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.
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” 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.”
The challenge this year is different than last year. When I asked Sills if he felt like problems were inevitable, as they were last year, this time around, he answered succinctly, “I don’t think any of us can say that we don’t think we’ll have any cases. Particularly as long as we have unvaccinated people, we’re going to have vulnerability there.”
That said, obviously, progress has come.
“There’s a lot of optimism both collectively and individually about the ability to get through the season,” Sills says. “But I think at the same time people understand the pandemic’s not over, we still are going to have to contend with the potential effects of this disease. And it won’t be back to what it was in 2019. So it may not be 2019, but it’s not going to be 2020 all over again either.”
And if you notice how many times Sills brings up the unvaccinated group, you can tell there’s some frustration there with holdouts. Sills and the league faced questions that a lot of people have had nationwide—Will this have effects on fertility? Why isn’t it FDA approved? How did it come together so quickly? He, and the league, answered all of those. The answer to the first question is almost certainly no. The answer to the second is there’s a process for FDA approval that naturally takes more time.
As for the last one, Sills has told players and coaches, “Hey, we’ve had the truck that carries this load for a while, the truck that runs around and delivers this, it’s just what’s loaded inside that truck is different now because of what we learned about this particular disease.”
So sure, that some people won’t accept that is tough. But what supersedes that feeling is pride in all the work the league and union have done together, in conjunction with experts like Dr. James Hildreth (the president of Meharry Medical College, an HIV researcher, and a member of FDA’s review panel on the vaccines) and Dr. Herman Taylor (a professor at Morehouse in Atlanta) to get the best information they can to everyone.
“Once again, we’re in that unique position of contributing a lot of knowledge to medical science and public health leaders, just like we did last year,” Sills says. “We’re gonna have that opportunity again, because once again we’ll have a large volume of testing information in both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. So we’ll again be contributing a lot of knowledge. But I’m also really proud of the work that’s already been done to get us to these levels of vaccinations.
“We announced [Friday] that 80% of NFL players have started the vaccination process. That number obviously far exceeds what we’re seeing in society, it certainly far exceeds the numbers for that age demographic around the country. I’m really proud of the work done by so many people at the club level, the players themselves, the players association, to promote vaccination. We’re setting an example for the country on why it’s important, and I think we’ll see the payoff in terms of the ability to get through our season this year.”
Which, of course, is an outcome we can all root for.
REMEMBERING GREG KNAPP
I only knew Greg Knapp in passing. He’d be around when another coach I knew was, and I always enjoyed talking with him—struck me as the nicest guy—and it didn’t take long to see how much he knew about football in general, and quarterbacking in particular, and how to teach both the sport and the position.
After talking to people over the last week, I wish I’d gotten to know him better.
Knapp died Thursday at 58 after his bike was hit by a car near his Danville, Calif., home on July 17. He’s survived by wife Charlotte and daughters Jordan, Natalie and Camille. He coached the last 26 years in the NFL for seven teams (including second tours with the Raiders and Falcons), serving as a coordinator in San Francisco, Atlanta, Oakland and Seattle, and in stints as position coach to Steve Young, Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan.
And those that knew him from the start would tell you that even as, from a football standpoint, he changed philosophically in a constantly evolving game, as a person he never changed much.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s first NFL season, coming from Hofstra, was in 2001 in San Francisco, which happened to be Knapp’s first year as a coordinator there. Quinn remembers a day, early that year, when the head coach at the time, Steve Mariucci, had Bill Walsh come in and talk to the staff. Quinn was sitting next to Knapp, and at one point during the 20-minute speech, leaned over to look at his staffmate’s desktop.
There, sat organized notes, bullet-pointed, and taken as if he was watching Walsh with a remote that allowed him to fast-forward and rewind, rather than live. “The detail of his notes, they were just over the top,” Quinn said Sunday morning. “It was like, Hey man, can I have a copy of that?”
“During a presentation, you ever write too much?” Quinn continues. “He knew what to emphasize, what to bullet point, what to go to. You don’t go somewhere and just try to write down every word, it was like listening, bullet point, listening, bullet point. And it was a page full of bullet points, but it captured the whole thing. I was like, OK, that’s pretty cool.
“Not trying to write it all, and the same kind of teaching that carried over from the quarterback stuff too. He essentially nailed every important part of the 20 minutes and put it into a sentence or two. That’s an important skill to learn how to do.”
So important, in fact, that last week, Quinn had his Cowboy players listen to a Run DMC song, and try to distill it on the fly, and bullet-point the message the old rap group was trying to get across in the lyrics. It was an idea that went back to that day in California, with a lesson Quinn thought his players would be able to take with them, like he did, forever.
Quinn crossed over again with Knapp on Jim Mora’s staff in Seattle in 2009, then hired Knapp as his quarterbacks coach in Atlanta in 2018, where Knapp was until last year.
“My relationship with him came full circle,” Quinn says. “Here I was, he was teaching me when I first came into the league as a QC coach, then to become a head coach, come in and say, Hey I think you should consider this, and he’s giving me insight as a head coach. I really trusted his opinion on things. Not everyone comes to tell you stuff as a head coach, especially the bad stuff. But Knapper was one that was honest, straight to it. But said something in a way where you’re like, Alright, lemme think about this.”
After Quinn’s staff was fired in Atlanta, Knapp was hired by Robert Saleh to be the Jets pass-game specialist, and work directly with 34-year-old Mike LaFleur, breaking into his first job as a coordinator.
Over the last six months, LaFleur, Jets quarterbacks coach Rob Calabrese and Knapp were connected at the hip. LaFleur and Knapp had dozens of dinners, met in Napa over the NFL’s summer break, and, of course, were around each other constantly back at the office in Jersey. LaFleur didn’t really know Knapp much beforehand—outside of being connected on occasion through brother Matt and old boss Kyle Shanahan—but it didn’t take long for the young coach to take to his older counterpart. Quickly, he saw what Quinn did.
“His process was, when you say cross and T's and dot the I's, this dude was the best I've ever been around at making sure that everything was going to be done in research to the fullest extent, to make sure that we are so prepared when we go talk to these guys and we talk to the scouts, when we are doing anything that's job-related,” LaFleur says. “It was incredible and that was something I took from it, that there’s no skipping steps. When I would kind of get a little hyper and want to overtalk about things, he'd bring it back to the foundation and it kind of level me out.
“And the second thing I'll say is, we'd be in team meetings and Saleh would be just going through his presentation for the day or what have you, and he's taking notes on everything. It never stopped for him. And I'm sitting back there kind of thinking about practice. And he is so locked into what Saleh’s saying, taking the notes, trying to always learn.”
Over time, and through a process of vetting quarterbacks for the draft, and putting in new Jets system, he saw how Knapp could capture the young guys in his room, like Zach Wilson, all the same as he once did Young, Manning and Ryan.
“You gotta be a really good coach,” LaFleur says. “You got to be able to relate to them within being yourself and Knapper had no problem being himself every single day. I mean, he was never different in the six months I was with him, there was never a bad day. There was never an up day. Every day was just up for him. Everyone does that little hand gesture that you're even keel, his even keel is just up, it's just unbelievable.
“And yeah, when you think about the situation we had with Zach and Mike White and James Morgan, guys that haven't played, naturally they're going to be a little more receptive to the coaching. And even the young guys are going to see through bulls---, but they quickly saw that Knapper’s not bulls---, he knows his stuff. Then you look at the Matt Ryans and the Peytons, guys that were good before him but still took to him, it's because they’re seeing the amount of time and work he puts into it, every single day in the process.”
LaFleur says he believes that, “Knapper’s going to live on in this quarterback room” because of what he, Calabrese, Wilson, White and Morgan learned in their six months with him.
“I've seen how my brother is doing it, how Kyle's done it. And it's been great,” LaFleur says. “I've learned a lot from them. But then there were things that I saw with Knapper that I think both those two, if they saw it, would be like, Wow, that was a really good, very easy way to say it and just a good process when you're getting into that room.”
Now, imagine the impact he had in six months there, and think about extrapolating it over 26 seasons, and that’s the start of how the NFL community processed the horrible news last week.
In fact, Quinn was on a group text that Mora organized that had more than 30 of Knapp’s former staffmates and quarterbacks on it. Mora put it together to keep everyone updated on the situation, but it didn’t take long for it to turn into a de facto tribute thread.
“There’s a lot of people jammed up on this,” Quinn says. “Defensive coaches. Offensive coaches. [Jets DC] Jeff Ulbrich told me a story about him, as a linebacker, as a rookie, he was struggling, and Knapper was doing bedcheck. And he said, ‘He must’ve talked to me for 20 minutes over a particularly tough time. It wasn’t going good my rookie year, here’s a guy who doesn’t know me at all and he changed my outlook, and said you’re gonna be fine, and gave him some perspective.
“I think that captures Knapper. He was a guy just wanting to help somebody, whatever position, ballplayer or coach, he was a dude that really had a good vibe with people. That’s why it hurts so much. Everybody has their own little Knapper story. It sucks. We’re gonna miss that.”
Making it even harder for those that know him is the station of life he was in—happily remarried, a year away from being empty-nesters with Charlotte, and with big plans for the future that had as much to do with living as coaching. It’s something that LaFleur quickly pointed out as we’d talked about how Knapp had that unique ability to reach quarterbacks young and old.
“You're right on both, except you undersold him,” LaFleur says. “He is an absolutely phenomenal quarterback coach. But he's an even better person. And that's what really sucks about this whole thing. He was at such, as you've probably heard, a good, good point in his life. I didn't know him 20 years ago, five years ago. I selfishly think we had the best Greg Knapp anyone's ever seen, the last six months. There was such a peace and ease in his eyes and his demeanor and he was so ready to attack this next stage of his life.
“And it's a shame. But it's up to us, anyone that knew him, particular our staff right now, because we were with him last, to make sure that we learn from those lessons he taught us and move forward with them.”
Clearly, there were plenty of them.
1) I wish I could give you a hard answer on what Aaron Rodgers is going to do. I don’t think the Packers know for sure, and his coordinated social media strike with star receiver Davante Adams, playing off The Last Dance doc on Michael Jordan, only bolsters the idea that he wants everyone guessing. So the most constructive thing to do here is go back to how the wounds were incurred. And when you dissect that, I believe you can find a couple very real parallels to the Brett Favre situation 13 years ago. The first is in the root of Favre’s discontent late in his iconic run in Wisconsin, and that’s the fact that, in an organization that’s philosophically centered on the machine more than its parts, Favre’s star power had outgrown its surroundings. The Packers were never going to treat Favre, or any player, as some teams treated their quarterbacks—almost quasi-management. And so Favre flirted with retirement and, as it’s been explained to me, if he hadn’t played the in-again, out-again game with the team, they wouldn’t have drafted Rodgers, which only made the situation worse. Fast forward a decade-and-a-half, and you have Rodgers wanting a seat at the decision-making table, wanting the organization to build on his timetable (like Favre once did, in wanting Green Bay to trade for Randy Moss), and seeing the team instead not only build for the future by drafting his heir, and also not giving him a heads up about it and, well, you can see what might drive Rodgers to try and take things into his own hands. “The issue in both situations, you have this sort of old school mentality, you’re a player, just shut up and play,” says one well-placed source. “Aaron’s one of 53, I get that. But quarterbacks usually are not treated that way.” And, as I see it, the communication around drafting Love just brought these feelings out, and Tom Brady getting much of what Rodgers was eyeing in Tampa, and beating Rodgers’s Packers on the way to another ring, only made them stronger. The shame of it is, I think GM Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur have created a great environment—in scheme, program and personnel—for a quarterback to thrive. And now, the presence of the most important piece is up in the air, and the (to steal Rodgers’s word) “people” management part of the equation becomes paramount. Packers players are due in tomorrow.
2) We’re going to have more on this—but I think people who compare what’s happening in the NFL to the NBA are right in this area. It applies to Rodgers. I also think it applies to Russell Wilson. And as I see it, it’s more specifically the LeBron-ization of the NFL than the NBA-ization of the NFL. The comp, to me, is with Tom Brady. Like LeBron James, Brady played out his contract, set up his departure (by securing a no-tag provision from the Patriots), and found a team that had a foundation in place, and the ability to add around him on—and this is key, as we mentioned with Rodgers—his timeline. Accordingly, just as the Heat and Cavs built with abandon, and little concern for potential post-LeBron issues, the Bucs have continually told all of us with contracts built to push money into the future, compromises to bring the band back together, and swings at big-name vets that come with strings attached that what happens three years from now is not their primary concern. Maximizing their time with Brady is. That’s what everyone’s up against now. And that it worked, I think, has made other quarterbacks test the waters to see if they can have their own versions of that setup. Was that an ego play this offseason for Rodgers and Wilson? Sure. But there is some pragmatism to it too, in trying to keep up with your competition. Conversely, it’s very fair to argue that Rodgers and Wilson play for franchises that have consistently put them in position to contend for championships, and some quarterbacks (like, to grab another name from this offseason, Matthew Stafford) haven’t been so lucky. Thing is, Brady was playing for one of those teams too. And everyone, Rodgers and Wilson included, saw how that one played out. So we’ll see what happens with Rodgers now, and Wilson down line. What I can say is that this trend probably isn’t going away.
3) I don’t think it’d be impossible for Justin Fields to win the Bears job, but I also don’t think it’s likely. And to illustrate it best, I want you to read this quote: “I definitely see it as [the veteran as] the starter. But if [the rookie is] ready to compete, I have no problem with it. I don't sit there and say, 'Hey, we're not playing a rookie quarterback. We have to rest him the first year.' … I don't really make any decisions like that until I actually have an opinion on it. And that'll take to how I see him in camp. If he comes in and he's playing at a high level and we think he gives us the best chance to win, we wouldn't hesitate to do that.” That wasn’t Bears coach Matt Nagy saying that. It was Kyle Shanahan last month. But my sense is Chicago is where the Niners are—with a team they feel can contend at the highest level, a veteran quarterback they believe in and will prepare to start, and a rookie who they’ve encouraged to compete as if the starting job could be his. It’s a healthy spot to be in. And to me, that’ll give the coaches a few things to monitor in camp.
• The first would certainly be Fields’s mastery of the offense. When the quarterback gets in the huddle, the coaches want him to have command. In other words, when the multi-worded play call comes out of his mouth, he’s delivering it in pieces to different players in the huddle and, in turn, directing them what to do, rather than just having memorized it, and spitting it back out (which is what rookies usually do). If Dalton can do that with 10 calls now, Fields may have five, and another five where he has to think. Which puts him at or ahead of where he should be—but not where Dalton is.
• Second is how Fields’s teammates respond to him, and Fields is well on his way there. One example came in a dance competition on the last day of OTAs. The players had a dance-off, offense vs. defense, and the offense had a rookie out there first. It started and, a few seconds in, Fields jumped in, helped his draft classmate, and brought the house down. It was a good sign, to the guys there, of how Fields understands leadership in a way where he knows where he’s at as a rookie, but also has a good feel for when to assert himself.
• Third is the confidence that the staff has in Dalton, an 11-year vet who showed through the spring his ability to get the ball out on time and put it where he needs to be, while understanding his own strengths and weaknesses and how to apply them in the offense. There’s also a motivation there in having Fields pushing him, similar to what Nagy was witness to in 2017, when then-Chiefs QB Alex Smith fostered a fantastic relationship with Patrick Mahomes, while Mahomes’s presence helped push Smith to a career year.
And so the bottom line here, really, is going to be that while Dalton gets the reps with 1s, and Fields with the 2s, it’s going to be on Fields to make the decision hard on the Bears coaches. Those coaches, by the way, are with the players in believing the team’s got a chance to be really good in 2021, which means this year isn’t going to be sacrificed to the development of a young quarterback. We’ll see if Fields—who’s already shown how driven he is as a player—can prove to the Bears that starting him won’t mean doing that.
4) The Fred Warner contract is a good story for everyone involved. And that includes the guys who did the work—49ers EVP of football operations Paraag Marathe and Warner’s agent Justin Schulman—because what could’ve been a really rough negotiation wasn’t one. That was, at least in part, because the BS was pushed to the side from the start. In fact, at the very beginning, Schulman told Marathe, “If you don’t come in at $16 million per, I won’t come in at $22 million per.” Marathe agreed and, sure enough, the Niners and Warner agreed to a creatively structured deal at just over $19 million per (five new years, $95.025 million in new money). Warner’s side gave on the term (it’s six years), and the Niners side, in return, allowed for the deal to void after four years (with the first three new years worth $55.5 million), with the option to buy back the final two years of deal, and made it so the $40.25 million injury guarantee will be fully guaranteed next March. And they pushed this one over the goal line while Marathe was in Cabo, GM John Lynch was in Africa, and Schulman was in the Pacific Northwest. Then, there’s the football part of this—and the triumph for both Warner and the Niners staff here. Warner played the “overhang” linebacker position at BYU, a spot that’s hard to project to the pros because it’s basically a jack-of-all-trades role that shows little of a player’s ability to play in the box in the run game as a pro, which is an essential part of being an NFL linebacker. It’s where Browns rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah played at Notre Dame, and projecting these guys has been challenging for scouts and coaches. And that brings us to the real victory here for the Niners, and Warner himself.
5) Warner’s stardom is such a great example of how teams and players are in partnerships, and how a common vision can bring a huge payoff. At the Senior Bowl, Lynch likes to stand behind the defense to look at players, because he remembers how he saw the game from their vantage point, and, as such, can diagnose how quickly prospects are seeing it in how they move. Going into the 2018 draft cycle, Lynch’s West Coast area scout, the late Reggie Cobb, as well college scouting director Ethan Waugh, and assistant GM Adam Peters had put Warner on his radar as a priority prospect, though one with the aforementioned positional questions. Those questions made the week in Mobile key, in that Lynch got to see Warner playing an NFL version of linebacker, and Lynch, and the Niners, were taken by, even at a new position, how fast he saw the game and moved within it. From there, the Niners wanted to know how he’d handle the mental part of it, something that could pull off by bringing him to San Francisco for an in-house pre-draft visit. Not wanting to tip their hand, they waited until the last week to invite him, and almost blew it. Warner’s schedule for the last week of visits was booked. Peters pleaded with Schulman (“We have to get him in here”); Warner went and crushed the visit. The rest is, well, another example of the Niners’ draft-and-develop machine, with Robert Saleh, DeMeco Ryans and Johnny Holland all playing parts in turning this tweener into perhaps the NFL’s best middle linebacker, one capable of covering slot receivers and filling gaps in the run game all the same, and ex-teammate Kwon Alexander helping the quiet-ish Warner come out of his shell as a leader. And now, the Niners have a homegrown star to captain their defense for years to come.
6) Colts linebacker Darius Leonard is next. And Leonard, I believe, will cruise by Warner to become the game’s highest-paid linebacker—which is something that Lynch and Marathe actually discussed with Warner (Lynch was once the NFL’s highest-paid safety, only to be passed by Brian Dawkins two days later; and Warner, to his credit, wasn’t worried about losing the distinction as the game’s richest off-ball linebacker quickly). My guess is that, when the dust settles, Leonard will score an extension that will land around $78 million over four years. And that only underscores how GM Chris Ballard is moving into the next phase of Indy’s franchise build. Leonard could be joined by three-time All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson and rising young right tackle Braden Smith—both 2018 draft classmates of his—in landing monster deals before the start of the season. Add those three to what Carson Wentz ($24.0 million per), DeForest Buckner ($21.0 million per) and Ryan Kelly ($12.4 million per) are making, and the team’s young core is locked in. Which, as we’ve seen, will mean the Colts will have to continue drafting well to fill out the rest of their roster, since they’ll have less money to play with on the free-agent and trade markets.
7) There’s going to be a lot of disagreement on the next crop of draft quarterbacks. Or at least, there will be unless someone really steps forward. The names you’ll hear the next few weeks—North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler and Liberty’s Malik Willis—aren’t where guys like Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields or Trey Lance were, in scout’s eyes, a year ago. And that means the race to be the first one taken is wide open. We’ll have more in August, sort of own watch list, on the class, but Rattler was one name that really intrigued me, and really for three reasons.
• He was an elite recruit coming out of high school, ranked as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback and No. 11 prospect overall in the Class of 2019. That’s not everything, but it is indicative of his physical tools.
• He steadily improved over his first year as a starter, leading the conference champion Sooners to eight straight wins to finish a 9-2 season.
• He plays for Lincoln Riley, who’s had three starting quarterbacks previous to Rattler in three years in charge—Baker Mayfield (first pick in the 2018 draft), Kyler Murray (first pick in the 2019 draft), and Jalen Hurts (2020 second-rounder).
Of course, all that doesn’t guarantee anything, so I checked in with a few scouts to see what they thought of him. The prevailing feeling was there’s requisite promise there, and a need for progress, which should be there if Rattler stays on the track he finished last season on. “Quarterbacks are always going to be pushed up in the draft,” texted one AFC scouting exec. “Rattler is talented, but has only one year of tape as a starter and that came in a weird pandemic year. Based on strictly that tape, he looks like an early first-round selection. This season, he has the opportunity to solidify that, or opponents could catch up to him and could expose perceived flaws in his game. I have a hard time believing he would take a step back with the coaching he receives and the talent around him in that program.” Another exec, this one for NFC team, said the athleticism and arm is there for Rattler to go in the first round, with development needed and his frame being a drawback. And the comp I got from a couple guys is an intriguing one: Zach Wilson. So keep an eye on the Sooners redshirt sophomore.
8) Dak Prescott’s rehab wasn’t without bumps, so it was pretty awesome seeing Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy declare his quarterback full go for training camp the other day. There were junctures in December and January that were tough, and the timeline from the start was relatively uncertain, given the severity of the injury. Surgery was Oct. 11. The Cowboys hit the practice field on July 22. That’s 9 months, 1 week and 4 days from the OR to the team feeling comfortable enough to let him roll without restriction, even though the games that count are still a month-and-a-half away. Pretty good sign on where Prescott’s at, and that he’ll be able to pick up where he left off last year. Speaking of which …
• Prescott was averaging 422.5 yards per game through four weeks last year, with a 3–1 TD-INT ratio, despite playing behind a line ravaged with injury, and having to prop up a defense that turned every game into a track meet.
• He had another 166 yards through two-and-a-half quarters before getting hurt against the Giants.
• He was playing in a new-ish system, called by incumbent coordinator Kellen Moore, but overseen by new coach Mike McCarthy.
Add in the fact that CeeDee Lamb returns with a year under his belt, and the Cowboys have gotten reinforcement on defense, and there are reasons for high hopes here. And brighter days for Prescott after he endured some pretty dark ones.
9) Undercover storyline: The small boom of non-quarterbacks getting big third contracts is being felt across the NFL. Generally, a star receiver or corner or linebacker’s career-earnings arc runs like this—rookie contract, big second contract, more modest third contract or string of one-year deals to finish it out. More recently, that trend’s been bucked.
• In September 2019, the Falcons inked Julio Jones to a three-year, $66 million extension, making him the highest-paid receiver in football. He was 30 when he signed it.
• In March 2020, the Eagles traded for 29-year-old cornerback Darius Slay from Detroit, and signed him to a three-year, $50.05 million extension, making him the NFL’s highest paid corner.
• Last September, the Cardinals gave 28-year-old receiver DeAndre Hopkins, just acquired from Houston, a two-year, $54.5 million extension, blowing past the benchmark Jones set.
So in the cases of Adams and Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore, because those guys are pursuing deals that will take them deep into their 30s, it’s understandable that the teams would be hesitant. But this precedent? It’s a good way to complicate things for teams who want to keep their best players, and at the same protect themselves against Father Time doing his thing.
10) That was a lot of contract talk. It’ll be good to talk actual football this week. And you can follow along with me on my trip, which will swing through the Midwest over the next week, and then go out West after that. I love this time of year and, if my experience in Pittsburgh’s any indication, things are going to be much more normal than they were last year. We already took you through how the Steelers are still working through this. For me? The staff there made it pretty easy. This was my Saturday, if you’re interested (and I get it if you aren’t) …
9:24 a.m: Takeoff from Boston on JetBlue.
10:50 a.m.: Land in Pittsburgh.
11:09 a.m.: Climb in a Ford Escape at Hertz to drive to the practice facility.
11:44 a.m.: Arrive at the facility after hitting traffic in the tunnels.
11:51 a.m.: Meet the test taker at the medical tent.
11:55 a.m.: Test done, wait on results/work in the tent.
12:25 p.m.: Cleared to go into the work room.
1:30 p.m.: Practice.
Super easy, everyone was friendly and my test, under NFL protocols, is good for two weeks. So no, it’s not all the way back to normal. But after hitting seven camps last summer in the pre-vaccine pandemic, I can say the league is much, much closer than it was.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) Other than just thinking all the politicking, money-grabbing and back-stabbing in college sports is hilarious. I’m kind of torn over Oklahoma and Texas going to the SEC. On one hand, the competition should be fantastic. On another, the regional nature of the sport and its rivalries has always been awesome, and while having familiar foes like Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas A&M around helps in that regard, I can’t help but think there is an element of the sport that’s going to be lost here.
2) While we’re on college football, here’s a fun fact: It’s likely that Alabama (Bryce Young), Clemson (D.J. Uiagalelei), Georgia (J.T. Daniels) and Ohio State (C.J. Stroud) will all start quarterbacks from California this fall. And you were wondering why the Pac-12 has been down?
3) I’ve always wanted to visit Tokyo. But based on what I’ve read from our own Michael Rosenberg, and Dan Wetzel over at Yahoo! (among others), it sure sounds like covering the Olympics over there isn’t exactly the best experience. In fact, hearing the stories reminds me a little of taking my camp tour last summer—when the reason I went was largely to just see a piece of history that (hopefully) won’t repeat itself.
4) While we’re there, 3-on-3 basketball is an interesting addition to the Olympic lineup. I honestly want to know how they go about picking the teams, because it seems like the best move would be just find whatever NBA players are willing to go. But that doesn’t seem to have happened. Just a lot of questions here.
5) The NBA is very fortunate to have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who brings so much to the table (superhero highlights, worldwide appeal, a great backstory, and an almost naïve disposition). If I’m Adam Silver, I’m doing everything I can between now and November to position the NBA as Antetokounmpo’s league. The guy is pretty much impossible to dislike.
6) Dr. Death on Peacock is absolutely bonkers.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Really excited for our old friend. Perfect role for him. Knock ’em dead, bro.
2021 is truly the Year of Bruce.
Are we 100% sure no one has the footage?
These are the things you almost forget about through an offseason. The Titans are getting a franchise left tackle and a bona fide Pro Bowl receiver back, and should be real good again.
Knapp was Vick’s coordinator for three years in Atlanta, and was there for the Falcons’ 2004 ride to the NFC title game, and Vick’s 1,000-yard rushing season in 2006.
I’m old enough to remember when the idea of a casino getting NFL stadium naming rights was an impossibility. Of course, so is a 12-year-old. Amazing how fast the world changed. Would love to hear what Tony Romo really thinks of it.
Everything the NFL touches turns to gold—and I will say that, as a guy who’s been going to training camps since grade school, these really are a great take. And that especially goes for the joint practices, which I think teams and the league could do more with (those should be treated as events).
Don’t let anyone tell you that anything Rodgers does is by mistake.
Kurt’s a genuinely great dude, and this is a genuinely great thing.
I think that’s fake. In fact, I was told it is. But for it to be fake … holy crap, did the editor freaking crush it.
I have no idea how Josiah nails it every … single … time.
Good point from a Hall of Famer.
Legitimately great to see Dak back out there.
Am I the only one who thought of O’Bannion from Dazed and Confused here?
It’s hard to believe Jimmy Johnson isn’t in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. Good to see that Jerry Jones is going to address it, and address it after he gets to take his HOF victory lap.
This is from ex-Ravens assistant Matt Weiss, now the QBs coach at Michigan. Love it.
Brady generally doesn’t talk this way publicly, so it was interesting to see a little edge there. And by the way, I’d speculated that on Colin Cowherd’s show last week that San Francisco might be the team he’s salty about. My belief now is that it’s not the Niners.
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RIP, Jim Murphy. It’s been a tough week in our little town in Massachusetts. But one bright spot has come in the money raised for Murphy’s family. If you’re so inclined, Rochie’s post there has a link to give.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
I’ll be back on the road on Tuesday, and out for a couple weeks. And I’m looking for ways to best give you guys some flavor for camp—and I’ll try and figure out Twitter or IG Live to do that.
But if you have any suggestions on what you’d like to see from the trail, don’t hesitate to reach out. As always, you can get me at email@example.com.
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