Thursday: Rams (Rams facility, Earth City, Mo.)
Three football nuggets: Special teams coach John Fassel was given an assignment after kicker Josh Brown was cut: find the kicker you like best in college football. He did -- a kicker named Greg Zuerlein, who started his college career at Nebraska-Omaha and transferred to Missouri Western. Looked like a good choice from the 59-yarder he drilled with 15 feet above the crossbar in practice when I watched ... Jeff Fisher on starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins, the troubled kid from the April draft: "I have never seen that type of ability and instincts on a kid, and the ability to play right away at a high level level.'' ... By my count, 32 of 53 prospective Rams on the opening day roster will be 25 or younger.
A good story brews in St. Louis.
The other day, Chris Long was talking to one of his teammates, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, and said, "You know, I'm the second-longest-tenured Ram.'' A player entering his fifth year, and only one man (nine-year-veteran running back Steven Jackson) has been on the team longer. Even in the transient world of the NFL, that's pretty amazing. It's no surprise, then, that the offensive signal-caller is a 24-year-old: Sam Bradford. And the defensive signal-caller is Laurinaitis, 25.
So if a 27-year-old coach calls the defensive signals anywhere, it would seem to fit here the best. And on this afternoon, inside the team's indoor facility, young Blake Williams -- Princeton-educated son of suspended defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- constantly has a walkie-talkie to his mouth before plays when the offense squares off against the defense. And Laurinaitis and his backups take the play call and give it to the huddle.
Now, coach Jeff Fisher hasn't said yet who will make the defensive calls. When Williams' father, Gregg, was hired Jan. 16 to be Fisher's defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams installed the defense with the rest of the defensive staff in the room -- including former NFL coordinators Dave McGinnis and Chuck Cecil -- and with linebackers coach Blake Williams on the staff too.
When word came down of the Saints' bounty scandal and Gregg Williams' role in it, he had to leave the staff, and was later suspended by commissioner Roger Goodell for at least the season. Fisher decided to make the defensive duties a team effort and didn't name anyone the play-caller. But in some ways it seems smart to let the person closest to Gregg Williams, the person who's been in training to someday use this attacking defensive system as a coordinator himself, have a chance to call the plays. Which is what Williams was doing throughout this practice.
This is a sensitive topic around the Rams, of course. Fisher has been clear to this point that all three men -- Blake Williams, Cecil and McGinnis, who was coaching Mike Singletary as Bears linebacker coach in 1986 when Laurinaitis was in his mother's womb -- will team up to run the defense. But make no mistake: I watched Blake Williams throughout a lengthy practice, and I didn't see Cecil or McGinnis make a call. It was all Williams, mouth to walkie-talkie before every play, calling the plays and formations for a young defense.
He moved around the place with confidence and intensity, coaching his position group when not calling plays.
"He's extremely smart,'' said Laurinaitis. "He's won everyone here over with his knowledge of the game. The defense has been a little bit of Blake, a little of coach Cecil and a little of coach Mac. The play gets called into my ear and then I call it -- and I really don't know whose call it is.''
Said Long: "He comes from a football background and has done a great job of hitting the ground running following the whole conflict. We've done a great job of keeping that separate from here. It's almost as if it didn't happen. We've got so many good coaches on this staff -- he's one of them -- and it's been a seamless transition. He's doing a great job. It's been a non-issue. We're all adults here. Things happen. He comes from a football background, he's got good football knowledge and he's not one of those guys who rests on his laurels because his Dad was whoever. He's just a good coach. He doesn't make any issue of what happen with his Dad. It's not something that comes up.''
Blake Williams hasn't done any interviews, and other than exchanging pleasantries after practice, he wasn't made available to me to speak. "He's extremely bright, and I can tell he's going to be a good coach,'' Fisher said.
But neither Fisher nor the Rams want to make a big scene over Blake Williams, and the reason is obvious: If we're talking about Blake Williams, we're talking about Gregg Williams, and we're talking about the bounty scandal, and that can't help a fledgling team with its own issues.
I remember Gregg Williams bragging to me a couple of years ago about what a great coach Blake would become, because he loved the game so much and was curious about all facets of the job, and about all different schemes. "I see the way the game is going,'' Williams told me. "Owners love the young coaches today. I'd love to see Blake work his way up and prove to some owner he deserves a chance at a head-coaching job.''
But Gregg Williams couldn't know what lay ahead. Now, the future is fraught with pratfalls. What if Blake Williams turns out to be the wunderkind that an Ivy League special teamer and smart kid might be, and what if the Rams play well on defense this year with Blake Williams handling either a pivotal role or the play-calling role? How could Gregg Williams come back and take the defensive coordinator job back? Never mind the fact that Gregg Williams' reputation among some players would be in tatters based on the damaging recording of him telling his players in New Orleans last January where to target injured and vulnerable 49ers? It's not going to be an easy call for the Rams after this season, if Gregg Williams is cleared to return by the NFL.
For now, the Rams will watch Williams develop as a coach this year, and they'll decide who's best to call the defense with what seems natural and best for the team. It's going to be a great story to watch.
Friday, Colts (Anderson University, Anderson, Ind.)
Three football nuggets: "Who's got more new guys on their roster -- us or St. Louis?'' GM Ryan Grigson asked. "I think they've got 56 new guys in camp, we've got 55." ... Reggie Wayne's moving all over the offensive formation, to give defenses a tougher time recognizing the biggest threat Andrew Luck has at receiver ... Coby Fleener, the rookie tight end from Stanford (and MMQB columnist extraordinaire), is running with the ones, and he looks to have picked up the offense as quickly as Andrew Luck has.
This is one of the oddest rosters I've seen in my years covering the league.
I mean that in a good way -- I think. I stood with Grigson on the sideline watching the Colts' last camp practice, as he pointed to two of his favorites on the roster: outside linebacker Jerry Brown and offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe. "I hope we see them line up against each other,'' Grigson said, smiling. "Two Arena League guys from the same team, the San Antonio Talons, trying to make an NFL roster.''
That's Grigson's deal -- he wants to find players to consistently churn the bottom of the roster. When I told him Bill Parcells once said he spends half his time in camp thinking about the bottom five guys on his roster, Grigson slapped his hands together, "THAT'S what I'm talking about -- that's an inspirational thing for me to hear,'' he said. "That's what I believe. You know how teams sometimes talk about 'camp guys?' Or they say they have to get a body for training camp? I tell our guys, 'We don't have camp guys. And I don't want to hear you say I found a body for camp. No. If they're here, they're here because they've got a chance to make our team and make us better. And I don't want our scouts or coaches just repeating what they've heard about a guy. I want them having opinions on players.''
There's a tight end here, Dominique Jones, who Grigson signed from the Reading (Pa.) Express of the Indoor Football League. That's the league with the Bloomington (Ill.) Edge, Omaha Beef and the Nebraska Danger, which plays in Grand Island, Neb. There are players here from Western Washington, Shepherd, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Carson-Newman, Texas State, Rhode Island, Morehouse and Mount Union. There was a pass rusher with a chance from Endicott (Mass.) College, but he went AWOL and was released.
You know what gets Grigson excited? Going to workout a wide receiver from Texas-El Paso without knowing much about him, watching him barely stretch before he runs his 40, and then clocking him in 4.45 seconds. And here he is, Kris Adams, No. 7 in Colts blue, out there running post routes for Andrew Luck. "You can't teach 6-3 and 4.4 speed,'' he said. "This could be the chance the kid needs. He can play.''
I've always thought if I were a marginal player I'd want to sign with a coach, or a team, with the reputation of meaning it when they say, "The best players will make the team." Tom Coughlin's like that; he pointed to a couple of free agent wideouts at camp two years ago, early in camp, and talked about how impressed he was with them. One was Derek Hagan, who made the team. The other was Victor Cruz, who, well, you've heard of him.
I bet once this year, maybe twice, one of these new longshots makes a play or a block in the fourth quarter of a close game to determine who wins and loses. Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano would be able to point out to the team the lesson of having the best guys make the team, and the best guys play -- no matter how they got on the practice field.
Four Andrew Luck notes from my brief time around the Colts:
1. Nothing looks uncomfortable for him. I don't know any better way to say it. But watching him practice, he looks at ease, like a kid who's spent 10 hours studying for a final exam and is sure he has the answers.
2. What's troubled him, or been difficult for him? I asked. "I was more prepared to learn this offense than I was to learn the offense at Stanford coming out of high school,'' he told me. "At Stanford, I was pretty young, and we had the West Coast with some other things -- the Schembechler influence, and a little bit of the Bear Bryant influence. And as a freshman in college, it was pretty heavy.
"The tough thing here, I'd say, have been the protections. We ran one type of dropback protection at Stanford, but here there's man protection, slide protection, scat protection [no backs kept in, and man blocking by the line]. There's a protection where the TE's staying in, where the RB releases, where the center IDs the MIKE linebacker, when I ID the MIKE linebacker, where this guy's the hot guy, or another receiver's hot ... and I've got to make sure I'm on the same page as the receivers. It's tough.''
3. Think of it: How lucky is Indianapolis, the franchise and the football city? In 1997, Manning, the best NFL prospect in college football, passed on the chance to go No. 1 to the Jets to play one more year at Tennessee; the Colts benefited by earning the first pick in 1998 and drafting him. In 2011, Luck, the best NFL prospect in college football, passed on the chance to go No. 1 to Carolina so he could play one more season at Stanford; the Colts got the first pick in 2012 and Luck in their laps.
Time will tell if Luck's the Hall of Fame shoo-in Manning is, but surely the pedigree and the ability say he has a chance to be an all-timer. I'm getting way ahead of myself, but imagine Luck having a long career for the Colts and playing well. Two quarterbacks in 30 years, with no quarterback controversies, no jobs on the line because the GM failed at finding a quarterback. Amazing thing.
4. Luck says he avoids social media and watching and reading much in the mainstream media, "as somewhat of a tactic to making sure I stay sane ... Ignorance is bliss, right? I've never been one to enjoy listening to myself on TV, or reading about myself. I mean, I have gotten big-headed at times, but it's pretty easy to come back to earth if you ignore all of that stuff.''
I came away liking what I saw out of the Colts, though it probably won't translate to playoff contention this year.
Sunday, Packers (Lambeau Field, Green Bay)
Three football nuggets: Interesting practice Sunday, with running back Cedric Benson working for the first time with the Pack after signing last week, and with wideout Greg Jennings returning after two weeks away with a concussion. Benson gets to play his old friends in Cincinnati Thursday ... Not a lot of job competition here, but the right corner slot with Casey Hayward and the temporarily sidelined Davon House (shoulder) is up for grabs ... Center Jeff Saturday walked into Colts' camp with Peyton Manning in 1998. They left the Colts together too. The Packers wanted Saturday when Scott Wells left for St. Louis in free agency because of Saturday's veteran wiles and because he's been so good at handling the shifts and calls and quick adjustments associated with the no-huddle offense Manning used. Watch the Packers this year. They ran no-huddle on more than a quarter of their offensive snaps -- and I bet it's more this year.
Another pleasant valley Sunday in Green Bay.
This is the way my Sunday morning in Green Bay started: with a run. A five-miler. I wanted to see if I could run it all on streets with Packer connotations, and I found it was much easier than I thought. I started from my hotel on Tony Canadeo Run, running west, curling around Brett Favre Steakhouse, went left on Brett Favre Pass, right on Holmgren Way a short jog up to Lombardi Avenue, turned around, ran two miles or so south down Holmgren Way, then came back up Holmgren Way, took a right onto Brett Favre Pass, curled around Brett Favre Steakhouse on Tony Canadeo Run, and back to the hotel.
Had I wished, I could have jogged a couple minutes further down Tony Canadeo Run and hit Reggie White Way, then Bart Starr Drive. But why use up all the fun on one trip here?
I walked over to watch the morning practice on Ray Nitschke Field, and when coach Mike McCarthy saw lightning, he had the players finish practice inside, in the multi-field Don Hutson Center. Post-practice interviews took place in the locker room and bowels of (Curly) Lambeau Field.
I got my cab to the airport in front of the Lambeau statue. It's called the Austin Straubel Airport, named after a local World War II Army hero. You mean they couldn't have changed the name to Ron Wolf International Airport? What's wrong with this town!
Anyway, good day to catch up with the Packers. Rodgers told me he's got no scars from the stunning loss to the Giants in the playoffs, and, like Eli Manning, he's always done a good job at forgetting bad games quickly after they happen. "The Giants played great and we didn't,'' he said. "It's a surprise because we were 15-1 in the regular season, but they deserved it.''
Clay Matthews, caught up in some not-so-friendly fire with the Giants because he said to Yahoo!, "The Giants didn't beat us; we beat ourselves,'' told me: "If they want to use that as motivation, let 'em. Isn't that what everybody says after they lose?'' And Mike McCarthy told me what he'd tell his team the week before their first game of the season, which is basically this: There's two types of championship teams. One is the one that gets on a run at the end of the season and gets hot and takes it into the playoffs and wins. The other is the one that starts out winning and stays hot the whole season. But either way, you've got to play great at the end. There's no prizes for just being great in the regular season.
I don't know what to think about this team yet. The offense was so intergalactic last year that Rodgers' backup, Matt Flynn, put up 45 points and six touchdown passes in his one start, and not a single key player is missing from the offense. Wideout/returner Randall Cobb, if he conquers his fumbling problem, could be a big key in the offense; Rodgers relies on smart guys conversant with the no-huddle offense, and Cobb, with a year in the system now, will be more comfortable with all the checks. But the offense isn't in question.
The D allowed 4,988 passing yards and didn't sack the quarterback enough. Matthews needs some help, and he'll rely on first-round pick Nick Perry, who will play bookend outside linebacker to Matthews, to help free him up. Perry doesn't have time to be a rookie. If the defense is markedly better, division dominance is possible. If not, Green Bay will be in a dogfight with the improved Bears.
"How about our opening schedule?'' Matthews said. "San Francisco, then Chicago on a short week, then we go to Seattle on a Monday night, then we've got New Orleans on a short week.''
Matthews smiled. "Obviously we're going to go 4-0,'' he said, suppressing a chuckle. And folks, don't go blackboarding his words. This was no prediction, just fun. "I'm just saying that's gonna be tough.''
Well, if these Packers are going to have streets named after them someday, that's the kind of stretch they have to conquer.
Finally, something to make ESPN really happy this morning ...
On HBO's Real Sports this week, Bryant Gumbel interviews Jon Gruden, who was handed the Monday Night Football analyst job solo this offseason and has signed a long-term deal with ESPN. The network has insisted that Gruden is a football analyst retired from coaching. But in the interview with Gumbel, Gruden says: "I'm trying' to figure out where I'm going. If the right opportunity presents itself, I will come back.''
Hardly a surprise. Gruden turned 49 Friday, and I've always thought that no matter what he or ESPN said, he had a minimum of one NFL coaching gig left. This just confirms it.
SI Now Live Friday December 13, 2013
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