FLORHAM PARK, N.J.—It’s year 40 covering the NFL for me. Started with a team full of compelling figures in 1984, Cincinnati. Paul Brown, Sam Wyche, Cris Collinsworth, Anthony Munoz, Boomer Esiason as a rookie. That was not boring.
I figured the league’s most compelling figure in season 40 would be the best place to start, so here I am, myopically focused on new New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Interesting scenes from the field. More interesting in a chair across from me post-practice. This was not boring.
Me: Leaving Green Bay—did you feel like you needed a change of scenery?
Rodgers: “Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I wanted to retire. That’s how I was leaning.”
Me: You said there was a 90-percent chance you’d retire, then you didn’t.
Rodgers: “Yeah, so then I think the answer’s probably yes [on the change of scenery], not no. The answer is yes I needed a change. I did think the change was gonna be retirement.”
Me: What happened?
Rodgers: “Basically I went into my darkness retreat. I came out after a lot of contemplation and realized … if Green Bay was open arms, come back, to lean into that and see if that’s what I really wanted. If they weren’t, then see what was out there. Just at least hear a pitch from another team, if that was the direction that Green Bay was leaning. And I came out and realized that was definitely the direction they were leaning. Look, it’s not their fault. I think it was time for everybody involved. When I met with the Jets at my house, I really felt like I had to at least strongly consider that opportunity. The more I thought about it and meditated on it and got back into my workouts and felt really good about where I was at and still wanting to play then I just thought that was the best option for me and the best opportunity.”
Me: Pure darkness? For three days?
Rodgers: “Four nights, five days. Yeah, definitely pure darkness.”
Me: Odd question, but how’d you get your food?
Rodgers: “There’s a little two-way box. It got put in one side, then he closed the door, then I took it out from the inside.”
Me: You know that the darkness retreat was an object of gigantic derision and people made fun of it. What really happens in there?
Rodgers: “Listen, a lot of the things that I’ve talked about that I’ve done, people don’t understand. I think there’s too many people who are judgmental without being curious. I think a lot of those people who had derogatory things to say about it actually are the ones who might benefit the most from some of the things that I’ve done. I think for me, I feel at my best when I’m open and being vulnerable about the things that I’m working on, things that I’m experiencing. It was a great time of contemplation for me to turn off. I don’t think in our, in most of our lives, we don’t get away from our phone for a few hours even on vacations. I needed a getaway to really contemplate my life as it was. Dream about my life post-football. Dream about my life still playing football. And then come to a better sense of what I wanted to do.”
Yes, it’s going to be an interesting season for the New York Football Jets, and for Rodgers, and the AFC East, and for the AFC as a whole. Rodgers’ football world: He plays Belichick twice, Tua Tagovailoa twice, Josh Allen twice. He plays stout Dallas and both Super Bowl teams from last year—before the bye. And if he survives that to make the postseason, he might have Mahomes and Burrow in his way … simply to make the Super Bowl. Insane. This is Rodgers’ 16th season as an NFL starter, and there’s no way he’s had a gauntlet like this one on the road to a title. Oh--and if we’re doing the over-under on Rodgers’ shelf life in New Jersey, give me 2.5 years. Or three. This is no dalliance.
Good to be back after 11 weeks off. That was a great preview of my next life. I learned that I’m now a professional napper; my day’s not the best without one. More about my time away down in Ten Things.
It is very, very good to be back. I love my job, and I’m lucky I still get to do it.
My training camp trip started on a Jets-to-Steelers-to-Lions-to-Bills run. Boldface names you’ll read about: Mike Tomlin (in a new What I’ve Learned section of the column), Kenny Pickett, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Dan Campbell, Damar Hamlin, Josh Allen, Chris Spielman, Sean Payton, Joe Burrow, Dan Snyder, Bart Chezar. Bart Chezar? Yes. Bart’s an arborist. You’ll like his story this week.
On with the show. Rodgers. Let’s talk about money.
When I saw Tom Pelissero report that Rodgers gave up an estimated $35 million over the next two seasons, lowering his income to two years and $75 million, I thought there had to be something more to the story. Players move money around, or allow teams to change pay structure for cap purposes. But givebacks? Of that magnitude?
The reason is pretty simple. Rodgers just wanted to. He’d made $307 million in Green Bay and figured he didn’t have much time left, and if Jets GM Joe Douglas and coach Robert Saleh had an idea to tangibly improve the team in the next two to four years, well, he didn’t want his anchor of a contract to stand in the way.
“What it comes down to,” Rodgers said, searching for the words, “it was … it was the right thing that made me feel best.
“I thought it was important they knew how committed I was. And in my conversations with Joe, he has made it very clear the vision for the football team.
“You probably agree with this. This year, compared to like 2005, the amount of transactions that happen now with guys getting cut and the amount of trades—way more than before. Big names move at the trade deadline now. I wanted to make sure that if somebody valuable came available that we’d be able to get him. I’m very happy with the contract. I feel great about it.”
When I met with Rodgers, I’d say he was happy and content. Not giddy. But there was a clear feeling of rejuvenation about his life. He compared it to moving a lot when he was young. Six times, he said, by eighth grade, in Oregon and California. “When you’re the new kid in school, you gotta make new friends. You gotta figure out, you know, who the friend groups are and how to navigate a classroom and how to navigate the recess. But you also get to figure out who you wanna be. Do you wanna be the quiet kid? Do you wanna be the loud kid? Do you wanna be a leader? Do you wanna just go along with the flow? Where do the cool kids sit? The nerdy kids? It’s fun.
“Now I’ve gotten this opportunity at 39 to kind of reinvent myself, figure out who I wanna be in a new environment.”
Part of the environment, it seems, is a better relationship with the Jets’ GM than with Green Bay’s Brian Gutekunst. “To have some of the conversations I’ve had with Joe Douglas, to be privy to things that I was never privy to, to have a defensive head coach puts a different framework on the team,” Rodgers said. “The defense has a different confidence I think that they practice with. We had great defenses in Green Bay during our time. But it always felt like an offensive team. Or a West Coast offensive football team. Just a different mentality when you have a defensive head coach. I’ve enjoyed that. I enjoy coming to Robert with ideas or as maybe in a consultant role like, ‘Hey, I’ve been other places, I see this. I see that.’ And just him being kinda wide open, and maybe we disagree. I respect the hell out of him when he’s like, ‘Well I hear what you’re saying but I think I’m gonna do it this way.’ I love his openness to critically think about the stuff I’m saying or another group of guys might say to him.”
Rodgers, on the field, is an interesting case. When I watched him practice Thursday, I’d bet 18 to 20 times, minimum, he’d sidle up to a teammate—or Saleh, or defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, or offensive boss Nathaniel Hackett—and give a coaching point or something. “I’ve never seen a player coach as much on the field as Aaron is doing right now,” Saleh said.
Part of the reason is pretty simple. The last iteration of the Green Bay offense, born in 2019 with the arrival of Matt LaFleur, was manufactured by LaFleur, Hackett and Rodgers. That’s the offense the Jets will use this year. Thus the Rodgers coaching points.
I’d give one cautionary tale about Rodgers and his new team. He turns 40 in December. He told me he’s sworn off all sweets. “Sadly,” he said. As Brady did late in his career, Rodgers has become a crusader about flexibility, about strengthening his legs, about diet. The temptation with a man who has the body of a 28-year-old in a league determined to keep the quarterbacks healthy is to think Rodgers can be Brady, an effective player well into his forties. Maybe Rodgers can, but it’s no lock.
“If I can string together a few seasons of good health, then I don’t want to put a cap on my future,” he said. “But I feel good about this not being just a one-year thing.”
A few seasons. Jets Nation exults. But at this point, particularly coming off a meh season (for Rodgers), absolutely nothing is guaranteed. That’s another reason why Aaron Rodgers is the most interesting man in the NFL in 2023.
PITTSFORD, N.Y.—For an immensely talented team that crashed out of the playoffs last year, that has legit Super Bowl hopes, that carries the dreams of an impassioned region, the story of the Buffalo Bills as they open camp is all Damar Hamlin, all the time.
We’re at a milestone moment of the Hamlin comeback. This morning, for the first time since he nearly died on the field in the Buffalo-Cincinnati game 30 weeks ago, Hamlin will do what all football players do in preparing for the new season: get in full uniform and make full contact with guys on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
“Damar’s got one hurdle left,” GM Brandon Beane told me Sunday morning at Bills camp, as Hamlin and his defensive mates practiced 10 yards away.
Hamlin, concentrating on football only, hasn’t spoken to reporters in the first week of camp, focusing on his return to the game (which in a very non-fairy-tale way is likely but no lock). He has, however, continued to give himself to the fans and to causes in the cardiac community. In the early days of training camp at St. John Fisher University, he’s been nearly as popular as matinee idol Josh Allen. I watched him for at least 35 minutes sign and pose and smile for Bills fans young and old after practice Sunday. One shy 5- or 6-year-old told him softly as Hamlin signed his jersey, “You’re my hero,” causing Hamlin to beam.
Reality will intrude this morning on a small-college football field near Rochester.
“Yup,” said Buffalo corner Dane Jackson, who grew up with Hamlin in Pittsburgh, then played with him at Pitt before both found work with the Bills. Amazing coincidence—and of course, no one on the team or in the organization knows Hamlin the way Jackson does. I went to him to ask if he thought Beane was right about the pads and full contact being the final hurdle in the comeback.
“I mean, I’m pretty sure he feels the way,” Jackson said. “He’s been out there for some practices, so he’s been out there feeling it. But putting the pads on is pretty much the last step for him. Once he gets comfortable doing that, then he’s back and he’s ready.”
Last season, Hamlin’s second in the league, he got a chance to start 13 games because of an injury to starter Micah Hyde. But Hyde and fellow safety Jordan Poyer are back starting, and they’re one of the best safety tandems in the NFL. Beane imported ex-Ram Taylor Rapp in free agency, and it’s likely Rapp’s the third safety entering the season. That leaves Hamlin in competition, most likely, for the fourth safety spot with a couple of vets (Dean Marlowe and Jared Mayden).
I spent probably 75 percent of the two-hour practice Sunday watching Hamlin. The rules of engagement are different without pads. Defenders can wrap up ballcarriers and have minimal contact but no tackling. In 11-on-11 play, there’s some blocking by the offensive line, but it’s not close to game conditions. No question Hamlin was flying around Sunday the way he did in the secondary last season. On one play, running to catch running back James Cook near the left sideline, Hamlin instinctively shoved aside rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid to clear a path to Cook.
But the more I watched, the more I thought: Great. Hamlin’s still the athletic and instinctive player the Bills fell in love with out of Pitt. But that’s not what the coaches need to see now. Will Hamlin have some hesitation when a big tight end comes over the middle and a jarring hit is called for? Is he, deep down, traumatized by the knowledge that a big hit last year resulted in his heart stopping? Does that thought live with him?
The other part that has to be weird is the notoriety. On Jan. 2, when Hamlin lined up to play the Bengals, 99 percent of fans had never heard of him. Now he’s one of the most famous players in the league. Two days after being revived on the field in Cincinnati, the back page of the New York Post screamed AMERICA’S SON. Seriously: Who’s more famous in our country right now—Damar Hamlin or Lamar Jackson? It’s at least a question.
A group of local kids, six or eight of them, at camp Sunday stood behind a fence and watched Hamlin do simple defensive-back drills, practicing high-pointing deep interceptions and proper technique for bumping wideouts at the line.
“Hey, that’s Damar!”
“We love you Damar!”
I asked Dane Jackson: “Has he ever said to you that maybe he shouldn’t play football again?”
“Nah, nah,” Jackson said. “That hasn’t been a topic for us.”
“You think he still really wants to play?”
“Absolutely,” Jackson said.
The verve and competitiveness, on and off the field, showed that Sunday. Manny Butler, the son of defensive backs coach/defensive pass-game coordinator John Butler, was on the field with the DBs Sunday wearing a “Pray for Damar” T-shirt. The way he looked at Hamlin—mouth occasionally agape, hanging close to him whenever he was on the sidelines with a look of I’m here next to Damar!—seemed to me to mirror the fans at practice. They want Hamlin to make it and have a very long life with the team. He very well may. Today, and other days this summer when players collide with players the way they know they must, will begin to tell the Bills (and perhaps Hamlin too) how long he’ll play the game.
ALLEN PARK, Mich.--Driving into Lions camp at 7:20 a.m. Saturday in a steady rain, there was this strange sight. Fans, lines of them, waiting for the gates to open for the 8:30 a.m. practice, people in Honolulu blue getting rained on for the privilege of watching a team that finally, maybe, possibly, could turn the corner to competence in 2023.
The NFL is such a narcotic. The Lions haven’t won a division title in 30 years. They’ve won one playoff game in 65 years. They were one game over .500 last year. And here we are, scores of the faithful waiting in the rain to see them. When they got into the makeshift training-camp site, you could tell these people knew their stuff.
“Thanks for staying Johnson!” one guy yelled to offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who turned down the chance to interview for the Panthers’ head-coaching job in the offseason.
“THE SUN GOD!” another yelled when wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown caught the ball from Jared Goff. St. Brown was named after Amon-Ra, the Egyptian sun god.
“Need you right now Sam!” was the shout-out to the second-round tight end Sam LaPorta, drafted to fill a big need.
We’ll get to know these guys soon enough. In the biggest surprise of schedule release night, the league decided on the Lions as the opening-night foe for Super Bowl champ Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium. Bold. Bold, and dangerous. The league bypassed four big-time home games on the schedule—versus Miami, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Cincinnati—for the Lions, choosing to make those four matchups tentpole national TV events in the last 10 weeks of the year. Instead, the league chose the lowest-rated NFL defense in 2022 as the first 2023 foe for the league’s state-of-the-art QB (Patrick Mahomes) and offensive brain (Andy Reid).
So here’s the sense I got from these upstarts: We’re ready for this, and we’ll show you. At midseason last year, head coach Dan Campbell was 4-19-1 in his first year-and-a-half on the job. No clue how to win, no clue how to shut down a good offense. Once Jared Goff stopped turning it over and being inefficient and trusting guru-of-the-passing-game Ben Johnson, and once some young impact defensive weapons got some confidence and experience in a simplified playbook, Detroit won eight of its last 10 and was a whisker from making the playoffs.
“I’m just happy for the Lions, for us as a team to finally get some people to watch,” wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “I’m not saying we’re gonna go out there and win. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I’m just glad that we have an opportunity to show what we can do. Obviously I think we’re ready. But that might be a biased opinion. We have to prove it to everyone. We have to prove it to ourselves.
“The Lions haven’t done much for the last—you name it, decades. They haven’t won many games. Haven’t won many playoff games. So for us, we gotta go out there and prove it. Every week.”
I had a couple of questions about the 2023 Lions coming into camp. One: The running game wasn’t broken last year—Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift scored 22 rushing TDs and averaged 4.5 yards a carry—and the Lions tried to fix it. Why? Two: Is the defense any good?
Turns out the Lions wanted Williams, the NFL’s rush-TD leader with 17, back, but couldn’t agree on the price. He went to the Saints as a free agent. In came ex-Bear David Montgomery, a reliable inside-the-tackles guy. Decent replacement, but I don’t get why the Lions didn’t think Williams was worth the $6-million-a-year they paid Montgomery. The fleet rookie back, Jahmyr Gibbs, should be an upgrade over Swift. Gibbs gives the Lions something they really needed—a backfield force in the passing game.
As for the D, simplifying the weekly phone book into a pamphlet was the big deal, Campbell thinks. “We went back to the basics,” Campbell said. “Our guys got calmed down by the simplicity.” After Halloween, coinciding with the 8-2 finish, Detroit held Green Bay to 25 points in eight quarters. The Lions have two second-year players in the defensive front, Aidan Hutchinson and James Houston, who will be problems to play against for years. Campbell needs them to be problems for Patrick Mahomes Sept. 7.
The feisty St. Brown reeled off the 16 receivers drafted ahead of him in the ’21 draft (he got them all right) and told me he looks at the list three times a day. “I will never forget,” he said. He delights in knowing his 196 catches in two years is more than any of the 16 receivers drafted before him.
I like players who play with chips, and coaches who coach with them. Campbell does. He says he was giddy when he heard his team would play the great Mahomes in the opener. Hmmm. Giddy to face Mahomes. I’m not sure I would be, but Campbell knows these fans who stand in the rain to watch a July football practice have his back. If he’s giddy, they’re giddy.
LATROBE, Pa.—Sometimes you get a real feel of a team by a trip to camp. That happened on a very hot Friday, real-feel of 96 degrees.
Last year, there was every chance that, for the first time in Mike Tomlin’s decade-and-a-half running this team, the sky would fall. Ben Roethlisberger gone, GM Kevin Colbert gone, uncertainty everywhere. Except one place. The head coach.
This year, the QB job is Kenny Pickett’s—unquestioned. GM Omar Khan oversaw a terrific foray into free agency, getting a top-five NFL guard (Isaac Seumalo), a top-10 corner (Patrick Peterson), a bargain vet wideout (Allen Robinson), and maybe a Belichick-pedigree linebacker with some big plays left (Elandon Roberts). Seumalo is the smartest guy on the offensive line. Peterson’s got mayoral tendencies, leadership that Tomlin savors. Robinson is the summer-camp suitemate of star-of-the-future wideout George Pickens, something Tomlin designed to accelerate the maturation process of a sometimes wild child.
Will the Steelers contend? Likely. Will they challenge for the division title? Less likely, but it all depends on Pickett.
Last week, on the first play of 11-on-11 scrimmage work in camp, Tomlin saw something he loved, for many reasons. Pickens, 22, lined up wide right, across from Peterson, 33. Pickett, 25, skied one deep for Pickens—something the Steelers want to see more of this season. At the last second, Peterson knocked it out of Pickens’ hands. Incomplete.
It was an iron-sharpens-iron play. Tomlin was thrilled. Now he knows he has a superior player challenging his precocious franchise receiver during the day, and a veteran to guide Pickens at night in Robinson.
“Lot of layers to that one,” Tomlin told me. “Kenny Pickett and George Pickens, both second-year guys. Both significant contributors to our effort. It’s also reasonable to expect those guys to have great growth. I think that play is kind of reflective of their maturation and what’s required. And then obviously Pat being a seasoned veteran, we’re just so excited to have him. A known commodity, a solid player and guy. Not only in play but in life. He’ll be a great mentor to young corners we drafted too. It’s a lot of good things going on there.”
Pickett is coming off an intriguing rookie year. The good: He started 12 games. He threw one interception in his last eight starts. He beat Tom Brady and the Bucs; he lost a shootout to Joe Burrow and the Bengals. The bad: Mediocre accuracy (63.0 percent), seven TD throws in 12 starts, never had a game with a passer rating over 91.
Pickett is diligent. Importantly for Tomlin, he’s shown signs of the toughness the Steelers have always loved in their quarterbacks. But this year, he’s got to take more chances downfield and get more comfortable throwing balls up for Pickens. “His catch radius, unbelievable,” Pickett said of Pickens. “You just have to put it in his zip code.”
The good thing for Pickett is he’s not going to have to throw for 5,000 yards. The Steelers have one of the deep defensive fronts in football, led by T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward, so they can afford to be patient with Pickett. Tomlin will be. He knows the Pitt kid is his best option and has a good chance to become a long-term starter, but he’s not going to stand for another offensive season like last year, when Pittsburgh was 27th in scoring. That’s why he’s not ready to make any pronouncements on how comfortable he’s becoming with Pickett.
“I’m not looking for comfort,” Tomlin said. “I’d rather make people uncomfortable. Challenge people. I think that accelerates the developmental process. Looking to feel comfortable—that’s not the business we’re in.”
That’s a good reason why the Steelers are playing for something every December.
I’m adding a couple of new elements to the column this season. One debuts this week, one next.
1. What I’ve Learned, with Mike Tomlin this week, is about some aspect of football or life a football person has some wisdom about.
2. 40-for-40, debuting next week, is the brainchild of NBC’s Ron Vaccaro. He said to me recently: This is your 40th season covering the league. Why don’t you pick a highlight from each year and put it in the column in some form? So we’ll start next week with my best memory from my first season on the football beat, 1984. Each week I’ll do a video of 90 seconds or so on a memory from a season, and run that as a video (not written) in the column.
New part of the column this season. I ask people around the league what they’ve learned about some aspect of the job.
Today: Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on learning how to succeed while being under the white-hot glare of the NFL spotlight. He spoke to me Friday, on a 95-degree heat-index afternoon in Latrobe, Pa.
“I probably enjoy the job more than I ever have. I just think it’s that I’m not distracted by things that could be a pebble in your shoe. I just take the pebble out and keep moving. You gotta have a certain level of experience to have that mentality and I’m glad that I do. I don’t get distracted by things that are irrelevant in terms of this team’s development. It allows me to focus my energies on what is important and these guys and the purity of that is fun for me.
“There’s a lot of things surrounding the game particularly when you’ve got a young developing group. I think as important as it is to teach them the schematics, the assignment, and so forth, it’s to teach them to focus. To educate them regarding some of the things that surround professional football and professional sport. So that they can sustain. So their attention can be directed properly. So that the growth process isn’t interrupted by nonsense. That’s on my agenda on days like today. Days like this are great. We need information, and we learn about the ability to execute fine details as fatigue sets in. Showing good ability in heat and fatigue—that’s a football trait we value.”
--Cincinnati offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, to Paul Dehner Jr., of The Athletic, with one of the all-time quotes about the importance of the Bengals’ franchise quarterback to the team.
--Colts owner Jim Irsay, to Fox 59/CBS 4 in Indianapolis, on the sudden spat with the franchise back that resulted in Taylor’s trade request during the week.
That escalated quickly.
--“Jeopardy!” champion and big NFL fan James Holzhauer, in a Saturday night Tweet.
--Saquon Barkley, who signed a one-year deal worth a max of $11 million last week, a deal he and others sad-trumpeted as low-ball.
--The nameplate on the back of a Washington Commanders jersey, worn to a training camp practice by fan Andrew Potts, per Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times.
I’m wondering how many Rams shave.
Of the 88 players on the Los Angeles active roster over the weekend, 53 of them stepped foot in the Rams’ facility for the first time in the last 15 months—since the 2022 draft. That includes a startling 36 rookies.
So 60 percent of the Rams are virtual NFL newcomers.
Contrast that number, 53 newbies, to the two teams we probably think of as the biggest rebuilding teams in football—Houston and Arizona. On Houston’s camp roster, 32 players arrived since the 2022 draft. Just 30 Cardinals arrived since the ’22 draft.
The Rams are serious about two things: wrangling their salary cap to a manageable place, and coaching up and playing a core of keeper players. If Sean McVay can field an eight-win team, it’ll be a fabulous coaching job.
Just Saying Dept.:
Running back Bijan Robinson, from Texas, is in his first week of training camp after being drafted eighth overall by Atlanta. Running back Deuce Vaughn, from Kansas State, was drafted 212th overall by Dallas, and is in camp with the Cowboys.
Vaughn, in his last two college games, faced third-ranked TCU in the conference championship game and fifth-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Robinson faced both teams in the regular season.
Vaughn versus TCU and ‘Bama in his last two games: 48 carries, 263 yards, 5.5 yards per carry.
Robinson versus TCU and ‘Bama in the 2022 season: 33 carries, 86 yards, 2.6 yards per carry.
I’ll bet coaches who had to defend against Robinson and Vaughn don’t believe there’s a 204-draft-slot talent gap between the two rookie running backs.
Baseball Stat of the Week:
Number of games won by the teams (Mets, Yanks, Padres) with the three highest payrolls: 157.
Number of games won by the teams (Orioles, Rays, Pirates) with the 27th, 28th and 29th payrolls: 175.
Chris Spielman is one of the greatest Lions of all time, and now works as a behind-the-scenes adviser to the football team. It was interesting to hear Detroit coach Dan Campbell before practice Saturday open his press availability, unprompted, with effusive praise of the ex-blood-and-guts linebacker. “He’s kind of a little bit unseen and not always heard on the outside, but I’ll tell you what, he’s an important confidant and I’m glad he’s here,” Campbell said.
During a break in the practice that followed, Spielman picked up a bucket with a taped-on sign reading: “Chris’s Magic Mix Bucket.” Inside was a mix of seed, fertilizer and green ground cover. Spielman, as the groundskeepers do during breaks, scurried around the practice field looking for holes and divots, and he sprinkled some of his mixture in those holes.
He told me he had so much admiration for the groundskeepers, who he said appeared out of nowhere and did their jobs and then disappeared. And so one day he asked for a bucket of stuff and just began doing it too.
Hey, the more you can do.
CATAWBA ISLAND, Ohio—Over the years on my training-camp trip, I’ve delighted in discovering new spots in places I’ve never been. Such a spot was found four hours into our drive from Steelers to Lions Friday late in the day. We made it to a charming brewery restaurant in this quaint township on the northern tip of Ohio, just as the sun was setting over Lake Erie. Our merry band—including drivers/producers/videographers Kelsey Bartels and Kristen Coleman—stopped for dinner and a craft beer (or three, in my case as the backseat passenger) at Twin Oast Brewing a few long spirals from the lake.
Marvelous place. Family place. Kids throwing frisbees and footballs on a great lawn, a band playing Van Morrison, four or five bars serving a packed Friday night crowd, and perch on the menu from the lake. I had the perch sandwich and garden salad with the ingredients from farms within walking distance.
See the little round-the-world video I shot on my phone:
Beernerdness: Being a wheat beer guy, I had to try Twin Oast’s wheat, the Malt Whitman, served with an orange in a pint glass. One of the smoothest wheats I’ve had, with a perfect crispness for a hot July night.
One of the coolest spots on any camp trip I’ve ever taken, and well worth pushing hard to get there before closing time Friday night.
1. I think that interview with Jarrett Bell is one Sean Payton would like to have back.
2. I think that is the understatement of July. As one head coach told me over the phone as we wound our way from the Jets to Steelers, “That crosses the line. Sean broke the code.” It’s one thing to say to Russell Wilson: I’ve got your back. Me and you against the world, Russ. It’s another thing to lay waste to a good coach not ready to be a head coach, Nathaniel Hackett, and to football people still in the Denver building (“20 dirty hands”). Just way over the line. In some ways, Payton may have put more pressure on Wilson, because he totally, unequivocally absolved him of all blame in the disastrous 2022 season. Now, if Wilson doesn’t revert to top-QB form, Payton has set himself and Wilson up as punching bags—even after walking his comments back.
3. I think when you start hearing Joe Burrow could miss “multiple weeks” or “up to six weeks” because of the strained calf, two things come to mind.
4. I think I’m going to go down a scheduling rabbit hole here, but it’s stuck with me through my time off. Here goes. One potentially decisive scheduling factoid in the AFC North was lost in the mega-coverage of the schedule release in May, and that’s the major rest advantage for Baltimore down the stretch of the season … and the potential physical beatdown the Steelers could face at the same time.
The Ravens will play one game in a span of 23 days between Nov. 17 and Dec. 9, which could lead to significant healing for a stretch run with two noted physical foes—San Francisco in week 16, Pittsburgh in week 18.
The Steelers will play four games in that same span.
Baltimore plays Cincinnati at home on Thursday, Nov. 16, and will wake up in home beds on the 17th with nine days off before facing the Chargers in L.A. on Sunday, Nov. 26. Then comes the week 13 bye, followed by a home game against the Rams on Sunday, Dec. 10.
Pittsburgh will play three straight Sundays starting Nov. 19 in Cleveland, and then at Cincinnati and then home with Arizona. The Steelers then play New England at home on Thursday night Dec. 7. So that’s actually four games in 19 days for the Steelers.
What’s interesting, to me, is that Ravens coach John Harbaugh could have a relatively luxurious decision or decisions to make in mid-November. Say a key player comes out of that Thursday night game on Nov. 16 with a strained calf or bum ankle. If Harbaugh is confident in his receiver and corner depth, he could give them 23 days to heal for the last five games. It’s the kind of decision coaches rarely have the chance to make in the health-crushing world of the NFL.
5. I think these are three things about the Bills’ new $1.4-billion stadium project, which broke ground in June, that I find interesting:
6. I think happy trails are in order for the distinctive Norm Hitzges, who retired in June after 48 years on sports radio in Dallas. That’s a lifetime of Jerry Jones rants. As important as his talk shows, Hitzges, of The Ticket sports radio, has had a fundraiser each December, the Whataburger Normathon, that over two decades has raised more than $8 million for the Austin Street Center for the Homeless in Dallas. Hitzges, 78, has left footprints for so many in radio to follow—but what makes his legacy special is his enduring care for people struggling in life. Kudos on a professional life so well-lived to Hitzges.
7. I think I’ve got my quibbles with the “Quarterback” series on Netflix: Marcus Mariota added very little; nice guy, just not interesting and not a very good player. Too many talking heads getting airtime … It’s plodding at times, and probably could have been five tight shows instead of eight … Nothing against people who make their living talking about the NFL, but this series should have been all inside the lives of the three quarterbacks … But overall I liked it a lot, learned from it, and am glad it’ll be back for a second year. Pluses: Kirk Cousins provided some terrific moments, including mooning deep into the night about an overthrow against Detroit, moaning with injuries in games and meeting with the team psychologist. Really good … Patrick Mahomes F-bombing Andy Reid for taking him out when injured in the playoffs was classic Mahomes, as was some eye-rolling weariness about the demands on a franchise quarterback. I hold out hope for the next season to be even more inside. I asked the three directors of the individual quarterbacks for thoughts on what being embedded with the quarterbacks last season was like.
Tim Rumpff (Cousins)
As a director embarking on an unprecedented year-long journey to document a quarterback’s season, your biggest hope is that your subject buys into the project. Kirk Cousins made it clear from day one that he was an open book. The first time we met, after exchanging the typical awkward pleasantries, he proceeded to talk for over an hour about his weekly in-season schedule, breaking it down minute-by-minute. That introduction was lesson number one about playing the position: Time is a quarterback’s most valuable asset and every second of every day is accounted for trying to perfect the craft. Kirk allowed us to capture his process, which includes brain-training sessions, meetings with a team psychologist, painful body work and game planning meetings with coach Kevin O’Connell. When I asked him why he does all these things, he admitted that he knows his physical limitations and his mind is his edge.
Matt Dissinger (Mahomes)
“I’ll see you guys at the house!”
I was standing outside the Chiefs locker room after Kansas City’s 27-20 victory over the Jaguars in the divisional round of the playoffs. It was a game in which Patrick Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain, lost his fight to stay on the field, and then returned to the game and threw the game-icing touchdown on one leg. Now, as he gingerly walked from the press room to his locker room to get an MRI, we anxiously awaited his response to whether we could film with him after such a dramatic win. We had our answer. The scene at the Mahomes house after that game told you everything you needed to know about the man Patrick is. The house was packed with family and friends that had done this very thing for years. Patrick’s college friends sat on the couch and his parents immediately greeted him when he walked in the door. Shortly, it was time for Sterling, his almost 2-year-old daughter, to go to bed. For a moment he wasn’t the NFL MVP, he was dad and it was time for bedtime stories. When he emerged, he sat down, his wife Brittany sat on his lap and regaled her with the story of how he tried to persuade Andy Reid to keep him in the game. (“If I said the F word to coach, you know I was upset!”) It was a scene unlike anything I had captured in my 20 years with NFL Films.
Shannon Furman (Mariota)
I always heard Marcus was a very private person. One of the very first things we shot with him and his wife Kiyomi was an ultrasound for their first child that would be born later that season. To see the joy and awe on his face during that moment added a lot of perspective on what this year meant to him. While it was a big year for him on the football field it was an even bigger year off it. He was going to be a father, and we were trusted to document these moments for their family. I was very grateful that this private couple let us into such an intimate moment in their lives and allowed us to continue documenting the birth of their first child throughout the series.
8. I think the $60-million fine levied on Daniel Snyder as he got good-riddanced out of the NFL is, on the surface, a decent pound of flesh for all his misdeeds. But let’s be real. Take the $60m away from the sale price of $6.05 billion and you’re left with $5.99 billion—which is 1 percent of the sale amount. More significantly, Snyder, even after the fine, earned the highest amount for an American sports franchise ever, beating the Broncos last year by $1.34 billion. So the fine might make the NFL feel good because the league’s all about money anyway. But it was a nick-cut on the neck of a man who is singularly responsible for taking a flagship NFL franchise and turning it into a tarnished national embarrassment. Oh, one other thing: Snyder’s exit statement led the league in tone-deafness. The second sentence in it: “We are proud to have built the most diverse leadership group of any NFL team, including having the highest representation of women, underrepresented groups, and the first full time black female coach in league history.” You built nothing, man, other than your investment portfolio.
9. I think watching the fans streaming into Washington training camp is reminiscent of the final moments in “Field of Dreams,” with the cars lined up in Dyersville, Iowa to recapture what they loved so much and what they thought was lost forever. Good luck to the Josh Harris group in making the team what I remember from the late eighties and early nineties. Games at RFK Stadium were almost religious revivals. The ground shook and the press box swayed with the game on the line in the fourth quarter of so many of those games. May it happen again.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. RIP to many over the past 11 weeks, including two memorable and very different people and voices: Tony Bennett and Sinead O’Connor. Been singing their songs to myself all month.
b. My favorite recent quote, from tech strategist Lou Paskalis to The New York Times, on Elon Musk laying waste to Twitter: “If there’s ever been a more self-destructive owner of a multi-billion-dollar enterprise who resents the very customers who determine the success of that enterprise, I am unaware of it.”
d. My favorite recent letter to the editor, from The Wall Street Journal on June 16, as the PGA-LIV merger disgusted America, from Olaf Kroneman III of Birmingham, Mich.: “I always take a shower after playing golf. Now, I will need a shower after watching golf.”
e. Story of the Break: Kent Babb of The Washington Post with an emotional, wrenching piece on a nineties Harvard football team with two very notable players taking two very different paths after graduation.
f. One player, Chris Eitzmann, made the Patriots, roomed with Tom Brady as a rookie, and had his life ruined by CTE and alcoholism. He died in 2021, and his autopsy showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the progressive brain disease associated with repeated hits to the head.
g. Another player, Chris Nowinski, became a professional wrestler (“Chris Harvard”) before being concussed too often, then started on a path to wake up America about the dangers of football and head trauma. Now the head of the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, Nowinski has felt the sting of ostracization by many in the football community, and is clearly tormented by the life and death of his former teammate. Crucially important story, so well told by Babb, who is excellent.
h. Baseball Story of the Summer: Tyler Kepner of The New York Times on the last remaining Dodger from the Boys of Summer, Carl Erskine. Just superb.
i. Wrote Kepner:
His original postcareer plan had been to move to New York and work as an athletic wear representative for Van Heusen, the apparel company. But the family stayed in Anderson when Jimmy, the fourth Erskine child, was born with Down syndrome in April 1960, a time when many families struggled with society’s attitudes toward children with intellectual disabilities.
“The assumption right in the beginning was, of course, you’re going to take him to some institution,” Erskine said. “And Betty says, ‘No, no, he goes home with us.’ And that was it from the beginning, Day 1. So we never considered anything but Jimmy going with us.”
Erskine sold insurance, worked as a bank president and coached baseball at Anderson College. Jimmy went everywhere with the family — to dinner, to church, to his siblings’ athletic events. He attended public school in Anderson, where an elementary school was named in the family’s honor in 2004.
Jimmy, now living with a caretaker, retired recently after working 20 years at an Applebee’s restaurant in Anderson. He visits his parents’ home twice a week.
“He’s 63, and they had told us he’d live to be in his 30s,” Betty said. “We feel like we were given an angel.”
j. You read a fabulous story like that, and read people like Ken Belson and Jenny Vrentas and Juliet Macur, and you see The New York Times eliminating its sports section in favor of using stories from The Athletic, and you think: Do the people in charge of the place know a damn thing about sports and original sports reporting?
k. I watched a lot of baseball on my break. Three observations: Official scoring is laughably bad; there are no errors anymore. The Cubs play the Cardinals every day. True story. They’ve got 162 games against each other this year. And this Shohei Ohtani … Any argument that he’s the best player in American sports right now? Or in years?
l. I feel like his doubleheader in Detroit last week was vastly underplayed. He threw a one-hit complete-game shutout at the Tigers in game one, and hit two home runs in the nightcap. What is the best word to describe those six hours? “Absurd” is 18 percent of the real meaning.
m. Happy trails to one of the best local TV reporters I’ve ever encountered, Mark Berman of FOX 26 in Houston. A tenacious grinder, retiring after 37 years on the job.
n. I guess you file this in the That’s Baseball Suzyn Dept.: Lazing around at home one day in June, I turned on the Yankees-ChiSox game, and the starting outfield for the greatest baseball franchise of all time was, left to right, Jake Bauers, Billy McKinney and Willie Calhoun. And that wasn’t the only time it happened.
o. Great observation from David Cone, who started 419 big-league games and won a Cy Young with the Royals, watching Nick Pivetta pitching exclusively from the stretch in a Red Sox-Yankees game: “If I had it to do all over again, I’d pitch from the stretch full-time. Just feel like there’s less moving parts, less that can go wrong, hide your pitches better.” Cone’s really insightful.
p. Travel Story of the Summer: Joseph De Avila of The Wall Street Journal with a piece the summer of mega-air-travel has brought to the fore: “Can Airline Seating Get Any Worse? ‘A New Form of Torture Chamber.’”
q. Wrote De Avila:
Last year, the FAA sought public feedback on whether seat sizes posed safety issues, and it got an earful. More than 26,000 public comments poured in over a three-month stretch.
“Airplane seat sizes are appalling,” one commenter wrote. “They are built for people from the ’40s and ‘50s. They cannot remotely accommodate a person over 6 feet or 200 pounds. It’s literally painful to fly today.”
Liddy Cotter, 25, said carriers should put more effort into making seating more pleasant, even if they have to sacrifice some profits.
“I understand they’ve got to make money,” said Cotter, who lives in Manhattan. “But at the same time, where is the humanity?”
r. Got to think about the baseball All-Star Game a bit. Thoughts:
National TV rating of the baseball All-Star Game on FOX July 11: 3.9.
National TV rating of one of the sketchiest 2022 Thursday night NFL matchups, streaming on Amazon Prime, Jaguars-Jets on Dec. 22: 3.9. Much of America still has no idea where to find Amazon Prime, yet 8.26 million people found it to watch the 6-8 Jags and 7-7 Jets play. Everyone knows where to find FOX, yet 7.06 million watched the All-Star Game.
The cratering of baseball on TV is stunning. Viewership of the All-Star Game is down 81 percent since the 1980 game. Consider this: The biggest comedy on TV in 1980, M*A*S*H, averaged a 25.7 rating. The 1980 All-Star Game got a 26.8 rating. Now a decent college football draw in the noon Saturday window can beat it. Odd and precipitous.
s. So you think you can’t make a difference. You’re lying to yourself. You can. Bart Chezar is this week’s reason why.
t. Take three minutes and listen to the story about arborist and tree enthusiast Bart Chezar on WNYC radio in New York. He is singlehandedly trying (with some marked success) to return the American Chestnut Tree to one of America’s great parks (and my big walking park), Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
u. From a 15-inch sapling to a 40-feet tall tree, helping regenerate a species … in only nine years. The trees begin as chestnuts, donated to Bart by the American Chestnut Foundation in the fall. He provides needed TLC in his apartment in New York, making sure they get in months of needed cold storage so they’re good and strong when, in the spring, he can plant them in a quiet place in the park. “My wife gives me a little area of our fridge I can use,” he says.
v. So far he’s planted about 2,000 in this New York City park. Some die due to a blight that nearly eliminated the species. But many survive—because one man is dedicated to the survival of a mighty tree.
w. Stories like that, in our divided country, make me slightly optimistic about us.
x. So you want to know what I did on my summer vacay? Some highlights of my 11-week experience with not working:
y. Sincere thanks to NBC colleagues Kristen Coleman and Kelsey Bartels for their production and videography work on the first leg of my camp trip. They were unselfish and fast and great professionals in week one.
z. Anyway, very glad to be back, and very glad to be taking this trip. You’re going to get my best in my 40th season covering the season, I can promise you that.
Coaches in the league
Don’t want Saleh to forgive