AROUND THE NFL

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

Kevin Kaduk of YahooSports.com says the bloom is off the rose for Coach Matt Nagy:

 

Just what is Matt Nagy really made of?

 

Had you asked this query last Halloween, the answer would have been much different. With the Bears an unexpected 4-3 last Oct. 31, the first-year coach was viewed as a strong master of locker room culture and an innovative mind who might be able to jumpstart the Bears offense from a few decades spent in the doldrums. After the failed Marc Trestman experiment and John Fox’s retirement account padding tour, it looked like the Bears had finally nailed a head coaching hire.

 

Nagy led the Bears to a 12-4 record in the regular season, a seven-game improvement from the 2017 campaign, and one good enough to win him Coach of the Year honors.

 

But then the Bears met the Eagles in a home playoff game, Cody Parkey double-doinked his game-winning kick and nothing has come easy for Nagy or the Bears since.

 

Now if you were to ask the average Bears fan about Nagy’s job performance, there’s a good chance you’d get a response of mockery and scorn. Hell, all it took was a few minutes for the media’s knives to come out during the postgame news conference following last Sunday’s 17-16 home loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

 

That might seem like too wild of a swing considering the 3-4 Bears are just one game off last year’s pace, but Bears fans are more bipolar than anyone. The Monsters of the Midway win a few games and everyone from Evanston to Evergreen Park morphs into a walking Superfans character, planning not only the next Super Bowl parade route but the four or five after that.

 

Lose a few games and, well, there isn’t a fanbase that can get more fatalistic. It’s just what happens when a franchise of the Bears’ early pedigree is going on 35 years without a title.

 

The main difference between the two views, of course, are expectations. The Bears could have pulled out the game against the Chargers to move to 4-3 and the current feelings for Nagy would be roughly the same. Fans and media came into this season expecting a run to the Super Bowl, not just a simple upgrade from John Fox’s uninspiring stewardship.

 

But what changed apart from the narrative? Nagy probably wasn’t as much of a genius as he looked last season, just as he probably isn’t ill-equipped to lead a NFL team as some overly-perturbed Bears backers have insinuated over this current three-game losing streak.

 

The thing is, Nagy hasn’t done himself many favors and some seemingly small decisions have backfired big time.

 

Take, for example, the end of the Chargers loss. After 59 minutes of seeing his offense repeatedly sputter in the red zone, Nagy had a chance to escape with a win if new kicker Eddy Pineiro made his field goal attempt.

 

After a Trubisky scramble got the Bears into reasonable range for a 41-yard-attempt by Pineiro, Nagy decided not to try for any further yardage and ran down the clock so the kick would be the last play of the game.

 

Pineiro’s kick, of course, went wide left and Nagy headed into a news conference that was dominated by a heated back-and-forth over why he didn’t try to make Pineiro’s job easier with an extra run or two.

 

I thought the criticism was misplaced and that Nagy’s inability to call plays to get his team in the end zone earlier in the game was more of a problem than assuming an NFL kicker would hit a 41-yard field goal.

 

But then Pineiro let it slip on Tuesday that he would have rather had the ball placed more toward the center of the field than the left hashmark. Though it appeared that Pineiro immediately regretted letting the media in on that secret, the damage was done. An extra day of Chicago sports radio controversy had been written.

 

“We have a communication process that we believe in and that we use,” Nagy said of Pineiro on Wednesday, going wide left himself when asked to answer a question.

 

There have been other issues, of course, starting with Nagy’s offseason obsession with finding a productive kicker to calling just seven rush attempts against the Saints — the lowest for any game in franchise history — just after reiterating the team’s need to establish the ground game.

 

The biggest issue, of course, wears No. 10 and plays quarterback for the Bears. While Nagy was playing the Hunger Games with any unemployed kicking candidate that came within 50 miles of Halas Hall, the reality was that the success of the 2019 Bears was always going to hinge on the development of Trubisky.

 

While Nagy didn’t draft Trubisky nor does he drop back in the pocket on gameday with subpar skills, Nagy is responsible for putting his offense in a position to succeed. And right now he’s not doing that.

 

Worse yet, Trubisky has taken a step backward from last season when he often got himself out of trouble and extended drives with his one plus-skill: running.

 

While Nagy coached in 2018 like he and the Bears had nothing to lose, the opposite seems true in 2019. He’s terrified of Trubisky’s very real limitations and can’t find a successful way to coach around them. (Last year’s get out of jail free card — the 36 turnovers forced by the defense — aren’t happening with quite the same frequency.)

 

Taking quarterback play out of the equation, Nagy’s current path seems pretty standard for coach of the year winners. His seven-game improvement was in line with the average 5.7-game improvement of every winner since 1990.

 

And because it’s hard to measurably improve once you hit double-digit wins in the NFL, Nagy’s encore season looks like it might be trending toward the average -2.8 win decrease in the season following a coach of the year win.

 

The trick is establishing the consistency in years three and beyond so you’re closer to the group that includes Bill Belichick, Andy Reid and Sean Payton than the one that includes Dick Jauron, Jim Haslett and Wayne Fontes.

 

But Bears fans don’t quite particularly care about future seasons when they’ve got a championship-caliber defense in the here and now.

 

Here’s the bottom line: Nagy was brought to Chicago as an offensive wizard and someone who could bring Trubisky into the potential that many draft gurus saw in 2017.

 

A year and a half in, we haven’t seen any evidence that Nagy is in fact that guy. The unexpected arrival of Khalil Mack and the Bears defense may have accelerated Nagy’s expectations, but then the NFL has never been a league that has waited around for anybody.

 

 

GREEN BAY

The Packers are hinting that WR DAVANTE ADAMS could be back this week.  He’s up to “day-to-day.”

 

NFC EAST

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

WR STERLING SHEPARD was a full participant in practice on Thursday. He has been concussed since Week 5.

 

 

WASHINGTON

Grant Gordon of NFL.com on the meeting of two legendary running backs on Sunday.

 

Days in which running backs piled up 1,000-yard seasons and turned in 20-plus-carry games week after week have largely been and gone.

 

The workhorse No. 1 back is an antiquated idea for most teams with a committee approach having taken over, a back for every down now commonplace.

 

On Sunday when the Bills host the Redskins amid a frigid setting, two of the top-six all-time rushers will oppose each other as Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson look to turn back the clock to the days of the running men.

 

“Two future Hall of Famers, no doubt,” Redskins interim coach Bill Callahan said Wednesday via team transcript. “[I have] a lot of respect for Frank Gore and what he has done and accomplished throughout his career. I feel great about [Peterson] meeting that challenge. There’s going to be a game within a game, let’s face it. Those are two prideful, professional athletes that want to do really well and I know they’ve got a lot of respect for one another.

 

“It’s really special to be around these types of guys, for the fans to see two great backs in a game like this, on a cold weather day, going up north. It’ll be interesting, it’ll be a lot of fun.”

 

With Gore and Peterson, Sunday’s game features the No. 4 and No. 6 all-time rushers, respectively.

 

Gore, 36, checks in with 15,170 yards, needing 100 to pass Barry Sanders for third all-time, while Peterson, 34, sits at sixth with 13,701 — exactly 400 yards behind No. 5 Curtis Martin.

 

That’s 28,871 yards, 29 seasons, 17 1,000-yard campaigns combined.

 

“Even now, I enjoy watching him and seeing that he’s being successful,” Peterson said via the team website’s Zach Selby. “It’s always a motivation to know I have another comrade two years older than me that’s still getting it done.”

 

Gore’s leading the Bills with 422 yards rushing, averaging 4.4 yards per carry and 60.3 a game, while Peterson has emerged for a second straight year as the lead back for the Redskins with Derrius Guice injured once again. Peterson’s 383 yards are also a team-high.

 

Neither is at the elite level they once showcased every Sunday, but they’re still producing.

 

“That mental toughness is the reason why we’re able to play for an extended period of time,” Peterson said of the two.

 

On his third team in as many seasons, Gore is climbing up all-time lists and chasing a playoff berth with the Bills.

 

Peterson, who’s in his second year with Washington but has likewise played for three franchises in three years, is on a struggling Redskins team with an uncertain future, but he’s turned in a 100-yard game this season and continues to climb along with Gore.

 

“I don’t know when you’ll ever be able to say that you have two backs still playing in what people consider to be an older age that are still chasing history,” Peterson said.

 

As they run to more history, Peterson and Gore could be focal points on Sunday and they could not.

 

Times have changed for running backs, but A.P. and Gore are still running.

 

These are the last of the running men as they once were.

– – –

Will we see QB DWAYNE HASKINS start on Sunday?  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Washington quarterback Case Keenum is still in the concussion protocol, which means rookie Dwayne Haskins took the first-team reps in practice on Wednesday and may start on Sunday at Buffalo. He says he welcomes the opportunity.

 

“I get hyped every day I get to put a helmet on,” Haskins said, via the Washington Post. “Even more excited to put a first start on film, even more excited about it.”

 

Haskins hasn’t put much on film so far. In limited action in two games, he has completed 12 of 22 passes for 140 yards, with no touchdowns and four interceptions. Those poor performances have come amid reports that he’s struggling to learn the playbook.

 

The Bills have a good pass defense, and if Haskins has to make the first start of his career in the hostile environment of Buffalo, he’s likely to struggle. He’s excited for the opportunity now, but the team hopes Keenum is cleared in time to play.

 

AFC WEST

 

DENVER

IR for QB JOE FLACCO?  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco went for a second opinion on the neck injury that knocked him out of the lineup this week and reports indicate the outlook is pretty similar to the one given by his first doctor.

 

Word earlier this week was that Flacco would miss around six weeks as a result of the injury and Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that the timetable remains in that neighborhood. The Broncos will need a roster spot to promote Brett Rypien as Brandon Allen‘s backup and head coach Vic Fangio was asked on Thursday if Flacco will go on injured reserve.

 

Fangio told reporters that the team has not made that decision yet, but that they expect to have it by the end of the week. With eight games left on the Broncos schedule, a move to I.R. would end Flacco’s season.

 

If Flacco does go on I.R., he’ll join Drew Lock on the list until and unless the Broncos designate the second-round pick to return from his thumb injury.

 

AFC NORTH

 

PITTSBURGH

LB ANTHONY CHICKILLO has returned to the Steelers from exile on the exempt list.  Joe Ruter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

 

Steelers linebacker Anthony Chickillo was removed from the NFL commissioner’s exempt list Thursday, allowing him to return to practice.

 

Chickillo, 26, was arrested Oct. 20 by state police on accusations that he assaulted his girlfriend at Nemacolin Woodlands in Wharton Township. The NFL placed Chickillo on the reserve/commissioner exempt list three days after his arrest.

 

Charges were withdrawn Wednesday in Fayette County court.

 

“Anthony Chickillo has been taken off the Exempt/Commissioner’s List by the NFL Office, effective immediately,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement. “The League will continue to conduct an investigation of the incident, and we acknowledge that Anthony could still be subject to discipline by the League Office under the Personal Conduct Policy.”

 

Chickillo continued to receive his salary while he was free on $10,000 unsecured bond in the case. By being placed on the exempt list, he was forbidden from practicing or attending games but was able to attend team meetings and physical therapy at the Steelers’ UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

 

Chickillo was at the practice facility Thursday morning.

 

The league’s personal conduct policy states that Chickillo could face a six-game suspension without pay as a first offender with “possible upward or downward adjustments based on any aggravating or mitigating factors.”

 

Chickillo is in his fifth season with the Steelers. In March, he signed a two-year, $8 million contract.

 

The Steelers released Jay Elliott to clear a roster spot for Chickillo.

 

The above story is a bit vague on what happened.  The incident was with his longtime girlfriend Alysha Newman, a Canadian Olympic pole vaulter.  TMZ.com is more direct in its report:

 

Steelers LB Anthony Chickillo is off the hook after he allegedly roughed up his track star girlfriend … prosecutors tell TMZ Sports she refused to testify against the NFL player, so the charges were dropped.

 

As we previously reported, Chickillo was arrested on Oct. 20 after his GF — Canadian track star Alysha Newman — said an argument at a fancy Pennsylvania resort’s casino later turned violent in their hotel room.

 

Newman claimed Chickillo grabbed her by both arms, forced her against the wall and door and eventually threw her to the ground while intending to cause her injury.

 

In court records obtained by TMZ Sports, cops say they noticed Newman “had visible redness to both her right and left bicep areas, with bruising beginning to form.”

 

Chickillo was eventually taken into custody and hit with three charges — simple assault, criminal mischief and harassment.

 

For her part in the altercation, cops also hit Newman with a summary citation for harassment.

 

But, prosecutors tell us after interviewing both Newman and Chickillo at length, both parties said they would refuse to testify against each other and did NOT want to pursue charges.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

INDIANAPOLIS

Colts GM Chris Ballard and his wife have done God’s work.  Zac Keefer of The Athletic:

 

Seventy-five minutes before his team’s fourth practice of training camp, on a sweltering summer morning in Westfield, Ind., a few steps from a pavilion packed with families hurting and healing, kids scarred but smiling, the Colts’ general manager is hiding tears behind his sunglasses.

 

Chris Ballard isn’t thinking about that day’s practice, or his looming depth chart decisions, or the calf strain his star quarterback hasn’t been able to shake for three months. He’s standing on the grass outside that pavilion, talking with two young boys who’ve bounced between nine foster homes in seven years.

 

His wife Kristin is sitting on a picnic table a few feet away. “Sometimes, this gets really emotional for us,” she says.

 

Inside that pavilion, as the Ballards look on, kids shuffle through a long line, picking up their backpack at the end of it – brand new, all their own, stuffed with dozens of books. The Ballards are giving away around 50 on this morning, all to area foster kids, most of whom have never had a backpack to call their own.

 

These backpacks, they’re not an accident.

 

When a foster child is pulled from one home and placed in another, often without warning, often in a matter of minutes, all they’re typically able to take with them are the clothes on their back. It’s brutal, and the memory can haunt them for years.

 

“The backpacks, they can offer a sense of ownership for these kids,” says Steve Fugate, CFO of Cargo Services Inc., an Indianapolis-based shipping company that, along with the Ballards, sponsor a handful of events like this one each year.

 

“A lot of times, a backpack is the only thing they can call their own.”

 

While their five kids pass out those backpacks, the Ballards move from table to table, visiting with the foster parents, hearing their stories. One hour spills into the next, and they keep moving, keep listening. It’s clear: They aren’t here for the photo ops, and they aren’t here for the press. They’re here because in these families they see their own.

 

The call came nine years ago on a Friday, while Kristin Ballard stood in line at HomeGoods. It was a caseworker from Child Protective Services in Texas. She had four girls – four relatives of an extended family – who needed a home and needed one that afternoon.

 

Kristin listened, stunned into silence.

 

The father had bolted. The mother was addicted to drugs. The girls had grown up in filth, neglected, malnourished, crammed into a tiny apartment in Houston that, the oldest daughter would later recount, “consisted of dirty diapers lying on the counters and roaches crawling in the small bed the five of us crowded into every night.”

 

There were nights, she remembers, where she’d call the police on her mother’s abusive boyfriend, but was too young to remember the address. More nights, she adds, “where I held my petrified sisters as we watched our mother weaken until her body was comprised of bones and bruises.”

 

Finally – thankfully – the state stepped in. CPS had taken the girls from their mother, and they’d started looking for their new home.

 

Kristin was the first call. She was a working mother of three, a top sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, the wife to a rising NFL scout. She was in between sales calls that Friday, running a quick errand, getting ready for the weekend when her phone buzzed and her world changed. Three of the four girls were headed to an inner-city shelter unless her family was willing to take them in; the fourth had been temporarily placed with a grandmother.

 

If Kristin agreed, they’d go from three kids to six in a single afternoon.

 

“We plan, God laughs,” she says, shaking her head, reliving that moment nine years later. She likes the phrase so much she had it printed on her business cards. It’s become her credo.

 

So that day, that Friday, she thought about those three girls, underweight and underdeveloped, in need of love and shelter and a shot at a life they’d never had.

 

She called her priest.

 

She called her nanny.

 

Then she called her husband, who was on the road, scouting for the Chicago Bears.

 

“Can we handle this?” Chris asked her.

 

“We can handle this,” she told him.

 

The girls showed up that night, their belongings stuffed into one black trash bag.

 

When CPS took the girls back two weeks later, Chris and Kristin sat in their car and cried.

 

Like the first call, this one came with no warning.

 

“We’re coming to pick them up,” a caseworker told Kristin over the phone. “We’ve placed them in two foster homes.”

 

“No you’re not,” she snapped back. “You haven’t talked to me yet.”

 

“It’s done,” she was told.

 

Kristin Ballard is no pushover. Just ask her husband. He credits this to the competitive fire she played with back at Texas A&M-Kingsville, where the two of them first met, where she’s in the Javelinas’ Hall of Fame and where, 22 years later, she still holds the school record for most points scored in a women’s basketball game (46). Back then, she’d swing by the basketball offices to catch up with a coach, or to watch some film, and she’d end up chatting with the young grad assistant on the football staff whose office was one door over.

 

“She’s always been the best athlete in the family,” Chris says.

 

By 2010, they’d settled just outside Houston, a happy, healthy family of five. Kristin was a successful sales rep in her region for Takeda Pharmaceuticals – “the bread-winner the first 13 years of our marriage,” she proudly points out – while Chris was grinding as the Bears’ southwest area scout, waiting for his shot at an NFL front office.

 

They didn’t have a choice that day. CPS was taking the girls back, one way or another – the Ballards weren’t yet foster-certified, so they weren’t viewed as a permanent solution. The caseworker was ready to come to the house and pick them up until Kristin refused. She knew it’d be too jarring for the girls to be pulled from a second home in as many weeks.

 

“Chris and I will bring them to you,” she told them. So they did. And after they dropped them off, they sat in their car, tears streaming their faces, and that’s when they decided. This wasn’t good enough. They had to do more.

 

“We have to take care of family,” Chris finally said.

 

They spent the next two years fighting to get them back.

 

There were visitations, court dates and foster-parent certification classes. There was doubt, uncertainty and anguish. And at the heart of it all, there were four young girls, raised in a crack house, underweight and underdeveloped, scarred but smiling. All they wanted was a shot.

 

Halane Dunn, a caseworker for the Houston Achievement Place, has spent 30 years working with foster children. “Oh my word,” she says, “some of the things you see are just heartbreaking.”

 

She sensed the severity of this situation from the start. She knew these girls needed out.

 

“A lot of times, people will see things like this and just say, ‘Someone needs to do something,’” Dunn says. “Chris and Kristin didn’t say that. They stepped up and they did it themselves.

 

“Kristin understood right away that if they didn’t, these girls would go back into a situation that would be very harmful to them.”

 

The intent was never to take the girls from their mother, but as it became clear that a return to that apartment would put them at further risk, Kristin stepped in. She fought. She prayed. She researched the foster care system, she interviewed possible adoption candidates and she weighed taking the girls into her own family on a permanent basis. She found a couple – an aunt and uncle without kids of their own – who were willing to take all four, or just two.

 

When she considered splitting them up, she worried about how her three kids at home – Kierstyn, Cole and Cash – would handle the change if the girls landed with them for good. Then one night, as she tucked Cole into bed, she heard all she needed to hear.

 

“The easy thing to do would be for them to go with the other family,” Cole told her. “But the right thing to do is for them to come live with us.”

 

He was 7 years old.

 

“I cry every time I think of that moment,” Kristin says now. “Because that’s when I knew.”

 

Twenty months after the girls showed up at their house, their belongings stuffed into that single black trash bag, Chris and Kristin Ballard sat in a courtroom in Houston, seething over what they were hearing. The judge wasn’t ready to terminate the birth mother’s rights, no matter the state she was in, no matter the damage it would continue to inflict on her four young daughters. If they didn’t land back in that apartment with her, they’d become wards of the state, very likely bouncing from one foster home to the next until they aged out at 18.

 

That’s when Kristin had enough. She shook her head. She looked at her husband.

 

“Go do what you gotta do,” Chris told her.

 

So she did. She pulled the mother into a side room. She begged the lawyers to leave.

 

“I’ll give you Sunnie and Rainn,” the mother told her. She was willing to part with the two youngest girls – the two most desperate for help.

 

“No,” Kristin replied. “There are four girls who deserve a chance.”

 

Finally, the mother relented. She’d sign over rights to all four. She’d promise to get the help she needed.

 

The oldest two, it was decided, would go with the aunt and uncle, the youngest two, Sunnie and Rainn, to the Ballards.

 

“I’m so proud of you,” Kristin told the mother. “You’re doing what’s best for your kids.”

 

The Ballards brought them home, and a family of five became a family of seven.

 

“People would ask me back then, working full-time, three kids of your own, how in the world are you doing this?” Kristin says now. “I’d always say, ‘How are you not?’ These girls needed taken care of.”

 

What followed: three promotions and three moves in five years, from Houston to Chicago to Kansas City to Indianapolis, a family finding its way. There were struggles, and there was heartache. Most who’ve never been through the adoption process assume at-risk foster children are happy the minute they arrive, provided with the home and the love they’ve never had.

 

In reality, it’s never that simple, never that smooth.

 

The girls were hurting, and they were scared, and at first, they had a hard time trusting. Kristin remembers dropping Sunnie off at daycare one morning and hearing a question that broke her heart. “Are you gonna pick me up?” Sunnie begged. “Are you gonna come get me?”

 

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Kristin says now.

 

It took years for the girls to move past the trauma they’d seen and the life they’d left behind. They acted out at school. They went to therapy. They asked questions Chris and Kristin struggled to answer.

 

“Why aren’t my sisters living with us?”

 

“Is my old mommy mad that I’m a Ballard?”

 

“You have to meet them where they’re at,” says Kelly Ciborowski, Kristin’s sister-in-law, who’d drive in from Dallas on the weekends to help out in the early days while Chris was on the road scouting. “They’re hurt. They’re vulnerable. They don’t understand.”

 

One of the exercises the Ballards went through during their four-day foster-certification course involved closing their eyes and imagining they were 5 years old again.

 

“You’re at home, you’ve got your mom, you’ve got things that are yours, and all of a sudden, somebody you’ve never met comes to your house and takes you away,” Kristin says. “Then, suddenly, you’ve got this new house with these new things and a new family that welcomes you with open arms. But you’re never able to go back to your old house. You’re never able to play with your old toys. And sometimes, you’re never able to see your brothers or sisters ever again.”

 

“That’s all they knew. And it was just gone.”

 

It took years. It took patience from Chris and Kristin, sacrifice from Kierstyn, Cole and Cash and faith from Sunnie and Rainn. It took love. Trust. Faith. But slowly, the family began to feel whole. An early blessing arrived two weeks after Sunnie and Rainn first came home with them for good, in the summer of 2012: Chris was promoted to director of pro scouting for the Bears, which meant the entire family was moving to Chicago.

 

The way they saw it: This was a chance to start fresh. Sunnie and Rainn weren’t moving into Kierstyn, Cole and Cash’s house – they were moving into their new house. And for the first time in their lives, both of them had their own room.

 

A year later, another promotion. Chris became the director of pro personnel for the Chiefs. “My wife’s been killing herself to keep the family afloat,” he said then. “Now it’s my turn.”

 

So the Ballards moved once more.

 

And two years after that, the chance he’d been chasing finally came in Indianapolis. Jim Irsay wanted Ballard to overhaul the Colts. The family landed in Westfield, all seven of them, anxious to plant some roots and stay for a very long time.

 

Inside the Ballard house these days, Mom has a rule: Instead of birthday presents, they go out to eat as a family. The birthday kid gets to pick the restaurant. And if any of them misbehave, they stay in and settle for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

 

This past spring, with Sunnie’s 12th birthday inching closer, Kristin asked her daughter which restaurant she had picked out for her big night.

 

“I wanna do something different,” she told her mom.

 

No birthday dinner. No gifts.

 

Sunnie wanted to host a party for foster kids.

 

She planned it herself. And with a little help, she reached out to the Indiana Department of Child Services, asking for a list of area foster kids who’d be celebrating April birthdays. The night she turned 12, Sunnie hosted five families for pizza and games at Chuck E. Cheese.

 

When her mom asked why, Sunnie said: “I wanted them to feel special, too.”

 

She’d seen the work her parents had poured themselves into over the years: the Books for Youth events, the backpacks they’d donated, the families they’d touched. She wanted to do her part. Later that spring, the Ballards hosted another event for area foster kids, a graduation night at the Colts’ complex for those finishing high school. Cargo Services chipped in with money for each of the graduates.

 

All told, the company has given away roughly 8,000 backpacks to Indianapolis foster children since 2006. The Books for Youth program, specifically, has grown and grown the past few years, touching more families than ever before, and Fugate knows why.

 

It’s because of the Ballards.

 

“They bring a perspective that me, or others, simply can’t bring,” Fugate says. “The emotions, the heartache, they’ve seen the pain these kids go through.”

 

It’s a pain those two boys Chris Ballard was speaking with outside that pavilion that morning know: nine foster homes in seven years. The Colts’ GM stays in touch with some of the foster children he meets at these events, checking in on them every few weeks, even amidst a busy football season. One asked him to subscribe to his YouTube channel; the videos will pop up on Ballard’s phone every once in a while, videos of the boy singing and laughing and holding onto hope when so much of his life has been a struggle. Sometimes, it picks Ballard up. Sometimes, it wrecks him.

 

“I still have a hard time thinking about those kids,” he says.

 

While his five kids prepare to hand out backpacks on that sweltering summer morning, the Colts’ GM looks into the eyes of the foster children who’ve crammed into that pavilion.

 

“To all you kids out there who think there’s no hope, all you have to do is look around,” Ballard tells them. “I promise you that there is hope. There are people that care about you, and love you, and want to guide you.”

 

Then he speaks to the parents.

 

“It takes a special, special person to do what you’re doing,” he says. “You’re changing lives – don’t ever forget that. I promise you that God is going to pay you back tenfold for what you’re doing.”

 

As for the four foster kids his family pulled from the filth, they’re excelling. The oldest daughter, Angel, the one who’d walk to the nearest convenience store to buy the cheapest diapers and food she could find for her younger sisters, recently wrote about the pain she’s overcome in her life for her college entrance essay.

 

She calls the aunt and uncle who adopted her and her sister “the most amazing people in the world.”

 

“I felt like I finally had a voice,” she wrote, “and I could finally belong and be loved with the perfect family I never knew I could have. I never saw abuse in the household again.”

 

She started at the University of Texas at San Antonio this fall.

 

Her two youngest sisters, the two most in need when Kristin Ballard got that phone call nine years ago, are wearing Colts’ T-shirts, handing out Colts’ backpacks, watching the eyes of Indianapolis-area foster kids light up inside a pavilion on a summer morning.

 

These days, Sunnie and Rainn are straight-A students.

 

Their proud mom watches from a picnic table nearby, smiling through a few tears of her own.

 

“We plan, God laughs, right?” Kristin says.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

QB TOM BRADY has a shoulder issue.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Patriots re-signed backup quarterback Cody Kessler this week and it appears he and rookie Jarrett Stidham had a bit more to do at Wednesday’s practice than they might under other circumstances.

 

The team released its first injury report of the week after the session and it lists quarterback Tom Brady as a limited participant. A right shoulder issue is given as the reason for Brady getting in less than a full practice.

 

Brady last appeared on an injury report in Week Four when he was limited on Wednesday due to a calf issue. Brady was off the report on Thursday and Friday.

 

Given the absence of any signs pointing toward the quarterback’s absence from Sunday night’s game against the Ravens, it would not be a surprise if this week played out in a similar fashion.

 

Running back Rex Burkhead (foot), safety Patrick Chung (heel, chest), wide receiver Julian Edelman (chest, shoulder), tight end Ryan Izzo (concussion), tight end Matt LaCosse (knee), right guard Shaq Mason (ankle), and wide receiver Gunner Olszewski (ankle, hamstring) were also listed as limited. Izzo, Mason and LaCosse all missed last Sunday’s win over the Browns.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

TOP ROOKIES

The second overall pick sits atop Daniel Jeremiah’s list of the top 25 rookies of 2019.  The first overall pick is not second.

 

1  Nick Bosa, 49ers

Position: Edge rusher

Bosa has already emerged as the best pure power rusher in the NFL. He’s the leading contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year and is also very much in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year.

 

2  Gardner Minshew, Jaguars

Position: QB

Minshew has clearly been the top passer in this year’s rookie class. He’s made plays in the structure of the offense and he’s proven to be a dangerous improvisor.

 

3  Josh Allen, Jaguars

Position: Edge rusher

Allen was a steal for the Jaguars at No. 7 overall. He is tied with Bosa for the sack lead among rookies and he’s been consistently disruptive every week.

 

4  Josh Jacobs, Raiders

Position: RB

The top running back in this draft class, Jacobs has brought a physical dimension to the Raiders’ offense. Look for him to be more involved in the passing game in the second half of the season.

 

5  Devin Bush, Steelers

Position: LB

Bush is a sideline-to-sideline ‘backer who’s made impact plays on the football. He’s given the Steelers a much-needed playmaker at the second level of their defense.

 

6  Kyler Murray, Cardinals

Position: QB

Murray has made steady improvement and he’s catching up to the speed of the pro game. He doesn’t have much talent in front of him, but he’s found a way to make the Cardinals a competitive team.

 

7  Daniel Jones, Giants

Position: QB

The sixth overall pick is coming off his best performance of the season, and he’s more than justified the Giants’ faith in him. He does need to clean up some fumble issues but otherwise he’s been excellent.

 

8  Brian Burns, Panthers

Position: Edge rusher

Burns is a blur off the edge, and the Panthers pass rush is one of the most improved units in the entire league. I love his effort and tenacity.

 

9  Terry McLaurin, Redskins2

Position: WR

Washington has been miserable in the first half of the season, but McLaurin has been a bright spot. He has elite speed and his route running savvy jumps off the screen.

 

10  Elgton Jenkins, Packers

Position: OG

The Packers offensive line is much improved from last year and Jenkins deserves his share of credit for the boost. He’s been the most consistent rookie offensive lineman this season.

 

11  Darnell Savage, Packers

Position: S

Savage has a beautiful blend of speed, instincts and toughness. He has missed a couple games due to injury and his absence was noticeable in the backend of the Packers secondary.

 

12  D.K. Metcalf, Seahawks

Position: WR

Metcalf is still a work in progress, but he’s produced several chunk plays and he’s proven to be a worthy red-zone target for Russell Wilson.

 

13  Dexter Lawrence, Giants

Position: DT

The 342-pounder is more than just a space eater up front for the Giants. He uses his quickness to be disruptive against the pass and has outstanding lateral range against the run.

 

14  Dalton Risner, Broncos

Position: OG

Risner has been the Broncos most consistent lineman this season. He’s shown solid awareness and has held up well in pass pro.

 

15  A.J. Brown, Titans

Position: WR

Brown is a physical specimen and he’s been outstanding after the catch. I believe the Titans have one of the most underrated WR duos in Brown and Corey Davis.

 

16  Miles Sanders, Eagles

Position: RB

Sanders is starting to get more involved in the Philly offense and he’s making a big difference. He has outstanding burst and he’s a weapon in the passing game.

 

17  T.J. Hockenson, Lions

Position: TE

Hockenson hasn’t had the production I was anticipating, but he’s still valuable in the run game. I expect him to takeoff in the second half of the year.

 

18  Mecole Hardman, Chiefs

Position: WR

The speedy wideout fits beautifully in the Chiefs’ system and he’s helped them overcome some early-season injuries at the position.

 

19  Erik McCoy, Saints

Position: C

McCoy, the first of back-to-back centers on this list, has been a reliable starter for the Saints this season. He can move people in the run game and he’s firm in pass protection.

 

20  Garrett Bradbury, Vikings

Position: C

Bradbury struggled in pass pro early in the season but he quickly improved. He’s always been excellent in the run game with his ability to reach and cutoff defensive tackles.

 

21  Marquise Brown, Ravens

Position: WR

Brown has missed some time due to an ankle injury but he was electric earlier in the season. If he can return to full health, he’ll quickly climb back up this list.

 

22  Chase Winovich, Patriots

Position: DL

Winovich doesn’t start for the Patriots but he’s contributed some key sacks for the league’s top defense. He is slippery off the edge and he’s got a knack for finishing.

 

23  Maxx Crosby, Raiders

Position: Edge rusher

Crosby has been the hidden gem in the Raiders draft class. He is long and athletic, which has helped him emerge as Oakland’s best edge-rush presence.

 

24  Cole Holcomb, Redskins

Position: LB

Holcomb has been a tackling machine for the Redskins. I love his aggressiveness to fill the hole inside and he’s got plenty of speed to make plays outside the tackle box.

 

25  Quincy-Williams, Jaguars

Position: LB

Williams was having an exceptional year up until a Week 5 meeting with Christian McCaffrey and Co. that did not end well for the rookie linebacker. The Murray State product has missed time with a hamstring injury, but should continue making splash plays as a result of his incredible speed and range when he returns.

 

 

LONDON TRIVIA

This from Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The NFL isn’t sending its best when it sends teams to London.

 

In fact, Sunday’s game between the Jaguars and Texans will be the 28th game in London, and there still hasn’t been a single game between two teams with winning records.

 

With the Jaguars at .500 and the Texans a game over, this matchup is better than most of the games the NFL has played in London. Eight London games have matched up two teams with losing records.

 

The NFL sometimes sends bad teams to London because those teams struggle to fill their home stadiums and don’t mind giving up a home game to play overseas. But sometimes the league schedules games that look good on paper for London, only to have those teams struggle once the season starts.

 

Here are the 28 London games so far, with the teams’ records heading into the game:

 

2007: Giants (5-2) vs. Dolphins (0-7)

2008: Chargers (3-4) vs. Saints (3-4)

2009: Patriots (4-2) vs. Buccaneers (0-6)

2010: Broncos (2-5) vs. 49ers (1-6)

2011: Bears (3-3) vs. Buccaneers (4-2)

2012: Patriots (4-3) vs. Rams (3-4)

2013: Steelers (0-3) vs. Vikings (0-3)

2013: 49ers (5-2) vs. Jaguars (0-7)

2014: Dolphins (1-2) vs. Raiders (0-3)

2014: Lions (5-2) vs. Falcons (2-5)

2014: Cowboys (6-3) vs. Jaguars (1-8)

2015: Jets (2-1) vs. Dolphins (1-2)

2015: Bills (3-3) vs. Jaguars (1-5)

2015: Lions (1-6) vs. Chiefs (2-5)

2016: Colts (1-2) vs. Jaguars (0-3)

2016: Giants (3-3) vs. Rams (3-3)

2016: Washington (4-3) vs. Bengals (3-4)

2017: Jaguars (1-1) vs. Ravens (2-0)

2017: Saints (1-2) vs. Dolphins (1-1)

2017: Cardinals (3-3) vs. Rams (4-2)

2017: Vikings (5-2) vs. Browns (0-7)

2018: Seahawks (2-3) vs. Raiders (1-4)

2018: Titans (3-3) vs. Chargers (4-2)

2018: Jaguars (3-4) vs. Eagles (3-4)

2019: Raiders (2-2) vs. Bears (3-1)

2019: Buccaneers (2-3) vs. Panthers (3-2)

2019: Bengals (0-7) vs. Rams (4-3)

2019: Texans (5-3) vs. Jaguars (4-4)

 

We would point out that last year’s game between the Titans and Chargers did feature two teams that ended that season with winning records.