NAPA, Calif. — Things were remarkably quiet here for the Rams/Raiders joint practice on Wednesday, even with the Antonio Brown drama beginning to unfold, and even with the premiere of Hard Knocks having aired 12 hours earlier.
My big takeaway—Jon Gruden was at peace. The team in front of him was bigger and faster than the 2018 Raiders. The players knew what to expect of him, much more so than they had a year ago. He’d gotten a full season under his belt, after a decade away. And by his side was a new GM, in Mike Mayock, whom he saw as ideal to carry out his plan.
“No disrespect to anybody, but we have a common philosophy,” Gruden told me. “We have a very much alike philosophy. We see players and we see character and we see Raiders the same way. Not that [former Raiders GM] Reggie [McKenzie] and I had a conflict of interest or anything like that. But Mayock has brought a great energy, some leadership to us. It’s a blast working with him.”
Forty-eight hours later, Mount Big Chest erupted.
First, it was Brown’s frost-bitten feet. Then, it was his desire to wear a trusty old helmet that had been along for his wild ride, going back to his rookie year—a desire strong enough to lead to some bizarre moments that NFL Network’s Mike Silver chronicled in a crazy Twitter thread Friday afternoon. And from there, and into Saturday, there was an expectation that Gruden would at some point fire off some sort of ultimatum at his mercurial star.
That didn’t happen, and unless something changes and this drags way out, it won’t. After the Raiders’ 14-3 win over the Rams on Saturday, Gruden actually stuck up for Brown, calling the case of frostbite an “accident” and the helmet issue “a personal matter to him.”
“I support this guy,” Gruden told the media, following the game. “I think that’s what needs to be said.”
Gruden knows. Just as he outlined to me the benefits of having the organization aligned as he wants it, he’s aware that he’s on the hook now—for the Brown trade, and for everyone else that he and Mayock put on the roster.
Brown is his. For better or worse.
We’ve got a loaded MMQB this week, and that was even before the close-of-business events of Friday took place. In here, you’ll find out:
• How Sean McVay is learning from the Super Bowl loss and finding a way to grow personally as a result.
• That Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury once worked on Bill Belichick’s Patriots staff, and why very few people actually know about it.
• the person Kyle Shanahan enlisted to spend time with injured quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo during the 2018 season, and why it’ll benefit Garoppolo in 2019.
• Philip Rivers’ view on ever playing anywhere else.
And much more. Let’s get going.
On Sundays in the fall, I do TV with ex-Patriots receiver Troy Brown, and he has a snappy line that fits a lot of what we see in the NFL: Money only makes you more of what you already are.
The bottom line in this latest Antonio Brown saga is simple. The Raiders knew what they were getting in March, and boy, are they getting it now. The only reason for mild surprise would be in how quickly a blowup happened. And I’m not sure we should even be surprised by that part of it either.
After all, this is a player who went AWOL ahead of his team’s season finale last December, with that team still in the playoff hunt, then grew a blonde mustache and publicly antagonized the organization on social media to try to force a trade.
It was all validated—not when Pittsburgh dumped him for third- and fifth-round picks, but when the Raiders handed him a revision of his Steelers contract as part of the deal, pushing his three-year total from just under $39 million to just over $50 million, and taking the full guarantee from $0 to $30.125 million. It didn’t matter that the trade market for Brown had cooled over time. What did was that Brown got what he wanted.
And that would send the same message to Brown as it would to anyone: You were right.
So yeah, thinking Brown would change would be crazy. If anything, as Troy Brown said, chances were he was only going to become more of what he already was, which is exactly what’s happened. And so we have this crazy heat check he’s throwing up over his helmet.
With that in mind, here are some points regarding the situation, and Brown, to serve as a guide.
This is par for the course. As we wrote in January, it’s often been the little things that have sent Brown off the deep end. And there was more than one occasion of that in 2018. A veteran Steelers beat writer said Brown called him racist last fall after an injury report, and Brown called ESPN’s Ryan Clark an “Uncle Tom” after the ex-Steeler was critical of him. And he blew up after the team MVP award went to Juju Smith-Schuster, which led to his Week 17 practice tantrum, and resulting disappearance.
In the past, there’s been something underlying Brown’s acting out. Last year he told people in Pittsburgh he didn’t believe the rest of the team was as invested as he was, and some of those people believed that was behind his erratic behavior.
I don’t know if there’s something else going on with this helmet issues—maybe a bigger problem Brown has with the league. But what we can say is that it shouldn’t surprise anyone that something seemingly small would set him off. That was pretty apparent when I was talking with a Steelers staffer on Saturday and asked if he’s taken aback at all by the news of the past week.
Response: “I’m just happy he’s not our problem anymore.”
Brown’s all alone on the helmet thing. The NFL’s policy is that all equipment must be certified by the National Operating Committee for Standards and Athletic Equipment before use in practice or games. NOCSAE won’t certify any equipment that’s more than 10 years old. And even if the safety organization wanted to test the helmet model Brown was wearing for possible approval it couldn’t—Schutt discontinued the model in 2011.
I’m told the NFL started talking to Brown in April, sending him helmet options and trying to get him to wear an approved helmet. He wasn’t alone in having to switch—32 players (Tom Brady among them) were grandfathered in last year as the NFL decertified certain models, and allowed to wear those helmets for the 2018 season. Brown is alone now, the only player not to comply with the change.
So representatives for the league, union and Brown met with an independent arbitrator in Philly on Friday (Brown was on via phone). A decision is expected this week.
Raiders’ moves don’t lack logic. You can question the logic. But it’s there, and not that difficult to understand—and actually fits with Mayock and Gruden’s plan to build the culture in Oakland a certain way.
First-round picks Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs and Johnathan Abram, and really all the draftees, fit the foundation Gruden and Mayock are trying to build. And, on the flip side, the team bought low on veterans Richie Incognito and Vontaze Burfict, and can easily dump those guys if there’s any sign of trouble.
That makes Brown the outlier, a player who comes with baggage and a high price tag. What exempts him? Talent, of course, is part of it. But the other piece is what scouts refer to as football character—a love for the game and desire to be great strong enough to overcome a lot. Plenty of good teams (the Patriots are one) have taken chances on problem players in the past, banking on football character, and Gruden and Mayock followed that blueprint with Brown.
For all his faults, Brown’s work ethic and passion for football have never really been questioned, and they’ve been enough to keep his antics from getting in the way of what’s really important in his life. Until last December, at least.
The Raiders like what they’ve got for him. You don’t need me to tell you Gruden believes he can get a lot out of Brown. But I also left Napa feeling that the Raiders think the infrastructure there will be good for the All-Pro receiver. That much was obvious when we started talking about the makeup of the team, and how having guys like Brown and Tyrell Williams and left tackle Trent Brown is going to benefit quarterback Derek Carr.
“Oh, we’re better,” Gruden said. “The draft class we just had has been impressive so far. I’m anxious to go in and get a look at the tape. We’re faster. We’ve gotten bigger, getting Trent Brown, Vontaze Burfict, we’ve added some size, Tyrell Williams at the receiver position. I think we’re bigger, I think we’re faster. I think we’ve added some young blood to the organization that I think we have to develop and get ready for the future.
“So I like it. There’s really been a good energy around here.”
The Raiders hope Brown shows this week, but those I talked to over the weekend weren’t sure where the situation would go next. As we said, a decision on the helmet issue—I’d be stunned if it goes Brown’s way—is coming. So is Episode 2 of Hard Knocks, and that could show us something, or nothing at all.
As you can tell, with Brown, it’s hard to ever talk in absolutes.
This much, though, I know: This is exactly what the Raiders signed up for. And it’s pretty obvious that the Gruden we saw at the podium on Saturday was very well aware of that.
YEAR 3 FOR MCVAY’S RAMS: LESSONS FROM A LOSS
IRVINE and NAPA, Calif. — Some coaches who lose on the biggest stage go out of their way to confront the defeat in its aftermath. That was how Atlanta’s Dan Quinn handled a Super Bowl loss two years ago. Others go the other way and bury the proverbial game ball. That’s how Bill Belichick handled it last year, and how he’s always handled these kinds of things.
After watching the Rams practice twice in a five-day stretch, I’d say Sean McVay is actually doing neither. He’s not seeking ways to address the loss. He’s not going overboard to avoid it. In fact, if you go back and look at how he handled the Rams’ 2017 playoff ouster, I bet you wouldn’t find much difference. I can tell you the players haven’t.
“It’ll always bother you,” McVay told me after Wednesday’s practice with the Raiders. “I think the biggest thing is, every game, and especially that one, it’s a learning opportunity for us. And we just keep it moving. You don’t shy away from the things that I didn’t do as a coach, and that we didn’t do to get it done. But at the end of the day, you wipe the slate clean, we’ve got to produce in the present, and that’s what we’re focused on every single day.
“To say there’s any sort of lull, or any sort of energy that’s drained as a result of that, I don’t feel it at all. I think there’s an excitement about getting back and attacking the ’19 season. People say, ‘Oh, it’s demoralizing to lose the Super Bowl.’ I told the players this—it’s the best season I’ve ever been a part of. And I obviously didn’t feel great about the way it ended, but I couldn’t be more appreciative of the season.”
Likewise, when I asked GM Les Snead what he’d observed of his coach coming out of the 13-3 loss to New England, he pointed me to something said in the Rams’ building a lot, that he says he stole from Celtics coach Brad Stevens—We surrender the results of the future to our process—to explain handling of it.
“I get what you’re saying, but that was a moment in time,” Snead said. “There’s a result.”
And so as with any other game, McVay was going to take all he could from it. Here, then, are a few lessons he said learned.
Getting a break. McVay spent much of the time in between OTAs and camp this year in Europe—he got engaged over there, too. It’s hard to worry too much about football on the other side of the ocean, especially when you’re planning a life event like that, so McVay tried not to.
Along those lines, if there’s one concern the Rams have about McVay’s future, it’s that he’s so hard charging, his drive might eventually get the best of him. And he’s addressed that. He’s talked about it with one of his mentors, Dick Vermeil (himself a victim of coaching burnout) about staying energized, and he’s tried his best to apply what he’s learned.
“I’m excited about this season,” McVay says. “I think this is as fresh as I’ve felt. It was good to have that break after the offseason, even though it goes a little longer when you’re playing into the Super Bowl, and the offseason was shorter. It was really the first time I was able to decompress and then truly get so excited about getting back with these guys. You’ve got an enthusiasm and an excitement—you’re ready to go.”
Snead added that being in Year 3 with the Rams probably helped McVay—“When OTAs start, it’s a different Sean. There are football players in the building, you can teach and coach them in the classroom, on the grass. There’s really nothing that distracts him. It’s good that he can be intentional about getting downtime versus, OK, ‘let me plan my first training camp.’”
Making the team more adaptable. This is something McVay’s quarterback, Jared Goff, and I discussed back in June—the desire to be able to adjust what you’re doing on the fly better, so you’re ready when a team like New England throws something completely different at you.
“It’s making sure you’ve got contingency plans in place,” McVay said. “I talk to the players about this all the time—let’s train them for capacity, not capability. And what I mean by that is having the ability to solve problems within the framework of the game, not just following instructions. And that’s on me to make sure we’re setting up situations where they can reach their highest capacity and not just be disciplined guys following a certain set of protocols. That’s really a good way of saying what Jared did—be adaptable.”
The Patriots, you’ll remember, used disguise—showing the Rams one look, and getting into another at the snap on defense—to short-circuit the high-flying L.A. offense. So as McVay says, they’re working on building in the capacity to counter such approaches.
Throwing the first punch. This boils down to the respect McVay has for Bill Belichick and his staff, and how they used the two weeks to, in essence, change the locks on how they could be beaten from what they’d been for the four months previous.
“When you’ve played in that game nine of the last 18 years—and what a huge amount of respect I have for them—it’s how that time available enables you to be able to get some different things in, if you feel like they’re within the framework of how to win against the opponent, different than how a normal week lends itself to it,” McVay says. “That’s what separates them. They do a good job on a short notice, being able to adjust and adapt their personalities.”
Then, there’s this from McVay: “It was a good dose of humility, if anything. The thing you realize is this game is very humbling. But I thought it was also an opportunity to be what you expect your players to be. It was a humbling moment. I wish I had done better for our players.”
The 33-year-old has reminded himself, too, that the Rams can’t flip a switch and be back there on the first weekend in February—“It’s not like that.” So he’s going to take his lessons, and hope his players do too, but he won’t have it hanging like a black cloud over his team. And with that approach, it hasn’t been hard for McVay to get buy-in elsewhere in the building.
“The football gods can be good to you sometimes,” said Snead, now tied to McVay with both on deals through 2023. “I’m very fortunate to be able to partner with him, someone as competent as he is, but also someone who is as humble as he is. You can’t ask for a better partner in this business.”
Based on the deal McVay just signed, it’s fair to say a lot of people out there agree.
KLIFF KINGSBURY GOT HIS COACHING START … WITH THE PATRIOTS?
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Kliff Kingsbury isn’t normally looked at as part of the Belichick coaching tree. But he maybe he should be—because, quietly, he actually did serve on the Patriots staff once upon a time, even if very few people knew it then, and few have found out about it since.
The three-time All-Big 12 quarterback was drafted by the Patriots in the sixth round in 2003. He went through camp, landed on injured reserve before his rookie year, wound up getting a Super Bowl ring and was waived the following August.
Seems like your run-of-the-mill, non-descript start for a pro-football journeyman, right? It wasn’t, or at least it wasn’t for Kingsbury. After putting him on IR, Belichick essentially turned Kingsbury into the offense’s quality-control coach, moving then-offensive QC Sean Gustus (who’s now a Vikings scout) over to scouting in the process. Kingsbury smiled when I told him I’d heard about the arrangement.
“I was in there grinding with the coaches,” Kingsbury told me. “And that was basically the role that I served in, helping with breakdowns, printing things out, helping offensively any way they could use me under Charlie Weis and some really good coaches.”
The in-season job of the quality control coaches, on both sides of the ball, is to work a week ahead of the team. So when Belichick’s staff was, for example, preparing for the 2003 Patriots’ Week 2 game in Philly, Kingsbury and then-defensive QC Josh McDaniels were breaking down tape of the Jets, whom New England would face in Week 3.
And Kingsbury left his mark with those coaches.
“He understood the game—you could see it in college, he’d completed a zillion passes [at Texas Tech, where Kingsbury was a three-year starter],” Weis said, also a little surprised to hear that I’d stumbled on to this nugget. “Their whole deal was short and intermediate, and quick game, which we threw a lot of. And the two things I’ve always though anyone had to have to coach—you had to be smart and have great work ethic. I always thought if you were smart and you had work ethic, you had a chance. And then the fact that he played at a high level, he had the trifecta.”
Of course, Kingsbury got a lot out of the bargain too.
“It was my first time really behind the curtain of game-planning, to the extent and level of preparation that the Patriots did it,” Kingsbury said. “To be able to see that as a young player and at a young age was incredible. I didn’t realize what all went into it, and especially at that place. There was no stone unturned. And I got to see that first-hand.”
Based on what Weis saw then—an insatiable desire to get better—he isn’t surprised much by the path Kingsbury wound up taking, a path that started with, yep, a quality control job at the University of Houston in 2008. “You could see the difference,” Weis explains. “When players go into coaching, they’re almost surprised by how hard the coaches work. They’re surprised what they get paid, too, in a negative way. Work never fazed Kliff.”
But Kingsbury himself, even as the son of a coach, wouldn’t have guessed it was the beginning of all this way back then.
“I think at that point, I was like, ‘Hell no, I’m never doing this,’” Kingsbury said, laughing. “But looking back, that was huge as far as what I learned, a crash course from the best organization to ever do it, really. Coach Belichick and Charlie Weis, day-in, day-out, it was like getting a Ph.D. in football.”
And Weis, by the way, is pulling for his old player/coach.
“He’s a good dude,” Weis said. “Now, he’s a ladies man and everything. But back then, he was just a good dude, had that southern drawl, that deep, raspy voice, just a really good kid. I’m rooting for him.”
JIMMY GAROPPOLO’S STUDY SESSIONS WITH MIKE SHANAHAN
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Speaking of Ph.D.s in football, Jimmy Garoppolo may feel like he’s got one now. And believe it or not, this relates to going on injured reserve, too.
In the aftermath of Garoppolo’s ACL tear at Arrowhead last September, he and Niners coach Kyle Shanahan wanted to find ways to maximize the quarterback’s time. It didn’t make much sense to either guy for the newly minted face of the franchise to spend hours on end getting ready for each week’s opponent. So Shanahan called his father, and a plan was hatched.
Through October, November and December of last year, on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, Garoppolo would spend four or five hours huddling with Mike Shanahan, rather than sitting in game-planning sessions or watching his teammates practice. Going in, the 27-year-old had a good handle on the what and how of the Shanahan offense. What his coach’s dad wanted to give him, with a decade of tape at his disposal, was the why.
“As a quarterback, you always want to know the why, because if someone comes up to you and asks a question, you want to be able to answer it,” Garoppolo told me. “So there’s certain things, when I got traded here, they were just telling me, ‘Learn this play, you don’t need to know the whole play, just this part of it.’ And then after that was over, you get more time to break it down and everything, and Mike did a phenomenal job with that.”
The elder Shanahan wound up living at his son’s house in the Bay Area for most of the season as a result (getting time with his grandkids was a nice benefit), and got to put his three decades of pro-football coaching experience to work in a pretty unique way.
“[Kyle] just thought it’d be really good if I had the time,” Mike said. “The coordinators were getting the other guys ready to play. With Jimmy not playing, if he’s sitting in the meetings as the third-team quarterback, that’s totally different from sitting down for four, five hours a day to talk about the plays. That’s what was fun for me, fun for Jimmy too. There was no need for him to sit around and go over game plans. That’s pretty time consuming.
“This was time well-spent. We’d go back through 10 years of film that’s pertinent to that particular play or that coverage he’s facing. And when he’s not in a hurry to learn, it’s a little more fun than in the season, when he’s getting ready to play. He could relax. And I hope in time, because of it, things will start to slow down for him, he’ll be more, comfortable with the terminology, getting used to plays, the audibles, and so forth.”