Upon seeing the news of Panthers LB and team icon Luke Kuechly’s early retirement, my feelings could be summed up in three words: Good for him.
The 28-year-old aKuechly made the same call that Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis and Rob Gronkowski did. Johnson retired at 30, after nine seasons in Detroit; Willis called it quits after eight years at 29; and Gronkowski left the NFL after nine years, also at 29. You can also throw Andrew Luck in the group, who, at age 29, retired before the start of this season after seven years in the NFL.
These players all walked away with something left in the tank. Gronkowski was the only one of the five who wasn’t coming off a Pro Bowl season, but he had made the defining play in the Patriots’ Super Bowl LIII win. Each had something left to give on the field. Each of them ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it anymore.
While it’s tough to not get to see those players on the field anymore, it’s a truly awesome development for NFL players who are concerned with how they will live the rest of their lives, after being so different for the first 30 years.
To me, it means four things:
1. Players have far more information now than ever before on what football is doing to them physically. That doesn’t mean early retirements are for everyone, but it does mean that each players now can make a far more informed decision that players 20 years ago could on playing.
2. Players are getting paid more and doing a better job of managing their money, and are smarter with their finances than they were a generation ago. Truth be told, the latter part of that is still a work in progress for the league, union and teams.
3. Players are preparing for their post-football lives earlier, so walking away isn’t quite as daunting. Some are so competitive and locked in that a healthy fear of life without football lingers (I’d say Tom Brady has this). But knowing something’s waiting after they hang their cleats up helps. For example, Ryan Clark, Josh Norman and Brandon Marshall launched broadcast careers before they got done playing.
4. Because players like Willis and Johnson opened the door a half-decade ago, the guilt with such a decision that may have existed even six or seven years ago isn’t what it was. Football draws people together in a way other sports don’t. As such, there’s a responsibility these guys feel to one another. So it’s huge that decisions like this have been normalized by stars walking away early. Guys don’t have to feel like they’re letting others down anymore.
So good for Kuechly.
Last night, I talked to a few players who have known Kuechly since he came into the NFL as the eighth overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, and there is a theme to what they said.
“The true Carolina days are over,” Redskins corner Josh Norman said via text. Norman came into the league with Kuechly in 2012 and played four years with him. “He was the epitome of that organization and of that position. It feels like I lost a brother in combat. Sad, sad day but I would be lying if I said I didn’t see it coming, I just miss that guy some much on the battlefield and I know he missed his guys as well.
“Not saying that this was a factor in anything, but who you play the game with/for makes a big difference in some decisions we make in life, as well as the personal ones, i.e. health. But he’s always been a warrior since Day 1, and I knew this was a tough, tough thing to do for him. But whatever he does after this, the sky is the limit!”
That reminded me of a story Ron Rivera told me about how Kuechly ended up in Carolina in the first place. Before the 2012 draft, the Panthers were trying to hide their interest in the reigning Butkus Award and Nagurski Award winner. The team had to get creative in gathering information, and it just so happened that Rivera’s travel roommate over nine years with their Bears, Jim Morrissey, had a son who was playing football at Boston College.
Morrissey called Rivera and said, “Ron, you gotta check this guy out—he’s Michael’s roommate.” Rivera knew who Kuechly was, but played dumb, and asked for Michael’s number, then wound up talking to Morrissey’s wife, who provided the clincher. She told Rivera that before her daughter went to visit her son in Massachusetts, they said to their son, “Make sure you introduce her to Luke.”
“When I heard that,” Rivera recalled, “I was like, OK, this has gotta be a good kid.”
It didn’t take long for the Panthers to see it for themselves. In fact, going back through some old notes, Bills coach Sean McDermott, Kuechly’s defensive coordinator from 2012-16, said to me in 2013 that his middle linebacker set the standard for his teammates not only in work ethic (his truck could be found in the Bank of America Stadium parking lot at all hours), but also in how to treat people at just 22 years old.
“This is a young man who earned the respect of his teammates right away, and the type of young man to get up and ask everyone if they need something, he’s a winner,” McDermott said to me back then. Early this morning, I brought one that back up to McDermott, who was pretty quick to reiterate the sentiment.
“Great person,” McDermott said over text. “I almost don’t want to say much because I don’t think he wants a lot said about him. He’s never been that type of person, which is part of what makes him who he is so special. So in honor of that, I feel like not saying much is the way to go. What I will say is the coolest thing about Luke was that he was and is a true servant.
“People use that term in conversation, but rarely do we see someone live their life that way. Luke Kuechly exemplified servant and played that way. A great teammate. My young children had a chance to be around him and watch him and for that I am grateful for the example he was and will continue to be for many!”
That story from McDermott—about the truck and what he said about Kuechly as a teammate—came at a time when the Panthers’ star was exploding. His team was in the midst of a 12-4 campaign, and he was two months from winning Defensive Player of the Year honors, the top-line of a resume that I’d think would merit Hall of Fame consideration when he’s eligible in 2025. You can see it for yourself. …
• 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
• 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year.
• Seven-time Pro Bowler (2013-19).
• Five-time first-team All-Pro.
• Two-time second-team All-Pro.
• Seven-time team captain.
• MLB for five Top 10 defenses in a six-year stretch.
Bottom line: The guy they called Captain America played like a superhero basically right from a rookie year in which he led the NFL in tackles all the way to the end. And yeah, it’s cliché to say a great athlete is a better person or a better teammate than he was a player. But if you talk to enough people around Kuechly, you’ll get the idea that both really are true about him.
And if anyone’s earned the right to make a decision like this for himself and his family, it’s Kuechly.
So I’ll just say it again. Good for Kuechly.
From Paul Owers (@paulowers): Do you think Josh McDaniels regrets walking out on the Colts two years ago?
Paul, I know it may sound crazy, but I don’t think he does. McDaniels has a very defined and detailed vision for how football operations should set up, and this isn’t about power over picking players. If it was, McDaniels wouldn’t have spent months building a relationship with Colts GM Chris Ballard ahead of that. In Indianapolis, Ballard’s a very clear No. 1 in football ops and was going to maintain personnel control regardless.
The disagreement there was how other parts of the building were set up—things that, quite frankly, fans don’t care about. Who picks the strength-and-conditioning staff? Who picks the trainers? How does medical work? How is video set up? There are a million pieces of this that you never hear about that matter a lot to football people. And because Ballard and McDaniels weren’t eye-to-eye on some of that, doubt crept in; Robert Kraft then sensed it and pounced with an offer that helped McDaniels decide to stay.
I personally think the experience has helped McDaniels better define for himself what he needs for his second shot at being a head coach. And he laid that out for the Browns last week. That Cleveland didn’t hire him was, in part, because they didn’t want the sort of sweeping change he was advocating. Which is a better result than what everyone went through in January and February of 2018.
From Dimitry Briskin (@dimab549): As hyped as I am about having Chase Young on the Redskins, what are the chances Washington trades back instead? And what would that trade probably look like?
Dimitry, good as Chase Young is—and he’s absolutely in the Mario Williams/Julius Peppers category as a prospect—I don’t know that anyone is going to send a bag of picks to the ’Skins for a defensive end. My feeling is to get the value you’d want to pass on a prospect like Young, you’d have to be dangling the chance to get a quarterback to another team.
The Redskins’ shot at getting great value for the pick hinges on Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert making their move. For Herbert, it could start next week in Mobile at the Senior Bowl—that’s where Carson Wentz went from curiosity to coveted. For Tagovailoa, much will ride on the medicals at the combine at Indy. It seems unlikely that either will cause a massive move into the top two (this is all assuming Joe Burrow goes first).
But I guess it’s not inconceivable.
From Jeff Hubbard (@Hub_heel): Do Panthers get Joe Brady? Who do they turn to for EVP Role?
Jeff, they got him! And this is going to be interesting. Brady wasn’t the primary play-caller at LSU, but he did import Saints concepts to Baton Rouge, helped make the offense work for Heisman winner Joe Burrow and, after asking around, I can tell you that Brady’s very well-respected by on-the-road scouts who’s job is to knowt he college ranks.
“He just does a good job of mixing it up, RPOs, play action, it’s a good, versatile offense,” one AFC exec said. “He knows how to flood zones and give his quarterback multiple layers to throw to. And he understands the passing game really well and knows how to marry the run game to it. He gives you a lot of looks and gives the quarterback options.”
The story of him landing at LSU is pretty good too. In 2018, LSU asked if Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael or quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi could come talk at a camp. The two were tied up, but because the programs are close, the Saints sent Brady, then a quality-control assistant, over instead. And he was so impressive in giving a speech there that the Tigers hired him a year later.
Now, for their troubles, the Saints get to deal with him in the NFC South.
From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Do you think the Titans stick with Ryan Tannehill for next year or do they target somebody in the free agency or in the draft?
Matt, this is an interesting question because Tennessee will have to make a call on Tannehill before know if they can land a replacement in free agency. The franchise tag window opens on Feb. 25 and closes March 10, six days before the legal tampering window opens. So the Titans are either going to tag him (at price of around $27 million) or deliver him to the market without the sort of information you’d love to have before such a decision.
That’s why it seems likely that they just tag him. But if they don’t, and the Chargers don’t tag Philip Rivers, then I think Rivers would very much consider the Titans—they work geographically for his family as well as any team, and Rivers might make sense for a team in a win-now spot like Mike Vrabel’s crew.
There’s also Vrabel’s relationship with another aging quarterback who’s a free-agent-to-be that can’t be ignored. We’ve got a lot of time to discuss that one in the coming weeks.
From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Why has it taken so long for Mike Shanahan to get get voted in to the HOF?
Matt, that’s a fair question—I think he belongs in there, without question. But I don’t have a vote, so I went to a couple voters I know well and trust. Here are their answers …
Rick Gosselin: “Why isn’t Tom Coughlin in? Why isn’t Tom Flores in? They also won two Super Bowls. Mike Holmgren, Dan Reeves, Dick Vermeil, all HOF worthy. Simple answer—lots of quality candidates, so few chairs at the table. Especially when coaches are competing with players for spots. We need a separate coaching category or to put the coaches in with the contributors.
Jason Cole: “He was coaching until recently while we’ve been trying to sort through Don Coryell, Tom Flores, Tony Dungy and Jimmy Johnson. It’s REALLY hard to get coaches in because they are lumped in with players.”
From Michael Seff (@DraftAmerica): How realistic is the 17-game schedule? Fans like myself hate the idea, all the records and symmetry of the schedule are gone.
Micbael, I’ve gone from thinking that the owners were using it to generate a chip out of thin air to understanding that they’re serious about the idea as part of the CBA talks. And I came to that realization when I found out, back at the league’s fall meeting, that the owners were offering financial inducements to players—beyond what the natural bump in revenue would do for them—to get it done.
I think there are a number of reasons why it’s important. The first is the obvious—greed. They want to make more money, Roger Goodell has that magic total revenue figure of $25 billion he’s been chasing, and this is an easy way to do that. Second, I think the international component is relevant here. Teams hate giving up home games. Having an odd number of games helps the league bake games overseas into schedules.
And the third thing I’d mention, and this is probably a little less relevant, is that a longer regular season would help the league get the Super Bowl to President’s Day Weekend. It’s been speculated for some team that’s where the league wants it.
From BobbyK (@BobbyK2116): Do you think the rumor of Belichick helping Joe Judge get the job is that he plans on moving into a front office job with the Giants?
I hadn’t heard that one, Bobby, but I kind of love it. What I do know is that Belichick’s recommendation blew the Maras away and were part of the equation when the team decided, basically on the spot, to end their coaching search, and pursue a deal with Judge to prevent him from going to Mississippi State. So his words carry weight.
I also wouldn’t be floored if Belichick did eventually end up in someone’s front office. I doubt he’ll ever coach another NFL team – New England’s turnkey at this point, and I think it’d be hard from him to start from scratch elsewhere – but if there was a role like the one Bill Parcells held in Miami a decade ago, I could see that intriguing him.
I do know he’s enjoyed being a kingmaker of sorts behind the scenes on the coach/GM job market, which makes me think he’ll always have a foot in the game in some form or fashion.
From Sam Gregory (@samtheg13): Joe Burrow doesn’t exist... who goes No. 1?
I have to think it’s Young. Like I said earlier, aside from Burrow, there’s not a quarterback you look at and say, that’s a franchise guy, no doubt about it. Herbert and Tagovailoa could well grow into that, and so could Jacob Eason or Jordan Love. But those guys have sufficient question marks, in varying categories, to where a team at the top like the Bengals would probably say, We’re better off taking the surest thing,
I also think, in that scenario, Young would probably be the only consideration a team would make if it wasn’t taking a quarterback. There’s a drop-off from Young to the next guy, whoever that winds up being (Derrick Brown? Jeff Okudah? Isaiah Simmons?) in April.
From Tyler Schmidt (@teachgeek90): Whose seat is hotter heading into the 2020 season: Mike Zimmer or Bill O’Brien?
The fairest way to assess that, Tyler, is to look at the contracts. Bill O’Brien’s runs through 2022. Mike Zimmer’s is up after 2020. So obviously, the former is in better shape than the latter, because to move forward with Zimmer, Minnesota will have do an entirely new contract with him. And there were rumblings, after a rocky 2018, that a bad end to ’19 could have put Zimmer in the crosshairs. It didn’t happen. But those things usually linger.
O’Brien can’t go 4-12, but I think he’s in decent shape heading into 2020. The Texans made the playoffs for the fourth time in five years this fall, and new EVP Jack Easterby is close with O’Brien. Easterby’s a key figure—he’s already grown close to the McNairs. And should the team make a real run at Nick Caserio in May, well, Easterby and Caserio are thick as thieves, too. So having Easterby on your side likely help, and O’Brien has that.
And yes, I know O’Brien said the Texans aren’t planning on hiring a GM. I believe him on that. But I also believe that if Caserio calls in May saying he’s done in Houston, and wants a fresh start, O’Brien wouldn’t say no.
From AJ Allen (@AJAllen70401930): Assuming the front office and ownership doesn’t meddle too much (huge assumption), can Kevin Stefanski finally be the coach that succeeds long-term in Cleveland?
AJ, maybe. I think Stefanski is a very bright coach, with a nice baseline of varied experiences in the business. His time was coming, regardless of whether he landed this particular job. I also believe that the Browns job is different and will require a strong personality that’ll be very clear in what’s expected. It’s hard to tell whether or not Stefanski can be that guy, because it wasn’t asked of him in Minnesota. So we’ll see.
What’s important going forward is that the Browns empower Stefanski as best they can. To do that, they’ll have to work on eliminating the figurative appeals court that’s existed in the organization for years now – and let every player and coach know who the buck stops with. And they’ll have to hire a selfless GM who, no matter what his on-paper power is, is working for Stefanski in building a team.
If all this happens, and in Cleveland, that’s a big if, then I think we’ll get to see what type of coach Stefanski is. And I do think he’s a good one.
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