The sun was barely up over Ohio when Browns senior vice president of player health and development Joe Sheehan got word that a rash of positive tests were coming back from Saturday morning’s daily screening. Players. Coaches. Staffers. As the team’s appointed infection control officer, Sheehan stunned and sent straight into action to call all those who came up on the list.
Next? With Cleveland’s players due in for 8:30 a.m. meetings, decisions had to be made. And by 6:30 a.m. ET, a big one came down—the team was closing its facility for the day, and started working on a deep cleaning and a plan for everyone to work from home.
“You just sort of have to whip out your plan,” is how one staffer described it.
Soon enough, the league called. The Browns’ “outbreak” was hardly isolated. In fact, teams that were sending their samples to the same facility as Cleveland—a lab in New Jersey—were experiencing the same avalanche of positive tests.
The numbers weren’t quite as bad in Buffalo but were high enough to take the Bills off their course for the day. For many, the morning started with a mass message from the team telling them everything on the schedule was being pushed back an hour, which bought time for those who tested positive (there were between 15 and 20 organization-wide, fewer than a handful of whom were players) tested again on-site.
They all took both a point-of-care test (which is the rapid test), and a PCR test. All tested as negative on the rapid test. The catch: Per the NFL’s protocol, a negative on the PCR test, which wouldn’t come back until after the workday was complete, was required for those 15-20 team employees to return to the facility. So those 15–20 would have to stay home.
Ultimately, that meant when the Bills decided to open back up for business—after considering cutting back to a walkthrough or going all virtual for the day—those 15–20 people weren’t there.
And what makes this really interesting is that one of those on the list was QB Josh Allen.
I’m wrapping up stop six of my seven-city camp swing, so we’ve got plenty of fun football stuff coming for you today. Including …
• How Sam Darnold learned to play quarterback this offseason.
• The method to Joe Judge’s madness.
• How the Ravens’ culture should help carry them through this year.
• Washington’s new team president.
But we’re starting with what began as a sleepy Sunday, then quickly became a pretty wild test case for one of the challenges the NFL is facing in its Season of COVID-19.
You read that right: If Sunday’s events took place exactly three weeks later, under the NFL’s current protocols, you’d be looking at Matt Barkley as the Bills’ opening day starter at quarterback.
Allen took a COVID-19 test on Saturday morning in Orchard Park, and the test came back positive before his alarm went off Sunday morning. From there, the NFL mandated that he take a point-of-care test and a PCR test (which, again, can take up to 24 hours to come back) right away. But passing the rapid test isn’t enough to confirm a false positive, per the protocols. The PCR test needs to come back negative, too.
Had the Bills played a game Sunday, there’s no way it would’ve come back in time for Allen to suit up.
That’s one good thing that came out of Sunday. Ten teams went through a scare (which eventually turned into a mere annoyance), and they all got a realistic fire drill, based on a pretty plausible scenario. Another plus would be that the league got to see what the fallout would be in a situation like this—which, I’d bet, will get Park Ave. to adjust its rules.
The bad? Well, there was the scare itself, and the disruption at a time when teams don’t really need a disruption. The Browns got in five hours after they’d expected to on Sunday, at around 1:45 p.m., and canceled their planned padded practice, putting a 60-minute walkthrough in its place. Also, they made Sunday night’s meetings virtual so the facility could undergo the aforementioned deep cleaning—just in case.
By now, you probably know what happened here. The Browns and Bills, as well the Eagles, Patriots, Jets, Giants, Lions, Bears, Packers, Steelers and Vikings, all had false positives on Sunday morning. Getting the false positives actually hasn’t been all that uncommon across the NFL over the last few weeks. Those happen. What was unusual this time was the volume and consistency, and then, upon closer inspection, the common location.
All 11 of those teams were assigned a laboratory in New Jersey (one of a handful of sites across the country the NFL is using) for their daily tests, which are run by BioReference Laboratories. The total number of positive tests was 77—with roughly two-thirds of those coming from players—and all 77 of those people came up negative in the follow-up rapid tests on Sunday.
Also, as I’m writing this, all 77 of the samples that came up positive over the weekend were being rerun, and all that had been returned came up negative. Which is, yes, pretty wild, and raised a very real concern among teams.
What if this happens in three weeks?
The truth is, there’s no single answer right now. It’s possible the rapid tests will become more reliable. They’re a few percentage points shy of the PCR tests (which are over 99% accurate) in that department, and if they catch up, that solves the issue of lag time that kept those 77 people away from the workplace on Sunday.
Absent that, the NFL and union have discussed Friday testing ahead of Saturday’s travel day, which would give players a chance to retest and get cleared for Sunday (the obvious problem there, of course, is the possibility the a player contracts the virus on Friday night or Saturday). There’s also the question of whether, on a Sunday morning, the NFL could have the labs on call to rerun potential false-positive samples—which, of course, would hinge on the lab turning them around fast enough to get a guy on the field for kickoff.
All of this is on the table as the NFL and NFLPA leave the conversation on how to deal with COVID-19 open—and plan to leave it open all year. Things will change. New advances should help along the way. New challenges are coming too.
And it’s all a reminder that this is going to be a really different year.
On Sunday, it cost the Browns a padded practice in a year when teams aren’t getting many of those. But the truth is, if it helps the league avoid something worse down the line, then Cleveland and the other 10 teams going through what they did Sunday will have been worth it.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J.— You don’t often hear how “raw” Sam Darnold is as a quarterback. But the truth, is back in 2018, before he was drafted, that’s how a lot of scouts saw him.
Darnold wasn’t classically trained or privately coached as a grade-schooler, like so many Southern California quarterbacks are. In fact, until his junior year in high school, he was a linebacker. And until he got to USC, he was a multisport athlete, starring on the basketball court as well as the football field.
So there’s always been room for Darnold to grow and, in a roundabout way, the COVID-19 quarantine finally gave him the chance to explore all of that.
We wrote back in the spring about the QB quarantine that he, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Washington’s Kyle Allen were hunkered down in, with throwing coach Jordan Palmer. Those four, plus Josh Allen and Kyle Allen’s girlfriends, and Darnold’s ex-USC teammate Matt Lopes, were together in Orange County when the lockdown began, and made the most of it, working out in a trainer’s garage and running QB drills on the beach or in any open park they could find.
At that point, Darnold really had no idea what was ahead. But as it became clear that what he initially expected to be a two- or three-week delay would turn his offseason upside down altogether, he suddenly had an opportunity that he’d never really had before. Without his Jets teammates around him, he had the chance to focus an extended period of time on his own individual growth as a quarterback.
“Yeah, I’ve never had this much time to be able to work on that,” Darnold told me after practice Wednesday. “And, again, that was to my first point. When I was working out in the garage, we didn’t know how long it was going to be. When it first broke out it was, ‘OK, is it gonna be two or three weeks?’ Not, like, ‘Is it gonna be a year or two years?’ It was really taking it one step at a time, and just saying, ‘All right, this is what I need to work on, let’s work on it. And all of the sudden we had more and more time.
“It’s like, ‘OK, well, we don’t need to move on, I still feel like I can improve in these areas.’ And so we kept repping and repping and repping those same drills.”
Now, remember, this is a guy who was conference Freshman of the Year in 2016, first-team All-Pac 12 and Rose Bowl champion in 2017, the third pick in 2018, and off to a pretty promising start in his first two years as a pro—before he got to do this. So it stands to reason that with a shot at refining his ability to actually play quarterback, another big leap could be coming.
To that end, as we talked, Darnold wound up explaining two specific areas that he, Palmer, and his trainer drilled down on over the last few months.
The first was to improve his hip mobility and his T-spine mobility. The former should work to make Darnold faster, more agile and more able to change direction. And your ability to move your hips helps with your throwing motion. The latter is important for all athletes in avoiding neck injuries and, for quarterbacks in particular, shoulder injuries.
The second thing was way more specific—Darnold wanted to become more consistent closing off when throwing to his right. And here’s where we’ll go into dorky quarterback details. Right-handed quarterbacks’ lead shoulders are naturally closed off when they throw left. But when they go to their right, the tendency can be to just throw, rather than squaring that shoulder to the target. Long story short, that was a problem for Darnold.
“We do this throw with Jordan where we get set to throw, we have a seven-step play-action and we’re getting set to throw an in-cut to the left, and then all of the sudden we have to flip back and throw a comeback to the right,” Darnold said. “I was always good throwing to my left because I’m already closed off. Last year, I would flip to my right, and I wouldn’t really move my feet a ton, I’d just flip my shoulders and huck it over there, using all arm.
“This offseason, I really made a point of emphasis, ‘If I go to throw an in-cut, and I have a seven-step drop and I’m throwing that in-cut to my left, thinking, OK, if I have to get to that comeback on the right, it’s really getting my whole body over there, and get my legs and my shoulders, everything pointed at my target, and really make sure I get everything into my throw. Because that could be the difference between a completion or an interception.”
And then, Darnold used a throw from Wednesday’s practice as an example, one that didn’t look like much to the naked eye, but one where this slight adjustment could turn a routine checkdown into a big play. Turns out, that throw is one, now, he’s making routinely.
“That’s shown up these last couple days,” he said. “I’d make a read to my left, it wouldn’t be there, and then all of the sudden, I gotta get back to my back on the right. And I’m getting my entire body closed off and the ball’s a lot more accurate, where Le’Veon [Bell] can get up the field and make someone miss—he has that much more time to get the ball and think about what he’s gonna do once the ball’s in his hands.
“He doesn’t have to go that extra inch to reach behind him and all of the sudden the defender’s already on him and he’s already tackled. I’m throwing a better ball and he’s able to make someone miss because he doesn’t have to worry about catching it on his back hip.”
So that’s just one example of what Darnold’s hoping will make a difference in the fall. The practice I saw was a relatively light one, and it’s not like you can draw sweeping conclusions from these sessions anyway.
But that Darnold feels like mechanically he’s coming together as a quarterback, and that he can feel that in how—between the increased hip and T-spine mobility, and that technical work—he’s far more consistently getting his whole body into this throws, is undeniably great news for the Jets. Add to it that he’s in his second year in Adam Gase’s system (and he spent a good amount of time studying Peyton Manning tape this offseason to build on Year 1 in the offense), and it’s not that difficult to see a bounce coming.
At the very least, all this work Darnold’s never had the time to do before has the 23-year-old just so subtly peeking ahead, excited at what might be when the live bullets start flying.
“No doubt, no doubt,” he said. “I feel like our whole team has been doing a good job taking it one day at a time. But even for me, it’s like, every day I look forward to going to practice because I feel myself getting more and more comfortable with the offense, and I can feel those little fundamentals creeping in every now and then. I’m being more consistent with how I throw the football. It is exciting.
“And that’s what makes it more and more exciting to go to practice every day, to be honest.”
And exciting to think of where his game might go a few weeks from now, too.
JUDGE EXPLAINS THE LAPS
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.— I did bring the whole lap-running thing up to Joe Judge on Wednesday, after his Giants went through their third padded practice of the summer, and after he took hits on the daytime talk show circuit and social media. And while we were there, the new New York coach wanted to clear something up—he never made his coaches run.
“Look, from what I’ve heard, it’s been overblown completely,” Judge said, laughing. “I’d say the biggest thing, everyone’s making a comment about the coaches—I’ve never told any coach to run. And when I was an assistant, I was never told to run either. But when my guys ran, I just wasn’t gonna let them run and then not run. I always felt like if you did, they’d know you were in it with them. It gave you a better connection with them.
“It’s simple. There are consequences on the field. Really, for these guys, running a lap, it’s not strenuous at all, it’s a reminder. You have to understand that, Hey, when I screw something up, when I’m not focused or locked in, there’s a consequence.”
These are Judge’s Giants now, and tucked away in there is this fact—there has been buy-in.
Whether it’s a coach running a lap, or the way the whole operation looked on the day I was there, it’s pretty clear by how efficient the practices are, and clean the one I saw was (for the record, I didn’t see anyone run a lap), that, for now, the team is moving in lockstep. And that was obvious in how fast the two-hour Wednesday workout moved, and how all the moving parts came together.
Controlled chaos is the best way I can describe it. Coaches yelling at the top of their lungs. Constant movement. Very little standing around. Even at the end of practice—during the “opportunity period” when third-stringers get a shot at offense vs. defense—the prime-timers were on a separate field, Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate among them, with a strength coach running ladders (a football equivalent of suicides).
“That’s totally by design, we don’t want guys out there just standing around,” Judge said. “We do two spot drills, we’ll have mirrored versions of the practice going on different fields, we have separate drills for the team run period, we’ll keep some of the receivers in for blocking, we’ll take the rest of the receivers and work another fundamental drill against the DBs, and we’ll rotate them halfway through. It’s really by design to make sure we can maximize the time we’re allowed.
“You’re restricted for total time on the field, especially during this acclimation period where it’s ramping up incrementally. Today was a two-hour practice but we used all that two hours and made sure everyone was moving all the time. Like we explained to the team—we had a 90-minute practice the first day we were in pads, we were able to make that 90-minute practice essentially a 180-minute practice by keeping everyone going.”
The underlying message here—everyone’s got a shot to put what they can on tape, and nothing is done without reason. And there were other parts of the practice, unrelated to laps being run, that drove all this home.
• There was one drill for which the practice essentially stopped. That was a tackling pursuit drill, where the team circled up around two stations, with players called forward to go one-on-one with one another. Why? Well, there’s the competitive part of it, and putting players in front of the group amps that up. But more so, it was to emphasize to everyone how vital the fundamental of tackling is, and allow for all to absorb the coaching points given.
“You don’t have to see who the toughest guy out there is,” Judge said. “We do it so we can correct the mistake for everybody to hear. One of the things everyone has to remember, we have to teach these guys how to tackle. It’s amazing, you go out there first day, everyone’s dropping their head, everyone’s feet are stopping, everyone’s putting themselves in a vulnerable position. And the improvement from the first day we did it to today was night-and-day. So you have to go out and reemphasize it and keep working on it.”
• The coaches, again, are loud, and the chatter is constant—after one 11-on-11 snap, there might be a half-dozen staffers colorfully getting after their players. As Judge explains it, he wants the teaching that happens in meetings to spill on to the practice field, and also knows that the methods on grass can’t be the same as those in front of an overhead projector.
“In between those white lines, we have to have an intensity about us,” Judge said. “You’re not gonna sit out there and break down every conversation to a slow pace like we’re sitting there hanging out together. We gotta correct on the move—the player’s gotta get the point, he’s gotta digest it, he has to absorb it and then he has to move on to the next play. So it has to happen fast.”
Judge then acknowledged the obvious: “Is there some colorful language? Absolutely. But I made it clear to the coaches, and we have good people out there, you’re never cursing at a person. There’s language here or there, but we’re never demeaning a player in any way, shape or form. That’s something I strongly believe in. We’re not gonna have whipping boys. We’re not gonna have anyone made an example of. We’re gonna use lessons as examples.”
• Part of teaching is giving players the why pretty constantly. They got it on the practice of running laps, all the same as they’d get it on how to block an off-tackle play, and Judge is going to make sure they keep getting it. More than anything, it’s to empower them.
“I’m very big on the word why,” Judge said. “I want our coaches explaining why we’re doing things. These are intelligent guys. If you explain why we’re doing something within a concept, they can make the decision on the field when something doesn’t line up exactly how you practiced it, and they understand what they’re trying to accomplish. Then, they can make a decision.
“I tell them all the time, we’re gonna learn more from you as players half the time then you are from us as coaches. We’re gonna want you to do something, and then we’re gonna say, ‘Hey, we need to teach you that way now.’”
And now, we go full circle, back to the laps. As Judge and I talked, it became pretty clear that he sees them differently than most people do. He doesn’t see them as demeaning or taxing, but there is price that’s paid—and one he does want his players to feel.
“I would say it’s more mental than physical,” Judge said. “I think the biggest punishment the player’s gonna end up having is they lose that rep. You jump offsides, you false start, boom, the next guy’s in. That’s a rep you’ve lost. These guys don’t wanna lose reps. They’re out here to practice and compete.”
On the day I was there, they were. And, again, I think that’s a pretty good sign.
RAVENS SEND E.T. HOME
OWINGS MILLS, Md.— Everything that happened with the COVID-19 testing Sunday sort of buried a pretty big piece of news here: The Ravens fired seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas, in essence, for cause, after a Friday altercation with Chuck Clark. It wasn’t the first strike against Thomas in Baltimore, and the battle over his $10 million guarantee for 2020 will probably drag the situation out a while for the franchise.
But when I talked to John Harbaugh, as he bussed back to the facility from a Sunday stadium practice, he seemed intent on not having it linger with his players.
“Our statement is gonna stand as it is,” Harbaugh told me. “The only thing I’d say from my perspective, I guess, is I’d wish Earl and his family the best, and I’d just leave it at that.”
And as for Harbaugh’s intention of moving on, I don’t think finding guys to follow him will be a problem either. In fact, on the day I was out there—Saturday—the team was less than 24 hours removed from the incident, and without QB Lamar Jackson (he got a maintenance day), and practice was as smooth and efficient as any coach could’ve hoped for, even as the internet was buzzing about the drama (fueled, in part, by a Thomas social media missive).
It looked, very much, like the team that was football’s best over the first five months of the 2019 season, and whether it was Mark Ingram’s constant chirping, or Brandon Williams’ playful heckling of kicker Justin Tucker during a field-goal period, it seemed pretty clear that all the personality and swagger the Ravens had last year remains intact.
“There’s certainly carryover,” Harbaugh said. “That culture, that chemistry, that’s borne of shared experiences, shared chemistry, shared understanding, shared values, and those things grow stronger over time, when you’re challenged by adversity or by success. And then you’ve gotta integrate the new people into that, where they understand what you’re about. But I think the root of that is in the character and the heart of the people.
“You can have good chemistry when you have the right kind of people together. We pretty much understand the type of players we like, the type of coaches we like, the values we set, the personality, the work ethic we look for. And that shared understanding of what it takes to be successful drives all that, I think. Then you have good guys who love to compete like Lamar and Mark Ingram and others that glue it all together.”
And all that’s been tested. It was tested, of course, with the upset loss to the Titans in the divisional round last year. It was tested last week with the Thomas saga. It’s been tested throughout in how COVID-19 has changed training camp for a veteran team.
“Now that we’ve been in pads for five days it’s more like camp,” Harbaugh said. “But the funny thing is, normally when you’re this far in, I look at it from a football standpoint, we have a lot of work to do still, and we don’t have the same amount of time to get it done. Everything’s really condensed, it’s all pushed towards the back here. So whether it’s execution or just dealing with tweak-y injuries, these things would’ve happened two weeks ago that are happening now.
“It’s gonna be pushed up to the first game, and we’ll just have to figure it out. Everyone’s dealing with the same issues, it’s just gonna be a little different that way.”
Good thing is, based on how they handled the Thomas situation, the Ravens seem ready to lean in and swing at whatever curveball they get tossed next.
WASHINGTON’S NEW LEADER
I’d heard the story last week from ex-Cardinals GM Rod Graves. He, at the time, was trying to coax another NFL season out of veteran running back/special teams ace Jason Wright. Graves knew what he had as player and person in Wright—he was elected a captain in 2009, in his first year with a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance—and had plenty of reason to make his pitch. But Wright had a better retort.
He wanted to go to business school.
Late Sunday night, Wright and I discussed that story, and I asked him if at that point, going into the fall of 2011, when he decided to pursue his MBA over another season of pro football, he figured he’d eventually return to the NFL world. His answer was direct.
“No,” he said. “I did not.”
Wright then explained his three reasons for going to business school. One, as a union player rep, the NFL lockout had piqued his interest in the business side of the sport, a world he found he didn’t quite understand, but wanted to get to know. Two, he comes from a house of, in his words, “do-gooders,” and he’d noticed in related interactions with nonprofits and community organizations that they could use help from people with an understanding of money. Third, he had a young family, and wanted to set down roots, and get started with that phase of his life—“my intellectual curiosity just sort of plateaued in the league.”
Well, nine years later, he’s made his way back. And after getting that MBA at the University of Chicago, and making partner at the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey and Co., it’s as president of the Washington Football Team.
From my first conversation with Wright, the one thing I would say is that, at 38 years old, he seems pretty ready for this. He’s fully aware of what he’s walking into, and knows the changes needed won’t happen overnight. And that’s why he’s wasting no time in getting started. Here are a few things from our conversation. …
• He hasn’t known owner Dan Snyder for very long—he said the first conversation he had with the Washington owner happened after the team dropped its nickname in July. But in the short time since then, their talks have been direct. Wright got warnings on what he was walking into, and asked questions of the man in charge accordingly.
“I asked about all the things I might've had concerns about,” he said. “And they did the same. We gave each other really transparent answers. We went back and forth on things, really pushing one another. I asked all the questions I can. I guess you can only be however percentage certain how things will pan out as you plan. But what gave me the utmost confidence was the nature of our conversations in directness, but on top of that the actions I saw them take. They hired Coach Rivera. They hired Julie Donaldson. …
“They made some big decisions. Those types of action-oriented moves, combined with the conversations we had, gave me enough confidence to go into this joyfully.”
• The team president role can mean different things for different teams. So I asked Wright how he sees the job.
“To me it's super clear,” he said. “There's the head coach, and he's the head of football operations, all things football. He manages and leads and makes decisions around everything that happens between the lines on Sunday, and everything that contributes to what happens between the lines on Sunday or Monday or Thursday. And his metric for success is wins and losses.
“I oversee everything else. The things that start from outside the sideline all the way up into the stands and behind the camera. And my metric is dollars and cents, franchise value. That's the simple way that I think about it. And obviously all the business operations.”
• As for what Wright can do right now, the new president was clear on his focus.
“In my head, I have sort of a theme—listen, learn and manage,” he said. “I'm trying to listen. I'm trying to meet a lot of people. I'm trying to meet as many people in the organization as I possibly can. In as fast an amount of time I can. But do it in a substantive way. One-on-one, in small groups, so I really get to hear about our culture, things we're excited about, things that have hindered us in the past. …
“Learn is not just learning from them, but also getting a pretty fact-based and rigorous view of both our financial performance and our culture. Try to dig into the financials, understand the drivers. How have we been doing over time? What's the trend? How do we compare to others? All that jazz. … And the manage is: There are things that are near-term important for us. COVID is one. Starting our culture shift in earnest [is another].”
• So does Wright know when he’ll have the new nickname?
"No, I do not,” he said. “What we've set out is, call it an 18-month process. You think about how brands launch, somewhere between 12 and 24 months, generally speaking. … It's going to involve a collaboration. It's going to involve a lot of engagement with fans, with sponsors, engagement with the players, the staff, stakeholders in the broader DMV area. Because the leaders of the DMV need to be engaged on it. Because this identity that we're going to develop, not just the name, is going to inform how we engage with fans.”
When he said 18 months, I asked if that means the nickname won’t come until fall 2022. His answer: “I think we need some time. We will play this whole season as the Washington Football Team, I will tell you that."
• Believe it or not, Wright didn’t know he’d be the first Black team president in NFL history until work began on the press release to announce the hire. And when he found out, he says, “I’m like, ‘Oh, this might end up being a little more interesting than I thought.’” Which it was.
“If you're not a person of color or a woman, you don't actually have to have these discussions,” he said. “Which, in one way, is beneficial. You just sort of move on and start doing your job. That said, over the past week, I've understood the importance to rest in it, to acknowledge and to celebrate it. Not because it's me, but because of all the folks that came before. Kevin Warren, the COO of the Vikings for years, who did this job in everything but name alone.
“Rod Graves, the Black general manager I played under. Romeo Crennel, Black coach I played under. All these folks that made it clear that Black talent could exist and thrive outside of the hashmarks. That's an important thing to acknowledge, the progress those folks laid out.”
And now, he’s the one taking his step for the next guy.
BEST WISHES TO RON RIVERA
While we’re on Washington, I hope everyone sends their well-wishes to D.C. as Ron Rivera embarks on a battle with squamous cell cancer. He told his players of his diagnosis on Thursday.
"I'm not being rosy about this," he told the D.C. media over the weekend. "I'm being honest. I know I'm going to struggle, so on days I do, I ask the coaches to step up and the players to step up and take ownership. I understand the significance of what I'm going through and I understand how tough it's going to be. Those days I can be on the field, I will be on the field. If I'm there, we'll be business as usual. If not, Plan B.
“I don't expect that to happen. I hope it doesn't happen. I hope I can make every practice. The prognosis is good, so I'm fairly confident. I can't wait to get started and get it over with."
Plan B in this case would be for defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, himself a two-time former NFL head coach, to take the reins. When we get to the Best of the NFL Internet section below, you'll see how the NFL community is rooting for that plan to stay on ice. But before we get there—all the best to Rivera. You won’t find a more universally respected or well-liked coach in the sport of football, and that’s largely because of the way he treats everyone that he comes into contact with. It doesn’t matter if it’s one of his coordinators or a star player, or the janitor or the last guy on the practice squad.
Everyone, it seems, has good feelings for Rivera. Hopefully, he gets to see that now, and it gives him a little more strength for the fight ahead.
The Derrius Guice situation only got uglier with USA Today’s reporting this week. I’d reiterate what I’ve said before—there’s a reason why teams flag certain guys pre-draft. I can remember before, and then during, the 2018 draft how bizarre Guice’s slide was in real time. But it was bizarre that teams were scared off. More so, it was bizarre how mysterious the circumstances around it seemed to be. What I heard, from a few people, was there were weird rumors starting to circulate around him, and ones that went beyond a kid who maybe needed to grow up a little. And that the rumors went well beyond your run-of-the-mill red flags was only affirmed over those days. Regarded by many as the second-most talented back in the class, behind only Saquon Barkley, Guice wound up being the seventh guy drafted at his position, with Rashaad Penny, Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Ronald Jones and Kerryon Johnson (as well as Barkley) going before he did. Bottom line: All those teams didn’t pass on Guice to help Washington. There was real concern, and that concern, to say the least, has manifested.
Here’s a crazy fact: Of the six quarterbacks drafted in the first round from 2013-15, there are more out of the league (3) than currently starting (1). And for the record, the only one starting, Teddy Bridgewater, went through a horrific knee injury, and is now on his third team. Meanwhile, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston are set to be backups, and Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and E.J. Manuel are out of football. Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo, 2014 second-rounders, are probably the best quarterbacks to emerge from that stretch. The lesson? To me, it’s that even though you hear the idea of tanking romanticized routinely, there simply aren’t superstar quarterbacks in every draft. That, by the way, is taking nothing from Carr, Garoppolo or Bridgewater. Those guys are good players. But the idea that there’s a franchise-changing quarterback there every year is just, well, wrong. And with all that said, if you’re really insistent on tanking … this actually may be the year to do it.
I’ve heard pretty positive returns on the camp Patrick Peterson is having in Arizona. And it’s more than just how Peterson is playing (and he is playing wel). More so, it’s his focus and how he’s worked with and mentored younger guys like 2019 second-round corner Byron Murphy. That’s great news, too, given the friction between the team and its star corner over the last two years—Peterson asked for a trade in October 2018, and the uneasiness spilled over into 2019, with Peterson at one point scrubbing his social media of any mention of the team he’s played for his whole career. And in assessing all that, I’d give you two takeaways. One, it gives hope to the idea that Peterson might remain in Arizona beyond this year, a contract year. Two, it speaks well of the culture that Kliff Kingsbury has cultivated in the building. Should be fun to see Peterson go in the fall.
The Rams defense is, indeed, going to have a different look this year. You knew that of course, with Brandon Staley bringing over the Vic Fangio scheme from Chicago and Denver. But it also goes over to personnel on the field—since Staley is new, the guys who might’ve been on scholarship before aren’t anymore. Which is why, when I checked in there this week, I got a flood of new guys who have made an impression. The first was Leonard Floyd, who came with Staley from Chicago at a fraction of what the guy he’s replacing, Dante Fowler, was making. The former top-10 pick didn’t come close to matching expectations as a Bear after a promising rookie year, and early signs are that the change of scenery is helping (playing next to Aaron Donald should, too). And then, there’s the team’s newfound depth at safety, with third- and sixth-round picks Terrell Burgess and Jordan Fuller pushing for playing time behind John Johnson and Taylor Rapp (Staley was around good young ones like Justin Simmons and Eddie Jackson the last few years). At any rate, all the change here, and there are a lot on offense too, should be a good test of where Sean McVay’s program is four years in.
The pictures of Chiefs fans without masks at Saturday’s stadium practice were not well-received among other NFL teams. “They couldn’t even be bothered to do it there, huh?” said one team official, miffed that fans wouldn’t just reflexively know what the right thing to do in that situation would be. And these teams aren’t angry because of any of the silliness that ensues on Twitter over these things. They’re upset because they see this as a bad sign as to their ability to put fans in the stands at some point this fall/winter. If, say, another state’s governor looks at this, what will he or she think? That it’ll be different when the local team tries to bring fans in? Or that, considering everything, it’s pretty unlikely that fans will take the precautions they need to in order to protect the larger ecosystem? I’d think it’d be the latter. So if you’re a fan, and want to go to games in the fall, I’d suggest wearing a mask to any event like the one the Chiefs held this weekend.
When Kyle Shanahan wants to explain football to the public, why he’s good at his job is on full display for everyone. He’s detailed. He’s concise. He’s so clear a kid could understand it. Here’s his rundown on Garoppolo getting picked off by Richard Sherman the other day: “It’s never fun when a guy makes a mistake, but it’s always fun to coach it because you can actually get better from that for when it does count. You talk about, I don’t think those are necessarily being aggressive. It’s Sherm playing with vision. Both of those passes weren’t to the guy Sherm was covering, but if you sail anything over guys, or you look at one guy too long and you’re not knowing where he is, Sherm’s just going to follow your eyes and go and come out of nowhere. That’s happened to him twice in the last two days and that’s something that does happen in games, if you’re not aware of those type of players. It’s great to remind him, ‘Hey, you’ve got to work on your eyes here. Just because you’re looking here, it doesn’t mean someone else isn’t looking at you and showing up at the end of the play.’ If no one reminds you of that, like Sherm, for an entire training camp or throughout the preseason and you get reminded in Week 1, you’re like, ‘How the hell did that just happen?’ It’s, ‘Well, no, that’s bound to happen,’ but one of our players showed you that, so you correct it.” You may remember Garoppolo had a really rough patch in camp last summer, as he returned from his torn ACL. That, from what I remember, was a result of the Niners really testing him practice. Once they got to the games? They protected him scheme-wise so he could get his sea legs back. And by the end of the year, as a result of all this, Garoppolo was fine. Smart money says he will be this year too.
The trade market’s been quiet. The one name, in fact, that I’d heard last week was that of Chargers DE Melvin Ingram who was, at the time, in the midst of his contract hold-in. Interested teams got bad news by the end of the week, with the team moving to guarantee Ingram’s money and end the dispute. So why is there less buzz this year than there has been in the past? It’s hard to say for sure, but two things are in play. One, because of the slower ramp-up, teams are just now getting to know the nitty-gritty of their rosters, so where surpluses or holes may exist has taken longer to manifest. Two, without preseason games, pro scouting departments have far less information on other teams. Now, I’d think eventually the pace picks up. But, logically at least, it would seem that it’ll be a seller’s market out there closer to the deadline, because trades will probably be motivated more by a team knowing its own holes, rather than where another team has extra parts.
I think all the stuff I heard about Clyde Edwards-Helaire fitting K.C. and Andy Reid like a glove is already coming into focus. Take it from veteran LB Anthony Hitchens, who explained getting roasted by the rookie in the open field like this: “I kind of got rubbed by the tight end going vertical—had to work over the top, which is hard and then making a play on a guy like that in space makes it even harder. It’s a good play and setup for him. He made a quick move—a smart [move] because it was the two-minute situation. He got all the yards and he didn’t have to get out of bounds. He knew, and he was thinking of a situation, so he cut back across the field, and we eventually got him down, and they kicked a field goal.” So on the play, Edwards-Helaire showed his football smarts and awareness. And he also drew up the reason why he’s such a good fit for the team he’s coming to. Edwards-Helaire was a monster in space for an LSU offense that was able to create plenty with receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, and tight end Thaddeus Moss. In K.C.? Same sort of thing. Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and Travis Kelce can all get downfield, and take the defense with them, which should create the kind of open-field situations that Hitchens described. And if you’re having to get the diminutive rocket of a back to the ground and giving him the space required to account for all the speed K.C. has elsewhere? Good luck. That, by the way, is just the start. The other piece the Chiefs staff has seen is similarly logical. Taking all the above personnel into account, Edwards-Helaire’s likely to see a lot of lighter boxes, with more DBs, and fewer big people, on the field—and his physical run style should play well into that, too.
Another guy who’s come as advertised: Panthers DT Derrick Brown. My understanding is the new Carolina regime, led by Matt Rhule was fixated on Brown as the seventh overall pick from the start of the draft process and for very good reason. Brown was a four-year player and captain at Auburn and considered an incredibly clean prospect from a character and makeup standpoint. And along those lines, he’s proven very ready for the league and to be a bedrock in the middle of the Panthers front. He wasn’t the sexiest pick. But it was basically the equivalent of Rhule putting one right in the middle of the fairway with his first swing in the NFL. And it looks like it’s about to pay off big-time.
Monday is the anniversary of Andrew Luck’s retirement from the NFL. I can’t believe it’s been a year. My sense is he’s happy in retirement, and intent on living a pretty private life these days. And I’m very happy for him. But man … what he, Chris Ballard and Frank Reich might’ve been able to accomplish with a couple more years together.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) It had to suck for the Sixers to get their souls taken by the guy, Jayson Tatum, they passed on to trade up for Markelle Fultz three years ago. (Am I writing this because Hinkie diehard Mitch Goldich is editing this column tonight? No comment.) [Editors Note: No, Albert. This is a common misconception, often spread by people who didn’t really follow the situation or perpetuated by trolls in bad faith. The Celtics were only willing to trade the pick because they knew the Sixers would take Fultz (and the Lakers would take Lonzo Ball at No. 2). If the trade hadn’t happened, the Celtics would have taken Tatum No. 1. There was no universe where the Sixers would have ended up with Tatum. The series still sucked though. —Mitch]
2) Speaking of similarly bad draft decisions, the Hawks probably shouldn’t have traded the rights to Luka Doncic two years ago.
3) Good for Randy Wade and the rest of the Big 10 football parents who showed up in Chicago on Friday. They, and their sons, deserve better answers than they’ve gotten.
4) Soccer’s championship system is confusing enough as is. The COVID-19 delays made it even more confusing. But I do know enough to give you this piece of analysis: I believe the trophy that Bayern Munich won over the weekend is an important one.
5) Conventions without crowds do absolutely nothing for me.
6) Happy fourth birthday, Drew. And happy first birthday, Ginny. So happy that I got to be home for those days, because of the weirdness of this year—and that really showed me, again, the benefit of going through all we have the last few months. Getting that time around my three kids has been priceless. I’m not taking it for granted.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Like I said, it’s hard to say the NFL’s ever unanimous about anything, but the support and love for Rivera across its ranks have to be damn near unanimous. Get well, Ron.
We’ve got a lot more years of watching this stuff, and I can’t wait for what’s to come.
Wright did a tad more with his college years than I did.
When team leaders say it’s time for a guy to go, it’s time for a guy to go.
Calling his shot!
I don’t care if it’s fake. It takes, in the words of the late, great Gorilla Monsoon, a lot of intestinal fortitude to do what McAfee did here.
Important lesson I learned working down there: Everyone wants to be a Cowboy. Especially the guys from Texas.
The Google doc contract lives again!
Dan’s right here. If you didn’t know who these three guys were, you’d 100% think Jordan Love was QB1.
Very cool gesture.
This is insane coverage by a man of Derwin James’s size.
You guys really should follow my buddies Glenn and Moose.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
And this is also an ICYMI: Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke with ex-NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho for his web series, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. And for what I believe was the first time, offered a mea culpa for the league’s handling of the Colin Kaepernick situation over the last four years, when asked by Acho what he’d say to Kaepernick if given the chance.
“The first thing I’d say is I wish we had listened earlier, Kap, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to,” Goodell said.
Goodell then expounded on the point, as it related to players kneeling during the anthem.
“It is not about the flag. The message here that what our players are doing is being mischaracterized. These are not people who are unpatriotic. They’re not disloyal. They’re not against our military. In fact, many of those guys [come from] military families,” Goodell said. “What they were trying to do is exercise their right to bring attention to something that needs to get fixed. That misrepresentation of who they were and what they were doing was the thing that really gnawed at me.”
If you haven’t, you should watch the whole interview.
And I also believe it’s a good example of the progress everyone can make. I know I’ve learned a lot over the last few months, and it looks like Goodell has, too.
I wish that more often were the goal of these discussions. S/o to Acho for making it one.