Sean Payton’s pretty recognizable on the Gulf Coast, so being stopped by someone isn’t the rarest occasion for a guy who’s been the Saints coach for a decade and a half. But there was a point in April, when all of us knew less about COVID-19 than we do now, where his recent history—having had COVID-19 in March—gave him a sort of encounter he’s not used to having.
He’d stopped at a gas station off the interstate in Mobile, Ala., and was in line at the Subway inside with his car sitting at the pump. A couple football fans were there too and, in a weird, only-in-2020 twist, they were being sure to keep their distance.
“And I could tell the customers in front of me, they saw that I was the head coach. But then I could also tell there was this elephant in the room,” Payton said, laughing at the memory of it. “And I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m clear. I’m clean, I’m probably the safest person in here. But I do appreciate the concern.’”
Payton was fine then, weeks removed from having contracted the virus, and he’s fine now, as he and his staff work through what’s been a very different spring.
That said, the experience he’s been through has, as even those customers in that Subway could tell you, had a material effect on his offseason. From time to time, he’d have run-ins like the one in Mobile, where people were a little uneasy around him. Those have dissipated with time. He’s also done what he can to help those on the front lines.
And along the way, he’s put a certain amount of trust in the roster he, Mickey Loomis and Jeff Ireland have built into one of the NFL’s best over the last five years—one loaded for bear in 2020 and coming off three years of knocking on the league’s championship door—by not hovering over every single veteran player the last two months.
For a lot of reasons, this promises to be a big year for the Saints, and that’s where you can tie all of this together with the message Payton gave his players back in March: Do what you gotta do now, and be ready when you’re back here in July.
It’s a different Memorial Day Weekend for everyone, so here’s hoping everyone out there has had a good, safe few days. And if you have a few minutes for us on this Monday morning, here’s what we’re bringing you in the holiday MMQB …
• A look at the rules changes that owners will vote on come Thursday.
• How a player learned about the real meaning of Memorial Day.
• Gotham Chopra on the 2021 Tom Brady doc: “It’s not Tom Brady’s Last Dance.”
And we’ll hit everything else that happened over the last week (it was busier than normal for the end of May, actually), and more. But we’re starting with the NFL’s most prominent coronavirus patient, and the runway he’s trying to give his team to the 2020 season.
Payton feels pretty fortunate he came out of his bout with COVID-19 as healthy as he has. He started to experience symptoms—mostly the chills and fatigue, with maybe a day of the fever—after spending five days in New York, and three more in Florida. That made it tough for the coach to know exactly where or when he got it, but what he can say is it lasted for about three days, and that was really it.
But the scare was enough to make him want to do anything he could to help. So he told his story publicly, and figured giving blood would be another way to do his part.
And while Payton’s donated blood in the past, on this particular occasion, a month ago, he decided to donate plasma, which is a different, lengthier procedure (it takes about 50 minutes), one he went through with the American Red Cross and New Orleans blood bank. It seemed, at the time, like the least he could do. Little did he know the difference he’d make, by a matter of chance, was significant.
Payton says that, before that he day, “I couldn’t answer off-hand what my blood type was.” He found out it was B-positive, and then found out that, as fate would have it, the half-dozen or so hospitals in and around New Orleans didn’t have any B-positive plasma. Soon thereafter, a doctor texted him and told him they given the plasma to an older COVID-19 patient who was waiting for a local donor with B-positive plasma.
He was unable to learn what the end result was—he mentioned he saw a similar story involving ABC News’s Kaylee Hartung, where Hartung found out who her plasma went to—and told me that he’d “love to find out more about how that ended up working out.” But really, again, the idea was just to pitch in, and he accomplished that.“I’m just hopeful it ended helping out,“ he said. “It sounded like it did.”
Accordingly, he’s given his players a similar chance to bring balance to their lives this spring. The idea that Payton canceled the Saints’ offseason program for veterans in March got a lot of attention, but there’s more detail to what New Orleans is doing than that.
The team, like the other 31, is conducting sessions over the internet with players four days per week—but the sessions are built for rookies, and other younger guys who need to get up to speed in how the Saints do business. They’re all, by rule, voluntary, but the way they’ve been structured makes it pretty clear that the guys who’ve been around are more than free to work on their own.
“I didn’t want them thinking, ‘Oh, next month, honey, the facility may be back open and then we’re gonna be going into minicamp,’” Payton said. “Because, honestly at that time, and even still today, no one really knows if that can happen. We think we’re gonna have a training camp, but no one knows anything about the offseason, relative to OTAs or minicamp. So I wanted them to focus on two things: Handle your family and their well-being, and begin to get yourself in fantastic shape.
“Don’t worry about the X’s and O’s right now, you’ll have plenty of time for those. So our players are lifting at home, and getting credit for it. But we’re not gonna spend all afternoon on Webex meetings with Drew Brees and Michael Thomas and Marshon Lattimore. We’re just not gonna do that. … And even if the skies parted and the league said, Hey, guess what? In the month of July, we’re allowing this. Well, we’re not gonna be interested in doing that. We’ll be ready when training camp starts.”
That, of course, raises some other questions. And I addressed those with Payton, as he talked from his beach house over the holiday weekend.
Did Payton’s experience in 2011 help the decision-making here? As it turns out, it sure did. Payton’s one of eight head coaches in the league who were also head coaches during that year’s lockout, and one of just five who remain in the same job they were in then. (Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh and Pete Carroll are the others in the same spot, while Andy Reid, Mike McCarthy and Ron Rivera were coaching at previous stops.)
And the Saints weren’t knocked off kilter much by the oddities of 2011—after dropping their opener, a shootout against a Packers team that finished 15–1, New Orleans reeled off 14 wins in its next 16 games, finishing the regular season 13–3 and advancing a round in the playoffs. One difference between that year and this year? The coaches couldn’t even talk to their players then and, even after losing all that teaching time, Payton and his staff had no issue playing catch-up. So he’s confident they can do the same this time around.
“We didn’t have any choice in it [in 2011],” Payton said. “And so, look, you had guys like Brees [taking charge], and I’m sure we’ll have guys spending time running routes on air with him and doing all those sorts of things. But I think we’ll have plenty of time, I honestly think the No. 1 concern would just be the muscle soft-tissue injuries early on, as they get into football shape.”
The rest, as he sees it, will be workable.
Will Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston get enough work? This is an interesting question. Winston’s on a one-year deal. Hill’s signed through 2021. Brees has a contract with NBC in place, set to begin whenever he chooses to walk away from playing. So if that winds up being in January or February, the reps that Hill and Winston get in August will be important ones in helping the Saints chart their course at quarterback.
“They are [important reps]. Those are cadence, those are huddle, those are personality things,” Payton said. “And yet, I think when we look at the training camp, and we look at the full length of preseason this year, those two’ll be ready to go. And then after this season, a lot of people have tried to read into, ‘Hey, what direction is it?’ We’re just investing in the position because it’s that important. And Taysom’s a different player than Jameis and we’re anxious to work with both of them.”
And here’s part of the equation that’s been missed, at least in what I’ve seen said about the situation—by having Hill signed and Winston in place, the Saints essentially acknowledge how hard replacing Brees will be and give themselves multiple shots at finding a successor.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Payton said. “You’re looking at the statistics, the analytics of it, well, now you have two candidates coming in.”
What does this mean for the young players? And I figured the answer I’d get from Payton on this would reflect what I was seeing—the chance to cater the program to young guys would work to improve the team’s depth. But he took it in another direction, going back to how the team identified those young guys in the first place.
“I think there’s going to be a premium with first-year players where, with a scout or a coach or anyone evaluating players, to think we think he’s gonna be a starter in Year 1, he better be a smart player,” Payton said. “He’s not gonna have the same exposure as the past six or seven or eight years. He’s gonna have a unique offseason.”
Which is to say what now seems like no mistake is what links the Saints’ draft class. Michigan C Cesar Ruiz, Wisconsin LB Zack Baun and Dayton TE Adam Trautman all enter the league seen as heady players and, as one personnel director put it, “dudes that love football and pour themselves into it.”
How much of the setup is a sign of Payton’s trust in his team? To that question, Payton joked, “Do you think me getting on computer meetings with these guys three or four times a week is gonna help me better trust them? This isn’t a house arrest setup.”
After that, Payton did agree—the kinds of guys he and the rest of the brass have brought aboard the last few years certainly didn’t hinder his decision to leave the offseason in those players’ hands. And the decision has been validated by new veterans like Winston and Malcolm Jenkins (who’s back after six seasons in Philly) popping into meetings on their own, knowing they personally needed to play catch-up.
“We’re gonna make sure guys, when training camp begins, are up to speed,” Payton said. “But the large majority of the team, 75, 80% of the team, have been a part of it. And we’ll have plenty of time in training camp to prepare for the season. We did in 2011, and we weren’t worried then. You never heard anyone worry then like, What are we gonna do? Ownership wasn’t worried about injuries, they weren’t about the players getting the playbooks, it was business, and I get it. Fact is, we’ll have plenty of time.”
Which brings us to this fact—when that time comes, the stakes will be high in New Orleans.
One reason the Saints have a loaded roster is a result of catching fire in the draft in 2016, and the roll hasn’t stopped since—an impressive young core headed by guys like Thomas, Lattimore, Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, Marcus Davenport and Erik McCoy, among others, were all drafted in that four-year block, and have helped lead the team’s renaissance. And that’s where one piece of urgency lies in 2020.
Of the nine players listed there, only Thomas and Onyemata have been extended, and the Saints had to say goodbye to another member of the 2016 class those two were part of, Vonn Bell, in the process. Eventually, New Orleans will extend others. But paying all of them under the cap would be unrealistic, which illustrates the window the Saints are in—with a bumper crop of stars that have both come of age and remain on rookie deals.
“They’re all hitting Year 4 and 5, which in our league is measured as the ‘second contract’ years,” Payton said. “But yes, that’s why I’m excited. That’s why I’m optimistic. That’s why I love what we’ve been able to do. Certainly, it’s measured in winning, and fortunately we’ve been able to do that the last three years quite a bit. And yet, you still want these guys to experience the next step, and that’s the goal each year.”
Which brings us to the second obvious reason for urgency.
Brees is 41. The NBC deal gives him a soft landing after the season if he wants it. Brees has said to me in the past he feels like he can play into his mid-40s, and the question will be whether or not he wants to. For now, it’s a year-to-year thing. And his teammates know it.
Payton, for his part, doesn’t want to make younger guys responsible for generating the right sunset for a legendary quarterback to ride off into. But he’s realistic about it, too.
“I don’t think they need to take that on,” he said. “Quite honestly, there was a stretch last year, Drew gets hurt the second week of the season on the road in Los Angeles, and all of the sudden, it’s five weeks, and it wasn’t gonna be on Teddy [Bridgewater], it was gonna be on everyone else. So yeah, do I think players want to win and understand the significance of a guy like Drew maybe playing in his last season? Absolutely.
“But I don’t think they prepare differently, I don’t think they try harder, I just think they understand as a human being and as a teammate and the things we talk about, caring for each other, yeah, they understand that. I think they’ve begun to see, any player with any experience can see, it’s fleeting.”
And if anyone in the NFL can have an appreciation for the shot that’s in front of him, Payton himself probably can—which I’m sure he’ll share with his guys when the time is right.
For now? For now, he’s pretty confident that he’s doing the right thing.
NFL owners will gather (virtually, of course) on Thursday to vote on a bunch of rules proposals, and there’s no question that the one garnering the most attention—though I don’t think it’s the most impactful—would be the proposal, made by the Eagles, to give teams an option twice a game to opt for a fourth-and-15 play from their own 25, in lieu of onside kicks.
The most important aspect of this, and the reason I think it’ll get voted through, is this: It’s actually a health-and-safety measure, and the owners are hyperaware of how it looks when they vote against those. The league’s long identified the onside kick as one of football’s most dangerous plays, and this is an effort to eliminate it from the game.
I did elicit some opinions from head coaches on this, and the response varied from “I like it” to “worst idea ever.” And one actually raised potential unintentional fallout from the change.
“There are some interesting scenarios that could arise,” he texted. “Take the lead with 5 seconds left, choose the 4th-and-15 option and run out the clock. … Up by a score with 10 seconds left, instead of squibbing, take the 4th-and-15, run as much time off as possible, take a safety then kick with only a couple seconds left.”
But those guys, and the game, will adapt.
Some more particulars of the rules adjustment, as it’s written: The play clock will be set to 25 seconds for the play; if the offense is penalized, it can’t then opt to revert to kickoff afterwards; and no scrimmage kicks (i.e. pooch punts) are allowed. And my favorite part from the proposal, as it was written in the agenda distributed to clubs … Reason: Provides excitement and competition late in the game.
Elsewhere on the docket for Thursday’s two-hour owners call:
• Discussion on the implementation of the booth umpire (we’ll have more on this later in the week) or, as it’s more commonly referred to, the “SkyJudge.” The competition committee is recommending that it be implemented for preseason, with the potential to add aspects for the regular season. It’s important to note that this umpire would report to the head referee as part of the officiating crew. As it’s spelled out, the booth umpire can provide information to the head referee before the play clock hits 25 seconds, or upon request. Head coaches are very much in favor of this, I’ve found, and it makes sense—why wouldn’t you want the officials to have the benefit of all the HD video and different camera angles that we have at home? (Shout out to the Ravens and Chargers for proposing this.)
• Along with the booth umpire, the owners also have a vote on the agenda about adding a Senior Technology Adviser to the Referee (STAR). The STAR will be a person with on-field experience as an official, and will be able to advise the officiating crew on game administration, possession, touching of loose balls near boundaries, down by contact, facemask and unnecessary roughness penalties, number of players on the field, and anything else requested by the head referee.
• A vote on expanding defenseless player rules to include kickoff and punt returners who haven’t had time to clearly become a runner.
• A vote on a rule that would prevent a team from taking penalties to drain the clock. That was the one Bill Belichick pulled on Adam Gase last year, and then Mike Vrabel wound up pulling on Belichick in the playoffs.
• A vote to expand the number of players you can designate to return from IR from two to three—which would be a pretty big change when it comes to roster flexibility for teams.
• A vote allowing teams to bring back players who went on IR the day before the roster cutdown. This ties up a quirk that forced teams to carry players through to the 53-man roster, if they wanted to bring them back that year. You may remember last year that the Browns (Greg Robinson) and Bills (Kurt Coleman) cut pretty significant players to get other guys through, then signed those guys back the next day. Teams won’t have to do that sort of thing going forward, if the owners vote this adjustment through.
And in the takeaways, we’ll hit another one that drew the ire of a lot of folks on Friday.
NEW APPRECIATION ON MEMORIAL DAY
Last year, ahead of Memorial Day, I talked to Green Beret and ex-Texas long snapper Nate Boyer about the reality of the long weekend for veterans—and how it tough it was for those who’ve served to reckon with its meaning. I’ll be honest, before that, I didn’t really know how different this day was from, say, Veterans Day, or about the toll it takes on so many.
So this year, I wanted to find a player who’s learned the same thing I did last year, and Jay Glazer, who runs the MVP (Merging Veterans and Players) program with Boyer, pointed me to veteran Seahawks TE Luke Willson, who’s been hunkered down in Los Angeles through the pandemic—and has found something in MVP meetings on Wednesdays. These meetings bring together military veterans and NFL players for workouts and peer-to-peer support. Willson started attending just before the quarantine, and it has since become a weekly ritual.
“I went in not knowing what to expect, and I get there and it’s like, ‘Holy smokes, there’s a ton of people here,’” Willson said Friday afternoon. “I thought it’d be 15, 20 people, and there were over 100 people that day, and it was very, very raw, real conversation. I did the workout, too, and I was kind of the new guy there, feeling my way around. Since then, there were couple more in person, and once COVID hit, I started doing the Zoom calls.
“It’s pretty amazing what they accomplish.”
It’s helped Willson personally confront what post-football life might look like. But just as important, it’s given him perspective on the lives of the soldiers that he’s shoulder-to-shoulder with during these sessions.
“I’ve taken a lot so far,” Willson said. “I don’t really think there’s a direct comparison there, they risk their lives doing what they do. But on a ‘characteristics’ level, some characteristics you need to succeed in both are there. And the camaraderie, the fellowship that a lot of soldiers have had in their line of duty and how they seem to struggle losing that when they’re done, that’s the biggest thing we have in common.
“Fortunately for me, I’m still playing. But I know guys who’ve retired, and guys do miss the game, the competition, but the biggest thing they miss is the locker room, and the guys. It’s being part of something that’s bigger than yourself, which happens on a team. That ends and there’s a sense of loss. It’s a huge part of what we do in this group.”
And therein lies how Memorial Day can be problematic for some. As soldiers see it, it’s a day to remember all those who served and paid the ultimate price. Bottom line, handling the fact that you made it through an experience that many others didn’t can be difficult.
This year, it’s even harder. I talked to Glazer about that Friday, and he mentioned how, in the past, he and his crew have implored the veterans in the group not to isolate on Memorial Day. But now because of the coronavirus, a lot of those men and women are left with no choice.
That, most certainly, has added a layer to the work MVP always does this time of year. Statistics show that 22 veterans per day commit suicide, and Glazer was proud to tell me Friday that, four-and-a-half years in, they haven’t a had a single MVP member (you become a member after four sessions) take his or her own life. Glazer’s message to them this time of year is always, “It’s O.K. to be happy, and to celebrate your brothers and sisters.” But he admits there’s a difference this time around, knowing many will be alone.
And Willson is right there with him, thinking about the people he shares those 30-minute workouts, and 90-minute therapy sessions, with on Wednesday nights.
“I really had no clue—no clue—and to hear the stories, it evokes a lot of emotion,” Willson said. “I do wish that there were a lot more outlets efficiently run for vets transitioning back into normal life, being back off duty. I can’t imagine going into foreign land, doing a tour, experiencing that kind of violence and then coming back, and saying, ‘Hey, everything’s back to normal.’
“Hearing the stories, the events these people have been through.... I know a lot of people appreciate our vets, but more so we need to support them when they come back the best we can. I know from here on out, every Memorial Day, I’ll have more appreciation for what it means than I ever had before.”
So here’s hoping that all the men and women struggling today, who’ve done so much for all of us, understand that even if they’re by themselves, they aren’t alone.
HOW THE BRADY DOC WILL BE MADE
By now, most of you have probably seen the trailer that Tom Brady tweeted out Thursday for The Man In The Arena, a nine-part docuseries focusing on No. 12, set to be released in 2021 on ESPN. And as I’ve learned, the key line in the 83-second video is the last one from the Buccaneers QB: But those series of steps put together, I go, wow, that’s quite a journey.
We’ll explain that here. But we’re going to start from the top.
The idea for the show, it turns out, was born in an Atlanta hotel room, on the eve of Super Bowl LIII (in which the Patriots beat the Rams). The year before, producer Gotham Chopra was planning to finish up Tom Vs. Time (the 2018 look at Brady’s life) by going behind the scenes with Brady at Super Bowl LII (which the Patriots lost to the Eagles)—but was told at the last minute that Brady didn’t want to shoot in Minneapolis. So, Chopra said, “I just froze my ass off there for a week,” and hardly expected that, a year later, Brady would reverse course altogether, and he’d find himself where he did hours before kickoff.
In fact, when Brady asked Chopra to come to Atlanta, Chopra reminded Brady how he’d reversed course in Minneapolis. Brady responded: No, no, you should come.
“He was just a very different person,” Chopra said. “He had a perspective going into that game, he was reminiscing about the prior season and everything he’d learned across that season, across that Super Bowl, in losing that game. He was like, Trust me, tomorrow, I’ll be ready. He’d managed to really almost encode himself with the failure of the prior year, and it had given him some perspective going into this game. And again, it was very different.
“What he told me about that Eagles loss, it was dealing with it as a father, dealing with it as a husband. He was a very different person than with the Giants losses, he had a different perspective that I think poised him for that game. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s really interesting how a guy who’s still at it is learning like that.’ Because he’s like [Michael] Jordan, he’s incomparable. There’s no one else who has that story, has that perspective.”
So that’s the story Chopra and Brady eventually resolved to tell—explaining how Brady’s experiences have all flowed into who he is as a player now, a Buccaneer turning 43, and even how it could happen from one year to the next.
Each of the nine episodes will focus on one of the Patriots’ Super Bowl seasons. Here’s some more of what I was able to gather from Chopra on what we can expect.
It won’t be The Last Dance. Chopra, for sure, knows why the comparison was immediate and unrelenting last week. The trailer went up just four days after Episodes 9 and 10 of the Jordan doc aired and, like The Last Dance, the Brady series will be broken up into a pretty large number of pieces. But, he says, the premise is very different—and it acknowledges that it’s impossible to have the same perspective that 20 years passing would bring.
“It’s not Tom Brady’s Last Dance,” Chopra said. “It’s not that. That may or may not exist 20 years from now, I don’t know. There’s this sort of immediacy to this.… The premise [of The Last Dance] was telling stories about the seasons, whereas [Brady’s], it does feel a little bit more real time. Tom continues to be an active player. So the idea is, ‘O.K., let’s talk about these nine seasons, this incredible body of work across 20 years, and how it’s still sort of affecting him.’”
“And I’m getting to the really film geeky part of it here, but Jordan’s sitting on a couch, looking back, literally looking at stuff on the iPad, reminiscing about things. Tom’s kind of, just when you’re talking to him, it’s still very fresh, because he’s still processing a lot of things that may have happened across a season.”
It’ll be addressing third-rail topics, to a certain extent. I asked about Brady’s personal life being intertwined into this, and Chopra said it will be only in how those things have affected who he is as a player. And after Chopra said that, I was most interested to ask how Spygate and Deflategate will be handled, since Spygate happened in one of the nine seasons (2007), and Deflategate really touched two of them (2014, 2016).
“Yeah, we will [address that],” Chopra said. “I just know from knowing Tom all these years now, Tom’s constantly, like a lot of elite athletes, figuring out ways to motivate himself and go at it again. Does he really need to at this point of his career? No. But he still loves it, he’s still finding ways to motivate himself and those things definitely have a big impact. I’ve never found with Tom where he says, ‘Dude, I’m not talking about that.’ He’s very candid and willing to speak about stuff.”
The interview process is underway. And I thought it was important to know if Chopra and his crew will pursue guys like Bill Belichick, Roger Goodell or ex-Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, to get the other side of conflicts in Brady’s life. Regarding Belichick, Chopra said, “As you can imagine, he’s on the list” of voices the crew wants to get for the series. The pandemic, though, has thrown a wrench into that part of the process, so they have a ways to go in terms of lining up and executing interviews.
“This is inside the mind of Tom,” Chopra said. “So we’ll ask Tom, I’ll use the most obvious one, 2001, What was it like working with Drew [Bledsoe] that season? Got it, now we go talk to Drew, and get his perspective on that. So yeah, there are other voices, other players, coaches, etc., and people off the field that had a lot of influence across those specific seasons that we’re trying to get. Now, we’ve got the added layer of complexity of getting to those people, like everyone else in the world, we’re dealing with that.”
For what it’s worth, Bledsoe is one they’ve already landed.
They won’t follow the Buccaneers in 2020 day-to-day. Which is the surest sign of all that this isn’t The Last Dance—which used a single season as its anchor. And as for whether the 2020 Bucs will be included at all, Chopra said that’s TBD for obvious reasons.
“I mean, the premise of this thing is Super Bowl, so I guess I hope so for his sake and for ours,” Chopra said. “No, we’re not planning on following him across it. That would be a very different style. This is about looking back. Now, if this season, what promises to be a crazy season in football in general, culminates in a Super Bowl, would that figure its way in? Probably. But nobody’s predicting that or planning for that now.”
I also asked if Brady’s departure from New England would be covered, Chopra said it would in any way it may fit into the larger stories of those nine years, and Chopra actually has some background there in that he followed Brady through 2017 for Tom Vs. Time.
“Getting inside his head, at the time, with Tom thinking, How many years do I have left in New England? Or in football in general? Yeah, we talked about that and how that may have motivated him,” Chopra said. “I don’t get the impression he was planning an exit two years ago. I think one of Tom’s great attributes, he’s very in the moment, he has the ability to focus, and that was a big part of his success in that season.”
NFL Films is involved, too. And that’s really good news, because of the video library they’ve got. Chopra was sure to mention that two of the best from over there—Ken Rodgers and Ross Ketover—are working with him on the project. Films, it should be noted, produced The Brady 6, which also aired on ESPN in 2011 and looked at the six quarterbacks chosen ahead of him in the 2000 draft.
As Chopra and I wrapped, I asked for one nugget from the work to this point that he could share that might excite people about the doc. So I’ll leave you with this one.
“I’d now worked with Tom for, gosh, five years and did a lot of interviews, some of which were just sort of done to bank it, not for a specific project, just to have it,” Chopra said. “And there was something we recently did on that 2004 Super Bowl, where he talked about the culture of that team. All this stuff you hear about Patriot Way, and Do Your Job, stuff that Bill has created over the years, the philosophies, this is the year that really happened.
“He’s like, ‘First year, kind of a miracle. The next Super Bowl, O.K., now we’re getting our feel. And that first Eagles Super Bowl, this is where the Patriot Way was born.’ And hearing him talk about that, and the culture of that team, a bunch of guys, all about the same age, same life experience at the time, the Vrabels, the Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison.… I told him afterwards, ‘Tom, that’s the best thing you’ve ever done with us.’”
The Jamal Adams situation isn’t going away. This one’s plenty complicated but can be summed in a very simple manner: The Jets and their All-Pro safety are not anywhere close to a deal, and so that All-Pro safety isn’t happy. And this really goes back to the trade deadline last year, when, after getting word out that they’d listen to offers on their veterans (Leonard Williams, you’ll remember, was dealt), the Jets got calls on Adams, it became public, and Adams was pretty honest publicly on how he felt about it. By then, a couple people had put the idea on my radar that Adams could be one player who might take a page out of Jalen Ramsey’s playbook in eventually forcing the issue. Whether it’ll get that far remains to be seen. But what I know is that the Jets will have to make Adams the NFL’s highest paid safety (Chicago’s Eddie Jackson, at $14.6 million per year, is the current standard-bearer), and probably by a healthy margin if they want to lock him up. And if they don’t, this could get interesting. One key guy in this whole thing, by the way, could be Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who has a strong relationship with and the trust of Adams. Also, for what it’s worth, I don’t think the Cowboys are going to trade for Adams—which is way more about their cap situation and financial planning than it is on what they think of the player himself—but wouldn’t totally rule it out. Dallas and New York did talk last year, and one price point the Cowboys got was a 1 and a 3 and, over time, that proved to be a moving target. With Dak Prescott to take care of now, it wouldn’t be easy for Dallas to make it work.
While we’re on the Cowboys, I’ll repeat what I’ve heard on Prescott, again. And that’s that I believe the compromise in the quarterback’s negotiation will be on the length of the deal. Dallas has, almost as a rule, tied its core players to long deals. Tyron Smith signed an eight-year extension with two years left on his rookie deal in 2014. Zack Martin signed a six-year extension with a year left on his rookie deal in 2018. And last year, Ezekiel Elliott and Jaylon Smith signed six- and five-year extensions with two years left on their rookie deals, and DeMarcus Lawrence did a five-year extension to extend off the franchise tag. In all five of those cases, the team finagled at least six years of control. Amari Cooper, meanwhile, did a five-year, $100 million deal, but had to get to unrestricted free agency, without a tag, to land that one. Suffice it to say, they’ve wanted to get Prescott, who turns 27 in July, signed well into his 30s. But the QB’s best interest here is to sign something shorter, so he can return to the table sooner, particularly with the looming influx of TV and gambling money into the cap equation. And I personally think it’d be in Dallas’s best interest to give a little on length to get something reasonable done, and avoid having to negotiate off whatever Patrick Mahomes gets this summer. But would that be tough to explain to other guys, who were compelled to sign away the prime of their careers? Or could Dallas just explain that because Prescott a quarterback, he’s different? Stay tuned.
It’s always interesting seeing the Seahawks’ investment in tailbacks. They’ve got a good starter, in Chris Carson. They spent a first-round pick on one, Rashaad Penny, two years ago. And with the health of both those guys in question, Seattle spent a fair amount of capital on veteran Carlos Hyde, after making an offer to Devonta Freeman. So why the continued emphasis on the position as much of the rest of the NFL has minimized its importance? Well, Wilson’s one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks off play-action and in the read-action game, and those can be mechanisms for protecting him, too. So the more the opponent has to respect the other guy who could be handling the ball, the better off Wilson is, and the better off the Seahawks are. Pretty simple idea, actually.
To truly assess Cam Newton’s situation, you’d have to have a complete picture of what he’s asked for and what he’s been offered. And quite honestly, there could be more to this story than I know. But as I’ve mentioned the last couple weeks, I think there are a few things at work here, regardless. One, I have gotten the sense that teams think he’s slipped a little bit, based on his tape. "Not saying he can’t bounce back,” said one GM, “but the decline is evident.” And that brings us to the second piece, which is how much of that relates to his injuries, and how his injuries will linger (which, again, is hard for teams to get a handle on without having their own doctors get hands on his left foot and right shoulder). Three, starting quarterback and backup quarterback are two different jobs, with different job descriptions. That’s actually helped guys like Case Keenum and Chase Daniel get good deals earlier in the offseason. They know what they are, and teams know how they fit in as backups, and that allowed them to move quickly in March, while guys like Jameis Winston, Joe Flacco and Newton waited for better opportunities. In the end, Winston and Flacco took less than Keenum and Daniel got, and it looks like Newton will have to, too. The question is where—I still think a place like Pittsburgh makes sense, for some of the same reasons New Orleans made sense for Winston—and when. And we’ve been waiting a while for answers there. But do I know that Newton didn’t turn down a job because it lacked a clear path to playing time, or because the money wasn’t right, somewhere over the last couple months? I don’t know that, which makes this one difficult to really judge.
Good detail from the Miami Herald this week on the Dolphins offensive coordinator change, but it was no secret after the season what Brian Flores was looking for. In Patriot-izing the team, Flores brought Chad O’Shea with him, and O’Shea brought an offense that’s well-known for its complexity. Flores knew how much younger Miami’s roster was going to get, based on all the draft capital the Dolphins amassed for 2020 and ’21, and worried that the kind of scheme that O’Shea was running—one that worked for Ryan Fitzpatrick (who played for Bill O’Brien in Houston)—would be incompatible with guys coming out of much simpler collegiate schemes. So he got the ax, and Flores brought in Chan Gailey, who’s well-equipped to help younger guys bridge the gap between college and the pros, given his experience at both levels. Really, as much as anything, it’s about player development, and on paper Tua Tagovailoa should benefit from it.
I’ll make a prediction here, and tell you that K.J. Hill will be a productive player for the Chargers. And yes, I know about him because he’s a Buckeye. But I’d tell you that the coaches who’ve worked with him, and there are a lot of NFL guys coaching in Columbus, were perplexed with his fall to the seventh round. And amid a position group with plenty of pro talent in it, he became the school’s all-time leading receiver. Also, he’ll have plenty of opportunity with the Chargers—that slot position is wide open—and he’ll arrive motivated. “I felt [the fall] watching the draft,” Hill said, via Daniel Popper of The Athletic. “Every receiver that got picked before me, watching it, seeing it happen. I’m just taking that as fuel and putting that in the back of my head and remembering it every time I’m on the field and remembering where I got picked and the guys that got picked before me.”
Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio raised a really good point on Saturday, asking if teams should keep a spare quarterback in quarantine. And I can tell you that some teams have already discussed this internally, which makes sense given the importance of the position. If the NFL implements strict rules over quarantining players who test positive, or are around it (definitely possible), that could force the issue for teams. Would you meet separately with your starting quarterback and backup quarterback? Would you devote a practice squad spot to a quarterback who may be working remotely, to a degree? These are fair questions to ask, given the importance of the position and the fact that it’d be much harder to get someone off the street ready to play quarterback than it would be to, say, get a tackle or linebacker ready in a pinch.
In the lede, we mentioned how the Saints emphasized finding smart players, because this is a year when a rookie will need to be a quick study to play. The Bills would be another team that I can say employed this approach, in putting a class that brought Iowa DE A.J. Epenesa, Utah RB Zack Moss, UCF WR Gabriel Davis and Georgia QB Jake Fromm, among others, to Western New York. It’s also interesting that the first two picks—Epenesa and Moss—happen to play positions where the translation to the NFL usually happens fairly fast. There’s a lot to like about where the Bills are going. This would be one more thing.
You should be ready to hear more, over the next few weeks, about informal player-led camps, like the one Tom Brady’s running that we detailed in Thursday’s GamePlan. Normally, it falls on the quarterback to organize these and I’d say most, if not all, teams will have them rolling at some point over the next six weeks or so. There’s a little peer pressure among the quarterbacks to do it, of course, and some are even getting direction on how to put them together. Two guys who fall into that category: Jets QB Sam Darnold and Bills QB Josh Allen. Both worked out this offseason with Jordan Palmer, as they have since their draft year of 2018. And Palmer told both the story of how he used the 2011 offseason to best position himself on the Bengals roster during the lockout, building relationships with teammates and doing the legwork on getting workouts set up at the University of Cincinnati. Ultimately, the team drafted Andy Dalton, and very quickly installed him as a starter. But that offseason was a pretty positive experience overall for Palmer, and gave him a blueprint to pass along to Darnold and Allen.
I didn’t know the mere mention of Madden made people upset. And I used to love football video games, playing them right up until my first kid was born (which also happened to coincide with the NCAA Football series being discontinued). So imagine how surprised I was when I tweeted out the news on Friday, that the league would vote this week to approve a four-plus-one-year extension (a fifth year is added if attainable revenue goals are met), and got a vicious response from people incensed that 2K wouldn’t get its shot at developing a better game. Has Madden slipped that much? I’d actually like to figure it out, so you guys can feel free to tweet at me with details. It’d probably be good to know, too, with my oldest closing in on the age where he’ll care about this stuff.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) The Tom Brady/Charles Barkley moment from The Match II on Sunday was pretty classic—as was Brady’s frustration with own play before he sunk that approach, and his trash talk down the stretch. Good on No. 12 for putting a little bit of himself, the unfiltered version, out there for everyone to see. And it was interesting to see Peyton Manning talk, after he and Tiger Woods beat Brady and Phil Mickelson, about how he never really felt completely comfortable playing golf on the golfers’ turf, which is weird to hear from a guy who played in four Super Bowls.
2) And man, was that fun down the stretch? It showed me how starved I am for any sort of competition, even one that really counted only for the money it raised (which, of course, is no small thing.)
3) The idea of Disney World as the hub for the rest of the NBA season, whatever they do with it, is a lot of fun. Sign me up for that.
4) My final thought on The Last Dance is that what you thought of it was probably based on what your expectations were. And I’m not talking about whether you thought it was good or not—I think it’s tough to argue against it being very well-produced. More so, to me, this was about whether or not you’re grading it as a piece of journalism. O.J.: Made in America, it was not. But if you approach it like you would an old summer blockbuster, and you were there to be entertained? Then, it was a total home run, with an awesome amount of ’90s nostalgia.
5) The NFL should thank college football for getting players back to campus starting, in most major-conference programs, on June 8. Now, in addition to getting to see MLB, the NHL and NBA have successes and make mistakes, they’ll also get to see where the blind spots might be for a football program opening back up. All of which makes it seem more likely that by the time we get to Aug. 1, NFL teams will have a pretty decent amount of information work off of.
6) Is it O.K. to believe that we have to re-open the economy and get people back to work, and also that it’s not a big deal to wear a mask or be careful around everyone else? Or do we have to either act like nothing’s wrong or think that we have to shut down until 2022? And if you think there’s a middle ground here, is there somewhere reliable to get your information? And is it weird that I really don’t care who has the right answer—or what that’ll mean in November—so long as we get to that right answer? Alright, fine, I’ll get off my soapbox now.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Because, deep down, when it comes to what I think is funny, I’m still about 12 years old.
Love these videos that keep reminding us that, yeah, the rest of us aren’t like these guys.
Honestly, with the fourth-and-15/onside kick thing, the first place my mind went was to how it could affect video games—I haven’t played since I’ve had kids, but I’d imagine you could seriously piss your friends off by dialing up money plays in those situations. And maybe … Ol’ Pat is the embodiment of the money play in this case?
Mayor of St. Pete off the top rope! (Brady did recover, if you didn’t see it, from a rough front nine).
And this was a good welcome from Brady to Eli, with Eli making the mistake of signing up for Twitter this week (you’ll see what I mean soon enough, Eli).
I actually saw what Jameis Winston is doing here when I went to check out Tom House’s operation in Orange County in 2016. So weird as this might look, it’s actually not that uncommon. (https://youtu.be/nNhfFYYFgMk)
Great idea by the Browns …
… And great idea by Robert Kraft. Cool to see so many doing all these creative things to help.
Full disclosure: A few coaches and scouts did this—bumping elbows instead of shaking hands—with me in Indy in late February because of the virus, and I thought it was silly at the time. Yeah. They were smarter than me, and ahead of me on this.
Credit to Peyton for getting Brady to turn around.
… And this is a pretty awesome image.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
We covered the unintended consequences of the new rules on blocking assistants from moving up the ranks in Thursday’s GamePlan—laying out both the positives and negatives in allowing guys some more upward mobility. And as you know by now, the incentive program for minority hires was tabled last week.
So where does that leave the NFL’s effort to improve its hiring practices?
If it were up to me, the focus now would shift to bolstering the pipeline, and my feeling is it should start with some sort program to identify players who might be good for coaching and scouting when their on-field careers end. And if you need an example of how this could work, I don’t need to look far for examples.
Jerod Mayo would be one. Belichick put the green dot on his helmet and named him a captain as a 23-year-old, second-year linebacker. Anyone who’s been around Mayo—and I did TV with him for two years—for five minutes could tell he could be dynamite as a coach. Yet, when he retired, he went into finance and media, before finally being coaxed to the sideline four years after he hung ’em up. It took less than a year as Patriots linebackers coach for it to become apparent that Mayo has head-coach potential.
Similarly, it wouldn’t take you much time around ex-Browns/Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins to figure out how smart he is. If you really need evidence, I’d point to the master’s in sports management he got from Columbia. Yet, three full seasons separated from his last NFL game, and he’s working in TV. This, by the way, is a guy who told me he wanted to be an NFL general manager.
To me, in both these cases, you have guys that should be identified early, and put in offseason programs that would help educate them on coaching and scouting. For the players, it would help inform them on whether they wanted to pursue it post-playing or not. For the league and teams, it would deepen the coaching and scouting ranks, even with the acknowledgment that some might decide the profession isn’t for them.
To me, and maybe I’m crazy, that sounds like everyone wins—and you’re accomplishing all that while addressing an issue the league itself has called a major one.
I’ll see you guys this afternoon for the MAQB.
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