The MMQB’s Albert Breer talks with Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera about preparing his team for the NFL’s opening kickoff, defending Cam Newton, and how he wants to sustain success.
Sam Bradford will have eight days under his belt as a Viking when Minnesota’s season kicks off in Nashville on Sunday.
Is that enough? The truth is, whether he starts the game or not, it has to be.
“It’s realistic,” Norv Turner told me Wednesday morning. “And he’s gotta be ready, because we’re only gonna have two quarterbacks dressed.”
Week 1 is finally here, and we aren’t lacking for storylines. This week, we’ll address Houston coach Tom Herman’s potential as an NFL candidate, Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s protective stance on quarterback Cam Newton, the Jets’ rebuild on the fly, Jimmy Garoppolo’s readiness for a ferocious Cardinal defense and much more.
We start for the second straight week with the Vikings quarterback situation, which came apart two Tuesdays ago then crystallized over the weekend with one of the most impactful in-season trades (right up there with the Randy Moss deal in 2010 and the Carson Palmer deal in 2011) in recent memory.
The story of how things went down was told well by Peter on Monday, so I set out to figure out what’s happened since, and what’ll happen going forward from here. And Turner’s point is correct: Bradford has to be ready to go since he will be, at worst, the backup on Sunday. But the big question, of course, remains whether or not he’ll start.
“That’s all Zim,” Turner said of head coach Mike Zimmer. “He has to be ready to play. To me, it doesn’t matter if he starts or has to go in the fourth play. He has to be able to do it. But we feel comfortable that he’ll be able to play, and we have three more days.” And Turner reiterated that last part when I asked if he’d be totally comfortable playing Bradford if they had to play at noon on Wednesday: “No, but we have three more days.”
And the Vikings have done everything they possibly can to get him ready over the last five days.
While GM Rick Spielman explained to me, as he has other places, that Pat Shurmur’s background in working with Bradford was invaluable during the trade process, quarterbacks coach Scott Turner has been the one at the wheel since.
Scott Turner first got his hands on Bradford after the quarterback finished all the post-trade logistics (taking a physical, etc.), at about 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. The two worked together until about 10 p.m., then resumed at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, going straight through until about 8 p.m., time that included two extra hours of 1-on-1 time at both the start and end of the day.
On Monday, Bradford came in an hour early, at 7 a.m., for more 1-on-1 work, and he and the QBs coach went until 6:30 p.m., at which point Scott Turner thought it best that Bradford go home and digest the information. They got in four more hours Tuesday, a typical day off for players, and Bradford was back at 7 a.m. Wednesday.
“Scott’s been with him non-stop,” Norv said. “Practice film, the plays, giving him pictures of it, going over everything. At lunch, they’ll take some guys, go out and walk through. They’ve been constantly going.”
One thing Norv said makes it easier is how the calls have been simplified within his system, using code words for commonly called plays. It’s something that Rob Chudzinski instituted as Carolina’s offensive coordinator in 2011—and it helped Cam Newton there—and carried over to Cleveland, where both Scott (who was also with Chud in Charlotte) and Norv Turner served as assistants.
“That’s really simplified the process,” Norv explained. “We have some one-word calls, and some calls that have gotten down to a formation and a run or a formation and a protection. So instead of Seam 678, we have a code word; 586 f-drag, we have a word for it. … Most people have some versions of all the same plays in their offense. It’s how you teach them, and how you execute them.”
And Norv has had to do that on the fly before.
Back in 1993, he was the Cowboys offensive coordinator when starter Troy Aikman went down with a hamstring injury. The following Thursday, Dallas signed Bernie Kosar. Four days later, Jason Garrett started, but Kosar jumped in, played three quarters and posted a 109.0 quarterback rating in a 20-15 win.
“I was with Bernie non-stop,” Turner said. “Friday, Saturday, we spent as much time as we possibly could, because during the week, I was also the quarterbacks coach. So we’re juggling putting the game plan in. We just came up with a list of things, and he had no familiarity with the offense, and back then, the stuff was harder to learn. … Bernie’s a unique guy. With no experience, he comes in and we win the game.”
It came together because, as Turner saw it, the Cowboys decided to focus Kosar on each week’s game plan, and gradually feed him the rest of the scheme, which is similar to the way the Vikings are charting this course.
The great news, for the coaches, is Bradford has come as advertised. Turner coached against him in San Diego during Bradford’s rookie season in St. Louis, and all the things he thought then about his arm talent and his decision-making ability still apply. “I was really impressed with him that day,” Turner says.
As the six years since have proven, whether or not Bradford can find a way to put it all together is another question. The Vikings obviously believe, with the talent around him, they can make it happen. And it’ll have happen quickly.
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Before we get to the guts of the column, I did want to pass along answers to three pertinent questions I asked Spielman about this move …
THE MMQB: Is it fair to take this as a signal that you think your roster can contend at the highest level?
SPIELMAN: That would be fair, because of the way we’ve been building it the last three years. Zim’s in his third year, and team’s been steadily improving. You guys moving into the prime of their careers, and some guys towards the tail end. This move is part of it. We’ve worked so hard, to upgrade from last year, winning the division, getting into the playoffs. We’ve improved the offensive line, adding another draft class. We’re in a situation where the team has an opportunity to have a really good year. I’m not sure you’d do this if it’s the first year in a program. But because of everything we’ve done, Zim being in his third year, we have a good team, it made so much sense. Plus you go back to the question: What happens if Shaun gets hurt?
THE MMQB: Do you think the players take it that way, almost as a good kind of pressure?
SPIELMAN: I think they do. Some of the stuff they probably read in the media, they know we’re trying like hell to give them the best chance to win, and upgrade the roster where it needed to be. They know what a bad taste last year left, and know how hard we worked all offseason, and through camp, to take the next step. By doing this, it shows the players, Yes, you lost our your young QB, who showed so much improvement, and took strides in his third year, but we’re not gonna throw season away. … Everyone is really excited, and they know that in the situation we were dealt, I’ll never stand idle and just say, It is what it is.
THE MMQB: What if Sam plays great and you guys make a deep playoff run. Is there any possibility he unseats Teddy as the franchise quarterback?
SPIELMAN: That’s all hypothetical. All I’m worried about is giving us the best chance this Sunday. We’ve gotta wait, Teddy’s having the surgery, he’ll rehab, and we’ll see where he’s at afterwards. We have Sam under contract for two years, and all that stuff was a very important part of process. We’ll figure it out down the road. All that is hypothetical for now. You know how strongly we feel about Teddy. And going forward, we potentially have two starting quarterbacks, which is a great problem to have.
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1. Tom Herman rising. In just a few months, Tom Herman will hold a pivotal seat on the college coaching carousel. He’s 14-1 at the helm of Houston and has scored wins over Florida State and Oklahoma in his last two outings. Last year, at least two NFL teams with openings had Herman on their preliminary lists and researched him. And despite the fact that Herman made his name running a college spread offense at Iowa State and Ohio State, there is a strong belief in pro circles that the Mensa member (you read that right) has a coaching skill set that translates to pro football. Word is out about his ability to build a program, innovate scheme-wise and relate to all different kinds of people in a way that makes him unique as a leader. “He’s got an old school mindset,” said one scout who knows the program well. “He preaches tough, hard-nosed football, and he’s extremely detail-oriented and organized.” Asked if he thinks his success could carry over to the pros, a one-word answer came back from the scout: “Definitely.” Most of the skepticism I encountered in asking around about Herman centered on the offense he runs (it’s a tempo-based spread with some pro principles), the staff he’d be able to assemble, and whether or not he could find a way to put a quality defensive structure in place (which, to be fair, he’s doing in college already).
For his part, when I asked a few weeks back about the idea of going to the pros, Herman didn’t express interest outwardly, but also didn’t close the door. “I haven’t been asked that question in a long time,” he told me. “Not right now. I love what I do right now and I love getting young men at this stage in their life and really being able to shape them into better husbands and fathers and employees because that’s how I was shaped, by coaches, and my teammates were my brothers. I had no brothers and sisters. Single-parent home, so my coaches were humongous mentors and influences to me and my life. It’s not about football in our program. We have a saying around here, I got it from coach (Urban) Meyer, ‘Anybody can teach cover-two or zone-reads.’ There’s a million coaches out there that can teach that. There are. It’s not that hard. So what separates our program and our coaches and myself from the rest of the country is that connection with the player and how much we love our players.”
So for now, he seems content, but if he were to decide to try the pros, I’ve got a comp from the basketball world: Brad Stevens. Most thought, while he stayed at Butler, that Stevens was holding out for a job at a blue-blood college program, but the place that made him jump was the Boston Celtics. Now, obviously that isn’t apples to apples, but there’s a difference between college and pro basketball, just like in football, and the key for Stevens has been his intelligence and ability to adapt, handle bigger personalities and sell players on his program. Herman has those qualities, like Stevens. Now, I’m not saying Herman winds up in the NFL next year, but I think it’s fair to bet that he (or his agent) will be getting NFL phone calls in a few months.
2. Drew Brees’ deal doesn’t tell us much about the Saints’ future at QB. From a practical standpoint, the one-year, $24.25 million extension Drew Brees signed on Wednesday does three things for the team: A) It saves the Saints $18.84 million off what a franchise tag would cost them for 2017 (though it shifts injury/age risk their way); B) It protects them against the QB market changing again (Kirk Cousins is up after the season, and Blake Bortles and Derek Carr will be eligible for new deals); and C) It buys them another year of stability at the position. But as for the long term, it shouldn’t alter the way they’ve operated the past couple years. In 2015, they spent a third-round pick on Garrett Grayson, after hosting Grayson, Sean Mannion and Bryan Bennett on pre-draft visits. Last April, they brought first-round prospects Jared Goff and Paxton Lynch in for pre-draft visits. And next April, they’ll be in the same position they were last year—with an older quarterback headed into a contract year. As for Brees, I know how he values playing for a coach who’s been such a perfect fit for him and in a place where he’s an icon. But, I do think he’s serious about wanting to play deep into his 40s, and that was reflected in what he said to me about his football mortality a few weeks ago. “I don’t think about the end,” he said. “I don’t. I do have a great sense of urgency for each year, though, because I understand no matter what your contract says, you’re really on a year-to-year basis. That goes for everybody. You gotta prove it every year. So that’s my mentality.” Hours before the Saints locked up Brees, they let go Grayson, which is an acknowledgement that the search for the heir to No. 9’s throne is still nowhere. The tea leaves here tell you that search will go on, unaffected by Wednesday’s developments.
3. Rivera going to bat for Cam. One reason why the love for Ron Rivera is universal in the Panthers’ locker room is that every one of the guys in there knows their coach has their back. And I got another first-hand look at that loyalty when we were shooting a 1-on-1 with him after their final practice of the offseason. The topic of Cam Newton’s post-Super Bowl presser came up and we wound up going deeper into how the quarterback is perceived. And so I asked Rivera if he feels like Newton is still being questioned the way he was pre-draft in 2011, and the coach answered passionately, “Most certainly. I think there are still people that want to see him fail. I think there are people that want to be able to say, ‘See, I told you.’ And that’s so unfair. Here’s a young man that’s nothing but the right things. Think about it. Kid doesn’t have earrings, doesn’t have tattoos, he enjoys playing, he loves the game, he does his community service like he should, he hands the ball to the kids, he’s a great teammate. I just don’t get it.” Sensing Rivera’s blood pressure rising, I said to him that it seemed like the whole thing really bothered him. “It does. It really does,” he said. “Some people’s motivations worry me. Are they really that upset because of what they see, or what they think they see, or is there an ulterior motive? That does bother me. We’re in the year 2016, and yet we still have social issues that we have to worry about.” And so, the obvious question: What would that ulterior motive be? “I don’t know,” Rivera said. “I worry about that, though, I really do.” I’m not gonna put words in his mouth, but it certainly appeared as if Rivera felt like Newton was typecast in college as—let’s call it what it is—the arrogant, flashy black quarterback and hasn’t been able to shake that, no matter what he does. It’s an interesting conversation to have, anyway, how identities are formed early for athletes that are difficult to shed. And I’d agree that it is fair to look at Newton as a prime example of it.
4. Jets’ rebuild bearing fruit. I’ve been comparing what the Jets are doing to what the Panthers pulled off between 2012 and ’14—turning over two-thirds of their starting lineup and the guts of their roster, while keeping a core in place that maintains a competitive level. But there is another example of it I stumbled into, and a better one that connects directly to the Jets head coach. It’s the job Steve Keim and Bruce Arians did in reworking the Cardinals roster in the two years Todd Bowles served as defensive coordinator. “There are some similarities there,” Bowles said. “I learned a lot from Bruce (Arians) in my two years there. Combined with the stuff I learned from (Bill) Parcells, it’s that you have to constantly build your roster while keeping your core intact. The (Darrelle) Revises and (Brandon) Marshalls and (Nick) Mangolds, you gotta build around those guys. You don’t want to get too old at every position, so you keep guys that are still performing, and then add guys to come up so the cupboard will never be bare, whether they play early or they play late.” So, while the roster has a dozen 30-somethings, and many of them are significant (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mangold, Marshall, Nick Folk, David Harris, Revis, Matt Forte, Ryan Clady), 21 of the team’s 53 are first- or second-year players. And the better news, with just inherited players left, is that it looks like a lot of them can play. “We’re a little younger, a little faster, but we have to get a little smarter,” Bowles said. “That comes with the territory. The only way you can get experience for younger guys is to play them.” Internally, the Jets’ belief is that, while the team has been upgraded, the retooling project hasn’t neared completion yet, which explains the braintrust’s hesitation to sell out for Fitzpatrick a few months back. But they’re getting closer, and it certainly looks like the foundation in Florham Park is sturdier than it’s been in a while.
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THREE CHECKDOWNS FOR THE WEEKEND
• Watch Carson Wentz’s speed, and I’m not talking about how fast the Eagles QB runs. The knock on Wentz coming out was that everything needed to be sped up—his delivery, his ability to process, his feet in the pocket. So it’ll be interesting to see what the Browns, who know that from having researched him a few months back, throw at Wentz, and how he handles it.
• There have been 15 players traded since the end of the draft, and four already have been cut by their teams, an illustration of how low-impact some of these moves really are. But there are a few guys who were dealt that figure to play roles this weekend, beyond just Bradford. Barkevious Mingo flashed ability in his Patriots’ preseason debut. Jeremy Kerley is the starting slot receiver in San Francisco. And Andy Lee represents an upgrade as Panthers punter.
• I’m interested to see the Raiders, in this very different spot. They’re dealing with big expectations for the first time in Reggie McKenzie’s five years as GM. And they start with a cross-country trip to one of the NFL’s most hostile venues, the Superdome. Jack Del Rio told me his players are ignoring everything all of us on the outside are saying, but it’s unrealistic to think the players aren’t aware of the hype.
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TWO COLLEGE PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Virginia Tech TE Bucky Hodges (vs. Tennessee, 8 p.m. ET, ABC). First things first: I wanted to pick a player from this game because of the unique environment surrounding it. The Vols and Hokies are playing at Bristol Motor Speedway, and more than 150,000 fans are expected at the track, which sits about halfway between the two campuses. And while the Vols have numbers on the Hokies when it comes to pro prospects, the guy that’s intrigued scouts the most is probably this 6-foot-7, 245-pound queen-on-the-chessboard. He’s not the physical specimen that Jimmy Graham was coming out, but Tech has used him similarly, even handing off to him at points. A three-year starter, and still just a junior, Hodges was a freshman all-America in 2014, and All-ACC last year. “He’s a very good athlete with speed and hands,” said one college scouting director. “He’s more of a flex tight end than a wideout, but he can be a top target in your passing game. He needs to develop from a blocking standpoint, and he’s probably not the freak Graham is.” On the flip side, Tennessee’s defense might be the most athletic group that Hodges goes against all season, making this a good proving ground on a big stage.
2. Arkansas TE Jeremy Sprinkle (at TCU, 7 p.m., ESPN). The Razorbacks had the Mackey Award winner (given to the nation’s top tight end) on their roster last year, and this is not him. Hunter Henry is already in the NFL, and looks like he’ll be playing a significant role for the Chargers in the coming months, but his old teammate could wind up being even better than the 35th overall pick in April’s draft. Last year, six of Sprinkle’s 27 catches went for touchdowns, which led all SEC tight ends. And his 14.4-yards per catch average from 2015 is a pretty good indicator of his athleticism. “He’s not as athletic (as Henry) but he’s got better athletic traits,” said one area scout assigned to Arkansas. “It might be a wash. I personally see him as a notch down from Henry, but he’s still a good player with height (6-foot-6) and speed, and (a higher ceiling) because of his physical ability.” Sprinkle caught three balls, one for a touchdown, last week in the Hogs’ season-opening win over Louisiana Tech.
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After watching a handful of Jimmy Garoppolo’s practices this summer, I feel comfortable saying this about the Patriots’ new starting quarterback: What you notice about him is that you don’t notice him.
For better or worse, nothing really stands out. You could say it’s his release, but you’d have to look pretty closely in a non-game setting to see it. And we don’t know how he’ll respond to teams actually game-planning against him, or throwing exotic looks his way, or testing his resolve.
So with that in mind, I talked to a number of people who know Garoppolo well to figure out exactly what we do know going into Sunday night’s showdown in Arizona.
Here are five of those things …
1. He’ll blend in with the furniture. His college coach, Dino Babers, told me the story of his first encounter with Garoppolo’s dad, who’d been actively avoiding him, on the field before Eastern Illinois’ 2013 upset of San Diego State. Turns out, the QB’s father didn’t want to come off as a Little League Dad. “He kept minimizing the picture, and I had to stop him and say, ‘Mr. Garoppolo, listen to me, your son’s gonna play in the National Football League,’” Babers said. “And he says maybe he’ll get into a camp and I said, ‘Your son’s not gonna be a free agent, he’s not just gonna get drafted, he’ll be drafted high.’ Out of respect for me, he’s listening, but I think probably, deep down, he wasn’t sure it’d happen. And that’s his dad. His mom was even worse.” That mirrors Garoppolo’s demeanor. During camp, he really never did anything demonstrative to show he was ready to take charge. So if you’re expecting him to lose his mind like Dan Marino, you’ve got the wrong guy.
2. That demeanor has made him perfect for this situation. For the past 16 months, this golden opportunity has been hanging over Garoppolo’s head. Will it come? Will it disappear? Now, it’s here, and it still pretty weird, because the Patriots are still very much Tom Brady’s team. And through it all, you really haven’t heard much of anything on Garoppolo’s feelings on it. This is a sign of how he’s handling it, which is a little like what his first college coach, Bob Spoo, saw when Eastern Illinois was taking a beating in Garoppolo’s first two years. “Those 2-9 years, it was hard to go through,” said Spoo, who retired following the 2011 season, giving way to Babers. “It was tough, but he did his job, he never complained, just kept working hard. He’s a good person from good people. He always did what he was told.” Both Spoo and Babers said when something was going the wrong way, Garoppolo was almost overly respectful in handling it, which, of course, is how he’s handled the enormity of Deflategate. “He’ll say anything to you, but he knows when the right time and the wrong time is to say it,” Babers said. “He’s gonna say it, at the optimum time.”
3. He had a long way to go, and he’s come a long way. Garoppolo ran an adaptation of the Baylor spread at EIU, which means he was facing the same challenges that Robert Griffin and Bryce Petty had, or that Jared Goff is now. And at first, Garoppolo did have a ways to go. One Redskins coach remembers him like this from joint practices with New England in 2014: “He was really raw. I know he’s gotten a lot better, but it looked like everything was pretty fast for him.” A year later, the Saints saw him in a similar setting, and while the contrast between he and Brady was stark, the progress was clear, as one New Orleans staffer explained: “He looked sharp when he had the opportunity. Tom took most of the reps, and he did look like a young, developing QB compared to Tom, but I was impressed. … Strong arm, quick arm, accurate, can move in the pocket, all the things you’d want at that stage.” And this year, that continued. What the Bears saw in their work with the Pats in August certainly seemed to have starting quarterback written all over it. “He was solid,” said one Chicago staffer. “Smart, quick release, not a big guy, but he’s got something to him. He’s not Brady, but he’s solid.” So that would seem to indicate that he won’t be a fish out of water.
4. If he gets off to a bad start, no one should call the fight. This goes back to Garoppolo’s handling of his first two years in college, and how he emerged stronger for it. So if the Cardinals blitz the crap out of the Patriots, and beat the quarterback’s face in, don’t be surprised to see him bounce back. He’ll learn from it, and if he fails, it won’t be for not having been able to withstand the punishment. “Some kids don’t want to be taught,” said Spoo “They think they know it all, and don’t absorb anything. He was never that way. He accepted what he was taught, which is why he’s developed into the person he’s becoming. … He’ll be poised, and if something goes wrong, it won’t bother him. It’s always about the next play.” Long story short: Don’t panic if he doesn’t look perfect this week.
5. There is a lot on the line for him, personally. The truth is, this is more of a 2017 story for New England and Garoppolo. I don’t think a 1-3 or 2-2 start will sink the Patriots, just like 2014’s uneven beginning didn’t stop them from winning it all. But Garoppolo has plenty to gain (or lose) over the next month. Just look at the calendar year Brock Osweiler and Sam Bradford have had. Both are making $18 million per, just for looking competent down the stretch of 2015. And as for the pressure of having life-changing money on the line, we’re gonna give Garropolo’s mechanics coach, former NFL QB Jeff Christensen, the floor. “He knows he has to take care of the football first,” he said. “You have to take the money off the table, which is tough to do if you’re a dip—- or in the game for the wrong reasons. But if you’re in it for the right reasons, and care about people, you’ll be okay. And that’s who he is.”
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