Every April, Pete Carroll has his Seahawks go through an exercise. In the team meeting room, each player gets up from the seats they were in the year before and finds a new spot around different people.
The idea, quirky as it might be, is to send the message to everyone that when a new NFL season begins, a new identity, new roles and new relationships have to be forged, because the team itself is brand new. You’ve heard it before—what happened last season doesn’t matter, past accomplishments don’t count—and this is Carroll’s way of physically demonstrating it for his players.
The Seahawks went through with it again a couple months ago, but the reminder wasn’t really necessary this time around. Richard Sherman is a 49er. Michael Bennett is an Eagle. Cliff Avril is mulling retirement. Kam Chancellor is awaiting scans on his neck to see if he’ll be able to play. Earl Thomas has stayed away, and plans to keep staying away until he gets a new deal. And those five weren’t just a significant part of the team’s title core—they were also all under contract for 2018 just a few months ago, as five of Seattle’s 10 highest-paid players.
“I’m not saying I’m not more challenged this year than some other years,” Carroll said from his office the other day. “But I always feel like, ‘Man, this is my whole deal, to try to figure out how to recapture that.’”
Here’s the curveball: The roster turnover, the departure of all those core players, has actually made it easier for Carroll. Crazy? Not really. As he sees it, this offseason has been and will continue to be a chance, at age 66, to sell the bedrock of his program—competition—all over again. It got a little hard, as the above core came to prominence, to keep selling the idea that every spot was up for grabs. It’s not so difficult to sell anymore.
“It’s pretty plain to see, that when guys have established themselves for four or five or six years at a spot, and they’ve been really effective at what they do, it’s hard to convince the next guy that he’s going to take their spot,” Carroll said. “That’s for sure. So when opportunities are more open, it does create, in the truest sense, the best connection to what the philosophy and the approach is all about.
“And it feels like four or five years ago. It feels fresh and wide open, it’s more of an open competition for some of the spots. And that’s a really good thing for us, because it does feed into the whole approach.”
It’s a big week across the NFL—28 of the league’s 32 teams are in minicamps. The other four are wrapping up their offseason programs with one last set of OTAs. And by the time we get to next weekend, the NFL will be on its summer break. Therefore, there’s a lot packed into this week’s MMQB. We’re going to check in on the Browns, and how Hue Jackson has put last year in the rear-view. We’ll weigh in on the blow up between the Eagles and the White House. We’ll bounce around the league with nuggets on guys who have emerged this spring. And we’re going to share details on a visit Kobe Bryant took to Foxboro in May.
The Kobe visit was an interesting one, because of Bryant’s experience as an athlete who played 20 professional seasons. The Patriots have a guy like that—Tom Brady is approaching his 19th year, and he’s done it a different way in 2018, staying away from all voluntary phases of New England’s offseason program. He was back last week at the team’s mandatory minicamp, as you might have heard. And when he and I spoke afterward, the question that was lingering was what he took from spending the last seven weeks away. The answer was tremendously… normal.
“Just enjoying my time with my family, bringing my kids to school, supporting my family the best I can,” Brady told me. “They’ve been supporting me. It goes both ways. I wish I could be in five different places at one time, but that’s not life. I’ve enjoyed it. I’m never going to look back and regret spending time with my wife and my kids, and being a part of their life.”
And when I asked if this represented an unplugging of sorts, which I’d heard he wanted, he quickly combatted the idea, because it is not as if he disengaged altogether, nor did it look that way on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.
“I mean, I’m trying to get to ready to play, doing whatever I can do to get ready to play,” he continued. “I love this team, I love this organization, and I try to be a good example.”
We’ll get back to Brady and the Kobe connection in a bit. But we’re going to start with the Seahawks’ reset, and what it means for Carroll’s program.
Toward the end of last year, a couple things were happening with the Seahawks. There had been a rash of injuries that put a lot of the foundational pieces of the Carroll Era on the shelf. There was some fatigue on the part of the vets who actually were available to play, to the point where they’d tell younger players, “You should’ve seen what this place was like in 2012.”
Six years ago, the intensity, tension and dog-eat-dog ethos were palpable. And last season, the guys making the decisions heard what the vets were saying—that’s evident in the calls they made this offseason. It started with Carroll’s staff; he hired new coordinators (Brian Schottenheimer on offense, Ken Norton Jr. on defense) and a new O-line coach (Mike Solari). It continued with the players. And it permeated how they drafted.
In fact, if you look at the Seahawks’ rookies, you’ll notice they’re all hardened by something significant they overcame. Shaquem Griffin is the most obvious example, but not the only one. First-rounder Rashaad Penny had to earn his way onto the field at mid-major San Diego State, behind Donnel Pumphery. Third-round pick Rasheem Green battled injury at USC. Fourth-rounder Will Dissly was a zero-star D-line recruit who grew into a great blocking tight end. Michael Dickson went from Australia to Texas to punt.
“We really hit it across the board,” Carroll said. “This year was a really good year for connecting with the right kinds of guys to really compete and add to the mentality. I don’t want to say that we tried harder at it. As always, we refocused, and we did better this year collectively hitting it. That’s why camp is good, that’s why every day these guys are juiced and ready to roll. They just add a nice energy. You can feel it.”
Carroll has seen it with veterans too, most notably in how Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin are working together. It’s there with a crew of running backs that Carroll calls “the most competitive group we’ve had,” with Penny fighting Chris Carson, Mike Davis and C.J. Prosise for snaps. And on defense, the addition of ex-Viking Tom Johnson has helped in pushing young D-linemen like Jarran Reed.
“There’s just been a lot of highlights, a lot of spots that fire me up,” Carroll said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how we come together when we get to camp.”
Of course, there’s another side to this, and that’s the fact that the previous crew was really, really good. It’s fine to be excited now. It’s another thing to actually win like those Seahawks did over the last six seasons. (A regular-season record of 65-30-1, five playoff appearances, three division titles, two NFC championships and a Super Bowl win.)
Carroll acknowledges that, of course, but he also doesn’t see this as a teardown. That brings us back to the other piece of last year to remember, which is the rash of injuries the Seahawks went through. It pushed onto the field a lot of guys who will be playing bigger roles this year, forcing them to get their feet wet. And what he saw then, and is seeing now, gives him hope that this could be 2012 again.
“It does feel like that,” Carroll said. “There was a time when our star players weren’t star players yet—they were just coming up, and it was exciting to see that emergence. That’s what we’re counting on in the next year, seeing these guys start to come to prominence and make a spot for themselves. I’m not even concerned about it. I just want to see what the timeline is. I hope it happens now. I want to see it happen right away.”
Last year a lot of people saw the changes looming and thought it was the perfect time for Carroll to walk away—he’ll be 67 in September, and after this year he’ll have been in Seattle as long as he was at USC. He sees it as a new start.
“I was clearly aware of what other people thought from the outside, because it was stated enough. Really, from my perspective, it turned me the other way,” Carroll said. “It made me more jacked up to get back into it, because we were taking all the right steps in the transition we were going to have to face, to make it work out.
“Somebody said, ‘You’re 65, are you thinking of retiring?’ or whatever it was. Who says at 65, you have to retire? What does that mean? It means nothing to me. I’m not old enough to retire. I’m not there at all. I do understand why people thought that. [But] we are not low on juice around here.”
Hue Jackson Jumped in a Lake; Now It’s on to 2018
A couple weeks back, Browns coach Hue Jackson fulfilled a promise to the fans in Cleveland, jumping in Lake Erie as a form of penance for going 0-16. He called it an “outstanding day for all involved,” in part because owner Dee Haslam was there, and in larger part because $30,000 was raised for his foundation.
It’s also the last he wants to hear about 2017. When he and I spoke on Thursday night, Jackson told me the players haven’t heard much from the coaches about it this spring. And they won’t either.
“It’s something we already know we were,” Jackson said. “We want to turn the page on that as fast as we can. Obviously we can’t get the taste out of our mouth until we start playing football games. We all know that and we respect that. But to talk about it, what does that do? It doesn’t do anything but bring up bad memories. We’ve pushed forward from that.”
The Browns’ minicamp this week will wrap up what’s been a much different offseason in Berea. After the Browns took an analytically driven, patient approach to building the roster in 2016 and ’17, new GM John Dorsey showed overwhelming urgency to get the team to 2018.
Yes, 0-16 is still there, but because of all of the activity, and because of Dorsey’s presence, to the people in Berea it feels like it happened longer than five months ago. That’s why I thought to reach out to Jackson this week. Here are a few nuggets from that conversation, straight from Hue to you…
Jackson wants the players to feel the urgency. “That’s the way John’s approached it. I know it’s the way our coaching staff has approached it. We want to get to winning as soon as we can, and the moves signal that. Tyrod Taylor’s our starting quarterback, we drafted a rookie quarterback, and I think it’s a great situation to be in—we don’t have to play a rookie quarterback right away, because we have a proven guy who’s played in the league, won games, played in playoff games. That’s exciting. I also think it sends a message, creates a narrative that this team is gearing up to win, that everything we’re doing is pointing towards winning.”
The talent is better… “If you look across the locker room, every position group has been upgraded with more talent. It’s everywhere. That in itself, when you look from one guy to the next, they can see it, there’s been more talent brought on to this football team. … I’ve been in this for a while, so there are things you can tell. I’m not ever going to say our team is not good enough, or we’re not this or not that. We’ll know when we get to training camp. But I do know there’s talent on this football team. And I think that’s obvious. If you look around the roster, there’s been some players who’ve been really good players on other teams.”
… so is the synergy between scouting and coaching… “When it’s like that—and it is now and has been since John has been here with us—we see things the same. So when you’re trying to acquire players, there’s a reason why we’re putting him on our team. There’s a reason why we’re doing everything that we’re trying to do in the offseason to get this team to be the best they can be. It doesn’t mean we agree all the time, but we have great discussions and great conversations about why. You gotta win your ‘why’ on why we’re doing this.”
… and so is the makeup of the team. “I really like my football team. I like all the acquisitions we’ve made to our team. I like the young players we’ve had, because they’ve improved, some of them are into Year 3, some are into Year 4. I think it’s a great blend of young talent and veteran talent. … A lot of these guys come from organizations where they won a lot of games, some have been to the playoffs, some didn’t do it as well. It’s a good blend, a good mix. But I think in the locker room, these guys know what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying accomplish. We’re trying to do something special.”
And the big question: Can Baker Mayfield win the starting job this summer? “That’s not in my mind. What’s in my mind is Tyrod’s our starter. We have two very capable players, one in Drew Stanton, who also has a ton of experience, and we have a young, emerging quarterback that’s got a lot of work to do, and has to learn a lot. I don’t want to put a ceiling on any player, but I already know where our pecking order is. And again, I’ve said this before, I’m not going to stop him from being the best version of him, I’m not going to stop him from working extremely hard. I just want to do everything I can so when he goes out to play for the Cleveland Browns, whenever that is, he’ll know and he’ll be ready to play.”
Kobe Drops In On the Patriots
It was a big news week in Foxboro, with Brady and Rob Gronkowski back, and word emerging on the final day of the Patriots’ minicamp that Julian Edelman failed a PED test and, pending appeal, will be shelved for the first four games of 2018, delaying his return from ACL surgery.
Perception might not match reality, but it sure feels like the New England dynasty is more vulnerable than it’s been at any point this decade. And so Bill Belichick’s handling of this offseason has been under the microscope. Along those lines, there was one move he made a few weeks back that was fascinating to me (and maybe only me): The 66-year-old coach brought in Lakers icon Kobe Bryant just after Memorial Day. Among Bryant’s talking points was the importance of training, and of studying other players, to his ability to play two decades in the NBA. The Patriots who were listening have another pretty good example of longevity in their own locker room, and they made the connection quickly.
“A hundred percent,” said fifth-year safety Duron Harmon. “When he was telling us about his training regimen, how he approached a day, a light bulb went off in my head: That’s Tom. You realize it’s no coincidence. That’s the reason why Kobe Bryant is Kobe Bryant. That’s the reason why Tom Brady is Tom Brady. [Brady’s] approach to the game, it’s totally different than the majority of the NFL, probably 99% of the NFL. And that’s why they have the success they have.”
New Patriot Jeremy Hill told me that Bryant’s study of Allen Iverson stuck out in the speech, because it was a result of Iverson lighting Bryant up early in his career. Bryant also relayed stories of incorporating elements of what Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson did as players and pros into his own routine.
And there were two keys. One was the aforementioned commitment. “There was no off-day, there was no, ‘It’s O.K., I’ll worry about it tomorrow.’ He approached every single day as a life-or-death situation,” Harmon said.
And the other was the constant thirst for knowledge. “With Tom and Kobe, you see they have totally different workout regimens, but you see it works perfectly for each one of them in a totally different way,” Hill said. “For me, and everyone in the locker room, whatever we can take from that and apply to ourselves to make ourselves better, even if it’s just a little better, that stuff is huge.”
I don’t know exactly why Belichick brought Bryant in, but I sense that the message Kobe delivered absolutely resonated. And given all that’s happened in Foxboro over the last six or seven months, and how much of it relates to Brady’s own training methods and their influence in the New England program, it’s pretty interesting how it lines up with the juicy storylines we’ve been following since January.
… OF THE WEEK
I missed this a couple weeks ago, but it’s a pretty interesting point to make, especially in light of where the concussion settlement has gone. The Real Sports piece is well worth your time.
So far, so good for Hamilton Tiger-Cats QB Johnny Manziel. It’s not much yet, but in the clips I’ve seen, he looks like the smooth, natural athlete he was as a collegian.
"I'm tired of the narrative being about the anthem, about the White House or whatever. The issues are the issues. And the reason that we're doing any of this is because we have these huge disparities in our criminal justice system; we have this issue of mass incarceration; we have issues of police brutality; our children and access to education and economic advancement is nonexistent in communities of color. And these things are systemic; there are ways that we can change them.”
—Eagles S Malcolm Jenkins to ESPN’s Tim McManus
I remember a conversation I had with then-Ohio State coach Jim Tressel nine years ago, when Jenkins was entering the draft. Tressel called him one of the two or three best leaders he’d ever coached. All of that has been on display over the last year in how Jenkins has taken a guiding role in the players’ ability to get their message out, and use some of the political collateral they’ve accumulated to make a difference.
It’s gonna be hard for ol’ J.R. to live this one down.
1. If you’d told me on the morning of April 26 that Derrius Guice would wind up being the seventh back taken in this year’s draft, I’d have called you crazy—and that would have been even with the knowledge that he was facing off-field questions. But that happened, and now it looks like the Redskins are the beneficiaries of murky rumors emerging on Guice during draft week, which precipitated his fall 27 picks into the second round. Washington coaches love what they’ve seen from Guice so far. Yes, it’s non-contact spring work, but his vision, patience, explosiveness and hands have been apparent. Even better, they see a passion for football in him, which is one thing teams look for in players who’ve had maturity issues (Guice has) as an indicator that they’ll grow past them. Obviously, Guice still has a long way to go, but if he keeps putting it together like he did over the last month, he should be a factor in the fall.
2.Speaking of impressive springs, you can also mark down new Rams receiver Brandin Cooks. You might have seen the video of Sean McVay lusting over Cooks’ ability—“How about how fast Cooks looked on that strike? … You see how fast Cooks is? Oh God!” The truth is, the team had a pretty good idea of what the fifth-year pro would bring to the table. What they’ve learned for themselves since is of his great attention to detail, practice habits and work ethic. And it ties into what Patriots OC Josh McDaniels told McVay as the trade was going down: Cooks didn’t miss a single practice rep last year in New England. A first-round pick was, of course, a hefty price to pay. But early indications suggest L.A. won’t regret it.
3. A slow-developing safety market has been a part of the Eric Reid storyline. And we’re still where we’ve been on that. On Thursday, Reid, Kenny Vaccaro and Tre Boston—starting-level players—will hit the three-month mark as free agents. It’s crazy, and an indication of a widening gap in how teams value corners and pass rushers vs. players elsewhere on defense. A lot of teams believe, right or wrong, that they can get by with less at safety. That said, it’s worth mentioning that the two Super Bowl teams invested pretty heavily in versatile pieces at the position—Malcolm Jenkins in Philly, Devin McCourty in New England.
4. The Bills are a good example of a team that made it work at safety with less. Last year Buffalo got better ball production out of its starters at the position (10 interceptions) than any other team in football. Those starters, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, are back, and veteran Rafael Bush was added to the group, and I’m told the Bills are ecstatic with their safety situation given how those three worked together in the spring. The cost? Hyde is making $6.1 million per, Poyer is at $3.25 million per, and Buffalo pried Bush from the Saints for $3.5 million over two years. So the Bills are paying a total of $11.1 million per year for two starters and a top backup at the spot, which is less than the franchise-tagged Lamarcus Joyner will make for the Rams this year, and almost $2 million shy of Chiefs S Eric Berry’s APY.
5. I know what Julian Edelman posted on Instagram in the wake of the suspension news (“I don’t know what happened”) came off as a little weird, but there is an explanation for it. I was told Edelman’s result was triggered by a substance that wasn’t immediately recognizable, and there are scientists analyzing it. And as to the timing, the test did happen during the offseason (a couple months ago), which means it’s not for any kind of stimulant. You might remember the rash of players saying they got popped for Adderall—the rules have changed now so that offseason use of stimulants falls under the substances of abuse policy, rather than the PED policy.
6. I don’t know what’s left to say about what happened with the White House last week, other than that these national anthem decisions are now being made based on business. For Donald Trump, this is about the business of getting re-elected, and having this red-meat issue to engage his base. For the NFL, its (sloppy) effort to find an exit strategy is about the business of its sport, which is best when the league appeals to the largest audience possible. Would the NFL like to see all of this come to an end? Absolutely, which is why the main talking point coming out of Atlanta centered on the owners wanting to put the focus back on football. Unfortunately for those guys, they’ve got a pretty powerful foe who wants to prevent that from happening.
7.If Julio Jones wants an adjustment to his contract, it would be tough to blame him. He’s now making less than Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Jarvis Landry and Davante Adams. Jones is three years into the deal he signed in 2015, meaning he’s out of the guaranteed money, with three years left. He has an extensive injury history, and he turns 30 next February. There will come a time, of course, when Jones’s skills will erode, and Atlanta will come looking to give him a financial haircut (like Arizona once did with Larry Fitzgerald) or his walking papers (like Dallas did with Dez Bryant). So he might as well see what he can get before all that happens.
8.Ditto for Earl Thomas. He’s had a litany of injuries, and he turns 30 in less than a year. There will come a time, and soon, when his value starts to nosedive. I’ll never blame a football player in that situation for trying to leverage a team.
9.I have trouble getting worked up over Terrell Owens’ plan to skip the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I wouldn’t advise a player to do it, but I look at this the same way I look at top prospects deciding whether or not to attend the draft: It’s amazingly difficult to get there, and each guy should have the right to celebrate how he sees fit. And the idea that this act by Owens makes him any less deserving of induction is patently absurd.
10. I thought the surprise in Detroit over new coach Matt Patricia making his players run laps was way overblown. For one, people there I know have said that the guys who worked under Jim Caldwell were a pretty disciplined group to begin with—it was a hallmark of how Caldwell wanted his teams. It’s not like Patricia and his players were starting from zero. In fact, Caldwell would assess fines, rather than penalty laps, and you can guess which method the players wind up preferring. And then there’s where Patricia came from, which makes this predictable. Just this week, in fact, Bill Belichick assessed penalty laps for mental errors on two occasions, in plain sight of the media, and then wrapped the minicamp by making his players run hills. That isn’t treating guys like they’re in high school. That’s conditioning them for an NFL season.
1. You can believe that Kevin Durant had every right to make the decision he did two summers ago, while also believing that jumping into a moving Ferrari like he did has given the titles he’s won a totally different feel than they would’ve had if he’d won with a team that wasn’t already a burgeoning dynasty. It’s O.K., I don’t think you’ll hurt too many people’s feelings.
2. And so here we go with the Summer of LeBron III. It would be cool to see him stay in Cleveland. But at this point I think he has to think of going to a place where there are young superstars that he can eventually pass the baton to, once age starts to strike (and who knows when that’ll happen?) and he has to reinvent himself as more of a complementary piece.
3.Alexander Ovechkin has a shot to rival the post-Cup summers enjoyed by Patrick Kane and Brad Marchand. And by the time it’s over, we’re going to wish that Lord Stanley could talk, because he’d have one heck of a story to tell.
4. We just had our anniversary weekend in Nashville, and I had no idea that something called CMA Fest was going to be there while we were. And that whole thing was one incredible bleep-show. I saw … a lot of hilarious things. And it felt like every bachelorette party on the planet was there the last three days, too.
5.Justify crushed it, no question. But what an impressive comeback bid at the Belmont by Gronkowski’s horse … Gronkowski. Gronk the Horse looked like he didn’t belong coming out of the gate, fell way behind, and somehow came as close to beating Justify as anyone at the Belmont, after missing the Derby and the Preakness with an injury. And now Gronk the Horse gets to go live the life his owner would have for him.
Aaron Donald isn’t expected at Rams minicamp. Khalil Mack’s status for Raiders minicamp is up in the air. Le’Veon Bell still hasn’t signed his franchise tender, so he won’t be at the Steelers’ mandatory work. Earl Thomas plans to miss this week. We’ll see about Julio Jones. Everyone will be watching Odell Beckham Jr.’s involvement at Giants minicamp closely, too.
And this is what we’ll be talking about this week. The maximum fines for missing the three days of minicamp are as follows: $14,070 for the first day missed, $28,150 for the second day, and $42, 215 for the third day, bringing the grand total to $84,435. (Bell isn’t subject to the fines since he’s unsigned, but the others are.)
Is skipping worth it? Maybe this is just what I remember of the last few years, but it seems teams aren’t often moved much by players missing work in the spring. The summer, of course, is a different story—that can make management squirm a little. We’ll all make a big deal—probably too big a deal—of these things this week. If any of these wildcat contract strikes are still going on six weeks from now, well, then that actually would be a big deal.
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