potential send-off for Arians, Fitzgerald and/or Palmer, should any of those guys decide to hang ’em up after 2017.
4. Why Brett Veach in Kansas City? The Chiefs finally introduced their internal GM hire this week, ushering in the man most (rightly) believed was the front-runner for the job from the start and closing the book on a strange month for the team. Without question, Veach’s relationship with coach Andy Reid, and his experience evaluating players to fit Reid’s programs both in K.C. and Philly, were a big part of this. But one interesting aspect of the process was raised to me this week—Veach had to overcome that too, when he interviewed with CEO Clark Hunt. We’ve seen these go the other way in the past, where a fait accompli internal hire winds up losing out on the post, and most often it’s because the team knows the person too well.
What does that mean? Well, if you know someone intimately as a lieutenant, it can be hard to envision that person as a general, moreso than it might be to have that same vision for a guy you’re meeting for the first time and is presenting himself as an executive. Veach had to get Hunt to see him in a different light, and he was able to display that, as one Chiefs staffer said, “he could button up and be the guy.”
As for what Veach brings to the table, outside of his familiarity with Reid, his passion for football was one plus, as Hunt saw it. Another was how Veach saw players. There is a group of four college players, in fact, that Veach raised in meetings over the last couple years a season ahead of their draft years, before they were on many NFL radars. And each of those four guys wound up hitting. That showed those there that he could see potential early in guys, which should serve him in putting a roster together. When I asked Colts GM Chris Ballard, who worked with Veach the past four years, about him earlier this week, Ballard affirmed all that to me: “Love Veach. Relentless worker, very good eye for talent. I believe in him.”
There are challenges here, of course. The first one, and this goes for a lot of guys who came up as road scouts (Veach did, as did his predecessor John Dorsey), will be managing people in the office on a day-to-day basis. The second one, which every new GM faces, is the learning curve in actually being the triggerman. And yes, this is the way most saw it playing out. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to believe that it was simply the right way to go from the start.
TRAINING CAMP LESSON TO TAKE WITH YOU
Dr. Vernon Williams, director of sports neurology and pain medicine at the Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, and a consultant for the Rams, has seen the change in mentality happen before his eyes the past few years.
“Two years ago, I’m talking with a coach, a Super Bowl-winning coach, about this kind of injury,” Williams said this week. “And he said, ‘a few years ago, if you told me 44 is out with a concussion, I’m going to 44 and saying what’s up?’ The implication was, and you didn’t have to even say it, ‘Are you with us or not? Let’s get going!’
“And then he said, ‘It’s completely different now. Now, I don’t want a guy back in there if he’s not ready.’ Part of that is the player’s well-being. But part is also recognizing they don’t perform as well. Things like speed of mental processing, memory, balance, decision-making and the increased likelihood of other usage injuries all play into it. It’s definitely changed.”
And yet, there’s still a long way to go.
On Tuesday, the New York Times and Washington Post published the results of a Boston University study into the brains of 111 ex-NFL players, finding that 110 tested positive for CTE. Considering that, and the rest of the work done by BU, our offseason lesson for this week: We still don’t know nearly enough about football’s impact on the brain.
Without being able to test for CTE in the living, Williams explains, it’s hard for doctors to connect the pathological abnormalities to clinical symptoms. Are slowed cognition, violent tempers and depression all directly connected to CTE? Or are other factors like genetic predisposition or PED use or other damage from the game at work? Williams’ belief is that “it’s probably multi-factorial.”
But, no one knows definitively—yet. What can we draw from the BU study? I asked Williams, and a few things that he said stuck out.
The big one was the range in age of the players studied—23 to 89. That CTE was found in a 23-year-old brain, in particular, was interesting to the veteran neurologist. “Is there a dose effect here?” Williams asked. “In other words, since there’s a 23 year old, is it a little CTE at a young age and a lot at an older age? That’s a pattern suggested. This pattern suggests a dose effect.”
On the flip side, Williams believes the caveat that BU was sure to emphasize—that the study was inherently biased, since the brains were donated by patients concerned about the effects head injuries had on them—is important, too.
“These brains were donated for a reason,” Williams said. “The perception out there, you just look at the number and it makes you go, ‘Wow!’ It’s eye opening, particularly if you don’t consider the selection bias. One unintended consequence is that the general public will just say, ‘If you play in the NFL, you’ll get CTE.’ And that’s not necessarily the case either.”
How this changes football will, likewise, take awhile to play out. And it at least seems like the league gets that now too.
A decade ago, the attitude within the NFL was that it could make rule changes that would create a cultural shift, and trickle down through lower levels of the sport, without getting involved in a hands-on way at the grassroots level. That’s changed. The league is now, through initiatives like Heads Up, trying to get to young players, so the finished 22-year-old products they get come up a different way.
And that’s where the impact will be seen. The decisions being made now by parents on allowing their kids to play could, ultimately, affect the quality of the product, in the same way boxing has been affected.
The bottom line is that we have fairly conclusive evidence now that studies like the one conducted by BU will not get most of the general public to shut off their TVs on Sundays and Mondays and Thursdays in the fall. But it has gotten some to say no to kids who want to play the game. We can’t know yet how that trend will grow, and how the quality and popularity of the game will change when the kids who didn’t play grow up.
“On one hand, we’re beyond that early phase of education,” Williams said. “At one point, it was an unrecognized epidemic and we’re beyond that. We have the facts. But there are still guys minimizing symptoms, ignoring symptoms to play. That’s hard. There’s money on the line, the culture of competition, the idea of being a good teammate. There’s that disconnect between our insight and the way a guy behaves.
“But I hear coaches talking very differently than they did five years ago, let alone 15 years ago. They’re respecting the injury. And the NFL, they’ve put up a lot of money dedicated to this research, they changed rules. Things have changed. They’re paying attention because of its affect on the brand and the sport. I think they understand it’s not going away. It can’t be covered up. They get their responsibility.”
That’s an important step, of course. But it’s just a step. The truth is, no matter whether you’re a proponent of the sport or not, there’s a lot left to learn.
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