Sean McVay hasn’t given the Rams much to worry about over the four-plus years since his January 2017 hire, but there has been one thing on their—and his—radar for a while now.
And hanging over his head in his Thousand Oaks, Calif. office is a constant reminder of it.
In yellow and white letters above a couple sets of shelves are the words Urgent Enjoyment.
If it sounds like a hokey T-shirt slogan drummed up by a football coach to you, well, McVay’s probably not going to argue on that point. But to him, it’s as much about where he got to at a young age, where he’s been since and where he wants to take the Rams from here. Even more so, it’s about how he thinks he needs to get them there.
“That, to me, is the balance. Hey, we want to be urgent about everything we do. I want to be urgent; that’s who I am. But you want to do it with an enjoyment,” McVay said, from his place near L.A. on Saturday morning. “You want to have an urgent enjoyment. It kind of came to me one day where, Hey, there’s an urgency, but there’s a joy in the way you attack every day.
“I remember Zac Taylor was going through all his head coaching interviews, he had the pick of the litter, and he was telling me, and it was in a complimentary way, basically without saying I was a d--- or hard on people, ‘You got a good urgency.’ And I said, I like that. You’re urgent, and I think that is natural to the core that we have and a lot of the people that are in our building possess it. But the enjoyment is the biggest thing.”
McVay needs that reminder now, because of that one thing that others in the organization, and then he, started to watch as he and the team worked through in the weeks, months and now years following the Rams’ loss to the Patriots in Super LIII—burnout.
While the speed with which McVay turned the Rams around might be rare, his story arc over the last four years really hasn’t been. Young coach comes in, energizes an organization through the honeymoon phase of Year 1 and breaks through with a program established in Year 2. Then, staff and player attrition hit, expectations rise, pressure builds and that hard-driving young coach combats the changing landscape by driving harder and harder.
Eventually, through the blur of Years 1 and 2, then the pressure to follow, the coach finds a point of diminishing returns. Which is what McVay’s been trying to confront.
“Especially the last two years, you can let those expectations get in the way when you’re not as inside-out, and you’re letting an outside-in approach affect your daily enjoyment,” McVay explained. “When I reflect on it, I think there’s a lot of times where you are what you want to be, as far as being a leader and the guy that the players want to be around, that’s who I’d like to think I am. I’m enjoyable, positive, intentional about building and developing relationships in an authentic way.
“And then, I think sometimes you can get a little bit caught up in an outside-in approach, and say, Man, here’s these expectations, if I don’t do it, maybe you’re not living up to what we did as a team the first couple years. You gotta constantly remind yourself of it.”
So going into a big year for his organization—with fans’ coming into the team’s $6 billion palace for the first time, to see a roster aggressively built to give them a show—McVay’s trying to make sure he won’t ever forget it again. And he doesn’t have to look far for a reminder.
It’s my last MMQB column before I unplug for a couple of weeks. And even with the NFL’s easing into its dead period, there’s some news for us to take you through …
• We’ve got a look at the NFL’s vaccine numbers, and how the 2021 protocols came to be.
• We’re bringing an early glance at the 2022 draft, with the NFS list issued to teams.
• More on what to watch in the coming weeks, while I’m away, in the Takeaways.
But we’re starting with the Rams, and how ’21 figures to bring McVay a good shot at getting back to the big stage, as he moves into what feels like a second phase of his young career.
Last summer, McVay and I did a podcast that lasted about 90 minutes, and he and I dove into his path—from being an all-state quarterback at the Marist School in Atlanta, to his injury-marred run as a Miami of Ohio receiver, to his good fortune in climbing the coaching ladder—and eventually, we got to the topic of burning out. He knew then, having confided in Dick Vermeil, perhaps the NFL’s ultimate example of it, what he was up against.
He was also determined to figure it out so he could keep living his dream.
And where he first found some answers was in taking a hard look inward at what he loved about the job, and why it was the dream in the first place.
“It’s not hard to enjoy what you do when you get out on the field with the players,” he says. “Like, any time I’m around the guys, that’s when I’m in my truest happiness, with the foundational things that are the essence of what you do. But there’s a lot of stuff outside of that, that you can let blur the lines if you’re not careful. And those are the things you reflect back on. I’d say over the last couple years, there’s a lot of times where you’re saying, ‘Man, am I letting the expectations get in the way of the enjoyment?’ Let’s not forget about that.”
So McVay stayed at it, and the harder he looked at that specific thing, how great it was to be on the grass, the clearer the answer became. Out there on the field, he could focus on what he was doing—what was crossing his desk or popping up on his cell phone was no longer relevant, at least until he went back inside. Out there, he could just coach, which is what he’s always wanted to do.
And out there, he figured out that being able to focus on what he was doing, and only what he was doing, rid him of the mental clutter. When he carried that over into other areas of work, and then life, he found himself more at peace, sleeping easier and avoiding having his mind race through a perpetual to-do list he had a way of unconsciously posting in his head.
Now, for McVay, it might be as simple as closing his door at work to drill down on a single task or, in his personal life, leaving his cell phone in the car when he goes out for dinner. The difference, he says, has been immense.
“That’s one of things—leave your cell phone away—that helps you to be so present,” he explained. “We all joke about being intrinsically motivated, but that can be a detriment to our ability to just be able to decompress and enjoy those things. Things like the cell phone? I’ve definitely done that, sitting down at dinner, where you eliminate those distractions. Being present is a real thing. And if you’re focused on that, so much of the time, we’ve got so many things going on, you can lose sight of, Hey man, the best people, they’re just totally present with you. There’s nothing like that.
“And it’s been a good thing, I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time these last few months. And I’m hopeful you can apply these principles once the season hits and you get into a little busier rhythm and routine. I think just the enjoyment—I mean, man, what an amazing blessing it is to be here. Let’s not lose sight of the joy in the journey.”
So now, on the topic of burnout?
“We’d talked about the burnout and things like that, but I say this, and I really mean it: I feel like I’m 30 years old again in a lot of good ways, because of the people I’m around, because of the place I’m in,” he continued. “And I think it’s going to really help me and help the way I interact with people over the course of the season as well.”
That line—I feel like I’m 30 years old again—puts a few things in perspective here.
McVay’s still only 35, which means he remains the NFL’s youngest coach by a margin of nearly three years over his old assistant, Taylor.
But he’s also tied for having the eighth-longest tenure of any coach in the league. He’s been through, more or less, two offensive, two defensive and two special teams coordinator changes. There are only five coaches left from his original staff (Zak Kromer and Eric Yarber on offense; Thad Bogardus, Ejiro Evero and Chris Shula on defense), and just four players on the roster who predate him (Tyler Higbee, Rob Havenstein, Aaron Donald and Johnny Hekker).
All of which is part of why he thinks, now, heading into Year 5 with the Rams, he’s in a really good place to confront some of those outsized expectations. And beyond just that, he thinks his sustainability as a coach, and the Rams’ sustainability as a football operation, are in an equally good spot, because of all the experience and intellectual capital that has been built up since 2017, for a number of reasons.
In fact, while there is downside to all that turnover, McVay thinks he and the Rams gain more than they lose from it. Taylor is joined by Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur and new Chargers boss Brandon Staley as Rams alumni who’ve become head coaches, and a number of others (Shane Waldron, Joe Berry and Aubrey Pleasant) have left for coordinator jobs elsewhere in the league.
McVay says that result is a legitimate dream come true for him. He wants the Rams to be the sort of finishing school for staff that his grandfather, John McVay, was a part of in San Francisco with Bill Walsh a couple of generations ago. “I always thought one of the coolest things that he and Bill Walsh did, if guys get opportunities, it means we’re all doing well,” he said.
“That to me is the coolest thing you can do. Hey, you come here, you work hard, we’re going to have fun, and we’re gonna give ourselves a chance to win games, we’ve got a bunch of great players that we can work with. And then oh by the way if it goes the way we expect it to go, then you’re going to get opportunities,” McVay said. “And if we can’t provide that opportunity for you here, then we’re going to help you try to achieve that elsewhere. It’s not what you’d expect, having as much turnover as we’ve had, but that’s as cool a thing as anything. …
“Part of the appreciation for that is I’m not far removed from remembering how good I’ve had it, with the amount of people that put their arm around me, that helped me get to the role that I got to at a young age. That’s what it’s about, man.”
And in the process, the idea goes, the Rams have become a destination for the best and brightest coaches, and McVay gets to learn from them as much as they do from him.
“I think that attracts high-caliber, high-quality coaches,” he said. I think in a lot of ways it helps where people wanna be in a building where they feel like, Hey, there’s a lot of good stuff going, there’s an urgent enjoyment with the way they’re attacking every single day, you’re gonna give yourself a chance to win some games, and if we do good, they’re actually invested in my well-being in the long-term, even if that’s not what’s best for the Rams. …
“You don’t want to make the changes a normal thing year-in and year-out, but at the same time, when they occur for all the right reasons, which is typically the conversation we’re having, man, what an amazing thing it is. And you keep in touch, you stay connected with those guys, and you get a chance to bring in new ideas, new thought processes, new perspectives, and you’re able to learn from these guys.”
So add that experience, and where McVay’s chipped away at getting a little more centered personally, and you’ll find a coach more ready than he’s ever been to attack what’s ahead.
Expectations, again, are high in L.A. Matthew Stafford’s a Ram. Aaron Donald’s been Defensive Player of the Year three of the last four years. Jalen Ramsey was a candidate for that award last year. Around those three are Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Andrew Whitworth and Leonard Floyd, guys either right in the heart of their prime or near the end of it. And the front office mortgaged draft capital and cap real estate to assemble the group.
The Rams are playing for the now. And, as we’ve detailed here, McVay’s ready for everything that comes with that.
“You’re not gonna run away from the expectations,” he conceded. “Every single team in the NFL has one goal right now, and that’s to win a Super Bowl. And I believe the teams that know, and the teams that have actually accomplished that, they know that you only do that by being where your feet are planted. The one thing that I would say, there’s a belief in the ability to do what we want to be able to do. Now, you don’t do that unless you are where your feet are planted. But there’s a belief, there’s a confidence in the people you’re around.
“And when you enjoy that? We’re not gonna ask anybody to do anything that’s more than they can actually accomplish. And there’s a real peace of mind that accompanies that if you know, Hey, there’s gotta be hard work, there’s gotta be a process, there’s gotta be standards that we uphold day-in and day-out. But you know what? If we do those things, I believe we can go into games, and expect to be able to come away with the result that we want.”
McVay’s also hyper-aware of the implications people draw from his strong feelings for the group he has now. So while he’s over the moon to have his buddy Raheem Morris in as defensive coordinator, that’s no indictment on Wade Phillips or Staley; and if he sounds excited about Kevin O’Connell going into O’Connell’s second year, that shouldn’t cast any shade on the job LaFleur or Waldron did.
Just the same, McVay’s very appreciative of what Jared Goff meant for his program over the last four years. And that he sounds the way he does when you start asking about Stafford doesn’t change that. But in case you’re wondering how he sounds talking about Stafford, let’s just say it sounded, to me, like McVay was about to jump through the phone.
“Bro, this dude’s a bad MF-er,” he said, laughing. “Whatever people say about him, as good as it can be, he’s even better than advertised. It makes sense to him. The guy’s ability to see the game, his ability to draw on his experiences, the feel that he has, it’s pretty special and unique. And man, his feel for people, his authentic way of connecting with his teammates, his coaches, this guy, it’s great being around him.”
Even better, McVay’s given himself the chance to feel that about a lot of his players over the last two months, as the team’s rolled through its offseason program. That, in turn, allowed him to build on the foundation of his program, one grounded in strong communication and energy, with a little less rigidity and a little more creativity.
And now, over the next few weeks, he’s going to take some time to step away from all of that and get away with his fiancé. He’ll spend time with his friends. He’s going to try not to worry about football so much, and just trust that when he comes back to it he’ll be more ready than he ever has been to be at his best for a team that should be really good.
“I can step away, and I’m present with my fiancé, I’m present with my friends, and, sure, a lot of those conversations entail football,” he said. “But your mind’s not always racing about checking off the to-do list for the following day. I’m sleeping better because of it. And just the balance in anything that you do, the more you dive into people that are doing anything at a really, really high level, there’s an intentional, intrinsic motivation they possess, but there’s also a balance.
“They can unplug. They allow themselves to get rejuvenated and refreshed. And I feel like I’m in a better headspace.”
And soon enough, we’ll see what that means for the Rams, and the rest of the NFL.
2021 VACCINE PROTOCOLS
The NFL and NFLPA agreed to revised COVID-19 protocols last week.
And based on the climate in the U.S. right now, both knew the haystack they were laying at the feet of some 2,800 players. Bills slot receiver Cole Beasley just so happened to be the one carrying the matches.
“This is crazy,” Beasley tweeted on Thursday. “Did we vote on this? I stay in the hotel. We still have meetings. We will all be together. Vaccinated players can go out the hotel and bring COVID back in to where I am. So what does it matter if I stay in the hotel now? 100% immune with vaccination? No. …
“The players association is a joke. Call it something different. It’s not for the players. Everyone gives me the 98% of people who are vaccinated don’t get covid again. The odds of me getting in the NFL and playing for 10 years are lower than that and I’m here. …
“So what are we really talking about? I understand completely why the NFL is doing this. It gives them back the freedom to make the most money as possible again if everyone is vaccinated. But will anyone fight for the players or nah?”
I’m not going to turn this part of my column into an argument over how effective the vaccine is. But I do think it’d be helpful for Beasley, and other players who are upset with what the union and league just negotiated (and everyone else too), to know exactly how the two sides landed on the agreement that they did. Some of what I’ve gathered …
• The agreement was negotiated in a simple, straightforward way. The protocols for unvaccinated people—given that there’s really been no change in the risk the virus presents, or how it is transmitted—were going to remain the same, absent COVID-19 altogether disappearing.
• As such, from the NFL/NFLPA view, the negotiations weren’t to create two classes of players. More so, it was to upgrade rules for those who’ve been vaccinated.
• The NFLPA did want to protect players’ rights to choose, and the union did that. They aren’t required to get the vaccine at the level other league employees are.
• While there was some talk of relaxed protocols for teams crossing the 85% threshold for vaccinations, it now looks like the protocols are what they’re going to be, for camp at least.
And really, going through this for everyone has revealed that football players are split in a way that’s not so different from the way the rest of the U.S. is split. One involved official said there are four categories of player, and they’re close to being broken up evenly—each representing about a quarter of the league.
The first is the young player who’s generally going to do what he’s told—and will get the shot, if he hasn’t already—to prevent there being any unnecessary barrier in advancing his career. The second is the player who believes in the medicine, and got the shot early, in a lot of cases before his team started offering it. The third is the group of players who don’t want to get the vaccine, but will as a matter of convenience. The fourth is players like Beasley, who feel opposed to the vaccine strongly enough to go through the 2020 protocols again to avoid it.
And those groups are coalescing in the statistics now. Sources say new data collected by the league and union showed on Friday afternoon that about 55% of all NFL players have had at least one shot, which is up from around 30% just a few weeks ago. I talked to one agent the other day who said before the protocols were released, a quarter of his clients had at least one shot. He expected by early this week, that number would jump to about three-quarters of his list.
Why? It’s simple. Teams can’t say they’ll cut a player because he’s unvaccinated, or not sign a player because he’s unvaccinated. But the truth is that those things are going to happen. If a team needs to bring in, say, a backup corner on the Tuesday of a game week, the kind of thing that happens routinely, it can sign a vaccinated player and put him on the practice field Wednesday. An unvaccinated player, on the other hand, will have to go through the five-day testing cadence from 2020, making it a challenge to even get him to the game Sunday.
So if a team is choosing to stopgap that need with either a vaccinated or unvaccinated player, which player do you think it will choose? It really could be that academic.
On the flip side, the broader discussion of vaccination does seem to have become a third-rail topic in a lot of locker rooms—in the same sort of area as family, money and religion, where you don’t scrutinize others’ decisions unless the person in question solicits such a conversation. That’s part of why teams with stars who were early adopters (the Falcons with Matt Ryan, the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes, the Steelers with Cam Heyward) go into the break in the NFL calendar with high vaccination rates. (See my GamePlan from a couple of weeks ago.)
It’s probably also why, as one person pointed out to me, you see so few players advertising the fact that they’re getting vaccinated, or have gotten vaccinated; and why you didn’t see many players rushing to agree with Beasley either. Most just don’t want to touch it publicly, because it’s easier not to step on what’s become a social media hornet’s nest.
But this much you can say with certainty: This has become a competitive issue for teams and players alike. Teams with lower vaccination rates are going to have to lift differently, meet differently, eat differently and in general be faced with more of the issues that made 2020 so hard on everyone, than teams with higher rates. And then, there’s the simple fact that contact tracing could wreak havoc on teams with large swaths of unvaccinated guys.
Which means that, for the second straight year, COVID-19 looms as a factor on the NFL season.
THE 2022 DRAFT CLASS
This has been a really weird year in so many different ways—and a little bit of that weirdness is going to spill into the 2022 draft cycle.
Each year, National Football Scouting, one of two services used by NFL teams, releases its draft grades for the following April’s class in June. And normally, those grades only include the fall’s seniors and no underclassmen—not even the ones that everyone knows are coming out. Well, this year, things are complicated by the NCAA’s decision to give every player an extra year of eligibility in exchange for either playing or sitting out 2020.
So as we present, like we do every spring, the highest NFS-graded players going into the season, we have to do it with a caveat. Some fourth-year juniors are in here. So are some seniors and fifth-years who are able to return in 2022, if they so please. And some of that is based on whether schools helped the scouting service, and wanted their players to be part of the list.
With that in mind, here’s the NFS Top 20 going into the season.
1) Adam Anderson, OLB, Georgia: Anderson is 6' 5", 230 pounds, and was third on the team in pressures in 2019 (18) and second last year (24). The former five-star high school prospect also played extensively as a true freshman, and the combination of upside and position value will have NFL eyes on him in the fall.
T-2) Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan: A fractured ankle cut Hutchinson’s junior season short, but the 6' 6", 269-pound edge defender was third-team All-Big Ten as a true sophomore in 2019, and strongly considered coming out after 2020, despite the fact that he’d have gone into the predraft process injured.
T-2) Roger McCreary, CB, Auburn: An All-SEC honorable mention corner last year, his first as a starter, McCreary has 21 passes defensed the last two years, and has flashed impressive flexibility that positions him as a real 21st century defensive back.
T-4) Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss: I don’t think Corral, at the end of the process, is going to be a first-round pick. But seeing him this high after an up-and-down first season under Lane Kiffin certainly got my attention.
T-4) Brandon Smith, LB, Penn State: Micah Parsons’s opt-out opened the door for Smith to blow up in 2020—and he flashed potential as a traditional linebacker, as a pass-rusher and in coverage. That he’s on this list going into his true junior season tells me that he’s very much got his eye on the NFL.
6) Trevor Penning, OT, Northern Iowa: Kurt Warner’s alma mater has built an NFL pipeline of late, and it’s at least interesting that 2021 third-round pick Spencer Brown, now on the Bills, was kept on the right side by Penning. Penning’s headed into his fifth year and will be coming off an abbreviated spring season in the fall.
7) Daniel Faalele, OT, Minnesota: The Australian is 6' 9", 400 pounds and started in 2018 and ’19 before opting out last year. He should be one of the really fun stories of the ’22 draft cycle.
T-8) Charlie Kolar, TE, Iowa State: A Mackey Award finalist in 2020, Kolar’s another find from Matt Campbell’s program. He has size and athleticism, has been an All-America two years running and was one of a number of guys who came back because Campbell did.
T-8) Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State: A two-time All-Big Ten selection, Olave very nearly came out last year. And if he had, he likely would’ve been battling Kadarius Toney, Rashod Bateman and Elijah Moore for position among the class’s second tier at receiver. Instead, he’s returning to Columbus with a shot to go higher than those guys did.
10) Ali Gaye, DE, LSU: At 6' 6" and 262 pounds, Gaye made an immediate impact as a junior college transfer, and he has a shot to take things to another level in 2021, given his athletic potential.
11) Jalen Tolbert, WR, South Alabama.
T-12) Jahan Dotson, WR, Penn State.
T-12) Jermaine Johnson, DE, Florida State.
14) D’Vonte Price, RB, Florida International.
15) Akayleb Evans, CB, Tulsa.
16) Sevyn Banks, CB, Ohio State.
T-17) R.J. Roderick, S, South Carolina.
T-17) Jeremy Ruckert, TE, Ohio State.
T-17) Alontae Taylor, DB, Tennessee.
T-17) Perrion Winfrey, DL Oklahoma.
And, again, there are a good number of really good names—Oregon DE Kayvon Thibideaux, LSU CB Derek Stingley, Alabama OT Evan Neal—that figure to go really high but aren’t on this list, because they’re juniors. But at the very least, the NFS grades can serve as a starting point for teams on the class to come. (Which is why I’m passing it along.)
The 2018 draft quarterbacks’ contract situations now move to the forefront. Recent history has told us that if a team is really sold on its former first-round quarterback, that QB’s big second contract will be done between the end of his third season, when he’s first eligible for it, and Week 1 of his fourth year. From 2011 to ‘17, 19 quarterbacks were drafted in the first round. Ten of them—Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson—had their fifth-year options picked up. Seven landed second contracts from their teams.
• Newton, drafted in ‘11, signed a five-year, $103.8 million deal in June ‘15.
• Luck, drafted in ‘12, signed a five-year, $123 million deal in June ‘16.
• Tannehill, drafted in ‘12, signed a four-year, $77 million deal in May ‘15.
• Goff, drafted in ‘16, signed a four-year, $134 million deal in September ‘19.
• Wentz, drafted in ‘16, signed a four-year, $128 million deal in June ‘19.
• Mahomes, drafted in ‘17, signed a 10-year, $450 million deal in July ‘20.
• Watson, drafted in ‘17, signed a four-year, $156 million deal in September ‘20.
So five of the last six deals done, and the last four, have happened after three years. Why? Two reasons, as I see it. One, if a team has conviction in the quarterback, there’s financial incentive in being able to spread the cap hit over a more extended period of time and avoiding extra years of inflation. Two, it can be awkward if a franchise quarterback has a lingering contract issue going into a season, and it raises questions teams don’t want raised. And that brings us to Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. All three had their fifth-year options picked up. All played well in 2020 and, now, we’re right in the window for quarterback contracts to get done—you’ll see all seven of the above contracts were signed between the draft and the start of the season—making this an interesting time in Cleveland, Buffalo and Baltimore at the most important position on the field.
Those aren’t the only contract situations to monitor over the next few weeks. In March, 10 guys were assigned the franchise tag, and since then Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, Broncos S Justin Simmons and Giants DL Leonard Williams have landed long-term deals. That leaves Bucs WR Chris Godwin, Jets S Marcus Maye, Panthers OT Taylor Moton, Bears WR Allen Robinson, Jaguars OT Cam Robinson, Washington OG Brandon Scherff and Saints S Marcus Williams as having signed their tenders, but not long-term deals yet. That each signed his tender early, some because of the uncertainty created by COVID-19 NFL economics, has meant less drama through the spring. But you’ll be hearing plenty more on those guys as we inch closer to the annual July 15 deadline for tagged players to do long-term deals. If I had to guess now, I’d say the Saints and Washington would be most motivated of the seven to get deals done, given what they think of Marcus Williams and Scherff, respectively, and how it could help both teams with their salary cap situations, now and in the future. But all of these negotiations are probably a couple of weeks away from heating up.
I don’t think I can write my last column before vacation without weighing in on Aaron Rodgers. As we said last week, coach Matt LaFleur and GM Brian Gutekunst have been incredibly careful about how they’ve picked their words the last couple months—which only made what president Mark Murphy said at that fan event and posted on the team website more surprising—and I think that’s as sure a sign as any that they have no plans to move Rodgers. And that leaves us where we have been for a couple of months now, with the real inflection point in this saga set in late July, when the team reports for training camp. But I don’t think how Jordan Love does is irrelevant to this, and that’s another place where you can judge the staff on its actions. Gutekunst said in March that the Packers planned to flood Love with reps in the spring, to make up for his bastardized rookie offseason, and lack of preseason games, and LaFleur and the coaches followed through on that. Love’s attendance at the offseason program was perfect, and he took the great majority of reps—way more than they’d even give Rodgers in a typical May and June, which makes sense given all the ground he has to make up. One staffer said that if there were 300 reps this spring, and this was an estimate, Love probably got 270 or 280 of them. Now, the other side of this is that I’ve heard the Packers didn’t think Love was close to ready going into the offseason program. Where is he now? He’s made progress. His footwork was a ground-up operation, and he’s made big strides there. He’s much smoother calling it in the huddle and, after a weird rookie year in which he got very little work (because of the circumstances), he now has a feel for what the Packers want from him. But just how much ground he’s made up on one of the greatest of all-time, I’m not sure. And I’d think he’d have to make up a lot for LaFleur or Gutekunst to move off their position on Rodgers at all, which is where what No. 10 does is relevant to No. 12. And one thing I can say is those guys still want No. 12 back badly.
We mentioned a couple weeks ago how Justin Fields has quickly blended into the role of “rookie” in Chicago. And what Fields said to the media the other day seems to back that up. First, he told reporters he was working on mastering basics as rudimentary as getting in and out of the huddle. Then, he added that he’s bought in on how the Bears’ coaches are handling the quarterbacks—with Andy Dalton’s taking all the reps with the first team and Fields getting his work with the second team. “If I don’t believe in it, it’s not going to work out,” Fields said. “My job is, strictly, get better and be the best quarterback I can be, and hope my team wins. That’s what I’m going to do whether it’s starting, whether it’s sitting, I’m going to do whatever is going to help us win.” Remember, Fields is a former five-star recruit who left Georgia after a year to start at Ohio State, after the Buckeyes had Dwayne Haskins declare for the draft. So some might’ve wondered how he’d fit in if he’s not the guy right away. Turns out, he’s fitting in just fine. And as for whether he’ll actually play in the fall, what I’ve heard is that the Bears are going to give him a lot of work in the preseason games. So if he’s going to start a move toward getting on the game field in the fall, I’d think it’ll start with how he plays there.
Speaking of the Bears, count me among those who hope they stay downtown. Now, Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has said publicly that she doesn’t believe the Bears will bolt for the suburbs, and that the Arlington Heights racetrack site is being used for leverage. For the record, I think she’s in borderline denial if she doesn’t think her local NFL team would leave the city for a sweetheart stadium deal in another municipality—for the right price, the Bears would probably call Dubuque, Iowa a suburb and play their games there. Any team would. But I love Chicago, I love where Soldier Field is and the NFL has far too few sites like that for its games, and far too many places like East Rutherford, Foxboro, Landover and Glendale. So here’s hoping the Bears get a deal to stay in the city, even if it seems more likely that they’ll be leaving right now.
While we’re talking rookie quarterbacks, Mac Jones’s progress is worth noting. And the feedback I’ve gotten on Jones is that he’s what the Patriots thought they were getting when they took him 15th—which is to say he’s a heady field general, if somewhat limited physically. But I would not make much of who he’s lined up with during the spring. More than a couple of people who know that program well, both in reference to Jones and other guys, have mentioned to me how Bill Belichick works reps this time of year. And really, it reflects that the Patriots aren’t in a spot where it’s “competitive” for jobs yet. Belichick uses May and June for teaching, fundamentals and conditioning, and mixes and matches players throughout. And he’s never been above using the sessions that are open to the media for his own purposes. The real test, to me, was always going to be in training camp, and more specifically when the pads go on. If Jones is out there with the first offensive-line group then, even if it’s just a percentage of those snaps, then I’d say we know something is afoot. And my sense right now is that Jones has done enough in the spring to merit a real competition with Cam Newton in the summer.
The Steelers’ Dwayne Haskins dice roll is a worthy one. I have no idea if there’s even a sliver of a shot that Haskins succeeds Ben Roethlisberger as quarterback in Pittsburgh. But I do like the messaging coming out of there. Mike Tomlin’s saying he’s trying to get to Haskins the person, before Haskins the player. Haskins’s saying he needs to prove to people that he loves football. Roethlisberger’s saying how impressed he was with Haskins’s raw ability. And there’s a decent chance that this will become nothing more than what Mason Rudolph and Landry Jones were and have been—swings at trying to get ahead of the post-Roethlisberger problem. But the franchise once found Neil O’Donnell with a mid-round swing (à la Rudolph and Jones), and Tommy Maddox as a washed-out ex-first-rounder (à la Haskins), so you can see what they’re thinking in wanting to work with the third-year player.
I loved hearing the way Tyrann Mathieu talked about the Chiefs this year. On staying with the team after this year, a contract year, here’s what he told the local media: “That’s my focus. It should be my focus. Just being here the last couple of years, I can’t see me wearing any other uniform. The fans here are amazing. My teammates are amazing. I spoke about the relationships I have with my coaches. Some of these things you can’t buy other places. I’m a guy that’s had to start over quite often. I would like to stay here, for sure.” I got to know Mathieu after the Cardinals drafted him 2013, and one thing I’ve noticed is how much he values loyalty and has wanted a place that was home to him like LSU once was. Injuries, and the departure of Bruce Arians, got in the way in Arizona. Finances were the culprit after a single season in Houston. But in both cases, he left a lot of goodwill, so it’s not surprising he’d want to keep what he helped to build in Kansas City going. Here’s hoping it happens for him.
I liked the vibe coming from Staley, the new Chargers coach, coming out of their offseason program. He told me a story from the final day of the team’s offseason program, on Wednesday, that I thought was interesting. That morning, new acquisition Oday Aboushi was in the training room and saw Staley coming in. Staley knew Aboushi was headed to Jersey for the summer break, so he asked when he was flying out. “Twelve-thirty, coach,” Aboushi responded, knowing they were wrapping up early, at a 11 a.m. “No pressure.” As Staley explained to me after, “He said it like in a real subtle, just refreshing, joking way. And it’s like O.K., hey, we’re on to something here. From the relationship standpoint, I know that’s not like a big thing, but it was a little thing today.” And that, as Staley continued, reflected how things came together over the last few weeks of an offseason program that was modified after the coach negotiated work conditions with his players. (And maybe in part because they negotiated those conditions.) “I would just say that when we joined up with these guys for this minicamp, when everyone was together, we felt like a team, it felt like a team,” Staley said. “They’re completely invested in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, because they’ve been a big part of the process. And I think when you talk to our guys that’s what they’ll tell you, we’ve really done this together. And so I think that it’s gone well, I know it’s early and we haven’t done anything, and I’m aware of all that, but I like what I see. I like how our team, our coaches, our players, the sports performance, I like how our team’s coming together. And I think that we’re going to set ourselves up for a really competitive training camp.” For what it’s worth, and with that quarterback of theirs (check out last week’s GamePlan on him), I think the Chargers are set up as one of the league’s most interesting teams heading into the season.
The way Greg Olsen’s son T.J., and the whole family, has handled the most trying of circumstances might be the best story of the NFL offseason. And it was so cool to see the video of T.J. getting to ring the bell last week. In case you missed it, enjoy …
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) It’s a shame Kevin Durant’s buzzer-beater won’t be remembered as it should be, because that was one of the best I’ve ever seen, and completely indicative of how he’d played Saturday night to that point. And just two years removed from Achilles surgery.
2) That said, are we sure Durant wouldn’t have been better off staying with Golden State? If I were the Nets, I’d be pretty concerned with what that James Harden contract might become. And absent a great Harden, and thus handcuffed by his money, I really don’t know how they’d get a lot better.
3) I love watching Devin Booker play. Hopefully, he’ll get Chris Paul back out there with him soon. The Suns are a fun team.
5) I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen consecutive clutch putts like the ones Jon Rahm fired off on the 71st and 72nd holes of the U.S. Open. And after everything he went through a couple of weeks ago at The Memorial, good for him. Just a fantastic, championship effort.
6) Happy Father’s Day to the guy who taught me to throw a football, handed me the Boston Globe sports section and showed me the value of hard work (even if it took a while for me to get that last one). I hope I can do half the job you did with me, with all the problems I gave you, with my own kids, Dad.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Lots of the off-field stuff in sports is scripted now, even stuff that’s not supposed to be. This wasn’t. Happy Father’s Day, everyone!
This was pretty cool, too.
Brady’s one of the smartest guys I’ve worked with, and I really believe that NFL teams should kick around the idea of hiring him. And I actually got that idea because a couple of other people heard him on my podcast and said something to me along those lines, and it 100% clicked for me.
This is why I have trouble with people who say they “need more information” on the vaccine, but then don’t really pursue that information (other than what shows up on their Facebook feeds). And at risk of this being perceived as a “political” take (it’s not, but idiots will think it is), I really don’t understand how people who are saying that COVID-19 was no big deal are now afraid to get vaccinated. That makes no sense.
You knew I was going to shoehorn the work of the great Lee Sanderlin in here, somehow, somehow. #SanderlinStrong
Michael Bishop was a bad man at K-State, for those who don’t know.
Favre Watch IV (FYI: Hashtags didn’t exist for Favre Watch I. They were around for II and II, though.)
I do like how Mahomes still seems amazed by these things. Hopefully he doesn’t lose that for a while, because it makes him even more likable.
We’ve been over the Gilmore situation. I think the Patriots will wind up giving him a bump.
This is the best.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
I’m on Nantucket! But we’ve got some good stuff in the works for the next few weeks in this column space, and Conor Orr and Jenny Vrentas will have you covered on the site.
I’ll be back in the MMQB saddle on July 19, with a mailbag landing a few days before that, and my training camp trip starting shortly after that.
Happy summer, everyone. And as always, thanks for making it all the way down to this point of the column.
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