METAIRIE, La. — This is the Saints’ seventh training camp day, and another with off-the-charts humidity and triple-digit heat indexes. And really, the 40-year-old quarterback with a Super Bowl ring, a fistful of NFL records, multi-generational financial security and a post-career ticket to Canton doesn’t need to be doing this anymore, with guys half his age.
Yet, a half-hour after the final horn sounds and practice ends, and after he finishes up another quarterback challenge with teammates and coaches on the field, Drew Brees is there, finding mechanics coach Tom House waiting for him and jogging over. Without more than a quick pleasantry, he drops into his throwing posture, says something to House, and moves his right foot about 12 inches back with his hands up as if he’s holding the ball.
Then, Brees looks to House. The feedback’s coming fast.
“It’s a quiz,” Brees says. “So something’ll happen and I’ll walk over after the period and he’ll say, ‘Why did you miss that one throw?’ And it’s probably one of two things. I’ll give him the answer and it’s like, ‘You’re right.’ He forces you to talk your way through it. So instead of him saying, You threw that ball low because of this, he wants you to be able to internally process that, because he’s not always going to be able to be there.
“So he’s trying to empower you to self-correct, because that’s what has to happen on the field, right?”
Brees wouldn’t tell me exactly the particular problem that he was addressing in this particular moment. But whatever it was, you figure it had to be something few people would understand anyway, the smallest detail to the smallest detail of throwing a football.
“It’s very precise,” the quarterback said.
So this is Brees’s life. Cleaning up the smallest detail, tightening up his game a little more, and extending a career that would have been unthinkable in its sustainability, even to Brees himself, when he came into the NFL 18-plus years ago.
“We always have something,” Brees said. “Tom has put me into a position where I know my body extremely well. I miss a throw, I know exactly why I missed that throw. Every time. And then I can self-correct. And that’s a valuable thing to have, to be able to do. And he’s given that to me. Fifteen years. Going from a time when we didn’t really know what we were doing, but we knew there was something to it, we just didn’t necessarily have the science at the time to back it up. And now?”
Now, Brees is getting ready for Season 19 with as good a team as he’s ever had around him.
And he’s still here, most of, for the simplest reason—because he wants to be.
We’re closing in on two weeks on the road, and we’ve got a loaded MMQB for you. What’s in here? You’re getting:
• Philip Rivers on his own future.
• Patrick Mahomes handling newfound fame.
• Matt Patricia on Year 2 in Detroit.
• Bill O’Brien explains Houston’s new structure.
• A dear friend gone too soon.
But we’re starting with that quadragenerian quarterback who was drilling the details under the stifling Louisiana sun.
When a quarterback plays as long as Brees or Tom Brady has, it ceases to be about chasing a legacy, or even a career capstone. What Brees is doing on this hot August morning is too hard to go through unless there’s more than that.
“I love the game. I love the game,” he says. “I see the opportunity we have. I love that my kids and my family can be a part of this. I feel like the city of New Orleans is thirsting for the moment again. And we gotta try to push until we get it.”
Baylen Brees—Drew and Brittany’s eldest son and the 1-year-old you remember wearing the oversized ear covers in his dad’s arms after Super XLIV—is 10 and on a (flag) football team of his own now. His two brothers will be 9 and 7 when Week 1 gets here. And as Brees said—there’s a huge benefit to that for him. Baylen may not remember his moment on the world’s biggest stage, but he gets everything now.
And Mickey Loomis, Jeff Ireland and Sean Payton have gotten hot as team-builders of late, with the last three draft classes giving the franchise as solid a base as it’s had since winning that championship 10 years ago this February.
Without those two elements—the blessing of his family and a really good team—Brees probably would have a hard time justifying keeping his career going like this. But this is mostly what everyone saw after that practice, which was the quarterback staying afterwards to compete with his buddies throwing a ball at a crossbar, and then cleaning up the most minute of mechanics failures.
So that’s the why for Brees. The how is a little more complicated.
“To be a part of watching it, and watching all the other things relative to sleep, hydration, food, nutrition, I know how strict he is,” Payton said, from his office a few hours later. “And it’s light years from where we were 20 years ago. There are pictures of Len Dawson with a cigarette in his hand at halftime. When you take an extremely talented player with a fantastic work ethic, and then you put him with the most recent up-to-date methods to train, to stay healthy, to stay sharp, you get what we’re getting with Drew or with Tom.”
And the truth is, it all started with a curiosity.
“At some point in my career, it was probably 10 years ago or so, I looked up all the quarterbacks who’d played into their 40s,” Brees said. “It’s funny, because at that time I don’t even know if that was on my radar, that I wanted to be one to play into my 40s. But I think just out of curiosity, I did it. It was actually a longer list of people than I expected. It was 12 or 15 guys. I don’t know why I looked that up, other than just to sit there and go, ‘It’s possible.’”
By then, Brees and House—whom he met through Cam Cameron, the Chargers offensive coordinator (his kids were coached by House in baseball)—were working together on finding a better way. That work, truth be told, never really stops.
Along the way, Brees hit benchmarks. As he explained them, those went like this:
• “Man, I’m just trying to be a starter.”
• “Alright, I’m a starting quarterback, I think I can be pretty good, I want to take my team to the playoffs, I think I can be a Pro Bowler.”
• “Let’s win the Super Bowl.”
• “Maybe I can make it to 35.”
• “Maybe I can make it to 40.”
And then Brees raised his left hand and dipped his right hand—the left representing physical ability and the right “knowledge and experience, which transfers into wisdom.” Brees then illustrated a quarterback’s career trajectory, lowering his left hand and raising his right, showing that when they meet, the player hits his prime. By keeping the left from falling too far, he says, “all we’re doing is extending that prime.”
That, of course, is harder than it sounds.
“I’d say the difference for me now, from even five years ago, is I’m just so intentional, so purposeful with everything,” Brees says. “I’m not going to go out and do something just to do it. I’m asking myself—‘How is this making me a better quarterback? This is a footwork drill, this is something that directly applies to something I’m going to apply directly to something I’m going to do in the pocket.
“If it doesn’t, then I’m not going to waste my time doing it, when I could be doing something else that’s truly going carry over to what I’m going to do. So I’m just so intentional with everything that I do from a training perspective, to recovery and everything else. That breeds this sense of urgency. It makes you more focused. It makes you more appreciative of the position you’re in.”
How tightly wound is this regimen of his? Just as nutrition and fitness and sleep would be, Brees says getting time for himself—peaceful time to nap or read, or just clear his head—is a “super important” part of all this.
How much of that time does he give himself every day?
“Twenty minutes, 30 minutes.”
Younger quarterbacks now seek out Brees, and he sees it as his responsibility to share all he’s learned with them. So he’ll invite them out to California in the offseason to watch him work and learn from him, and how he and Brady have created this new normal for the position—one in which playing into your 40s might not make you an anomaly anymore.
“[Doug] Flutie was awesome for me,” Brees says. “I was with him for four years there in San Diego. He was tremendous. My style of quarterback too. He was 5’9”—he’ll tell you he’s 5’10”, he’s 5’9”—and the way he played the game was my style of play. He was [Patrick] Mahomes before any of those guys. I remember reaching out to Trent Dilfer. Kurt Warner. Those were guys I’d reach out to at times for various things. They were really helpful.
“And I just made the commitment that if I were ever in that position, I’d absolutely be doing that for young guys too.”
Now it’s time to put all of that to work. Last year, at 39, Brees finished second to Mahomes in MVP voting. He had career highs in passer rating (115.7) and completion percentage (74.4), threw for 3,992 yards and had 32 touchdown passes against just five picks.
And even with a little swoon at the end of the regular season, he believed he was able to keep that left hand signifying physical ability up high enough and close enough to the right hand of wisdom to extend his prime for another year.
“I’m smarter than I ever have been,” Brees says. “I just know so much more. I think I have the ability to be as good as I ever have been. And I don’t think you can measure that with statistics. Last year, I didn’t throw for as many yards—I’ve thrown for more yards than I did last year probably 12 other times. And yet, I feel like last year was one of my better years overall. My decision-making and execution and just overall productivity, I feel like it was one of my better years, and that I can do it again.”
The natural next question, for both Brees and Brady, is when it all ends. Brady has said he wants to play until he’s 45—a number that’s not arbitrary but based on House’s study of when athletes start to lose the ability to recover the same way they have over their careers. Brees has said that often in the past too, because, as this day in Metairie showed again, his love for the game hasn’t faded.
But he’s slowly changed his tune a little there over the last year or two. The good news is, thanks all he’s done to keep the train on the tracks, and that left hand near the right, he’s confident that whenever he does decide to walk away, it’ll be for the same reason that he’s still out there now—because it’s what he wants to do.
“I feel I can play a lot longer,” Brees says. “But we’ll see. I just don’t want to take it for granted, I know it’s not going to last forever so I just want to enjoy the moment while it’s here. And about three or four years ago, I just made that commitment—I’m going play every year like it’s my last. I know we say that a lot. But I’m really going to play it like it’s my last.
“And that’s just forced me to enjoy it even more.”
The key, though, is that Brees doesn’t look like he’s being forced to do anything. This, still, is exactly where he wants to be.
FINAL LESSON FROM A BLOWN CALL: CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN
I couldn’t leave Metairie without trying to put a bow on how last year ended for the Saints, and really what I wondered most was how hard it was for the coaches and team to put behind them a finish that’s stayed in the news cycle—because of the associated rules changes—pretty consistently over the last six months.
So when I asked Sean Payton about it, he picked a piece of paper up off his desk with a graphic he was going to present to the players. On it, the team’s record in one-possession games over the last two years was detailed. The Saints were 3-4 in such games in 2017 and finished 11-5. They were 6-3 in those games last year and went 13-3.
Pointing to the chart, he said, “Man, these games, this is the difference.” And the message associated is one he has used to get his team past the pain of the missed pass interference call.
“There were a lot of things—the final drive, the third down, all those things. But this? We’ve become experts on things we can control,” Payton said. “And we’ve also become experts on, ‘Yeah, we can’t control that.’ This is a young, resilient team—this team a year ago showed that. So [the call] has not been a topic. First off, 28 percent of the team is different. There’s never been that, ‘Alright, let’s talk about last year.’”
Payton’s right. A lot of guys on the Saints roster now weren’t in the Superdome on that January afternoon. On the flip side, some players experienced both that heartbreak and the Minneapolis Miracle the year before. Which some see as a benefit in a weird way.
“I have to believe what we’ve endured the last two years at the end has just strengthened us and brought us together even more,” Brees says. “I feel like everything happens the way that it’s supposed to. And I hope that those lessons just bind us together and push us through.”
All that said, neither Payton nor Brees denies that there’s still a wound there—“It’s something that’ll never leave you, it’s always going to sting,” says Brees—that probably will only be closed with a trip back to the mountaintop.
INSIDE TOM BRADY’S CONTRACT EXTENSION
We’re going to have more details on the Brady deal over the coming days. But since this went down, here are five thoughts on his two-year, $70 million extension, which will take him right up until March 2022.
• I think the Patriots may have cost themselves some money in not simply giving Brady a $5 million raise last summer—instead they put $5 million in difficult-to-receive incentives in his deal (which paid him $14 million in 2018). With Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski in and out of the lineup, he hit none of those. And while I don’t think Brady is money hungry, I have heard of him remembering stuff like this before contract negotiations.
• Deals Brady did in 2005 and 2011 were at or close to the top of the market. The last two extensions weren’t. This one was right there. He’s set to earn $23 million this year, $30 million next year, and $32 million in 2021. That’s a total of $85 million over three years. But he was set to make $15 million this year, so it’s really two new years and $70 million in new money. That puts his APY (average per year) at $35 million, which matches Russell Wilson at the top of the NFL’s economic heap. There’s not a discount here. And I’d guess those incentives might’ve been a factor in how things were negotiated.
• That Brady takes less has been held over the heads of Patriots players in the past, and they’ve routinely been able to get good rates on some of those guys as a result. The highest-paid non-quarterback in team history is Stephon Gilmore, who is, by APY, the 89th highest-paid player in the league, and came via free agency. So it’ll be interesting to see how this might change the landscape going forward.
• So why is there the flexibility after one year for the Patriots to walk away? Here’s how I look at it: This is basically the equivalent of creating franchise tags for the team. Tagging Brady in 2020 would’ve cost New England at least $32.4 million (120 percent of his old cap number of $27 million). Tagging him again in 2021 would’ve cost the team at least $38.88 million (120 percent of that number). So for moving $8 million into this year, the team gets cheaper versions of the franchise tag the next two years (again, $30 million next year, $32 million the year after).
• I don’t think this will affect the play of the Patriots and Brady whatsoever. We’ve seen them compartmentalize over and over again, no matter how sideways the situation is. So my feeling is they’ll be who they would’ve been had this not gotten done.
PATRICK MAHOMES PREPARES FOR HIS ENCORE
ST. JOSEPH, Mo.—At one point this offseason, newly-minted league MVP Patrick Mahomes signed a fan’s tattoo of his likeness—this one was a tramp stamp turned “champ stamp”, inked as part of a lost bet—on national TV. (It happened on Jimmy Kimmel Live). And yet, when I asked him on Wednesday to name the craziest thing he did this offseason, he came up with the kind of answer some kid sitting in Psych 101 would give you.
“The craziest thing to me—I don’t know if it was crazy to other people—was just seeing Texas Tech in Final Four,” he said. “It was amazing. Just to be a fan, be back in the seats, rooting on those guys that I went to college with and who are achieving their dreams was something that I’ll never forget.”
In an interesting way, that answer illustrates why no one here seems to see Mahomes’s sudden burst toward celebrity as much to worry about at all. The 23-year-old is, or at least appears to be, the same guy as that 22-year-old last summer, whose potential had become urban legend in league circles (via a lot cell phone video of circus-type throws in practice), but who remained relatively anonymous to the casual fan.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid characterized the star turn since, “like running a world-class 100. All of the sudden, he’s Usain Bolt.”
And yet, even after a 50-touchdown season, it’s like he didn’t break a sweat.
He’s had some help with that, too. Mahomes told me he has tried to pick some stuff up on handling fame—he talked with both Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers about it. And he had some pretty good help from his own inner circle
“The best way that I’ve managed it is having great people around me that I can lean on, as far as making sure my schedule is right, and time management,” he said. “I’ve leaned on my godfather, [ex-major league outfielder LaTroy Hawkins], and my dad [ex-major leaguer Pat Mahomes]. “I’ve learned from them, not putting too much on my plate, to where I can’t focus on football. And I make sure football is first with every brand that I align myself with.”
But mostly, he’s stuck to what got him in this position in the first place. Which has been evident to those running the team he’s now the face of.
Here’s one example of that focus—a little earlier in camp, the Chiefs were running sprints after practice, which is about monotonous a practice task as there is. The offense was on the right side of the field. The defense was on the left. A coach blew the whistle, and Mahomes saw new teammates Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark running together, and quickly swerved left to run alongside them, finishing the work with the defensive guys.
That’s a little thing. But it’s also facilitated relationships that have allowed Mahomes to point out what he sees to a totally revamped unit on that side, as they try to come together.
This, of course, is the same kid who two years ago would take receivers after practice to throw, while making sure never to take a starter or major contributor with him—because those were Alex Smith’s guys, and he didn’t want to create any sort of tension.
The point is, he understood team then, and he understands it now, which comes through at every level, and has set him up to move smoothly from a breakout year to the year after.
“You can take all the different venues he won these awards from,” Reid said. “And the one thing that comes out of it is how humble he is. He feels like it’s an honor to play in the National Football League. That’s what gets communicated, either by body language or by words.”
But, in case you’re wondering, he’s not oblivious to what’s going on around him. He just has a different, and maybe more natural, way of handling it.
“You definitely notice people noticing you more, and you’re seeing your jersey more,” Mahomes said. “All that stuff is awesome, just to be achieving your dream and living out your dream on a daily basis. But I feel exactly the same, going out there and playing with my brothers, my teammates, my best friends. I’m having fun each and every day.”
MATT PATRICIA, IN THE MIDDLE OF THINGS IN YEAR 2
ALLEN PARK, Mich.—It’s hard to miss Matt Patricia at Lions practice. After using a golf cart initially as his torn Achilles healed, the Detroit coach switched to a four-wheeler that looks equipped for riding through the woods of Northern Michigan. Which is to say, when he’s somewhere, his players know it.
And so it was pretty easy to see, on the day I was there, how Patricia wants to have his finger on the pulse of everything happening out there. While I was looking, he probably spent more time with the offensive skills guys than anyone else, which isn’t a mistake.
“I love to go back and forth,” he said, just before practice on Tuesday. “Obviously, I gravitate towards the O-line. There’s a big part of me. I spent my first couple [NFL] years with the offensive line, the run game and the protections and all that stuff, I’m very involved, interested, in critiquing, being around that, putting the pressure on that group to improve. For whatever reason, whenever the head coach shows up to an individual period, maybe there’s a little more intensity. I like to do that stuff. …
“If there’s an area of emphasis that needs to be made, whether it’s the front end, the back end, the backers, I can get over to that group, I can over to that drill and make sure they’re hearing the words I want it taught in.”
If that sounds familiar it should, because that’s the way Patricia’s mentor, Bill Belichick, runs the show in New England. The idea, Patricia says, is to make sure each phase of the game fits another—that the line way the line protects fits the quarterback, that how the defense plays matches up with the offense—in an effort to ensure that the Lions are playing not just good football, but complementary football.
And while it’s what he’s always wanted, he didn’t get to create as much oversight in his first year on the job. Now he can, and has.
“First-year head coach, you’re kind of running around and you’re like, ‘this drill’s got to look like this’ and ‘this guy’s got to be here.’ ‘Where are the goal posts?’ ‘Where’s the tent for the fans?’” he said. “There’s so much. And practice, I felt like if I wasn’t in the middle of everything, orchestrating every single drill, then it wasn’t going to be right. And I’d say now with this training camp, and being a little bit limited here mobility-wise, I can kind of sit back and watch it work by itself. And that is the biggest difference—it all moves by itself.
“The players know where they’re going, the coaches know the drills, everybody knows what we want. Now you can really start to coach, you can really start to teach, you can start to get improvement from the drills. It sounds strange, but it’s true.
“When guys don’t understand the rhythm of what it looks like, and it looks so different than what they’re used to, where we’re trying to make it as much of a game as possible, we’re trying to put transitions in there, we’re trying to go from offense to defense to special teams, move field positions, get into situational football, down-and-distance, all that stuff, and they’d never done that before, those are huge changes
“All that is in place to try to make it feel and to prepare like it’s a game. Now, I just see it—‘OK, we’re going to this drill, boom, we go.’ We switch, we change, we go. And that’s the biggest difference right now. It’s the machine.”
I think if the Lions get their offensive line sorted out, they’ve got a shot to be interesting, and largely because we’ll get a little more of Patricia’s potential as a head coach is. (And Lions fans should come for this afternoon’s MAQB, for some interesting detail on Matthew Stafford’s very different offseason.)
PHILIP RIVERS WANTS TO COACH HIGH SCHOOL. JUST NOT YET
IRVINE, Calif. – Next up for a contract? It might just be Philip Rivers. But if it’s not, that’s OK too. And he swore to me, as we sat at on the patio at the Chargers’ camp hotel here, that whatever happens with his deal won’t be a factor in how much longer he plays.
“It’s really not,” he said. “[Chargers GM] Tom [Telesco], when he’s answered the questions, has been very honest, and I have too. We’ve had some dialogue, Tom and I. So if something were to come through in the next month or whatever, then good. If not, good. I really feel good about playing it out and figuring it out in February. At least they’ve expressed to me, and they’ve said publicly, they want me to be here moving forward.
“And I do too. It’ll kind of take care of itself. I think that goes more to the one-year-at-a-time thing, I almost feel better about that, because I think I would have a, shoot, let’s do three years, let’s do four years. I just don’t know. And I know me. If we say we’re doing five, then we’re doing five. I’m going to be there. I’d almost rather have it be, alright, let’s go—just gear up and go [with 2019].”
If Rivers seems a little all over the place there, understand what it means. He really is OK either way with a deal that’ll expire in March. And as for timelines, he does actually have one, even if he’s not quite sure when he’ll hang ’em up.
Rivers knows what he’s going to do post-playing—he plans to follow in his dad’s footsteps as a high school football coach. And what he really wants to do is what his dad did: coach his sons, Gunner (now 11) and Peter (now 7). Gunner, a quarterback for his flag football team, will be in high school in the fall of 2023.
“I know I can’t keep saying a handful [more years] forever,” Rivers says. “I think it’s just kind of a year at a time. I do love to still play. I don’t have a set number. I don’t know if it’s four, or it’s three. But I’m just in the present this year. And I think that’s just best suited for me and our family than saying, ‘alright, I’m going to try and go until X.’ I really don’t have that number. I think when I know, I’ll know.”
For now he’s says he’s as motivated as he’s been, largely because of how last year ended: A Chargers team that was clutch and tough and resourceful reached its end with a 23-6 loss in Foxboro to the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Part of the motivation is that Rivers had gone four years without making the playoffs before to last year, and the Chargers had been on the outside looking in to the tournament in seven of eight years this decade, after qualifying in each of Rivers’ first four years as a starter. Another was the type of team he had around him.
“Last year, just the way that thing had all played out, I was thinking, ‘This is it, this is the year to do it, this is the year to get it done,’” Rivers said. “We’d just gone to Kansas City and won, even though that was tough to do. We’re winning games on the road, won close ones, we had some good experiences, we go to Baltimore and win. And ‘Hey, we’re going to find a way to beat New England, then we go right back to Kansas City and see what happens.’
“So besides the ’07 championship game when I had the knee, that was probably the most emotional—not that I was bawling, crying—but that was probably the most emotionally defeated I’ve felt. It’s just like, gosh, how hard it is to get there, and to get in, hadn’t been in since ’13. To come up short, play our worst game of the year, made it tough. But also, you go, Shoot, let’s go.”
And that’s where he is now, with a roster that’s as loaded as any he’s been a part of—“There was a four-year stretch there where we were as good as anyone in the league, probably should’ve won two, and we didn’t. And I think we’re back in that same similar window, from a roster standpoint.”
So for now, high school football can wait—and it may wait for a few years.
AFTER THE SHAKEUP, THE TEXANS TAKE SHAPE
HOUSTON—Both here and in New Orleans, the teams had these new units they call CRZs (Cool Recovery Zones). They look like trailers. And inside, the temperature is kept at about 34 degrees. The science behind the units says that, by going inside for three minutes, players can lower their body temperature by a few degrees. So in between drills at camp, to combat the overbearing humidity, you’ll see Texans position groups filter in and out of there.
Why am I telling you this? I saw it as another example of Houston trying to modernize its operation, which has been a process of two years or so, with owner Cal McNair putting his fingerprints on the franchise his late father founded. Another example came in the change of the last 18 months, with two GMs gone, coach Bill O’Brien firmly entrenched as the face of the football operation, and McNair’s presence in the building felt on a larger scale.
With that in mind, here are three things I took away from a steamy morning there:
• O’Brien likes the reshuffled structure. Really, the tumult that led to GM Brian Gaine’s dismissal has leveled off the top of football ops, and created silos headed by director of player personnel Matt Bazirgan, college scouting director James Liipfert, cap czar Chris Olsen, EVP of team development Jack Easterby, and O’Brien himself.
“We have a flat organization structure, where basically you have guys like Chris Olsen, Matt Bazirgan, James Liipfert as scouting department heads, we all work together, we all meet together,” O’Brien said, as he came off the practice field. “There’s a lot of communication in the building, it’s going really well. So it’s a structure where we all report to the team—we’re doing what’s best for the team.
“I’d say there are several of us that report to Cal McNair, a lot of great communication in the building, we meet every day, talking about everything ranging from the roster to medical to video to equipment to everything in between. It’s a unique way of doing things. I coach the team. Chris Olsen’s in charge of salary cap, contracts, talking with agents. We have Geoff Kaplan in charge of our training room, Timmy Brog in charge of video. Everyone is just kind of doing their job within their department.”
As the coach, of course, O’Brien sets the vision, and my sense is he likes that part of it. But I certainly wouldn’t rule out Nick Caserio landing here in 2020, depending on how 2019 goes. As we wrote in June, Caserio and O’Brien are very close. Maybe that happens. Maybe it doesn’t.”
• Deshaun Watson is ready for the next step. The Texans QB told me after practice that, as it’s been, he’s routinely had two play calls at his disposal coming out of the huddle in games, and a read to figure out which way he should go. The plan for 2019 is to build on that, and to do so pretty extensively coming off his first full, healthy offseason as a pro.
“I can just have a lot more information on my plate, whenever I need it,” he said. “The past couple years, it was more calling the plays. Or they’d give me two plays, for different looks.
Now I can have five, six different plays in my head, and make sure we get in the right one. Biggest focus is really just taking that leadership role as a quarterback, and mastering my craft with my knowledge of the offense, knowledge of the defense and being able to get us in the right plays.”
O’Brien, meanwhile, has focused on the obvious with his young quarterback—“Everyone knows we have to do a better job of protecting him, and sometimes he has to do a better job of getting the ball out. I think having a full offseason is great for him. I’m excited for him.”
To that end, the team is cautiously optimistic on left tackle Matt Kalil’s camp performance. Health is always a question with him, but his emergence has allowed the team to work rookies Tytus Howard and Max Sharping at guard, for now.
• There’s a sense of urgency among the older guys. J.J. Watt is 30. Whitney Mercilus is 29. Even DeAndre Hopkins has a lot of mileage on his body for a 27-year-old. So while the Texans are young in some spots, the core that’s propelled the team to three playoff berths in the last four years isn’t getting any younger. And while they may a few more cracks at it, they all know it won’t last forever.
Which is why when I asked Hopkins if he feels a certain sense of urgency after knocking on the door so much, he didn’t hesitate.
“We can’t sugarcoat it—we know we have some veterans on this team that aren’t going to be here forever, and we’ve got some veterans in their prime,” Hopkins said. “And us being close to it, I think we got a taste of what we want. I’d be lying to say that the urgency isn’t there. That’s the way we practice. That’s the way we prepare.”
1. You’ll spot some trends during a camp trip in the league. Here’s one: A handful of teams I’ve visited would be interested in dealing for a corner. There’s just not enough depth at the position in the NFL right now, particularly with where offense in the league is going. Along those lines, the issue really is finding sellers. Very few teams have a surplus. New England and New Orleans are two that other teams have an eye on that might be in a spot to deal a spare corner. But if you’re either of those teams, it’d be hard to part with the depth you worked to build back there. At the very least, I could see a few contenders being active on the waiver wire after the cutdown days at the position.
2. One other commonality: the number of teams that would point to the offensive line as a major swing factor in how their seasons could go. Among those I saw, I’d say the staffs in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Houston and with the Chargers all feel that way. There’s a reason why you’ve seen free-agent tackles (Trent Brown), guards (Andrew Norwell) and centers (Mitch Morse) break financial records as good but maybe not quite great free agents the last two offseasons.
3. Jaguars DE Yannick Ngakoue has proven to be a terror as a pass-rusher. And that part of his game is worthy of getting into the $20 million per club that four defensive players are a part of (Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, DeMarcus Lawrence, Frank Clark). The issue? Ngakoue isn’t great in the run game, which the Jaguars have been able to mask because of their ability to go eight or nine deep in their defensive-line rotation. So I’m not stunned that Jacksonville’s moved conservatively on him, nor is it a stunner that he had to curtail his holdout. In a way, this one is a little like Dee Ford in Kansas City. Like Ngakoue, Ford is an explosive, havoc-wreaking pass-rusher with a less than complete game. And the Chiefs, you’ll recall, basically swapped out Ford for Clark this offseason, giving up draft capital and more money to do it.
4. I asked Bears coach Matt Nagy the other day where Mitch Trubisky might take his biggest step in 2019. And found that it’s something that’ll be tough for the fan watching on TV to pick up on. “His biggest step I think he’s taken is in protection,” Nagy told me. “The greatest quarterbacks in the league right now, they’re so good at being able to ID where the rush is coming from, they watch so much tape and they’ve seen so many rushes that they can make a call to go left or right, they’re protected, and now they have time to throw. These younger quarterbacks who can’t see, they’re throwing hot all the time, they’re scrambling, they’re running around. And so he’s taken a nice step with protections this offseason. Now training camp is going to be more about continuing that, and also seeing coverages.” Best way to conceptualize that? I remember having a conversation with Brady about a decade ago about calling the Mike, which in the Patriots’ system doesn’t mean ID’ing the middle linebacker. He’s actually calling who he thinks the fifth rusher will be, which allows the line to parcel out assignments. Brady’s good enough at it that New England often can keep one fewer blocker in, which means one more receiver goes out into the pattern, which puts stress on the defense. So what Nagy is describing might seem like a little step. It’s actually a big one.”
5. Gotta be happy for Colt McCoy, who suffered a gruesome broken leg the week after Alex Smith suffered his, returned for the start of training camp, and now is atop the Redskins depth chart at quarterback going into the first week of the preseason. Jay Gruden’s always been a fan of McCoy, to the point where he raised the idea of moving forward with him as the starter when the team was mulling over whether to tag Kirk Cousins a second time, or pursue a free agent like Mike Glennon in 2017.
6. I was in Oxnard on Sunday, and I don’t sense great panic over the Cowboys’ contractual traffic jam. They’ve shown a willingness to pay quarterback Dak Prescott and receiver Amari Cooper among the top-five players at their positions, and Zeke Elliott right at the top of the running back market. Does that get it done? It hasn’t thus far. But if Dallas is already at that point, I think it’s reasonable to think getting one or two of these deals accomplished (the Cooper talks have moved slower) before to Week 1 is doable. And remember, this is a good problem for a really good team to have.
7. Drew Lock didn’t look great in the Hall of Fame game. But this is very much what the Broncos signed up for—a guy who only ran anything even resembling a pro offense for a single year at Missouri, and was considered pretty inconsistent coming out. Lock has a a lot going for him. He has a big arm, he’s a really good athlete (good enough to have been a Division I basketball recruit), and he has moxie that won over some coaches in the interview room at the combine. He’s also a little bit of a project, which has been apparent at practice too. So it’s a good thing Denver has Joe Flacco on hand.
8. I’ll be in Arizona on Monday, so here are two questions that keep coming up with opposing coaches on what Kliff Kingsbury’s offense will look like: Will it be able to protect the quarterback, and will it be proficient running the ball? There wasn’t much diversity in protection looks at Texas Tech, and there wasn’t what you’d see in the pros in the way of a running game. I think most people think Kingsbury can design and call a solid NFL passing game. How he adapts the rest will be interesting.
9. This is one of my favorite stories of the year. Maybe the decade. It’s always amazing to me how the NFL can be so well-run on certain fronts, and can’t get out of its own way on others.
10. I thought there were some pretty amazing quotes from ex-Browns OC Todd Haley on Hard Knocks in my old friend Don Banks’ first and final column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. First, Banks asked Haley about the decision to do the show. “When [GM] John [Dorsey] told me they were doing [the show], I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Haley told Banks. “We’re trying to make a drastic change here and turn things around, and this is the wrong thing to happen. I told the Browns owner, ‘Jimmy, this is a mistake. Don’t do it.’ The No. 1 thing in camp is getting the team ready to be able to compete.” Read that column. And then scroll down here for more on our old colleague.
... OF THE WEEK
“What’s not been discussed, you never heard much discussion about all-star crews. And that had a lot to do with that. Two guys looking at it, one guy thinks he’s got the angle, makes the call. And the young guy acquiesces to him. But if they’d worked together, week-in, week-out, you’d be like, ‘No, I saw that.’”
— Saints coach Sean Payton to me on the aforementioned missed PI call.
And I’m with him on this—I think continuity within crews is important, which makes it a little crazy that they’re broken up when the stakes are highest. I wouldn’t be surprised if this winds up being a topic of discussion in 2020, especially with Payton on the competition committee.
“That's the elegance of having a mustache. You just don't know what's going to happen.”
—Browns QB Baker Mayfield on his new facial hair.
I have a lot of friends from Cleveland, and trust me when I say this guy is a better fit for them than even Bernie Kosar was. Just a perfect match of quarterback and city. Why? Last week, I said to Mayfield that I thought he was pretty good at not worrying about stuff that doesn’t matter. His answer: “I don’t. I think the easiest answer for me is being told I couldn’t do certain things growing up. It just developed into focusing on controlling what I can control. And some of those opinions on the outside, they’re not going to influence me every day. If I let them, I’m focusing on the wrong things. I’ve got to be getting better.” He’s already really good at fitting in up there.
“I’m pretty sure every GM in this league would consider me a top-three running back. Me personally, I feel like I'm the best.”
—Jets RB Le’Veon Bell to CBS’s Bryant McFadden.
This isn’t true—there was barely any market for Bell when he was available in March, for a bunch of different reasons. What I do think most GMs would agree on is that he once was in that category. It’ll be fascinating to see if he can get back there.
“This Nate Peterman is growing on me.”
—Raiders coach Jon Gruden.
Posted after Brady’s contract was agreed to—a deal that will take him to almost $300 million in career earnings, if he plays it out and it’s not adjusted. I remember talking to Brady about this a few years back, and asking him if he ever felt like he live down his draft position. “No,” Brady answered, “because you always have to have that lack of self-confidence that you need to build on.” A different answer than you might hear from most athletes. But an interesting one in how it fuels his competitive fire.
This is a fantastic trend that should continue. With a mustache.
I should have listened to what I was hearing last spring about Mahomes. I’m not going to be as skeptical this time around. He has every chance to be a better player than he was a year ago. And as we alluded to earlier in the column, it’s because of who he is as a guy.
I want to know how much Jordan had on this one.
Really hard not to love Quinnen Williams.
Never has a quote fit a picture better. And that, by the way is Dan Skipper, who’s logged snaps at left tackle for the Patriots, with 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn still working his way back from last year’s Achilles injury. Skipper is somehow 24 years old.
Pretty good tweet here.
S/O to …
New Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, for this message. We should all hear it, on a lot of different levels. Lots of problems would be solved if we listened to one another better.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINES
1. I’m not even sure what to say on the passing of Don Banks. When he got the job at the Las Vegas Review-Journal last month, I thought to tweet my congratulations, as so many others in our business—who loved and respected him—had. But we hadn’t talked in a while, so I shot him a text. We had a short but really good back-and-forth and made plans to get a beer after I was done with my camp trip. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and both were looking forward to get together. “I would love that,” Don texted. “Late August sounds right.” I’m crushed that we won’t get to do that. Don helped recruit me to Sports Illustrated three years ago, easing what was an agonizing decision, and his presence at SI was a factor in making the move I did. But I think explaining Don is better done by talking about what he was like to me when I was 25, 26, 27 years old and toggling covering the Patriots and preps and doing desk work at the MetroWest Daily News. He couldn’t have been better to me. They say you learn who people are by how they treat those who can’t help them. I learned a lot about Don that way, when I was that guy. And he was that same person to everyone, inside this business and beyond. To Alissa and his boys, our hearts go out to you, from all of us at The MMQB and SI. He will be missed.
2. Read Jenny Vrentas’s tribute to Don.
3. After Dayton and El Paso, I really don’t know what to say to people who don’t want our politicians to take a hard look at reforming gun laws.
4. On a lighter note, weren’t Pelicans GM David Griffin’s comments on LeBron James just sort of stating the obvious? I think it’s pretty easy to understand why a guy who’s hired to team-build might be a little frustrated being in a year-to-year operation. And I’m not sure it’s exactly a news flash that LeBron put the Cavs in perpetual WIN NOW! mode, or that others would shoulder blame when one of his teams failed to win a title. Unfortunately, the reaction from people who rush to get LeBron’s back at any hint of criticism is exactly why coaches and players are so often afraid to be transparent.
5. I guess it’s time to quit on the Red Sox?
6. In case you’re wondering, we’ve got 19 days until Florida and Miami kick off the college season. So actual, real football is really, really close.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
All 32 teams will play in preseason games, 30 for the first time, this weekend, and I’d expect we’re going to see less of starters than we have before. And going from camp to camp, I’ve picked up three good reasons for that.
One, the rise in joint practices has allowed coaches to replicate game reps to ramp their starters up in a controlled environment. Consider the Rams. They had two joint practices with the Chargers last week. They’ll have two more with the Raiders this week. If the starters get, say, 30 11-on-11 reps per session, that adds up to 120 reps, which is far more than they’d normally take in preseason games anyway. And it’s more efficient and safer—plus, without TV cameras there to put everything on film, coaches can open the playbook.
Two, a few coaches mentioned to me they want to use the preseason games to evaluate backups and develop depth. Traditionally, these games are 1s-vs.-1s, 2s-vs.-2s and 3s-vs.-3s. But if you sit your starters, you may have the opportunity to test and develop your backups against another team’s starters, an opportunity that I think we’ll see at least a couple teams take advantage of this month.
Three, because of some of the data out there, teams are taking a more cautious approach in getting veterans, especially banged up ones, ready. As we mentioned last week, the league distributed data earlier this summer that showed injuries spike over the first seven to 10 days of camp. That’s motivated some coaches to be slower in bringing guys back, and methodical in preparing vets for the season. Which means fewer prime-timers are ready to go.
Anyway, enjoy the preseason everyone! (Again, Florida/Miami is 19 days away.)
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