Monthly Archives: June 2012

Top 10 NFL post-spring (player-related!) storylines

Peyton

For the NFL, there’s still another full month to go in the off-season brought to you by the Donald Fehr Foundation for Labour Peace, TMZ, and the Breathalyzer Manufacturers Association of America.

Ugh.

Could you blame any blogger for posting a countdown-to-kickoff clock that spins its seconds in the thousandths?

Alas, off-field NFL controversies remain omni-present. Let’s see…

The NFLPA is fighting the league on everything. On-field officials might strike. A Detroit Lion is getting jailed for drunk driving or pot possession seemingly every third week. More frequently than that, there’s a new concussion lawsuit filed against the league by ex-NFLers.

And suspended bountygate players continue to appeal their punishments in every venue possible.

On the field, NFL teams open their pre-season training camps in the last week of July.
Clubs have just concluded their off-season May and June practices — including rookie mini-camps, voluntary “OTAs” and mandatory three-day mini-camps. No pads or hitting in any of them. Just players in helmets and shorts, with 11-on-11s limited.

Still, a lot can be learned.

And so, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell‘s lawyer forms a queue for his client’s growing line of process servers, here are the Top 10 things to take from this year’s off-season practices:

1. Peyton Manning? So far, so good.
Now 36, the Hall-of-Famer-to-be (Reuters photo, above) hasn’t taken a snap in an NFL game since the end of the 2010 season. Since then, he’s had several surgeries to repair a bulging disc in his neck.
So far in Denver, the neck seemingly hasn’t been an issue. In his second-to-last mini-camp practice two weeks ago, Manning dazzled.
“During the no-huddle, 11-on-11 portion of practice,” according to the Denver Post, “Manning was never better — at least (since 2010).
“He zinged medium-range, crossing-pattern passes to tight end Jacob Tamme and wide receiver Matt Willis. And he nailed deep go-route passes to each side of the field, one to Eric Decker, the other to Demaryius Thomas.”
The first time Manning will be subjected to hits will be in the Broncos’ first exhibition game — Thursday, Aug. 9 against the Bears in Chicago.

2.  Tebow in the Big Apple.
Tebow-ed out yet? Ya ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
The first game this fall in which starting New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez sucks, the pressure for Rex Ryan and staff to insert Tim Tebow will be huge.
The Jets acquired the pop-cult phenom in a trade with the Broncos in March. Of course, all of New York promptly went gaga.
At the team’s first OTA practice, Jets beat writers were live-tweeting after each and every Sanchez or Tebow throw, and then comparing their stats.
Tebow might well be perfectly suited to run a zone-read style alt-offence for the Jets, which is why Ryan said they acquired him. But if the 2012 Jets don’t bring new meaning to the term Quarterback Controversy, we’ll be shocked.

3. Rookie QBs.
The Colts’ No. 1 overall draft pick, quarterback Andrew Luck, is absolutely incredible. Gifted beyond belief. Can make every throw. Picks up complicated concepts just like that. Makes crying babies smile. Would bring peace to the Middle East if only given the chance.
Ditto for QB Robert Griffin III, the Redskins’ No. 2 overall pick.
Right.
Reality will come in August and September, when we watch them struggle as starters, as almost all phenom QBs do in Year 1 on the atrocious teams that drafted them.
The intrigue, and news, surrounds the third and fourth QBs drafted.
Every draft expert and his brother warned us that Ryan Tannehill wouldn’t be ready to start come September. The Dolphins — who drafted him eighth overall — appear to understand this.
David Garrard and Matt Moore took almost all of the first-team snaps this spring. It wasn’t until the last day of mini-camp last week that Tannehill worked with the ones. Tannehill threw “a couple real nice balls,” head coach Joe Philbin said, but also tossed two bad picks.
In Cleveland, Brandon Weeden (22nd overall) appears a lock to win the starting job in training camp from the disappointing Colt McCoy.
Weeden struggled at times this spring, to be expected, but his strong arm impressed. So did his maturity — no shocker there, as he’ll turn 29 in October, after delaying his college football career by five years to play pro baseball.

4. Other QB battles.
Three intrigue:
• TITANS. Veteran Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker (coming off his rookie season) shared snaps with the ones. Head coach Mike Munchak says the job is wide open. But columnist David Climer of The Tennesseean says Hasselbeck again will get the nod, citing Locker’s slow but upward development, but especially Hasselbeck’s experience to steer the team through a burdensome early schedule.
• JAGUARS. Rookie Blaine Gabbert was downright terrible last year. With deposed Dolphin Chad Henne as his primary competition, Gabbert hasn’t flinched. In fact observers say he has clearly improved both his drop and release mechanics, and now has a distinct edge on Henne.
• SEAHAWKS. Last year’s Tarvaris Jackson or free-agent signee Matt Flynn? Head coach Pete Carroll said the other day that Jackson will get the first snap at training camp, which raised a stir. But that’s exactly what Carroll told me in March at the NFL annual meeting: “It’s really clear how we’re going to do this. Our whole program is built on competition. It’s the central theme in all things we do … Tarvaris will take the first snap, because he’s been with us and worked hard for that. But from that point forward, it’s going to be as even as you can get, and we’ll see what happens.”

5.  Holdouts.
There were five biggies: Saints QB Drew Brees, Steelers WR Mike Wallace, Ravens RB Ray Rice, Lions DE Cliff Avril and Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew.
Brees still refuses to sign his 2012 franchise tag, even though it would pay him more than $16 million. He boycotted all Saints off-season workouts. Unless the club signs him to a long-term deal by July 16, Brees must sign the tag if he wants to play anywhere this year.
Wallace, a restricted free agent who received no offers from any other clubs by the deadline (compensation is too high), had until June 15 to sign the Steelers’ RFA tender of $2.7 million. He didn’t, as he’s demanding a long-term deal from the club.
Although the Steelers now can pay Wallace only $577,000 in ’12, they don’t want Wallace’s head to explode.
Rice and Jones-Drew are both integral to their teams’ run-dominated attacks. Jones-Drew led the league in rushing last year with 1,606 yards, while Rice enables Baltimore QB Joe Flacco to get by at barely serviceable. Both RBs will get their money.
Expect both Wallace and Brees to get their long-term deals, too, before too much training-camp damage is done, if any.
Even Avril is optimistic the Lions will pony up.

6.  Holdouts to come?
Our money is on Bears RB Matt Forte and Jets CB Darrelle Revis. Both are livid at their contract situations.
If you’re gonna feel sorry for any of these players, it should be Forte. He’s been making comparative peanuts the past four years — $600,000+, $700,00+, $800,000+ and $900,000 last year.
The Bears stuck the franchise tag on Forte in April, meaning he’d make $7.7 million this year if he signs it. Huge raise, right? But based on his play with the Bears so far, he feels he’s due a huge, longterm deal. Lots of bad blood there now.
Revis held out just two years ago before the Jets signed him to a four-year, $46-million contract extension. Now he wants a lot more, two years in. If Revis doesn’t hold out this year, next spring ought to be a circus.

7.  Ocho sinko.
The Pats dumped WR Chad Ochocinco presumably because he couldn’t pick up their complicated routes. He looked absolutely lost in the regular-season game last November against the Giants, then rode the bench in the Super Bowl.
The Dolphins quickly picked him up, and already hope he can be their next (gulp) Brandon Marshall.

8. Randy Moss is back.
Observers say former all-everything WR Randy Moss has looked dynamic with the 49ers, despite his age (35) and despite not playing last season. The Frisco offence needs a huge upgrade at WR. Moss, free-agent signee Mario Manningham and first-round pick A.J. Jenkins might be the answers.

9. The Bills do indeed have hope.
Free-agent DE signees Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, plus an apparently healthy Shawne Merriman, have the Bills “night and day” better up front on defence. That’s what DL coach Giff Smith told me a couple of weeks ago.
And QB coach David Lee told me how a small glitch in QB Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s throwing motion led to inaccuracy at times with his throws, especially to the right. Fitz told me he has fixed the footwork flaw and mostly was on fire at the three OTA sessions I attended.
With Vince Young presumably backing up Fitz, and Stevie Johnson getting some deep-threat help from rookie WR T.J. Graham and an improved Donald Jones, the Bills might well contend for a playoff spot for the first time since many of the current players were children.

10. Dez steps up.
Cowboys WR Dez Bryant appears to have turned the corner. Everybody was raving about his precise route-tunning and great hands throughout OTAs and mini-camp. Do the Cowboys finally have a first-rate WR for Tony Romo? Looks like it.

Jerry Sandusky: You are …. NOT Penn State

SANDUSKY

On Nov. 13, 1999, appreciative fans adorned Penn State’s Beaver Stadium with hand-painted signs the size of bed sheets — all in praise of Jerry Sandusky.

It was Sandusky’s last home game after 32 years as a defensive assistant to head football coach Joe Paterno, and the university was honouring him.

Yes, that Jerry Sandusky. The one found guilty Friday night on 45 of 48 counts of child sex-abuse with up to 10 boys over a 15-year period. His jail sentence, to be determined, could exceed 400 years.

In 1999, few in central Pennsylvania knew Sandusky had such a dark side.

He had long since won over the hearts of locals in and around State College, not only for churning out great Nittany Lion defences and great defensive players alike — especially linebackers — but also for his tireless volunteer work on behalf of local youth with the charity he founded in 1977, The Second Mile.

Sandusky was retiring, it had been announced, so he could devote more time to The Second Mile.

To many Penn State alumni and fans, Sandusky was Saint 1b — to Saint 1a, their beloved “JoePa.” After all, what seasoned, head-coach-ready football man had ever given it all up to run a local children’s charity?

So it was a special occasion on that sunny day in 1999 as “Coach” worked the sidelines at Happy Valley for one last time as defensive coordinator.

SANDUSKY“From all of us at Linebacker U — thanks Jerry for the Memories,” read one sign.

“We’ll miss you Coach Sandusky,” read another.

The sign that perhaps best captured the sentiment of the occasion appeared to be professionally made — likely by the university itself. Between a pair of official athletic department logos were these words:

“Thanks Jerry — You are Penn State.”

SANDUSKYThat’s a high-tribute play on the cherished battle cry of all Nittany Lions fans. With brazen pride at games, both home and away, fans repeatedly shout out the following call-and-answer between themselves:

“WE ARRRRE!!! … ”

“… PENN STATE!!”

Before that game in 1999 — the No. 6 Nittany Lions’ nationally broadcast showdown against the No. 16 Michigan Wolverines — a teary-eyed Sandusky was introduced to a huge ovation.

He hugged some of his defensive players. Then he blew a big kiss to the 96,840 in attendance.

SANDUSKYFinally, he bear-hugged player No. 45 — his fifth adopted son, Jon, a reserve safety, now the director of player personnel for the Cleveland Browns.

ABC taped that touching scene and aired it at the top of the show. Announcers Brent Musberger and Gary Danielson referenced Sandusky throughout the game, and the producer kept a camera constantly trained on Sandusky. At times ABC showed us some of those tribute signs hanging around the SANDUSKYstadium. (NOTE: All of the accompanying images are frame grabs from ABC’s telecast of this game.)

A huge Michigan fan, I videotaped the game — as always.

This past January, before sitting down to write a pre-Super Bowl feature on ex-Wolverine QB Tom Brady’s coming-of-age moment in college, I rewatched it. I’d forgotten it coincided with the Sandusky lovefest.

Perhaps as much as anything I’ve seen, heard or read in the months since the Sandusky scandal exploded in November, the events as recorded on my deteriorating VHS tape inform. They underscore the deep affection and loyalty felt throughout central Pennsylvania not only for Penn State football — but for all the principals associated with it. They’re all icons. All to revered, all to be defended.

But not unconditionally.

On Friday night, Sandusky’s trial in nearby Bellefonte, Pa., ended when a 12-person jury found him guilty of all those child sex-abuse charges, after overwhelmingly upsetting testimony from eight of his 10 alleged victims, who had achingly testified in graphic detail how the now 68-year-old Sandusky eventually forced them to secretly submit to sex acts — oral, anal or otherwise.

The jury comprised nine people with close ties to Penn State — one student, four employees, two professors and two alumni.

Sandusky left the courthouse in handcuffs, escorted into a cruiser that would take him to the first of the only homes he’ll now ever know — behind bars.

SANDUSKYHe looked stunned, much as he did as he left the Penn State sideline after the loss to Michigan in 1999, when his defence collapsed in the final four minutes and allowed Brady and the Wolverines to score two decisive touchdowns in a 31-27 Michigan win.

It is almost eerie to watch a clearly gutted Sandusky on that jumpy game tape, strolling sadly away, by himself. Totally alone. No one patting him on the back saying, “Chin up, you still had a brilliant career, Coach,” or something like that.

Instead, it was as if they all were avoiding him. Like they would a child molester.
That brief image was deceiving, however. In reality, everybody at Penn State still had his back.

But not anymore. And thank goodness for that. As the jury of his Penn State peers unanimously decided, deplorable actions speak far louder than battle-cry words.

Jerry Sandusky, you arrrre …

… Not Penn State.

OJ Atogwe on becoming an Eagle

Atogwe

Free safety Oshiomogho “O.J.” Atogwe is finally free of free agency.

And for that he’s most grateful.

The seven-year NFLer from Windsor, Ont., signed a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles on Wednesday, just three days before his 31st birthday.

Atogwe had been waiting for what he calls the “right opportunity” for three months, after the Washington Redskins cut him on March 12, the day before the free-agency signing period commenced.

“I think Philadelphia has got a tremendous team all around,” Atogwe said Thursday in a telephone interview. “I believe they brought me in just to help the team in whatever role necessary to continue to allow them to be successful.

“They’ve got a great group of safeties there. I’ve watched them make a lot of plays. And I’m excited to join the group and help them, as well as allow them to help me, and really to get things rolling where we have the best secondary in the league, as well as one of the best defences.”

The Eagles finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs in 2011, but ended the year on a roll, winning their last four games and outscoring the opposition 125-46 after starting quarterback Michael Vick returned from injury.

“I missed out on their entire off-season,” Atogwe said. “But it just makes me look forward more to the training camp. Until then, I’ll get as immersed as possible in the culture of the way they do things.”

AtogweA third-round draft pick in 2005, Atogwe spent his first six NFL seasons with the Rams in St. Louis, becoming one of the league’s better two-way free safeties — as both a pass defender and hard-hitting tackler. Last year he played with the Redskins.

He has 25 career interceptions and 16 forced fumbles.

Since the cap-strapped Redskins let him go, Atogwe worked out for the Detroit Lions and Kansas City Chiefs, and reportedly had interest from the Patriots, Jets and Vikings. But he couldn’t find a match until head coach Andy Reid and the Eagles stepped up.

Was the three-month wait frustrating? You betcha. But he said he refused to let it get him down.

“I needed to stay focused,” Atogwe said, “and not get distracted by not having a team … And make sure I was being faithful in my workouts, and being faithful in taking care of my body. Because when the time was right, when God led me to the team I was supposed to be with, then everything would fall in line. I believe that’s what happened.”

Some prognosticators are saying the Eagles will be a strong playoff contender in 2012. Atogwe agrees.

“The thing that’s most exciting is knowing that we’re capable of achieving everything that we set out for the year, and looking across our roster and knowing that there’s no weakness within the team.

“It’s really upon us to decide how we want the year to go, and how much we’re willing to sacrifice, and how hard we’ll work together to produce on the field. That’s exciting for me.”

News and other tidbits from Bills practice

StevieJ

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — News, tidbits and observations from Monday’s Buffalo Bills practice, the first of four OTAs this week. I tweeted a lot of it as it happened, but here’s a bit more perspective — and more, including an interesting comment from DL coach Giff Smith about DE Mark Anderson:

• WR Stevie Johnson (above, my photo from Monday) said he’s expecting to fully take part in team drills next week at the mandatory three-day mini-camp, which concludes spring off-season workouts. He fielded several passes Monday while working out solo. He ran at about half-speed but made a nice leaping grab at one point. See my photo of that play in the gallery post, below.

• QB Ryan Fitzpatrick again was as hot as the weather, other than — as last Tuesday — just one glaringly bad play. Fitz was hitting quick pass after quick pass all over the field Monday, finding receivers and delivering them the ball in the numbers for the most part. His best pass in 11-on-11s was the last play — a perfectly thrown ball down the left sideline to speedy rookie WR T.J. Graham, who caught it and was gone. Safety Jairus Byrd couldn’t make his way over in time from what appeared to be cover-2. It was about as bang-bang a long pass as you’ll see. Fitz threw it quickly, without much loft, and Graham snared it. Afterward, Fitz ran down the field and chest-bumped Graham.

• Fitz’s one groaner on Monday was on a shortish post. The WR was double-covered all the way. Safety George Wilson easily picked off the pass. Should never have been thrown. Fitz forced it.

• QB Vince Young took almost all of the non-Fitz reps. Didn’t do anything memorable. Missed a couple passes again. As QBs coach David Lee told me last week, Young is coming along quickly and has a ton to learn, but for having not played in an offence like this before he’s making strides. But bottom line: Fitz has nothing to worry about.

• I could be wrong — and probably am — but I don’t recall seeing Tyler Thigpen taking a single snap in 11-on-11s. [UPDATE: Thigpen threw only position-drill passes, as he's still limited after pulling a chest muscle two weeks ago.]. Brad Smith only got a few snaps. On one he handed off in the zone-read, and on another — right after a defensive coach screamed to watch out for the running quarterback — he took off for a nice gainer on a QB draw.

• DT Jay Ross busted up a Vince Young pass play, breaking through early up the middle before Young could even set up.

Kevin Brock appears to be the second-string TE. Scott Chandler, the starter, again made some nice grabs.

• Rookie OT Zebrie Sanders (fifth round, Florida State) was the goat on an apparent third-and-10 play near the defence’s end zone. He jumped before the snap, killing the play.

• DC Dave Wannstedt was still wearing a neck brace. He told me last Tuesday it would be coming off in “a few days.” Nnnot yet.

• CB Aaron Williams was starting with the ones on the left side, which appeared to be the short side, until a recurring knee ailment sidelined him. HC Chan Gailey said that was a precautionary move. Leodis McKelvin played right-side corner (wideside, it appeared) with the ones against traditional two-WR sets, but slid inside to be nickelback to cover the slot WR against trips. Rookie Stephon Gilmore then came on to play corner on that side.

• McKelvin was dynamic at times on Monday. On consecutive plays in 11-on-11s, with the offence at the 10-yard line, he broke up quick-slant passes — the first to RB Fred Jackson, who’d repositioned to the slot, and the second to WR David Nelson. A few minutes later, McKelvin nearly had a pick when he leaped in front of what looked like a post. Later, in 7-on-7s, he had another PBU. Impressive.

• Undrafted rookie DB Isaiah Green (out of Fresno State) had a really nice PBU in 7-on-7s on a post to WR Marcus Easley.

• During kickoff drills, WRs T.J. Graham and Donald Jones were back fielding balls.

• Rookie LB Nigel Bradham was all over a swing pass to Fred Jackson, after Fitz was super-rushed by DE Mario Williams. Bradham did the same thing on a safety-valve swing pass to an RB last week. The kid is not slow.

• Afterward, DL coach Giff Smith told me that DE Mark Anderson isn’t just a pass rusher: “I was looking at film of him before OTAs started, and you know what? Everybody talks about how good a pass rusher he is — and he is that — but he’s also a lot better run defender than he’s been given credit for.” Anderson, BTW, is fine health-wise, Smith said.

• Afterward, DE Mario Williams told me that he and the other defensive linemen are developing chemistry both on the field and off. For instance, late last week they all got together for a dinner.

• Gailey on his depth chart as of Monday: “Nothing’s set … It’s all magnets. They can be moved.”

Bills OTA June 11 — photo gallery

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Bills opened up Monday’s practice to the media, the first of four in the final week of OTAs. Below are some of my photos.

Will post some tidbits off today’s workout, plus from my post-practice interviews and all-media player availability, in a bit. See me as-they-happened tweets for what happened today: @JohnKryk

More soon…

Stevie

Stevie Johnson snares a pass on a short route. He ran a few routs at about half speed at the start of practice. Johnson is ahead of schedule in recovering from groin surgery at the end of April. He told reporters Monday he’s hoping to take part in next week’s three-day mini-camp.

Stevie

Stevie was all smiles.

Mario

Some unimposing guy named Mario something-or-other.

Mario

Nick Barnett (not Merriman! Sorry for earlier mis-ID and thanks to @timothycarl) with Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus.

Fitz

Fitz cracks a smile, too.

Vince

VY

Kyle

He couldn’t take part in all of the first-team reps, but DT Kyle Williams was in there for as many as coaches would allow.