Matt Rhule might’ve held the hot dog eating contest regardless. But the one he put on Friday—with the rookie linemen going head-to-head—definitely took on a different look than it would have otherwise.
For one, it was inside Bank of America Stadium, rather than at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. Also, everyone was distanced, and those not going Joey Chestnut on the food were wearing masks. And it went down before a single Panther had so much as buckled a chinstrap for a Rhule-run practice.
Because of all that, the team-building exercise took on a new level of importance, too.
“At a time when guys can’t even see each other’s faces, because we’re wearing the masks, getting to know each other’s personalities a little bit is fun. And it’s important,” Rhule said on Saturday, the players’ first day off of camp. “With no tryouts, and when you sign somebody it’s taking four or five days to get them in the building because of the testing protocols, it’s more like college, in that your team is kind of your team. You have to find out what people can do.”
On this day, Rhule found out the young defensive linemen could crush hot dogs faster than their offensive counterparts. In case you’re wondering, the coach’s fellow Penn Stater Yetur Gross-Matos was the star, and the defense got a trophy and the right to show up to work a little later on Sunday for the effort.
Moreover, it gave him another way where maybe he could use his experience the last seven years as a head coach in the college ranks to his advantage.
That’s important too, because he knows the score here. Most people look at the spot he and the NFL’s other four first-year coaches are in, and think, Those guys have no shot. And Rhule acknowledges that there are challenges he, Joe Judge, Kevin Stefanski, Ron Rivera and Mike McCarthy are facing now that are pretty unique to 2020.
“The hard things, you can identify them right away. We go out to the practice field and things as simple as, ‘Hey, here’s how we want to warm up.’; ‘Hey, here’s where I want you guys to stand’; ‘Here’s how we do this drill.’ We’re going through all that now—six weeks before the first game,” Rhule said. “That’s crazy. Those are things normally we would’ve done in May, and by now we’d have a really good feel for how we’d use our players, because we’d have worked with them.
“We’re sitting here in August and I still haven’t a full-sheet drill with anybody on our defense or offense yet. That part is gonna be hard. Evaluating your roster, not just on who makes your roster but how to use them is gonna be really hard. That part’s legitimately a challenge.”
But here’s the thing: Where Rhule lacks NFL head-coaching experience, he can lap the field in the level of challenges he’s faced in running football programs. Which has given him a lot of experience in finding answers.
On Friday, one was holding a hot dog eating contest. Over the next few weeks, he’ll need plenty more in just about everything he does.
We’re inching closer to real, live football practice—the Texans and Chiefs put on helmets on Sunday, becoming the first teams to do that en masse since K.C. and the Niners left the Hard Rock Stadium field six months ago. And that means actual football’s closer, which gives us a ton to get to in the MMQB. This week, we’re bringing:
• An inside look at how meaningful Joey Bosa’s contract was to the Bosa family.
• A window into the opt-out decision of high-end pass-rush prospect Greg Rousseau.
• The players’ view of how the early parts of camp have gone thus far.
And, of course, we’ll have our normal run of football-related notes. But we’re starting with Rhule and the Panthers, the challenges the coach has faced before—and how they serve him now.
Rhule arrived at Temple in 2013 to a down-trending program one year past moving from the MAC to the Big East (then renamed the AAC). He went to Baylor in 2017 and into something much worse—the program was coming out of a sexual-assault scandal, with players fleeing the program like rats off a sinking ship. And in both cases, Rhule told his staff, We’re going to roll with all these young players and live with their mistakes.
In both places, by the end of Year 1, a true freshman was starting at quarterback, and wins were hard to come by early on. Those Year 1 teams finished a combined 3–21.
“What we tried to do at both Temple and Baylor was to say, Hey, this is the way we’re gonna play,” Rhule said. “We refer to it as our brand. We wanted to establish our brand of football. So I look at it now, and I’m blessed in that on defense we have some guys who’ve played before in K.K. [Short] and Shaq Thompson and Tahir Whitehead and Tre [Boston] and Donte Jackson. But we’re also going to be counting on some young players—you have Jeremy Chinn, you have Derrick Brown.
“It’s similar in that we drafted all these young players, and we’re gonna put them out there and play with them. And what’s most important is that they play the way we want to play forever, that we’re a physical, fast football team, that we establish what we stand for, our style, our brand.”
So if you want to know what Rhule will prioritize, and try to build in the limited time he’s getting with his players before the opener against the Raiders in five weeks, that’s it.
But more interesting to me in talking to Rhule was how he’d go about getting there. You might’ve heard Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury say a few weeks back that he believed his experience in college would help him in navigating the truncated 2020 schedule, and there’s a lot of logic behind that. College coaches have to work around the 20-hour rule, class schedules and absence of a preseason, among other things, to get their teams ready.
That, in Rhule’s case, is just the beginning of where his experience leading college programs should help. Which is why, in this weirdest of years, I figured he’d be the most interesting guy in the league to talk to about finding solutions, with the dog days of camp coming. And the conversation didn’t disappoint. Here’s where we took it …
Where the protocols create issues for other coaches, Rhule finds some normalcy. And this isn’t about the amount of days or weeks teams get, it’s more about the way their days will go. Within the time prescribed, coaches will have to allow for testing, for increased or more complicated foot traffic to and from different meetings/workouts—and many of the players will be coming and going from home, rather than all together from a hotel.
It’ll be nuts for some, not for the Panthers.
“This practice plan looks so much like what we did at Baylor,” Rhule said. “And the thing about Baylor is, last year, our guys were in classes, in summer school, for the first two weeks of camp. So, literally, I was scheduling meetings around classes. Now, you come in and there’s protocols and those things, and it’s like, ‘Well, I’m used to that.’ You have to do what you have to do.
“This year, we couldn’t go away, we’re not all at one hotel. Well, we didn’t go away in college. Guys were living in their apartments. So from no preseason games to the scheduling challenges to all the things that come up in college, you just learn to say to yourself, Hey, what’s really, really important?”
Which goes back to the idea of establishing the brand.
And defining that brand may be more in execution, than diversity of scheme. Rhule wants his coaches to be realistic. Whatever the best laid plans were for the systems on offense or defense back in February or March probably aren’t realistic now.
“The thing I always tell our guys, we can be complex, but we can’t be complicated,” Rhule said. “To me, it’s about the amount of things you can do. I never want to sacrifice the football part and make it simple. But at the same time, we can say, Instead of doing 10 things well, we’re gonna do five things really well this year, and as the year goes on maybe we can add six and seven. Coaches don’t like that, because they always like feeling like they have bullets in the gun—I can do this, this and this.
“But players win games, so I want our players to be confident. We have five or six weeks to get our players confident.”
And he does believe his staff is positioned to do that. Remember, offensive coordinator Joe Brady took an LSU offense that had long been stepsister to that program’s defense, and broke all the records in a single year. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Phil Snow was with Rhule at Temple and Baylor, where they got a steady stream of 18-year-old freshman on the field right away.
“Every year, we’ve had to start a true freshman on defense, who are literally coming out of high school, straight from the prom, and all of a sudden he’s starting for you,” Rhule said. “You want to be complex, you want to have all kinds of things. But you also want your players to be ready to play and play fast. So we’d love OTAs for those freshmen. But they had to be ready to go. So being in a position where we’re gonna play first-year players and draftees, that’s something, as college guys, [Brady and Snow are] used to.”
Camp will be taxing. Pro football players, and their coaches, are conditioned to have a difficult couple weeks of camp to start, with things getting broken up from there with preseason games. This year will be different in that regard, too. And the result is a world Rhule’s lived in for all but one year (when he was with the Giants in 2012) of his professional life.
“It’ll be a true training camp grind, just practice after practice after practice, with no game in sight,” Rhule said. “It’ll be like college that way, gotta put your head down and just wake up every morning, go to work, rest, go to bed, wake up the next day and do it all over again. Without having the breakup in the monotony, with the game, preseason games do break up the monotony of camp, this will be a mental and physical test for everybody.”
And there’s benefit in that, as Rhule sees it. Where they’ve been talking through internet connections, and around rules since March, everyone’s about to get to know the guy next to him really well over the coming weeks.
“Life happens through interactions. It happens by being around each other. A lot of that happens on the practice field,” he continued. “To me, we’ve got a couple really hard weeks ahead where we have to grind. But I do think we’ve made the most of a difficult situation, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about things that are important. One of the great things about our staff is we’re very relatable staff in that we’re talking to guys one-on-one all the time. To me, that’s how you build something.”
There’ll be less time to get hard answers on players. And that’s what Rhule emphasized above when he cited the challenge in sorting out roles and decisions on the roster. How do you make up for it? As the coach sees it, you have the players compete—over and over again. Even the hot dog eating competition had a winner and loser, and those sorts of situations are what Rhule pointed to when I asked him what he’s most looking forward to.
“Competition,” he said. “I love one-on-ones, I love seven-on-sevens, I love competition. To me, I love practice. I don’t love those long, drudgery, grinding practices, but I do love competitive practices. So just watching guys who’ve been blessed with talent go out there and compete against each other, and raise their standard of play, is something I love. I love to be a part of that, so knowing that’s right around the corner, to me, is really, really cool.”
Now, finding normalcy, as Rhule can tell you, isn’t the same as things being normal. This summer hasn’t been, and won’t be, and the reminders of that are pretty constant.
“The first time on the field, I went to explain the first walkthrough, where I wanted guys to go,” Rhule recalled. “And the guys walked up, and they’re in a circle around me, but socially distanced, and I’ve got a mask on and a Janet Jackson mic over the top of the mask, and I’m trying to talk. It was really hard to communicate when people can’t see your face. It was to the point where I had to laugh and make fun of myself wearing the mask, and then we moved on.
“I would say that initial communication was probably the one time I was like, Wow, this is a little different.”
So maybe that isn’t why Carolina owner David Tepper went to the lengths he did to pry Rhule from the college game, and convince him not to interview with his hometown Giants in January. But Rhule’s ability to adjust and problem-solve is.
For the last six months, he’s shown that in spades. But everyone gets that this is just the start, and bumps are coming—especially the guys who were in Philly for 2-10 in 2013, and in Waco for 1-11 in 2017. The key, Rhule said, is he and his coaches continue to be “real honest” about where they are, both to themselves, and the players. And remember that if this all plays out as they plan for it to, down the line, these will become the good old days.
“When we went to the [AAC] championship game, and won the championship game at Temple, I would always tell our coaches, just remember we did our best coaching in the first year,” Rhule said. “And all the players that won a championship, they went through that first year. And then we went to Baylor, we were going through a tough first year, and I’d always tell our guys, Remember guys, we always talked about the first year at Temple, we never talked about the championship year—do your best coaching now.
“And so that’s the approach I’ve tried to take. The ethos of the Carolina Panthers will be built now. This is an opportunity for us to completely define who we are and how we do things. … So my challenge to our coaches is, This is really challenging, make this your best coaching job. Look, we always look back, we always romanticize and talk about the early days and it was hard and we were finding a way to get it done.”
Rhule then said, with purpose, “Right now, it’s hard. Let’s find a way to get it done.”
And if that means wearing masks during a hot dog eating contest, so be it.
A MILESTONE FOR THE BOSA FAMILY
If Joey Bosa dreamed of a life-changing football contract back in the South Florida youth leagues, it’s fair to assume he didn’t see it going down like this.
But there he was, parked outside the Irvine Marriott, doing everything short of putting on the old Groucho glasses to keep anyone from realizing he was on the property. The orders to do so came from his agent, Brian Ayrault, thanks to the reporting deadline coming on the afternoon of July 28.
“I was off to the side where nobody could really see me, sweating and shaking, all sorts of nerves going through me,” Bosa said the other day. “I called a few teammates and I was like, ‘Don’t tell anybody, I’m just making sure, it’s still at the same hotel, right?’ So I was out there parked outside of the Marriott—you take a left to go in, I took a right and parked by some offices in some illegal spot. Luckily no one was there. But I was sitting there until literally two, three minutes before the reporting time ended.”
Then, Ayrualt called, “Head in, go take your [COVID] test, don’t say s---.”
By then, Bosa had the details—and if you watch the video that the Chargers posted on social media of him arriving at the facility, you can almost see through his mask that he’d just become the most well-compensated defensive player in NFL history. But soon thereafter, that grin Bosa was trying and failing to hide gave way to tears.
It’s not hard to figure out why. Few athletes have faced the level of expectation Bosa and his younger brother Nick have. Their dad, John, was the Dolphins’ first-round pick in 1987. Their mom’s brother, Eric Kumerow, was the Miami’s first-round pick in 1988. The brothers, three years apart in school, grew up close enough to the Dolphins’ practice facility to ride bikes there.
So from the time they took their first snaps—even with a dad who never coached them, and always tried to blend in like any other parent could—much was expected. And Joey reaching the contractual milestones he did, in many ways, signifies the last set of expectations met. Just as he delivered at blue-blood prep (St. Thomas Aquinas) and college (Ohio State) programs, the money shows he’s been all he was expected to be as a pro.
“There’s been a lot of haters along the way,” Bosa said. “A lot of doubters. But there’s also been a lot of people that have really believed in me. And to live up to and beyond those expectations for a lot of people, it means a lot. And I’m seeing it. I’m getting hundreds of texts from all these people that maybe I haven’t heard from in a while, but I couldn’t have been where I am today without. All these pieces to the puzzle that put it together.
“I internalize a lot of the stress. I’m a pretty stressed out guy because I put so much pressure on myself to perform. At the end of the day, I think I have higher expectations than anybody else has for me. It’s easy to live up to other people’s expectations when your own expectations are beyond theirs. Well, not easy, but you know what I mean …”
As you’d expected, Bosa’s first call was to his dad, and he rushed out of the team facility after taking that COVID test to place it—"I’m not sure it was a very family-friendly talk there, but pretty much a lot of screaming and yelling, and crying, a lot of crying.” And John did think back to the nine-year-old kid putting on football pads for the first time, and all the trips to games at St. Thomas Aquinas, Ohio State and in San Diego and L.A.
But most of all, the father thought of how proud he was that his son found his passion, followed it and became one of the best in the world at it.
“It’s just an unbelievable sense of pride,” John said. “Not too many dads have two NFL superstars as sons, you can probably count the families on one hand. So it’s such a blessing, to have two boys like that. And Joe, for him to achieve this, and for the Chargers to handle it like they did, the Spanoses, Tom Telesco, for that to happen, and to know he can be an all-time leader for them and have a chance to bring them to a Super Bowl, that’s cool.
“Then, to know that my little boy is about to this sign monster deal, that’s very hard to comprehend. It’s easy to talk about the numbers, any 25-year-old would have a hard time comprehending it. I’m 56, I’m having hard time comprehending it. It’s an amazing contract and what it means for generations of the Joey Bosa family, knowing that it’s my Joey that achieved that, that he made it to that point, there’s overwhelming pride.”
John Bosa remembered, too, how his kids would wake up for 6 a.m. for winter workouts as high schoolers, and he’d be up at 5 to cook them breakfast, never once having to prod or push them out the door—a pretty good sign they loved football independent of what their dad once did for a living. “I never pushed them,” he said. “They got bit by the football bug. I never remember, not one time, from the youth ranks through high school, ever asking twice about them going to a workout or a practice, they never complained.”
Because, as Joey will tell you, they loved it from the start.
And that also colors where John’s older son plans to take things from here. He mentioned maybe buying a boat, but said he plans the money to be, for the most part, “sitting around in a bank.” He also conceded that there is a heightened sense of responsibility, and that he may need to make his lead-by-example style, a “little more vocal.”
Mostly, though, Bosa’s belief is this should simplify everything. He’s signed through 2025 and, in his words, “Now, I never have to worry about money again.” Everything, again, becomes about football—where he’s never needed anyone to set the bar for him
“Getting 100 sacks would be a pretty cool goal,” Bosa said. “I think that’s a reachable expectation. I’m not really one to set a lot of concrete goals with numbers, I take it day-by-day, and I know if I do what I have to do every day, things are gonna play out how I want them to. But it’s really about winning a Super Bowl.”
And evidently, the Chargers think he can be an awfully big piece in getting them there.
GREGORY ROUSSEAU’S OPT-OUT DECISION
We covered the first three guys who opted out of the 2020 college football season—Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley, Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman and Penn State LB Micah Parsons—last week in the MMQB and GamePlan. Since then, with the whole college football season hanging in the balance anyway, we’ve gotten two more.
The big one was Miami DE Gregory Rousseau, an edge-rushing prospect who’s not what Chase Young was going into last fall but isn’t that far off. Which is to say he’s got a good shot to go in the top five picks, and that’s even knowing he won’t play a snap of real football during the 2020 calendar year.
Obviously, that was part of Rousseau’s decision. But there’s another piece to this, too, one that is, I believe, indicative of how deeply personal these calls are.
Rousseau says that back in March and April, as the pandemic took shape, the idea of leaving his Hurricane teammates wasn’t really on his radar. That changed as things worsened around him—and his view of COVID-19 intensified. His mother is an ICU nurse at the Florida Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, and as spring turned to summer, South Florida emerged as one of the country’s coronavirus hotspots.
“So just seeing her go through it, and seeing what’s going on, made me really think about it,” Rousseau said. “I went over it with my family and weighed out the pros and cons, I realized I had an opportunity to help them, obviously I can get money from endorsements and stuff like that. And I wanted to give a little of myself if I had the opportunity to help out my family.”
His father, a mechanic, worked through the spike in the area too, and amidst all of that, one of Rousseau’s best friends contracted the virus. "He got pretty sick. He’s OK now, but his lungs, he said they’re not the same.”
All of that dealt Rousseau with a new reality, tipping the risk/reward scale toward the idea of leaving school to focus on the draft. And at that point, the hardest part was figuring out how to tell his teammates.
He and the other starters on the Miami defensive line lived close to one another, and they convened at a friend’s house for Rousseau to deliver the news. "They were sad, but they said, We understand, we feel you bro.” After that, the rising redshirt sophomore told a few other teammates before going to head coach Manny Diaz, who was very involved in Rousseau’s recruitment.
“We talked about it multiple times and I finally told him [Thursday], and he said, ‘Yeah, man, just go be great. Work hard, don’t settle, don’t change who you are,’” Rousseau said. “It was the best talk you could ask for, I’m so grateful he responded like that, and didn’t try to guilt trip me or anything.”
Rousseau added that, in taking part in all of Miami’s on-campus workouts until last week, he didn’t feel at risk. “This was more to help my family. Coach Diaz and the staff are doing a really good job of protecting the players at UM. I’m not sure how it’ll be when football starts, but they are doing the best job they can to keep everybody safe.”
And that was reflected in how the news got out. It actually came on Diaz’s pre-fall camp conference call with the media. The coach simply asked Rousseau beforehand, Hey, should I just announce it? Rousseau responded, Yeah, go ahead. And so it was done.
Now, it’s not like Rousseau won’t face questions. The obvious ones are there. He took a medical redshirt his freshman year after appearing in just three games, which means he has an injury history, and he’ll have only played in 16 games (the equivalent of one NFL season) between his senior year at Champagnat Catholic (enrollment from Grades 6-12: 213) and his rookie year in the NFL.
That said, he’s pretty confident in who he is as a player, after a 15.5-sack year as a redshirt freshman and, at 6' 7" and 254 pounds, there’s a lot of untapped potential there to mine.
“I’d say I’m definitely a blue-collar guy who’s really hard-working,” Rousseau said. “And I’d also say I’m very versatile, I can play in the 3-4 and drop back into coverage, I play a 9-tech, a 5-tech, 3-tech, 0-tech, I can play end on the D-line or I can stand up. I feel like I’m really versatile, I can do whatever a team needs me to do.”
Of course, it’ll be a while before he can prove it. For the time being, he’ll be working out at Bommarito’s, a well-known combine prep center, in Aventura, Fla. He’ll do the usual strength-and-conditioning work, and NFL combine prep, and mix in as much game-speed football work as he can (he wants to work on his get-off and hand placement, specifically) to try and stay sharp.
He knows, too, that nothing will replace the game action he’ll miss. But clearly, personally for him, there were bigger things at work here.
And while we’re here, some quick scouting reports on the three opt-outs (Rousseau, Pitt DT Jaylen Twyman and Purdue WR Rondale Moore) we didn’t cover in last week’s columns.
An NFC exec on Rousseau: “He’s polarizing right now. Some don’t see it with him, there are differing opinions. He’s only played one year, but it’s impressive in that first year to have 15.5 sacks. You’re going basically off 500 or so snaps. He’s a former high school receiver, he did play defense there too, so he’s pretty raw still. As a redshirt freshman, you saw a ton of upside. He’s a big, long dude, a good athlete who can drop his weight, and turn the corner. He has good ability to finish. He can close with some athleticism, and he has a pretty good feel for where the quarterback is, and how to get on him. He’s only gonna get better. His lower body strength, and overall strength, and power and physicality, all those things would be the question. If he proves himself there, he’ll be a really high pick. … And he’s supposed to be a real good kid. When you have so little info on a kid, because he hasn’t played much, that’s a real positive. If you’re taking a chance, you want it to be on a kid like that.”
A second NFC exec on Moore: “Super dynamic. He’s not as fast as Tyreek [Hill], but he’s just as dynamic, and really tough, really instinctive, too. He’s just a good football player. I don’t know if he’ll test well enough to go top 10, but the league is looking for guys like him. … It’s really the idea of him as a concept. He’s versatile, even though he really only plays out of the slot, because they move him around, and give him the ball in a lot of different ways. … The questions are his size, and I’m sure how fast he is, as far as timed speed. He might not be a 4.2 or 4.3 guy, I’d say he’s probably in the high 4.4s. But I still think he’s a first-rounder. … Call him Tyreek Lite.”
An AFC area scout on Twyman: “He’s an average athlete. Not dynamic. He was productive in 2019, but those stats were inflated and not reflective of the caliber of player he is, and he needs to improve his skill set against the run. I think he’s a third- or fourth- round type.”
CHIEFS, TEXANS INCH CLOSER TO REAL FOOTBALL
I’m not sure anyone realized it, but the first full-squad NFL practices of the 2020 season took place on Sunday in Kansas City and Houston. And while it wasn’t exactly a reenactment of Braveheart out there, helmets were worn, plays were run, and another step was taken.
“It felt like a little bit of an in-between type of practice,” said Texans tight end Darren Fells, now 34 and an eight-year NFL vet. “It was like a Phase II practice. But it was good to be out on the field, doing actual football stuff.”
“Honestly, it feels like OTAs, just with the days being a little longer,” said Chiefs tackle Mitch Schwartz, 31 and heading into his ninth year. “Based on what we’re allowed to do, it’s like it is April through June. You’re used to training camp being where you show up, take your physical, take the conditioning test, start practice, and we’d be right into pads already. Now, it’s been two weeks, and we’re still not in pads.”
Indeed, the Texans’ and Chiefs’ practices didn’t even allow the offenses to line up against the defenses—Schwartz described K.C.’s session with offensive backups standing in as defensive players and going off cards just to give the starters a cursory look. “I don’t wanna call it a walkthrough, but it was sort of a faster-paced walkthrough.”
The teams will have another day like that Monday. On Tuesday, they can put shells on and have competitive drills, and after a day off and another day like that, live contact for the teams start Friday. That first day of pads, by the way, is separated from the opener by just 27 days.
The other 30 teams are three days behind these two on the calendar—they’ll start with their “Phase II” work on Wednesday, and put the pads on Monday, Aug. 17.
“I personally love it,” said Fells. “As a vet, the biggest thing, in reality, is that injuries happen in camp. You’re beating up on each other. So instead of that, we’re working on the mental part of the game, we’re working on technique. I think it’s been very helpful. I don’t know how the games are going to be, but having this level of freshness physically is good.”
That said, Fells and Schwartz both agreed that, for young players, this circumstance steepens the hill they need to climb to win jobs and then roles for the fall.
Schwartz raised the example of Andrew Wylie. An undrafted free agent, Wylie spent 2017 bouncing from the Colts to the Browns to the Chargers and, finally, to the Chiefs, earning a spot on K.C.’s 2018 camp roster in the process. He came into that summer running with the 3s. But a strong preseason game vaulted him to the second string. And Wylie wound up starting 10 games that fall after Laurent Duvernay-Tardif got hurt.
“This is a tough one for young players, because you see players every year go up and down the depth chart based on camp and preseason games,” Schwartz said. “The element of showing the coach that he can trust you in a high-leverage situation is huge. You see guys who are awesome in practice and can’t translate it, and vice versa, and it’s going to be hard to make determinations on those guys in general.”
“One-hundred percent,” Fells said. “They missed a lot—OTAs, the mental aspect of the spring, getting to see the defense in front of you. The offense vs. defense piece is huge, because that’s where you see the speed of football at this level. It’ll be tough for them.”
The flip side—guys with knowhow and experience have an edge.
And it’s one both the Texans and Chiefs should carry based on how their rosters are made up. In fact, Fells pointed out not just the guys coming back off the 2019 Texans, but also how the brass emphasized acquiring a certain type of more experienced, more professional player this offseason. That wasn’t specific to the pandemic, but, as Fells sees it, it sure won’t hurt the group under these circumstances.
“Having vets on this team playing back in the same offense is huge,” he said. “We don’t have a ton of teaching to do. And the guys they did bring in, we have a lot of confidence in as teammates, they’re very professional. … You can just tell everyone’s focused, guys like [Brandin] Cooks and [Randall] Cobb know how to conduct themselves in meetings, know when to speak up, they aren’t making mistakes. That should be huge in a year like this.”
Which, as we’ve said a million times in this space the last few months, will be a year like no other—something evidenced again Sunday on those fields in Missouri and Texas.
The NFL has to be happy with its testing results thus far. Obviously, the league would like to have zero opt-outs, and zero positive tests. But nearly two weeks into camp, with players now into the ramp-up period, this qualifies as positive news: Through nearly two weeks, the NFL has placed 105 guys on COVID-19 IR (and not all of those are positive tests, some are a result of contact tracing), and just 67 guys opted-out. If you take into account that around 2,700 players reported to training camp, less than 4% of the league has had to go on the COVID list, and less than 3% opted out. Also, 74 of the 105 who have gone on COVID-IR have come back already, and just 36 of the 67 opt-outs were under the voluntary category, meaning nearly half who opted out did it with a very specific medical reason. This reflects a couple things for me. One, I do think it shows that the raw number of guys wasn’t as high as some might’ve feared—the league was bracing for a large number of positives in the initial round of testing (for players to gain entry to facilities), and that didn’t happen. Two, I think it does show that players who want to play, and players who feel like they need to play (who might worry a job won’t be there for them when they come back) comprise a huge percentage of the league. And that’s one reason why the union’s goals aligned pretty seamlessly with the league’s during their negotiations—the focus for most was on getting a season started and finished, which required putting a premium on health and safety. Overall, if you’re an NFL fan, you should feel encouraged right now.
I think some positives arose from the Matthew Stafford situation last week. One, a team stood up for a star player and the league’s reaction wasn’t immediately to slap that team on the wrist. The Lions were aggressive in helping Stafford in this case. His false positive–after he tested negative on July 28 and 29—came on July 31. Later that day, the team got him tested again, which was the first of four negative tests he turned around before being reinstated on Aug. 4. And then, they went forward in saying, in a statement, that the positive was, in fact, a false positive. So good on Detroit for all that. And good on the league for seeing that, in a certain way, it was lucky to have a situation like this arise now. It perfectly crystallized the fear of a lot of NFL coaches, that a poorly-time false positive could sideline a starting quarterback for a game. (If the Lions were playing last Sunday, that would’ve been the case.) The league acted by updating its protocols to allow players who persistently test negative before and after a positive to be reinstated. So what happened with Stafford? It’s possible it was just a faulty test. I’m told one other scenario was that he already had COVID-19, and there were traces in his system detected, even though the virus is now gone. Either way, this situation created a pathway for players in Stafford’s situation not to miss games, which is a good thing.
Overall, people need to listen to character flags on players coming out of college. You may remember Derrius Guice’s mysterious draft-weekend fall a couple years ago. There was a ton of negative noise surrounding the ex-LSU star that April, and it was enough to scare some teams away. You may also recall why DeAndre Baker slid a little last year, with questions about his discipline and how he’d fit into a professional environment. I know people like to poke fun at the pre-draft process, but this is why teams basically have their area scouts doubling as private investigators on the ground (it’s often as important for them to have connections with local law enforcement as it to be close to the local offensive line coach), and have actual private investigators on retainer. I wrote a story on this years ago, in the aftermath of Aaron Hernandez’s arrest, and I still remember how then-Rams coach Jeff Fisher explained that the job is only beginning with the pre-draft vetting. “I've often said that when I first started as a head coach, 80% of your time, or thereabouts, was X's and O's,” Fisher said. "And now there are days and periods of time where that's flipped, where 80% of your time winds up being those other things, because my responsibility, in addition to a lot of other things, my ultimate responsibility is to make sure that the players are physically, mentally and emotionally right when they either step on the practice field or play on Sunday.” The fact is, teams wouldn’t pour the resources they do into turning over rocks on prospects if the off-field stuff didn’t matter. Guice and Baker show it does.
And credit to Washington for moving on from Guice as swiftly as it did. I’m not totally sure that it’s fair that Ron Rivera’s had to be the front man for so many different off-the-field things for the Washington Football Team this offseason (the nickname change, a sexual harassment scandal, now this), but I’ll say this—for a franchise that’s long had a history of internal back-stabbing, and one guy climbing over the next to get to the top of the flowchart, there is zero debate over who’s in charge now. This, in many ways, is how New England empowered Bill Belichick at the start of his tenure, and it’s the “one voice” way that a lot of coaches believe in. There’ll be very little question in that locker room who everyone is answering too. (And yes, it was a little awkward to see Rueben Foster, given his history, activated into a roster spot vacated by Guice. But Foster has been fine since arriving in D.C., so it’d hardly be fair to penalize him for someone else’s transgressions.)
Cam Newton hit all the right notes in his availability with the New England media. And he even stayed in character with the grandma-chic look. I took this quote, in particular, as a good sign of where he is, especially in how he referenced his end in Carolina, and the tepid market he faced in the spring: “It’s a breath of fresh air to be honest with you and a challenge I have to accept each and every day. But no challenge is ever going to be greater than a personal challenge that I challenge myself. Yeah, we all know what that was and what it was needs no mention. But at the same time for me, I think I have my hands full trying to learn as much in a short period of time. That’s what I’m trying to do—meeting with coaches day-to-day and getting assistance from Hoyster and Stiddy.” In one fell swoop there, Newton showed a lack of entitlement, an ability to compartmentalize what was an uncomfortable few months, and respect for new teammates who are in a competitive situation with him. Here’s the other thing—I’m not sure people understand how Newton’s teammates in Carolina loved him as a person. He never cared to fix public perception on that, but it’s true. And it’s also notable that he was a captain on a very tight-knit 2015 team that made it to the Super Bowl. So I think Newton will fit in New England better than some think.
Maybe I’m alone, but I think pushing Sunday games to Saturday would be a mistake. And I know that sounds nuts coming from someone who loves football—and I can’t wait to have football on my TV again. But I firmly believe that one of football’s great advantages as a televised sport is its scarcity. The NFL doesn’t ask of a fan what other sports do. Pro football is on three days a week, and the fact that it doesn’t require its audience to be locked in on a nightly basis allows each broadcast window to feel like an event. If you’re moving games to Saturday? Now we’re talking about something else. Let’s say the NFL, in the absence of college football, put tripleheaders on Saturdays. You’d have, very naturally, some real dogs as stand-alone games in those windows. On weekends with six teams having byes, you’d have seven games total in the four FOX/CBS windows at 1:00 and 4:25 p.m. ET. On weekends that four teams have a bye, you’d have eight games in those windows. So, to me, what I see here would be more bad games on national TV, and a destruction of the beautiful chaos that is the two Sunday afternoon slots (it’d also be tough for my buddies Andrew Siciliano and Scott Hanson on the RedZone channels). Would it drive me away? Of course not. I do this for a living and I’d be watching even if I didn’t. But looking at the casual fan (which is what the NFL is after), you’d be asking for that person to spend two full days on the couch watching a watered-down product. Which seems like one of those ideas that looks a lot better on a whiteboard than it does in practice.
I’m encouraged seeing the XFL bought by RedBird Capital and The Rock. The former has deep NFL ties. The latter was a football player before he became a pro-wrestler-turned-actor. And I think the two combined can bring a handle on the macro “football as a business” element of restarting the league, and micro “how we can serve players trying to make it” part of all this as well. The fact is, the NFL really could use a developmental league, and both the AAF and the latest iteration of the XFL showed that, even as they failed when it came to the bottom line. The challenge with constructing a viable minor league in football, given the cost in staging the sport and the structure of it in general, is always going to be finding a way to turn a profit. But this group, at the very least, should give the XFL a fighting chance.
This is why Calais Campbell is who he is: “The first thing you do when you come to a new team is you want to just show people your work ethic and how hard you're willing to grind, try to earn their respect. So I've spent the last couple weeks, and really the offseason program that we had virtually, just trying to earn my teammates’ respect." Remember, this is a guy who’s played a dozen NFL seasons, turns 34 on Sept. 1, and has made five Pro Bowls. And he is the one trying to win the respect of those around him. The Ravens got themselves the right kind of guy, like they usually do. Also, it’s interesting how Baltimore has stocked its defense with a number of third-contract guys—Campbell is joined in that category by Derek Wolfe, Earl Thomas and Pernell McPhee. That, of course, says something about what John Harbaugh and GM Eric DeCosta value.
Good to see the officials taken care of. The NFLRA got its group (of which a decent number is older in age) a pretty good set of options, amid the issues created by the pandemic. Game and replay officials can voluntarily take a leave of absence, no questions asked, with a stipend of $30,000 and a guarantee that their job will be waiting for them in 2021. Also, if an official tests positive for COVID-19 during the season, it will be treated as if that official sustained it on the field—making the official eligible for injury pay with his medical expenses covered. Obviously, there’ll be risk for the officials the next few months. This is a nice acknowledgement of that.
I’m fascinated by the Buccaneers. I’d like to think I knew I would be. But there’s such an interesting group (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, et al.) around Tom Brady, and then there’s the dynamic between Brady, Bruce Arians, OC Byron Leftwich and QB coach Clyde Christensen, and how Brady himself looks at 43, and this is all gonna be really, really intriguing. I know I’m not breaking new ground here. But that’s one team I’ll look forward to seeing in August, even in just a practice setting.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) The idea that college football isn’t happening in the fall is pretty devastating. My first thought is that I wish we’d had our crap together as a country in the spring. Maybe this wouldn’t have happened if we had. My second thought is this is also thanks to the failure of the conference commissioners to work tougher earlier on solutions. I sensed a lot of anger toward those guys—and the NCAA—from the college coaches I communicated with Sunday night. And rightfully so. The buck was passed to the schools to come up with their own protocols months ago, and a pretty fair amount did a really good job with those, only to see this outcome. I’d be frustrated, too.
2) I think the fallout from this will be massive but not in the way a lot of people think. Football and men’s basketball will survive this. If I was a scholarship athlete in a sport other than those two at a major conference school, I’d be very, very nervous right now. It’s not crazy to think there might be athletic departments in the future that have football, men’s hoops, enough women’s sports to satisfy Title IX and that’s it.
3) I didn’t get to watch a ton of the PGA Championship on Sunday—I’ve been chipping away at this column all weekend—but I will say that these events being the West Coast is always awesome, because we get them coming down the stretch in primetime.
4) Playoff hockey still rules. Even in a bubble. Even in August.
5) The baseball season, on the other hand, has been an abject joke. Just a total mess.
6) Happy fourth birthday to my stud of a middle child Drew! (I’ll make sure he sees this on Monday morning, even if he probably won’t care much.)
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
I know this isn’t an NFL tweet. But Lawrence will be in the NFL soon. And I think it’s notable that the player in college football who needs the season least is one who spoke up and took a stand. I think it also underscores what a lot of people forget when looking at the sport like an econ graduate would see an accounting job—most of the guys playing it really love it, and don’t want it taken away.
And if the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft saying it wasn’t enough, here’s the leader to be the No. 2 pick chiming in, too.
Nine years after he retired, Mike Vrabel still looks like he could suit up.
Words to live by. And it recalls an old saying from the great Woody Hayes: “Anything that comes easy ain’t worth a damn.”
It’s still strange—all these shots.
Also strange that this was supposed to be Hall of Fame weekend.
Furrey’s one of those guys who did some really crazy stuff over a short period of time that history will probably forget. His career was unique.
How did the Browns ever go away from these spectacular uniforms?
These mouth shields got shaky reviews in college football, after the guys at that level gave them a test drive. We’ll find out soon if NFL guys feel any differently.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
We’ve got a big week ahead in the sport. College football faces a critical couple days. And NFL guys will put pads on for the first time, post-COVID. We’ll have you covered on both counts at SI—and be sure to follow the work Pat Forde and Ross Dellenger are doing on the college side. They’ve killed it through this mess.
As for the pros, we’ll see you guys later today for the MAQB.
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