Colts, Anderson, Ind.: The Pocket Protector.
I think the right move was to put first-round pick Anthony Castonzo in with the first unit at left tackle, and to put him in now. I saw him on one of his first practices with the first unit, and three times in a row he handled a speed-rush in one-on-one drills, twice from touted 2010 rookie Jerry Hughes.
He's already had his welcome-to-the-Colts moment from the fearless leader. "The first time I talked to Peyton at length,'' said Castonzo, "he said to me, 'You got any questions for me?' I really didn't know what to say, so then he started telling me a few things about specific plays and what he expected of me. I thought it'd be five minutes. It ended up about 25. The guy's attention to detail is amazing.''
Oh really. We hadn't seen that.
"It's a great honor to protect him,'' Castonzo said. "Regardless of who would be back there, I'm going to do everything to protect the guy. But with him there, I have to admit it adds a little motivation.''
"He's going to make some mistakes,'' club president Bill Polian said. "They all do. But you put him in there, let him make those mistakes, learn from them, and you hope you have your guy at a very important position for a while.''
With respect to Charlie Johnson, the gap-plugger at left tackle after the failed experiment with Tony Ugoh, Castonzo was the logical pick last April. The Colts know they should have taken Rodger Saffold to play left tackle last year. They picked Hughes instead. Castonzo, the most experienced left tackle prospect in the draft, and the Colts hope he'll be the blindside guy for the guy who succeeds Manning. In 2021, or whenever.
Titans, Nashville, Tenn.: The coach who came to dinner.
"Ask your parents if I can come to dinner tomorrow night,'' Joe Paterno said over the phone to Scranton (Pa.) High senior Mike Munchak in the spring of 1977.
"As if we're going to say no,'' Munchak thought. He was a well-regarded high school prospect, a rare one, who had called the Penn State football office to tell them he'd decided to go elsewhere to college and play football. The coach who answered said, "Hang on. Let me put coach Paterno on the phone.''
The last thing a high school senior who's not going to go to Penn State wants to do is tell Paterno (bigger than the governor even then) why he was going somewhere else. That's when Paterno asked about dinner, and Munchak checked with his parents, and yes, it would be OK if Paterno came to dinner the next night, to hear the reasons why young Mike Munchak was going somewhere else to college.
(To Syracuse, by the way. With dogged recruiter Tom Coughlin, who set an unofficial record for most Scranton Central High games attended, to make sure the Munchaks knew he cared.)
So the dinner happened. The mom and dad and Mike sat with Joe Paterno for a couple of hours while he told his stories of Penn State and life, never once mentioning the sport of football. The parents were mesmerized. Then Paterno said to them: "Do you mind if I have five minutes alone with your son?''
Uh-oh. Now Munchak was going to have to tell him.
"If you come to Penn State,'' Paterno said, "I'm not guaranteeing you'll ever play a single play of football. But I can guarantee you you'll get a good education that will serve you for the rest of your life. If you come, and if you play football, and if you have it in you, I can promise you we'll get it out of you. And if that's not good enough for you, maybe I shouldn't be here. Maybe you should go somewhere else. That's fine.''
Munchak went to Penn State. And the day I was at the Titans facility, I spoke to the first Paterno player from Penn State ever to be an NFL head coach. Isn't that odd? Wouldn't you think someone from Happy Valley would have climbed the NFL ladder to the top of the business in the two centuries Paterno's been the coach at Penn State? You'd think so, but you'd be wrong.
"I didn't know either,'' Munchak said, sitting in Jeff Fisher's old office. That's the only coach who's ever coached the franchise since it moved from Houston, and when Fisher and the team divorced last winter, GM Mike Reinfeldt had no intention of giving the job to Munchak. He'd never been anything but a line coach. He never sought out coordinator jobs, though he'd been asked a couple of time to interview for them -- once, in Cleveland, by the man he hired as offensive coordinator of this team, Chris Palmer, the former head coach of the Browns. He thought there were only two jobs other than line coach -- he was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the franchise -- he'd ever want: general manager or head coach.
So when Fisher left, he spent 48 hours preparing for the interview with Reinfeldt and club vice president Steve Underwood, which was tough. Some assistants have nice, glossy presentations prepared when they interview for a job. Munchak had nothing. "I'm not a networker,'' he said. "So when it came time for one of the important parts of the interview, identifying which coaches I'd try to hire on my staff, I didn't really know a lot of them. I just thought: Who did I have trouble going against over the years? And those are some of the people I'd try to hire.''
Still, the truth was, his was a courtesy interview. Never did Reinfeldt think of Munchak, the quiet line coach, as head-coaching timber -- until his five incredibly thorough hours in the interview were up. "Shocking,'' said Reinfeldt. "He had an answer for everything. And some great ideas. We had no idea that was coming.''
Not just the Paterno-spawned ideas either. Sports jackets on road trips. No hats in the building. No headphones while working out; talking and communicating was preferred. No TVs in the trainer's room; don't want it to be too comfortable in there. A 12-minute video presentation on the history of the Oilers going back to the old American Football League days "because you should always know where you came from,'' Munchak said.
But interesting football ideas too. Competition periods in practice, for instance. A corner against a wide receiver; best out of five, with the whole team watching, where your biggest fear is getting beat in front of the whole team.
"In my career, the worst thing was letting your teammates down,'' he said. "I wanted every player to be able to have the chance to do what he does best, and to be lifted by the competition. I firmly believe competition is what everyone on this team better. I've always believed that.''
Before my 80 minutes with Munchak Thursday, I didn't know him well at all. But I'll be watching this team very closely. I have a feeling, particularly in light of the $15-million-a-year contract Larry Fitzgerald signed Saturday, that Chris Johnson's holdout could last into the season; I don't know that, and I hadn't thought that until I saw the resolve of the Titans on this trip, and then listened to Maurice Jones-Drew on my next stop. Which brings us to ...
Jaguars, Jacksonville: A running back's view of NFL economics.
(I'll have more thoughts about the Jaguars in my Tuesday column. But I thought Jones-Drew's take on the Johnson contract situation was interesting enough that it belonged here. So bear with me, Jags people. Read the column tomorrow.)
Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson are not close friends. But Jones-Drew, who has been Jacksonville's running game since Fred Taylor left two years ago, has respect for Johnson the way people have respect for peers who are excellent at what they do. So I asked him to weigh in on the contract stalemate between Johnson and the Titans. Of course, I knew he'd come down on the side of the player, but I knew Jones-Drew would also have an interesting take on it because he's usually a thoughtful player who raises points I hadn't thought of. So as I sat with him at team offices on Friday, he didn't disappoint me.
"How many true game-changers are there in pro football? he said. "Six, seven? Let's figure it out. Manning. Brady. Brees. Aaron Rodgers. Roethlisberger. Let's see. Matt Ryan, maybe. And Vick, of course. Matt Schaub? Maybe. But let's say there are seven of them, guys who you have to account for and who can beat you almost by themselves. And you look at every other player in the game and tell me if there's anyone who changes the game like Chris Johnson. I don't think there is."
I said to Jones-Drew: "Even if you're right, and you probably are, Johnson's got two years left on his contract. You've got to take that into account. It's not like he's a free agent. Right?"
"I understand," Jones-Drew said. "But you have to understand too that Chris is an adamant guy. He's the kind of guy who, if he feels like he's not getting what he's worth, he just won't show up. So you've got to figure a way around this. In terms of the business of football, I'd rather have paid him last year than wait until this year. [Johnson was coming off a 2,006-yard rushing season.] When you wait you always end up paying more.
"I think the lockout made guys understand their power. Chris knows he has some power. He knows his importance to the team. He knows that he's responsible for all those '28' jerseys being sold. All of a sudden if he doesn't show up, it's like the Colts if Peyton doesn't show up."
Well, not really. I understood the argument until then, but I simply can't equate Johnson's importance to the Titans with Manning's importance to the Colts. I do agree with Jones-Drew about Johnson being able to tilt the field. And in the wake of Fitzgerald's contract, I absolutely agree with him that Johnson deserves more than the highest-paid running back right now: That is in the $8-million-a-year range. But with two years left on Johnson's contract, it's hard to argue with any stance that says those years should be thrown out the window.
I think a logical compromise would be somewhere around $11 million a year on average, without erasing the 2011-12 contract seasons. It's easy enough to put guaranteed money in the contract in the first two years to buttress Johnson's low numbers there. Whatever, there's a compromise to be made that will put Johnson back on the field for opening day. Coincidentally, against Jones-Drew's Jaguars on Sept. 11.
Given that scenario, Jones-Drew sounds like a Jaguar, not an admirer of another great player.
"Hopefully they meet in some middle ground ..." he said. "In Week 2, after we play them."
I've seen instances this summer of a player trying to make team, competing against another player trying to make a team, neither of whom I knew even remotely. See if you can do better than me. Match the following sights -- with at least one nondescript player (or coach) in each -- to the proper team. Answers in 10 Things I Think I Think.
|Pair the training camp sight with the team|
Bonus Question From Way Out in Left Field Dept.: What coach has had to learn the following first names this summer: Mortty, Crezdon, Baraka, Da'Mon, Sunny, Weslye and Swayze?