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MMQB: Deshaun Watson's Upcoming—and Awkward—Training Camp Arrival

What it means for the QB’s legal situation and demand for a trade. Plus, Roethlisberger on getting his young supporting cast up to speed, the latest on Aaron Rodgers, parsing the Fred Warner contract, the league’s chief medical officer on vaccinations, staffmates remember the late Greg Knapp, and much more.

PITTSBURGH — The differences that I saw at the UMPC Rooney Sports Complex over the weekend, training camp in 2020 vs. training camp in 2021, were obvious. The coaches weren’t in masks. Both observation decks were filled with media. Players moved freely from drill to drill, scouts were dotting the sidelines, and the end of practice wasn’t a quiet march to get re-masked and back in the office.

Things aren’t completely normal, of course, otherwise I’d be in Latrobe rather than on Pittsburgh’s South Side and wouldn’t have a Kinexon tracking device in my pocket. But it is so much closer than it was in 2021. And yet, when I asked Mike Tomlin after a long, steamy Saturday practice if he’s more appreciative of the regular grind, he cracked, “I live in a bubble anyway, to be honest with you. I haven’t been to the grocery store in 10 years.” Then, he offered up a message that we probably all should hear as camps open across a healing—though not yet healed—America.

“Man, really, I just take a big-picture perspective,” Tomlin told me. “I’m appreciative that we were able to work [last year], I’m appreciative that we didn’t suffer financial consequences. We went through some challenges; everybody in our industry went through some challenges. But in the big scheme of things, what are we talking about? There were people in the service industry out of work, the restaurant business. There are a lot of people that hurt through this process a heck of a lot more than we did, so I’m appreciative.

“I approached the challenges that the pandemic presented in that way, because that’s reality. Oftentimes, we live a blessed life—the things we deal with aren’t reality. Seeing the things going on around us, I think was sobering for all of us. Gained some real perspective.”

So, sure, Tomlin is excited at the prospect of going into work without having to pass through a medical tent first, and the promise that having positive COVID-19 test results landing on his desk won’t be an every-day worry. But mostly, as he goes into his 15th season here—his run this year will match Bill Cowher’s in longevity—he looks back at 2020 and appreciates that we’re (hopefully) on the back of the pandemic, and he got to work through it.

Two days from now, the 29 teams that aren’t yet on the field will join the Steelers, Cowboys and Bucs in starting practice. And it’s great that we’ll get to talk about football (and there’s a lot of it to get to before then, in this week’s column) instead of breaking down tracking devices and masks and facilities retrofitted for social distancing, like we did all of last summer.

But Tomlin is right. Just getting to be at a football practice, period, was cool back then, and it’s cool again now, which I can say first-hand after being at two here over the weekend.

Oh, and by the way, this should be a pretty interesting year in Pittsburgh, which we’re going to get to in a little bit.

MMQB-072621

Camp is underway, and the first week won’t lack for news. To get you ready for that, and more, here’s what’s coming in the final July edition of the MMQB.

• A dive into how the league set up its COVID-19 protocols for 2021.

• A remembrance of the late Greg Knapp, who passed away on Friday.

• Nuggets on Aaron Rodgers, the Bears quarterback situation, and Fred Warner’s contract.

… And a whole lot more. And like I said, we’re going to get to the Steelers, and Ben Roethlisberger’s mindset going into Year 18(!).

But there was a story that broke on Sunday morning to address first.


A little before 10 a.m. ET, my old colleague Ian Rapoport reported that Deshaun Watson would be reporting with the rest of the Texans quarterbacks on Sunday, and Watson was indeed in the building for the first time since the end of the 2020 season. That’s pretty significant, given the potential impact of the 22 lawsuits that have been filed against Watson, and the trade request that went in back in January, and has been standing since.

So what does it mean?

Well, the first thing to look at is the language in the CBA, relating to the commissioner’s exempt list, which Roger Goodell could’ve used to push pause on Watson’s situation. The Texans QB hasn’t been charged with a crime, so the second and third of three listed reasons for players to go on the exempt list in the CBA are the relevant ones here. Here’s the passage …

Second, when an investigation leads the commissioner to believe that a player may have violated this policy by committing any of the conduct identified above, he may act where the circumstances and evidence warrant doing so. The decision will not reflect a finding of guilt or innocence and will not be guided by the same legal standards and considerations that would apply in a criminal trial.

Third, in cases in which a violation relating to a crime of violence is alleged but further investigation is required, the commissioner may place a player on the commissioner exempt list on a limited and temporary basis to permit the league to conduct a preliminary investigation. Based on the results of the investigation, the player may be returned to duty, be place on the commissioner exempt list for a longer period or subject to discipline.

Basically, this shows Goodell would have the discretion to put Watson on the list now—and this is the time of year he’d do it (ex-Giants CB DeAndre Baker went on at the start of camp last summer)—if they had found evidence warranting it, or if the league just needed more time to wrap up the investigation. Which means, implicitly, the league office is telling us it doesn’t have enough evidence and isn’t close enough to closing the investigation to do it.

My feeling was that Watson probably would land on the exempt list before camp, just on the principle that it wasn’t good for the league to give the story new daylight, it wasn’t good for the Texans new coaching staff to have to deal with it as David Culley’s group opens its first camp, and Watson had no interest in playing for the team anymore.

Yet, we’re here now, and I have to wonder if that’s because there’s some sort of push to expedite a trade.

At the very least, this prevents the Texans from keeping the Watson story on the backburner anymore. Watson is in-house, and it’s going to be awkward for everyone with it having been made clear that the trade request hasn’t been rescinded. Also, with other teams knowing that, you can bet that GM Nick Caserio’s phone will ring. Bottom line, the heat is about to get turned up, which makes it worth looking at a couple of elements in play.

1) The relationship between Watson and owner Cal McNair is in a really bad place. If it’s not irreparable, it’s bordering on that, and as a smart coach once told me, “the one thing I can’t change is the owner.” The communication breakdown during the coaching search was the root of it, and nothing has changed to fix it since. In fact, it may be worse now than it was then.

2) I’ve heard that Caserio is determined not to take any sort of discount for Watson. And I think that’s totally understandable, for a guy who inherited this problem—he has a 25-year-old franchise quarterback under contract for the next half-decade. The best thing for the organization is to either convince him to stay (not likely) or get a king’s ransom for him. Absent clarity from the league or legal system, it might be hard to land one.

3) Would the Texans try to wait to trade Watson, regardless of his wishes? It’s a good question. One problem with trading him now is—if he’s available to play—he’d immediately make the team he’s going to better, and devalue the pick coming back. If you trade him in January, you’ll know where at least any 2022 pick (or picks) coming back will fall.

4) For what it’s worth, the sense other teams got over the summer break is that the Texans weren’t in a rush to move Watson.

Add it up and the remedy would seem to be someone swooping in and offering the moon for Watson, even with the ongoing legal situation. I’ve got four teams marked down as ones to watch—Carolina, Denver, Miami and Philadelphia—and I believe all four are monitoring all this. The Dolphins have three first-rounders the next two years, and the Eagles will likely have three next year alone (so long as Carson Wentz stays healthy in Indy), and Carolina and Denver have interesting young players they could throw into trades.

But again, the question is whether you’d fork over an historic haul, given the uncertainty here. And, of course, it probably wouldn’t make sense for Caserio to trade the best quarterback in team history, locked up contractually and in his mid-20s, without getting that kind of return.

The Texans, by the way, practice Wednesday. Culley, by the accounts of pretty much everyone who’s worked with him, is the kind of coach that’s incredibly equipped to handle a situation like this one. That’s good. Because he’s got his work cut out for him.


BIG BEN AND HIS NEW SUPPORTING CAST

Near the end of practice on Saturday, Roethlisberger yelled over to the sideline.

Naj!

“Naj” was first-round pick Najee Harris, the Steelers’ sleek new bellcow tailback. When Roethlisberger got to him, he put right arm around him, walked him back behind the offense, and started gesturing toward the line with directions. After a couple minutes, Harris nodded and walked off, and third-year receiver Diontae Johnson walked up, as if in line at a deli counter, with questions of his own.

Roethlisberger didn’t take a single snap during the two-hour session, instead donning sweats and carrying around a small script as if he was a coach, part of the normal camp routine (two days on, one day off) that he and the team drew up for him a few years back. But he was engaged and locked in with an offense that, in a year’s time, has gotten considerably younger.

“I’ve been doing that for years, always trying to help coach,” Roethlisberger told me the next day. “The guys always say, they can ask their coach—what do I do here?—and coach will tell them. But at the end of the day, coaches will always say, Hey, see what Ben wants. So if we can communicate and get on the same page, that’s what’s gonna make us win. The other thing is this offense is relatively new to me as well. So if we can communicate about things, then we’ll all figure it out faster.”

Roethlisberger turns 40 in March. He’s going into Year 18. He’s outlasted draft classmates Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. He’s got two rings, went through elbow surgery two years ago, the COVID year last year (like everybody else), and the Steelers moved on from a bushel of his veteran teammates over the last six months.

So while he says that he’s always done what I saw him doing—acting almost as a quasi-coach—on Saturday, it stuck out to me a little more this time around. Maybe because I looked at it, and wondered what’s motivating him to do all this again.

Turns out, it’s simpler than I made it out to be. He just wants to play.

“It’s not about proving anything,” Roethlisberger says. “It’s about a love of the game, and a love of this team and this city, and feeling like I still got it. I can’t really call it a job. I understand that it is, but I can’t call it a job because it’s what I love to do. It’s fun. That’s what keeps me coming back.”

And as for his age, Roethlisberger adds, “I’m reminded all the time of how old I am—whether it’s in fun from my teammates or it’s from you guys [media]. I’m doing it because I love the game; I think we’ve got a really good football team here, and I’m excited about it.”

Here, then, is what Roethlisberger is working with: a rookie tailback, who’s likely to play a very major role in the offense; a line without Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro or Alejandro Villaneuva that could start two rookies; and a receiver group made up of headliners in Years 5, 3 and 2. Pending position battles, there’s a shot his starting tailback (Harris), left tackle (Dan Moore) and center (Kendrick Green) are all 16 years younger than him. On top of that, Matt Canada, promoted from quarterbacks coach, is in his first year as coordinator.

That’s why it sure looks like moments like the ones Roethlisberger had with Harris and Johnson, back to back, will matter in the long run.

“I think he realizes there are a bunch of young people that we’re counting on,” Tomlin told me. “And so he’s just putting his hand in the pile in terms of helping them grow and understand. Assignments are one thing, this process of handling assignments. But the informal communication, the gaining of understanding, the communication from player to player, that provides the detail that really gives us the winning edge. He’s been on the job 18 years, he understands that.

“He realizes he’s going to need some of those guys to make plays, and so he’s trying to accelerate the maturation process.”

And, as Tomlin continues, for a young player, getting direction from another player, especially one of Roethlisberger’s stature, can make all the difference. “No question,” says Tomlin, “and particularly at the quarterback position, in terms of working with eligibles. Option routes and so forth, there has to be a cohesion and an understanding on both parts.”

On the flip side, personally, Roethlisberger sees himself in a really good place going into 2021, and it goes well beyond the picture you saw on social media last week that indicated a trimmed-down physique.

Moreso, it’s where he is with his elbow. After tearing flexor muscles off the bone, and undergoing reconstructive surgery in September of 2019, Roethlisberger thought he was in a good place going into last year. And it’s hard to argue he wasn’t—the Steelers came out of the blocks 11–0 before slumping through December.

But knowing what he does now (and he looked strong throwing on Sunday), Roethlisberger better understands what going through that type of injury entails.

“I feel great,” he says. “You go two years ago, only playing a couple games, having elbow surgery, last year’s your first year back from a major surgery. I think if you ask anybody that’s had a major surgery, their first year back, no matter how far removed from it, it’s always a re-figure out, and getting to a comfort level with that part of your body. For me to feel more back to normal, I’m excited for that.

“It’s always interesting, because when asked last year how I felt, I would tell you I felt great. But then, one year removed, I look back on it, and I’m like, Man, maybe I wasn’t as good as I feel now.”

Lots of things, he knows, have to come together for the Steelers to get to the big stage—Roethlisberger went to three Super Bowls in his first seven seasons as a pro, and hasn’t been back in the decade since—and that’s why getting on the details with the young guys has become such a big part of his routine. But there’s a larger message that he’s trying to send them, and it’s one he hopes will resonate after he’s gone.

“I think my goal in all this, in all the years and all the experiences I have, is to do the best I can to pass down Steeler tradition and Steeler history, what it means to wear the black-and-gold,” he says. “That’s what I try and do everyday, just let these guys know what it takes and what it means, and what’s expected of you when you put this jersey on every day.

“It’s something that I don’t know you can ever really put into words for the person that’s not here. But it means a lot. These fans bleed black-and-gold, so we need to bleed black-and-gold. And I do. I think a lot of guys on this field do. Young guys are still learning it. But I think as soon as they step on the field in Week 2 at Heinz Field, and the fans are going nuts, they’re gonna understand what it is to play for this team.”

And maybe carve out their own legacy there, as Roethlisberger puts the some of the final touches on his own.


WHERE THE LEAGUE STANDS WITH VACCINATIONS

Before we jump into your COVID-19 refresher for the 2021 season, I thought it’d be worth it to give the floor to Dr. Allen Sills, the chief medical officer for the NFL who has captained the league’s ride through the pandemic, for his own thoughts on the vaccine. He was an early adopter himself and has championed all three versions of the shot(s) going to players and coaches across the league over the last few months.

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but …

“First and foremost, these vaccines, all of them—all three—are incredibly effective at preventing severe illness and death,” Sills said on Friday. “In any of the trials and in any of the experience around the world, whether you’re talking about any type of COVID infection, including the variants, the vaccines are incredibly effective against preventing serious illness and death, which is obviously something we all should be interested in.

“Secondly, if you’re vaccinated and you are to get infected, it tends to be a much milder form of the illness, and likely less transmissible to others. And so I think the vaccine is incredibly effective at its primary objective. At the same time, it’s safe. There now have been over three billion doses given across the world, and we’ve not seen any significant pattern of side effects. And because of the way the vaccine is put together and constructed, any concerns about long-term effects are unfounded.”

Sills then finished with this pretty strong statement: “To me, these are the safest and most effective vaccines we’ve ever known, and it’s a remarkable scientific achievement that we have them available to us in this short a time. And it is the way forward out of this pandemic that we’ve all been under for the past year-and-a-half.”

If you want to know what players have been hearing from the league, from their teams, and from the guest speakers coaches brought in over the spring, that’s the nuts-and-bolts of it. The good news is that the effort was mostly effective—nine teams, as of Friday, had over 90% of their players at least in the vaccination process, and more than half of the 32 had broken the 85% threshold, with the NFL boasting a league-wide player vaccination rate over 80%, which is easily outpaces where the general public is.

So when the NFL rolled out a host of new COVID-19 policies at the end of the week, it did so with an implicit message: We tried to tell those who are unvaccinated, and now they’re on their own.

• The league’s not going to plan any contingencies on a 19th week to reschedule games. So if they don’t get in within the 18-week calendar, they’ll likely be canceled.

• Games won’t be moved to accommodate an outbreak in a position group (see: Broncos QBs, Saints RBs), absent directives from government or medical officials.

• If a game is canceled or postponed because of an outbreak among unvaccinated personnel, the financial burden for any change falls on the team with outbreak, and they’ll take on any added expenses incurred by the opposing team, and fund the visiting team share.

• If a game can’t be rescheduled because of an outbreak among unvaccinated players, then the team with the outbreak will forfeit, and the game will be treated as a loss for that team, and a win for the opposing team, for the purposes of playoff seeding.

And that’s in addition to the previously-released protocols that essentially leave the 2020 protocols in place for unvaccinated players, and loosen them considerably in just about every way for vaccinated players.

Now, this is a league that put a game on a Wednesday afternoon last fall to make sure the associated checks cleared, so if the current conditions hold, it’s fair to say the chance of a cancellation hovers around zero. That said, the messaging couldn’t be clearer, and all of this certainly will have an effect on which players get cut, which players get signed, and how teams do business so long as there’s a significant number of players unvaccinated.

How did the NFL get there? That’s just one of things that Sills and I covered Friday.

Part of the principle in leaving the 2020 protocols in for unvaccinated players is that those guys may be even more at risk now than last year. And that’s because a normal life is easier to find in America in general in 2021, which means there may be less of the virus out there, but there are more places to get it than there were a year ago.

“Everyone wants to go back to normal—normal being defined as 2019 and before—where we didn’t have to worry about testing or protocols or masks or Kinexon devices,” Sills says. I think that’s certainly something all of us would like to see, but we all recognize we’re not ready to do that. We still have to contend with elements of this pandemic. I think that’s led to what I would call a determined phase of preparation where we’re incorporating what we learned last year and merging that with updated information, and trying to make the best decisions going forward.

“I do think there’s an air of excitement about this season, because we all feel we’re going to be a better place, we certainly know so much more than we did last year, we’ve got these incredibly safe and effective vaccines that are gonna make us much safer than we were.”

There have been a few elements that have helped with the uptick in vaccinations. One is head coaches getting behind the effort. Another came with teams that had employees go through tough cases last year, especially teams on which it happened with younger employees. As Sills explained it, “I always use the quote, idealism increases in direct proportion to your distance from the problem. Once you’ve seen COVID up close and personal and you’ve seen how severe it can be, it really changes how you view this disease.”

But most effective, as he sees it, has been player-to-player communication. We’ve used the examples over the last couple months of Patrick Mahomes and Matt Ryan as early adopters in K.C. and Atlanta, and those are just two of many.

“Trusted messengers are always incredibly important when you’re talking something like vaccine education,” Sills says. “By trusted messengers, I mean people who are known and respected by other people, and whose voice is influential. And I think you’re right. On a number of our teams, there were star players, or long-tenured players, who spoke up early and often about their belief in the vaccine, and that was very influential to their peers.

“Just like on many other issues on the team, those star players, or those long-serving players, have a lot of influence on younger players.”