The Daily Briefing Thursday, August 23, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
The NFL says it will stay the course with its controversial new helmet rule. But there is a slight change in tone that should make all the difference. Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com:
According to a statement released by NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, the committee resolved “that there will be no changes to the rule as approved by clubs this spring, which includes no additional use of instant replay.” But Vincent added, “The committee also determined that inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or face mask is not a foul.”
In seeking feedback from around the league, the committee heard that players were concerned about instances in which they were unable to avoid glancing contact with their helmets as they made shoulder or arm tackles. Officials also wondered whether they were expected to penalize every instance of contact from a lowered helmet, no matter how mild.
Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:
The headline coming from 345 Park Avenue on Wednesday was that the new helmet rule hasn’t changed, and that it has. But as the dust settles on the non-change change to the rule that prohibits lowering the head to initiate and make contact, one word from the statement released by NFL executive V.P. of officiating Troy Vincent stands out.
“Inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or facemask is not a foul,” Vincent said in the same statement in which he said the rule wouldn’t change.
Inadvertent. As in not resulting from or achieved through deliberate planning. As in not intended.
That’s a hugely critical adjustment to the rule, especially since the prior version of the rule presumed intent based on the lowering of the head.
“I think [Competition Committee chairman] Rich McKay put it best when he said, ‘This is one of the few times that we’re writing intent into the rule,’” NFL senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron said last Friday on the #PFTPM podcast.
And they’ve now partially written intent out of the rule, by allowing for unintended helmet contact, even when the head is lowered and the intent is thereby presumed.
It’s not known how officials will draw the line between inadvertent and intentional helmet contact, but given that the goal is to prevent players from adopting a linear posture and ramming their helmets into an opponent (which increases dramatically the risk of serious neck injury), the phrase “inadvertent or incidental contact” quite possibly limits the rule to the combination of bad posture (head low, eyes down) and solid impact, with the top/crown of the helmet striking the opponent.
In other words, it’s possible that the hit won’t be regarded as something other than incidental or inadvertent unless the players lowers his head and makes forcible contact with the top/crown of the helmet against an opponent.
So the rule that the NFL insists it didn’t change has actually been overhauled, if the word “inadvertent” is given its plain and obvious meaning, and if the search for inadvertent contact unfolds through the application of basic logic and common sense. While awkward and clumsy in form, it’s potentially encouraging in result, because it could mean that penalties will be called only when the player lowers his head and delivers a forceful blow with the top of his helmet, and not when any type of helmet contact occurs after the player adopts a posture that could lead to a forbidden hit.
Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com, with apparent guidance from Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay, tries to stem the panic, with his key fact being a secret statistic that more than 20% of the flags have been thrown in error.
The freak-out is underway. Midway through the 2018 preseason, the NFL’s new helmet rule is sowing panic and raising irrational fears of repercussions up to and including football’s demise. So, if you’re engraving football’s tombstone, let me ask you a question: Do you know how many times an official has thrown a flag for a violation of Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8 of the NFL rulebook, which prohibits players from lowering their heads to initiate contact with their helmet against an opponent?
A grand total of 51. That’s 1.55 times per game over 33 games.
Looked at another way, that’s a flag thrown for leading with the head on 1.03 percent of the 4,944 snaps, including special teams, we have seen through two weeks of the preseason.
We all have our limits, but meltdowns should be saved for something bigger than 1.03 percent.
This rollout, in fact, has played out in a predictable way. And the likely next steps also seem less scary, less invasive and less game-changing than you might think, even after the competition committee issued the first of what could be several narrow clarifications Wednesday.
To no real surprise:
• Complaints about the new rule leading to the game’s demise have been overblown relative to the actual frequency of the calls, especially at a time when officials are admittedly overcalling the foul as part of the rollout. Referee Brad Allen, after all, said earlier this month that the league wanted to “err on the side of putting the flag on the ground” during the preseason.
For context, consider that in 2017, there were, on average, 3.2 offensive holding flags, 2.02 false start flags and a combined 2.58 flags for defensive holding, illegal contact and defensive pass interference per game.
At its worst, which is what I would expect we will come to call this preseason, the helmet rule wouldn’t be close to the most visible penalty in the game. It’s difficult to square those numbers with the commencement of flag football, as San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman suggested was underway during an understandably anxious moment last weekend.
There is no “make adjustment” to the way you tackle. Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head. The rule is idiotic And should be dismissed immediately. When you watch rugby players tackle they are still lead by their head. Will be flag football soon.
• The application has been focused on defensive backs, dousing fears that players at other positions would be targeted for unavoidable hits. This helps explain the outsized reactions of players such as Sherman and Washington Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger. Of the 51 flags, 31 have gone against defensive backs. Nearly 81 percent have gone against defensive players overall, along with three against the offense and none against offensive linemen. Seven have occurred on special teams.
• The failure to target a single offensive lineman squares with what league officials were saying as early as May 1. It is difficult for officials to see extended sequences of interior line play, and senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron has said there would be a call only if the official could see the illegal contact from beginning to end.
• Crews are calling it differently, an unfortunate but fully expected consequence of officiating that has existed for as long as we’ve tracked their calls. The crews of referees Bill Vinovich and John Parry have called six such penalties in two games. On the other hand, John Hussey’s crew has called one and Pete Morelli’s hasn’t called any, both in two games.
• Officials have made mistakes, some of which Riveron has acknowledged in videos released to the public. (Among them: A flag thrown against Arizona Cardinals safety Travell Dixon during Week 1 of the preseason.) Per ESPN’s Dan Graziano, the NFL identified 11 of the 51 flags as erroneous. This should not come as a shock. Because they are human, officials have made regular mistakes of all shapes and sizes throughout NFL history. They will continue to do so, at least until the robots mobilize.
• Ejections have been relatively rare. There has been one disqualification, of then-Indianapolis Colts safety Shamarko Thomas, and it was upheld on replay. One ejection in every 33 games projects out to 7.7 per season.
• There has been substantial confusion about what the rule prohibits and still allows. There can still be contact by a player with his helmet, as long as it is “up” and not lowered in a way that makes a linear posture from the top of his head through the back. The league would like players to “get the head out of the game,” but it is penalizing them only when they drop and initiate contact with it. The angst has been elevated by an unrelated point of emphasis on roughing the passer, one that created a well-shared clip of what seemed a standard sack by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Antwione Williams. The sequence helped fuel a more general and oft-cited sense that officiating is in some way out of control, instead of moving through its usual preseason adjustment period.
To be clear, the helmet rule is going to affect the 2018 season in ways that most of us would prefer it wouldn’t. The current preseason pace projects to an extra 396.8 new flags per season, after consecutive years in which the NFL had almost exactly the same number of penalties: 4,044 in 2017 and 4,048 in 2016. Even if the pace slows in the regular season, and everything else stays the same, the league is headed for a significant bump in total penalties and the play stoppages that go along with them. More significantly, because it is a 15-yard penalty, that 1.55 average would project to an extra 23.25 penalty yards per game and 5,952 per season. In 2017, offensive holding was the only foul category to average more than 20 penalty yards per game — and that was with nearly twice as many calls. In essence, two helmet-rule flags carry the same weight as three for offensive holding.
And in some ways, I think the players and coaches are right when they suggest that hitting the way the rule requires at all times — with the head up — is not football as we know it. The NFL actually agrees, and it is overtly attempting to change the way the game is played, for reasons it says are rooted in player safety. This isn’t a secret. Riveron has said repeatedly that the league wants this technique to trickle down to college, high school and youth levels. Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee and Atlanta Falcons president/CEO, said players must find a way to change what he knows is the approach many of them have taken for their entire careers.
From a historical sense, McKay likened this episode to when the league began instituting protection against defenseless players and tightening rules on pass defense in 1995.
“In 1994 and 1995, we heard, ‘We’ll never be able to stop the pass again,'” McKay said. “We heard, ‘I don’t know how you play defense like this.’ It was change and it was hard. We’ve had some players who have played this game since they were young men, and that’s the way they have always played. There is no question that it’s hard on them. I’m not minimizing that it’s not easy for them, because it isn’t. But it is a change we have to make, like many changes we’ve made before.”
We can reasonably guess what’s going to happen next. Preseason flag totals, and controversies, are going to continue at an uncomfortable level. (If you consider 1.03 percent uncomfortable.) Then, if historical trends continue, we’ll see that the numbers have settled in through a combination of adjustment by officials and players. Remember the 2014 preseason, when the league made illegal contact and defensive holding a point of emphasis? Flags for those fouls increased by 500 percent in those preseason games compared with the 2013 preseason. By the end of the 2014 regular season, the increase had slowed dramatically. By that point, the increase had dropped to 72 percent more than the 2013 regular season — much higher and certainly impactful but nothing resembling the preseason chaos.
No one can say for sure that helmet-rule flags will slow down starting in September. Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said earlier this week that “no one has told me” that officials will back off when the regular season begins. I’m certain he’s telling the truth. Of course they don’t tell you that they’re going to back away, but that’s often the end result. The chances of it happening do have precedent in NFL history. Even without a slowdown, the current frequency falls far short of a red alert. Hang in there. We can do this. We’ll get through it together
The Lions have acquired LB ELI HAROLD from the 49ers. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
Eli Harold, a linebacker who was on the roster bubble in San Francisco, will get a chance to make the roster in Detroit.
The 49ers have traded Harold to the Lions for a conditional 2020 draft pick, Kyle Meinke of MLive reports.
The 49ers took Harold in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft, and he has played in all 48 games over the three seasons since then. He started 10 games last year and was also in the starting lineup for both of the 49ers’ preseason games this year.
Harold had previously kneeled during the national anthem with teammates Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, but he has been standing for the anthem this preseason. He declined to explain why when reporters asked him about that.
The Packers are denying that they are “shopping” WR RANDALL COBB, but now everyone knows there are stories they were “shopping” him. Kevin Patra of NFL.com:
The Green Bay Packers aren’t trying to ship out Aaron Rodgers’ senior-most target.
NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that the Packers are not shopping Randall Cobb and expect him to contribute, despite some teams checking on the availability of the receiver.
Rapoport’s report came after rumors swirled that the Packers were shopping Cobb.
Cobb enters the final year of his contract set to make $8.6 million in base salary. It’s not unusual for teams to inquire about a player entering the last year of his deal, looking to find a bargain on a player whom the club might let walk in the offseason.
The 28-year-old Cobb is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he earned fewer than 700 yards. His injury history is also a concern for Green Bay.
The Packers attempted to restock the receiver position this offseason, drafting three rookies to go alongside rising star Davante Adams, Cobb, Geronimo Allison and Trevor Davis.
After watching the Packers cut his BFF, Jordy Nelson, this offseason, it appears Rodgers won’t have to go without another veteran receiver in 2018.
S GEORGE ILOKA did not get big money to sign with the Vikings. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
George Iloka will make a whole lot less in Minnesota than he was set to make in Cincinnati this season.
Iloka, who signed with the Vikings today after the Bengals cut him on Sunday, signed a one-year contract with a $790,000 base salary (the minimum for a player with his experience), and a $90,000 signing bonus, according to multiple reports.
That’s a far cry from the $5.3 million Iloka was going to make if he had played out this season on his Bengals contract. The Bengals decided to go with younger and cheaper safeties, and Iloka was left looking for a new deal with another team.
The best-case scenario for Iloka is that he has a good year playing for Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, who was his defensive coordinator for two seasons in Cincinnati, and that he can cash in as a free agent a year from now. But this year, Iloka is settling for relative peanuts.
So no one wanted to give him say $1.5 mil? Or did he just want to play for the Vikings and maybe get a ring with Zim.
C TRAVIS FREDERICK is discovered with a rare disease. Todd Archer of ESPN.com:
Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick announced on Twitter that he is suffering from Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease.
Frederick said he was diagnosed with the disease after exhaustive tests conducted over the past few days. He has received treatments over the past 48 hours.
“I am feeling much better from an overall strength perspective,” Frederick said in a statement Wednesday. “I will continue these treatments over the next few days. I am very optimistic about my condition and the immediate future, as I have been told that the illness was detected at a fairly early stage.”
According to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Guillain-Barré causes the body to attack a network of nerves around the brain and spinal cord. Most people recover from even the most severe cases of the disease, but some will continue to have some degree of weakness, according to the institute.
Frederick said doctors have told him there is no timetable for his return. However, it is possible he could miss multiple weeks of the season, sources said.
“I am hopeful that I will be able to play as soon as possible,” Frederick said.
Frederick has not missed a game in the first five years of his career and has been named to the Pro Bowl the past four seasons.
Last week in California, Frederick was examined by neck specialist Dr. Robert Watkins after having symptoms similar to that of a stinger. With the weakness not subsiding when the Cowboys returned to Dallas, Frederick met with more specialists in Dallas, and the diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome was determined through blood work.
“I am deeply grateful for all of the people who have expressed concern for me throughout the past four weeks, and my teammates and the Cowboys organization have provided me and my family with tremendous support,” Frederick said.
With Frederick out, Joe Looney will start at center.
The Cowboys also enter their Sept. 9 opener at the Carolina Panthers uncertain about the availability of Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin, who injured his left knee in last week’s preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals, but he and the team are hopeful he can play in Week 1.
What appears to be a slight setback for QB JOSH ROSEN. Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com:
Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Josh Rosen is day-to-day after he didn’t practice Wednesday because of an injured right hand, which might put his appearance in Sunday’s third preseason game in jeopardy.
Rosen injured his thumb on his throwing hand Monday when he hit it on a teammate’s helmet, coach Steve Wilks said Wednesday. Rosen’s hand was still “a little swollen” by time of Wednesday’s practice, so he was held out as a precaution.
“We didn’t really want to put him in that situation today,” Wilks said. “Trying to give it another day to heal.”
Wilks said Rosen’s injury is a “day-to-day thing.”
The Cardinals travel to Dallas this weekend to play the Cowboys on Sunday night.
“Our intention is for him to play,” Wilks said.
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GM Steve Keim is back at work after his five-week suspension arising from a DUI. More from Weinfuss:
Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was emotional and appeared contrite during a news conference Wednesday at the team’s practice facility, a day after he returned from a five-week suspension for being arrested on charges of extreme DUI in July.
Keim had to pause throughout his opening statement, his first public comments since his arrest and suspension, as he called his actions “inexcusable.”
“The truth is there’s nothing I can say that will make what I did right,” Keim said. “In fact, taking ownership of my behavior moving forward [is what] ultimately will define me as man.”
Keim was arrested early on the morning of July 4 on charges of DUI in Chandler, Arizona. Blood tests revealed his blood alcohol level was at .193, more than twice the legal limit and high enough in Arizona for the crime to be classified as an extreme DUI. He spent 48 hours in jail and was subsequently suspended by the Cardinals for five weeks and fined $200,000.
Before he could return, Keim had to complete counseling, an evaluation and a DUI education course, according to a team statement in July. Keim was barred from the team facility and prohibited from contact with the team during his suspension.
Keim called the incident “a major poor decision” but said “it’s not a mistake.” Keim did not directly answer a question about whether the incident was the result of an alcohol problem.
“I don’t want to get too deep into it and personal, but I can tell you that coming away from this has made me a better man,” Keim said.
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Keim relayed a story about his 12-year-old son texting with a friend about the DUI arrest. After seeing Keim on TV, the friend said he was sorry to see Keim going through everything. To which Keim said his son replied: “I’m not. He shouldn’t have been doing it.”
“My son was right,” Keim said. “I don’t think there’s any feeling that’s worse than feeling like you let your children down.”
Veteran CB DOMINIQUE RODGERS-CROMARTIE is signing with the Raiders. Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com:
The Oakland Raiders have signed free-agent cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Rodgers-Cromartie told ESPN’s Josina Anderson earlier Wednesday that he was in Oakland to work out for the Raiders and that things went “real good.”
In adding the two-time Pro Bowler to the Raiders’ secondary, Oakland is giving itself not only another veteran who is older than 30 but durability and depth at a position that has seen its two projected starters in Rashaan Melvin and Gareon Conley unable to avoid injuries in their respective careers.
Rodgers-Cromartie, who is entering his 11th NFL season after playing the previous four seasons for the New York Giants, following previous stops with the Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals, has played in fewer than 15 games just once in his career, when he appeared in 13 games for the Eagles in 2011.
Melvin, meanwhile, played in 15 games for the Indianapolis Colts in 2016 and 10 games last season, while Conley was limited to two games of his rookie season last year due to a shin injury that required surgery. Conley missed two weeks of training camp this month with a strained hip suffered on the first day of practice and was seen limping following Wednesday’s light practice.
Other Raiders cornerbacks include Daryl Worley, who could be facing a suspension for his arrest in April after he was found passed out inside a vehicle blocking a highway.
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Someone whispers to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News that the Jets covet LB KHALIL MACK.
Gang Green has reached out to the Oakland Raiders to express its interest in trading for perennial All-Pro outside linebacker Khalil Mack, according to league sources.
The Raiders have fielded queries from more than a dozen teams, including several that have reached out multiple times, sources said.
The Jets haven’t made an offer for arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, but their mindset is clear: We’re going to be aggressive to address our biggest weakness.
Oakland has told interested clubs that it will not part with the tour-de-force edge pass rusher, whose holdout has extended to 27 days. But until the Raiders and Mack actually end their impasse … never say never.
Mack, scheduled to make $13.8 million on his fifth-year option, is looking to become the first non-quarterback to make $20 million per year. The 2016 Defensive Player of the Year will be worth every penny given his prodigious production in his first four seasons. Mack, the fifth overall pick in the 2014 draft, has been a nightmare for years.
How ridiculously great is Mack, who’s in his prime at age 27?
Well, consider his “down year” in 2017: 10.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits and 55 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. He accounted for 31.7 percent of Oakland’s pressures.
Mack, believe it or not, is better than his absurd career numbers (40 1/2 sacks). He’s started every game of his career.
Rookie QB LAMAR JACKSON is not really putting any pressure on revitalized QB JOE FLACCO. Kevin Patra of NFL.com on concern from the Ravens for Jackson’s awareness on the run:
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has struggled from the pocket during his first three preseason appearances. The first-round rookie’s most dynamic moments have been when he’s on the run. The Ravens, however, don’t want Jackson to continue to take big hits.
“Yeah, that’s not good,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said Wednesday, via ESPN.com. “It’s just that simple.”
Added Mornhinweg: “We’d rather get down a step too early than a step too late. As you can see, that’s an ongoing process. Some of it is experience because he needs to have to filter through what he can get away with and what he can’t in this league.”
Jackson has rushed for 72 yards on 17 attempts with one touchdown this preseason. He hasn’t slid on any run and flipped over a defender during Monday night’s tilt versus the Colts. The rookie has a veteran mentor on the roster who knows well the dangers of taking big hits, and how they can alter a career.
“What I try to tell him mostly is that in this league things happen faster,” Robert Griffin III said. “It’s not that he can’t run — he just has to be smart when he does run. He’s going to have to learn some things on his own as he’s out there and he’s working. I think he’ll figure it out pretty quickly, and he’ll still be the dynamic player that he is.”
Hopefully Jackson isn’t learning how to slide from RGIII, notoriously one of the worst QBs at sliding.
The issue with a dynamic playmaker like the Louisville product is learning to use his legs while avoiding big hits. He should study Russell Wilson, who is constantly on the run but rarely seems to take a brutal shot.
“He has to learn how to throw in the pocket, of course. At some point, to play quarterback in the National Football League, you have to drop back and throw it,” QB coach James Urban said of Jackson. “We’re getting there, and he’s improving dramatically.
Confirmed as unconcussed, QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER says he’s never thrown it harder. Sean Gentile in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Sounds like Ben Roethlisberger got an ‘A’ on that concussion test.
The Steelers quarterback, speaking publicly for the first time since a collision in practice seven days ago put him in the NFL concussion protocol, said “everything came back perfect,” and that he had “no symptoms,” even immediately after the play.
Coach Mike Tomlin said before Thursday’s preseason loss to Green Bay that Roethlisberger was not concussed. He didn’t play that night, although that always had been the plan.
“The scary thing is the verbiage, right? Concussion protocol,” Roethlisberger said. “I think what a lot of people don’t realize, and players included, is that doesn’t mean you have a concussion. It means you go into a protocol system to get tested for a concussion.”
Roethlisberger collided with right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was blocking defensive end Keion Adams. He briefly stayed on the grass at Saint Vincent College before heading for the sideline. It was the Steelers’ final practice in Latrobe.
“Hopefully, the hardest hit I take all year is from Gilbert,” Roethlisberger said.
That came at the end of a training camp that offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner called Roethlisberger’s best. A big part of that has to do with his health; he came in lighter after training harder in the offseason and said he’s only had to ice up after practice once, which is a noticeable change.
“How do I feel, whether that’s my arm, my shoulder, my elbow, knees, ankles, just the general feeling of my body?” he said. “I think it felt great. My arm feels stronger than it ever has.”
Roethlisberger said he doesn’t know how much he’ll play Saturday against the Tennessee Titans. Typically, starters see the most action in the third preseason game.
“I hope I don’t get hit,” he said, “but it’s always good to knock that rust off, too, at some point.”
DE J.J. WATT, like Eagles TE ZACH ERTZ, has a significant other who is a member of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. Jenny Vrentas of SI.com on how they tackled rehab together.
On the eve of his eighth NFL training camp, J.J. Watt opened a text message and got emotional. Inside was a cell-phone video filmed in a hospital corridor 10 months earlier. Watt was on crutches, still wearing his surgery socks and a giant bandage wrapped around his left knee. A physical therapist was showing the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year how to take a single step forward.
“It’s crazy when you look back at it,” Watt said after a late July practice at the Texans’ training camp site in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. “That day, you are thinking to yourself, How the hell am I ever going to get back to who I am?”
The scar left behind from the complicated surgery to repair the fracture of his tibial plateau, which snakes up from his shin to the side of his kneecap, is lighter now, and even a source of pride. On the practice field, Watt has been back in his usual spots, leading the defensive linemen through position drills and slicing past blockers in 11-on-11 team reps. And on Sept. 9, when the Texans open their season against the Patriots, Watt fully expects to be starting at right defensive end.
But last October, with a second straight season officially cut short by injury, Watt couldn’t be sure about any of those things. If there was anyone who could understand what it’s like to traverse the long and uncertain road back, though, it was the person who recorded the video.
Kealia Ohai was at NRG Stadium on the night of Oct. 8, for the Texans’ Sunday night game against the Chiefs. She was sitting in the stands with her sister, Megan, when she saw her boyfriend run a third-down pass-rush stunt and then crumple to the turf. Ohai rushed downstairs to the locker room, and when she heard the team doctors say Watt definitely hadn’t torn his ACL, she was relieved. She had good reason to be.
In June 2017, Ohai, captain of the Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League, was racing for the ball during a road game in Orlando. When she stepped to cut, she felt a pop in her leg. The diagnosis was what she’d feared—a torn ACL and meniscus. She had surgery 10 days later. A month after that, she needed a second procedure to clean out an infection that developed when one of the stitches didn’t heal. By early October, she still hadn’t been able to start running again. That night, she thought Watt avoiding ACL rehab was a win.
Then they got the diagnosis. Watt had shattered the top part of his lower leg, breaking bone and tearing cartilage, the sort of injury doctors said they usually saw in car accidents. He needed to be operated on within hours of the injury. Ohai waited at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, a setting she knew well. The orthopedic surgeon who had repaired Ohai’s knee months earlier was part of the team working to put Watt’s leg back together with a metal plate and screws.
“They weren’t even sure if the surgery would work and if he would be able to run anymore. That’s what was so scary for us,” Ohai says. “An ACL is difficult, but it’s pretty straightforward. With J.J.’s, because of the type of injury, I remember the doctors were not exactly sure how his leg and his knee would react to [the surgery]. From the beginning, he wanted to work hard and come back. But for a while, [the question] was, would he be able to come back and play at the same level, and support that much weight? Will his leg ever be the same again?”
It was during those anxious days that Ohai filmed the video of Watt trying to master the delicate art of moving his nearly 300-pound frame on crutches without putting any of his weight on his injured leg. The physical therapist helping him down that hospital corridor knew what awaited the couple in the months ahead—a lot of time on the couch—so he made a recommendation: Peaky Blinders, a British crime drama, available on Netflix.
Unable to walk for nearly two months after the surgery, Watt leaned on Ohai to help with almost everything. She’d bring him his toothbrush and a bowl of water, so he could brush his teeth while sitting down. “So I didn’t have to stand there,” Watt explains, “with my leg throbbing.” She mastered the art of sponge baths and took over the critical household duty of making the chocolate-chip pancakes. At the same time, she was in the most intense portion of her own rehab, strengthening her injured leg and getting her range of motion back. Before she’d leave the house they share for her four-to-five hour physical therapy sessions, she’d make sure Watt had his phone, food, water and anything he might need within arm’s reach. When she’d come back, he’d be sitting in the same spot where she’d left him—it was too painful for him move.
In so many ways, this was old hat. For most of the two-plus years that Watt and Ohai have been dating, he’s been rehabbing one serious injury or another. When Watt needed back surgery for a herniated disc in the summer of 2016, Ohai would carry his urine bottles from the bed to the toilet, where she’d dump them out for him. (And this after they’d been dating for only two months.) But this time was different: Now the heartbeats of two franchises were confronting the feelings of anxiety, frustration and uncertainty together.
“Neither of us could feel too sorry for ourselves,” Ohai says, “because the other one was going through the exact same thing.”
Watt resumed walking on Dec. 1, ahead of his doctors’ schedule; in January, he and Ohai vacationed in Italy and visited the Coliseum, rediscovering the feeling of stepping into an arena of competition. Toward the end of the winter, Watt started playing backyard goalie for Ohai—as long as she kicked from at least 20 yards away, to soften the sting.
“Having somebody to go through it with makes the bad days so much better,” Watt says. “Back when you are by yourself, you have nobody at all to talk you through it; nobody at all, if you are having a dark day, to really pick you up. I had my family, but they don’t live here, so you are sitting in an empty house all by yourself as opposed to when you have a girlfriend who can help lift you up.”
Ohai returned to the field first, in April, at the very same arena where she’d felt her knee pop. Playing in Orlando again in June, one year and one day after her injury, she booted a distance goal to tie the game. Last month, the forward got called up to the U.S. women’s national team training camp, an opportunity she was worried might disappear for good after her injury.
“That was cool for J.J. to see,” she says. “I think that gives him hope and confidence in himself that he’s going to [come back strong], too. I truly believe he’s going to have the best season of his career.”
Watt isn’t willing to make any such predictions. Such is the toll of the past two seasons, during which he played a total of eight games. But, as he talks about his road back from this most recent injury, he references the end point, when you feel like the player you used to be. When did that happen? “Over the summer,” he says. Before training camp began, he felt the shift, being able to make the cuts he used make and feeling like he had full use of his lungs and legs for his entire workout. “It’s more of a feel than anything,” he says. “You can feel that you got in a proper workout; you are doing the things you know how to do, and you are also not completely gassed at the end.”
In the nearly two years since Watt last sacked an NFL quarterback, his frame of reference has changed. He impacted the city of Houston well beyond anything he could have done on the football field, raising more than $37 million in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and for two years in a row he had to confront not being able to play the game he loves for an indefinite amount of time. “I feel like he has a confidence now,” Ohai says. “I know he’s always been confident, but I think he saw himself lose [the ability to do] everything, and possibly not play, and then work his [butt] off to get back to where he is now. That gives you a sense of confidence; it makes you not really afraid of anything anymore.”
Before Watt left for Texans training camp at The Greenbrier in West Virginia, he handwrote Ohai a letter thanking her for helping him get to the other side. In return, she sent him the video of him taking those literal first few steps of the long road back. The clip wasn’t more than 20 seconds long, but watching it was like rewinding through the past 10 months.
“People say you’re going to come out on the other side of an injury better,” Watt says. “I always questioned that. I always wondered about it. But this one, I really do feel, when I look back at it all, I did come out better. She helped me through the struggle, so I could see the beauty at the end.”
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What we saw from Deshaun Watson
As good as Wentz was, Watson was better in a smaller sample. Lower the limits to 200 pass attempts — Watson had 204 — and the Texans star led the league in yards per attempt (8.3) and Total QBR (81.3). He succeeded with a stat line that looks more like a top passer from the 1970s than one from today, which seems remarkable given that Watson is about as modern of a quarterback as it gets. Understanding what he will do in 2018 starts with the fact that …
Watson succeeded despite an astronomical interception rate
It’s virtually impossible for a quarterback to be good while throwing interceptions as frequently as Watson did last season. He threw eight picks on those 204 attempts, which was good for an interception rate of 3.9 percent. Only Siemian and DeShone Kizer threw interceptions more frequently with that 200-pass minimum. The Clemson star was on pace for a 486-pass season, which would have resulted in 19 interceptions over a full campaign.
Despite the fact that he threw a ton of interceptions, Watson was great! He posted the best passer rating by a quarterback with an interception rate between 3.5 and 4 percent since Y..A. Tittle in 1963. The group of passers who topped a 100 passer rating with this sort of interception rate includes Watson, three passers from before the AFL-NFL merger of 1970 and Chris Chandler’s 1998 campaign. Just below them are more familiar names, including Roethlisberger’s rookie campaign in 2004 and Tony Romo’s first two seasons as a starter.
Usually, you can be good or you can throw interceptions. Watson did both.
The good news is that I think Watson should be better at avoiding interceptions as his career goes along — and even as early as 2018. For one, two of his interceptions came on Hail Mary attempts, which shouldn’t be treated as meaningful. Watson had two dropped interceptions, per FO, so his adjusted interception rate is in the same ballpark, but the added interceptions for other quarterbacks push him to 29th-best in the league, ahead of seven other passers.
In watching those picks, there’s a line running through the decisions: Watson often got greedy and tried to make off-schedule throws without setting his feet and getting his body moving forward and/or tried to squeeze his passes into impossible windows. He scrambles around the pocket before making a late throw into the end zone. He rushes a throw under pressure and sails a pick-six to Jason McCourty. The Texans run play-action and roll Watson out to the boundary and flood it with receivers, leaving no room and a pick for Richard Sherman when Watson throws off his back foot.
Those are the sorts of things rookies do. Watson’s decision-making should get better as he continues to grow, just as Wentz’s did a year ago.
Bill O’Brien should (hopefully) be more aggressive
The Texans coach deserves credit for reshaping his offense around Watson’s skills, but his late-game decision-making didn’t fit the offensive juggernaut O’Brien had constructed. You can’t buy a Ferrari and spend your entire drive across the country in the right lane. In doing so, O’Brien cost the Texans possible wins against the Patriots and Seahawks.
After Watson spent most of Week 3 decimating the Patriots’ defense, O’Brien went conservative at the exact moment when his former boss Bill Belichick would have tried to seal things. The Texans faced a 4th-and-1 from the Patriots’ 18-yard line with a two-point lead and 2:28 to go. The Patriots were down to one timeout and would have had two chances to stop the clock, so a conversion would have given the Patriots the ball back with no more than 30 seconds left (and possibly ended the game with a touchdown or a second conversion). Instead, the Texans kicked a field goal to turn a two-point lead into a five-point lead and dared Tom Brady to drive down the field on their defense. He did so with 23 seconds to spare.
Five weeks later, O’Brien got conservative in a different way. Watson ran for a first down to get the ball to his own 20-yard line at the two-minute warning with a four-point lead. The Seahawks had all of their timeouts, but one first down would have basically wrapped the game up. In a game in which Watson had thrown for 407 yards and run for 62, O’Brien … handed the ball to Lamar Miller three times. The Seahawks used their three timeouts, and on 4th-and-2 from his own 28-yard line, O’Brien decided that the chances of punting with his defense keeping the Seahawks from scoring a touchdown were better than his chances of either converting a fourth-and-two or stopping the Seahawks from punching the ball in the end zone from 28 yards out. The Seahawks scored in three plays.
Doug Pederson’s success going for it on fourth down in 2017 should encourage coaches with great offenses to trust them on fourth-and-short in key moments. (Likewise, as Pederson noted, coaches should learn from Doug Marrone’s letting the Patriots off the hook in the AFC Championship Game.) Coaches work too hard during the week to hurt themselves with poor decisions on 4th-and-short. Yes, they’re going to take some heat if they go for it late in a game and the decision doesn’t go their way. But Pederson showed throughout last season that the upside is worth the risk. The Texans have to place their faith in Watson & Co.
Watson’s receivers did incredible work
As much as Watson’s interception rate made him look like a quarterback out of the 1970s, his average pass distance only furthers the story. Watson averaged a whopping 11.1 air yards per throw during his time as a starter, which is something out of a Joe Namath stat line. That’s the third-deepest average pass in a 200-attempt season since 2006, and the two guys who topped Watson were famously unique: Tim Tebow (2011) and Michael Vick (2006).
Typically, when you see a passing offense with a lot of deep passes, you get a lot of drops. Receivers dropped 6.6 percent of Tebow’s passes and 7.0 percent of Vick’s throws during their respective seasons. They’re not alone. When you look at the quarterbacks whose average pass distance has traveled 10 yards in the air or more since 2006 before Watson, the average drop rate for those quarterbacks was 4.9 percent.
Watson’s drop rate was 1.0 percent. One percent! Part of that is the nature of a smaller sample, but 1.0 percent is the lowest drop rate we’ve seen for any quarterback with 200 or more pass attempts since 2006, when ESPN’s drop data starts. The previous low was 1.7 percent, coincidentally set by the Texans’ Matt Schaub in 2013. Marcus Mariota and Matt Ryan were at 1.8 percent in 2016. None of those passers was throwing anywhere near as deep as Watson was last season. There’s no way that’s going to keep up in 2018.
Watson was incredible on play-action
This shouldn’t be a surprise given Watson’s abilities as a runner. Opposing defenses simply couldn’t deal with Houston’s play-action game last season. When he faked a handoff, Watson averaged 10.3 yards per attempt, with a 124.3 passer rating and a staggering 95.6 Total QBR. The latter number led the league and was the fourth-best QBR by a passer with 50 or more play-action attempts since 2007.
Watson should still be effective on play-action in 2018, but it’ll be tough for the second-year passer to be as good.
The Texans’ schedule was relatively easy
Watson came in for the second half of a brutal loss to the Jaguars in Week 1, but after that, he faced a pretty middling group of defenses before the ACL tear. His final start was against a Seahawks defense that finished the season 13th in defensive DVOA and was likely better earlier in the season, before dealing with the injuries that seemed to afflict nearly every one of the star contributors. Otherwise, Watson’s starts were against below-average pass defenses, including the Bengals (17th), Patriots (21st), Chiefs (23rd), Titans (24th) and Browns (26th).
I’m not so sure, though, that Watson’s schedule will be much tougher in 2018. Although it’s not a specific projection of defensive performance, both the ESPN Football Power Index and Football Outsiders project that Watson’s Texans will face the league’s second-easiest schedule this season. Watson will have to play the Jaguars twice, but he gets the 32nd-ranked pass defense of the Colts twice too.
Both Watson and Wentz should be very good if they stay healthy in 2018. The way that they succeed, though, is extremely likely to look different than the way we saw them bust out in 2017. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect both to produce slightly less impressive numbers than the figures we saw last season. If they’re both healthy heading into the postseason, though, I suspect their organizations will happily make that trade. Health concerns — particularly for Watson, who has now torn each of his ACLs — should be the only obstacles between these two franchise quarterbacks and MVP contention in the years to come.
Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com on the circumstances surrounding the extension for WR RISHARD MATTHEWS:
If Rishard Matthews is ever unhappy with his new contract extension, he can’t blame his agent — because he doesn’t have one.
According to Paul Kuharsky of PaulKuharsky.com, Matthews terminated his representation agreement with agent Steve Caric nine days before he signed his one-year extension with the Titans.
Whether he’d have been better served with representation remains to be seen.
He was set to make $5 million this year already, and the extension added $1.375 million worth of incentives this year. It also includes $7.75 million for 2019, which the Titans can activate by paying a $3.25 million bonus by the third-to-last day of the current league year. There’s no guaranteed money in the deal.
So while it might look good on paper for Matthews, the Titans can also cut bait easily if they don’t think he’ll be worth that money next year. Matthews effectively sold a year of free agency for the chance at some incentives this year, which makes it worth wondering how many agents would have done a similar deal.
Some players have tried it and done well for themselves, but this doesn’t appear to be the case with Matthews.
The DB never thought of WR KENNY BRITT as Patriots material – and now his time is over. Kevin Duffy in the Boston Herald:
The Patriots released wide receiver Kenny Britt yesterday, a surprising move given the team’s lack of depth at the position.
Britt suffered a hamstring injury while running a deep route during a June 5 minicamp practice. He came off the physically unable to perform list on Aug. 4, but couldn’t return to full practice participation.
It seemed as though Britt was trending in the right direction, though. He took part in positional drills early in Tuesday’s practice.
The 6-foot-3, 228-pound Britt was signed by the Patriots in December after he was released by the Browns. He enjoyed a strong spring before sustaining the hamstring injury. Britt, 29, is two years removed from a career season with the Rams, when he posted 68 receptions for 1,002 yards.
Earlier in the week, Britt admitted that he was missing out on valuable practice reps.
Britt is the third Patriots receiver to be released this summer. The team also cut ties with Jordan Matthews and Malcolm Mitchell. Like Britt, both players were limited by injuries.
With the regular season just over two weeks away, the top of the Patriots’ receiver depth chart consists of Julian Edelman (suspended for the first four games), Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson and Eric Decker.
Britt’s departure seems to signal that WR PHILLIP DORSETT is finally getting it done. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
The Patriots acquired wide receiver Phillip Dorsett just before the start of last season, and without a lot of time to prepare, he didn’t do much.
Dorsett played in 15 games, but he finished the season with just 12 catches for 194 yards and no touchdowns. He says this year, with a full offseason of work, he expects to do more.
“I think my comfort level has gotten a lot better,” Dorsett said. “But you can’t get complacent in this offense. Everything changes. There’s a lot thrown at you, and they expect the best from you. So if you don’t bring your best out there, something bad is going to happen.”
Dorsett said it was tough to build a rapport with Tom Brady when he didn’t arrive until the season was already starting.
“That just comes with, I would say, me missing the spring, missing camp,” Dorsett said. “You’ve just got to know your quarterback and we didn’t really get to build any chemistry during camp because I didn’t have a camp with [Brady]. So I guess that’s where that came from.”
This year the Patriots would like to see Dorsett become the big-play threat he’s capable of being. Dorsett feels ready.
NEW YORK JETS
The Jets shuffled their kickers on Wednesday with PK CAIRO SANTOS (ex-Chiefs) gone with a bad leg and PK JASON MYERS (ex-Jaguars) claimed off waivers from Seattle. Darryl Slater of NJ.com:
Myers will now compete with Taylor Bertolet — who has zero NFL regular season experience — in the final two preseason games.
The Jets face the Giants on Friday night, in their third preseason game. Bertolet made the Jets’ 90-man roster after a rookie minicamp tryout. He remains a roster long shot, though he is 3 of 3 on field goals through two preseason games.
Santos’ roster spot could be taken by kicker Kai Forbath, who worked out for the Jets on Wednesday. But nothing is official with that yet.
Santos was the presumed replacement for Chandler Catanzaro. He was the Jets’ kicker last season, but he left for Tampa Bay in free agency.
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See OAKLAND for a story on possible interest by the Jets in LB KHALIL MACK of the Raiders.
THIS AND THAT
Per Bucky Brooks of NFL.com, these are the 10 True Franchise QBs (plus a Lucky Wild Card):
In my definition, a “franchise quarterback” is a guy capable of delivering wins, regardless of situation and circumstance. These special signal-callers can play without the support of a star receiver or a sturdy offensive line, and they don’t need an elite play caller to elevate their game. They are viewed as “trucks” in the Truck-vs.-Trailer QB debate (trucks carry the squad; trailers need the squad to carry them). When you sit down and watch the tape, trucks are the guys with transcendent games that would allow them to shine with any franchise.
With all that in mind, here’s my list of the top 10 true franchise quarterbacks entering the 2018 season:
1) Tom Brady, New England Patriots: There’s no disputing the five-time Super Bowl champion’s greatness when looking at his resume and the lack of star power he’s been surrounded by for most of his career. TB12 has only played with two legit superstars (Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski) during his 19-year tenure, but the veteran continues to rack up 300-yard games with a bunch of unheralded playmakers on the perimeter.
2) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: The two-time MVP, who’s squarely in his prime, is arguably the biggest difference maker in the game today. Just look at the Packers’ fortunes with and without him on the field. Rodgers has single-handedly carried Green Bay on deep postseason runs with B+/B-level pass catchers on the perimeter and a nonexistent running game.
3) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: The one-time Super Bowl champion has emerged as a dominant force at the position after entering the league viewed as a game manager. Wilson earned MVP consideration in 2017 while acting as a one-man show for Seattle, leading the ‘Hawks in passing, rushing and pure playmaking.
4) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: Despite his advanced age, Brees remains an A-level quarterback due to his exceptional accuracy, ball placement and timing. The 11-time Pro Bowler just set a new NFL record for single-season completion percentage (72.0) while topping the 4,000-yard mark for the 12th straight year. Considering the revolving door at the WR position in New Orleans, Brees’ consistent production confirms his ability to elevate an offense on the strength of his right arm.
5) Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers: The gunslinger might sit higher on my list than in some other rankings, but it is hard to ignore his ability to throw the ball all over the yard to a fair amount of unheralded pass catchers throughout his career. Sure, he’s had a Hall of Fame-caliber tight end (Antonio Gates) at his disposal for most of his career, but Rivers has also been able to post 4,000-yard seasons with a bunch of big-bodied pass catchers taking turns snagging passes on the perimeter.
6) Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles: Wentz was presumably on his way to claiming the 2017 NFL MVP award before his knee injury, posting a 33:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 101.9 passer rating while directing Philly’s high-powered offense in just his second NFL season. Although the Eagles’ offensive line ranks as one of the NFL’s best, Wentz is able to produce without a marquee pass catcher on the perimeter.
7) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers: Sorry, Kelvin Benjamin, but Newton has single-handedly carried the Panthers’ offense since his arrival as the No. 1 overall pick. The 2015 league MVP is the first NFL player to have 25,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards in his first seven years, and ranks third in rushing touchdowns (54) among all players since entering the league in 2011. With Steve Smith and Greg Olsen viewed as the only blue-chip perimeter players on the Panthers’ roster during his tenure, Newton has repeatedly pulled rabbits out of hats when directing Carolina’s offense.
8) Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans: Seven games isn’t a big sample size, but Watson’s ability to transform the Texans’ pedestrian offense into a juggernaut speaks volumes about his star power. No. 4 lit up NFL defenses as a rookie, as evidenced by his 19:8 TD-to-INT ratio and 103.0 passer rating. If Watson returns to form after his injury, the football world could see a transformative player grow up on the big stage.
9) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: Despite his sub-.500 career record (60-65), Stafford is worthy of being inside the velvet rope based on his spectacular talent and knack for orchestrating game-winning drives (32 over his career) and fourth-quarter comebacks (26). Stafford has definitely been supported by a Hall of Fame-caliber playmaker (Calvin Johnson) and some other solid pass catchers, but the lack of a consistent running game (Detroit has only had a running back hit the century mark in seven games over No. 9’s entire career) has put the offensive burden completely on his shoulders.
10) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers: I know some observers will take issue with Big Ben’s spot on this list. And I get it. In recent years, he has been buoyed by the presence of two of the best playmakers at their respective positions (RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown). And prior to that, as Roethlisberger evolved from game manager to playmaker, he had the support of a defense that consistently ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in total D. All of that isn’t meant to be a slight on Big Ben’s accomplishments as a two-time Super Bowl champion, but he’s benefitted from his supporting cast more than others on this list. Still, he deserves this last slot.
WILD CARD) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts: A couple years ago, Luck would definitely occupy a place on the list, but we haven’t seen him play in regular-season action for quite some time. Granted, Luck appears to be fully recovered from the injury to his throwing shoulder, but any drop-off in arm talent or arm strength could prevent him from carrying the Colts like he has done for much of his career. Remember the three straight 11-5 seasons to open his pro career? Yeah, those Colts teams weren’t exactly overflowing with talent.
Whoa! We had to look three times – but without explanation MATT RYAN of the Falcons is not on that list. But Stafford and Newton are?
And DESHAUN WATSON gets elevated with a small sample size, while JARED GOFF and JIMMY GAROPPOLO do not.
No JAMEIS WINSTON. No MARCUS MARIOTA. No DEREK CARR. No KIRK COUSINS.
We just don’t know how you can exclude Ryan.
We know he has been a little edgy at the end of a couple of career-defining games, but some of the guys above have never advanced their team to a career-defining game (or laid an egg in one, see Roethlisberger’s first Super Bowl).
You get all the way knocked out of the top 10 for one fourth down incompletion (that might have been interference in a more tightly called game) in the NFC Championship Game and a sack/fumble in the Super Bowl?
Stafford has never had a BIG game, Rivers hasn’t had one in ages, Newton declined to fall on a fumble in the Super Bowl.
And Ryan has a fine record in terms of comebacks in regular season games.
But Ryan does have 10 years with 2 missed starts, 6 times going to the postseason, an NFL MVP season doesn’t make you a franchise quarterback?
We are fine with Brooks’ top five, then we’d have Ryan in 6th.