The Daily Briefing Friday, August 3, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
Mark Maske of the Washington Post on how the NFL’s new helmet protocol showed up in Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game:
Ever since the NFL enacted its new helmet-hitting rule in March, players and other observers have wondered how the rule would be enforced by the on-field officials during games and how much effect it would have on how the sport is played.
The earliest of the early returns came Thursday night in Canton, Ohio, as the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears played the Hall of Fame Game to open the NFL’s preseason. There was plenty of talk — and plenty of confusion — about the new rule, which resulted in two penalties being called on the Ravens. The first of those 15-yard penalties came about 4-1/2 minutes into the game, quickly establishing that officials are willing to penalize such infractions.
There were two other personal fouls called during the game for illegal hits that did not fall under the scope of the new rule. That did not stop broadcasters, fans and other analysts on social media from commenting on the new rule in relation to those calls.
After watching 3 1/2 quarters of this game, I have no idea how coaches are going to teach defensive players how to make a “legal” tackle in the @NFL. I’m looking at textbook wrap-up tackles drawing flags tonight. I just don’t know how you can legislate contact out of the game
These are ridiculous personal fouls being called
Good luck playing safety in the #NFL. Or getting paid a big contract to play safety in the #NFL.
It quickly became clear that this will be a learning process for everyone in and around the sport.
“The rule is so simply written but it expands so far, depending on how it’s applied,” former NFL referee Terry McAulay, now a rules analyst for NBC, said on the network’s broadcast of the game.
The new rule, formulated by the NFL’s rule-making competition committee and ratified by the owners at the annual league meeting, makes it a penalty for any player to lower his head to initiate a hit on an opponent with his helmet. NFL leaders hailed the new rule as a significant player-safety development. But some players have been critical of the new rule and have said they wonder how it will be applied by officials during games.
Players also can be ejected from a game or disciplined by the league with a fine or suspension for egregious violations of the rule.
The first penalty assessed under the new rule came in the first quarter Thursday. Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor was given a 15-yard penalty for an illegal hit with his helmet on Bears running back Benny Cunningham.
Cunningham caught a two-yard pass from Bears quarterback Chase Daniel and was being tackled by another Ravens defender, Anthony Levine. Onwuasor joined the play and lowered his helmet to hit Cunningham. The hit by Onwuasor was a relatively obvious penalty under the new rule. It occurred in an open-field situation and was a comparatively easy call for the officials to make.
Ravens linebacker Kamalei Correa was called for a penalty on a third-quarter hit under the new rule. Again, it was an open-field hit and a violation that was clear to just about everyone.
“Anything with the helmet this year, they’re not gonna let that go,” NBC analyst and former NFL wide receiver Cris Collinsworth said during the broadcast.
But there also was discussion of the new rule after penalties were called Thursday on Bears defensive back Nick Orr and Ravens cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste. But both of those calls were announced as unnecessary roughness. Officials apparently were applying the sport’s previously existing rules for illegal hits on defenseless players, not the new helmet-hitting rule, on those plays.
There were no calls under the new rule Thursday on offensive players or on players at the line of scrimmage, although the rule potentially applies to any player in any spot on the field.
The application of the rule will remain a closely watched issue as the NFL preseason proceeds, beginning with a full slate of games next week.
It might not make the Packers feel any better but the semi-dirty hit that sent QB AARON RODGERS to IR last year would net them 15 yards in 2018. Courtney Cronin of ESPN.com:
If the hit Anthony Barr laid on Aaron Rodgers last season — which broke the Green Bay quarterback’s collarbone — took place this season, it would be deemed a penalty.
According to NFL official Pete Morelli, who explained the league’s rule changes to a group of Twin Cities media on Thursday, Barr’s hit would fall under a point of emphasis the NFL has instituted for 2018. It would be a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer.
Rule 12 in the NFL’s 2018 rulebook details player conduct. Under Article 9, which explains the rules around roughing the passer, the manner in which a quarterback in a defenseless position (which is just after he has completed throwing a pass) is tackled is the point of emphasis.
The rule states the following:
“A rushing defender is prohibited from committing such intimidating and punishing acts as ‘stuffing’ a passer into the ground or unnecessarily wrestling or driving him down after the passer has thrown the ball, even if the rusher makes his initial contact with the passer within the one-step limitation provided for in (a) above. When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down or land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms and not land on the passer with all or most of his body weight.”
According to Morelli, everything boils down to whether a defender uses his full body weight to bring down a quarterback any time he is in a defenseless position.
“Players will have to kind of roll to the side when they make that tackle instead of plopping down on him [the quarterback],” Morelli said. “The Aaron Rodgers [tackle] would be a foul this year. As long as he’s out of the pocket, established and all that. But if he’s running, that’s not the same.”
On the play in question, Rodgers rolled out of the pocket to his right and launched a pass. Barr took the two steps required before wrapping the quarterback up by the waist and tackling him.
Upon being tackled, Rodgers braced himself with his right (throwing) arm as he hit the turf. Barr brought Rodgers to the ground and rolled off the quarterback’s left shoulder within seconds of completing the tackle. Barr was not penalized.
The rule, according to Morelli, applies to a quarterback whenever he’s in a defenseless position, which could be in the pocket or whether he runs and sets up again outside of the pocket.
“If you roll out and get set up, you’re still a passer,” Morelli said. “But if you’re rolling out and throwing and a guy’s chasing you and tackles you, you’re not defenseless. They get two steps and they can tackle you. Becoming defenseless is setting up again outside the pocket.”
Barr said later Thursday that it will be “very difficult” for defenders to adjust and make a split decision while in motion to prevent drawing a penalty.
“You’re playing fast, trying to make a play on the ball. It’s going to be tough. It’ll be interesting to see how that’s officiated and how it’s called this year. This year there’s going to be some debate from the players, from the coaches, from the officials as to who’s right, who’s wrong, but we’ve got to try our best as players to play within the rules,” he said.
Barr, however, said it’s not worth complaining about rule changes.
“It is what it is. You can complain about it all you want, but it’s not going to change unless they change it, right? It’s your duty as a player to continue to play by the rules and not penalize and hurt the team. That’s what we’re going to try and do,” he said.
Most probably thought WR ADAM THIELEN was overpaid when he signed his long-term extension last year. Now, he looks like a bargain who should be agitating for a raise to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:
Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs is getting paid like a No. 1, even though he was No. 2 in production last year to Adam Thielen. And Thielen is getting paid like a No. 2. Or No. 3.
Diggs now sits at $14.4 million per year, nearly $10 million more per year than Thielen’s annual average of $4.8 million. Per a league source, Thielen and the Vikings talked about an adjusted deal in March. At this point, the thinking is that the sudden gap between Diggs and Thielen won’t be closed until after the 2018 season.
Thielen, who generated more receiving yards last season than any Vikings player not named Randy Moss or Cris Carter, signed his contract before a breakout season of 2017. And given that he was an undrafted free agent who wasn’t even invited to the Scouting Combine, it was impossible for Thielen to pass on a $4 million signing bonus, which was the first installment of a four-year deal worth more than $19 million, with $11 million guaranteed.
For a guy who could have been as low as No. 4 on the depth chart last year, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. Now, however, Thielen has three years remaining on his contract, and he has every reason to believe that a disparity exists.
It will be very interesting to see what the Vikings do with Thielen. As a guy who probably never expected to do much of anything in the NFL, every dollar he earns can be regarded as found money. But with Diggs finding his way into the top 10 at the position when he may not be the top option on his own team, it’s fair for Thielen to wonder if he’ll get a raise with time left on his current contract.
This followup from Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
Thielen didn’t say whether that was in the cards because it’s not on his mind. He said his agent “takes care of that stuff so I don’t have to worry about it.”
“When I signed my contract before last season, that’s why I did it, because I didn’t want to have to worry about it,” Thielen said, via the Pioneer Press. “I wanted to just go out and play football, and it allowed me to do that. I want to continue to do that, just play football, focus on the things I can control, and let the other people take care of that.”
Thielen does allow that “people are probably starting to realize that I’m a little better than they thought I was” and the delay in that realization makes him one of the bigger bargains in the league at the moment.
This is good stuff from Thielen himself in the Players Tribune in 2013 on how amazing it is that he is making any money as an NFL player:
Like most 23-year-olds fresh out of college, I had a job interview.
It was May 2013, and my senior year of football at Minnesota State–Mankato had ended a few months earlier. I still wasn’t 100% sure what I was going to do after college, but I knew a guy who knew a guy at a place called Patterson Dental, and he put in a good word for me.
The job was … well, basically, I’d be selling dental equipment. It was actually more of an internship, but it was a pretty decent opportunity at a really good company. So I put on a suit and tie and went in for an interview. It was a good interview. But I remember that at one point, the interviewer asked me one of those cliché interview questions.
“If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”
He’d obviously know I was lying if I said, “To be in dental equipment sales!” So I told him the truth.
“To play in the NFL.”
The guy’s head kind of popped up, and he gave me this … look. I don’t know how to really describe it, but I knew that look because it was one I had seen before — only a few months earlier, actually. It was a few days after my last college game and I came home to my girlfriend Caitlin — who’s now my wife — and said, “You know what? I want to play in the NFL, so I’m gonna give it a shot and see what happens.”
And she gave me that same look.
Then she said, “You sure you don’t want to just get a normal job?”
She didn’t say it in an unsupportive way, but more like … let’s be realistic. And she was right. She’s always been there to balance me out — never lets me get too high or too low — and this was a perfect example of that. Making it to the NFL was pretty unlikely. I was an unknown wide receiver from a small Division II school. I wasn’t on any NFL teams’ radars. If I was going to go for it, I needed a backup plan. So I decided that I would start training, but at the same time, I’d also look around for other jobs in case it didn’t work out.
Patterson Dental was a backup plan.
And later that week, when I went to Vikings rookie camp, I would find out whether or not I needed it.
Growing up in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, I was a huge Vikings fan. When I would play football in my backyard, I would pretend I was Cris Carter or Randy Moss. It was watching those guys and that ’98 Vikings team that really made me fall in love with football and want to be a wide receiver.
But looking back now, I realize that when I watched them play, I never really thought about what it probably took for those guys to make it to that level — or what it would take for me to get there.
What I’ve learned is that everybody’s journey is different.
I wasn’t recruited out of high school. I actually thought basketball would be my sport in college. So after I graduated, I was planning on going to a Division III school to play basketball. And wherever I went, I was also going to try to play football.
But then, about two weeks before summer football camp started, I got a call from the head coach at Minnesota State–Mankato.
It wasn’t a long conversation. Basically he said, “We got 500 bucks for you. Come to Mankato.”
I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a $500 scholarship. And that wasn’t even going to be enough to cover my books. But it was better than what I was being offered by anybody else, which was … nothing. So I didn’t even hesitate.
“Yep,” I said. “I’m in. Let’s do it.”
I didn’t go to Mankato thinking it was a stepping-stone to the NFL. I just wanted to keep playing football. Which was kind of my thought process when — after a pretty good career at Mankato — I decided to give the NFL a shot. In the back of my mind, I had always dreamed of playing in the NFL. But when I decided to really go for it, it was mostly because I really just wanted to keep playing. I didn’t want it to end.
And I figured, What’s the worst that could happen? So what if I don’t make it. As long as I could look back and know that I gave it my best shot, I’d be able to live with that.
So I started training with this guy Tommy, one of my college teammates, and started researching every way possible to get myself in front of NFL scouts. Mankato didn’t have a pro day, and I wasn’t invited to the NFL combine. But what I found out was that there’s a circuit of smaller combines all over the country for the guys who don’t get invited to the big combine in Indianapolis — guys from smaller schools who might be undersized, or just flat-out unknown.
You know, guys like me.
It was kind of a mixed bunch, though. You’d have a guy from a Division I school doing drills next to a middle-aged fat guy who looked like he never played football in his life. It was kind of crazy.
Also, there are no scouts at these combines. I thought there would be, but it turned out to be just the few guys who were running the event. So basically you work out and then your results get sent to all 32 NFL teams. If they like what they see, you might get invited to the Super Regional combine, where scouts from every team show up to evaluate you in person.
Oh, and you have to pay your own way, too.
That year, it cost $275 to participate in the Regional combine. Throw in money for gas, food and a hotel room, and it’s a lot for an unemployed 23-year-old who’s fresh out of college.
But I told myself that I was going to do everything in my power to make it to the NFL, so I jumped in a car with Tommy and one of our buddies and drove to Chicago.
At the combine, I ran the 40, did some drills, lifted some weights and got measured. When it was over I was given a login to a website where my results would be posted — I wasn’t told when they would be up, just that it would be within the next couple of days. So my buddies and I left the combine, went and got a Chicago deep-dish pizza — my first cheat meal since I had started training seriously for the NFL — and went back to our hotel room. I basically just sat at the desk all night with my laptop out, clicking the refresh button every few minutes and hoping my results would show up.
My thought process was: It all comes down to my 40 time. I knew I had great hands. I knew I could run good routes. I thought I had a lot of the tools it would take to catch teams’ attention if they saw me in person.
But I also knew that for NFL scouts, the 40 time is what matters more than anything. Because you can’t teach speed. And if I could run in the 4.4–4.5 range, that might stand out enough on paper to get me to the next stage, and maybe even into a rookie camp.
I will say that it’s a pretty nerve-racking feeling to have the fate of your childhood dream come down to one click of the refresh button — and I don’t think I took my finger off it the whole night. My buddies were just hanging out, watching TV or whatever, but I was glued to my computer screen. Every few minutes, click.
And each time, nothing.
Out of nowhere, the whole screen populated. I sat up in my chair and my buddies stood up and leaned over behind me, scanning the page for my 40 time … and there it was:
I jumped out of that desk chair for the first time all night. We started screaming and high-fiving, and then I immediately called Caitlin and told her the news.
She was so proud.
And that 4.45 was enough to get me invited to the Super Regional combine (I had to pay for those flights, too), where I performed pretty well, and even got pulled aside by a few scouts who asked me to send them some game film.
The draft came and went, and I wasn’t picked. But I was kind of expecting that.
What I didn’t expect was not getting signed as an undrafted free agent. I thought I had done enough to have a team at least bring me in to see what I could do.
But then I got invited to two rookie camps. One was the Carolina Panthers.
The other was the Minnesota Vikings.
The little kid inside me went crazy. The Vikings!
But the unknown wide receiver from Mankato inside me knew that it was just an invite. Nothing was guaranteed. I still needed to work hard, and I still needed a backup plan.
Which is what brought me to Patterson Dental.
It’s funny … at the end of the interview, the guy sort of implied that they might offer me the position, and I said to him, “Hey, I’d really like to work for you, but I kind of have this tryout this weekend. With the Vikings. And if everything goes well and an opportunity pops up, I kind of have to take it.”
He was definitely surprised. Dream job, right?
But he was also very supportive.
I told him I would be in touch to let him know how it went.
You can read the rest of Thielen’s story here.
NEW YORK GIANTS
CB SAM BEAL will make his NFL debut in 2019 as the supplemental draft pick (3rd rounder) is done for the year with a shoulder injury that will require surgery.
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A Zeke Sandhu sighting at Giants camp so there is white smoke on a mega-deal for WR ODELL BECKHAM, Jr. Pat Leonard in the remnants of the New York Daily News:
If the Giants and Odell Beckham Jr.’s agent didn’t make progress on an OBJ contract extension Thursday, they at least succeeded in making it look like they did.
Zeke Sandhu, Beckham’s agent, flew in Thursday morning and spent 90 very public minutes talking with Giants VP of football operations Kevin Abrams as the pair watched the club’s seventh training camp practice from a V.I.P. patio.
It’s a safe bet Sandhu and Abrams weren’t simply discussing their favorite dinner spots in East Rutherford. But whether this means the sides are anywhere closer to an agreement is another story.
Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com has a new nickname for Redskins RB ROB KELLEY:
Fat Rob is no more.
For Washington running back Rob Kelley, the pounds have fallen away and his chances of making a bigger impact have increased.
Via the Washington Post, Kelly has slimmed down again this offseason. Kelley was 249 pounds during his senior year at Tulane in 2015, a time when he said he was “eating a lot of food.” He was listed at 228 when he signed as an undrafted rookie in 2016, and said he’s now down again.
“It comes with the change within,” Kelley said. “I’m lighter, I’m faster. . . . I’m 221 pounds.”
Kelley only managed seven games last year because of injuries, with knee and ankle problems shutting him down in November.
He’s working with the starters in camp this year, though Washington has a number of options in the backfield, including promising second-rounder Derrius Guice.
“It’s the team’s job to keep on getting competition, to keep pushing the envelope, so, I mean, it doesn’t make a difference,” Kelley said. “[I’ve] still got to work as hard as I can. . . . There’s always a competition, whether you think it or not.”
He has been a productive back when well, and he thinks he’s given himself a better chance to compete now that he’s Fit Rob.
The Panthers are in awe of their new 346-pound teammate DT DONTARI POE. Scott Fowler in the Charlotte Observer:
When you see a 346-pound man, how would you define that man in two words?
Let’s ask Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly this question, and ask it specifically about his new 346-pound teammate — defensive tackle Dontari Poe.
“Very nimble,” Kuechly offered.
Kuechly expanded his theory, noting that Poe ran under five seconds at around that same weight in the 40-yard dash coming out of college in 2012 (4.89, to be exact).
“Dontari is big,” Kuechly said. “He takes up a lot of space. But he’s very nimble. … His agility is really good for a big guy. That’s why he’s been so successful, because he’s able to combine that rare size with the ability to move.”
Old-timers will remember William “Refrigerator” Perry, graced with one of the best nicknames ever in football and also nimble enough to be used occasionally as a running back. Poe has done a little of that too — he has actually thrown a touchdown pass and run for one as well in the NFL. Two touches, two touchdowns.
So have the Panthers given him any offensive plays to practice yet?
“Not yet,” he said. “But we’ll see.”
The Panthers signed Poe in the offseason to a three-year, $28 million contract after losing Star Lotulelei — who played a similar role — in the same 2018 free-agent market to Buffalo. The hope is that Poe will give the Panthers another player similar to Kawann Short, who has a great burst as an interior lineman and allows the Carolina linebackers to roam freely.
Few NFL players are bigger than Poe, who is a man more about actions than words. He answers most questions in a dozen words or less. For example:
Q. Do you ever face NFL offensive linemen larger than you?
A. I don’t know. I don’t really check weights and sizes too much.
Q. What are your personal goals this season?
A. Just play. Be consistent. Be focused. Be healthy.
Q. What do you think about the Panthers’ heavy rotational system at defensive line?
A. I’ll get used to it. It’s a good thing.
S EARL THOMAS declares he has no intention of honoring the final year of his contract. Mike Chiari of Bleacher Report:
Six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas issued the Seattle Seahawks an ultimatum Thursday amid his holdout from training camp.
In an article for The Players’ Tribune, Thomas said: “Offer me an extension. Or trade me to a team that wants me to be part of their future.”
Thomas is set to enter the final season of a four-year, $40 million extension he signed with the Seahawks in 2014.
As part of the article, Thomas explained why he wants some level of security:
“If you’re risking your body to deliver all of this value to an organization, then you deserve some sort of assurance that the organization will take care of you if you get hurt. It’s that simple. This isn’t new, and this isn’t complicated. It’s the reason I’m holding out—I want to be able to give my everything, on every play, without any doubt in my mind.”
Thomas offered recent examples regarding the fragility of an NFL career. He wrote about how the Seahawks released cornerback Richard Sherman after he tore his Achilles last season, and he also discussed Kam Chancellor’s neck injury that likely ended his career.
Thomas continued: “I wish I was at a camp right now—and I’m talking right now. I’m ready. I’ve been preparing my body all offseason to be at an NFL camp. All I want is to be out there playing. Instead I’m here working out … and waiting.”
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported last week the Seahawks were “specific and clear” in telling Thomas they will not address his contract situation. His current deal has him earn $8.5 million in 2018 before becoming a free agent, per Spotrac.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Thursday that NFL executives believe the Seahawks will trade Thomas rather than extend him. On Wednesday, ESPN’s Todd Archer predicted the Seahawks will trade Thomas to the Dallas Cowboys before the regular season.
After a win over the Cowboys last season, Thomas notably entered their locker room and told head coach Jason Garrett, “If y’all have the chance, come get me.”
Thomas is one of the last key remnants of the Legion of Boom secondary—also featuring Sherman (49ers), Chancellor (injured), Brandon Browner (not in the league) and Byron Maxwell (re-signed with Seattle)—which helped lead the Seahawks to consecutive Super Bowl appearances, including one win.
There has been a mass exodus defensively in recent years, but Thomas would arguably be the biggest loss of them all.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
S DERWYN JAMES speaks about his welcome to L.A. moment. Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:
Chargers first-rounder Derwin James finally made it to the practice field Thursday, after missing the first four days of camp with a hamstring injury. But after what he went through off the field in June, he’s glad to be here at all.
Via Eric Williams of ESPN.com, the rookie safety confirmed reports that he was robbed at gunpoint on June 23, with thieves getting away with a gold chain and his Rolex, after slashing three of his tires so he couldn’t give chase.
“I wouldn’t wish that upon anybody,” James said about the incident. “It happened. It was just one of those things that you never expect to happen to you, but it happened, and I’m just happy to be out here playing football.”
James wasn’t harmed during the robbery, and he made the team aware of what happened immediately.
The season kicked off in Canton last night and Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com says QB LAMAR JACKSON will not be beating out QB JOE FLACCO anytime soon.
Anyone who hoped Ravens first-round pick Lamar Jackson would unseat Joe Flacco as the starting quarterback saw a disappointing performance in Thursday night’s preseason debut.
Although Jackson made some nice throws, including a touchdown to fellow first-round rookie Hayden Hurst, he finished completing just four of 10 passes for 33 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Jackson was sacked three times for a loss of 18 yards, so in all the Ravens gained just 15 yards on the 13 plays when Jackson attempted to pass. Jackson also ran the ball five times for 28 yards, although his official stats say eight carries for 25 yards because he ended the game with three kneeldowns.
“It wasn’t what I expected,” Jackson said. “I felt like I should have had more touchdowns out there, me and my unit. That’s it. Still room for improvement for us. We’re just still learning each and every week.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said people shouldn’t expect Jackson to look the same in the NFL as he looked in his Heisman Trophy-winning career at Louisville.
“Everybody kind of has these expectations that they’re going to see fireworks,” Harbaugh said. “I think he ran around and he played well.”
Flacco didn’t play in the Hall of Fame Game, as is usually the case for starting quarterbacks. But if anything he strengthened his old on the starting job on Thursday night. Jackson may be the Ravens’ starting quarterback of the future, but Flacco remains the Ravens’ starting quarterback of the present.
G KEVIN ZEITLER will be out a couple of weeks with a calf injury.
WR ANTONIO BROWN went back to Pittsburgh for a medical exam and some Steelers hearts fluttered, but it appears to be a manageable quad strain (per ProFootballTalk.com).
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Terez Paylor of YahooSports.com on the changes coming to the Steelers offense under new OC Randy Fichtner:
While head coach Mike Tomlin can still be spotted 40 yards behind the defense, spryly shouting words of encouragement the same way he always has since he was named the Steelers’ head coach in January 2007, it’s now up to Fichtner — who last called plays in 2006, when he directed a high-scoring offense at the University of Memphis — to improve upon the high statistical standard of his predecessor, Todd Haley.
Under Haley, the Steelers finished at least seventh in the NFL in total offense the past four seasons. Having bona fide stars like Roethlisberger, Bell and receiver Antonio Brown didn’t hurt, and neither did having a big, strong offensive line, as Pittsburgh averaged 377.9 yards per game last season, when it went 13-3 and won the AFC North.
But Fichtner was moved from the coaches’ booth to the field midway through the season, with Haley — who was reportedly dismissed due to a contentious relationship with Roethlisberger — going from the sideline to the booth.
A 45-42 home loss to Jacksonville in the divisional round was punctuated by a few questionable calls on fourth-and-1 that only added to fans’ ire, and shortly after the season, Tomlin fired Haley and promoted Fichtner, who once instituted and oversaw a record-setting, up-tempo, no-huddle spread offense at Memphis from 2001-2006.
Fichtner’s offense, which surpassed 5,000 total yards in 2003 and 2004, included many of the run-pass options that now run rampant throughout the NFL.
“I was a wild-eyed coach when he was a play-caller, man,” said Tomlin, who was 34 when he hired Fichtner as his receivers coach, seven days after he became the Steelers’ head coach. “Yeah, I’ve seen that show before. It’s going to be fun.”
And when asked by Yahoo Sports if it’s safe to assume the hankering to call some of that stuff still lives inside him, Fichtner grinned.
“No doubt — you’re gonna fall back to a comfort zone,” Fichtner said. “[At Memphis], we were in the beginning of doing a lot of that no-huddle and things like that, but the base fundamentals of what we’ve got to do here is utilize our people the best we possibly can and create mismatches.
“Putting our guys in the best position to make plays is a little bit more critical than it might be in college.”
So for Fichtner, that means sticking with what works — i.e., what Roethlisberger, the future Hall of Famer, is most comfortable with. That likely means again relying upon downfield passing concepts, perhaps with an even healthier amount of the up-tempo plays Roethlisberger prefers and the Steelers have mixed in so effectively over the past few years.
“I think there’s a happy medium somewhere — in past years, we’ve gone somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the season being no huddle,” Fichtner said. “Why would you go away from things that he does and feels very comfortable with?”
But if Fichtner’s history is any indication, another area he figures to differ from Haley is his willingness to use play-action. Last season, the Steelers were the least-reliant team in the NFL on play-action, calling it only 11 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders. That’s 3 percent less than the New York Jets, the next closest team, and a staggering 19 percent less than the league-leading Minnesota Vikings.
What’s more, when the Steelers did call it, they weren’t great at it, averaging only 6.5 yards per play, which ranked 24th in the league.
“You’ve got to do some of it,” Fichtner said. “I think you potentially have a chance to be a little more solid potentially in protection and possibly push the ball down the field and create chunk plays.
“It’s so hard to go 80 yards in 12 plays — you’ve got to get 12 plays that are perfect. But if you go 80 yards in two plays because of one chunk play, that’s a lot easier.”
Mark Maske of the Washington Post says QB DESHAUN WATSON looks just fine.
There was no knee brace. There was no noticeable limp. The Deshaun Watson who scampered around the Houston Texans’ practice field Wednesday at The Greenbrier resort looked very much like the eye-catching quarterback who became an instant NFL star last season as a rookie, running the football with aplomb and zipping passes on time and on target to his receivers.
It was, of course, only early August, more than a month until the on-field events begin to matter, and the defensive players who were on the field at this point meant Watson no harm. But on this day, at least, it was easy to envision Watson making a seamless and productive return from the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that cut short his dazzling rookie season, and leading the Texans back into playoff contention in the suddenly formidable AFC South.
“I don’t even think about it,” Watson said of his surgically repaired knee following practice. “When I’m on the field, I’m locked in, focused on my job. I try to have a positive play and try to get points on the board.”
Watson, the former Clemson standout taken 12th overall by the Texans in last year’s NFL draft, was well on his way to being the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year last season before suffering his injury during a November practice. In a 2017 NFL season filled with notable injuries, including those to fellow quarterbacks Carson Wentz of Philadelphia and Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay, Watson’s was about as deflating as any because he had established himself so quickly as one of the league’s most electrifying players.
He inexplicably began the season on the bench but quickly took over as the Texans’ starter in Week 2. He threw for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns in his seven games. His passer rating of 103.0 would have been the league’s third best, behind only Kansas City’s Alex Smith and Drew Brees of New Orleans, if he’d had enough passing attempts to qualify. He had a five-touchdown game against the Chiefs and was coming off a 402-yard passing performance at Seattle when he got hurt.
Now the issue is whether he can come back and do it again — and whether his knee will allow it to happen so soon. It is not Watson’s first experience with this sort of thing. He rebounded from a torn left ACL as a freshman at Clemson to lead the school to a national championship and consecutive title game appearances against Alabama.
“Just kind of just the same way I’m doing with this one: I was back by the first day of training camp and was able to participate in everything and all the drills,” Watson said. “We didn’t even look back. We just kind of went forward. … We didn’t even think about the knee. … It’s not an issue now. It wasn’t an issue back then, either.”
That experience perhaps has served Watson well in this return.
“I’m very pleased with how he goes about his business every day,” Texans Coach Bill O’Brien said Wednesday. “He’s really attacked that rehab to put himself in position to be able to be out here and practice. I think having, unfortunately, done it before, he had a real good understanding of the timetable for the rehab to be able to be ready to practice. And he’s gone out here and been able to do everything we’ve asked him to do. … I think we do a good job of monitoring his reps and guys are doing a good job of not getting near him on the pass rush and things like that. But he’s been full-go.”
In Watson’s second NFL training camp, there is no doubt that this Texans’ offense now belongs to him.
“We studied his snaps from last year and looked at some things that maybe we could add to those things,” O’Brien said. “And, again, because of when he was injured, there were many things that we didn’t run. There were a lot of things that we really didn’t get to. So it’s not like we had to reinvent the wheel with any of those things. We’ve been able to, like I said, look at a lot of things in OTAs and then kind of drill down on it here in training camp. Today was a back and forth with the defense. But overall I think these guys have been really receptive to what we’re trying to do.”
Watson has less than half a season of NFL starting experience. But he said even that relatively modest amount of seasoning helps immensely.
“I understand what the defense is doing,” Watson said. “I understand what we want to do on the offensive side and what Coach O’Brien wants to do. So when I have that knowledge and continue to gain experience each and every day and seeing different looks, it slows down the game and it helps us on offense to get a positive play and make sure we’re in the right play.”
RB LEONARD FOURNETTE may be faster in 2018 as he seeks to get his yards per carry above 4.0. Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette spent the offseason cutting weight because he thinks being lighter will make him more productive than he was during his rookie season.
The full results of that work will have to wait for the regular season, but one of Fournette’s teammates has already seen a difference. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue said it’s been harder for defenders to chase the running back down this summer.
“Yeah, I feel like he’s faster, just from seeing him catching the ball and exploding,” Ngakoue said, via the team’s website. “I’ve seen him a couple of times, he caught a couple of routes and just was hitting it down the sidelines. I can tell he’s been working hard. I’m definitely proud of him as well.”
Fournette was asked if he’s faster and said “we will have to see,” but did say he’s “feeling healthier than I ever did before” as a result of the changes he made this offseason.
Fournette ranked 31st last year of 48 qualifying back with his 3.88 yards per carry.
Veteran free agent S MIKE MITCHELL is visiting the Titans per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.
It’s National Twins Day, a day near and dear to the DB’s heart, and Mike Reiss of ESPN.com has the tale of the near-identical cornerbacks of the Patriots:
Bill Belichick, who has been adept at creating effective disguises on defense over his 43-year coaching career, chuckled when he was asked about the possibilities with identical twin brothers Devin and Jason McCourty.
“It’s hard to tell them apart,” he said, smiling. “Got to take a second look to make sure I’m talking to the right one if they’re not in uniform.”
The McCourtys are one of the NFL’s most notable sets of twins, and what has made 2018 particularly exciting for them is that they have a chance to play together with the New England Patriots. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the last time twins have played together in the regular season on the same professional team was 1926, when Gene and Tom Golsen suited up for the Louisville Colonels.
For the McCourtys, it is the first time they’ve been teammates since their time together at Rutgers from 2006-08.
Jason, who entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2009, has been a steady cornerback with Tennessee (2009-16) and Cleveland (2017).
Meanwhile, Devin was a first-round pick of the Patriots in 2010 and has been with the franchise since, moving from cornerback to safety in his third season and elevating to captain in his second year.
The brothers talk all the time, but now that conversation can extend to the football field. Devin also notes that Jason’s experience playing for the winless Browns last season — and having never appeared in a playoff game — brings an important perspective to the locker room.
“It’s something we always dreamed about, kind of thought would happen, but, you know, you kind of second-guess that and think maybe not,” Devin said. “I know he’s been a good player throughout his career, aside from us being twins or any of that. I thought he had a good year in Cleveland that helped him, and I thought a change of scenery might help him here. I think he has an opportunity to help us, as a veteran, a guy that’s played a lot of football, been in different circumstances.”
Jason fondly recalled the first time they were teammates, in Pop Warner with the Valley Cottage Indians in New York.
“We played our games Sunday mornings, and as we moved up, they moved the times later and later. We’d wake up, go outside, and we’d go over all the plays that we had in for the day. If one of us was the running back, the other one’s pretending to hand him the ball off as the quarterback or throwing passes,” he said. “I just remember us always trying to compete with one another, but for the most part just wanting to be on the same team, to push each other to try to succeed together. Those are probably some of the most fun memories when it comes to football.”
As it turned out, Devin played a part in Jason winding up with the Patriots this year, where he is a candidate to replace Malcolm Butler as a starter opposite Stephon Gilmore. The Browns had called Jason to inform him of their plans to release him, which Jason relayed to his family before going to the gym for a workout.
During that time, and before the Browns officially released Jason, Devin sent a text message to Patriots assistant coach Brian Flores — who will handle defensive coordinator duties in 2018 with Matt Patricia hired as Lions head coach — inquiring about the chances of the team picking him up.
Flores, in turn, relayed the message to Belichick, who, it turns out, had already been in contact with the Browns on a trade that included a swap of late-round draft picks.
“Then I get a FaceTime from Dev while I’m working out, and he was just like, ‘We’re going to trade for you. You’re coming to New England.'” Jason recalled. “I thought he was joking around.”
Such jokes are commonplace when the McCourty brothers are together.
As for what it looks like on the football field, they’re both excited to find out, a decade after they were last teammates.
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QB TOM BRADY is celebrating his birthday on National Twins Day. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:
Tom Brady has survived yet another trip around the sun.
He’s 41 as of today, a rare starting quarterback still functioning at a high level a year into his fifth decade, and still (supposedly) determined to play until he’s 45.
Whether he means it remains to be seen. For the past few years, I’ve believed that Brady simply wants to never have a Jeter-style farewell season, for a variety of reasons. Brady instead wants to be done when he’s done, with no advance warning or notice. Saying he intends to play longer than he actually plays would be the only practical way to pull it off.
Some think that he’ll walk away with one more Super Bowl win. Others think he’s got two years left, Super Bowl win or not. Both positions assume that he’ll ultimately be able to walk away on his own terms.
As a league source pointed out a year or so ago, the thing to watch with Brady isn’t his arm but his legs. Although when he decides to go vertical he looks like he’s chasing a kid who just stole his skis, Brady continues to have the ability to adroitly and effectively move and slide in the pocket, avoiding pressure and ducking big hits. The moment he can’t do that is the moment his performance begins to crumble, with every game becoming like one of those rare games when the defensive line gets to Brady early and often enough to make him look mortal.
He definitely is mortal. And he definitely won’t continue to play football indefnitely. I think.
Either way, happy birthday.
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WR JORDAN MATTHEWS is out and WR ERIC DECKER is in.
The New England Patriots are signing free-agent wide receiver Eric Decker today to a one-year deal, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Thursday.
The news comes a day after the Patriots released veteran wide receiver Jordan Matthews with an injury settlement. Matthews, who had signed with the Patriots this offseason, suffered a hamstring injury on the fourth day of training camp.
The Patriots had brought Decker in for a workout Wednesday, a source told ESPN.
Decker, 31, is entering his ninth NFL season, having caught 54 passes for 563 yards and one touchdown with the Tennessee Titans last season.
He also has played for the New York Jets and Denver Broncos during his career, catching 439 receptions for 5,816 yards with 53 touchdowns.
“At this point in my career, I want to go somewhere where I can compete for a Super Bowl and be in a good system and be with a quarterback that my skill set would be an addition to the team,” Decker said in June on SiriusXM Radio.
Decker broke into the NFL as a third-round draft choice of the Broncos in 2010, when current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was Denver’s head coach.
NEW YORK JETS
Will WR TERRELLE PRYOR be a marked man when the Jets have joint practices with the Redskins? Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:
Jets wide receiver Terrelle Pryor spent last season playing for Washington and it doesn’t seem he made the best impression on linebacker Zach Brown.
The Jets will be in town for joint practices ahead of their August 16 preseason game and Brown said in June that he and his teammates “are gonna have it out for him” in those sessions because Washington coach Jay Gruden can’t “protect you anymore.” Pryor said that he’s not heading into the practices with the intent to get chippy, but that he and the Jets will be ready if things go that way.
“If they take dirty shots, I’m sure we’ll handle it accordingly,” Pryor said, via Newsday. “It is what it is. We’re there to practice, get better. If I wanted to put my shoulder down and hit one of them and be chippy, too, I’m sure I could do that. But that’s not why we’re there … When you start trying to make it an individual thing, it takes away from our team and you know us, as Jets, we’re trying to go on this upward [trajectory] as a whole.”
Scuffles during joint practices are a fairly common occurrence even when there’s no specific bad blood heading into the sessions. We’ll see if cooler heads prevail in this case in a little more than a week.
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We didn’t know that LB DYLAN DONAHUE was facing DUI issues in two states (or is it three since his other one happened somewhere between New York and New Jersey?). Curtis Crabtree of ProFootballTalk.com:
New York Jets linebacker pleaded guilty on Wednesday to DWI chargers for a wrong way accident in the Lincoln Tunnel from February.
According to Dennis Waszak Jr. of the Associated Press, Donahue expects his outstanding DUI case in Montana from last May to be resolved in the coming 2-3 days as well.
Donahue has a hearing scheduled in that case for August 9.
“Well, since the incident, I haven’t had a drop of alcohol,” said Donahue, who entered a 30-day treatment program in Jacksonville after the Lincoln Tunnel incident. “And I’ve encouraged my teammates that do have any issues with that subject, too. I like to help everyone out. It’s definitely changed my perspective on a lot of things.”
Donahue was arrested in Billings nine days after he was drafted by the Jets in May 2017. His blood alcohol content was tested at 0.137 with the legal limit being 0.08.
Donahue would almost certainly face discipline from the NFL as well for the pair of incidents.
THIS AND THAT
Marshall Faulk, Ike Taylor and Heath Evans are said to be leaving NFL Network. This from AwfulAnnouncing.com:
Marshall Faulk and Heath Evans are expected to leave NFL Network in the aftermath of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed last year by Jami Cantor, reports the New York Post.
In addition, Ike Taylor, another former player turned analyst mentioned in Cantor’s lawsuit, has parted ways with the network. Cantor’s lawsuit also named Warren Sapp, who was let go following a solicitation arrest in February of 2015, Donovan McNabb, who ESPN fired this January after he was mentioned in another lawsuit along with Eric Davis and Michael Irvin (who has somehow still kept his job), and Eric Weinberger, who The Ringer let go in March.
According to the Post, Faulk and Evans are negotiating their departures, which will also include clauses that will prevent lawsuits from being filed.
Taylor is already gone, while representatives for Faulk and Evans are finishing up the language of their exits. Faulk’s contract had at least one more year on it.
One clause in the deals, sources said, will prevent either side from suing the other.
The NFL Network declined comment.
Evans and Taylor were frequent analysts on NFL Total Access. Neither is listed on NFL Network’s show page for Total Access. Faulk served as an analyst on NFL Network’s GameDay Morning and on the network’s Thursday Night Football coverage, but hasn’t appeared since his suspension last year. He’s also no longer listed on NFL Network’s show page for the GameDay series of programming.
EA Sports says there was confusion as to whether or not they had the rights to the name “Kaepernick” as a word in a song, since they couldn’t use his name as a player in the Madden game. Actually sounds plausible to the DB, but those who support his cause are up in arms. Jared Dubin of CBSSports.com:
EA Sports issued a statement Thursday night saying that Colin Kaepernick’s name was mistakenly edited out of a song on the Madden NFL 19 soundtrack.
“Members of our team misunderstood the fact that while we don’t have rights to include Colin Kaepernick in our game, this doesn’t affect soundtracks,” the statement read. “We messed up, and the edit should never have happened. We will make it right, with an update to Madden NFL 19 on August 6 that will include the reference again.”
While that explanation might make sense on the surface, Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa Diab, pointed out that this was actually the second consecutive year that EA Sports had edited Kaepernick’s name out of a song on its soundtrack. (You can hear the edited and original tracks from Madden NFL 18 right here.)
. @EASPORTS @EAMaddenNFL scrubbed @Kaepernick7 name out of @MikeWiLLMadeIt ft @goSwaeLee “Bars Of Soap”in last years Madden game (Madden 18)? Your statement doesn’t explain your erasure of his name in TWO consecutive years! Yall are such bad liars for the @nfl .
If this was merely a one-off mistake, as EA stated, it seems like the kind of thing that would have been fixed last year, or at least not happened again. This issue arose anew around midday on Thursday, when a Twitter user discovered that a line featuring Kaepernick’s name had been edited out of the track, “Big Bank” by YG featuring Big Sean.
bad enough @Kaepernick7 still not signed, but now they even edit his name out in this year’s @EAMaddenNFL during @BigSean verse, smh
The words in that verse are supposed to say, “Feed me to the wolves now I lead the pack and s—. You boys all cap, I’m more Colin Kaepernick. I’m rare as affordable health care.”
After hearing of the edit, Big Sean took to Twitter to make it known that nobody from his team approved the edit. (They presumably approved the removal of profanity and sexual references, which were made elsewhere on the track.) Kaepernick, in turn, thanked Big Sean for his support.
It’s disappointing and appalling @NFL & @EA took @Kaepernick7’s name out of my verse on Big Bank for Madden 19, like it was a curse word. When he’s not a curse, he’s a gift! Nobody from my team approved any of this.
Much love brother! Thank you for having my back!✊🏾
EA Sports had previously stated that it would be staying out of any controversy surrounding protests against institutional racism and police brutality, which players around the league have participated in during the national anthem over the past two seasons. (Kaepernick was the first NFL player to protest in that manner, first sitting and then kneeling during the singing of them anthem throughout the 2016 season.)
“We work very closely with the NFL and the NFLPA. We work very closely about how we want to represent the game, and really make it a celebration of the sport,” EA Sports producer Ben Haumiller told Gamespot. “And maybe a place where you don’t have to … you love the game, but you don’t have to worry about everything else that’s going on that might be distractions from [the reason] you’re trying to be here — it’s about the game.”
The league has generally botched its response to the protests, with its repeated threats and haphazard new policies only drawing the ire of the players union. It appears EA botched at least part of its response as well, but at least the video game giant is taking steps to rectify the issue soon.
Apparently, no one noticed the Madden ’18 edit until recently. And here is Mike Florio explaining why it is significant:
It all sounds very reasonable on the surface. However, the excuse makes far less sense when considering the fact that Kaepernick appeared in last year’s game but his name was removed from the lyrics of a song on the game’s soundtrack.
Last year’s “mistake” was never rectified, because it was never noticed. This year’s “mistake” wouldn’t have been fixed, either, but for the fact that someone spotted it.