Dan Quinn doesn’t want to make the soldier’s name public, because the soldier himself doesn’t want that. But even without the name attached, his story (which has been confirmed) is worth telling, especially on the week of Independence Day. It might be the best way to honor the soldier’s impact on Quinn’s Falcons.
Quinn met him through his Quinn’s Corps program a few years back, and the Army cavalry specialist explained what happened to him while he was deployed in Afghanistan. A buddy of his had been killed two days earlier. Determined to avenge him, and knowing where the assailants were, the soldier sought retribution on enemy territory. But as he was entering the house where his friend died, on hostile turf, the soldier’s emotions betrayed what he was taught. The lesson he learned that day, when he was injured by an IED, resonated with Quinn.
“He didn’t go through all his training, he didn’t go through the checks for explosive devices,” Quinn said, over the phone last week. “He wanted retribution, so he abandoned his training. He was away from his guys. The story was, no matter what, I was trained to do this. But because I wanted to make it right, I forgot to do everything I was trained to do.”
Football players are not soldiers. Games are not war. But the correlation that Quinn could draw between the makeup of a soldier and what pro football players need to do to succeed—he was still in Seattle, as defensive coordinator, at the time—was impossible to miss.
This soldier felt a deep loyalty and connection to his teammates. He had their back, even in the worst circumstances. And in the end, that was important, but so too was a soldier’s ability to channel emotion and adhere to his training under the most adverse and pressure-packed situations. It was then that Quinn knew that whenever he got his shot at being a head coach, the military would become a part of his program. In Atlanta, it has. And two days before the Fourth of July, we thought this would be a good time to explain how, at this strange time in the NFL when the pregame singing of the national anthem has become a political battleground, Quinn has made that count for his team.
In this holiday edition of the MMQB, we’re going to check in with Chip Kelly 18 months after his run as NFL coach concluded, explain why the Jaguars are optimistic with where Blake Bortles is, and break down the supplemental draft class that will enter the league on July 11.
But we’re going to start with Quinn and the Falcons, and where the NFL’s most military-connected team stands in the bizarre landscape of 2018. And that means explaining, first, how Quinn has handled the balancing act that most coaches never thought they’d have to worry about: the philosophical differences that exist in every locker room over the playing of the national anthem.
“You know what was cool?” Quinn said. “Back in November, the team got together and said, ‘How do we go from where we are and go make a difference?’ I was proud to be part of this group this spring. We took action on nine different initiatives in the offseason, one a week, that we wanted to take on as a team. And so what we did in the offseason was take on some of the issues that were really important to players.
“A lot of that involved the team’s influence and the police side of things, so we dove head-first into those two things with ridealongs, and trips to boys and girls clubs, a lot of things back-and-forth with the police and the community. So that’s really what we decided on as a team.
“As far as how that ties into the military and the anthem, if you ask anyone on our team, we love the military and the anthem and the flag, and everything that it stands for. We’re hopeful that by taking some initiative, and taking a stand to make a difference this spring, we got to some of those issues that are really important and that need our attention. I was glad that we were able to make an impact.”
It was easier, too, because of the attachment the Falcons have had to the military, and the fulfillment of Quinn’s plan to build its principles into his program. The idea crystallized with the story of the injured soldier, but that was neither the beginning nor the end for the coach.
Quinn’s father-in-law, Larry Haines, was in the Navy, and a number of his college buddies served too. He says now that if not for coaching, there’s a good chance that would’ve been his life too. And so he’s always kept a connection there, and that was the impetus to launch Quinn’s Corps in 2009 in Seattle, when he was the D-line coach. He took it with him to the University of Florida, back to Seattle and then to Atlanta.
The program flies soldiers in for games, and Quinn expanded it over the last few years where players would wear decals of soldiers’ initials on their helmets—they needed to get league approval for it—during Salute to Service month. In some cases, those soldiers meet with the players wearing their names while in town on Quinn’s Corps trips.
“I knew there could be this natural connection, going for something at the highest level, and the accountability to the person right next to you, through the years they have nailed that in every way,” Quinn said. “So if we could learn from them, then I thought, ‘How can we apply it to our team?’”
That’s where Quinn took it to the next level.
Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff had just finished informing a rookie of his release after Quinn’s first season, and Quinn overheard this particular player running into a now ex-teammate on his way out the door after cleaning out his locker.
“He said to the [released] player, ‘Hey man, sorry about that,’” Quinn said. “And the rookie said, ‘Can I get your number?’ That felt like a dagger to the chest, because these two guys had been on the same team, and he didn’t have the guy’s phone number. At that point, I realized, ‘Man, we’re a long way away to be as close and connected as we could be.’”
So knowing his desire to incorporate military ideals, Dimitroff and trainer Marty Lauzon suggested to Quinn bringing in Acumen Performance Group, run by ex-Navy Seals who apply their training methods to train in both the corporate and athletic arena. Quinn knew the Miami Heat worked with those guys, and with coach Erik Spoelstra signing off on the experience, the Falcons started with APG in 2016.
The lessons were pretty similar to ones that Quinn took from his military friend wounded in battle: Being accountable to one another was vital, as was adhering to what you’ve been taught in the harshest of circumstances. Accordingly, Atlanta broke through that year, reaching the Super Bowl. But the training experience might have been even more valuable after that last game didn’t go to plan.
By then, the APG folks had put Falcons players through a process of writing their own standard operating procedures and code of conduct. Sure enough, sticking to that foundation got the team through the hangover—and a rocky start to 2017.
“The most powerful one, it helped develop our mental toughness,” Quinn said. “For us, we had to show some resiliency, getting your ass kicked at the end of the Super Bowl isn’t a highlight. But it gives you the platform to show resiliency. This is the life we live, as competitors. So we’ve got to come back, let’s make sure we fight and compete. You’ve seen the closeness of this team take on what I hoped it could be.”
And along the way, the benefits have helped deepen the bond between the team and the military. This year the Falcons became the first club to conduct their own USO tour, with linemen Alex Mack and Ben Garland (an Air Force Academy graduate and active captain in the Colorado Air National Guard) and kicker Matt Bryant going with Quinn to Iraq and Kuwait, which was an offshoot of the experience Quinn, Vic Beasley, Paul Worrilow, Grady Jarrett and Bryant had in the Pacific two years ago.
Over there, Quinn got to meet and talk shop with General Paul Funk, but the thing that hit him most was how Mack, Garland and Bryant knew, on their own, the opportunity in front of them, and used it to talk to the soldiers about leadership. And Quinn saw that reciprocated in soldiers asking him how he handled rookies, since the military guys had rookies of their own.
Back home, at this point, the benefits are coming organically. In April, Falcons veterans assigned mentors to the 33 rookies on the 90-man roster, with a plan to teach the younger players not about X’s and O’s, but about the standards they’ve set through all the training they’ve gotten. As Quinn describes it, “real training from their teammates.”
The veterans are capable teachers because they’ve seen the value in it, through APG and Quinn’s Corps and USO and also the TAPS program (an organization that provides support for those grieving the loss of a member of the armed forces), which they work with for a game and, like Quinn’s Corps and APG, involves the whole group.
“It gives you a real sense of cooperation and teamwork, it’s a really important part of our craft, and hopefully we can be a model for other people to show what being part of a team can be like,” Quinn said. “I wish more of our country could see what our locker room looks like, because this is a really tight connected group of guys that wanna get it right for one another. That’s the coolest thing to be a part of.”
It’s pretty cool to hear about it, too, particularly during this time of year, and this time in our country’s history, when so many seem to think there’s some sort of divide between those who serve and the athletes who entertain us back home.
Chip Kelly Goes Back to School, But His Influence on the NFL Remains
Last weekend I asked Chip Kelly if being back in college football and the Pac-12 with UCLA feels like riding a bike. His answer was, if you know him, pretty much what you’d expect.
“I wouldn’t say it’s riding a bike,” Kelly said. “Maybe it’s riding a bike going uphill and downhill all the time. There’s always something new every day. That’s the fun part. That’s why we do it. There are always challenges, some you know of and some you didn’t know of. It’s all a bike ride. Sometimes it’s a hilly bike ride. Sometimes it’s on a flat surface. The cool part is you don’t know what’s coming up next.”
For a minute, though, Kelly and I did take look back at his NFL run, which was better than you might remember. In his first year after coming from Oregon, his Eagles went 10-6, and Nick Foles made the Pro Bowl with a 27-to-2 TD/INT ratio. Over three seasons under Kelly, Philly ranked third in points per game and total offense. And even his single year with the Niners saw improvement in Colin Kaepernick’s play and the run game’s numbers.
He’s been gone from the league for about a year-and-a-half now, with a season of TV work bridging the time between the NFL and UCLA. But his presence is still felt all over the league, and it even showed up last year in his old team making a run to a Super Bowl title, using some concepts that Kelly introduced five years ago, which Doug Pederson and company chose to keep after the transition. A few things from our talk …
On the Eagles keeping some of his schematic elements in place. Kelly’s not interested in taking credit now, but it’s a point that more than a few coaches and scouts have made to me in the months since the Eagles won it all.
“I don’t really look at it like that,” Kelly said. “The other part of this is none of us were in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne when this game started, so we all stole it from someone else. Who cares where it came from? We didn’t get into coaching so everyone would say, ‘We run plays or implement things so everybody will say I invented this.’ I mean, if you think you invented it, you’re kinda full of crap.
“There have been a lot of people doing a lot of great things—[Dutch] Meyer at TCU was running empty no-back in 1950 from the gun, and tracking the ball with the quarterback. And when the numbers were right, the quarterback ran it, and when the numbers weren’t, and there were too many in the box, the quarterback threw it. And now everybody’s doing that and they’re calling it revolutionary.”
Kelly, by the way, just explained the run-pass option.
But what Pederson’s staff did impressed him. Remember, Kelly knows a lot of Philly’s personnel. He coached Foles. He evaluated Carson Wentz with the Niners, and might have taken him at 7 if he’d fallen there in the ’16 draft. And so he can grasp what they pulled off.
“They transitioned quickly to Nick’s strengths, which, there’s a lot of them,” he said. “But they’re different than Carson’s. Not totally different, you’re not talking apples to oranges. They still ran their base stuff that they ran, but they did certain things, they probably ran Carson a little bit more, they throw more RPOs with Nick, but Carson could run RPOs and Nick could run a little bit.
“The one thing, if you just watched the quarterbacks play, they were extremely comfortable in what Doug was asking them to do.”
Kelly stays connected. As you can tell, watching is one way Kelly stays connected to the league. Another has been in the kind of information sharing we discussed last week with Lincoln Riley—working with guys from Rams coach Sean McVay to his old Eagles line coach Jeff Stoutland, to the guy he’s done off-the-books work with since he was at New Hampshire, Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
“The coaching community’s pretty tight, and invariably there’s someone on some staff that we’ve crossed paths with,” he said. “There’s guys on our staff that have coached with guys on 15 to 20 teams—‘I coached with him here and now he’s at that place.’ Everybody has connections at different schools and different NFL teams just because of the transient nature of our profession.”
And he learned a lot during his time in the NFL. As much he gave to the league, he also took plenty that he believes will make him a better college coach than the one who left Oregon in January 2013. His Bruins, for example, do more situational work than his Ducks ever did, which is a result of the impression the NFL left on him.
“In the NFL, the game is a lot more situational, just because the games are so close,” Kelly said. “You have to be great at the end of the half. A lot of times in college, it’s 28-0 at the half and you’re not really in a two-minute situation. In the NFL, games are so much closer that situational play just comes up more often. That’s what a lot of games come down to.
“There’s a channel dedicated to it, the Red Zone Channel. It’s dedicated to how critical those situations are. And when the Red Zone Channel is really buzzing is at the end of the 1 o’clock games going into the 4 o’clock games because there’s eight of them that are within a touchdown of each other, and you need a critical stop or a critical conversion to keep things going.
“And there’s fewer snaps in an NFL game than there are in a college game, so you have to be on point a little bit better. Some of the college games you’re running 80 to 100 snaps, you can afford to have, percentagewise, more bad plays when you’re running more plays. If you’re only running 60, 65 plays, you better be on for those plays.”
It should be fun to see Kelly put this to work on Saturdays in the fall. And he’ll have his own fun keeping an eye on what’s happening on Sundays.
Bortles Could Be Ready to Turn the Corner
The Jaguars had taken two penalties and were backed up to second-and-22 in the second quarter against the Ravens in London. And so coordinator Nathaniel Hackett called for a downfield shot to try to get a chunk of the yardage back. He sent it in. Baltimore was ready for it. Then a funny thing happened.
Blake Bortles dumped the ball off to Chris Ivory, who burst forward for 11 yards, which gave the Jags a more manageable third-and-11, and put them back in range for the 45-yard field goal that put them up 13-0. So on the next series, Hackett called the play again, and Bortles checked it down again, this time to Leonard Fournette.
“Why do you keep calling that?” Bortles asked, after that series. “It’s not there.”
“Blake, you were brilliant,” Hackett responded. “They all dropped down and you got it to the running backs.”
This, in a nutshell, is where Bortles got better last year, and it’s a piece—and not an insignificant one—of how the Jaguars broke through in 2017. It’s also why Hackett has optimism where others might not, that Bortles can still become the franchise quarterback GM Dave Caldwell and the team envisioned him to be four years ago, when the Jags drafted him third overall.
It might sound weird, but as Hackett saw it, the biggest thing Bortles had to learn was to play quarterback rather than just play football. The knock on him back in 2014, that he was raw, plays right into that notion. That checkdown was a response to it.
“I remember my first meeting with Blake [in 2015, when Hackett became Jacksonville’s quarterbacks coach], asking him, ‘Do you know what this means?’ Nope. ‘Do you know what this means?’ Nope,” Hackett said. “And I’m like, Oh goodness, we’ve got to go back to the beginning. And those are things that, once you process it, he may want to be like, ‘Let’s go out there and do it.’ And you’re like, ‘Hold on, buddy.’ And as a young guy, he was scrambling.
“A lot of the time, I don’t blame him, he just looked over at [receiver Allen Robinson], and threw him the ball. And he’s like, ‘Hey, that’s my security blanket, that’s what I was doing in college.’”
Turnover on the staff exacerbated the problem. Bortles’ first coordinator, Jedd Fisch, was fired after his rookie year. Long-time NFL OC Greg Olson came in to replace Fisch, and then he was fired midway through Bortles’ third year, with Hackett elevated to interim OC. A couple months later, head coach Gus Bradley was fired, and Hackett took the coordinator full-time reins under Bradley’s successor, Doug Marrone.
Bortles’ problems, at that point, weren’t fixed. So Hackett start from square one, and focused him on fixing his footwork and becoming a more efficient passer.
“He has such an aggressive mindset, and he’s so aggressive naturally, he wants to throw the ball down the field all the time,” Hackett said. “And he wasn’t necessarily playing quarterback either. I was giving him this footwork, this rhythm mindset, saying, ‘Hey, you don’t have to throw it down the field every time, you can get to a checkdown, you can get to a completion.’ That took time to develop.”
It showed up in spurts—like in that Ravens game—early in the season. Hackett could see true buy-in during a 27-0 win over the Colts in October. And it blossomed in a three-game stretch in December during which Bortles completed 65 of 91 throws for 903 yards, seven touchdowns and no picks.
The can’t-go-broke-taking-a-profit mentality then paid off in a sideways playoff win over Buffalo, with Bortles’ 88 rushing yards proving to be enough on a bad day for the Jags offense. A week later, against the Steelers, the payoff came, with downfield shots there because the threat of the checkdown was established. Bortles was efficient again at Foxboro in the conference title game defeat.
And it showed up again during OTAs in how Bortles can now, with a full year under Hackett, apply the offense based on what the defense is throwing at him. One example: Hackett called a shot play, and Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash was bringing the house. Bortles calmly checked to a run.
“It was basically, ‘I don’t want to throw the ball down the field,’” Hackett said. “And I’m like, ‘That’s what we’re talking about.’ He’s learning, we want this play for this specific look. That’s where you want to be. You look at the defense and the play call, and if we can’t get it, go to something else. That takes time and comfort in a system.”
It will be interesting to see where things go for Bortles from here, with a pretty loaded roster around him.
“We’re in a great situation, because we have a very good line, and we have very good running backs, which will allow us to run the ball,” Hackett said. “Now it’s going to allow us to be a lot more aggressive, because you can trust that Blake is going to make the right decision more consistently.”
Now, Bortles did have his bumps last year, to be sure. Even after the aforementioned three-game stretch, there were a couple clunkers to finish the regular season. But he got past those to play well in the postseason, and we’ll see whether that was turning a corner. Hackett seems to believe it could be.
A Supplemental Draft Worth Paying Attention To
The NFL’s supplemental draft is usually a pretty boring affair—pass, pass, pass, pass, zzzzz… But it might be worth a little more of your attention this year than it has been in the past.
Over the last five years, only one player has been selected in the supplemental draft: Isaiah Battle, by the Rams in 2015. He has spent the three years since on the fringes of the league, and he’ll be in camp with the Seahawks this summer, looking for a job and still looking for his first NFL start. Before that you had Josh Gordon taken in the second round in 2012 and Terrelle Pryor in the third round in 2011.
This year, five guys are in. Virginia Tech CB Adonis Alexander, Western Michigan CB Sam Beal and Mississippi State S Brandon Bryant had academic issues that led to their departures from school. Oregon State LB Bright Ugwoegbu, suspended since before spring practice, was entered into the mix last week. And Grand Valley State RB Marty Carter’s name popped up on the wire, to the surprise of many, on Friday.
In case you don’t know how the supplemental draft works, it’s basically a silent auction. Teams put in bids, and the high bid gets the player. And if you get the player, you give up the corresponding pick in the 2019 draft. So if a team takes Alexander in, say, the third round, then their slotted third-rounder next year is vacated—which is usually enough to get teams to stay away from taking anyone.
This group might be different. Both Alexander and Beal were seen as potential Day 2 (second/third round) prospects had they declared for the 2018 draft after the college season. The timing isn’t good for either, since NFL teams have addressed their needs, nor are the players helped by the fact that they couldn’t make it to their 2018 college season. But those two have enough talent that someone might bite early. The other three are longer shots. Here’s a snapshot …
Adonis Alexander, CB, Virginia Tech: Alexander failed multiple drug tests early on at Tech and got 12 months probation for marijuana possession after being cited hours after the Hokies’ spring game in April 2016. That said, he is big, talented and from a program that has a history of developing guys at his position. He ran two 40s at his pro day—one came in around 4.50, the other around 4.60. “If he’d run faster, I wouldn’t have been shocked to see him in the second or third round,” said an NFC exec. “I think the absolute highest he’d go now is third round. He’s so big and long.” The exec then agreed with the sentiment I’d heard, that Alexander’s a Seattle-type corner. “He can press and bail, and he’s strong. He has talent. He’s just inconsistent with technique and his ball skills, and he’s very immature.”
Sam Beal, CB, Western Michigan: He’s tall, long and talented, if a little slight. “He’s the more talented cover guy [compared to Alexander],” said an AFC scouting director. “A pure cover guy, fits a lot of schemes. He’s a skinny dude, and even though he presses well, you look at his body, how well does he project? … He’s not a bad guy, just kind of a knucklehead, the kind who’ll wear the wrong color socks or miss curfew or have parking tickets and not pay them off.” Beal played really well against USC last year—picking off Sam Darnold—and that tape has shown scouts there’s a lot to work with here, if he grows up and fills out a little.
Brandon Bryant, S, Mississippi State: Bryant’s off-field issues are considered more serious than those of Alexander and Beal, and he’s not seen as being as good a player as either. His measureables are good—he came in at 5' 11", 207 and ran high 4.4s/low 4.5s in the 40—but he doesn’t play to them, per scouts. “By the time you get through all the [off-field] stuff, you’re just kind of like, ‘Eh’,” said an AFC exec. Our AFC college director added, “He’s a nightmare [football-discipline]-wise. Very unreliable, plays outside the scheme, not reliable in coverage, his eyes are all over the place. Just can’t trust him. He’s physical and quick and fast. Should he be draftable? Sure. But with all the other stuff …”
Bright Ugwoegbu, LB, Oregon State: Ugwoegbu has started for parts of the last three years, and he’s been fairly productive. But a couple high-level personnel people I hit up the last few days intimated that there’s no chance he’ll be drafted. His workout numbers would seem to back up that assessment. NFL.com’s Gil Brandt tweeted them out—at his pro day, Ugwoegbu came in a shade under 6' 1" and at 205 pounds, and ran one 40 in the 4.9s, and another just over 5.0. That’s safety size, with defensive tackle speed.
Martayveus Carter, RB, Grand Valley State: Another academic casualty, Carter was a Division II All-America as a sophomore, rushing for 1,908 yards and 20 touchdowns. Last year he wasn’t as prolific, with 931 yards and nine rushing touchdowns in nine games. The school’s all-time leading rusher, he was held out of spring and then, more recently, declared ineligible. There’s talent there—Carter was at one point expected to go to Northern Illinois—but while he has nice feet and quickness, he’s probably not big enough to break tackles and run inside consistently in the NFL. He’d likely have gone undrafted in April had he declared, so he almost certainly won’t be taken on July 11.
… OF THE WEEK
I love Raiders owner Mark Davis getting on the ground and serving lunch to the stadium workers in Vegas. But yeah … this is pretty good. Right up there with the conversion van and mornings at PF Chang’s.
Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. was once offered a contract by the Rockland Boulders of the Can-Am League—yes, it was a publicity stunt—based on his performance in a celebrity softball game. To me, this one’s actually pretty freaking impressive. Beckham was a star football and basketball player, and track athlete in high school, and he was a decorated youth soccer player before that. I couldn’t find much evidence of the last time he played competitive baseball. And yet, he gets in the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium and can crank one over the left-field wall cold. It reminds of being at a golf tournament with Von Miller a few years ago. He had barely played before. And after a couple swings, he was absolutely ripping it off the tee. Some people are just made different than the rest of us.
“When the NFL’s down 20%, it’s the flag, but it’s also the fact that everybody’s watching us on all the different cable networks. Because frankly, they find this more exciting than the NFL, and a hell of a lot more dangerous.”
President Donald Trump’s declaration this week at a rally in North Dakota is just the latest proof that there’s nothing the NFL can do to separate from the political war taking place in America. He’s identified the NFL as a touchstone to ignite his base, and so it makes sense for him, looking forward to the midterms and 2020, to use the league to keep his voters engaged. Interesting nugget on that: I was told that the owners purposefully avoided using his name—just referring to him as “the President”—in their privileged session at the Atlanta meeting in May.
I don’t know if this qualifies as a meme. Whatever. How the hell is this kid 15?
S/O TO …
Patriots owner Robert Kraft for giving to a very worthy cause, with his donation to Team Super Bowlen this week, as part of the 2018 Walk to End Alzheimer’s. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has been battling the disease, and his wife, Annabel, announced a few days ago that she’s been diagnosed with it too. The two owners walked a similar path—first Bowlen, then Kraft came to prominence in league circles by chairing the broadcast committee. And Kraft has said in the past how helpful Bowlen was in helping him along after he bought the Patriots in 1994. “He was always a league guy first,” Kraft told the Boston Globe in 2014. “He was a real solid partner, one I respected and had a lot of fun with. Just a real good guy.” Denver president Joe Ellis and Kraft communicated via email last week to set it up, and I’m told Bowlen’s daughter Brittany called Kraft on Friday to thank him on behalf of her siblings for a gesture that they saw as very heartfelt and genuine.
1. Good for Kam Chancellor, walking away from football, presumably (per his twitter account) on his own accord. If you want an idea of what goes into a decision like that, read our mailbag lead with ex-Bills center Eric Wood from mid-June. He, like Chancellor, was told continuing to play could lead to paralysis. And if this is it for the Seahawks enforcer, here’s hoping he gets the credit for what he was—the heart and soul of a championship defense. Anyone in that locker room would tell you he was the ultimate alpha among a group stocked with those types. And Chancellor should always be remembered in Seahawks lore for making the play that set the tone in Super Bowl XLVIII. His de-cleating of Demaryius Thomas in the first quarter of Seattle’s blowout win established that Denver’s receivers would pay a price for working the middle of the field, which altered how the game would be played for Peyton Manning’s high-flying offense.