INDIANAPOLIS — The building on West 56th Street in Indianapolis is a workplace, just like the buildings so many of you are heading to for the beginning of a new week. And on Sunday, the day after everything changed with the news of Andrew Luck’s unexpected retirement, the Colts’ home facility was like how you might expect your workplace to be on the day after a seismic, shifting event.
This is a tough one.
Just like Luck’s decision to retire was a human one, the Indianapolis coaches and scouts had a human response, too. They talked off to the side in groups, as the leaders tried their best to set a course forward with the beginning of the regular season less than two weeks away. Some staffers knew Friday. Others found out during the game Saturday with the public. Some who know Luck well, trainers and strength staffers, weren’t surprised.
But many were caught off-guard, which is why the coach and GM tried to foster normalcy as best they could, leaning on a culture that they believe can absorb adversity of even this kind. Accordingly, I’m told neither GM Chris Ballard nor coach Frank Reich addressed Luck’s decision directly as they gathered en masse for a 5 p.m. personnel meeting. There’s a lot to do between now and 4:05 ET in Los Angeles on Sept. 8, and, the thinking goes, if Ballard and Reich aren’t forging forward, no one will be.
“I think it’s more about how you handle yourself every day,” Ballard told me over the phone from the facility late Sunday night. “The season’s long and the season’s tough. You’re gonna have big wins during the season and you’re going to have major losses that sting. But I’ve talked a lot about this over the course of my time here—we don’t want momentum. We want to be the same people every day.
“We’ll show up every day and work and solve problems and make our team better. That’s what you do.”
Monday morning at 9:30 a.m., as Reich addresses his players as a group for the first time since that chaotic Saturday night, there would seem to be a symbolic turning of the page for the entire organization, an organization that won’t have a generational quarterback on its roster for the first time in 22 years.
Only it doesn’t seem like the Colts themselves see it that way. Of course, because the players, like the coaches and scouts, are people, they’ll talk about it amongst themselves. But it appears the guys in charge aren’t re-charting their course much—mainly because most of what they’ve been doing has been working just fine.
In this week’s MMQB, we’re loaded with news and info from the week…
• Jason Witten’s advice to Rob Gronkowski on handling retirement, and how the Cowboys tight end’s fire to play resurfaced when he hung ’em up.
• Bills QB Josh Allen on what he thinks of becoming the forgotten quarterback in the draft class of 2018.
• The NFL’s field-surface follies.
• How one coach sees joint practices as a better tool for getting ready for the season than preseason games—could (should?) they replace the exhibitions?
• A look back at the 2012 draft quarterback class, with all of its quirks.
But we’re starting with the obvious news—Andrew Luck’s retirement. On Sunday, we dove deep into Luck’s psyche and what drove his decision. Now we’re going to look at how the team will move forward without him.
Ballard has every right to be confident in what he’s built based on the progress the organization has made over the last 30 months. His top lieutenant, assistant GM Ed Dodds, reminded him as such with a pick-me-up on Sunday, less than 24 hours after the news that Luck was retiring broke, and less than a week after Luck first broached the topic with him (the team brass and quarterback first met last Monday).
Dodds has seen the benefit of having Luck, of course, over the last two years. He also came from Seattle, a place that found a quarterback in Luck’s draft class in a very different way.
“Just look at history,” Ballard says. “It’s funny, talking to Ed [about Seattle], John Schneider and Pete Carroll didn’t walk in with Russell Wilson in the building. Ed talked about how they filtered through quarterbacks when they were there, and they found Russell. It’s our job to find answers. We have a lot of confidence, as an organization, as a group, that we’ll find ways to win games. And that’s what we have to do. That’s our job.”
No question, Dodds is correct. The Seahawks went through Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst and Tarvaris Jackson as starters for Carroll before striking gold with Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft. And that theme applied to nearly every point Ballard made when talking about life post-Luck. Follow me here...
The Colts like Jacoby Brissett. And like him more than most people do, in the same sort of way the Seahawks quickly took to Wilson once they got him in their building. That’s not to say that Brissett is Wilson, but just that it’s easier to move forward with a player in which you have confidence. Ballard told me he saw Brissett a starting-caliber player when he dealt Philip Dorsett to New England to get him in 2017.
“We saw a big, strong-armed young quarterback, who was a good athlete, who’d started some games and won one when [Tom] Brady was suspended for the four games,” Ballard says. “He won a big Thursday night game against Houston, when they adjusted the offense to him. And he played with poise. We thought late in the  preseason, he’d played pretty well. We liked him coming out of college, we’d done him in Kansas City, liked the leadership traits that he had.
“So we knew there was upside with him. And he still had three years left on his deal. Worst-case scenario, when Andrew got back [from his injury layoff], we were going to have two really good players at the position.”
Brissett wound up starting 15 games for the Colts in fall of 2017, with Luck on the shelf, and that only bolstered Ballard’s initial evaluation.
“We weren’t very good either,” Ballard says. “But that kid played with poise all year. He had some rough games in terms of taking hits. … But he kept us in games.”
The Colts won’t ask Brissett to be Luck. Wilson had fewer than 25 pass attempts per game as a rookie in 2012, and just slightly more during the 2013 title season. Meanwhile, coordinator Darrell Bevell used his mobility to juice a run game spearheaded by Marshawn Lynch. That worked, and the Colts think an offense adjusted to what Brissett does well can too.
“Frank and the offensive staff are really good at playing to the strengths of whoever is playing—not only at running back or wideout or on the offensive line, but also at quarterback,” Ballard says. “And I think you just look at Frank’s history. He’s been able to do that,and adjust and change and make it work for other players and that’s what he’ll do with Jacoby.”
Want proof? In 2017, when Reich was the Eagles offensive coordinator, Philadelphia won the Super Bowl with backup Nick Foles guiding the team through the playoffs at the controls of an offense tweaked to his strengths.
The Colts don’t need Brissett to be Luck. Again, Indy’s got reason to feel good about the team it’s put together. Guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard were the first rookies to make first-team All-Pro as teammates since Gayle Sayers and Dick Butkus did it in the 1960s. There are other starters in their class (Tyquan Lewis, Braden Smith). There’s optimism the 2019 class could be almost as good.
As Ballard sees it—and as was the case with Wilson in Seattle—the youthful makeup of the team’s core should alleviate some of the mountainous pressure that just got thrust on to his new, 26-year-old starting quarterback, while giving him the chance to grow up with the group.
“The roster’s young, I’ll say that,” Ballard says. “I wouldn’t say we’re peaking all of a sudden. ... Look, I think every year you’re working on the roster. Now, are we excited about our team? Yes, we are. We do think we’ve upgraded the talent here the last two years. We’ve got a very good football team. You’re talking about a 10-6 team that went on the road and won a playoff game.
“We’re excited. We’re still excited about the future. That has not changed.”
The team has flexibility. And the Seahawks did back then too, but there is a difference. Whereas Seattle had Wilson at a cut rate for the first three years of his career, then signed him to a blockbuster extension, Brissett already has three years in the rear-view mirror, and one left on his rookie contract. Third-stringer Philip Walker is the only quarterback Indy has under contract for 2020.
“It’s just something we’re going to have to deal with,” Ballard says. “I think you can look throughout the league over the last few years, with teams that have the same type of issue. So it’s just something we’ll deal with and work out. I’ve got a great group. We’ll figure it out. This is a problem-solving league. Problems are presented to your team every day. And it’s our job to figure out, scouting, coaching, organizationally, how to solve those problems.”
Along those lines, Ballard wouldn’t characterize this as a 16-game audition for Brissett. But for those on the outside of the organization, it’s hard not to see it that way.
There is, indeed, legitimate reason to remain bullish on what Ballard and Reich are building here.
Conversely, it’d also be understandable if you were a Colts employee, and everything felt a little raw when you showed up to work. Ballard, for his part, said it won’t for him—and that’s even with the long-held notion that Luck’s presence was a big reason why the ex-Chiefs exec, who always had options, chose Indy as the place to take his shot at being a GM.
“I came to Indy because, No. 1, they had a great tradition, over the last 20-something years, of being a really good organization, one of the best in the league,” Ballard says. And then the GM acknowledged the obvious.
“Look, Andrew’s a great player, and he’s been a great Indianapolis Colt,” he says. “I’m not going to duck from that. Andrew means a lot to this organization, a lot to this city. But saying that, I think they all understand what the job at hand is. You deal with adversity and you move forward. You can’t get into this mourning period where it affects you and takes your whole season down.”
Ballard and Reich didn’t on Sunday and won’t on Monday.
And in a couple weeks, we’ll all find out how the rest of the building responded to that.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE COLTS’ STARTING QB
Given the sudden importance of Brissett, I figured it’d make sense to round up a few assessments of who the fourth-year pro is as a quarterback. Here, then, is how four veteran execs, all of whom have studied him closely, assessed his game …
Exec 1: “Good arm. When he played in 2017, he played well under tough circumstances—late trade, no training camp and the state of the OL. Held the ball too long, but that was under a different OC and approach at that point. Frank helped Andrew immensely in this area last year. Good command and accuracy when they keep him clean. Moves effectively.”
Exec 2: “Big arm, can push the ball down the field, accuracy is up and down at the intermediate level, slow to process at times, will hold the ball and take sacks. Strong and mobile to extend plays.”
Exec 3: “He’s a quality 2. Good arm, can keep plays alive with his legs. If the starter goes down, he can play and start and give you a chance. But I’m not sold on him being the 16-game guy. But he doesn’t have to be the guy like Luck was. Just be the ball distributor. They can run the ball because they have a tier 1 OL, and they’ve got weapons at at receiver and tight end. Just be the facilitator.”
Exec 4: “Good size, physically tough, sufficient mobility inside and outside of the pocket, good arm strength/velocity. But has one pitch too often, lacks pace/changeup/touch, which causes ball placement issues. Which restricts his WRs from being able to run after the catch. Plays a little too sped up sometimes too, which causes some risky throws. Ceiling of a low-level starter with high end intangibles, just think the lack of touch/consistent ball placement will cap his ceiling.”
WITTEN’S ADVICE FOR GRONK
OXNARD, Calif. — At this time last year, Jason Witten was newly retired after a Hall of Fame NFL career but knew there was still something left in his tank—a similar position to what Rob Gronkowski is in now. So what kind of advice can Witten offer Gronkowski, who’s about to watch an NFL season start without him for the first time in a decade?
“First off, it’s not apples-to-apples,” Witten says. “He’s coming off a championship, a number of them, and I haven’t had that. I wake up every morning thinking of that. And so I think he’s in a different place because he’s achieved that at the highest level. But what I do know about him is he’s the ultimate competitor, he loves football, so it’s going to be hard. It’s hard to fill that void, knowing you can still do it.
“Look, this is a young man’s game, and father time catches up with all of us. But while you can still do it, and he certainly can, he’s going to have to find things that fill that. … A lot of guys I’ve seen in my career that played at a high level and were done, they moved on, never thought another day about it. I know he’s got a lot of opportunities, but I’m sure he’ll miss it, because he’s the ultimate competitor.”
Witten knows, of course, because that’s what he felt almost right away last September. He was in Oakland with the Monday Night Football crew, sorting through prep for the next night’s game and keeping an eye on the games on the TV, and when his old team flashed on the screen, the feeling Witten described was unmistakable—Man, that’s your squad out there.
The then-36-year-old hoped the feeling would dissipate as the season wore on. It never did—and Witten came out of retirement and signed with the Cowboys. He says now, “I have new perspective on how much I love this game.”
That doesn’t mean Witten thinks he made a mistake by going to the booth. As he sees it, it was a unique opportunity that he almost had to take—it was just different than starting a new career on, say, the No. 3 or 4 team on FOX, and he knew it.
“I always said I’d rather be a fish in the big pond, and not a big fish in the small pond,” Witten said. “I wanted to swim where the lights were bright, and I certainly had an opportunity, enjoyed it. But I just felt like there was a fire that was too strong to come back and play. That’s what I love. Winning and losing matters, competing. And I know can’t do it forever. But certainly, while I had that opportunity, I wanted to trust my gut.
“I’ve got a lot to prove from that standpoint, so I don’t know that I’d say it was a mistake. I just think it was a reminder of how much I love this game of football, and how much I love being with the guys and playing. And I’ll be proud of the decision I made 20 years from now. I learned a lot going through that year and getting a different perspective.”
In part because the desire to play football never left, he kept working out—though not at the same level as when he was playing—to keep the door open. And then when he decided to come out of retirement, he kicked his training into overdrive. “I know this game will humble your ass in a hurry,” he says.
And maybe it still will. Witten is 37 years old now, and he last played in a game that counted on New Year’s Eve 2017. That was the final day of a season in which he had the second lowest catch (63) and yardage (560) totals of his career, second only to those he posted as a 21-year-old rookie. So he knows there’s doubt, and reason for it. But he’s also felt like himself through the spring and summer, which is, at the very least, an encouraging precursor to his return.
“The biggest thing I want to do now is to play to my standard, what I expect myself to do,” Witten says. “There are a lot of questions, and they’re fair questions. I feel like I can answer that bell.”
If I was a betting man, I’d bet that Witten won’t get back into TV the next time he hangs ’em up. I think he’ll coach. And I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if, wherever it happens, he gets fast-tracked like ex-players Mike Vrabel, Jerod Mayo, Kellen Moore and Kevin O’Connell have.
JOSH ALLEN’S OFFSEASON IMPROVEMENTS
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Baker Mayfield’s on the cover of GQ. Sam Darnold’s ignited the hopes of a woebegone franchise, even during an offseason packed with internal tumult. Lamar Jackson has the Ravens casually calling the offense being built for him “revolutionary.”
No one’s saying these things about Josh Allen, which is fine for the Bills quarterback.
“Work in silence,” Allen says with a smile, as we hung in a second-floor corridor at the team hotel earlier this month. “I couldn’t care less what other people think. I care about what my teammates, what my coaches think of me, what people around the building think of me. If we do our job, they’ll be talking regardless.”
In the second week of the preseason, Allen was as efficient as he’s looked as a pro, hitting on 9-of-11 throws for 102 yards against a good Panthers defense. That further validating the progress that the Bills staff has seen the last six months.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott conceded that he gets a little worried about rookies after their first NFL season, knowing they’re on their own to get better in the offseason for the first time. But Allen took the challenge head-on, going as far to rent a house with Darnold and Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen, two close friends with whom he trained for the draft with last year.
The three focused on mechanical work with their QBs coach, Jordan Palmer. Palmer got Allen to narrow his throwing base—it had gotten a little wide as a rookie—and reworked aspects of his throwing motion to keep the right elbow he’d injured healthy. Also, since Allen is playing in a Patriot-family offense under coordinator Brian Daboll, he spent time intently studying Tom Brady.
“[Watching] the greatest quarterback to ever do it, how he changes certain things, on certain coverages what he thinks and where his eyes go, just picking up on little things. … He just knows the game so well, he understands situational football, he’s not going to force the ball into too many windows, he understands his checkdowns, he knows where his outlets are, he’s fine with taking 2-3 yards on a throw. … He trusts his offense and he trusts his receivers and running backs to go make plays for him. And that’s something that this year, we’ll be doing a better job of.”
After studying Brady, Allen focused on accuracy in the short and intermediate areas of the field in his work with Palmer. The Bills drafted versatile tight end Dawson Knox and tailback Devin Singletary, and signed slot receiver Cole Beasley (as well as a downfield threat in John Brown), all guys capable of generating the easy-money sorts of completions on which the New England family of offenses have always feasted.
As another offseason step, Allen brought holdover Bills receivers Robert Foster, Isaiah McKenzie, Ray-Ray McCloud, Victor Bolden, Duke Williams and tight end Jason Croom, among others, out to Southern California to throw and bond as a group in March ahead of and free agency and OTAs. “It was kinda cool because some guys had never been to California, so they were just in awe that we were staying on the West Coast, and they could go and touch the Pacific Ocean, having lived on the East Coast all their lives,” Allen says. “That was an eye-opener to me, we’re such a young team, some guys haven’t experienced a whole lot in the world yet.”
Add this up, and you can see why McDermott was happy with what he had coming back to Buffalo in April when he saw the progress for himself. And on the other side of it, at that point, Allen got a shot, again, to review his 2018 tape and contextualize the steps he’d taken.
“I would say I made a lot of plays based off sheer talent [as a rookie], and not really understanding the game,” Allen said. “Plays that I left on the table, if I knew then what I know now, I would’ve made them last year. I know the position I was in, and with all the help that I’ve already gotten, things would’ve been different.”
In explaining that, Allen again referenced New England—“the Patriots have had such great success, when Wes Welker was there, and with Julian Edelman there now, they just have guys that know where to find windows, know where to sit, smart guys that know how to play their style”—which illustrated the point of where he wants to go perfectly.
The Bills, to be clear, still want to take advantage of what Allen can do downfield, and the presence of Foster and Brown in prominent roles is proof. Thing is, being tough to deal with underneath, in the flat, and with guys coming out of the backfield, will only make it tougher on defenses to handle Buffalo’s big shots.
“I would say it’s being OK with the two- or three-yard passes,” Allen said. “And with the guy like Cole, with the backs and the tight ends that we’ve got, just being more decisive with the football, if my first or second option’s not there, instead of looking to escape and extend the play and find someone downfield, just get my eyes to our back or our tight end or to Cole. Get the ball out quick and let them make plays.
“Maybe it’s 2-3 yards, and if they make one or two guys miss, it could turn into 15, could turn into 20. So I think that’s where we’re gonna see a step in the right direction.”
And if they do indeed take that step, it’ll have been eight months coming.
FIELD INTERFERENCE IN CANADA
I remember the disaster when then Redskins QB Robert Griffin tore his ACL on a dog track of a surface at FedEx Field in January 2013. I remember how seams in the plates of grass at NRG Stadium led to Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney, the first pick in the 2014 draft, tearing his meniscus in his first NFL game, which led to a microfracture surgery that cost Clowney a decent chunk of the explosiveness he had as a collegian.
The latest example of a field getting in the way of a game was during the Packers-Raiders preseason game in Winnipeg on Thursday, where the field had to be condescended to 80 yards because of bumps created by the original location of the goal posts (the CFL has theirs at the front of the end zone, and their field in 110 yards long). The Packers pulled 33 front-line players out of the plans over concerns with its condition.
This, of course, happened less a month after the Bengals left Dayton less-than-pleased with field conditions, and with WR A.J. Green’s ankle injured on that shoddy turf (he’ll likely to miss the start of the season). And it was less than a year after the NFL had to pull Rams-Chiefs out of Mexico City because the field there had been chewed up during a series of concerts. And don’t forget just three years ago when the NFL had to cancel the Hall of Fame game when the stadium’s midfield logo melted into the ground.
If it you think a league that pulls down 11 figures in revenue annually should be able to avoid these sorts of things, you’re not crazy, and you’re not alone. As to the Winnipeg situation, here’s what I can tell you.
• The Raiders decided to play the game in Winnipeg, and it did save them money, based on the cost associated with staging a preseason game back in Oakland. They sold the game to On Ice Entertainment, which operated it.
• Coach Jon Gruden privately raised concerns over the condition of the field. Winnipeg’s pro soccer team, the Valour, played on the IG Stadium turf last Monday, making for a three-day turnaround to get it ready football. But the Raiders told the league that they wanted to play on a full field prior to kickoff, rather than the reconfigured 80-yard field.
• High-ranking Packers officials checked out the turf on Wednesday and, like Gruden, had their reservations about a first-generation turf field that seemed harder and slicker than what the players were used to playing on.
• When the team arrived in Winnipeg, Packers coach Matt LaFleur had a wait-and-see plan to play his starters. After the concerns over the surface were raised, the staff decided to give it until Thursday to make a final call. When the Packers came back the next day, not much had changed, leading to the decision to sit the front-line guys. Had the conditions been better, Aaron Rodgers would have probably made a one-series cameo.
• The NFL and NFLPA cleared the field the day before.
• The Raiders were informed the league was going with an 80-yard field just before intros, maybe 10 minutes ahead of kickoff.
So the league itself isn’t solely to blame here. Going to Winnipeg in the first place was a Raiders’ decision (they actually looking at going to Saskatchewan first), and they don’t walk scot free, particularly when the game’s significant injuries were to the other team (Packers DE Rashan Gary’s injury, a stinger, probably had nothing to do with the surface, but WR Equanimeous St. Brown’s high ankle sprain might be another story). The promoters up there clearly could’ve done a better job too.
But the NFL has to know how this reflects upon its reputation, and takes the wind out of all its declarations that player safety is a top priority. And so the NFL should take more control, and accountability, so these things stop happened.
It’s no coincidence, by the way, that the one situation of the above that actually led to a game cancellation involved the Rams. Their leader, Sean McVay, is known in the league’s coaching ranks a stickler on field conditions—not wanting guys playing on unfamiliar surfaces is one reason he holds his starters out of preseason games. Likewise, in November, Rams players were ready to refuse to play, had the NFL pushed forward with the game.
I’d say now, nine months later, it’s high time the league handle these things with that kind of approach.
AN ALTERNATE OPTION FOR PRESEASON GAMES?
Why are joint training camp practices so important? One respected veteran assistant explained to me that his team often use these sessions to get their first-teamers ready, instead of risking injury in a preseason game. His reasons...
1. He estimated in a single joint practice, he could get a starter 25-50 reps in 11-on-11s. Those aren’t game reps, but they’re pretty close. And since his team had four sessions, two with one team and two with another, that meant each of his front-liners would get between 100 and 200 snaps, which is more than they’d have played in the preseason anyway.
2. The environment is controlled. That doesn’t mean guys can’t get hurt. But it would be less likely in that setting.
3. Provided the two teams on the field weren’t playing during the season, coaches could open the playbook, and evaluate players running the scheme stuff they actually will be running in the fall. It is, of course, harder to do that in a preseason game, because all of that is going of film for the rest of the league to see.
4. Opposing coaches can work to fill each other’s needs during practice. Maybe it’s getting one player matched up with another. Maybe it’s running one offensive look into a certain defensive look. Maybe it’s challenging the quarterbacks and how they’re seeing the opponent. Whatever the coaches need, they can work together to get make sure everyone walks away happy. It’s much harder to do that in a game setting.
All that said, it’s obvious why it’s tough for the league and teams to walk away from preseason games—money. And it’s about more than the gate. Teams’ local TV deals, which include pre- and post-game rights during the regular season, bake in the preseason schedule, and losing parts of that would certainly hurt the value of those broadcast packages.
So I say they should get creative with the joint practices. Mandate them, have each team do at least two sets of them, and turn them into football jamborees – like high schools in some parts of the country do with their preseason scrimmages. Make it a celebration of the return of football, and let the locals turn that into a TV show too (remember, this is a league that has made the schedule release a TV event).
I don’t know how all the logistics would work, to be honest. And it’d probably be tough to make up for all you’d lose. But I think it’d be cool to do it, and would give the fans another lens through which to follow training camp. And you’d lose a preseason game or two, which would show the NFL cares about the fact that the optics of these “games” are pretty awful all the way around.
1. Luck’s retirement highlights what a weird quarterback class we got from the 2012 draft—one that was expected, at the time, to be a bumper crop. Of the four players drafted in the first round, two are out of football (Luck, Brandon Weeden) seven years later, and two others are backups (Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill). The lone second-rounder (Brock Osweiler) is also out of football, but started seven games for a team that would go on to win a Super Bowl during his fourth NFL season. One of two third-rounders (Nick Foles) stepped in as a backup quarterback to not just lead his team to the franchise‘s first Super Bowl victory but also win Super Bowl MVP. The other third-rounder (Russell Wilson) also won a Super Bowl and is now the highest-paid player in the league. And the lone fourth-rounder (Kirk Cousins) also broke new financial ground by landing a fully-guaranteed deal on the free-agent market after six years with the team that drafted him. Then you have the group of undrafteds, one of whom won a starting job this week (Case Keenum), and another of whom became an offensive coordinator in his second year as a coach (Kellen Moore). Pretty nuts.
2. Speaking of Keenum, I’m told that the coaches’ decision to start him over Dwayne Haskins was pretty straight-forward. His body of work through the offseason until now was starter-level, and he was more consistent than his rookie counterpart (which shouldn’t be a surprise). There’s a lot on the line organizationally for Washington this season, so kicking off with a quarterback who has 58 NFL starts under his belt was an easy sell to the locker room. Haskins showed a pretty good sense for being the backup—a position he was in at Ohio State, where he sat for two years—and he soaks in what he can without necessarily being on the field.
3. The Panthers are relieved, feeling they dodged a bullet with Cam Newton’s foot sprain—he was never going to play in their fourth preseason game anyway, and obviously won’t now. Newton has spent a good amount of time this offseason working on becoming a more complete player. Ultimately, the goal is to find more levers within the offense, which should help him from making this injury worse or suffering another one. This injury—his foot getting caught in the turf in the Panthers’ Week 3 preseason game—was sort of a freak situation anyway. And maybe a reminder of how tenuous an NFL player’s career is to reinforce what he went through last year with his shoulder.
4. The Patriots think they have something in rookie QB Jarrett Stidham, and if you’ve been following, you shouldn’t be surprised. This is a classic New England pick—a talented, smart player who’s undervalued because of his college circumstances—and isn’t unlike the team’s swing at Danny Etling last year. In June 2018, QBs coach Jordan Palmer told me, “Jarrett Stidham is a kid that I’ve worked with for a long time, really, really high on him. He can make every throw, and looks the part, been through adversity early in his life, handled it well and he’s playing big-time ball.”
Others reiterated how resilient Stidham was, and how he’d been exposed to big business (his now-wife is the daughter of the Houston Rockets CEO), and how he threw the prettiest ball in the draft. He just had a down year in 2018 in an offense ill-fit for his talents. But that didn’t change some scouts from maintaining the belief that on raw ability, Stidham could’ve been a top-half-of-the-first-round pick. And because some of that’s showing up now, the Patriots could have a really interesting call to make on Brian Hoyer, who’s been a great resource to Tom Brady and even the New England defense over the last couple years.
5. The Seahawks are really high on rookie linebacker Cody Barton. How high? Well, you may remember that in 2012, Seattle knew it really had something in Russell Wilson at a quarterback. Maybe they didn’t know how good Wilson would be, but it was obvious to everyone that there was a lot to work with in that year’s third-round pick. And over the last couple weeks, I’ve had people in Seattle comparing how Wilson flashed early to what Barton did back in May at his rookie minicamp—and how Barton’s maintaining it like Wilson did. Snaps are going to be tough to come by at linebacker in Seattle. But I’d say Barton’s got a pretty decent shot at earning some.
6. I’d similarly push some chips into the middle of the table on Eagles rookie tailback Miles Sanders, who’s shown the three-down ability that he did in his brief time as the lead horse at Penn State. Sanders’s story is interesting because he signed with Penn State before Saquon Barkley’s abilities became obvious, and as a result, he was relegated to spot duty his first two years. Not great for him then, but the benefit now is that he enters the NFL with fewer miles on his legs than most high-end prospects at his position. The smart money, for now, says that Jordan Howard opens the season as Philadelphia’s bellcow, but winds up ceding carries to Sanders as the season wears on.
7. Everyone knew about D.J. Chark’s athletic ability going into the 2018 draft. Questions revolved around how it’d translate to the NFL, given his relatively modest production at LSU, and true to that, last year’s de facto redshirt year (14 catches, 174 yards) showed Chark needed time to develop. Now the Jaguars are confident that he has—he’s been way more consistent this summer, and his length should help make up for what looks like a hole at tight end. (The Jaguars really liked T.J. Hockenson in April’s draft, and likely would have taken him with the seventh pick had Kentucky pass-rusher Josh Allen not fallen into their laps.)
8. I think the Cardinals have a legit beef over Kyler Murray clapping during his presnap. First of all, the practice is common in the college game, and has been for quite some time, so it’s not like Kliff Kingsbury is reinventing presnap activity here. Second, over the weekend, I took a look at video that showed several different quarterbacks both last year and this preseason using rhythmic clapping to simulate a snap count and/or more frantic clapping to get the ball as the play clock ran down—quarterbacks like Sam Darnold, Ryan Tannehill, Aaron Rodgers, Josh Allen, Eli Manning and Paxton Lynch. Third, I’m told the officials visited the Cardinals in both the spring, and more recently during camp, and basically cleared the practice, with officiating czar Al Riveron emphasizing they just couldn’t have it be too abrupt. Yet, of the seven false starts called against quarterbacks across the NFL this preseason, five have been on the Cardinals (two against Kyler Murray and three against Brett Hundley). Crazy. My feeling is that if Kingsbury knew this would happened, he’d probably have spent the last half-year teaching it differently, especially with a rookie quarterback set to start. But here we are, with less than two weeks left until the season kicks off, and there’s still a ton of confusion.
9. Miami is building the team toward 2021 and beyond, I think the Dolphins will listen to trade calls on almost anyone on the roster, outside of maybe left tackle Laremy Tunsil, corner Xavien Howard and the quarterbacks (and if something crazy came along on any of those guys... I guess you shouldn’t rule anything out). The team has a clean cap and an impressive warchest of draft picks with which to negotiate—six of their seven slotted picks next year (their fifth-round pick goes to Arizona as the last piece of the Josh Rosen deal), plus the Saints’ second-round pick, the Titans’ fourth, the Cowboys’ sixth and the Chiefs’ seventh. Adding to that only gives the Dolphins more capital to either move as needed for a quarterback next and/or build up the guts of the roster.
It’s easy to see why the team would move players whose timelines don’t necessarily match up with the team’s plan to build (safety Reshad Jones and linebacker Kiko Alonso are two names that come to mind) for future assets, even if they aren’t actively shopping most of them. I do know there was talk of Tunsil being available, but my understanding is whatever the talks were, it was more of a “maybe for two first-rounders” type of thing.
10. While we’re there, Rosen was one of the first guys I thought about when Luck retired, mostly because some teams think that Rosen might eventually do what Luck just did. Rosen, like Luck, has interests outside of football, comes from an affluent background and sure seems to have the intellectual horsepower to succeed in other fields. And because Rosen had a concussion issue at UCLA, and his dad’s a doctor, some thought the next ding he took might cause him to contemplate walking away. He obviously hasn’t yet, but being a backup would be an interesting test of that. I still believe in the talent there, so much so that, if I was the Colts, I’d just make a call to the Dolphins to see what it’d take.
… OF THE WEEK
“I’m optimistic that we can get Zeke’s deal done. I don’t know that. I don’t know that. But sure, I don’t mean to be trite, but the whole premise is based on getting everybody under contract playing, so that’s what we’re trying to do here. Zeke’s under contract.”
— Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on Ezekiel Elliott. I said this the other day on the Rich Eisen Show—I believe that the team’s best offer, right now, is close to what Todd Gurley got from an average per year basis. And I think when push comes to shove, the Cowboys would be willing to nudge past what Gurley makes. They won’t blow up the market, but the team will pay market value. Ultimately, I think based partially on what’s become of Gurley in the year since he signed, it’ll be tough for Elliott to say no to that. But we’ll see.
“Sad but happy for him.”
— 49ers corner Richard Sherman, via text, on the first thing that went through his head after getting the Luck news on Saturday night. I think, in five words, that sums up the sentiment of most players on the newly retired Colt—and, of course, Sherman’s feelings carry more weight since he and Luck were college teammates for three years.
How dare Luck not sacrifice his body for MY entertainment. Who cares if your shoulder is too messed up to pick up your child. Who cares if your knees are too messed up to play with your kids. Who cares about the quality of YOUR life, what about the quality of MY Sunday’s?— Doug Baldwin Jr (@DougBaldwinJr) August 25, 2019
Luck’s old Stanford teammate was not pleased with the Indianapolis crowd’s reaction to the news of Luck’s retirement on Saturday night.
This is a very rough game. Most people who have not played at this level will never understand what we put our bodies through season after season. We don’t need the sympathy because this is what we signed up for but to “boo” a man that battled for that city is disgraceful.— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) August 25, 2019
A second Cardinal teammate coming to Luck’s defense.
I watched the end of Calvin Johnson’s career. I watched him walk into a locker room at 5 every morning, physically, emotionally & mentally anguished over the pain of his injuries. I watched his smile fade to “I don’t want this anymore” I think of CJ when I watched Luck last night— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) August 25, 2019
Good perspective from the former Lions backup (now at ESPN) on what Luck must’ve been going through.
Just in case you needed photo evidence of how embarrassing this was.
I can’t figure out people that HATE cats? How do people generate THAT much animosity towards cats? It’s just a cat! How is it different than say a squirrel or a duck or a canary or.....?— Mike Leach (@Coach_Leach) August 21, 2019
I love Mike Leach. And I can also explain this one to the Washington State coach/Air Raid Godfather – I think the animosity out there isn’t to cats, but to cat people. Cats aren’t that weird. Cat people are. (I had two cats growing up, but also dogs, so I wouldn’t classify myself as a cat person. A cat person, to me, is someone who has multiple cats and no other animals. Bonus points if they have t-shirts featuring their cats.)
Kenny Stills’s explanation of what Brian Flores was trying to do by playing Jay-Z actually makes some sense – it’s definitely something you’d see in New England. But generating a distraction organically certainly isn’t, which is the part of this I bet, if you got Flores in an honest moment, the coach would regret.
No lie, everytime Daniel Jones flashes, I think of that post-draft “Blue’s Clueless” backpage. Sometimes, social media perception doesn’t match what’s happening within the NFL. I’ll reiterate—the league wasn’t down on Jones pre-draft; it was bi-polar on him. Some thought he was the best quarterback of the 2019 bunch. Others thought he was a fourth-rounder. Thing is, much of the public thought it was more of the former, less of the latter, and Jones became a safe guy to criticize, just like Giants GM Dave Gettleman was an easy target post-Odell Beckham trade. If he hits, no one will care that he went with the sixth and not the 17th pick. And if he doesn’t, Gettleman, coach Pat Shurmur and a lot of other people in the Giants’ organization won’t be around to hear the complaints.
Baker did apologize to Jones personally, by the way.
This seem like it shouldn’t be funny... but it kind of is.
Texans DE JJ Watt for his continued efforts with Hurricane Harvey relief. It caught my eye this week that he told the media that his annual Harvey update was coming soon – “I’m excited to update people on that and see what we’ve been working on.” Watt, as you’ll remember, raised $41.6 million in the wake of the natural disaster. And just that would be plenty. So it’s cool to see he’s continuing to pour sweat equity into it.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1. The end of the Miami-Florida game was a beautiful disaster—Miami was held in the game late by a handsy, flag-drawing Gator defense, and both offenses had trouble keeping the ball off the ground. If those two groups are still playing that way in a month, it’d be pretty alarming. But for now, it was kinda fun to watch, maybe because I didn’t have any rooting interest.
2. College player I’m most interested to watch this year: Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts. Lincoln Riley has gone to the College Football Playoffs in each of his two years in charge in Norman with a transfer quarterback who’d win the Heisman and go first overall in the NFL draft. But this is a different challenge. Some NFL teams were evaluating Hurts as a running back last year. His inconsistency throwing it, in fact, is what opened the door for Tua Tagovailoa to pass him on the depth chart. So can Riley turn his greatest magic trick yet over the next three months? I can’t wait to find out.
3. Team USA lost to Australia in basketball?
4. Good to see Rory McIlroy finish the way he did Sunday.
5. Good luck to my old editor John Marvel’s son James, a pitcher with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians who’s waiting to see if the Pirates make him a September call up.
6. Thanks to Alissa Banks, the Banks family, and guys from our business like John Romano, Peter King and Sam Farmer that put together a really nice memorial service for Don Banks on Saturday at Fenway Park. It really just confirmed what we all already knew—Don was the rare guy in our line of work who was universally liked.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Cutdown day—when teams have to slice their rosters down to the 53 allowable during the regular season—is just five days away. That means that nearly 1,200 guys will be out of a job, and chasing employment on another team’s roster, or one of the 320 practice squad spots available across the NFL. It also means that you’ll hear more names being included trade talks. And we’ve given you some of those here the last few weeks.
Vikings WR Laquon Treadwell has been available for a while, and Browns TE Seth DeValve, Raiders DL Eddie Vanderdoes and Colts C Evan Boehm are three more who’ve been raised in trade talks this month. Former second-round pick Josh Jones was too, before the Packers released him on Sunday. There’ll be plenty more.
Here’s something to remember—Lots of names will come up, but not all of them are necessarily on the block. We mentioned Tunsil earlier. If another team asks the Dolphins about him (and they should) that doesn’t mean he’s being shopped. Nor does a player’s absence from the rumor mill mean he won’t be moved (see: Sam Bradford, 2016).
Because teams are, almost as a rule, more aggressive with these things now, I wouldn’t bet against there being some fireworks this week. Enjoy them responsibly.
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