I was driving from LAX to Thousand Oaks, Calif., where the next day I would watch film at the Rams facility with their new safety, Eric Weddle. As traffic came to another standstill I got a text from Weddle’s agent, David Canter. “Eric’s not happy about this,” it said. Below was a screen shot of my tweet from earlier that day:
What I thought had been an innocuous, casual sentiment had instead elicited many mixed, but strong, reactions. Those reactions had stood out for two reasons: 1. Several people offered smart, respectful opposing views, resembling something of a constructive, enriching dialogue—a unicorn on Twitter. 2. As usual, many dissenters trolled, but what was unusual was that dozens of the trolls were active NFL players. Their opposition was understandable; freedom in offseason workouts was the crown jewel of their 2011 CBA negotiations.
But now here was a player’s reaction that threatened actual consequence. I’d be damned if I was going to come all the way to L.A. only to lose a project over a harmless tweet. I exited the freeway and pulled into a fast food parking lot.
“Tell Eric it’s merely a thought I have, more than a strong opinion,” I texted Canter. “I have ‘liked’ plenty of smart tweets that raised counterpoints and argued against me. Was actually going to acknowledge those in a separate tweet here in a few minutes when I get out of the car.”
On the rest of the drive to Thousand Oaks, I thought of what I might say if Weddle backed out of our film session. After 30 minutes of this passive worrying, a text arrived from Weddle himself:
“Andy u good over there???? LOL”
“Was Canter messing with me?” I texted back, already sure of the answer and kicking myself for not considering that right away.
“Haha. Partially. I don’t get mad ... Look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
I was especially eager for the film session with Weddle because it felt like the universe had been arranging it for months. Never in my offseason meetings with coaches has a player’s name been raised—unsolicited—as much as Weddle’s was this year. Ravens coaches gushed about what his football IQ did for their No. 1-ranked defense. Opposing coaches said flat out that Weddle was what made that defense go. His play recognition was superb, but even more potent was his sense for pre-snap disguises, which gave teeth to Baltimore’s matchup-zone coverages and trademark pressure packages.
When I saw Canter at Boise State’s pro day in early April, I shared this.
“Not surprised,” Canter said. “I’ve never represented a player like him.
Canter describes attending a Utah game during Weddle’s senior season there.
“I was like ‘ho-ly sh--.’ I didn’t realize how ridiculously good he was. The Utes were up by a few points late. Weddle had dominated all game, including as a return guy. In those final minutes, he comes in on offense and starts taking wildcat snaps. He runs the ball play after play and totally ices the game. The whole stadium is chanting,”—and here Canter cups a fist to his mouth, mimicking a megaphone—“‘Wedddddllllle … Wedddddllllle … Wedddddllllle!’ Right then I told my assistant, ‘We must do everything in our power to sign this guy.’”
Pro football is largely an academic exercise. So much of the game is played at the line of scrimmage, before the snap. That’s where Weddle is magic. Post-snap, he’s always been versatile and fundamentally sound. At 34, he doesn’t pack quite as much athletic punch as in his Chargers heyday, but as one Ravens coach put it, “He can win almost entirely through his understanding of angles and leverage.” His angles and leverage are buttressed by his constant movement. Where Weddle aligns before the snap is not where he’ll be after it.
The Rams are giddy about the new dimensions he’ll give their defense. Some coaches feel a subtle tug of pressure working with him because they’ve never dealt with such a smart player. He makes you raise your game. The term “coach on the field” is uttered a lot, but rarely by actual coaches. Weddle is the only non-quarterback I’ve heard referenced like this multiple times.
And so, naturally, our film session lived up to the hype. Weddle entered the room bellowing “Yo! Yo! Yo!” and the conversation flowed from there. He had an answer for everything, his explanations accentuated the “why” much more than the “what.” He considered the offense’s point of view. He knew how all the details fit into the big picture. He understood everything about his teammates’ responsibilities. This was emphasized towards the end when, on one play, Ravens cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey perfectly switched man-to-man assignments on the fly downfield. Weddle called it a “special play” by those two but wouldn’t reveal how they knew to make it. It was the only schematic tidbit that he withheld.
But he will tell Sean McVay what the corners did here before the Rams face the Ravens on Monday night this October, right?
I told Weddle I didn’t believe him.
“You don’t know me then,” he said, dead serious. The moment threatened to take on tension, but he continued speaking. "What kind of man would I be if I rat out my guys that I played three years with? I cherish every relationship I made on that defense, on that team. The minute I say, ‘Here are all of their calls’ or ‘here are the checks to this,’ then what am I at the end of the day? I lose everything that I gained from there. And that means more to me than anything.”
That evening, McVay called to see how things went with his new safety. It wasn’t long before I said, “Eric claims he won't reveal some of the Ravens’ man-to-man switch release rules when you guys get ready to play them!” McVay chuckled and said he wasn’t surprised; Weddle struck him as a uniquely loyal dude. (Then McVay’s curiosity took off and he listed several possibilities for what the coverage rule might be, growing increasingly frustrated that he didn’t have the play on film in front of him.)
A few days later I asked one of Weddle’s former defensive coaches if he thought the safety would indeed keep that detailed coverage rule under wraps when L.A. played Baltimore.
“With just about any other player, I’d say the guy would probably crack and share it once game week rolled around,” the coach said. “But Eric is different. He really values personal relationships and loyalty.”
Before being released by the Ravens for cap savings, Weddle had said Baltimore would be his last NFL stop. But not many were surprised when, a few weeks later, his attitude seemed to change. Weddle loves football. Signing a two-year deal with the Rams brought him back to Southern California, where he grew up (Fontana) and spent the first nine years of his professional life (San Diego). Just as importantly, it brought him to a bona fide title contender.
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