One benefit of this offseason for Bears coach Matt Nagy has been the room for creativity he and his staff have in setting up the spring, and one particular element has become a source of pride. It’s an old idea with a pretty interesting twist.
Nagy and his assistants have brought in a series of guest speakers over the last three weeks and, as you’d expect, a few have addressed the team en masse. But more have been part of the position group meetings, talking to the players on a more intimate level with the aim being a more interactive experience—so the guys can get a little more than they might just by listening within the larger group.
They can ask questions. They can trade ideas. There can be real conversation.
“It’s way more intimate, it’s real authentic, there’s no bulls---,” Nagy explained.
And so it was that, a few days back, a former quarterback with a background in the offense going back a couple decades was invited into the quarterback room, and entered with the intention of breaking down a single play. He, Mitch Trubisky, Nick Foles and Tyler Bray, and Chicago’s cadre of quarterback coaches, went over footwork. They went through the progression. They talked adjustments and execution.
Before they knew it, they’d spent an hour together. On a single play.
“It’s nice for our quarterbacks to hear different ways that a play is taught,” Nagy said, from his house in the Chicago suburbs on Saturday. “Also, we were all in the room as coaches, including myself, listening to him talk, and it opens your mind up to different thoughts and ideas. Not changing the play, but just how you read it. If you stay the same all the time, people will eventually catch up to you. And having some different ideas to maybe make the play a little better, it was pretty cool listening to him talk.”
The full truth? The full truth is, this one touched a lot of bases for Nagy. The Zoom call emphasized the level of detail he thought his team lost in 2019. It brought to life the resources, both in players and staff, Chicago has poured into getting the quarterback position right, once and for all, in 2020. It also allowed for the sort of open dialogue, and even pushback, that he was looking for in reworking his staff in January.
And in a less intentional way, it underscored the overriding story of these Bears—there’s a ton riding on those who were in that virtual meeting room, in this most different offseason.
Today kicks off Phase II of the offseason program for NFL teams, which, really, is pretty much the same as Phase I has been—we’re still a little ways off from players being allowed into facilities, and that obviously limits how far any team can go anyway. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t stuff going on. There is. And we’ll get to it in this week’s MMQB, along with …
• The NFL’s “owners meeting” on Tuesday.
• The possibility training camps could be moved.
• What a group of young linemen are doing this week to get ahead.
And, of course, we’ll get through all the week’s news. But we’re starting with the Bears, and a critical offseason for Nagy’s crew—where the game’s most important position looms as a big-time swing factor for a team with a win-now roster.
In a few months of change, two important details have remained the same for the Bears.
First, for all the offensive staff changes, Nagy told me that he’ll remain the team’s play-caller when the season starts. Second, when Chicago finally gets out on the grass, and Nagy sends the first offense out for the first snap of practice, Trubisky will be the guy in the huddle.
“And it’s been loud and clear with those guys—again, we’re overcommunicating clarity—Mitchell’s gonna be in the huddle for Day 1, Play 1,” Nagy said. “He’ll be going into his fourth year, three with us. Mitchell’s done a lot of good things for us. Nick completely understands that. When Mitchell comes out of the huddle the first time, and Nick goes into the huddle the first time, that’s gonna be the first time it’s a little different for everybody.”
The addition of Foles is just the tip of the iceberg. In January, Nagy hired Bill Lazor to replace Mark Helfrich as offensive coordinator, promoted quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone to passing-game coordinator, and hired John DeFililppo to replace Ragone as QBs coach, while adding veteran hands Clancy Barone (tight ends) and Juan Castillo (offensive line), and their 40 combined seasons of NFL experience, to the offensive staff.
And well before the trade for Foles, Job No. 1 for the group was going through the annual exercise of scheme evaluation, with Lazor, DeFilippo, Barone and Castillo giving Nagy fresh sets of eyes on what went right and what wrong. The process is always long and can get a little tedious, and over time Nagy found himself frustrated, as his new coaches would see flaws in the 2019 scheme, and point out its issues.
But he wasn’t frustrated with the pushback so much as he was frustrated with himself.
“I’d get pissed off and say, ‘No, put on 2018 and show them how that same play worked,’” he said. “Then those coaches see that same play and say, ‘Well, 2018, that played looked pretty good.’ So that’s been our challenge: Why? Why from 2018 to 2019 did that happen? There’s a lot of things that go into that. And I will always start with myself in all of this, you have to be able to do that.
“For me, right now, forget the X’s and O’s, forget the play call and all that, I look at the word details. I think the greatest teams in all of sports are extremely detailed, and it comes naturally to them, because they do it over and over. It’s a repeated habit.”
The scheme evaluation wrapped just before the Bears coaches got bounced from their facility in mid-March. But as their professional lives were thrown for a loop, the work they did over those two months set up everything that was coming—the word details would tie everything together. And in a ton of different ways, which Nagy explained as we talked.
The staff. Nagy continuously used the phraseology he did to explain how he’ll handle his quarterbacks—overcommunicate clarity. The idea is simple, to make sure you’re heard, and that your point gets across, and it’s permeated through what could’ve been a tricky mix in the offensive meeting room.
In hiring DeFilippo and Lazor, Nagy brought the total of ex-Division I quarterbacks in the quarterback room to four, not counting the actual players in there, with three of four having play-calling experience. That could raise the usual cooks-in-the-kitchen question, which is why the head man was aggressive in getting in front of any potential issue, the challenge being to achieve the level of detail Nagy wanted to reinvigorate the offense with, without having coaches stepping all over one another.
“I need to be an excellent head coach,” Nagy said. “In order to do that, the more manpower you have on that side of the ball—that can help get it going and can keep it together, and keep it detailed and overcommunicate clarity and still have beautiful ideas—the more of that we have, if done the right way, it can just take off. So what we’ve done with those three guys, we’ve explained their roles—who’s responsible for this, who’s responsible for that.”
“They’re all in. They all get it.”
The model’s actually similar to how the 2017 champion Eagles’ staff—headed by former Nagy staffmate Doug Pederson, with DeFilippo there too—was set up. The head coach (Nagy) calls plays, the coordinator (Lazor) runs unit and staff meetings, and coaches across the staff are responsible for different pieces of the offense (third down, red zone, etc.). That way, as Nagy sees it, everyone gets ownership, and one guy’s work meshes with another’s.
The benefits, he hopes, will flow back into the quarterback room.
“The way they had things in Philadelphia, with Frank Reich, Pederson and Flip in 2017, that’s a pretty good deal there,” Nagy said. “And I think the quarterbacks in those rooms feel that. Now, the quarterbacks know too the structure of these things. So when you do that, and when you all speak the same language, which is what we’re doing right now, with us and the quarterbacks, that’s what we think can really help us improve in that room.”
The quarterbacks. The downside of what’s become of this offseason is obvious: It’s not good for Trubisky or Foles that an entire spring of on-field work with a restructured staff is probably gone. The upside? This isn’t entirely new to either guy. Trubisky’s been with Nagy for two-plus years. Foles was with him in both Philly as a rookie (2012), and KC as a backup (’16), and also has background with Lazor (‘13) and DeFilippo (‘17, ’19).
In the wash, Trubisky will lose the chance to show teammates improvement over May and June, and Foles will lose that time to show those guys who he is. And the fallout will be how much more every snap in August—with Trubisky, again, getting the first one—matters.
“Mitch isn’t gonna be able to do it (in the spring), and Nick isn’t gonna be able to do it,” Nagy said. “So it’s gonna be very important, in whatever time we’re given—it’s just a fact, there’s just not going to be as much time for that to naturally happen—for us to see it. It’ll all play itself out. And because there’s zero agendas in this thing, because there’s complete honesty, it’s very healthy. Credit to both of these guys, Mitch and Nick, they’re both really good people.”
That was affirmed the other day, when Foles had a moment one-on-one with Nagy and told him, I’m coming in here to win the job, I’m gonna do everything I can, but I’m also gonna help Mitch. To Nagy, it showed not only that the Bears traded for the right guy, or that it would pay dividends given the weird state of the offseason. It also radiated self-confidence.
“It’s just like, Hey, listen, if I didn’t have confidence in myself then I probably wouldn’t be trying to help him out, because I’d need every advantage I can get,” Nagy said. “That’s not the case with him. Nick’s been to the top. He’s also been to the bottom. He’s had his challenges. And he just believes and treats people the right way. It’s not gonna be toxic. It’s gonna be a very natural, healthy environment.”
The scheme. For obvious reasons, Nagy didn’t want to dive into too many of the specifics here. But he did say that the terminology will largely remain the same, with maybe a few more tweaks than normal, and that there’s carryover in the offense from the one he helped run in Kansas City when he and Foles were together there. That has allowed the quarterbacks to hit the ground running through their Zoom meetings.
That said, as mentioned above, the staff changes were about Nagy seeking out pushback and even a little disruption. Two years ago, I wrote a story about how he’d watch college tape before the draft with two notepads on his desk—one to take notes on players, the other to take notes on the plays. The idea here isn’t far off from that, only it’s people, rather than what’s on a screen, sparking thoughts on how to add to what was a pretty good unit two years ago.
“For the coaches that have been here, now going into our third year, we’ve now had the luxury of understanding our current players, what they do well, and what they don’t do well,” Nagy said. “So as a staff, we’ve seen concepts that we like, that we think are worth keeping. And concepts that, you know what, whether they were good or not in Kansas City, they’re not very good here in Chicago. So we’re gonna bag it, let’s get rid of it.
“That’s where we’re at right now, and we’re real excited about some of the newer ideas and thoughts we have, that these other coaches have brought.”
There is one thing that, given the spirit of this conversation, Nagy wanted to avoid—and that’s creating the idea that 2019 was all bad. It really wasn’t. In fact, there was a point where it could’ve gone that way but didn’t. And that was in the first quarter of a 17–7 loss to the Rams in November.
The Bears were 4–5 coming in, and the offense was struggling. The defense generated turnovers on L.A.’s first two possessions. The offense did nothing with them, and the team went into the half down 10–0. That, in Nagy’s experience, created the kind of crossroads where a defense could turn on an offense. “I’ve been on teams where there is finger-pointing, where the defense comes off and is pissed off,” he said.
The team didn’t fray, and that was even under all the expectations coming off the 12–4 year of 2018, and with a brighter spotlight on it. The Bears lost that night, but played well in the second half, and wound up going 4–2 from there to even out their final record at 8–8.
“The one thing I took from our players’ exit interviews, they learned a lot,” Nagy said. “We became a mature team at the end of 2019, which I think, mentally, we’re going to be a lot tougher now. We feel like we’ve been through a lot together. And when you go through these valleys, you learn from them, you say, Shoot, I’ve been there, done that, bring it on, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter to us. Now, we know we can pull through some bad times.”
And it motivates Nagy himself to do better for the players. So just as he asked his coaches, and his players to be on the details that slipped last year, he’s putting just as much pressure on himself to be all over those—whether it’s staying on the details of what’s happening in the offensive meeting rooms, so he can be a better play-caller, or setting the standard for everyone as the head coach.
“That can be in a meeting, if we say guys can’t have phones in a meeting, it means they don’t have phones in a meeting,” Nagy said. “It doesn’t mean in Week 8 they start bringing them in. It means they never have them in the meeting. If they show up 9:00 or 9:01, they’re walking in as I’m walking in—no, get there early. It’s just a lot of different things. For me, that’s what I’m going to focus on. Now, for me to do that, I have to have really, really great support from the rest of our coaches, and have that trickle down to players.
“That’s what I’m excited about, getting to see that happen.”
All the same, Nagy knows where we’ll all be looking to see if it’s working, and that’s to what winds up happening at the only position he ever played growing up, one he’s coached for over a decade, and one that, without question, will play a big role in the fate of the 2020 Bears. He knows it, even as he points out that if the Bears win, the rest will take care of itself.
And what he didn’t have to say at the end of our conversation was this—clearly, he, and the Bears, have done plenty to get the position right this time around. The details, in that case, were covered, and soon enough we’ll get the results.
THE ANNUAL MEETING GOES VIRTUAL
The NFL’s annual meeting, set for late March in Palm Beach, was originally replaced by a set of calls and what was supposed to be an expanded spring meeting in Marina del Rey, Calif., this week. That meeting was called off a couple weeks ago, for obvious reasons, and reduced down to what’s scheduled to be a two-hour call on Tuesday.
Among the voting matters: A controversial change to the diversity in the workplace rules.
Essentially, this one provides a carrot for teams to hire minority head coaches and GMs (defined in the memo as a “primary football executive” or “PFE”), with rewards for bringing guys into the pipeline and developing them through it, as well. It was crafted by, among others, Steelers owner Art Rooney II (the NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee chair), Fritz Pollard Alliance executive director Rod Graves and NFL EVP of football ops Troy Vincent. Here’s how it works:
• A team hiring a minority PFE would have its slotted third-round pick move up 10 spots in the PFE’s second season. A team hiring a minority head coach would have its third-rounder jump six spots in that coach’s second season. And if a team hires minorities into both spots, its third-rounder in Year 2 for those hires would jump 16 spots. All these rewards are contingent on those guys still being employed in Year 2.
• If a minority coach or PFE is still in place for a third season, a team’s slotted fourth-round pick would move up five spots in that year’s draft (10 if it applies to both positions).
• A team that has a lieutenant hired elsewhere as a head coach or PFE would get a third-round comp pick in the next year’s draft, and a team that has an assistant hired as a coordinator elsewhere would get a fifth-round comp pick in the next year’s draft.
• A team hiring a minority as quarterbacks coach would get a fourth-round comp pick in the next year’s draft, assuming that coach is still employed at that point.
I asked around a bunch about this on Friday and Saturday—and our own Jenny Vrentas will have more on the topic on the site this week—and the feedback I got varied. One response in particular stuck out to me as particularly insightful.
A young executive said to me that he feels like the larger problem continues to be with the owners’ level of comfort in hiring a minority to be his team’s GM or head coach, and that it would only be eradicated by breaking down that wall. He mentioned how, on the GM side, many of the recent minority hires (Chris Grier, Sashi Brown, Ray Farmer) were promotions, which said to him that owners getting that comfort level made a difference.
And so we talked about how networking events could be a game-changer. Maybe that means setting something up at the combine or inviting more people to the annual meeting in March—right now, head coaches and GMs are, for the most part, the only “football people” there. However it’s done, the point was that getting the guys hiring in front of bright young candidates, in a more casual environment than an interview, would help.
Which brings us back to this rule proposal itself. Some I talked to found it mildly insulting. Others saw it as an indictment of where the NFL is on this issue. Others still appreciated the effort but thought this was the wrong way to go about it. My feeling is that where it might help is with the pipeline measures, in how it rewards hiring QB coaches and developing young coaches and scouts. I personally don’t think an owner’s going to be thinking about his third-round pick when he’s hiring a coach or GM. Maybe I’m wrong.
It’ll take a three-quarters vote to pass, by the way. Here are the other measures that owners will be voting on during that two-hour call.
• Changes to the tampering policy that will keep teams from blocking position coaches from interviewing for coordinator jobs. There are requirements that those coordinator jobs will have to meet (co-coordinator roles don’t apply, for example), with the commissioner having discretion, but calling plays is not one of them.
• Changes to the blackout policy, for 2020 only. Basically, this one addresses a revenue-sharing rule that requires teams to share 34% of the visiting team’s share of the gate to the 85% blackout threshold. Normally, if teams failed to fill 85% of the stadium, they’d have to write a check to make up for the difference. If this change is voted through they won’t have to do that this year, with the pandemic clearly spelled out as the reason why.
• Changes to the debt ceiling. Owners will vote to raise it from $350 million to $500 million. That too is related to the pandemic, but, if you take the relative value of teams into account, puts the NFL in line with other professional sports leagues.
• A line of credit for the league office.
• Additional G-4 funding and a debt waiver for the L.A. stadium.
Notably missing are playing-rules proposals, but that’s largely because this call is for the owners. There’s another call set for May 29, and the playing-rules issues could be worked through on that one.
JOE PANOS’S O-LINE SUMMIT
Joe Panos spent seven years as an NFL offensive lineman, and even dabbled in coaching for a while, so you might imagine how juiced the Athletes First agent is for this week—he gets to be out on the field again, working with a bunch of big men on their craft.
The idea to do it came easily for him, an offshoot of experiences he had with a suspended Bryant McKinnie in 2008 and locked out linemen in 2011. Basically, he wanted to create a camp, like he had for McKinnie and like he did again in ’11, for guys to get technical, line-specific work in, since they were missing what they’d get during OTAs and minicamps. The hard part, this year, was that he needed to find a place where it’d be allowed.
After researching states’ rules, Panos picked Arizona, found a high school field in North Scottsdale, a gym that’ll have them, and housing that’ll be suitable for a bunch of outsized 20-somethings and the appetites they bring with them. The crew—Miami’s Michael Deiter, Robert Hunt, and Austin Jackson; New England’s Hjalte Froholdt; Dallas’ Tyler Biadasz; Baltimore’s Ben Bredeson; and Detroit’s Beau Benzschawel—got to town on Sunday. All are A1 clients, all repped by Panos.
Obviously the subject of whether or not to “open up” certain states is controversial in many parts of the country, as is travel, and the idea of groups gathering. But Panos says he did what he could to take precautions, and had his eyes on the benefits that were there for his guys.
All seven are first- or second-year NFL players. All seven are there for the same reason.
“Oh, I love it,” Panos said on Friday. “I absolutely love it because I know, without sounding like a jerk, they're going to get trained right. If they can't be with their coaches, I’d like to think I know what I'm doing here. I love the fact that I promised these kids and their parents that I’d take care of them to the best of my ability, that I'm gonna go above and beyond, and get them ready for the season.”
For Panos, this started before he became an agent. He worked as an assistant to Vikings line coach Pat Morris during the 2008 offseason, and for Brad Childress, who he’d known since his days at Wisconsin. It was on the day he was driving home that summer that Childress called to tell him McKinnie was getting suspended, and asked for his help. Panos agreed, and was in Miami working with McKinnie, Monday-to-Friday, through those four weeks.
Childress was worried about McKinnie’s weight, so Panos designed an intense program that would simulate game conditions—with 65-play scripts.
“So he reported and I got a call from Chilly, and he's like, ‘Joe, he left at 350 pounds, he came back at 346 pounds, thank you so much,’” Panos said. “And Mac loved it, he's like, ‘Can you do this again next offseason, can you train me? And I’m like, ‘Mac, no, I want to get into being an agent. That was my thing. But that's when I knew I could do it.”
And in 2011, he jumped at the chance to work with a group that included a couple first-rounders from that year, Dallas’s Tyron Smith and Philly’s Danny Watkins, near where he lived in Wisconsin. Which gave him a template for what he’s planning to do this week.
Ahead of the arrival of the guys this week, Panos called the offensive line coaches for the Dolphins, Patriots, Cowboys, Ravens and Lions (something he couldn’t do in 2011, because of the lockout rules) to get an idea for areas where each team wanted to see each individual guy improve.
“I asked them, ‘What is important? What do you want done?’ And it's very simple—Do football stuff, Joe,” Panos said. “We're not reinventing the wheel. Do what you did. Do what you coached. Do what you know best. If these guys were defensive backs, I'm screwed. But they're not. They're O-linemen.”
Panos is also putting his culinary skills to work—he’ll be the team chef for the week, too. He enlisted Jackson’s mom, because she’s local, to help him with breakfast and lunch, and he will man the grill for dinner. The grocery store wasn’t the only place that Panos had to hit. He also put in a pretty serious Amazon order for equipment (bags, boards, etc.) to work with.
Each day will follow a plan. They’ll all attend their individual Zoom meetings with their teams and lift after that. (“I'm by no means a strength coach, but I am a meathead,” Panos said. “I've been around a weight room for 34 years of my life, I kind of know what I'm doing.”) Then, they’ll get a break, and eat lunch. And after that, early afternoon, they’ll head out to the field to get their work in under the Arizona sun.
“I get really excited about this,” Panos said. “I get a lot of gratitude watching these guys try to perfect their trade. I really, really, really do. And when I told them I wanted to do this, I said, What do you think? None of them had been talked into doing it. They jumped at it, because they all want to be good.”
The crew will fly home on Saturday morning. Panos is planning on doing a similar camp in June for the group, and probably another one in July just before camp, and those could wind up being in different locales (he mentioned going to Texas as a possibility). But the idea’s going to be the same—gaining an edge others might not during a challenging time.
“You're knocking rust off, you’re sharpening the sword and they’ll have something to do on their own in the next couple weeks, and then we'll start all over again, do it again for 10 days or two weeks in June,” he said. “Then I'll do it again right before July, right before they’re going to camp. And it’s not that you don’t trust them to do their own. But when you have seven or eight guys doing the O-line stuff, it becomes competitive.”
And everyone gets a little bit better for it.
TRAINING CAMPS GOING BACK TO SCHOOL?
Last Monday, we wrote about NFL teams in some of the country’s coronavirus hotspots starting to explore out-of-state sites. Some are settings familiar to pro football people—including IMG Academy in Florida, the Nike campus in Oregon, and the Greenbriar in West Virginia—for business reasons. And others are familiar to them for more organic reasons.
College campuses fall into the latter group. NFL teams roll through these places to scout every year. Camps have been held on them in the past. Alumni are scattered through the coaching, scouting, player and front-office ranks.
So it’s natural that teams in the Northeast, the Great Lakes or the West Coast might be kicking tires on taking their show to places that they know, and that already have the capacity to host a football team. The next question, then, would be whether the idea is feasible—which is why I reached out to a couple athletic directors this week, located in areas where rules have been relaxed, to ask if they might be able to pull it off.
For their part, Florida AD Scott Stricklin and Nevada AD Doug Knuth both told me that, at least as of Friday afternoon, they had not been contacted yet by any NFL teams. And each said that, at this point, bringing a pro football operation to campus would be a pretty complicated endeavor, especially under the assumption that neither place is going to have students back until late August.
“It would,” Stricklin said. “But I think moreso it’d be the distraction when right now all your focus is just trying to get your staff and students back. And even into July, I think that’s gonna be the case. I think it’s going to take a while to do the testing at the level you’d have to do it, and to get people comfortable. It’s probably going to have to happen in stages. You’re bringing up the PR aspect of it. It’s a complex deal. There’s a lot of factors.”
“That’s really hard, because there are so many parts to the puzzle on a university campus,” Knuth said. “You have simple things like parking. You have all the things that get impacted when you have outside events or outside people on a college campus. But I think we’d make it work. We’re pretty flexible, the university’s pretty innovative, the university’s open to engaging into community activities. Yeah, we’d probably be able to figure it out. Would it be easy? Probably not. But we could figure it out.”
And this is where the two diverged.
When I asked Knuth flat out if it could be done, given that he has his own football program to try and get up and running, he answered, “The answer is yes, and the reason I know that is we went down that path with the Raiders a couple years ago.” As part of that process, he said, Nevada went through the logistics of sharing locker room space, fields and the weight room, since camps would run concurrent to one another. And they were ready to go.
So if one of the California teams called?
“I think our community would love it,” Knuth said. “Reno’s a great place, it’s a beautiful place, and the people here love sports. And there’s a lot of 49er fans in Northern Nevada. We talked about the Raiders coming here, the thought of having the 49ers come here would be a big deal for us, because our community loves Bay Area teams and supports Bay Area teams. It’s only a three-hour drive to get there. It’d be pretty cool for our community.”
Along those lines, Stricklin put out a statement last week to offer UF’s help to Florida governor Ron DeSantis, after DeSantis said publicly that he would welcome displaced pro sports teams to the state. “Candidly, that was an effort to let the governor know we want to be helpful, to let us know if somebody calls,” said Strickland. ”I don’t know if anyone’s called him.”
But he then conceded that putting an NFL team in Gainesville for three weeks in July and August wouldn’t be easy.
“It would be hard at our place to do a camp,” Stricklin said. “Under normal circumstances, I think it’d be difficult. Given the focus on all these campuses right now, just trying to ramp back up and get students back in the fall, to me that adds a different layer of complexity. So even if you have the facility thing worked out, it’d be hard. If campus has enough space to host a pro team for a summer, they’re probably using that space for testing, or something else right now to try and manage what we’re going through.”
So different schools are going to have different takes on this. One thing seems certain, though—it’s easy to see why teams are trying to get ahead of this. If they have to move their camps, it won’t be easy.
This was a bad few days for NFL players on the police blotter. And it should not reflect on the larger group—it’s four guys out of over 2,000. But when you look at what happened with Washington WR Cody Latimer, Bills DT Ed Oliver, and the duo of Giants CB Deandre Baker and Seahawks CB Quinton Dunbar, two commonalities emerge. One is that guns, to varying degrees, were involved in every case. The other is that, for three of the four, they were in their hometowns (Baker and Dunbar in Miami, and Oliver in Houston). And with that comes the reminder that those guys would be in their NFL cities if not for the pandemic, and why teams worry about certain players returning to where they grew up. All these guys deserve their day in court, each case is different, and we shouldn’t assume any of them are guilty. But it sure does seem silly that guys who are out of college would need supervision from their employers to keep them out of trouble. And it’s hard to deny that’s the case with a few of them, given how nervous coaches and GMs get on an annual basis in late June and early July. It’s also why you can bet more than a few coaches will be bringing up these cases over Zoom this week.
Baker’s case, in particular, is interesting. Part of that is because he was a first-round pick, as Oliver was, so the stakes are a little higher for his team. But the other is that this is yet another guy who carried red flags into the pre-draft process, fell on draft day as a result, and wound up in a bad spot for non-football reasons. To be fair, there wasn’t any criminal stuff in Baker’s background leading into the 2019 draft. Mostly, it was work ethic concerns. As I’d heard it, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff would be all over him in practice for effort stuff. And he rubbed a lot of NFL teams the wrong way by showing up late to meetings in the pre-draft process. He was seen as very “South Florida”—a little slow-to-trust, and sometimes standoffish. Does that mean anyone could see this coming? No way. And that shouldn’t land on the Giants’ plate. But a lot of times, a team’s feel for a guy can mark how he’s evaluated, and a lot of teams didn’t have a great feeling on Baker.
Give Aaron Rodgers credit for his honesty. I think players can inadvertently put themselves in a bad position by pumping sunshine in situations like this one, and that is not what the Packers quarterback did, as he approaches his 16th NFL season with a first-round pick, in Jordan Love, dropped into his position room. "I think it was more the surprise of the pick, based on my own feelings of wanting to play into my 40s, and really the realization that it does change the controllables a little bit," Rodgers told the Wisconsin media. “Because as much as I feel confident in my abilities and what I can accomplish and what we can accomplish, there are some new factors that are out of my control. And so my sincere desire to start and finish with the same organization, just as it has with many other players over the years, may not be a reality at this point.” Rodgers is a little older than Brett Favre was when Rodgers was drafted as the proverbial Love of 2005, so he has pretty good perspective on this one. He also, surely, can remember how the Packers eventually were forced to make a decision between he and Favre, and how the younger, cheaper option won out. And so he knows, better than any of us, that if it’s close between he and Love in, say, 2023, he’ll probably be looking for employment elsewhere. Which is crazy to think of, of course, given all that he’s accomplished. But if he wants to play into his 40s—and he actually said he did to me two years ago, so this isn’t new—the reality of it may ride more on how Love comes along, than anything he can do.
Only two first-round picks have signed thus far. And the contracts are mostly formulaic, with little to fight over between the team and player. But we’re seeing one battleground where the owners, again, have claimed victory. Both the first-round picks signed, Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa and Carolina’s Derrick Brown, had offset clauses in their contracts. And the smart money says the rest of the first round, with the possible exception of Jags’ picks C.J. Henderson and K’Lavon Chaisson (Jacksonville hasn’t been forceful on offsets), will follow suit, years after this was where the nastiest fighting ensued between teams and players. In 2013, the top seven picks, and nine of the top 14, avoided offset language. Of late, even first overall picks like Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray have had it in their deals. The reality is, the impact of offsets is minimal. It only comes into play if a guy is a massive bust. Teams protect their position on it to set precedent with other players. Agents have wanted it in the past for recruiting purposes. But it is one of the few things that are actually negotiable, and it seems like the owners have banded together (I won’t mention the “C-word” here) to win this one, too.
I know Browns fans have never heard of this week’s new hire, but I think it’s worth paying attention to Kwesi Adofo-Mensah being added. He had the full respect of the football people in San Francisco, and was a valuable resource to John Lynch as director of football research and development, and as part of one of the NFL’s most innovative and forward-thinking operations. He’s still in his 30s, and his experience in a place that meshed analytics and old-school football scouting as well as any should be valuable as Browns GM Andrew Berry tries to build a personnel department that incorporates both. And I know it’s not the most popular thing to say, but I also really like Cleveland bringing Ryan Grigson on full-time to help lead the scouting side. Those who know Grigson best feel pretty strongly about him, and I know how he values the chance that Berry—a close friend of his—is giving him. And like Adofo-Mensah, Grigson came up as an NFL personnel man in an organization, in Philly, that was able to balance both new and old school thought effectively. Now, I don’t know if the Browns’ decision to go further in on Paul DePodesta’s vision will prove to be the right one. But I can say, looking at their hires of the last five months, they’ve done a nice job aligning a place where infighting’s been the norm for over a decade.
I wouldn’t give up on Dwayne Haskins as quickly as some seem to be. The Washington quarterback had some growing up to do upon arrival in the NFL, which is pretty understandable—he went from being relatively anonymous outside of the Midwest to a first-round pick in the space of seven months, and that’d be fast for anyone. Now that he’s had the time to do it? The signs so far this offseason have been good. His weight’s down to 220, and that’s a reflection of the work he’s put in. Also, I’m told he’s organized small throwing sessions with 2019 draft classmates Terry McLaurin and Kelvin Harmon to keep sharp. And while the Zoom meetings teams are doing do limit just how much progress a young guy can make, Haskins has impressed his coaches in keeping up with a 16-year vet, in Alex Smith, and a guy who knew the offense coming in, in Kyle Allen, in the quarterback room. Remember, this is a player who had one season as a starter in college, and made that one season the most prolific one an Ohio State quarterback has ever had. Like I said, I’d give the kid a chance. Working with Ron Rivera, Scott Turner and Co., I think he’s got a good one.
I love hearing stories like Marshal Yanda’s. The Ravens’ eight-time Pro Bowl guard retired in May and, I swear this is the truth, if you go to his Wikipedia page, his dimensions have been updated to 6' 4" and 245 pounds. That might be the result of a detailed story that ESPN’s Jamison Hensley did on how Yanda cut the weight, which was actually, just looking at it, pretty logical and relatable: He went down to a normal diet, climbed on his wife’s Peloton, and he started getting results. “There are two words: It’s the ‘want to,’” Yanda told Hensley. "If you want to do it, you’ll do it. It’s how bad you want to. People want to talk about it, but at the end of the day, do you really want to? That’s important.” I thought two other details on Yanda were interesting. One was the inspiration he got from ex-Raven center Matt Birk, who now works in the league office, and went through a similar metamorphosis. The other was how he leaned on his strength coach from Iowa, Chris Doyle. Anyway, be sure to check out Hensley’s story. With so many ex-players going through post-career struggles, this is the sort of story that the league should be working to bring to light.
The James Harrison story last week may be much ado about nothing, but there’s something there that the NFL doesn’t want to dive into. And that’s the reality of stuff that’s in the game’s past. The truth is, Bountygate was, in a lot of ways, a way for the NFL to single out one group and send a message to everyone that certain behavior wouldn’t be allowed anymore—and it’s not a mistake that it happened just as the league was getting embroiled in the concussion litigation, and needed a Boogeyman to show how serious it was about health and safety. There’s a reason why the Saints guys still harbor deep resentment over how that was handled, and it’s rooted in how whatever behavior was going on in New Orleans then was hardly foreign in pro football. Which is clearly evidenced in how cavalierly Harrison would toss around the idea of being reimbursed after getting a massive fine for a hit. The landscape of pro football is different now. But the skeletons of the past are still in that closet.
I think everyone should read what Jim Kelly said to CBS Radio’s Zack Gelb. He was asked if this is the year for his Bills to pass the Patriots in the AFC East. His answer: “If they don’t, then something’s wrong. I mean, Tom Brady is not there to block you anymore. So that, to me, is huge. I think Tom of course is getting older, getting old, but he still can play. I tried to talk him into retirement like two, three years ago, but he just wouldn’t listen to me. I don’t know why. But now that Brady’s gone, I definitely do think the Bills are the team to beat, even though you look at the Jets, they’re getting better. Miami with Tua [Tagovailoa] coming in, I think they’re going to be better. And of course, [Bill] Belichick will have his team ready to play. So we’ll see what happens at the quarterback position in New England.” Why does this matter? I think it foreshadows what’s ahead for the other three teams in the AFC East—with Brady gone, there’s pressure on everyone to become more competitive in a division that hasn’t been very competitive for the better part of two decades. If Bill Belichick runs away with it again in 2020? Not only does it burnish his legacy, it probably makes people look at the programs in those other three places a little differently. Should be fun to see it all unfold.
Speaking of Brady, the more I’ve watched of The Last Dance, the more valid I think the parallel to Michael Jordan is. Why? Well, for one, because Brady, like maybe only Jordan and Tiger Woods (in my lifetime), was the rare athlete who, when he was on the biggest stage with everything on the line, it seemed obvious what would happen next. And maybe as good an example of that is this—in his three Super Bowl losses, Brady led go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter. The other parallel, for me, would be the legendary competitiveness. And in the spirit of all these Jordan stories coming to light, I’ve got a good one on Brady. Apparently, No. 12 saw himself to be a pretty good ping-pong player. But Danny Amendola was fantastic. So after Amendola signed with the Patriots in 2013, the two talked trash with each other over it, and then wound up playing. Amendola wound up winning, and winning pretty handily. As the story goes, Amendola hammered home the last point, and barely could turn around before he heard this whistling go by his ear. Brady’s paddle had come in hot and just missed him. Amendola, I’d heard, looked up expecting to see Brady laughing. Instead, he was getting the death stare. And Amendola—who’d become a trusted target of Brady’s, and Super Bowl hero in his own right—learned a good lesson about Brady that day.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1) My two biggest takeaways from watching a very small piece of the Bundesliga games on Saturday were: A) that we’ll become desensitized to the empty-stadium effect by the time football season rolls around; and B) the echoes of players and coaches will 100% force NFL teams to adjust the way they communicate on the field. It’s not crazy to think that, maybe, we see some of the signaling quirks from college (with the poster boards) become more prevalent in the pros. Or maybe the NFL just pipes in crowd noise.
2) I take less from what little I saw of NASCAR. I’m not sure any of it, outside of maybe the pit crews’ ability to stay healthy, really applies to football.
3) Baseball players and owners need to keep quiet on their squabbles. While it’s true that millionaire players shouldn’t be criticized about fighting while billionaire owners walk scot-free, a struggling American public doesn’t want to hear about it. And baseball doesn’t need any assistance walking itself out on a plank, given the precarious place it holds right now in the landscape of American sports.
4) Credit to LeBron James for organizing the Graduate Together event the other night. I think we can all agree that missing graduation or prom or a lacrosse or baseball season as a senior would be an awfully big deal at that age. And so I thought it was pretty cool what James did to try to help give that class of graduates something to remember that wasn’t about how many people got sick.
5) It’ll be fun to see what Tua’s little brother Taulia Tagovailoa does at Maryland. The rising sophomore announced he’s transferring there from Bama this week.
6) It’s worth reading up on what’s happening in the English Premier League, where resumption of the season may well ride on how long players need to get themselves back into game (match?) shape. If camp is delayed in any way, this stuff could come into play in the NFL—especially because the new CBA has more stringent restrictions on practice time and contact.