Inside the Nine-Week Offseason Program Matt Ryan Created for His Falcons Teammates

In an unprecedented offseason, quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Josh Allen and others have been forced to organize sessions to replace what they'd be getting at team practices. In some ways, it may actually be beneficial. Plus, the NFL's unsettled restart plan, what's next in the discussion of protesting police brutality and more from around the league.
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This offseason, every quarterback in the NFL has essentially been handed a mirror, with the results reflecting back who they are as professionals.

Do you view this as time off? Or a shot to get ahead of everyone else?

Do you have enough pull in the locker room to gather guys from all over the country to meet you on their own? Or do you not?

Will you be ready to hit the ground running at the end of July? Or will you be chasing the effects of a lost spring and more restrictive summer practice rules for the rest of the year?

We’ve been here before, in certain ways, and some of the league’s current starters were around for that, too. Nine years ago, the lockout created a spot like this one for the league’s quarterbacks, then tasked with becoming quasi-coaches—and among the 32 starters from that season, eight remain starters now, with each carrying a lesson or two he took from the experience.

“There are a lot of similarities,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said late Tuesday afternoon. “I think the No. 1 thing, it’s on the players. And it’s on me to make sure I’m creating access for the guys to get the work done that they needed to get done. And that was the same in the lockout. We had groups of guys that got together in that lockout year. We were able to put on player-led practices.

“The difference this year, with COVID, is limits on the number of players that can get together, trying to practice social distancing, and making sure that everybody’s staying safe. I think that part’s been different. The groups of guys that have gotten together for us, as a team, have been smaller than they were that lockout year, but the work has been really effective.”

It’s worth listening to Ryan. In 2011, that work, going into his fourth NFL season, led to a 10–6 campaign for Atlanta, during which the Falcons were able to get a lot out of the guys around the quarterback, both new (Julio Jones posted a 959-yard, eight-touchdown rookie year) and old (29-year-old RB Michael Turner rushed for 1,340 yards and 11 TDs).

And yet, that season also saw the Bengals make the playoffs behind rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and the Broncos get there with Tim Tebow not wresting the starting job from incumbent Kyle Orton until October.

Which tells you that, clearly, there are different ways for teams to go about all this. So this week in the column, we’ll dive into what two guys heading into very big years in their respective careers—one still at the beginning of his, with Ryan closer to the end—have done.

Matt Ryan throwing a football at an offseason camp.

***

Obviously, there’s still a lot to get to when it comes to everything else going on in the world right now, and how it relates to the NFL. And we’re going to have some of that in this week’s MMQB. Further down, you’ll find …

• More on the back-and-forth on the NFL’s restart plan.

• Some nuggets on what happens next in the NFL as race and police brutality continue to dominate the national conversation.

• An update on Jadeveon Clowney’s situation.

• Why I’d buy on Baker Mayfield in 2020.

But I figured you’d would want some football to start this week, and so we’re going to give you an inside look on how two quarterbacks, a decade apart in experience, are handling this offseason. First, Ryan. Then, Buffalo’s Josh Allen. Let’s go.

***

The first difference Ryan felt in working through this offseason was the obvious one, one that we’ve all had to reach a comfort level with at some point over the last three months.

“I think at the beginning, for the first couple days, it was weird wearing masks on the field while I was throwing,” Ryan said. “It was the first time I’ve thrown in a mask, that’s for sure.”

So even with the experience he did have—Ryan ran a spring program for the guys in 2011 at Buford High School, near the Falcons facility in Flowery Branch—there was plenty he had to learn as the reality of the situation sunk in at the end of March.

Part of it would be limits on the numbers. Part of it would be getting to the point where his teammates could travel to meet him. Part of it was simply the comfort level one guy would have with the next guy as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened in America.

Ryan’s way of combating all that was fairly simple. His goal in his own training was to “keep it as normal as possible,” and his message to his teammates was the same. As such, he wanted the offseason program he was creating for himself and his teammates to mirror as much of what would usually go down in Flowery Branch in the spring as possible.

The NFL allows for a nine-week offseason program for teams, with the first two weeks being designated as “dead ball.” That leaves seven weeks for quarterbacks and skill players to throw and catch. Via Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex, the guys have still gotten their classroom work with coaches (that’s another difference from 2011), which has left quarterbacks to make up for the field work.

And has Ryan ever worked to do that. He has engaged his teammates for the last nine weeks (that prescribed length isn’t an accident)—the first five in Georgia, followed by three in California, with the final week having just wrapped up outside Atlanta. They’d go three days per week, with sessions lasting between 90 and 105 minutes, and the work was detailed, deliberate and thorough.

So I asked Ryan whether what the Falcons have accomplished matches what they’d normally do, and he said it’s close. In some ways, it’s still lacking: There wasn’t the 11-on-11 work they’d normally get during OTAs and minicamp, and there weren’t coaches on hand. But in others, Ryan actually believes he and his teammates may be better off, which speaks to the chance all quarterbacks have had this offseason to put their teams ahead of everyone else. Here are a few of those ...

Targeted sessions. At first, the Falcons were meeting in smaller groups to follow guidelines. But even as things opened up in Georgia, Ryan limited the size of the groups he worked with to four or fewer teammates at a time. The work, as he saw it, was better that way. He could tailor one day to more experienced teammates, and another to less experienced guys. And it allowed players flexibility in their own schedules, so Ryan could get them to come when it was most convenient for them.

“To be able to take our time, and work on the things we need to work on together, there’s a lot of time in an offseason program where the amount of time you’re allowed in the building and on the field is structured through the CBA,” Ryan said. “For us, getting together on our own, outside of that environment, allows us to work at the pace that we need to work at. And when you’re working with younger guys, sometimes you have to go a little bit slower, be able to discuss things like that, and talk things through.

“That part of it has really been beneficial, and I think we’re going to be better for it.”

Relationship building with new guys. Ryan mentioned one edge the Falcons have is continuity, and there’s no doubt that having Jones and Calvin Ridley under these conditions is a big plus. But not everyone is a holdover, and so Ryan's getting reps with the new guys is valuable on a number of fronts—allowing for the quarterback to learn those players, and for those players to work their way into the mix of the offense.

“For a guy like [free agent tight end] Hayden Hurst coming in, this is a huge advantage in terms of the amount of time I get to spend with him individually,” Ryan said. “I think that part of it can be really positive for us to get to know each other on a personal level, but also to get that sense of timing, that feel that comes along with being with somebody a lot.”

Relationship-building with the incumbents. This goes back to the very specific work Ryan might want with a certain player, which may be tougher to accomplish with a whole team to worry about in an OTA or minicamp setting. On his own, the quarterback raised how he and Ridley have worked on spacing over the last couple of months. “We’ve talked about what spots on the field he needs to save me space on certain routes,” Ryan said.

In layman’s terms, Ryan’s showing Ridley what he’s seeing on certain plays, and how working on having awareness of what’s around him could add up to more chances to make plays.

“If you’re getting to the hashes on an in-cut before I’m ready to deliver the ball, when we have certain play-pass actions off it, you’re eliminating your chances of getting the ball,” Ryan said. “You’re also eliminating your chance of getting run after the catch, all those little things that turn a completion into an explosive completion, or a touchdown. We’ve had a lot of chances to talk about the little nuances that are gonna make us better.”

And as such, Ryan sees big things coming for the 2018 first-rounder.

“That’s the development you can get with a guy now going into Year 3,” Ryan said. “But you really can only get there if you have this extended amount of time, and this one-on-one venue to work at. He’s a guy I think could explode going into a year like this. He’s in phenomenal shape, he’s been running great and I think his grasp of the offense, and his mastery of our system is so much further along than it was last year.”

Individual improvement. Ryan did ask one big favor of his teammates this offseason. He wanted to go out to Orange County to get work in with his throwing coach, Adam Dedeaux of 3DQB, for a few weeks in May. So he plainly asked the group, Boys, what do you think about making the trip out to the West Coast? Do guys feel comfortable traveling right now?

Enough of them were, so after five weeks of work in Georgia, the next three were moved out to Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif., which was also convenient for Jones, who makes his offseason home in L.A. And thanks to his teammates being flexible, Ryan was able to get some very specific mechanics work in that he probably wouldn’t have been able to do as many drills on during a normal offseason.

“It’s a small thing, but for crossing routes going right to left, when we have play-action pass footwork with it, trying to get my hips and my shoulders in front of these crossing routes, to make sure they’re in front of my chest,” Ryan said. “It’s something that when you’re playing with pass rush or you’re out at practice, there’s a script of a number of different things you’re working on, you can’t be as selfish for what you need to work on individually.

“But when you’re doing it this way, you can take all the time you need to, you can devote a day a week to working just specifically on that.”

Atlanta coach Dan Quinn gave his players an assignment this offseason to work on “One Main Thing.” Small as it may seem, this was Ryan’s. And Ryan said, given the amount of reps he’s gotten, when it comes to positioning his shoulders and hips off play-action, on right-to-left crossing routes, he’s “a lot better.”

Leadership benefits. Because there aren’t coaches on the field, naturally, Ryan’s had to do more to lead. But he isn’t the only one who’s taken the bull by the horns. And others stepping forward, as Ryan sees it, has to be a good thing for the team.

The best example of that? It’s probably none other than Julio Jones.

“He’s been amazing,” Ryan said. “He’s an unbelievable teacher and just such an unselfish teammate. He’s really good for those guys in terms of showing them what it looks like to work and then helping them with his experience. I mean, I can tell receivers where I want them to be and when I want them to be there, but I can’t tell them how to do it. I don’t have that experience. And they’ll laugh at me when I try and show them.

“So to have him around is super valuable. He’s got so much experience, so much time on task. And he even knows, ‘Hey, this is how Matt likes to throw this one, this is why you need to make sure you’re getting full depth on this route.’ His experience is just invaluable.”

***

Josh Allen’s situation is a little different from Ryan’s. Fewer Bills make their full-time homes in Buffalo than Falcons do in Atlanta, and so he had to be more creative. And that was after his offseason started in a most unusual way: When the country went into lockdown, he actually chose to stay where he was, and go into quarantine with his QB coach, Jordan Palmer, Jets QB Sam Darnold and Washington QB Kyle Allen in Orange County.

That explains why, functionally, where it made sense for Ryan to focus on individual work deeper into the offseason (when he was able to get out to California), Allen got his going back in March with Palmer. And that work was an offshoot of a pretty interesting conversation he had in Miami in January.

“I talked to Tony Romo for a couple hours at the Super Bowl,” Allen said. “And I got to talking with him about mechanics and keeping your head on the same plane, same axis, and kind of rotating around it, keeping your left arm super tight, and finding a way to throw the same exact way out of any position, whether your feet are set or not. That’s really been paying off. It’s been a good thing for me, and it’s gonna continue to be something I’ll work on.”

So, like Ryan, Allen was able to find a minute detail and make it his one main thing. And, Allen said, because he wasn’t under time constraints like he would have been in OTAs or minicamp, he could spend as much time as he wanted working through that and other things. He, Kyle Allen and Darnold got others to spot catch for them, threw on the beach (which was good for working on that balance) and lifted in the cramped quarters of their trainer’s garage.

And as all that was going on, the real main thing was too. Palmer told the three young quarterbacks that they had a golden opportunity in front of them, to relationship build with real intention, given the circumstances they each were in, and they took the idea to heart.

For Allen, it meant texting, calling and FaceTiming to work through things football-wise, or just check in on guys life-wise—and Call of Duty wound up becoming one way they all stayed in touch outside of work. In fact, when Allen and I talked, his social media was exploding, because he’d revealed earlier to the Buffalo media that he and new Bill Stefon Diggs had been playing.

“My Twitter’s kinda going crazy,” Allen said. “Somebody tweeted up me and him playing Call of Duty together, and people are going nuts about it. But even little interactions like that, seeing who they are as a person, getting to talk with him, playing with him and his brothers, we’re just developing that relationship right now.”

Of course, Allen knew that’d have to translate to the field eventually, and so he planned out two separate “camps”—one to get the young guys up to speed, and another to get everyone together. The first was staged in California, with rookie running back Zack Moss, and rookie receivers Gabe Davis and Isaiah Hodgins on hand. The next was two weeks later, over Memorial Day Weekend, in Miami, and a lot more detailed.

Allen credits his quarterback room with helping—he said Davis Webb, in particular, was helpful with logistics. And after a lot of work to get the lodging and travel worked out, the schedule for the weekend looked like this:

Wednesday night/Thursday morning: Players arrived. Allen came with fellow QB Matt Barkley, on a redeye from California. Barkley snuck in a nap after landing. Allen met a bunch of the guys for breakfast.

Thursday midday: The nearly 20 skill players attended their normal Zoom meetings with the coaches, scheduled for 1-3 p.m. ET.

Thursday late afternoon: The guys piled into cars, and drove over to Pete Bommarito’s facility—as arranged by Diggs, who works out there in the offseason—and got full field work in there for a couple of hours.

Thursday night: The players ordered food through DoorDash and hung out at the hotel, playing cards. “We played hours upon hours of cards,” Allen said, “stayed up until … too late, probably.”

Friday morning: Everyone woke up around 8:30 a.m. and got back to the field for warmups at Bommarito’s around 9:30, with another two-hour session kicking off at 10 a.m.

Friday afternoon: After lunch and workouts, Allen and a bunch of guys headed to the beach.

Friday night: Allen took the whole group out for dinner at Sushi by Bou at the Versace Mansion. “It was just an incredible experience, some of the greatest sushi you’ll ever eat,” he said. “I just wanted to take care of the guys, show them I cared about them.”

Saturday: Same routine, another throwing session at Bommarito’s, with some scheduled to leave Miami later in the day. After lunch, Allen took the quarterbacks out for a round at International Links at Melreese Country Club, as a thanks for helping him put the whole thing together.

And once the whole thing was in the books, the value everyone gained was clear to Allen.

“Mentally giving guys that feeling of, Football’s here, we’re back in camp, we’re back in OTAs, we’re with the guys, we’re not worrying about anything else that’s going on in the world right now, we’re on the field with each other, focusing on one goal, and that’s to get better,” Allen said. “And to the football aspect, getting that continuity. Really, the only new guy there was Stefon. I have rapport with the other guys. I’d already thrown with the rookies.

“Just trying to get on the same page, just trying to see where everybody is at, I think it gave guys a chance to be like, ‘OK, he knows the playbook really well, let me talk to him.’ Or in other cases, ‘He knows how to run routes really well, let me talk to him,’ and Stefon and John [Brown] and Cole [Beasley] were very informative to the younger guys, showing them what works for them, how to run routes. It was a great time.”

***

Josh Allen diving for a touchdown

Allen, who took the Bills to the playoffs for just the second time in 20 years last season, topped all QBs in rushing TDs.

Allen was pretty clear while we talked: He’d rather be spending this valuable time in Buffalo. And that’s because he knows this is a big offseason for him and his teammates, coming off last year’s playoff run and wild-card loss in Houston. It’s motivated the work they’ve done to this point, and has Allen working to schedule another trip for right before camp.

And as for when they can go back?

“Oh man, I can’t wait for football,” he said. “The 11-on-11, that itself, is what I’m most looking forward to, being on the field with my guys. Trying to, I wouldn’t say embarrass the opposing team, but impose our will and show how much we worked, and how we worked extremely hard for this situation, and that we gave up a lot and sacrificed a lot to be able to go out and do what we do.”

Likewise, Ryan thinks he and the Falcons are positioned well coming out of the spring.

As he has annually, the 13th-year vet plans to bring his teammates back in for two more weeks of work before camp, similar to what they’ve done the last nine weeks. And heading into that point in the calendar, he sees the group as on schedule, even in a year in which very few things have been. He also knows what his division looks like with Drew Brees and Tom Brady in it (“It’s gonna be a grind, for sure, both those guys are studs”), and understands what a big year it is for the franchise, coming off two years without reaching the playoffs.

“No doubt, we wanna get back there, man,” Ryan said. “We want to get back in the mix. That’s what you work so hard for, to give yourself that late-season opportunity. And so I feel it, I feel like the other guys feel it. And we’ve certainly been working that way.”

Time will tell whether Atlanta or Buffalo get there. But if either do, I don’t think it’ll be hard to guess one thing all those guys will point back to.

The message will sound a lot like what they’re saying right now.

***

THE OFFSEASON SCHEDULE STILL ISN’T FINAL

So now that we know players won’t be back until training camp, and we know what the protocols for teams returning to their buildings will be, here are a few things to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.

The actual return date remains at issue. As we said last week, the consideration is really twofold here. Do you move it up a week or two and try to play the full preseason, or report on time and cancel a week or two of exhibition games? It’d likely need to be one or the other, since the NFL/NFLPA joint committee on health-and-safety has recommended extending the new five-day training-camp acclimation period significantly. The other option would be to delay the start of the season. I can say definitively there are teams in favor of that, to allow for more information gathering and caution. The league office, for its part, has pushed back on that idea and wants the season to start on time. And I’ve heard report dates of July 13 and July 20 floated (though, to be clear, the league and union haven't even gotten to the point yet where an actual date has been proposed to the players), though I’m skeptical that new NFLPA president J.C. Tretter would sign off on it. “We would have no interest in that,” said one source.

The COVID-19 protocols released this week will be tough to work around. And Ravens coach John Harbaugh spoke for a lot of guys when he told 105.7 The Fan in Baltimore: “I've seen all the memos on that, and to be quite honest with you, it's impossible what they're asking us to do. Humanly impossible. We're going to do everything we can do. We're going to space, we're going to have masks. But this is a communication sport.” I asked an AFC head coach about it, and he asked, “Do we separate the team into three different locker rooms? Do we have six different squad meetings? Do we have five different unit meetings?”

And I got this from an NFC head coach: “We’re banging heads in 1-on-1 drills, licking fingers to throw and snap footballs, high-fiving after good plays, breathing on one another after great tackles, huddling over 100 snaps a day, standing on sidelines shoulder-to-shoulder during 11-on-11s, but we need to be six feet apart all other times. Makes zero sense. Try scheduling for that protocol. I just stopped doing it. Too many what-ifs. I second John Harbaugh.”

And then this from one veteran assistant: “Can’t have 20 or more in a defensive unit meeting BUT we can walk thru on the field? Makes no sense.” And this from a veteran offensive assistant: “How do you have a huddle with social distancing? The balance of Zoom meetings and field work will be key, and the question will be can we bring these guys in and get done what we need to on the field, then get them back home and critique the film over Zoom?” These are all fair questions, given the requirements on locker rooms (normal social distancing standards with space between lockers) and meetings (no in-person meetings of more than 20 people if distancing is impossible), and that’s just the start. I know one team, for example, is considering using its indoor practice facility for meetings. Now, I do believe that most coaches will be earnest in efforts to take all the precautions they can. But there’s only so much you can do with a football team. And I think that’s why the memo drew the reaction it did—because it seemed to these coaches (who plan to take care of their players as best they can) as if it was put together without taking basic football stuff into account.

Most rookies haven’t been paid yet. And this may be just a temporary problem, but it’s at least notable that, as of Friday at noon, only 60 of April’s 255 draft picks had signed, with only three first-rounders inked. By comparison, last year, on June 12, 222 of 254 draft picks had signed, with 22 first-rounders under contract. The problem is obvious. Teams can’t get guys in to take physicals and finalize deals. And the latest memo indicates they won’t be able to until those rookies report to camp in July. Which means they won’t get paid until then. Again, short-term problem, but one that’s probably a little more than annoying for those who may have lent money or services to these guys as they prepared for the draft.

Hall of Fame induction weekend has to be in peril. And saying that is just common sense, given that we’re talking about canceling preseason games a week and two weeks after that weekend to accommodate the acclimation period. If the Hall of Fame game, between the Cowboys and Steelers, were canceled, would the guys in Canton go forward with the induction ceremony? Or would they take that as a green light to move the induction back? Remember, the Hall already has set a mid-September weekend set aside for its Centennial Celebration, during which it will induct part of its Centennial Class. So it stands to reason that the NFL could induct its modern-day class that weekend too. For now, though, and until it hears otherwise from the league, the Hall’s going forward.

***

HOW WILL OWNERS RESPOND ON KAEPERNICK, PROTESTS AND MORE?

Just a few notes related to the NFL, as the topics of race and police brutality continue to dominate the national conversation.

• Colin Kaepernick’s name will continue to come up, and rightfully so. And I do believe that a lot of those of 345 Park want him on a team in 2020—just as some did in 2017. How it happens is more complicated. Would Kaepernick be willing to go in and compete for a job on low money, knowing he could be cut at the end of camp? (Many forget that he wasn’t a sure thing to make the Niners roster in 2016.) For that matter, would a team signing him be comfortable with the backlash cutting him in early September might bring? These are the sorts of questions that will come up. I’d love to see him get a shot and see what he’s got after three years away from the league. The question is which owner (and coach and GM) is willing to go through everything that will come with giving him that shot, especially in a year in which QB supply seemed to outweigh demand (see: Newton, Cam). The good news is I do believe all of that, due to the changing climate in our country, is less of an issue than it was three years ago.

• Players will absolutely be keeping score on which owners are speaking out, and which aren’t, over the next few weeks. So what Panthers owner David Tepper did, in ordering the removal of the Jerry Richardson statue, spoke volumes for how ready he is to put action behind his words. The heartfelt sentiment of Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti seemed to be well-placed, as well, as did that of the Kraft family in New England. Niners owner Jed York has been consistently aggressive with his efforts to contribute in the area of social justice.

Jaguars owner Shad Khan offered his own personal experience: “Even recently, I have had people spew racist language in my presence when talking about other people of color, apparently ignorant of my ethnicity.”

And Steelers owner Art Rooney reacted quickly with a statement saying he’s “proud” of players on his team who’ve spoken out in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. Other owners have remained quiet to this point. It’s fair to give them the time to listen and learn. But eventually, it sure feels like all of these guys will have to say something about what’s happening in America.

• I’ll be honest: I don’t think there’s much else to say about the issue of protests during the national anthem. The NFL drafted and voted to implement a new policy in May 2018, then decided not to enforce it after meeting with the players that summer—they agreed to leave the old policy as it was, letting players decide what they want to do. I’ve said what I’m going to say on it. I think forced ceremony is kind of weird, and I don’t think it’s up to me how anyone else interprets the flag or the anthem. I stand for it for my own reasons, and I don’t have a problem with anyone else seeing it differently than I do. And I also think since Roger Goodell has taken a side on this—the players’ side—he can’t go back now and force anyone to stand, if he wants to retain any sort of credibility with his work force. So where does all that leave us? I think players will kneel. I think Donald Trump will make that an issue as part of his campaign. I think the league office will have to let players do what they want to do. And where this gets interesting is with how each individual owner handles it.

***

After three straight Pro Bowl seasons, Clowney had just three sacks for Seattle in 2019.

After three straight Pro Bowl seasons, Clowney had just three sacks for Seattle in 2019.

TEN TAKEAWAYS

Jadeveon Clowney’s situation continues to be complicated. And I think it’s of note that the Browns are willing to pay a good rate (I’ve heard they’d be O.K. going to the $15 million range on a one-year deal) to get him, and he remains unsigned. That tells me a couple things. One, that Clowney’s financial desires are still a barrier to getting a deal done. And two, that those desires may come on a sliding scale, based on destination. 

Clowney, talented as he is, doesn’t come without strings attached. There have been questions about how dedicated he’s been to the mental side of the game, which contributed to how he fell out of favor in Houston, and that’s reflected on tape that still shows a guy relying on his physical ability above all else. That said, one coach who has evaluated Clowney as a potential player to sign this offseason told me Saturday, “He’s still fast and big and long, and can change direction and track people down whenever he wants to.”

So after six months, the question still hinges on what team will meet his price, and how his price may differ from one place to the next. And we’ve said this from the jump—going somewhere on a one-year deal, with a plan to crush it in the fall, and hit the market again next winter, seems to be the most sensible option now for Clowney. Seattle, because of his familiarity with the program and system, seems like the ideal place to carry out that plan. But the Browns, who’ll run a variation of the Seattle defensive scheme and have Myles Garrett to play opposite him, wouldn’t be the worst choice either. That’s so long as Clowney can get past the Browns' turbulent past. And we’ll see on that.

Speaking of the Browns, just about everything I’ve heard on Baker Mayfield coming out of there this offseason has been positive. His idea to pop in other position group rooms wasn’t just well-received by teammates, it was done with real intent. Yes, Mayfield wanted to own the new scheme, something he can do better if he can see every aspect of it through the eyes of the other 10 guys in the huddle, as well as his own. But he also knew he’d lose a lot of valuable relationship building time this offseason, and being present as much as possible for his guys was a way of making up for it. Getting everyone on the same page isn’t easy, and Mayfield doing all this is recognition of that from the quarterback himself. He’s also done what other quarterbacks have in arranging passing camps to make up for the lost field work in the spring. He and some offensive teammates spent a week doing one in his hometown of Austin already, and word is that Mayfield’s planning another one, perhaps in Florida to make things easier on another leader in that huddle. Jarvis Landry is rehabbing from a hip injury and lives down there in the offseason.

I know people aren’t going to believe some coaches are truly backing their players, but I’m pretty sure that you can count on the fact that Bill O’Brien is. What the Texans coach told the Houston Chronicle’s John McClain this week, understandably, made headlines. “Yeah, I'll take a knee—I'm all for it,” O'Brien said. “The players have a right to protest, a right to be heard and a right to be who they are. They're not taking a knee because they're against our flag. They're taking a knee because they haven't been treated equally in this country for over 400 years.” I believe O’Brien’s being genuine here, based on what I know about him. And if you want evidence of that, you can look at how he handled his team in the aftermath of late owner Bob McNair’s “inmates” comment of 2017. The locker room could easily have come apart at the seams, and the situation hastened the trade of one of Houston’s best players (left tackle Duane Brown), and somehow O’Brien held everything together. That doesn’t happen if the players don’t believe their coach is being real with them.

I think the Bears are at least going to get an answer on Mitch Trubisky. And I understand why they didn’t want to throw in the towel on him altogether, after all they’ve invested in him over the last three years (even while declining his option is a pretty good indicator of where they are). Bottom line, Chicago has tried a lot of things since 2017, including stocking his position room with players, like Chase Daniel, who wouldn’t be threat to his position. Now, they’ll get to see how he reacts to someone who is. “I was kind of pissed off in a good way,” Trubisky said this week. “I've been motivated ever since. I think it's going to be a good competition. [Nick] Foles has had a crazy career as well, so it's been cool having him in our room talking ball. I know we're going to push each other. But I still feel like this is my team and I'm excited for the competition and just to get back on the field with my guys and show everybody what I can still do and how hard I've been working this offseason to help the Bears win games this year.” Maybe it brings out something in Trubisky we haven’t seen yet. And if it doesn’t, at least the Bears will truly be able to say that they pulled just about every lever to try and make it work with the former second overall pick.

The new holdout rules will be a problem for Dalvin Cook, or anyone else trying to make a run at a contract that way. If you’ve been following the NFL for long enough, you know we’ve been here before. The 2011 CBA imposed more draconian penalties for holding out, largely in the aftermath of the Darrelle Revis situation the previous summer, and the measures mostly worked for the owners. Titans RB Chris Johnson was able to stage a successful holdout in the summer of 2011, but after that, it was a while before we saw guys under contract pull it off again. In fact, it wasn’t until 2016 that a player—Kam Chancellor—took a holdout into a season under the 2011 CBA. And it didn’t work. After that, we saw Rams DT Aaron Donald and Raiders OLB Khalil Mack pull off successful contract strikes. But those guys are super-duper-stars. For others, it’s almost become a non-option. And post-Donald/Mack, the owners have taken it steps further. The league used to require a player report 30 days before the opener to get the season credited toward free agency (you need four to be unrestricted). Now, players have to report to camp on time or they lose it. And the daily fines for holdouts are up from $40,000 to $50,000. Cook, by the way, is set to make $1.33 million this year. That means a 27-day holdout would put him in the red for the entire season, plus he’d be a restricted, rather than unrestricted, free agent in 2021. So at the very least, a holdout would bring massive risk with it for Cook, like it would for most players. And laying that out shows why it’s not hard to see why the owners push for these things in negotiation—because they’ve always craved control over the work force.

I think Jerry Richardson is doing the right thing, finally, in not opposing the removal of his statue from the front of Bank of America Stadium. The ex-Panthers owner was obviously out of touch in a lot of ways in how he ran his team (The Panthers went up for sale in late 2017 shortly after Sports Illustrated reported that Richardson and the team made multiple confidential payouts for workplace misconduct, including sexual harassment and use of a racial slur with a team scout), and the inclusion of the clause protecting the shrine as part of the sale to David Tepper was an indication that he still didn’t get it. No one’s ever built a statue of me, but I’d imagine the significance of having one built in your likeness is how it would help your story stand the test of time. And that would be true with the Richardson statue, and not in a positive way. So I think his people getting word out there that he would not try to invoke his rights under the contract after Tepper ordered the statue be taken down (under the auspices of “public safety”) was the right move. I’d hope it’s a sign he knows the thoughts it evokes for many now, and that being stubborn about it would only make matters worse.

I love Kerryon Johnson’s attitude in welcoming D’Andre Swift to the Lions. “He's a phenomenal player,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I remember playing against him in college. I hated seeing him every time we played against Nick Chubb and Sony [Michel] and I'm telling you, when that kid stepped on the field, he was lightning in a bottle. He was threatening to go 80 yards every time he touches it. So I'm excited. I can learn from him. He can learn from me. We can all learn from each other and we can all get better.” To start, that shows Johnson welcoming a rookie into his position group, which doesn’t always happen with an established starter. Second, it shows how different the position is than if it was, say, 20 years ago. Back then, most teams had an established pecking order, and there was a big difference in usage from the first guy to the rest. Now? Now, workshares are common, guys can both get theirs, and there’s plenty of benefit seen in such arrangements (with players coming out of them and going into second contracts with more tread left on their tires). So good on Johnson for recognizing this can be good for everyone. And good for the Lions, now carrying two players that I believe have the potential to be centerpiece backs.

And Johnson’s place is a good jumping off point for a discussion on Sony Michel. The Patriots’ third-year back had foot surgery in May, per ESPN’s Mike Reiss, and may wind up landing on the PUP list to start camp as a result. In a vacuum, this isn’t a huge deal. But taking into context Michel’s injury history, as a collegian and a pro, and that a lot of teams saw him as unlikely to make it to a second contract in the NFL (due to an arthritic condition in his knee), and it’s absolutely fair to look back critically at the Patriots’ decision to take him 31st overall. Johnson went 43rd in 2018, and Michel’s held up better, injury-wise, than him, and he’s also been healthier than Seattle’s Rashaad Penny, who was taken 27th. Conversely, Michel’s college teammate, Nick Chubb, went 34th overall and has been significantly more productive and, on the surface, appears to have a brighter future. It’s also fair to mention those at Georgia aren’t surprised with how it played out with the two backs. “Chubb is the most revered guy to come out of that program in years, just a f---ing horse,” said one college scouting director—and that Georgia happens to be a program with a FOB (Friend of Belichick) in charge. So what can we conclude from this? One, there’s buyer beware at tailback that high in the draft, always. Two, the 2018 class didn’t come close to delivering like the ’17 class (Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon and Kareem Hunt). Three, because of Michel’s very forecastable health issues, he may not be able to be the kind of asset to Jarrett Stidham that, say, Mark Ingram was to Lamar Jackson, Hunt was to Patrick Mahomes, Zeke Elliott was to Dak Prescott or Todd Gurley was to Jared Goff early in those quarterbacks’ careers. And four, it’s still hard to call the pick a bad one, even if it was questionable for all the above reasons, since Michel played a pivotal role in a Super Bowl title run.

Denard Robinson is exactly the kind of coach the NFL needs to put in the pipeline. And the reason I’m saying that: I think it’s important to identify the right coaching prospects, and I believe Robinson, who joined Jacksonville this week as an offensive quality control coach, is one. That doesn’t mean that a black coach has to be an ex-NFL player (Colts QBs coach Marcus Brady is one to watch, and he didn’t play in the league). But it certainly doesn’t hurt if he has that experience, and is a leader, which Robinson is. “He’s a great kid with a great attitude,” said one coach who had him as a player. “His heart’s in the right place.” We’ve also seen in recent years how ex-players can rise meteorically through the ranks, because they do have that background. Mike Vrabel’s one example, as a head coach. Jack Del Rio once had a similarly swift rise. And Rams OC Kevin O’Connell, Bucs OC Byron Leftwich, Patriots LBs coach Jerod Mayo and Seahawks QBs coach Austin Davis are set up similarly. Keep an eye on Robinson. If he gets hooked on coaching like these other guys have, he could make his way up the ladder fast.

You may not notice the lack of joint practices this summer, but the coaches sure will. Guys I’ve talked to about it love joint practices—and actually believe they’re more valuable than preseason games. It’s not hard to understand why. In that setting, you have better control over injury risk, and you can manufacture matchups and situations that you want to see your players (and contenders to make your roster) in. And you can also get them more reps than you might feel comfortable seeing them play in a preseason game. Those are reasons why more coaches now have set up weeks with joint practices to see more from the starters on the practice days, and more from the backups on gameday. I’d also add that it’s a pretty firm belief of mine that joint practices are also a much better take for the fans, and teams could do a lot more to turn them into events. So without them this year? Teams may have to play starters a little more in the preseason and, when adding this to the new, more stringent training camp rules, play in September could look even more like the preseason than it already has in recent years. We’ll see how this plays out, of course, but I think all of it will be a factor when the regular season starts.

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SIX FROM THE SIDELINE

1) At this point, I have to wonder if anyone has the future of baseball in mind. I remember how hard it was for the sport to come back from the ’94 strike. It took a boatload of steroids, basically. If MLB vanishes for the rest of this year (though Rob Manfred says that’s not happening), based on where they are with young fans, I think it’d take a lot more than that to save the sport from spiraling further into irrelevance.

2) A bunch of college football teams are back on campus and working out, and I’d just say that I don’t have a problem with it. Right now, the safest place for these kids to train and get ready for the season is with their strength coaches and teammates. If these programs are taking the precautions recommended—and I understand that might be a big “if” in some places—I actually think letting them go back to school is doing them a favor.

3) I’m with Houston’s Austin Rivers in the squabble among NBA players—they can do a lot more good for the movement by playing than by sitting out the rest of the season. Getting back out there at the end of July would give them all an enhanced platform, and the league money to donate to worthy causes. And the community work individual guys might want to do will still be there when their seasons end.

Hackenberg, who never took a regular-season NFL snap after being taken in the second round in 2016, is attempting to play professional baseball.

Hackenberg, who never took a regular-season NFL snap after being taken in the second round in 2016, is attempting to play professional baseball.

4) Good for ex-Jets QB Christian Hackenberg for giving baseball a shot. I’m skeptical it amounts to anything (I looked at his high school stats like everyone else). But this is one of those things you really have a limited time to try and accomplish, and if he can use his name as a former Penn State/NFL quarterback to get a shot, I don’t blame him for trying.

5) I went to a couple soccer pages on the web and, man, there is a lot of it being played in Europe. Which is why I think we should have a lot more valuable information than we do right now on the right and wrong ways to restart a sports league by the time NFL teams start camp in late July.

6) I’m finishing up the column now and threw on the Charles Schwab Challenge, and I don’t really care much about it. But having that on the TV, with Jim Nantz calling it, did feel like a nice step forward.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Few truer things have ever been tweeted.

Mayfield’s never been afraid to speak out. He made this one count.

If you need more on Boyer’s thoughts on this, check out last week’s column. The Green Beret has got strong feelings.

And JJ’s another one.

Again, I don’t think Bisciotti’s faking anything here.

Hack in his words.

Now, go back and watch last October’s Ohio State-Wisconsin game, with the knowledge that every starting Badger lineman will likely make it into an NFL camp, and tell me how you think Chase Young will do in the league.

Very fancy feet.

S/o to Watson and Hopkins for taking a stand on this.

Good for the champs, coming out in unison last week.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Some teams have already shut down their virtual offseason programs (the Texans and Titans are among them), while others will, over the next couple weeks, let veterans go on their way and do some sessions geared toward their younger players.

For most, it sure seems like it’s come to the point where coaches have done all they can through the computer without having players on the field. And next week, I’m planning to look a little deeper into just how much they’ve gotten out of all this.

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