GREEN BAY, Wisc. — No one here knows what this is going to look like in six months.
That much, to borrow a phrase, is a beautiful mystery.
No one knows if the Packers are going to win the Super Bowl after coming so close the last two years, or if Aaron Rodgers is going to maintain his MVP level as he turns 38, or if Jordan Love’s development will accelerate, or if the keeping core that Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur have built intact will be feasible after the 2021 season. All of that will play out over 17 games and, everyone here hopes, a few more after that.
But LaFleur knows this, after all the noise of this week: He wants to keep coaching Rodgers. And he doesn’t see that changing any time soon.
“I mean, the guy is, in my eyes, the greatest to ever do it,” LaFleur said, from a quiet corner of Lambeau Field late on Thursday night. “So yeah, why wouldn’t you want to? And I think he’s still got a lot left in the tank. I see it every day. He has so much fun out there, too, just competing. The ball’s still jumping out of his hand so damn effortlessly. So yeah, if he were to have retired, I would’ve put it in the same category as how I felt growing up in Michigan …”
LaFleur then pauses for a second, recalling what the summer of 1999 was like.
“I didn’t really grow up a huge professional football fan, but it was fun watching the Detroit Lions and Barry Sanders,” he continues. “When he walked away, that was heartbreaking. I know, from my perspective, it just wouldn’t be good for the game of football. And I do believe—I know—there’s a lot of history here, and a lot that he loves about this place. And hopefully we can continue to work and come together and fix whatever issues there might be.
“I’ve been a lot of different places in this league, so it’s helped me maybe have a little more perspective in terms of what other things are out there. I just hope we can all come together, learn from this whole experience and continue to grow together.”
LaFleur is a 41-year-old head coach with a 26–6 record who’s been to two NFC title games in as many years in charge. He’s also a guy—like he said—that has seen the other side. He was Robert Griffin III’s position coach in Washington when things came undone there, and play-caller in Tennessee as the Titans did all they could to try and get Marcus Mariota right, the year before Ryan Tannehill came in and wrested the job from the ex-second overall pick.
All that is to say, LaFleur knows what he’s got in Rodgers. Clearly, he doesn’t want it to end. And as such, he also has to know how much is on the line in Green Bay this year.
As I write this, I’m in Detroit, at my seventh camp, and it’s awesome being back out again, and seeing people face-to-face (if from a few feet away). And so we’ve got plenty to get to in the column. This week, we’ll …
• Dive into the Colts’ situation, with the looming fear Carson Wentz will be out a while.
• Examine the Bears’ quarterbacks, and how Andy Dalton and Justin Fields got to Chicago.
• Look at Kirk Cousins and the Vikings, and Mike Zimmer looking for a little more from 8.
But we’re starting with the story of the week.
Really, this is going to be the story of the year, too. It’s not going away, no matter how the season goes. Weeks when Rodgers plays well and is happy, it’ll be Can they sign him to an extension? Other weeks, even in Rodgers’s demeanor, and the social-media photo-shoppers will be firing up renderings of him in jerseys of the other 31.
Maybe that was always the way it was going to be, but this week, Rodgers reported, then, almost right away, stoked that inevitable fire. He was as candid in airing his grievances as you’ll ever see an under-contract athlete wearing team logos at the press conference. His revised contract shaved a year off the term, making it so the Packers can’t franchise him after the 2022 season, creating a decision point for the team next winter/spring.
My sense is the Packers aren’t surprised that either of these things became part of Rodgers’ reentry to the team, because this is, in so many ways, about control. Before this week, Green Bay held what amounted to team options for 2022 and ’23 on Rodgers, with the ability to tag him at 40 years old in 2024, and a first-round pick developing behind him—essentially allowing for the Packers to pick their spot in when to move on from 12.
With the contractual changes, that power is gone. Now, the Packers really have him for a year, and he made it pretty clear in 32 minutes at the podium that if things don’t go as he’d like, he won’t be shy about voicing his issues.
All of which begs the question: With all that’s gone down, how do the Packers move forward with a roster that the people in-house believe is fully capable of winning the Lombardi Trophy that’s eluded them the last two years?
“I think it’s like anything,” Gutekunst responded, when I posed the question to him earlier on Thursday. “I know for Matt and I, and Mark [Murphy] and Russ [Ball] as well, it’s constant communication. And we’ve done that really well here over the last few months. But I think that now that Aaron’s back in the building, we need to make sure we continue to do that with him.
“At the same time, I’ve always believed that once you get between the white lines and the season starts, there’s so much focus on each game, there’s not a lot of time for anything else. That’s gonna be what’s important. That’s where Matt and the team and Aaron’s focus has to be—on winning.”
Football coaches and executives are conditioned to look at and treat the past as just that—the past. But in this case, recent history promises to hover over the season. So to find a way to eventually move past that, an examination of it is necessary.
Rodgers himself has laid out the landscape, and not just in that Wednesday press conference. He’s said repeatedly who he loves (coaches, teammates) while purposefully leaving others (namely the front office) out of the equation, and the feeling for a while has been that the root of that came on the evening of the 2020 draft. The Packers called Rodgers to let him know they were taking Jordan Love while they were on the clock, which begged the question, Why not let him know earlier?
“Quite frankly, if that was even a possibility, I would’ve loved to do that,” Gutekunst told me. “We didn’t go into that draft thinking, Hey, we’re gonna target this and do it. If that was the case, we probably would’ve done that. That wasn’t reality. Would that have changed anything? I don’t know if Aaron, with the issues he has, if that’s really part of it. But a player like Aaron, in a situation like that, you would’ve loved to give him a heads up. It’s just that the way this thing transpired, that wasn’t a possibility.”
As I’ve heard it, the Packers actually thought Love would go earlier, and had set their sights on landing a tackle or receiver through a trade up from 30. But by the time such a move got in range, the tackles were long gone, and four receivers had come off the board between the 17th and 25th picks, at which point Green Bay pivoted to Love, a selection that almost immediately led to questions of how Rodgers would receive the selection of his heir.
But even with all that in the backdrop, Gutekunst said the Packers didn’t really become aware of Rodgers’s displeasure with the team until February 2021, almost a year after that draft, and, “We’ve worked really hard to make him at ease with things he has issues with.”
Over that time, it’s become abundantly clear, and now confirmed by Rodgers himself, that the reigning MVP had issues with past personnel moves, wanted more of a voice in future personnel moves, and was chafing at the lack of control he had over how the end of his career in Green Bay would play out. By now, everyone knows it.
And for his part, Gutekunst isn’t against it. In fact, as he sees it, having Rodgers’s voice in the room more often would be valuable, because it’s such a unique one.
“First of all, I’d say there’s very few of those players—you’re talking Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, there are very few of those players,” he says. “The quarterback position, particularly, because he’s affected by so many things, and particularly on your offense … the ones like Aaron and Tom, their input is valuable. How [has that piece] affected things? That’s kind of hard for me to say. But I can understand why they want to have input.
“So what’s your definition of input? Are you listened to? If you’re listened to, and a different decision is made, do you still feel listened to? Or is it just doing what you want? I think there’s a difference there. But I do think those guys that have put so much into an organization, played at a high level, I think it’s important that they have a little bit of a voice.”
Clearly, Rodgers had a voice this week, in Randall Cobb landing back on the roster in Green Bay. We’ll see, over time, whether that was a step in truly healing the wound or just putting a Band-Aid on it for the time being—something that will be up to Rodgers as much as it is to the Packers.
LaFleur smiled when I brought up how, just two years ago, the questions that loomed over the Packers’ organization all hovered over his ability to build a relationship with Rodgers, after Rodgers’s relationship with former Mike McCarthy frayed, and eventually broke.
“It’s kinda funny,” he says. “Everybody was questioning that, and now it’s all forgotten.”
It’s funny to think about now because LaFleur’s relationship with Rodgers has sustained through all of this—Rodgers has consistently been clear in saying his bonds with guys like LaFleur, OC Nathaniel Hackett and QBs coach Luke Getsy are totally intact—with so much turbulence around the two of them.
“I’ve tried to detach my own feelings, how I feel about him, from the situation,” LaFleur says. “It’s hard for me to speak on … He’s been here a long time, everything that’s transpired, I can only speak on two years of it. And we’ve had a great two years together. I think he’s a big part of the culture that we’ve cultivated within the team. There’s always a direct line and access to communication. I’m in the same meeting room with him every day for all our installs, every day, I’m always with him.”
And while LaFleur likes to give players their space in the offseason—they weren’t talking every day—that line of communication never went down, and the two did talk.
“Yeah, if there’s absolutely something I need to talk to him about, I know he’s not afraid to reach out to me either,” LaFleur says. “I do think that, having gone through the situation and never before having experienced it, experiencing something like this, there were times when you weren’t quite sure how to handle certain things. But I think you figure it out, just by being open and honest.”
Therein lies another key to how the Packers, at the very least, put this behind them in the here and now: The coach and quarterback have been fine with one another throughout. That means getting Rodgers to respond to the coaching, which can sometimes be a problem with players in these sorts of situations, doesn’t figure to be an issue. And his reentry to the locker room won’t be a problem either, given how his teammates regard him.
Maybe the best sign of that came this week. While Murphy, Gutekunst, and Ball were working out the contract revision, the trade for Cobb, and the fallout from the drama of the days before and after, LaFleur’s clearing of the air with Rodgers was much simpler. Really, it was about what Rodgers had missed in the time he was away.
“All the collaboration, myself, Aaron, Hackett and Getsy, after that ’19 season just to fine-tune, and really establish what is this Green Bay Packer offense gonna be? What’s it gonna look like? It was a phenomenal process,” LaFleur says. “It was so back-and-forth, all of us, spit-balling, we looked at every concept that we ran the previous year, the things that we came in with. We spent a lot of time fine-tuning, and those guys all did a phenomenal job, Hackett, Getsy, Aaron’s input. It was a pretty cool experience.
“And this year, obviously, we didn’t do any of that. So the first meeting we had together, it was making sure that we’d get him up to speed on some of the things that we may have tweaked or changed or implemented, just to make sure he feels good about it.”
Which, in the grand scheme of all of this, wound up being a pretty easy thing to do.
I was at Lambeau on the second day of practice, and when you’d ask any of the coaches about Rodgers, their eyes would get big in a “yeah, he’s still ridiculous” kind of way. That’s the part the Packers never had to worry about. They knew if/when he came back, he’d be ready to go, and he most certainly was.
The rest is going to have to play out over time. And the one word that constantly came up, again and again, was communication. Everyone knows that will be the key, and the true test of where that is between Rodgers and the team won’t come until the boat gets rocked on the team’s 2021 season a little bit.
“There has been some [clearing of the air],” Gutekunst says. “I think that now it’s a matter of the willingness of everybody as we go forward to make sure those things happen, and it’s gotta be a willingness on everybody’s part to communicate. The one thing through this summer that I’m really thankful for—which is hard to say sometimes, with everything that’s going on—is it’s really forced me and Matt, Mark and Russ, we were really strong to begin with, but because we’ve had to go through this together, and the time we’ve spent together, I couldn’t feel better about that. That’s been a positive that came out of this.”
And Gutekunst sounded at least hopeful that the same sort of thing can happen with Rodgers’s strained relationships with the front office.
“I think it’d help the team, so I’m optimistic that can happen,” he says. “I think that would be better for the football team—for Matt, myself, Aaron, Mark, Russ, for all of us to move forward.”
The good news is the team should be really good. Between Davante Adams, Aaron Jones, David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins, Za’Darius Smith, Kenny Clark, Preston Smith, Jaire Alexander and Adrian Amos, the team is stocked with stars in the prime of their careers. Those guys were on the doorstep, the last two years, of the one thing that could solve all of this—a championship.
Which is why, when I asked LaFleur if he had any moment this offseason where he thought to himself, This is nuts, his mind wandered back over to where his team was before the you-know-what hit the fan.
“For me, obviously, the way the season ended was extremely disappointing,” he says. “It was really disappointing to go out like that. Only one team’s happy at the end of the year, right? That’s just the reality. But when you think about all the great moments we had, the one thing that was really disappointing to me was that we were in that spot after having so much success, and you develop a relationship with a guy you want to be around, that you want to coach.
“And his teammates? His teammates love him. So yeah, you certainly don’t want to go through times like that. But hopefully, we can all rally around one another, and maybe be stronger for it in a weird way.”
And that, the here and now, is where everyone here is focused, which is why when I asked Gutekunst if the idea is to have a great year, mend the relationship with Rodgers, and re-up the quarterback next spring, he pumped the brakes just a little.
“Ideally, yeah, have a great year, we’ll start there,” he says. “And hopefully, over the course of a year, everybody can communicate and understand why we do the things we do and have a better understanding of where everybody is.”
At least now the Packers have that time, something they weren’t guaranteed even a week or two ago. What they, and Rodgers do with it, remains to be seen. The rest of us will be watching very closely.
WHY INDY CAN HANDLE A WENTZ ABSENCE
WESTFIELD, IND. — The Colts are expecting news, and clarity, on Carson Wentz’s foot injury today. But what they know about the injury—there’s no broken bone, and it’s not a Lisfranc injury—to this point is encouraging. And Wentz getting back and playing in the opener has not yet been ruled out, which is a positive sign. That said, it’s safe to say that the Colts will probably be O.K., even if Wentz is not.
Those are my words, not anyone’s in Indy, and maybe that sounds callous, but it’s also just the recent history here. On the day I visited, the day after Wentz felt an uncomfortable grind in his foot and was taken off the field as a result (he has consulted with foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson since and minor surgery could be necessary), Indy was rolling out there with Jacob Eason, Sam Ehlinger, Jalen Morton and Brett Hundley.
And outside of some scattershot throws from a highly inexperienced lot of passers, you really wouldn’t have known it. The energy was up. The coaches (themselves without Frank Reich, out with COVID-19) ran an efficient two-hour practice. The machine rolled on.
“Nobody’s blinking,” offensive coordinator Marcus Brady told me Saturday night, a few hours later. “Everyone’s not sitting worried about the situation, everybody’s just trying to get better. We’re in training camp, and everybody’s focused on individually getting better and as a team getting better. They’re not too concerned with what else is going on.”
That history we referenced? This will be Colts GM Chris Ballard’s fifth year in charge, and he has yet to go into two consecutive seasons with the same quarterback. Reich is going into his fourth year and, health-permitting, Wentz will be his fourth full-time starting quarterback over that period. That’s a result of Andrew Luck retiring when he did, and Philip Rivers being an acknowledged short-timer coming in, of course.
But in a sport where you have to prepare to churn every position except that one, somehow, the Colts have been able to keep their heads above water facing what might drown others. They went 10–6 with Luck in 2018, 11–5 with Rivers last year, and even though they finished 7–9 the year they lost Luck, 2019, and had to go to Jacoby Brissett—who himself missed time on an injury-ravaged team—there was more evidence tucked into that season of how Indy has managed the instability.
“We started out 5–2!” Ballard says. “That was my fault. I didn’t do a good enough job that year to help the team in terms of depth. I don’t blame the staff, and I don’t blame the players for that. But no, I do think there’s some confidence in that, that no matter what happens, we’ll figure it out, we’ll find an answer, we’ll move forward and we’ll find a way to win.
“The real fun part of what we get to do is the problem solving part of it. And doing it with the kind of people where, you like them, you really like them, and you can have disagreements, and you’re still finding the answers to those problems. That’s a lot of fun.”
That’s where, in Ballard’s eyes, it starts, with a message Reich delivers to his players constantly: “There’s a way to win every game, you just gotta figure out how.”
From a roster-building and scheme standpoint, that’s meant being adaptable to winning different kinds of battles every week, and there’s a lot that goes into that part of it.
“People always say culture, culture, culture,” says defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. “Culture’s just how you do stuff. It’s how you go about your business day-to-day. That’s what it is. We just go about our business, we look each other in the eye, we tell each other the truth. Everything we do is on the table in terms of standards of performance. And we hold guys accountable. And when you have that, you put together a good team.
“Then you add the scouting side of it, where you get quick, fast, strong, athletic, your kicking game’s always going to be good, your defense is always gonna be fast, and you can handle that turnover. And obviously we have a great quarterback coach in Frank Reich, he’s outstanding to be able to handle that and piece it together, What does the quarterback do well? From an Andrew Luck to a Jacoby Brissett to a Philip Rivers and now to Carson.”
Of course, ideally, it will be Wentz again shortly, and if he can get and stay healthy (which has always been a big if with Wentz), Indy sees plenty to look forward to.
“Look, I can tell you this—we’re excited about Carson,” Ballard says. “I left practice the other day giddy. And we’re still excited about Carson. Little setback. That’s O.K., we’ll figure it out, we’ve got some young quarterbacks on the roster that we like. ... [But] you know how you walk out on the field and you can feel a player? I remember Quenton Nelson coming out. I could feel Quenton. You can feel Carson. You can feel the power in his body.
“There’s nothing he can’t do athletically, or at the quarterback position, that all the great ones can do. That’s what’s got us really excited about him.”
Now, they just gotta get him back out there. But until then, it’s safe to say the Colts will be O.K.
WHAT ZIMMER WANTS FROM COUSINS
EAGEN, Minn. — You sure could see the frustration in Mike Zimmer’s face on Saturday, as he detailed the hit the Vikings will take with quarterbacks Kirk Cousins, Kellen Mond, and Nate Stanley going on the COVID-19 list. Mond is vaccinated and tested positive. The other two were designated high-risk close contacts, which implies, via the rules, that they have not been vaccinated. All three will lose valuable camp time.
The lone quarterback left on the team, at the time, was Jake Browning.
“He’s out there,” Zimmer told the media. “He’s available, that’s important. It’s important to be available in a team sport.”
Zimmer wasn’t being subtle. Cousins’s sudden unavailability won’t help him in the runup to what everyone here is hoping will be a very big year for the quarterback.
Three days earlier, Zimmer and I had talked about the team’s quarterback room, and where Cousins’s next step as the Vikings leader would come. Cousins is in his fourth year in Minnesota and piloting an offense that’ll be relying on a lot of youth. Because of both of those things—Cousins’s tenure and the lack of it in spots elsewhere—Zimmer met with his quarterback about his place in the locker room, and with his teammates a while back.
“We just talked about some of the things moving forward—him being more assertive, giving him the authority, and being able to show his emotions a little more,” Zimmer told me. “He is the quarterback of the team, and guys respect him for his play, but he can help other guys rise to another level. … I was with [Troy] Aikman, and Aikman and Kirk were similar guys, very detailed in everything that they did.
“But when Troy was pissed off, you knew about it. And I told [Cousins], it’s O.K. to be pissed off sometimes, it’s O.K. to tell a receiver he’s not doing the right thing. Or if someone comes in and says, Get me the ball, it’s O.K. to say, You know what? I’ll get you the ball when my read goes to you. Those are the things we talked about a lot, just taking over more.”
During the Vikings’ first practice of camp, some of that was evident.
On one play, during red-zone work at the end of the session, Cousins pointed to and directed 22-year-old tight end Irv Smith Jr. before the snap, then unleashed a throw to the back pylon between two defenders. From there, he ran over to Smith in the end zone yelling as if the toss had won the Super Bowl. In the moment, it felt like Cousins was making the offense his own, and getting to what Zimmer was getting at.
“It was tough to emotionally be a leader on the team right away, because I was a free agent, I was new,” Cousins told me. “As a quarterback, you’re still leading, I’m still very vocal, very involved, there’s a presence there. But the longer you’re here, the more you can understand how the organization works, the dynamics of the team, and assert yourself. So your leadership does grow every year you’re here.”
And to Cousins, really, that has meant investing back in the young guys, with Zimmer’s blessing to push the envelope in doing it.
“I just want to invest in them in every way, not just football-wise, but it’s helping them to be young men,” he says. “I’m married with two kids now. When I entered the league, I was a single guy. And so I look at these guys and I say, 10 years from now, you’ll look back and hopefully say the same thing. You want to help them not only as football players but as men, making the right decisions, and knowing what it takes to have that sustained success year after year and have a long career.
“To Rick’s credit, Zim’s credit, they’re bringing in great people and great players to our locker room. So we have a great group. They aren’t hard to lead, which makes it fun.”
Cousins is now on his fourth coordinator in four years in Minnesota (and sixth in his last six years overall), so he’s positioned well to be a steady force for all the young guys around him. And as he and I discussed his focus on that—“It’s less about me right now and more about my teammates. As a quarterback, how can I help them?”—he also dove into what he’s doing to maintain a high level of play.
“Sleep was something for me—I’d go to bed at 11, I didn’t think it was a big deal,” he says. “Now I go to bed at 9. Like the NBA Finals were on this summer, and at 25 years old I’m staying up to watch every shot of the Finals until the very end. I don’t think I watched a single point. Watched the pregame show, but then I’d go to bed. When I wake up in the morning, I check the score right away, because I love sports. But staying up is something I just don’t do anymore.”
All of that’s great. But for now, he can’t reap any of the benefits of the extra sleep, or having an amplified voice in the locker room, which is why Zimmer was so frustrated the other night. It’s hard to blame him.
THE DALTON-FIELDS DYNAMIC
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Bears coach Matt Nagy, maybe even in having seen what had happened in other places like Green Bay, didn’t want Andy Dalton to get stung with his guard down. So on the morning of the draft, he called the quarterback he and GM Ryan Pace had signed to be Chicago’s starter, and let them know that some bad news might be coming.
Pace had set 11–12 as the range to which he’d be willing to jump if the right quarterback were to start sliding down the board. Nagy told Dalton that it might happen, it might not, but he at least wanted him to be aware.
You know the rest. Justin Fields did slip. Pace did get aggressive. Dalton got a new neighbor in the quarterback room, one the team gave up two first-round picks (plus a ’21 sixth-rounder and a ’22 fourth-rounder) to get. Minutes later, Nagy made another call.
“The thing I did appreciate is Matt called me right after the fact, and said that on everything that they had told me going into this, nothing changes, you’re still the starter, you’re still the guy, this still is your team this year,” Dalton told me after Friday’s practice. “And I only signed a one-year deal, so I knew I had to play well to go beyond that and be the starter beyond that. We’ll see how this whole thing plays out.”
For now, it stands as one of the more intriguing quarterback situations in football. Dalton, for the hits he’s taken, took the Bengals to the playoffs five years in a row, and performed admirably in a broken situation in Dallas last year, which earned him this chance. Fields’s physical gifts are obvious. And Nagy’s in the middle of all this, who was both once the OC in Kansas City for the year Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes were together, and Mitchell Trubisky’s head coach the three years after that.
Nagy has been clear, too, on his intentions here. The plan is to follow through on the promise to Dalton and set this up as another Smith/Mahomes situation. At the same time, on his ability to stick to that plan, he’s told Fields, “It’s your job to make that hard on me.”
From what I saw Friday, things are going as expected. Dalton is taking all the reps with the first team. Fields is getting every second-team rep over Nick Foles, which is an effort to make sure Fields takes a lot of snaps (the 2s get more snaps than the 3s). Both guys are staying late after practice, and Dalton is not acting as Fields’ professor, but he has helped him as needed with technical things like footwork, and schematic stuff within the playbook.
It’s as they drew it up. As for what’s ahead, Nagy, Dalton, Pace and I did cover that.
Dalton’s more “urgent” now than before. Make no mistake—the 11th-year quarterback isn’t treating this as a golden parachute job. When we talked, there was definitely a little edge to him. His late release from the Bengals in ’20, he felt, cost him shots at starting somewhere, which is why he landed in Dallas as backup. “But you get to that point, and you’re like, O.K., how am I going to be viewed across the league? Are there going to be opportunities?” he said.
His next one did come, albeit via the unfortunate circumstance of Dak Prescott’s gruesome injury. And another followed as a result of how he played in Prescott’s stead.
“I thought I did some good things,” Dalton says. “I thought I played well enough to have an opportunity out there. There were a lot of different things we had to deal with, the team that we ended with wasn’t the same team that we started with, but that’s just football. I dealt with a lot in Cincinnati. I’ve been through similar situations, and you gotta make the most of it. I felt like I put good tape out there.”
As a result, he says, “I’d say I’m more urgent now, because I was established in Cincinnati, I’d been there a long time, I knew I took the one-year deal in Dallas last year, now I know I’m on a one-year deal here, so I know what I have to do.”
Nagy’s going to sink his own time into the quarterbacks. One regret Nagy shared with me that he had in working with Trubisky stems back to the natural question anyone in his spot would have—Could I have done more? Thing is, he was a first-year head coach when he started with Trubisky, which limited the time he could sink into one position. Three years later, he has more flexibility.
“The coaching staff knows the offense. The players know the offense. Now I can let stuff kind of go and roll, and I can take that time when I was trying to keep stuff alive,” Nagy says. “Now I can go get with Justin and work with him one-on-one, you know, or get with the quarterbacks and work with them. And I think that's the developing part, just it being my fourth year versus my first, second, or third year.”
The early signs on the relationship between Dalton and Fields are good. And I know that because Nagy freely compared it to how Smith and Mahomes got along in 2017.
“It's very similar, very similar,” Nagy says. “And Patrick, I remember just the respect that he got from the teammates because they all saw that he respected Alex. There was no coming in here, like, ‘I'm going to be the man’ or ‘I am the man’. None of that. Patrick didn’t do that. He was very supportive of Alex and he tried to help Alex as much as he could. And I think Alex felt that. And that made things a lot easier. But his teammates also saw how he treated Alex and how Alex treated him.
“And then it was instant success for all of those guys. The other part of this, too, was I thought coach Reid just did a really good job of being able to show Alex was the starter and give him all the attention. But yet behind the scenes too, after practice, have us work with Patrick with the script—Go out and run the plays that you didn't get with the team. And then that last regular season game against Denver, when Patrick started as we were in the playoffs, you know, that was kind of the start of Patrick's deal and took off.
Nagy then said, in referencing Mahomes’ feel for the situation, and ability to prepare like a starter would, and maintain the humility of a backup, “Justin has that. Justin has it.”
If Fields blows everyone away the next month, well, that’s ideal. Then, maybe there’s some more to talk about. And yes, Nagy’s plan is to play Fields a lot in preseason games, so there will be ample opportunity. But when I asked him if the Chiefs coach ever got the itch to play Mahomes in ’17, Nagy illustrated, again, how his hope was that Dalton does what he needs to, to hold off Fields, regardless of how quickly the rookie comes along.
“We all saw the things that Patrick did [in practice],” Nagy says. “And it's kind of a look out of the corner of your eye to each other as coaches. You're like, O.K., yeah—he's special. And so when you see that, but at the same point in time, we're winning a lot of football games and we got a helluva quarterback leading our team? That’s a good situation. And I think you know this, but the respect that Alex garnered and got from his teammates speaks for itself.
“We were in our fifth year together, all of us, building that thing. And Alex was the guy. But the future, you could see it, was going that way.”
Ultimately, Dalton knows the score here. Fields will eventually, this year or next, become the Bears’ starter. For now, though, Dalton’s got a lot on the line personally, and the way he has commanded the offense and the team has impressed everyone, to the point where players have mentioned to coaches.
Which, again, lends credence to the idea that the plan Nagy and Pace have laid out will be executed as intended. That means Dalton’s job, first and foremost, is to be the quarterback for a contender, as Smith was in 2017. And if he can help Fields along the way, as Smith once did Mahomes, then great.
“I have a ton of experience, I’ve seen so much in this game, in this league,” Dalton says. “I’m trying to help him out as much as I can, but also, I’m not worried about what he’s doing, I’m worried about what I’m doing, and how I’m gonna help this team win games. Now, there are times when he’ll take a rep and I’ll see something and I can help along the way. But at the end of the day, I’m not focused on Justin. I’m focused on me and what I can do to help this team win.”
And if he can do just that much, there’ll be plenty for Fields to learn from. As a certain Chiefs quarterback would probably tell him.
1) I don’t think there’ll be any winners in the Texans and Deshaun Watson being forced to play make believe over the course of camp. As we detailed last week, the NFL made its decision not to put Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list, which led Watson to report to camp. The thought, for some, was that the awkwardness of that—with the 22 pending lawsuits and Watson’s trade request—would back Houston into a corner and, for the good of new coach David Culley, force the Texans to stand down and deal off their quarterback. Instead, it feels like Houston’s responded with a pretty strong message that it won’t be pressed to action, with Watson standing in as a walk-through safety during drills last week. And yes, backup offensive players do that during walk-through periods just to give the starters a look, so it’s not unusual for it to happen. But Culley has been around long enough to know what the reaction to Watson being in that spot would be. (Washington did it with Robert Griffin III after benching RG3 in 2015, and judging by the reaction, you’d have thought Jay Gruden pantsed the guy in the middle of the practice field.) To me, it’s an indication (or maybe even a subtle message being sent) that the Texans are prepared to hold firm here if they can’t get a return that would justify trading away a 25-year-old franchise quarterback with five years left on his contract. And it may be hard to get a return, even with teams like Carolina and Philly and Denver and Miami having potential interest, until there’s more clarity both legally and from the league.
2) Nick Chubb’s three-year, $36.6 million deal was one 100% worth the Browns doing. I’m well aware that some people thought, after the Cleveland brass extended Kareem Hunt last year, that an analytically-driven Browns would try and sidestep paying Chubb, because lots of analytics folks crush every long-term tailback contract out there. But, to me, this is about more than just positional value, and it’s a credit to GM Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski that they were able to see beyond just that. Berry and Stefanski are still relatively new and, as such, the players in their locker room are paying attention to who, and maybe more poignantly, what they’re willing to open the vault for, since every player wants to make eight figures annually. And Chubb, as a player and leader, represents all of what they’re looking to reward in Cleveland. On top of that, much of the team’s offensive identity over the last couple years has been centered on Chubb, and it’s easy for Stefanski and Berry to justify paying to maintain that. On the flip side, Chubb didn’t hit the top of the running back market—his new-money average per year ranks sixth among tailbacks—but it’s hard to blame a guy who suffered a catastrophic knee injury in college (I’m told the experience of that injury was actually a major factor in Chubb’s motivation to get this done), then carried a hefty load in his first three years as pro, for taking a virtual guarantee of $20 million. In fact, it’s my understanding that he was very direct with his reps in telling them he just wanted a deal done because of what he’d gone through. Realistically, unless the Browns want to pay Chubb $18 million for one year, this deal will wind up being worth over $24 million over the next two years. Which, in the end, I think makes the contract sensible one all the way around. And a great story in what Chubb fought through to get here.
3) Xavien Howard’s situation in Miami is dicey, and there’s a lesson to be learned here. It’s basically the inverse of what we just laid out with Chubb—just as young players pay attention to who, and what, is getting paid, older players who’ve made it to the point where they are paid pay attention to what’s going on around them. Over the last year, Howard has seen the Dolphins slice cash off the contracts of Bernardrick McKinney and Albert Wilson, and pay Byron Jones, a good corner who’s a tick below Howard’s level, better than Howard got paid himself. And so, of course, if you’re Howard, you’re gonna look at that and say …
• If my play declines at all, they’ll come for me like they did McKinney and Wilson, so I better get what I can now.
• As is the case with Stephon Gilmore in New England (Matthew Judon) and Chandler Jones in Arizona (J.J. Watt), my team valued what someone did somewhere else more than what I did here.
• My team paid $6 million to offload Ereck Flowers, so eradicating a mistake of their own was more important than amending a contract that’s aged poorly.
And look, we can argue about the sanctity of the contract, and how it was on Howard to know what he was getting into. But the fact here is that the Dolphins’ best player isn’t engaged now in training camp, and probably won’t be until this situation is resolved, and that’s his leverage. Brian Flores and Chris Grier have done a fantastic job building Miami up the last couple years. But this is, for sure, a significant challenge. Because as of right now, after attempts to get money moved around in the contract to Band-Aid a poorly structured-deal have failed, Howard’s desire to get out of Miami isn’t waning.
4) While we’re on contracts, T.J. Watt’s is one to watch. The Steelers star has been a Defensive Player of the Year candidate two seasons running, and played through his fourth year on his rookie deal—a lot of young stars get paid after three years. Which means this priority contract for the team won’t come cheap. The question, to me, is whether or not he becomes the first non-quarterback in league history to crack $30 million per. That, in itself, would be pretty remarkable, given that Aaron Donald was the first such player to get past the $20 million benchmark, and that was less than three years ago. It’s a pretty good reflection on the health of the game (and a sign that any grousing over lost revenue over the last year should be taken with a truck of salt).
5) That there’s at least some optimism in how Cam Newton’s shown early in training camp is a good sign on where the Patriots quarterback was last year. Sometimes, I think it’s easy to forget that he had a shoulder procedure that used to end quarterback’s careers, and a foot injury that often can linger well past its surgical fix over the last couple years, then was hit with COVID-19 early last season. Those aren’t excuses, but it’s a lot at once for a guy who was messed up for the better part of both the 2018 and ’19 seasons, and had missed 16 of 18 starts when he hit the market in early 2020. And, for sure, there are doubts from scouts and even some people within the New England organization on whether or not Newton will be able to throw like he used to. But with his track record in the league, I can certainly understand why Bill Belichick would want to give him a shot. I also believe that Belichick declaring Newton his starting quarterback over the weekend wasn’t just lip service. He did that for a reason, and my guess is that he at least wants to give Newton a good look once the games start. We’ll see if Mac Jones can move him off his spot.
6) A comment from Bruce Arians the other day, relayed to the media by Tom Brady, caught my attention. Here’s what Brady said: “[Arians] said, ‘You know, soccer practice is over after today,’ which means we really haven't played any football. There's no pads, no tackling, no run force, no run fits, no breaking tackles, no play-action response. Things will change quite a bit tomorrow.” It caught my attention, because through my camp trip, quite a few coaches have raised the effect of more new rules, and how camp is changing once again (one example is the 11-hour rule, limiting players to 11 hours in the building, which has led to some teams not even trying to get their vets to stay in the team hotel). My follow-up to that has been to ask if there’s any change they’ve seen in the actual games as a result of the new way of doing camp. And what many have said they’ve noticed is that tackling in the league, across the board, is pretty horrible in September. Which, of course, doesn’t matter that much, if you’ve got a league office that has always looked to inject more offense into the game.
7) Ron Rivera’s efforts in motivating Washington’s players to get vaccinated have been admirable. To me, that he’s immunocompromised should be plenty to make the people he works with feel compelled to protect themselves, and by extension him (a cancer survivor, you’ll remember), by getting vaccinated. But that alone didn’t work, so Rivera said the other day, after mentioning his own situation, he raised the possibility of situations like the one now affecting the Vikings quarterbacks room arising. “I mean, to be very honest, that’s going to make things difficult and that’s the thing we have to be aware of,” he said. “It makes it difficult in terms of everybody working together. Difficult on us as coaches with our evaluations and the scouts. It will be difficult on the player because having time off, not really getting an opportunity to work, develop, grow and learn, that’s the downfall, and the downside. I mentioned it to our guys. I said, ‘You know, here is the what if scenario: What if this had been game day Sunday for the opener?’ Even though it’s only contact tracing for some of them, that’s five days. So, if this is the opener, imagine this, opening against Los Angeles, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, playing Thursday night against the Giants. Those guys would not be eligible. So, to me, it brings the reality of what the rules are and I hope it helps. But again, these young men have to make their decisions.” My fear, and I’m sure Rivera’s too, had been that guys who’ve dug in to this point are resolved not to move from where they are. But Rivera did report some progress over the last week, which is a good sign, and one other coaches with these problems probably should heed.
8) The 20th anniversary of Korey Stringer’s death was last week, and I’ll remember it as a flashpoint in changing the way football players are treated. I was in college at the time, and since he went to my alma mater, Ohio State, it was a big deal where I was. Stringer’s death was the highest profile of a string of them happening that summer, with players at Northwestern (Rashidi Wheeler), Florida (Eraste Austin) and Florida State (Devaughn Darling) suffering similarly tragic fates while training for the 2001 season. I did a story for The Lantern in the months to follow on how supplements containing ephedra and androstenedione had led to some of this, so I got to look at how and why it was happening. Pretty quickly, how football players practiced and conditioned changed, some of the GNC drugs responsible were banned, and I’d argue the results of all that still reverberate today in how the culture of the sport has flipped, and how scientific training has become. Which is great. But it’s still a shame that all that had to happen to get here.
9) Jameis Winston’s self-examination is encouraging. Winston said this week that he watched tape of Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater running systems he’d run this offseason to try and find where they might’ve had an edge over him, and that his biggest takeaway, and emphasis going into this year, is to focus on decision-making. "Listen, there's not no checkdown mentality," Winston said. "It's, 'Take what they give you.' That's one thing our coaches preach. On my wristband, it says, 'Elite progressions.' We want to do that—me, Taysom [Hill], all the quarterbacks. We want to be elite in our progressions.” The hope, of course, has to be that Winston will curb his turnover problem, a habit that—offensive coaches will tell you—can be very difficult to shake once a quarterback shows it. Winston’s problems being loose with the ball go all the way back to his time at Florida State, so fixing them (again, no easy task) would go a long way towards pumping life back into his career. And, in the short term, landing him the starting job in New Orleans.
10) It’s pretty great to be back out at camps. I’m a little worn down now. But getting back around the coaches and GMs and players has been great, and I’ll maintain training camp’s a great take for fans—my dad always took me when I was a kid. And what’s an even better take, if you’re planning to go, is the joint practices that have become commonplace around the league. For my money, if I were a fan, I’d much rather go to one of those than any preseason game.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) The Katie Ledecky/Ariarne Titmus rivalry has been fantastic. I can’t imagine there’ll be something better to come out of these Olympics.
2) … Except maybe the fact that horse dancing (or whatever they call it) is actually an Olympic sport.
3) I’ll admit, I was a little torn over Simone Biles withdrawing. But I’d never judge one of the young women in the USA gymnastics program, especially based on the horrible things so many of them went through. Here’s hoping Biles finds some peace.
4) Texas and Oklahoma having to pretend the SEC thing just appeared out of the blue a couple weeks ago, and vice versa, is pretty hilarious. As is the fact that back-stabbing and money-grubbing have become as distinctive a part of the college football landscape as Touchdown Jesus.
5) It’s wild to me that Kawhi Leonard tears his ACL and declines a $36 million player option a few weeks later. The NBA is very different from the NFL.
6) The Cubs’ teardown was kinda sad—feels like five minutes ago that was a young team with a bright future winning championships. (It was five years, but who’s counting?)
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Way too many guys say yes. And everyone knows you’re a sociopath if you think a hot dog’s a sandwich.
Couldn’t stop watching this on Sunday night.
I’ve thought CeeDee Lamb was going to be a superstar since his sophomore year at Oklahoma. And I’m no scout. But it sure looks like it … could happen.
Congrats to the sister of Bears edge rusher Robert Quinn.
Best thing you’ll see this week—Lions teammates rallying around David Blough as he rooted for his wife, Melissa Gonzalez, in the 400 hurdles at the Olympics. After being with the Lions staff on Sunday, I can tell you they were pretty pumped to see the players together in this sort of way, and took it as a sign that the feeling in the building’s in a really good place right now. We’ll have more on that next week.
Love the way players and teams are finding ways to connect with fans, even if COVID-19 protocols make it a little tricky.
I wish more teams would make visits to these kinds of venues—I’ve been to a few NFL practices at high school stadiums, and the intimate nature of those settings is really cool. I also understand that the problem is that a lot of those places don’t have playing surfaces up to pro-football standards. But good on Joe Judge, Logan Ryan and the Giants for getting out and giving a lot of kids a day they’ll remember.
Fair point by Vrabel.
The one thing I’ve liked about Newton’s time in New England: I think his handling of everything has really put to bed some false narratives on who he is as a guy. There’s a reason why his teammates feel the way they do about him.
Excellent photo (video?) bomb.
Jim MacMahon being a BYU alum is something we don’t talk about enough.
I think he should bring back the whiffle cut.
Congrats, Dalvin Cook!
That was Tom Brady’s first preseason game, 21 years ago. And the interesting thing is, in that game, the quarterback Brady’s hometown Niners picked over him, Giovanni Carmazzi, played a bunch, and not very well. Brady, on the other hand, looked pretty sharp, as that highlight tape will show you.
Good message from Jon Gruden.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
I’m headed out west this week, and I promise we’ll fire up some live video soon! Stay tuned to @albertbreer on Twitter and @albert_breer on IG, and follow along with me from Michigan to Ohio to California to Arizona, back to California, then to Vegas this week. Should be a fun ride.
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