It feels like we’re closing in on the regular season, but it’s still two and a half weeks away. Still, there’s plenty of news to cover in the afternoon column. Let’s jump in …
• The Colts are cautiously optimistic coming out of Carson Wentz’s return to practice, just three weeks after he underwent foot surgery. First things first, though, and that is this—video of Wentz moving through agility drills like a deer is not an indication that he’s ready to play football, and Indy’s handling of Wentz for the rest of the practice reflected that. He went through seven-on-seven work. He wasn’t out there for 11-on-11s, and my understanding is he won’t be for the remainder of this week, with the hope being he’ll take part in that sort of work at the start of next week. Which, of course, is an attempt by the team to be methodical about it, and also an acknowledgment that foot injuries can be tricky. The good news? To those there, after a few weeks of watching Jacob Eason and Sam Ehlinger duke it out for position behind Wentz, what Wentz brought to the table even just in seven-on-sevens was very apparent. “Big difference,” texted one. And so at the very least, some of the late-July feelings on what Wentz could do for team are back.
• There’s something that doesn’t quite pass the sniff test on the Patriots’ missing on a rule that everyone’s pretty well-read on by now—that unvaccinated players can’t leave their home cities and fall out of the testing cadence (one motivator for players to get vaccinated, in fact, was that unvaccinated players won’t be able to leave town during their teams’ bye weeks). So either New England had an uncharacteristically bad slip-up here, in letting Cam Newton leave town, or the Patriots are just failing on the sword for him in the aftermath. If it’s the former, the team would sort of owe him one for this. Otherwise? Otherwise, I think the door swings open for Mac Jones to make headway, and for the second straight week Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels showed trust in Jones belying his status as a rookie. They again got him snaps out of empty formations (he was 2-for-2 for 14 yards on those), and put him in no-huddle in a second-half drive (he went 5-for-5 for 54 yards on that one, and New England wound up scoring). Separate from Newton’s situation, Jones is clearly moving forward at a good pace. Connected to it, Newton’s absence naturally gives Jones three days of first-team reps, and one of them will come in a joint practice with the Giants. So the Patriots in essence get a dry run here without having to upset the apple cart, and with practices closing down to the public and media next week. This sets up for Jones to get a shot. And remember, weird circumstances have elevated rookie quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert to starting spots in the past. Provided the Patriots weren’t the ones at fault in Newton’s situation, it’s not hard to imagine New England’s coaches thinking about something similar playing out here.
• While we’re on the Patriots, we’ve got another piece on them picked up from this offseason that further contextualizes the changes they’ve made in the front offices—and it connects to a Packers exec named Chad Brinker. In this morning’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, veteran beat man Tom Silverstein told Brinker’s story, how he came up in VP of football administration Russ Ball’s department and how he earned an MBA earlier this year from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. All of that coincided with Brinker’s being promoted this summer to personnel/football administration executive, and Green Bay did, indeed, get a nudge from outside the building to give Brinker that bump. During the offseason, New England put in a request to interview Brinker for a job helping lead its salary-cap operation, as part of new director of player personnel Dave Ziegler’s effort to rework facets of the team’s personnel department. The Packers blocked Brinker from interviewing and promoted him in the aftermath (which is common when teams block coaches or scouts). So clearly, the Patriots were looking outside the building for voices (Brinker worked with Patriots exec Eliot Wolf in Green Bay), which they haven’t always done. And clearly, the Packers valued Brinker, who actually was a good enough player at one point to make it into training camp with the Jets as an undrafted free agent. So his would be a name to watch going forward.
• The Cowboys’ loss of five guys due to COVID-19 protocols again highlights what the next six months could look like—and I’d reiterate what I mentioned this morning, that there have been issues already with asymptomatic, vaccinated team staffers having trouble testing out after a positive test (which is to say, they continue to test positive). People in that spot have to be out for 10 days, and so it’s worth keeping an eye on how long the players in Dallas, and DC Dan Quinn, are out. For what it’s worth, Colts coach Frank Reich was shelved for a week at the beginning of camp, which means he did wind up testing out of the protocol.
• Another picked up piece from camp that I just found fascinating was the detail of how big the Cardinals’ linebackers are. The team’s last two first-round picks, Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins, stand 6’ 4”, which is gigantic for an off-ball linebacker. And that little thing just jumped right out at me when I was at Arizona’s camp, and saw the two of those guys standing next to Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt, two on-the-line players used to being the most imposing guys in the room. So where does this quirk manifest itself? A couple guys there brought up the division to me that Matthew Stafford and Jimmy Garoppolo are both right around 6’ 2”, average for a quarterback, and Russell Wilson is 5’ 10”. So if the Cards can get Simmons going after his slow start as a rookie, and Collins keeps rolling as he has been, the Arizona front could present an under-the-radar issue for quarterbacks in that division.
• ICYMI, here’s what NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said about the Buffalo stadium situation, from Jim Kelly’s charity golf tournament: “You’ve got to think long-term here. This has been going on for decades, and it’s time to get a new stadium done where we can make sure the Bills are here and successful for many, many decades going forward. We’re focused on keeping the Bills [in Buffalo] in a new stadium in a public, private partnership. That’s what this is all about and that’s where we’re focusing.” Basically, that amounts to Goodell’s saying owners Terry and Kim Pegula are willing to pay for some of, but not all of, the bill for a new stadium. And public funding isn’t easy to come by in New York state. Here’s hoping, one way or the other, the state and Bills figure this out, because the league would be worse for losing Buffalo as a market.
• While we’re there, I love Austin, Texas—I had my bachelor party there. I also think with the money in that city, a population sprawl that stretches pretty much the full hour drive over to San Antonio and the potential more growth, it is a viable market. But if you think, when it comes down to it, Jerry Jones would stand by and let another team move into that area, then I have some nice pieces of land in the Hill Country to sell you.
• I would not underrate the impact that Matt Canada is having as Ben Roethlisberger’s new offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, and perhaps even his ability to mitigate some growing pains the offensive line could have. Canada will get the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands fast, and use Najee Harris to slow down the pass-rush, and I think in general he’s getting the Steelers out of what had been an underrated problem there—there was a significant drop-off in ingenuity going from Todd Haley as offensive coordinator to Roethlisberger’s old friend, Randy Fichtner,
• The Ravens’ record 19-game preseason winning is remarkable, and weird, and I honestly don’t know exactly what to make of it. But I don’t think it’s unrelated that John Harbaugh pushes his guys pretty hard, and simulates game conditions, in practice. I’d imagine that makes it so all 90 guys on the roster, and not just the NFL-experienced ones, are ready to go when the lights turn on. It also makes me think of what Urban Meyer said to me the other day on losing his preseason opener: “We lost our preseason game and I keep hearing, it’s just a preseason game. Well, we lost. Our objective as long as they’re keeping score is to win.” (Meyer and the Harbaughs clearly have their differences, but maniacal competitiveness isn’t one of them).
• I’m gonna be at the Jets tomorrow morning, and, man, Robert Saleh had some tough luck in his first camp there—a front seven that he and Joe Douglas spent the offseason reworking has already lost the two most significant veteran pieces, in Carl Lawson (for the year) and Jarrad Davis (for two months), they added in the offseason. So New York’s going to need Saleh to put the defensive acumen that got him the job in the first place to work.
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