Luck and Gabbert off to hot starts, not Kolb; more camp lessons
Andrew Luck looks comfortable already; Blaine Gabbert is starting to get there
NFL and refs are still bickering, but now is the time for both sides to compromise
Lessons from my recent training camp stops; Ten Things I Think I Think; more
GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- The highlight of the week that was, looking at my 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd NFL teams prepping for the season? Easy. It was the 27-year-old coaching apprentice, talking into a walkie-talkie, communicating with his captain on the field, looking completely in charge.
"Twenty-seven?'' Rams defensive end Chris Long said to me incredulously. "No way. No way he's 27.''
But he is ... and I'll keep you in suspense for a few paragraphs longer before I tell you who this coach and this good story is.
First, the highlights of the second full preseason weekend (and I will spare you, Mike Greenberg and similar Jetoholics, any further mention of the foibles of right tackle Wayne Hunter, because I do not want to ruin your week on Monday):
1. Too bad Andrew Luck will have only one national game this year. In Colts camp Friday, I asked Luck what had surprised him about his first NFL camp and preseason. He paused. "Not much, really. Can't really think of anything.''
Except for one bad interception at Pittsburgh Sunday night, in which Luck either didn't recognize a well-executed zone blitz or saw it too late, he's playing like nothing surprises him. In 11 possessions in his first two games, Luck has led six scoring drives (five touchdowns, one field goal), with three punts and two picks. Looks like Luck's going to be must-see TV all season, but it'll have to be DirecTV must-see with the Sunday Ticket package ... because the Colts are due for one national game, a Thursday nighter in November at the Jags. "We've seen a few misses at the number one spot,'' Mike Tomlin told Michele Tafoya of the NBC crew. "He ain't no miss."
2. Bad weekend for the Cardinals. Kevin Kolb had his manhood questioned by a marauding Raider, Tommy Kelly. That's the headline. More important -- actually much more: left tackle Levi Brown going down with a torn triceps muscle, possibly for the season. This was already a shaky line. Now the protection problem could become a crisis for Arizona.
Amazing, by the way, that Brown's been the whipping boy in Arizona for so long, and now people are pining away at his loss. Next man up could be Boise State rookie Nate Potter. Nothing against Nate, but how many contenders have opened the season with a seventh-round rookie left tackle?
3. Blaine Gabbert's playing like the 10th pick in the draft should play. Two preseason games: 18 of 26, 174 yards, three touchdowns. Your magic spell is working, Mike Mularkey.
4. Ryan Tannehill creeps ahead of Matt Moore in Miami. It's clear Tannehill's going to play, and play early this season. Will that be the opener at pressure-bringing Houston? Tannehill outplayed Moore Friday night in a lackluster game for both in Charlotte, but the man who gets the start in preseason Week 3 against Atlanta is the key to reading coach Joe Philbin's mind about who will start the season opener.
5. The replacement officials continued to be a major black eye for the game. This dispatch from detroitlions.com -- an official team website, part of the league's network of 32 team websites -- was posted Saturday morning, in a column by long-time Lions watcher Mike O'Hara, about the leverage the real officials would have after watching the game in Baltimore:
"The best negotiating leverage any group of workers could hope to have is a game tape of Friday night's game between the Lions and Ravens. The NFL's real referees, who haven't worked in the exhibition season because of stalled contract negotiations with the NFL, could use that tape as a bargaining chip the size of a manhole cover. For the good of the NFL and its image, the league must find a way to replace the replacements with the real guys. The Ravens are one of the NFL's benchmark franchises, and the Lions are a young team on the rise with their own star power. But the third team on the field -- eight men in striped jerseys -- were a disgrace on any level of officiating football.''
Case in point: an 18-yard facemask penalty on Detroit near the end of the first quarter ... after a 2-minute, 50-second delay and series of conferences to figure out how to mark it off. I mean, it's gone too far. Today, for the good of the game, the league negotiators must reach out to representatives for the real officials, including refs Scott Green and Jeff Triplette, and hammer out an agreement.
The officials have to drop their demand to keep a pension that's better than full-time NFL employees have, and the league has to jack up the money it has offered by $10 million or $12 million over the seven-year life of the contract. It's time. I can't say it better than Bears cornerback Charles Tillman did late Saturday night: "Can we get our refs back? ... Replacement refs aren't cutting it.''
6. The NFL's on the offensive. The league is trying to get the public on its side by revealing pieces of the talks -- saying the locked-out officials want a 20 percent increase in year one of the deal, and saying the league's offer includes making seven officials (one from each job on a crew) full-timers and adding three more full crews. The added officials, in theory, would give the NFL a "deeper bench'' and allow the league to sit poorly graded officials for a couple of weeks and use officials from the backup crews.
Interesting concept, but I view it as clouding the real issue, the financial issue. The league could take the money it's thinking of using for the three new crews and plow it into a better offer to the real refs.
7. At least one Ryan is smiling this morning. While Rex Ryan's Jets stunk it up in the Meadowlands Saturday -- did someone say, "Fool's gold?'' -- the Dallas defense, coordinated by Rex's brother, Rob, continued its run through California. In the Cowboys games at Oakland and San Diego, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers had seven possessions with their first units on offense, threw three interceptions, scored zero points ... and their deepest penetration was to the Dallas 48.
Dallas gave up 68 points to the Giants in two December debacles last year, and 746 passing yards to Eli Manning. That's why Dallas paid the big bucks to Brandon Carr in the offseason. Carr picked off Rivers twice Saturday night. Wonder if Rob is tempted to say: "Hey, save that for Sept. 5 in the swamps of Jersey, kid.''
8. What will Jeff Demps do with New England? Sounds like the Olympic silver medalist sprinter will have a chance to return kicks for a New England team that was horrible in the return game last year -- 29th in the league. Among all players with at least 10 kick returns, the Patriots' Danny Woodhead was 40th, at 21.9 yards per return, with no touchdowns. But Demps has an Achilles heel, according to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston: Demps fumbled 11 times in 424 career touches playing with Tim Tebow at Florida. Bill Belichick won't stand for that.
9. Drew Brees got walloped into left field Friday night, but he seems to be OK. "We've got to protect Drew better,'' interim coach Joe Vitt said after Saints-Jags. The kind of hit he took from Jags defensive end Jeremy Mincey -- full force on his surgically repaired right shoulder -- is the kind of hit Brees was lucky to walk away from. But he was 6 of 6 after the hit, so the Saints believe he left the game injury-free. Vitt's right. They may not be so lucky next time.
10. The $21,000 fine to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for his hit on Byron Leftwich was incredibly light. I don't care if these players don't get paid for the preseason games the way they do the regular season -- Rodgers-Cromartie, who was unrepentant over the hit (surprise!), launched himself into Leftwich and throttled him in the head. A textbook case of launching and hitting a defenseless quarterback in the helmet during the act of throwing gets $21,000? It's just wrong. That hit needed six figures or a suspension -- or both.
Now for the my trip across the Midwest over the past few days.
Wednesday: Chiefs (Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph, Mo.)
Three football nuggets: Dexter McCluster might be listed as a running back on the roster, but he's not anymore. The Chiefs plan to use him as a slot receiver consistently, with Jonathan Baldwin and Dwayne Bowe on the outside ...
Speaking of Bowe, who just signed his one-year franchise tender and reported Friday, you might look at the calendar and say, "It's Aug. 20, three weeks before the opener. Plenty of time for him to get in the playbook and get ready for opening day.'' Not so fast. The new Brian Daboll offense he hasn't spent five minutes learning yet has far more motions and shifts than the offense Bowe played in last year under coach Todd Haley. To think he'll learn the scheme well in three weeks is not realistic. Not saying he won't be active in Week 1, but he certainly won't know everything he needs to know to flourish in the offense. ...
The Jamaal Charles-Peyton Hillis backfield, if Hillis has his head on straight (which he has so far) and Charles' surgically repaired knee holds up, could be the NFL's best. It's the classic Mr. Inside (Hillis, a sledgehammer, at 250 pounds) and Mr. Outside (the shifty Charles weighs 199).
This team seems happy with the coaching change.
Let's make one thing clear: The Chiefs weren't 7-9 last year because they didn't like their coach. They were 7-9 because they were a M*A*S*H unit by midseason, because Matt Cassel was just OK when he did play, and because Tyler Palko threw a third of the team's 2011 passes. In many way, they're fortunate to have won seven games.
But there's little doubt these players are breathing easier with a coach they like and respect more than Todd Haley. "It had to happen,'' one player said of Haley leaving and Romeo Crennel replacing him. "Players were afraid of speaking up. The environment just wasn't healthy. I think it really wore on Matt.''
Cassel, who missed the final seven games after breaking his hand against Denver, has chosen not to say much about Haley. The ex-coach's father, former Steeler personnel man Dick Haley, told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review that Cassel was "real average'' and "it didn't surprise me what happened in Kansas City.''
Todd Haley and Cassel argued on the sidelines at least twice in view of network cameras, and their relationship always seemed on edge. When I spoke with Cassel, it was as much what he didn't say about Haley as what he said about how he's being coached now by new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
"I like how he lets me play the quarterback position,'' Cassel said. "I'm not afraid to give my opinion, or to change the play. Some other times, I've been afraid to do that. But [Daboll] says, 'You're the quarterback. If you see something different out there, you've got to act on it.' ''
Cassel spent time working out with throwing-mechanics maestro Tom House, the former major league reliever, in the offseason. For two weeks, he joined Carson Palmer, Alex Smith and Tom Brady at USC, learning the way his body should move to maximize his throwing strength and minimize any discomfort he has throwing. "Just as a golfer has swing thoughts, now I have throwing thoughts,'' Cassel said. "It's nothing really major, but it makes you feel good when you know you've gotten an expert to break down everything about your motion.'' So far, so good. Cassel's completed 75 percent of his throws in the first two Chiefs preseason games.