JACKSONVILLE — The voice of Urban Meyer’s chief of staff, Fernando Lovo, booms over the speakers surrounding the practice fields off the parking lots abutting TIAA Bank Field.
Difference … difference … difference!
With the start of this particular period—the difference period—all 90 guys on the roster are doing something. Some linemen are hitting bags, others are holding them. Some backs are holding balls, others are slapping at them. And there’s a movement and tempo to the whole thing that’s unmistakable and clearly intentional. As Lovo’s voice gives way to blaring music, no one’s standing around. Everyone’s moving. And moving urgently.
It used to be that running things this way in the NFL was newsworthy. When Chip Kelly hauled gigantic speaker towers out to practice in 2013, reporters tweeted playlists. When Jim Harbaugh split his team into two in 2011, to maximize time in a post-lockout training camp, it was considered an innovative way of adapting college time constraints to NFL efficiency. When Pete Carroll brought names to days of the week (Competition Wednesday!), it was first seen as hokey, and later considered central to how he built the Seahawks.
And in that way, one point Meyer made to me when we got together after Jaguars practice on this day, Monday Aug. 16, was proven. The lines between college and pro football have, indeed, been blurred, and that should ease Meyer’s transition.
Everyone plays music at practice now. Everyone maximizes reps. Everyone steals ideas.
“The college game and NFL game, in my opinion, it’s never been closer,” Meyer said. “The college player has changed. The NFL scheme has changed. You think about the two of those things, NFL scheme used to be dramatically different than college. And the college player used to be much different—the young kid. Those aren’t young kids anymore. Now, a lot of them are gonna start getting paid, the empowerment that’s gone on in college football, the mindset of a college athlete, especially when you get to the players I was fortunate to have, it’s all about the NFL, make no mistake about it.
“The two worlds have probably never been closer. There are differences, but they’ve never been closer.”
Which is to say that, on one hand, the NFL that Meyer’s entering this year is closer to what he’s used to than it’s ever been before. Yet, on another, camp here is so distinctly Meyer’s from the minute you walk into it—recognizable to anyone who followed his rise through the college ranks, from Bowling Green and Utah to Florida and Ohio State—that you could probably pull up three- and four-year-old tape from Columbus and not tell the difference.
The upshot, then, is twofold. One, Meyer sure looks ready for the NFL. And two, the rest of us get to see if the ways of one of the most successful coaches in the century-and-a-half history of college football will fly in the pros. What happens next, either way, like Lovo’s voice booming over those speakers, won’t be subtle.
My camp travels are winding down, but that doesn’t mean things are any slower in the NFL. Two and a half weeks until the opener, and in this week’s column, you’ll find …
• A look at the post-championship Bucs, and where they are going into 2021.
• A check-in with the Cowboys, as team and coach look for another restart.
• The loss of a good member of the NFL fraternity.
But we’re starting in Jacksonville, which for NFL-purpose is very much now MeyerTown.
Before we dive into how Meyer’s put his stamp on the Jaguars’ franchise since taking the job in January, I figured one elemental question had to be addressed: Why?
Why, after winning three national titles at two college football bluebloods, is Meyer out here in a long-sleeve Dri-Fit and mesh shorts? Why, after health issues afflicted him near the end at both Florida and Ohio State, does he need to be marching around a practice field in the oppressive Southern summer? Why, I asked, not just make off like his friend Jimmy Johnson, who retired from coaching to a cushy job at Fox and a house in the Keys at 56?
“I prayed hard on it,” the 57-year-old Meyer answered. “It’s funny you bring Jimmy Johnson into it. He’s been a mentor, a guy that has become a mentor. He wasn’t in my younger days, but the last couple years, I’ve always admired him, and we’ve become friends. And I just felt an emptiness, and I had some opportunities in college. And he made a comment to me, You’ve reached a point where you should just do what you want to do.
“And do I really want to go recruit 24/7 like it became? I’ve done that. I’ve always admired, appreciated and respected the NFL, and then this Shad Khan guy, once I got to know him, I mean, I love the guy. He wants to win so bad. I’ve always loved Jacksonville, Florida. And it’s like this puzzle got put together. I looked at film endlessly, saw some decent players here, and I thought, let’s go take a swing at it. That’s why we did it.”
Now, here’s the interesting part—Meyer explained that he did, indeed, feel emptiness the last two autumns, but was never overcome by it. When I asked if he could envision a time when he’d be O.K. just living out his day on a boat somewhere, he answered, “I thought I was there. And I would’ve been fine without it, to be honest with you.”
Bottom line, he’d managed the void. He was around his family more. He was around the Ohio State program he had handed off to Ryan Day after the 2018 season, keeping an office on campus and being a resource as needed. He had a prominent TV gig as a studio analyst on Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff, sitting behind a desk every week with host Rob Stone and guys with college-football legacies of their own in Brady Quinn, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart.
He even found a little competition in Fox’s taking on ESPN goliath College GameDay. But to say that was the same as putting on the headset every Saturday? It wasn’t close.
“I do love those guys [at Fox], but at the end of the day, you didn’t win or lose,” he said. “The biggest decision you make, I’d tell people this when I was at Fox, is steak, chicken or fish on a Friday night.”
And while that wasn’t exactly unbearable, that the void lingered through the last two years had a way of surfacing what about football Meyer really missed.
“It was hard not being part of a team,” he continued. “To say I love football, I love teams. I love any team that I can be a part of. I do love the game of football but not as much as I love a team and having a greater good where you get a group of people together and say, Let’s come together and do this. That’s what I really missed dearly.”
That’s why, ultimately, he spent the 12 months leading up to his decision to take the Jaguars’ job studying NFL programs—and studying specifically how good teams were built and how bad teams came to fail. It’s also why when the location, resources and quarterback coalesced into the perfect opportunity, Meyer couldn’t resist.
Really, Meyer’s study of NFL teams started informally, way further back than January 2020.
In fact, when Meyer was at Utah and Florida, the pros started studying him, which led to Meyer’s gaining more access to the league. So he got to meet people and get insight into what worked and what didn’t, and then in 2006, Bill Belichick invited him to Foxboro. And Meyer went with a plan: “I loved watching Brady throw. That’s not why I went there. I wanted to see the culture of the Patriots.”
In short, he went for, and left with, an education.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I was a young coach at Florida, and he invites me up and I get chills thinking about it. Because I’d been at 20 NFL camps, and quite honestly, I walked away a few times going, What did I just watch? I walked away from that one going, My gosh, here’s Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi running down full speed on scout kickoff with the beanies on their head. I mean, full speed. Everyone else is talking scheme and I grabbed Bruschi and Vrabel and said, Just tell me about this place, man.
“One of them says, The one thing that’s never going to happen, it’s never gonna get to Coach Belichick’s office; we’ll handle it in the locker room. If a guy gets in the way of us winning, he won’t be here. And it was the same thing with Jimmy Johnson, the same thing with Michael Irvin. We had them come speak to our team, and that’s the message I wanted from them.”
Meyer then said, “It’s so easy to blame a player and say, He’s a bad player. Most cases, that’s not true at all. There’s a bad culture.”
Meyer’s study of NFL teams in 2020 only confirmed that sentiment, with his visits with the Saints providing a flashpoint. Among the Meyer alumni in the building were Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell, and Marshon Lattimore, and the feedback was consistent coming from people the coach trusted: The way they do it here is the way we did it with you.
“Everything’s competitive, everything’s a meritocracy, players get pushed but they get treated great, and those are all things I look for,” Meyer said. “So the word culture comes out, the New Orleans Saints’ culture. There are others, the Steelers are a team, they’re very close to us at Ohio State, and Kevin Colbert and [Mike] Tomlin, they were great, I would always spend time with them and just admired the way they went about their business.
“And my players, [Ryan] Shazier was there for several years, so I’d talk to those guys and the word that always came out was the same—culture. This is the way they do it.”
Years ago, Meyer was seen as an offensive innovator and a forerunner in the modernization of the option game. In many ways, it became his calling card, and greased the skids to get him a head coaching job at 36, to Utah at 38 and Florida at 40. But over time, he learned what guys like Shazier, Thomas, Lattimore and Bell were telling him had more staying power.
“Fifteen years ago, we did something that was unknown,” he said. “It was seen as a novelty, and we really shocked a lot of people. We put 700 yards on someone, I remember the guy going, ‘What is this? We don’t know what you’re doing.’ But everyone’s doing it now. … It’s a much different world, and it’s not like we’re going to trick the NFL.”
Moreover, he learned through his research that the best in the NFL aren’t leaning on their ability to do that, either, with on-field strategy just a piece to a larger puzzle.
Belichick could out-scheme anyone. But what outstripped that in importance in how the Patriots were built were the things Meyer witnessed in Foxboro in 2006, and the things his ex-players in New Orleans and Pittsburgh were telling him. Yes, X’s and O’s matter—and that’s why Meyer hired guys with NFL experience like Darrell Bevell, Brian Schottenheimer, Joe Cullen and George Warhop to his staff—but having what the Patriots, Steelers and Saints had, and what he had in four college stops, was more important.
Getting that part, Meyer knew, was going to come down to the players.
As Meyer said, just as the scheme gap has closed from college to the pros, so too has the difference in what players are like from one level to the next. So as he sees it, the 18-year-old he was getting at Florida and Ohio State, really isn’t that different from the 22-year-old he’s drafting to the Jaguars now—especially when it comes to what they’re looking for from their coaches.
“I remember Bill Belichick came down to my practice one time and said, You’ve got more first-rounders than I do,” Meyer said. “And we’d look at our roster, and you’d have about 35 guys who were at some point going to be on NFL teams. So you treat them differently than the kid at Bowling Green. Plus, the players changed. It’s all about value. I really learned to appreciate that.
“When you’re coaching guys like [Joey] Bosa, [Nick] Bosa, Chase Young, Zeke Elliott, you’re darn right it’s about value. So you treat them much differently than a player 20 years ago.”
That approach, in turn, created the roadmap for how the old psychology major sees himself reaching pro athletes in his new job, like he did in his old jobs.
“It’s based on three things—we’re gonna maximize your value, extend your career and win,” he said. “And those three things, every day we wake up as coaches, I ask our coaches all the time, Are you maximizing that player’s value? And whether he plays here or moves on, our job is to maximize his value. How do you do that? Fundamentals, learning how to play the game and winning. You get associated with a losing team, your value’s not gonna be very high. And players buy into that, these players have really bought into it.
“We gotta play better, but you hear that term buy-in. I’m fortunate, we really haven’t had anyone not buy in. I think—I don’t think, I know that if a player knows you care about his value, you care about extending his career and you truly want to win, they’re all-in.”
This isn’t just lip service, either. When Meyer was negotiating to become Jaguars coach, he asked Khan for a new state-of-the-art facility, and to give him the financial resources to staff every facet of the football operation as he saw fit.
The result is a massive coaching staff, blending college coaches who carry background in the Meyer way with the aforementioned coaches rooted in the pros; an overhauled sports-performance group; certifications for trainers and performance coaches in areas like dry-needling and cupping; and hardware for the existing facility like float therapy tanks, cryotherapy and photobiomodulation therapy chambers, and wellness cocoons.
And that stuff is around for the interim while the team’s new facility (scheduled to open in 2023) is being planned and built.
“We’re reinvesting in the most important commodity in any organization, that’s the players,” Meyer said.” I’ve always believed in pushing players to the edge, but then also treating them with the very best of the best. You talk about maximizing a guy’s value, how do you do that? Keep them healthy. How do you extend their career? Keep them healthy. Give them all the tools. I don’t believe a professional athlete should have to pay for anything. I believe that should all be done in-house. Fortunately, we’re able to do that now.”
It’s obvious even at practices like the one I was at—where Meyer and strength coach Anthony Schlegel have sports-performance liaisons for every position group, so every player is warming up in a way conducive to how his position is played.
And it’s obvious not just in the ways that Meyer is giving to the players, but what he’s asking from them too. In an era when some teams are staging 90-minute practices, the Jaguars’ session on this day went well over two hours, and stretched into the noon hour with the heat bearing down on coaches and players alike. This working, like Meyer said, requires buy-in, and Meyer knows getting buy-in means bringing certain types of people on to his roster, rather than just getting talented people and trying to change them.
To find them, Meyer and his coaching staff have worked together with GM Trent Baalke and his staff to grade on five categories—competitive spirit, toughness, leadership, intelligence and adaptability. Meyer told his coaches and scouts to look at players in rivalry games, on third-and-short and on fourth down, saying, “That’s when competitive players play their best. I didn’t say perfect, but they play their best, they play the hardest.”
And, Meyer continued, just as he’s sought buy-in from players, he wants it from scouts and coaches on players they bring in, with Rayshawn Jenkins a real-life example. Before the Jaguars signed the Florida native, Meyer did his homework, eventually talking to Jenkins’s Chargers teammate K.J. Hill, who played for Meyer at Ohio State and told him, “Coach, he’s got it all. He’s exactly what you want.”
So Meyer bought in on Jenkins, and is now accountable for him, in a way that Meyer wants his people accountable for every player on the roster.
“Trent and I are tied at the hip,” Meyer said. “And coaches are very involved, and they’re held accountable. And ultimate authority goes to that coach. Who goes in that room, I will never ask a coach, if he slams a fist on the table, I don’t want that guy, to take him. Because his job’s on the line, and whoever goes in that room, he’s gotta coach. And he better do his homework too.”
Because, as Meyer sees it, if the Jaguars are going to invest in a player with all the resources Meyer insisted on getting from Khan, they’re expecting the investment to be reciprocated.
Perhaps the best example of where all this is going next is with the quarterbacks.
Meyer conceded to me, in not so many words, that there’s a good chance he wouldn’t be standing here if it the opportunity to get Trevor Lawrence weren’t part of the package—"I could tell you no, but I was in the house and I saw the Jets’ win [in December], and I remember thinking, Wait a minute now, because I’ve always admired Trevor.”
So why, then, is Lawrence, the Jaguars’ presumed 2021 starter since Dec. 27 of last year, weeks before Meyer took the job, when the team locked up the first pick, not officially the guy?
“Well, Minshew’s not giving it up,” Meyer said. “I’ve been asked that question, I’ve been looking at people like they’ve got several heads, like what are you talking about. Yes, competition brings out the best in all of us. But this is not a circus here. There’s a guy that actually has done O.K. in the NFL, not great yet, but Gardner Minshew, his numbers are decent. He’s a much different player than Trevor.
“Trevor’s a down-the-field passer, this guy’s a scramble-around, make-plays guy, but I’ll tell you what he really is, he’s a warrior. And I appreciate warriors. It’s a street fight right now. When someone say, Oh, come on, well, why’d you ask me that question? It is what it is. It’s a battle. I see the stats every day, and the greatest thing that can happen is that it becomes a street fight for as long as possible.”
That street fight might come to an end Monday night in New Orleans, where the Jaguars play their second preseason game, or it might not. Either way, there was something unsaid here—if Meyer is truly going to sell his program, and that competitive spirit is at the top of his list, it’d be hard to cut breaks for a rookie that he’s not cutting for, say, Myles Jack or Brandon Linder or Josh Allen. So he’s going to let the chips fall where they may.
And he’ll do that even with the knowledge that, ultimately, a big piece of whether this works rests on Lawrence’s broad shoulders.
Which brings us to one final reality here. With a rookie quarterback, new coach and remade roster that’ll be relying on young players left and right, and a team that’s riding a 15-game losing streak, there’ll be bumps and this could take time. For a coach who went undefeated in his second year at Utah, won a national title in his second year at Florida, and went undefeated in his first year at Ohio State, that’s absolutely something to grapple with.
Especially when you consider 7–10 would mark a six-win improvement for the Jaguars, and Meyer, who lost just nine games in seven years at Ohio State, hasn’t always taken losses in stride (to put it mildly).
“Ryan Day and I actually talk about that all the time,” he said. “Ryan Day and Ohio State’s been built to where you could go 13–1 and it’s a bad year—What happened? But that’s reality. We did the same thing at Florida. You talk about pressure? You’re playing against good teams and you can’t lose, where the reality is you’re playing a good team every week in the NFL. So I am training my mind. I can’t stand losing. This doesn’t mean I’ll accept it. I don’t want players here accepting it. But that’s also reality.
“So I’ve been training my mind. We lost our preseason game and I keep hearing, it’s just a preseason game. Well, we lost. Our objective as long as they’re keeping score is to win.”
Meyer then paused and said, “I get it. I’ve been working on it,”—again conceding that he has worried about how he’ll handle that difference between college and the pros.
And maybe it’s the one difference, after spending time with him, that I saw that sort of genuine concern over. But it wasn’t long until he snapped back to who he’s always been—all it took was me saying that, of course, a record like 7–10 wouldn’t be the standard, even in a year when it might mean a big step forward for a fledgling program.
“No, certainly not,” he said. “Certainly not, and it never will be in my mind.”
So, yes, the NFL’s getting all of Urban Meyer. And where Meyer can take that, armed with Lawrence and an improving young roster, will be fascinating to see.
THE BUCS' PLAN TO GET BACK
TAMPA — So much of Tom Brady’s success was projected on the rest of the NFL this offseason, in how franchise quarterbacks pursued having larger voices, that I figured it was worth a reset on just what his role was in procuring big-name veterans last year. Here’s the rundown, as I understand it …
• Brady told GM Jason Licht and coach Bruce Arians soon after signing last spring that he believed they could get Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement if they could find a way to acquire him (the Patriots held his rights). The Bucs traded for Gronkowski during draft week.
• Brady asked the Bucs brass about signing Antonio Brown, whom he’d forged a relationship with after the two played together briefly in New England. Tampa signed Brown right around Halloween.
• The Bucs brass told Brady they were looking at signing Jaguars castoff Leonard Fournette, and Brady asked if he could help recruit Fournette. Brady reaching out and did, indeed, make an impact on Fournette, who signed with the team just before the season opener.
And a similar case to Fournette’s played out this offseason, when Licht called Brady to tell him the team was pursuing ex-Bengals third-down back Gio Bernard. Brady wound up reaching out to Bernard via direct message on Instagram, and the Florida native Bernard signed with the champs in mid-April.
So the idea that Brady is the de facto scouting director in Tampa? Overblown.
But the idea that he’s affecting every piece of the operation there? Undeniable.
I got to Bucs camp on what people there told me was one of the stickiest, hottest days of camp, with the Titans in town, and intensity with which the team is going after another Lombardi was hard to miss. That intensity is there, in large part, because Brady’s not going to let the team slip. If that spills over in 12’s temper running hot sometimes, well, part of that’s just being a quarterback who’s had to defend titles six times before and knows exactly what can go wrong for a team that seems to have it all.
“His résumé speaks for itself,” Arians told me after practice. “So when he came here it was different than up there. They saw the work ethic, the preparation and in the meetings, constantly, I’m not looking for you right there, I’m looking for you five yards to the other side, on the numbers, not in the alley. Little things like that, guys pay attention. You can draw it up all you want and say, I don’t want you here. But when your quarterback says, You’re not getting the f------ ball if you’re right there, I’m gonna throw ball over here where you belong …”
Arians then shrugged his shoulders as if the rest was obvious. Because, of course, it was.
And that dynamic isn’t just about a guy doing the right thing on a play, it’s about how a team with all its starters back from a championship team that was still ascending in January and February avoids the dreaded ‘c’ word—complacency.
That, of course, was the one potential bugaboo with the strategy that Arians, Licht and the Bucs took to their 2021 offseason. Conventional NFL wisdom holds that shaking up the roster a little, or creating competition for positions, is the most tried-and-true way for a team not to get a little too busy smelling itself after winning it all. To be sure, that idea was on the Bucs’ radar when they set out to plan for the last seven months.
But in the end, trust in the group they had overrode that, as they worked to bring back Shaq Barrett, Ndamukong Suh, Lavonte David, Gronkowski, Fournette and Suh.
“Normally, in a general sense, you’d feel like you don’t want the team, or organization, to be complacent,” Licht said. “But in this particular case, this year, we weren’t concerned about that because of the leadership that we have—whether it’s Brady or Lavonte, guys that were on this team. It’s taken us so long to get to the playoffs, let alone win a Super Bowl. I’m positive there’s no complacency, especially with Bruce.
“Bruce isn’t going to be complacent. Neither is Tom. So when you’ve got your head coach and quarterback, and they aren’t going to complacent, you diminish those concerns.”
Want proof? While I was there, I picked up four pieces of it.
The first is just the general tone here. Very early in camp, Arians saw, and not just from Brady, a certain level of urgency that told him any issues would be nipped in the bud—and quickly—by the players. He probably knew that anyway, but confirmation came during a two-minute period before the guys were even in pads.
“This was like two weeks ago—[Brady] got pissed, slammed his helmet, kicked the ball across the field. It was a fourth-and-4, we didn’t make it. Defense was all fired up. So it’s good,” Arians said. “And the other day, he takes them down and scores, [Jason Pierre-Paul] goes off—What the f--- are we doing back there? I don’t have to say s---.”
Pierre-Paul, like Brady, knows the challenges that come after winning a title, and Arians said it was obvious he knew what to look for. And from there, the way JPP and Brady managed those sorts of problems rubbed off on other team leaders.
“You have Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, even young Devin White on defense, Shaq Barrett, they ain’t gonna let anybody not work,” Arians said. “JPP’s not gonna let anybody not work. I don’t have to say s--- to the offense, because Brady’s not gonna let anybody not work, he’s gonna get on their ass. Same thing with Jason, he’s gonna get on their ass.”
Second is that Arians has been there before too. He was receivers coach for one Steelers championship team and offensive coordinator for another, and went through playoff-less season in Pittsburgh the year after both. His best season as head coach of the Cardinals also preceded two more years out of the playoffs. So he, too, knows what to look for.
“Biggest thing? Staying healthy,” he said. “After Super Bowl XLIII, we lost a bunch of guys the next year. The 13–3 year in Arizona , we went to the championship game, we got decimated the next year. We lose David Johnson the first game, we lose Carson [Palmer], we lose our tackles and you’ve got no chance. You gotta stay healthy. You gotta have some luck.”
And sure, some of that’ll be out of Arians’s, and the Bucs’, control. But he’s doing what he can now to manage a roster that does have age in some key spots.
“The term load management, I just call it vet days off—if you’re over 30, or even now it’s more like over 32, 33, you don’t need practice every day,” he said. “We gotta get you to Sundays. We got about eight guys I rotate on and off. … You just gotta manage it, work with them, and our sports science group does an unbelievable job of keeping me informed of where their bodies are every day. I think it’s extremely important, and they appreciate it.”
Third is that they have, indeed, found ways to create competition. The foundation of that was how the staff set up the offseason—trusting Brady to work with the older players as needed and focusing solely on younger guys for the in-house OTAs. That’s continued into the summer, with the Bucs’ running two-field practices, with one field devoted to accelerating the progress of guys who aren’t on the first lines of the two-deep.
“All the young guys, they’re getting on the field. You can’t find a diamond in the rough if he’s standing on the sideline,” Arians said. “And it’s not just who you drafted, it’s those free agents. We’ve always had those free agents make our team, because they got 400 reps instead of 40 reps. And this year in training camp, we went two fields. It was hot as s---, but we went two fields, because I wanted to find out about some young guys quickly who I was maybe going to be able to count on around Thanksgiving.”
Licht then pointed out how, by then, there’s a good chance the Bucs will need to count on some of those guys, and he cited the late-season contributions of backup guard Aaron Stinnie and reserve safety Mike Edwards last year as proof. But even just in the here and now, vets’ knowing there are young guys coming can be a powerful motivator.
And fourth, there’s the type of player the Bucs have. This was where Arians flashed a broad smile—knowing how his team melded together as fall turned winter last year. In the process, and through an up-and-down start, he got to see who they were as a team, and just the same who they were individually.
“The guys we brought back were football players—they’re all great players but they’re all great competitors too,” Arians said. “There was such a good bond on that team last year, because of COVID, what we had to sacrifice family-wise, time-wise. I think we had three games missed by COVID, which is unbelievable. That bond they created was amazing and that run they went on, winning all those games in a row, that part of it?
“Yeah, let’s get ’em all back.”
And so they did, and here we are, with a team that’s got some young ascending groups (like its secondary), and is trying to defy Father Time in others. Time will tell if it all comes together like it did last year. But at least the Bucs feel like they know what won’t be a problem, because they’ve got guys who won’t let it be one.
COWBOYS' CONFIDENCE IN MCCARTHY
OXNARD, Calif. — The marks of last year’s crash are all over the place at Cowboys camp. New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was hired to bring back the scheme that most of Dallas’s players were drafted and signed to play. The offensive line’s depth has been worked over. Zeke Elliott’s in better shape. The Cowboys are, yes, being very careful with Dak Prescott as he manages shoulder soreness after coming off major ankle surgery.
All the same, ringing up a 6–10 year, his worst in 14 years as a head coach, had an effect on Mike McCarthy too, regardless of how injuries or bad luck might’ve played into it.
The second-year Cowboys coach believes now, deep down, he’s better for it.
“The reflection has really helped,” McCarthy said. “It made me really go back to the basics. Most of the reflection was really confirmation that we did things the right way in my last stop—just don’t get too far away from it. I felt like at the end there, we had some things change in the dynamics of our football ops, and I was affected by it. This is a totally different organization, the setup is totally different, but just stay true to what you’ve done, how you’ve done it.
“I’ve done this a long time, got a lot of experience, everybody has the way they want to do it. And it really just brought me back to a center of sticking to my beliefs. You really gotta utilize the resources around you and play to those strengths. I think I got away from that some at the end [in Green Bay].”
McCarthy didn’t want to go into specifics on what exactly went sideways in the end in Green Bay, but he also wasn’t just blaming everyone else—pointing out, specifically, that the experience led to his becoming a better listener. “You don’t speak as quick,” he said. “I’m more convicted in my beliefs, just not as hard-headed in my delivery of the message.”
And last year, it turns out, really just cemented McCarthy’s desire to tighten up the operation in Dallas—and make changes that the pandemic made tough to implement in his first year there. Much of that is drilling down on details in how each position is coached, and how the work of, say, the receivers dovetails with what the quarterbacks are doing, and how the way the defense plays matches what the offense is doing, and even how players work day-to-day and how their weeks set up.
But that doesn’t mean the Cowboys didn’t take anything out of 2020. Dallas COO Stephen Jones told me that, in fact, going through such a rocky year with McCarthy made him even more sure that he and Jerry made the right call in bringing the ex-Packers coach in.
“Mike did a great job of hanging in there and we were relevant all the way till the end,” Jones said. “It was tough, but I see what made Mike a championship-caliber coach—he’s got great communication skills, the players trust him, he likes to take care of his players, he’s a pro’s coach. And you just see his experience, and what he’s about.”
What was abundantly clear to me while I was in Oxnard is what the Cowboys are about, and it’s really not that much different than what the Joneses were about going into 2020.
A big reason for hiring McCarthy in the first place—and looking at other experienced hands like Marvin Lewis and Ron Rivera for the job—was the belief that the roster was in position to compete for a championship, a belief that made Jerry and Stephen Jones a little less open to the idea of growing with a coach who’d never been in charge before, or would be transitioning from college to the pros.
Really, Prescott’s injury, the offensive line’s injuries and the defense’s broken transition from a simpler Seattle-styled scheme to Mike Nolan’s complex looks felled the basic premise of that. But it sure didn’t shake the Cowboys’ belief in where their roster is, and why McCarthy was the right coach for it, which, when we talked, brought the younger Jones back to the franchise’s glory years.
“Absolutely, I just think the pieces are there,” Jones said. “You look at our receiving corps compared to Michael [Irvin] and Alvin [Harper] and K-Mart [Kelvin Martin] and those guys, that crew. You look at Dak, I read where Troy [Aikman]was really raving about how special Dak is. Of course, Zeke and Emmitt [Smith], Emmitt’s a once-in-a-lifetime guy, with his durability and as the all-time rushing champion in the NFL, but Zeke with his talents there, this offensive line group, I think it compares favorably to our championship run.
“And then defensively, it’s similar too. We’re gonna do it with a group of guys, a band of warriors if you will. As Dan likes to say, we’re going to do it as a group, we’re gonna rotate the defensive line, we’re gonna have a good back end, and we’ve got great depth in the linebacking corps, should be very competitive.”
And with that comes pressure on McCarthy, of course, and everyone else.
“You don’t think Dak feels it?” Jones continued. “He just got paid, and with that comes accountability and responsibility, but if anyone can handle it, he can. Everyone wants to win this championship. I’ve had great visits with Sean Lee, with Jason Witten, with Tony Romo. It’s a tough feeling not to have won one, when you’re a great player like Sean Lee, like Witten, like Romo, that’s difficult. I know these guys, some of them are getting older, they know that time is ticking. And everyone feels accountable to win a championship. …
“And I’ll tell you who feels the most, and you can feel it, it’s Jerry Sr. He would trade anything right now—as he said, he’s in the fourth quarter too. He wants to get this done. Certainly, I feel it as well. There’s no question, I think we’ve done a good job under Will [McClay]’s leadership of really putting together some good personnel. Now, we’ve just gotta go out and really do the job as an organization for this team to come together, and win, and be a championship-caliber football team, and give ourselves the opportunity to win one.”
So yes, last year had an impact on the Cowboys. But the way they felt about their roster then is how they feel about it now. And that means, if anything, the urgency to win now is even more intense than it was.
REMEMBERING FLOYD REESE
My first year covering the league as a whole, after being on the Patriots and Cowboys beats, was in 2008, and I spent so much of that year trying to get to know as many people as I could without many people knowing who I was—which is always a challenge for a young reporter going from covering one team to all of them. And during that summer, just breaking into the job, I wound up getting in touch with ex-Titans GM Floyd Reese.
Reese was working at ESPN at the time, and 60 years old, and he certainly didn’t need to be helping a 28-year-old who had just been hired to help relaunch Sporting News magazine. But he and I hit it off early, and over the course of that year we talked a lot, and I learned a lot about how the different teams, and the league, really worked. That January, he took a job with the Patriots, and we talked less thereafter, for obvious reasons.
Still, I took a lot with me from that time. And one thing I won’t ever forget is how he helped me when, really, at that point, I wasn’t in great position to help him very much at all.
Reese died of cancer on Saturday, surrounded by family, at 73.
On Sunday, I called around a bunch and found that my little story of Reese helping someone he didn’t need to help was one that really reflected who the guy was, beyond just the architect of the first wave of Titans teams—ones that consistently contended and, in 1999, got to a Super Bowl.
In those years, Reese worked hip-to-hip with Jeff Fisher. Reese became GM in 1994, promoted from assistant GM, and brought Fisher aboard as defensive coordinator (to replace Buddy Ryan) that first year, made him interim head coach later in the year, then hired him to the full-time position in ’95. Fisher and Reese had 12 years together as GM and head coach, and in there was a five-year stretch (’99 to 2003) during which the Titans were the NFL’s winningest team.
But more than anything, Fisher remembers the years before that when he and Reese were building the roster up. At one point, Fisher said, the NFL gave teams satellites to use for scouting out-of-market games, to assist those that didn’t have pro scouting departments, and the Titans were one of those teams. Which was great—until owner Bud Adams sold off his satellite. And Fisher remembers that Reese didn’t allow for anyone to use that as an excuse. “He had high expectations for his department,” Fisher said.
In the same way, the team’s vagabond existence at the time, going from a lame-duck year in Houston to an ill-fated stopover year in Memphis to a single season at Vanderbilt, was never going to be a crutch either, as the two built around Steve McNair and Eddie George.
“His number one priority was to build the team despite the distractions—he would not get off that mission,” Fisher said. “Bud was an outstanding man, but he could make things difficult. … Floyd never made excuses.”
Texans GM Nick Caserio got to see Reese in a different light. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was promoting Caserio to replace Scott Pioli atop the personnel department in 2009, while Caserio was also helping on the coaching end (he, like Reese, spent some formative years coaching) with Josh McDaniels’s having left for Denver. There was, as you might imagine, a lot on Caserio’s plate, which is why Belichick brought Reese, his old staffmate from Detroit, aboard to help.
And having Reese was huge for Caserio—the ex-Titans GM took some bigger-picture contract situations off his hands, so he could learn that side of the job on smaller deals, and helped him manage a considerable workload. But all these years later, what Caserio remembers most is the way that Reese had about him.
“Honestly, it was just his approach day-to-day, very positive, very consistent, nothing flustered him,” Caserio said Sunday. “So to see someone who’d been in a bigger role, that’s how you approach it, and he was just a good person. He was a good human being. He always treated everybody fair, he was always willing to lend an ear. And he didn’t act like he had all the answers. To have that humility and grace about him is something I certainly have taken with me.”
Also, Caserio continued, “He knew what a good football player looked like. Go back and look at some of the players he and Jeff drafted in Tennessee, they drafted [Jevon] Kearse, they draft [Keith] Bulluck, he knew what a good football player looked like. And our system, especially the defensive system, was different than Tennessee, but he still knew what a good player looked like.”
In his later years, he settled into doing some media and living in Nashville, but his presence was still felt in the game, and maybe most so in the franchise he helped bring to town.
And so it was that he helped a native Tennessean land his old job. In 2016, he made a call to Titans president Steve Underwood, who he’d not spoken with since his ’06 firing, to recommend Jon Robinson, then with the Bucs, and who’d worked as Patriots college scouting director during Reese’s three-year run in New England. Robinson got the job, and found out about the call, and we’ll let him tell the rest.
“That the best GM in Titans history would call on behalf of me and vouch for me as a candidate meant so much,” Robinson said Sunday. “That’s who he was, though. He was a real football guys, a coach, a scout, a GM, and I knew he rooted for me after I got here.”
Robinson would talk with Reese from time to time, and Reese would always be good to let Robinson know that the sky wasn’t falling when things weren’t going his way. The interesting thing is, over time, Robinson’s teams started to reflect Reese’s, which was, in a way, affirmation of the link between Belichick and Reese being more than just friendship.
“It was not the motive, but they won a lot of football games here when Floyd was the GM,” Robinson said. “And the Patriots won a lot of game when [Titans coach] Mike [Vrabel] was a player in New England. Both teams have playmakers and were physical on offense, and big, strong and fast on defense. That’s what we try to be, what I believe in, what Mike believes in, what Bill believed in and clearly what Floyd believed in too.”
So it’s pretty clear Reese left his fingerprints on a lot of people’s careers. Mine included.
Justin Herbert’s self-study of 2020 is a pretty good indication of how much room the burgeoning Chargers star has to grow. And he and I got to that when I asked him about what he saw when he looked at tape of himself from last year. “It was funny, I started watching some of the fall camp film from last year, and I was just worried about getting lined up properly, handing the ball off the right way, calling the right play, and it’s just different now,” Herbert told me. “It is a new system, so I’m still kind of worried about that. But it’s more, like, Alright, what’s the defense in, what do I have to do here? That’s cool to look back on, because I can be frustrated right now—oh, I didn’t hit this guy or that guy—but I am so much further ahead now than I was back then. It was very much, I’m thinking, I’m thinking, alright, here it is, this is what I need to do. Now, it’s more loose, reacting and going out there and having fun realizing you’ve got the film to watch get better after, too.” That said, the flip side is that he walked on to center stage last year at a time when little was expected of him, in a very strange Week 2 circumstance. So living under new expectations, and a world where expectations are sky high, will be new. “I’ve talked about this a bunch, and Tyrod [Taylor] was an incredible teammate throughout the whole process, and what a horrible situation to go out in,” Herbert said. “But [just playing] was a lot of fun. I went out there and I didn’t have to worry about anything, they just told me, you’re in. I had no time to think about anything. I had to go get my helmet, call the play and get out there.” Suffice it to say, there’ll be a lot more on his shoulders this time around.
While we’re on the second-year quarterbacks, I really like what I saw from Tua Tagovailoa on Saturday, and that’s after last year made me a skeptic of his. The reason? In 2020, I thought the rockiness of his adjustment to the NFL, without the talent around him that he had at Bama, was glaring. He looked small. His arm ordinary. His athleticism seemed borderline. And maybe—just maybe—it was a matter of having an offense built for him. Or at least that was the hope I thought you could take away from how he played in going 16-of-23 for 183 yards and a touchdown in a half against the Falcons. What I saw was Tagovailoa’s playing the kind of instinctive, explosive game that was his calling card at Alabama. And it felt to me that was coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville working to get the ball out of hands quicker, and play off more RPO and play-action looks, the kinds he thrived on in the SEC. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll translate cleanly into the regular season. The Falcons sat 23 players on Saturday night, so the Dolphins’ first offense was doing this against a lot of bubble players for Atlanta. And, of course, the Falcons weren’t game-planning for Tagovailoa and picking at his weaknesses. So Week 1 against the Patriots will be a much better gauge of where he is. But at least on Saturday, I thought Tua looked more like Alabama Tua than at any other point previous. Which is good.
And while we’re there, I wouldn’t make much of Joe Burrow’s sitting out a second straight game. The Bengals’ plan from the start of preseason was to get Burrow maybe a single series or two just to get his feet wet in game action. And they were talking about not even doing that. So all of this has been mapped out from the beginning and, as we mentioned in last week’s column, Burrow was able to confront one of the biggest hurdles in a practice setting, and thinks he’s cleared that one, at least for now. My sense is Burrow and the Bengals feel like they’re in a good place with Week 1 three weeks away.
I’m not sure the needle moved much this week in the Bears or Patriots quarterback situations. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that Matt Nagy has made up his mind or Bill Belichick has made up his. It just means that the way Game 2 of the preseason went for the quarterbacks with those teams didn’t clarify anything. The Patriots were really sharp, in general, against an Eagles team that rested a lot of prime-timers. And Cam Newton looked excellent (his pocket movement, I thought, was the best we’ve seen it since he became a Patriot) and Mac Jones was dialed in as a result of that. Conversely, the Bears laid an egg against a Josh Allen–less Bills team, and both Andy Dalton and Justin Fields seemed to pay a price for it (though, to be fair, Fields had two go balls dropped that would’ve changed the complexion of his day completely). So we go to the third week of the preseason with both teams trending towards at least starting with the veteran. That said, I do have a couple of extra takeaways on this takeaway …
1) Newton’s improvement came without the Patriots’ using him as a run threat, which is an important nuance, since that’s always been a big part of Newton’s game. The question, to me, is if he’ll be as willing a runner this year, and we won’t know that until the games start.
2) The Bears’ offensive line needs help, and I’d don’t know how much Jason Peters can bring. Losing Teven Jenkins hurts, for sure. And that much makes me wonder if the Bears’ coaches eventually get to the point where they feel like the more mobile Fields has more of what the team needs right now.
Anyway, I still think the likelihood here is that Newton and Dalton will begin the season as starters. And one reason why is pretty simple—it’s easier to switch from veteran to rookie than it would be to send your rookie to the bench during the season. So I can see where it makes sense to give the vet a shot, and give the rookie at least a few more weeks to come along.
Two things to keep an eye on that I picked up on my camp trip—an epidemic of soft-tissue injuries and a potential COVID-19 issue looming. More than a couple of coaches bemoaned the number of players they had with minor nagging injuries they felt were a result, at least in part, of some of the spring conditioning players normally get having disappeared. I had one coach say he believes getting a player ready for a season takes roughly 10 to 12 weeks of working him into football shape. Training camp gives them less than seven. So it’ll be worth watching how things develop injury-wise over the course of the year. And as for the COVID-19 problem, the NFL convened a conference call with teams on Tuesday night, and several voiced how they’ve had asymptomatic, vaccinated staffers test positive, and continued to test positive over an extended period, forcing those people to wait out the 10-day period before returning to the office. Now, if that’s someone in marketing? Very manageable. But if it’s a star player in September or October? That might mean missing two games, not to mention a whole lot of practice time. I’m not sure how the NFL will solve that one, if it persists. But it’s definitely on the minds of some team people.
You can call the Falcons’ ability to hit 100% on player vaccinations another example that, in so many different settings, player-to-player communication is most effective. First-year coach Arthur Smith conceded as much earlier in the week, when the news came out. “It’s really about those guys,” he said. “That’s the thing. We didn’t sit here and try to push or anything like that. We just gave them the facts, educate yourself, and those guys made the choices they made.” And Smith’s not lying; the Falcons’ coaches didn’t pressure players, instead allowing them to decide what was right on their own after giving them the best information possible. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t forces pushing those guys to get the shots, and my sense is a strong one was seeing the quarterback do it. Matt Ryan was an early adopter and made himself available to any teammate who had questions on getting vaccinated, and that, for the Falcons, made a difference. And anecdotal evidence league-wide showed this sort of thing worked everywhere (Kansas City was another example)—if the quarterback was on board quickly, a lot of others felt compelled to follow suit. So good on Ryan, and good on the Falcons, for a smart approach that led to obvious results.
If you were an advocate of the SkyJudge like me, then you’ll be happy to hear about the Hawkeye camera system. No one’s talked about this much, but Hawkeye’s going in this year, and it’s got a chance to improve officiating in a very big way. What is it? It basically will allow for both the New York command center and the replay official at every game to access every angle of every play instantaneously. Before this, those two elements of NFL officiating had to call to the TV truck to request certain angles on certain plays. Now, they’ll have the ability to get to every angle on a touch screen and play, rewind, fast-forward and slow down any snap they want to. And when you combine that with the new ability for New York and the replay official to buzz down to a head referee to fix objective calls, I think we’ll see some mistakes out there cleaned up. And ultimately, I think it’ll make for a faster game, because we’ll see fewer unnecessary challenges—and the coaches sure will like when there’s a challenge flag they don’t have to throw to correct something obvious. So basically, if you’re a fan of trying to get every call right, this’ll be a win for you.
The next question is going to be who’s actually up there in the booth. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The NFL’s mired in another labor dispute. The replay officials (separate from the rest of the officials) don’t have a contract for the 2021 season. They’ve been working preseason games, and could continue to work through the negotiations, choose to walk and leave the league without trained officials for those roles or potentially get locked out. The basic core of this dispute is the replay officials’ wanting to be treated (and paid) more like the rest of the officials, which is how it is in college football, since they are part of, and travel with, crews during the season. And their argument is that they’re more important than ever now, with more responsibility on a week-to-week basis, a responsibility they were trained for this offseason, in having to travel to classes on three different occasions to learn the Hawkeye system. So how does this end? My guess would be the replay officials will keep working. But if they don’t when the regular season starts, it’d definitely work to undercut the aforementioned structural changes to officiating and replay’s role in it in 2021.
I think if this is it for Larry Fitzgerald, we should remember his career not just for what it was at its height, but also his Jerry Rice-ian second act. Here’s what Fitzgerald said to Jim Gray on Sirius XM: “Jim, to be honest with you, I just don’t have the urge to play right now. I don’t know how I’ll feel in September, October, November moving forward but I just, today, I just don’t have the urge.” And to be clear, do I think Fitzgerald is what Rice was? No. I grew up watching Rice, so I might be a little biased, but I don’t think there’s a valid argument that Rice isn’t the greatest ever, and that’s on what he did on the Niners alone. But what Rice did even after that was incredibly impressive—posting 1,000-yard years for the Raiders at 39 and 40 years old, getting back to the Super Bowl in the second of those, and playing until he was 42 (which you could argue is more impressive, based on position, than Brady’s playing at 44). And how Fitzgerald has reinvented himself at the end of his career, even if he doesn’t play as long as Rice did, fits along those lines. In 2014, Fitzgerald battled through a knee injury and came back a bit of a different player. He’d never average more than 12 yards a catch again. So he worked to change who he was. Never a burner in the first place, he transformed himself into a powerful, almost-tight-end-ish slot receiver, and posted 100-catch, 1,000-yard seasons in 2015, ’16 and ’17. He’s faded some since. But just the fact that after a Hall-of-Fame first decade in the NFL, he was committed enough to reinvent who he was, and make it all the through 17 seasons, is remarkable. So whatever he chooses to do here, I’m happy for him. No, he’s not Rice. But he might be in the running to be the SGOAT, so to speak.
The league was smart with its preseason games this year. Monday night’s another example of it—we get the derby to replace Drew Brees and a once-in-a-decade rookie quarterback going head-to-head in a national, standalone game. Meanwhile, both Fields and Mac have had both of their games on national TV in windows with either no games, or just one, up against them; Zach Wilson (who’s probably been the steadiest of all the rookies) was in national standalone game on Saturday; and Trey Lance was in one last night. And really, I think every summer that’s what we all want to see. It was nice that Patrick Mahomes played the other night on TV. But I wasn’t stopping my Friday night to see it. The preseason is about what’s new, and the unknown that goes along with it. And I think by waiting until after the draft to release the preseason schedule, then putting the rookie quarterbacks on national TV, the NFL’s giving us all what we want. So nice job by them.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1) Last year, I really felt strongly that my kids should be in school in-person. This year, I don’t have any problem with them wearing masks to school if that’s what’s needed to keep everyone safe (for the record, my kids never complained about having to wear them—not once). And I think by looking at these things like this, case-by-case, and not just aligning completely with one side, I’m probably an outlier. Which is really weird.
2) I finally started Ted Lasso. Thanks to pretty much everybody, I have high hopes.
3) I couldn’t be more confident that Ryan Day will have C.J. Stroud where he needs to be for Ohio State’s opener in 10 days. And I can’t wait to get to Minneapolis to witness it.
4) This story, from our old buddy Emily Kaplan, is just plain strange. It looks like the city of Glendale is kicking the Arizona Coyotes out of their arena after this year “with an increased focus on larger, more impactful events.” If there ever was a sign a team and its sport aren’t working in a certain region of the country, I’d say that line would be a good one. Here’s hoping they move to Hartford or Quebec City.
5) The Epicurean hotel in Tampa is amazing. Thanks to the founder of this column, and our old friend, Peter King for the tip on that.
6) All the best to Jackie MacMullan, a true trailblazer in our industry. I had the good fortune of working with Jackie at the Boston Globe back in the day, and sharing a TV set with her a bunch of times, and I can honestly say you won’t find anyone who was better to young people in the business, or more dignified in how she did her job, than she was. And as for how good she was, I’ll just say this—any young reporter would’ve learned a lot just by watching her do her job. I know I did.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
I can’t believe Bill Parcells is 80. But he is, and he’s got quite a legacy behind him. Few had an effect on more franchises than he did—he won the Giants’ first two Super Bowls, he changed the Patriots forever, he was the most impactful Jets coach since they had Namath under center and he got Jerry Jones and the Cowboys, more than a decade later, out of the shadow of the Jimmy Johnson divorce. Just an absolute force of nature everywhere he went.
I wrote a while back that the Bears’ coaches love how Justin Fields “knows how to be a rookie”—and understands all that goes along with it. This quote is part of that.
In this little clip, you get a look at what the Dolphins look for in players, and how Brian Flores carries himself with those guys.
Incredible pregame get-up from the rookie.
… but this is even cooler. Great idea by one of the game’s rising young stars.
I love how comfortable Dan Campbell is in his own skin.
When Sirianni was born, Belichick was in his second year as Giants special teams coordinator and linebackers coach.
Love Lynch in the background just taking it in.
I’m gonna go ahead and assume Gruden did that on purpose.
I really wanna know what Gronk was doing when Brady FaceTimed him. Will dig into it.
S/o Johnny Dakota!
Brady’s 14-year-old Jack was actually running post-practice gassers with his dad, too!
Awesome gesture by Baker.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Since news doesn’t stop this time of year, a couple of quick updates.
• Titans coach Mike Vrabel told the Nashville media on Sunday that he tested positive for COVID-19. Vrabel’s vaccinated, and can return to work with negative tests on consecutive days. But given the issues some people have had testing out, that we detailed earlier in the column, it’s no sure thing that’ll happen in short order.
• Colts coach Frank Reich announced that Carson Wentz, Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly will return to practice Monday. All three will be eased back in. And I’d assume the Colts are going to show a lot of caution with Wentz and Nelson. Foot injuries can be problematic.
• Falcons QB A.J. McCarron’s torn ACL highlights the depth issue at quarterback across the league, and why some backups get paid like a starting linebacker or safety might. Atlanta’s next layer of depth behind McCarron: undrafted rookie Feleipe Franks, who you may remember from Florida and Arkansas.
And with that, we’ll see you in a few hours with the Monday Afternoon Quarterback.
More NFL Coverage:
• Dak Prescott’s Heal Turn
• An Early Look at the 2022 NFL Quarterback Carousel
• Why Installing the NFL’s Trendiest Offense Is Harder Than You'd Think
• Mailbag: Do You Really Need a Mobile Quarterback to Win in the NFL?