Los Ravens ganan un loco y vibrante Super Bowl

NUEVA ORLEANS (AP) — Un apagón en el Super Bowl provocó que el máximo acontecimiento deportivo de Estados Unidos se interrumpiera durante más de media hora al domingo, pero el partido ofreció un vibrante desenlace que culminó con Joe Flacco y los Ravens de Baltimore como los campeones de la NFL al vencer 34-31 a los 49ers de San Francisco.

Flacco lanzó tres pases de touchdown en la primera mitad para coronar una postemporada de 11 anotaciones sin ninguna intercepción. Además, Jacoby Jones fijó un récord al anotar con una carrera de 108 yardas al devolver la patada de arranque del segundo tiempo que puso a Baltimore al frente por 22 puntos.

Pero lo insólito se produjo instantes después. El Superdome, el estadio bajo techo de Nueva Orleáns, se quedó sin luz.

Cuando el duelo se puedo reanudar, tras una demorada de 34 minutos, los 49ers reaccionaron con 17 puntos consecutivos y se pusieron a tiro, 31-29.

Pero la defensa de Baltimore se plantó firme al frenar a San Francisco en una cuarta oportunidad y gol desde la yarda 5 y menos de dos minutos por jugar.

Ten Things I Think I Think: On C.J. Beathard, Luke Kuechly, Jack Del Rio, NaVorro Bowman and More

1. I think these are my quick notes of Week 6:

a. Stunning penalty-yardage disparity Thursday night: Eagles 126, Panthers 1. I would love to be in the officials’ room on Park Avenue to hear the discussion over the fact that the Panthers were not whistled for one hold in a game that has become a clutch-and-grab-fest.

b. I have never heard what CBS analyst Nate Burleson said about rookie running back Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs: “He’s the carpet that brings the room together.” How did I miss that?

c. WHOOOOOOOSH! Marvin Hall just showed up Saturday on the active Atlanta roster for the first time, then got five yards behind the Miami secondary and caught a too-easy long TD.

d. Case Keenum is playing the best football of his life—and looks so confident doing it. His inside shovel pass to Kyle Rudolph for seven yards near the Green Bay goal line was a thing of beauty.

e. The Lions are in the NFC North race because of the Aaron Rodgers injury, not because of good football.

f. The book on C.J. Beathard is he’s one tough guy. Which he showed in the 26-24 loss at Washington. But he showed much more, enough that he’s got at least one more start next Sunday against Dallas.

g. Can someone please teach Jordan Howard that when your team is trying to bleed the clock, you don’t intentionally run out of bounds? Sheesh.

h. Oakland punter Marquette King had a day: four punts, 56.5-yard average, 55.0 net, all four inside the 20.

i. What a pass by Tarik Cohen, the bowling ball of a back for Chicago. He rolled right with a handoff and let one fly, 37 yards in the air, and it nestled perfectly into the arms of Zach Miller in the right corner of the end zone. First Bears rookie running back to throw a TD pass since Gale Sayers did it in 1965.

j. Good for the Chargers winning in Oakland. Anthony Lynn is keeping that team together against so many odds.

k. Jack Del Rio has a big problem, and it’s not only that the Raiders are 2-4. They’re an uninspired, toothless 2-4. They’ve got a must-win game Thursday night against the Chiefs—and they’ve only lost five in a row to Kansas City.

l. Where to start with that New Orleans-Detroit game. Well, I’ll leave you with one note on it: The Cam Jordan tipped-to-himself interception for a touchdown was the biggest play in a game with 90 points scored, and one of the most athletic plays of the season. Jordan’s a heck of a player. The Saints need about five more of him on defense.

m. When he’s healthy, Janoris Jenkins is a top-five NFL cornerback. Showed it again Sunday night with the pick-six in Denver.

n. Could be that I jinxed him, but if you want to see my "Football Night in America" ride-along with Trevor Siemian, here it is.

o. Cam Newton will not put the Thursday-nighter in his time capsule.

p. There is no good reason—nor a crappy reason—to fine a celebrating football player for throwing a football into the stands after a great play. I mean, the player is happy, the player is celebrating, the player gives the souvenir touchdown football to a fan. I do understand the NFL’s reasoning. The league doesn’t want anyone to get hurt in a scrum for a prize football. And if there is an instance of a fan getting hurt beyond a couple of scratches on a ball thrown into the stands, maybe I’d change my tune. But Davante Adams got fined $6,076 for throwing his winning touchdown catch into the stands in Texas last week, and there’s the cutest picture of the recipient, a little girl, cradling it this week. It’s wrong.

q. Thomas Davis still has it, even after three ACL surgeries.

2. I think, Luke Kuechly, it’s time for that deep conversation with yourself and with your family and maybe with your good friends on the Panthers. You’re 26, and when you’re on the field you’re as dominant and instinctive as you were in 2013, when you were named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. But with a likely third concussion in three years Thursday night, the danger with playing such a physical position and risking further head trauma is something Kuechly and those closest to him are going to have to consider when trying to decide about his future in football. Kuechly came steaming around right end to get an Eagles’ ball-carrier, and he was met directly by guard Brandon Brooks. Brooks didn’t Kuechly him helmet-to-helmet; rather, he simply stopped Kuechly and leveled him with a strong block into his shoulder/neck area. Players get up from that almost every time … but when players have a history of concussions, even seemingly ordinary contact can be dangerous. Whatever Kuechly does—and he told me last year he planned to play as long he physically is able—the emotion has to be taken out of it. He’s got to make the best call for 50-year-old Luke Kuechly.

3. I think I get the release of NaVorro Bowman—a veteran on an 0-5 team who wouldn’t be there after this season. He’s been one of the best professionals and competitors I’ve covered. I also get the Niners releasing him instead of taking a low-round pick for him. I’ll tell you where I’d go if I were him: Carolina. Great insurance for Kuechly, and a great one-year landing place. Backup plan: Oakland.

4. I think when I saw the Panthers in training camp, coach Ron Rivera was adamant that Carolina was going to be a power-running team. If that was the case, Carolina would be at least one win better than its 4-2 record right now. But in the last two games, Carolina’s running backs have 35 carries for 37 yards. The Panthers should be using the speed and horizontal misdirection of Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey to create uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball.

5. I think it’s only mid-October, and it’s starting to be hard to fathom how a guy who seemed bulletproof on Labor Day, Giants coach Ben McAdoo, will still be in that job in 2018.

6. I think it’s only mid-October, and it’s starting to be hard to fathom how the Eagles won’t win the NFC East, with this schedule over the next four weeks: Washington, San Francisco and Denver, all at home, followed by the bye. The Eagles don’t play a road game until the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

7. I think I enjoyed the NFL Films Presents “Touchdown in Israel” show I screened over the weekend. The show debuts Friday at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Patriots owner Robert Kraft took 18 Pro Football Hall of Famers to Israel, to promote football (the players actually coached a game between two teams of young players from Israel) and so Kraft could show off Israel, which he loves. Most touching parts: At the end of the show, Joe Montana, Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson and others—most emotionally Marshall Faulk—discuss their experiences on the last night in Israel. Faulk, not an emotional sort, struggles to get through his thoughts speaking to the group, because the trip was so powerful to him. “Coming from the Ninth Ward in Louisiana, to be in Israel … UN-believable … And not just to be here, but [struggling to speak] … to be here with some guys who I look up to. I grew up poor. I sold POPCORN in the Superdome just to watch y’all play! [fighting off tears] … Cuz that’s the only way I could get in! … So to be here, and to be friends with y’all, and to hear your stories, and to have y’all listening to my stories, um, is unbelievable. I came here as just a member of the Hall. Man, I’m leaving with some special relationships.”

8. I think I applaud the filing of the Colin Kaepernick collusion case, though I’m skeptical attorney Mark Geragos will find any evidence to prove that multiple NFL owners, or the league office, colluded to deny Kaepernick employment. This may not be the best thing to get Kaepernick on an NFL roster (the dreaded “distraction” that so many teams quake about would be the result of signing him now), but the more noise that’s made about Kaepernick not being given a chance to play the better.

9. I think there’s an overlooked story you should know about it. It happened last week at a small-college football game in upstate New York, St. Lawrence at Union. Two friends from the Albany area from the early 1940s, World War II vets apart for more than 70 years, gathered to renew their friendship at the game in Schenectady, and the emotion that came out left both men weeping. Donald Sommers (Union class of ’45), age 95, and Ted Rosen (St. Lawrence class of ’48), 93, hadn’t seen each other because of the war and because life took them in different directions. Sommers’ daughter Caroline, a New York City-based TV producer, worked for months to locate Rosen, just as a favor to her father, who recently lost his wife. “This is unbelievable, to be able to spend time with such a good friend after so many years,” said Sommers. “I haven’t seen this young man in 70 years! We chose to do it at the football game. I am a very ardent football watcher.” Caroline Sommers was filled with emotion when the two friends stood with the teams from their respective alma maters as the anthem played. “This was a bucket list thing for me to do for my father,” she said. “You know the scene in the Grinch where his heart grows a lot at the end? That’s what this felt like—to do something that made these two great men so happy.”

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Story of the Week: by John Branch of the New York Times, “The Girl in the No. 8 Jersey,” on the tragedy in Las Vegas hitting home on a soccer field in California.

b. Stacee Etcheber and the Girl in the No. 8 Jersey should have some rights. Rights to live without the fear of being cut down by some normal-seeming sniper from 400 yards away.

c. Goodellian Story of the Week: by Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal, about an anonymous (but no longer) defender of Roger Goodell on Twitter.

d. Baseball Story of the Week: by Peter Gammons of The Athletic, on the Astros’ Game 4 ALDS win in Boston, writing about the rise of one franchise and the fall of another at Fenway Park on a murky October day. “This is what I live for. This place is so great, so electric,” said Justin Verlander, who almost was a goat in the first relief appearance of his life in professional baseball. “To me, baseball is about the moments, walking up on the mound with something on the line.”

e. And that wasn’t even the baseball game of the week. Cubs 9, Nats 8.

f. I cannot rave enough about Jose Altuve. The man invents runs. Friday against the Yankees, in a scoreless game, he bounced a normal ground ball up the middle, and the throw to first was a tick late. Then he stole second, safe by a whisker. Then, on a single up the middle, his little pistons took him home for the first run of a 2-1 game. The man is Pedroia with 40 percent better power and 30 percent better speed.

g. Justin Verlander with the game of his later career in ALCS Game 2. Then I looked up and saw he’s still only 34. Thought he was older. So glad to see a guy throw 124 pitches and a complete game and no one freaks out. Look how good Verlander was late: In the last four innings, he struck out seven, got five batted-ball outs, walked one, allowed one hit. That’s dominance.

h. Cleveland … that one hurt. Not as bad as losing the 3-1 Series lead last year. But watching Corey Kluber go cold, and Jose Ramirez go colder, will lead to some bummer evenings this winter.

i. Coffeenerdness: Not a good idea to run low on Italian Roast at my two local stores, Starbucks. You do realize I’m an addict, don’t you? STOCK THE ITALIAN ROAST!?

j. Beernerdness: I’ve gone Sober October, as you may have read last week, and you filled my inbox with your passion about favorite beers. So I’m going to use the next three columns to feature your choices. The first: from Mitch Clingman of Wisconsin: “I live in Milwaukee but I'm from Minnesota, and I enjoy watching my Vikings while sipping on King Sue, an American Double IPA from Toppling Goliath in Decorah, Iowa. Orange in color, one of the hoppiest fresh noses you will ever find, this is absolutely a life-changing event in a bottle. My leg starts twitching when I take my first sip. I highly suggest giving this one a try in the near future.” Toppling Goliath … well, of course I’m going to try anything from Toppling Goliath.

k. Great job by the Vegas Golden Knights feting the city, the police, the victims and the first-responders at the first home game in franchise history. That 58-second “moment” of silence was marvelous. Truly emotional. Nice start for the first big-league team in the history of the state.

l. Liked the analysis by Don Banks of The Athletic on the quote-unquote Ben McAdoo “losing the locker room” perception. Often, teams settle into cliques during really bad times, and Banks captures it.

Who I Like Tonight

Tennessee 30, Indianapolis 24. I love the battle of the quarterbacks. Who’d have thought Jacoby Brissett might outduel Marcus Mariota on a Monday night in Nashville in October? This will be a competitive game with the Colts having a chance to win in the last five minutes. Tennessee defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s troops are having a very bad year (a league-high 28.4 points per game allowed through five weeks) and may have to make a stop here to win.

The Adieu Haiku

Huge week for Goodell.
Ultimate knotty problem.
It’s mayhem. Trump wins.

• We have a newsletter, and you can subscribe, and it’s free. Get “The Morning Huddle” delivered to your inbox first thing each weekday, by going here and checking The MMQB newsletter box. Start your day with the best of the NFL, from The MMQB.

Question or comment? Story idea? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

Ten Things I Think I Think: On C.J. Beathard, Luke Kuechly, Jack Del Rio, NaVorro Bowman and More

1. I think these are my quick notes of Week 6:

a. Stunning penalty-yardage disparity Thursday night: Eagles 126, Panthers 1. I would love to be in the officials’ room on Park Avenue to hear the discussion over the fact that the Panthers were not whistled for one hold in a game that has become a clutch-and-grab-fest.

b. I have never heard what CBS analyst Nate Burleson said about rookie running back Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs: “He’s the carpet that brings the room together.” How did I miss that?

c. WHOOOOOOOSH! Marvin Hall just showed up Saturday on the active Atlanta roster for the first time, then got five yards behind the Miami secondary and caught a too-easy long TD.

d. Case Keenum is playing the best football of his life—and looks so confident doing it. His inside shovel pass to Kyle Rudolph for seven yards near the Green Bay goal line was a thing of beauty.

e. The Lions are in the NFC North race because of the Aaron Rodgers injury, not because of good football.

f. The book on C.J. Beathard is he’s one tough guy. Which he showed in the 26-24 loss at Washington. But he showed much more, enough that he’s got at least one more start next Sunday against Dallas.

g. Can someone please teach Jordan Howard that when your team is trying to bleed the clock, you don’t intentionally run out of bounds? Sheesh.

h. Oakland punter Marquette King had a day: four punts, 56.5-yard average, 55.0 net, all four inside the 20.

i. What a pass by Tarik Cohen, the bowling ball of a back for Chicago. He rolled right with a handoff and let one fly, 37 yards in the air, and it nestled perfectly into the arms of Zach Miller in the right corner of the end zone. First rookie Bear running back to throw a TD pass since Gale Sayers did it in 1965.

j. Good for the Chargers winning in Oakland. Anthony Lynn is keeping that team together against so many odds.

k. Jack Del Rio has a big problem, and it’s not only that the Raiders are 2-4. They’re an uninspired, toothless 2-4. They’ve got a must-win game Thursday night against the Chiefs—and they’ve only lost five in a row to Kansas City.

l. Where to start with that New Orleans-Detroit game. Well, I’ll leave you with one note on it: The Cam Jordan tipped-to-himself interception for a touchdown was the biggest play in the game with 90 points scored, and one of the most athletic plays of the season. Jordan’s a heck of a player. The Saints need about five more of him on defense.

m. All those who had Calais Campbell of the Jaguars as the NFL sack leader (with eight) through six games … well, you know your football.

n. When he’s healthy, Janoris Jenkins is a top-five NFL cornerback. Showed it again Sunday night with the pick-six in Denver.

o. Could be that I jinxed him, but if you want to see my "Football Night in America" ride-along with Trevor Siemian, here it is.

p. Cam Newton will not put the Thursday-nighter in his time capsule.

q. There is no good reason—nor a crappy reason—to fine a celebrating football player for throwing a football into the stands after a great play. I mean, the player is happy, the player is celebrating, the player gives the souvenir touchdown football to a fan. I do understand the NFL’s reasoning. The league doesn’t want anyone to get hurt in a scrum for a prize football. And if there is an instance of a fan getting hurt beyond a couple of scratches on a ball thrown into the stands, maybe I’d change my tune. But Davante Adams got fined $6,076 for throwing his winning touchdown catch into the stands in Texas last week, and there’s the cutest picture of the recipient, a little girl, cradling it this week. It’s wrong.

r. Thomas Davis still has it, even after three ACL surgeries.

2. I think, Luke Kuechly, it’s time for that deep conversation with yourself and with your family and maybe with your good friends on the Panthers. You’re 26, and when you’re on the field, you’re as dominant and instinctive as you were in 2013, when you edged J.J. Watt for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. But with a likely third concussion in three years Thursday night, the danger with playing such a physical position and risking further head trauma is something Kuechly and those closest to him are going to have to consider when trying to decide about his future in football. Kuechly came steaming around right end to get an Eagles’ ballcarrier, and he was met head-on by guard Brandon Brooks. Brooks didn’t hit him helmet-to-helmet; rather, he simply stopped Kuechly and leveled him with a strong block into his shoulder/neck area. Players get up from that almost every time … but when players have a history of concussions, even seemingly ordinary contact can be dangerous. Whatever Kuechly does—and he told me last year he planned to play as long his physically is able—the emotion has to be taken out of it. He’s got to make the best call for 50-year-old Luke Kuechly.

3. I think I get the release of NaVorro Bowman—a veteran on an 0-5 team who wouldn’t be there after this season. He’s been one of the best professionals and competitors I’ve covered. I also get the Niners releasing him instead of taking a low-round pick for him. I’ll tell you where I’d go if I were him: Carolina. Great insurance for Kuechly, and a great one-year landing place. Backup plan: Oakland.

4. I think when I saw the Panthers in training camp, coach Ron Rivera was adamant that Carolina was going to be a power-running team. If that was the case, Carolina would be at least one win better than its 4-2 record right now. But in the last two games, Carolina’s running backs have 35 carries for 37 yards. The Panthers should be using the speed and horizontal misdirection of Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey to create uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball.

5. I think it’s only mid-October, and it’s starting to be hard to fathom how a guy who seemed bulletproof on Labor Day, Giants coach Ben McAdoo, will still be in that job in 2018.

6. I think it’s only mid-October, and it’s starting to be hard to fathom how the Eagles won’t win the NFC East, with this schedule over the next four weeks: Washington, San Francisco and Denver, all at home, followed by the bye. The Eagles don’t play a road game till the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

7. I think I enjoyed the NFL Films Presents “Touchdown in Israel” show I screened over the weekend. The show debuts Friday at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Patriots owner Robert Kraft took 18 Pro Football Hall of Famers to Israel, to promote football (the players actually coached a game between two teams of young players from Israel) and so Kraft could show off Israel, which he loves. Most touching parts: At the end of the show, Joe Montana, Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson and others—most emotionally Marshall Faulk—discuss their experiences on the last night in Israel. Faulk, not an emotional sort, struggles to get through his thoughts speaking to the group, because the trip was so impactful to him. “Coming from the Ninth Ward in Louisiana, to be in Israel … UN-believable … And not just to be here, but [struggling to speak] … to be here with some guys who I look up to. I grew up poor. I sold POPCORN in the Superdome just to watch y’all play! [fighting off tears] … Cuz that’s the only way I could get in! … So to be here, and to be friends with y’all, and to hear your stories, and to have y’all listening to my stories, um, is unbelievable. I came here as just a member of the Hall. Man, I’m leaving with some special relationships.”

8. I think I applaud the filing of the Colin Kaepernick collusion case, though I’m skeptical attorney Mark Geragos will find any evidence to prove that multiple NFL owners, or the league office, colluded to deny Kaepernick employment. This may not be the best thing to get Kaepernick on an NFL roster (the dreaded “distraction” that so many teams quake about would be the result of signing him now), but the more noise that’s made about Kaepernick not being given a chance to play the better.

9. I think there’s an overlooked story you should know about it. It happened last week at a small-college football game in upstate New York, St. Lawrence at Union. Two friends from the Albany area from the early 1940s, World War II vets apart for more than 70 years, gathered to renew their friendship at a small-college football game in Schenectady, and the emotion that came out left both men weeping. Donald Sommers (Union class of ’45), age 95, and Ted Rosen (St. Lawrence class of ’48), 93, hadn’t seen each other because of the war and because life took them in different directions. Sommers’ daughter Caroline, a New York City-based TV producer, worked for months to locate Rosen, just as a favor to her father, who recently lost his wife. “This is unbelievable, to be able to spend time with such a good friend after so many years,” said Sommers. “I haven’t seen this young man in 70 years! We chose to do it at the football game. I am a very ardent football watcher.” Caroline Sommers was filled with emotion when the two friends stood with the teams from their respective alma maters as the anthem played. “This was a bucket list thing for me to do for my father,” she said. “You know the scene in the Grinch where his heart grows a lot at the end? That’s what this felt like—to do something that made these two great men so happy.”

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Story of the Week: by John Branch of the New York Times, “The Girl in the No. 8 Jersey,” on the tragedy in Las Vegas hitting home on a soccer field in California.

b. Stacee Etcheber and the Girl in the No. 8 Jersey should have some rights. Rights to live without the fear of being cut down by some normal-seeing sniper from 400 yards away.

c. Goodellian Story of the Week: by Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal, about an anonymous (but no longer) defender of Roger Goodell on Twitter.

d. Baseball Story of the Week: by Peter Gammons of The Athletic, on the Astros’ Game 4 ALDS win in Boston, writing about the rise of one franchise and the fall of another at Fenway Park on a murky October day. “This is what I live for. This place is so great, so electric,” said Justin Verlander, who almost was a goat in the first relief appearance of his life in professional baseball. “To me, baseball is about the moments, walking up on the mound with something on the line.”

e. And that wasn’t even the baseball game of the week. Cubs 9, Nats 8.

f. I cannot rave enough about Jose Altuve. The man invents runs. Friday against the Yankees, in a scoreless game, he bounced a normal ground ball up the middle, and the throw to first was a tick late. Then he stole second, safe by a whisker. Then, on a single up the middle, his little pistons took him home for the first run of a 2-1 game. The man is Pedroia with 40-percent better power and 30-percent better speed.

g. Justin Verlander with the game of his latter life in ALCS Game 2. Then I looked up and saw he’s still only 34. Thought he was older. So glad to see a guy throw 124 pitches and a complete game and no one freaks out. Look how good Verlander was late: In the last four innings, he struck out seven, got five batted-ball outs, walked one, allowed one hit. That’s dominance.

h. Cleveland … that one hurt. Not as bad as losing the 3-1 Series lead last year. But watching Corey Kluber go cold, and Jose Ramirez go colder, will lead to some bummer evenings this winter.

i. Coffeenerdness: Not a good idea to run low on Italian Roast at my two local stores, Starbucks. You do realize I’m an addict, don’t you? STOCK THE ITALIAN ROAST!?

j. Beernerdness: I’ve gone Sober October, as you may have read last week, and you filled my inbox with your passion about favorite beers. So I’m going to use the next three columns to feather your choices. The first: from Mitch Clingman of Wisconsin: “I live in Milwaukee but I'm from Minnesota and I enjoy watching my Vikings while sipping on King Sue, an American Double IPA from Toppling Goliath in Decorah, Iowa. Orange in color, one of the hoppiest fresh noses you will ever find, this is absolutely a life-changing event in a bottle. My leg starts twitching when I take my first sip. I highly suggest giving this one a try in the near future.” Toppling Goliath … well, of course I’m going to try anything from Toppling Goliath.

k. Great job by the Vegas Golden Knights feting the city, the police, the victim, and the first-responders at the first home game in franchise history. That 58-second “moment” of silence was marvelous. Truly emotional. Nice start for the first big-league team in the history of the state.

l. Liked the analysis by Don Banks of The Athletic on the quote-unquote Ben McAdoo “losing the locker room” perception. Often, teams settle into cliques during really bad times, and Banks captures it.

Who I Like Tonight

Tennessee 30, Indianapolis 24. I love the battle of the quarterbacks. Who’d have thought Jacoby Brissett might outduel Marcus Mariota on a Monday night in Nashville in October? This will be a competitive game with the Colts having a chance to win in the last five minutes. Tennessee defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s troops are having a very bad year (a league-high 28.4 points per game allowed through five weeks) and may have to make a stop here to win.

The Adieu Haiku

Huge week for Goodell.
Ultimate knotty problem.
It’s mayhem. Trump wins.

• We have a newsletter, and you can subscribe, and it’s free. Get “The Morning Huddle” delivered to your inbox first thing each weekday, by going here and checking The MMQB newsletter box. Start your day with the best of the NFL, from The MMQB.

Question or comment? Story idea? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

Ten Things I Think I Think: On C.J. Beathard, Luke Kuechly, Jack Del Rio, NaVorro Bowman and More

1. I think these are my quick notes of Week 6:

a. Stunning penalty-yardage disparity Thursday night: Eagles 126, Panthers 1. I would love to be in the officials’ room on Park Avenue to hear the discussion over the fact that the Panthers were not whistled for one hold in a game that has become a clutch-and-grab-fest.

b. I have never heard what CBS analyst Nate Burleson said about rookie running back Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs: “He’s the carpet that brings the room together.” How did I miss that?

c. WHOOOOOOOSH! Marvin Hall just showed up Saturday on the active Atlanta roster for the first time, then got five yards behind the Miami secondary and caught a too-easy long TD.

d. Case Keenum is playing the best football of his life—and looks so confident doing it. His inside shovel pass to Kyle Rudolph for seven yards near the Green Bay goal line was a thing of beauty.

e. The Lions are in the NFC North race because of the Aaron Rodgers injury, not because of good football.

f. The book on C.J. Beathard is he’s one tough guy. Which he showed in the 26-24 loss at Washington. But he showed much more, enough that he’s got at least one more start next Sunday against Dallas.

g. Can someone please teach Jordan Howard that when your team is trying to bleed the clock, you don’t intentionally run out of bounds? Sheesh.

h. Oakland punter Marquette King had a day: four punts, 56.5-yard average, 55.0 net, all four inside the 20.

i. What a pass by Tarik Cohen, the bowling ball of a back for Chicago. He rolled right with a handoff and let one fly, 37 yards in the air, and it nestled perfectly into the arms of Zach Miller in the right corner of the end zone. First Bears rookie running back to throw a TD pass since Gale Sayers did it in 1965.

j. Good for the Chargers winning in Oakland. Anthony Lynn is keeping that team together against so many odds.

k. Jack Del Rio has a big problem, and it’s not only that the Raiders are 2-4. They’re an uninspired, toothless 2-4. They’ve got a must-win game Thursday night against the Chiefs—and they’ve only lost five in a row to Kansas City.

l. Where to start with that New Orleans-Detroit game. Well, I’ll leave you with one note on it: The Cam Jordan tipped-to-himself interception for a touchdown was the biggest play in a game with 90 points scored, and one of the most athletic plays of the season. Jordan’s a heck of a player. The Saints need about five more of him on defense.

m. When he’s healthy, Janoris Jenkins is a top-five NFL cornerback. Showed it again Sunday night with the pick-six in Denver.

n. Could be that I jinxed him, but if you want to see my "Football Night in America" ride-along with Trevor Siemian, here it is.

o. Cam Newton will not put the Thursday-nighter in his time capsule.

p. There is no good reason—nor a crappy reason—to fine a celebrating football player for throwing a football into the stands after a great play. I mean, the player is happy, the player is celebrating, the player gives the souvenir touchdown football to a fan. I do understand the NFL’s reasoning. The league doesn’t want anyone to get hurt in a scrum for a prize football. And if there is an instance of a fan getting hurt beyond a couple of scratches on a ball thrown into the stands, maybe I’d change my tune. But Davante Adams got fined $6,076 for throwing his winning touchdown catch into the stands in Texas last week, and there’s the cutest picture of the recipient, a little girl, cradling it this week. It’s wrong.

q. Thomas Davis still has it, even after three ACL surgeries.

2. I think, Luke Kuechly, it’s time for that deep conversation with yourself and with your family and maybe with your good friends on the Panthers. You’re 26, and when you’re on the field you’re as dominant and instinctive as you were in 2013, when you were named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. But with a likely third concussion in three years Thursday night, the danger with playing such a physical position and risking further head trauma is something Kuechly and those closest to him are going to have to consider when trying to decide about his future in football. Kuechly came steaming around right end to get an Eagles’ ball-carrier, and he was met directly by guard Brandon Brooks. Brooks didn’t Kuechly him helmet-to-helmet; rather, he simply stopped Kuechly and leveled him with a strong block into his shoulder/neck area. Players get up from that almost every time … but when players have a history of concussions, even seemingly ordinary contact can be dangerous. Whatever Kuechly does—and he told me last year he planned to play as long he physically is able—the emotion has to be taken out of it. He’s got to make the best call for 50-year-old Luke Kuechly.

3. I think I get the release of NaVorro Bowman—a veteran on an 0-5 team who wouldn’t be there after this season. He’s been one of the best professionals and competitors I’ve covered. I also get the Niners releasing him instead of taking a low-round pick for him. I’ll tell you where I’d go if I were him: Carolina. Great insurance for Kuechly, and a great one-year landing place. Backup plan: Oakland.

4. I think when I saw the Panthers in training camp, coach Ron Rivera was adamant that Carolina was going to be a power-running team. If that was the case, Carolina would be at least one win better than its 4-2 record right now. But in the last two games, Carolina’s running backs have 35 carries for 37 yards. The Panthers should be using the speed and horizontal misdirection of Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey to create uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball.

5. I think it’s only mid-October, and it’s starting to be hard to fathom how a guy who seemed bulletproof on Labor Day, Giants coach Ben McAdoo, will still be in that job in 2018.

6. I think it’s only mid-October, and it’s starting to be hard to fathom how the Eagles won’t win the NFC East, with this schedule over the next four weeks: Washington, San Francisco and Denver, all at home, followed by the bye. The Eagles don’t play a road game until the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

7. I think I enjoyed the NFL Films Presents “Touchdown in Israel” show I screened over the weekend. The show debuts Friday at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Patriots owner Robert Kraft took 18 Pro Football Hall of Famers to Israel, to promote football (the players actually coached a game between two teams of young players from Israel) and so Kraft could show off Israel, which he loves. Most touching parts: At the end of the show, Joe Montana, Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson and others—most emotionally Marshall Faulk—discuss their experiences on the last night in Israel. Faulk, not an emotional sort, struggles to get through his thoughts speaking to the group, because the trip was so powerful to him. “Coming from the Ninth Ward in Louisiana, to be in Israel … UN-believable … And not just to be here, but [struggling to speak] … to be here with some guys who I look up to. I grew up poor. I sold POPCORN in the Superdome just to watch y’all play! [fighting off tears] … Cuz that’s the only way I could get in! … So to be here, and to be friends with y’all, and to hear your stories, and to have y’all listening to my stories, um, is unbelievable. I came here as just a member of the Hall. Man, I’m leaving with some special relationships.”

8. I think I applaud the filing of the Colin Kaepernick collusion case, though I’m skeptical attorney Mark Geragos will find any evidence to prove that multiple NFL owners, or the league office, colluded to deny Kaepernick employment. This may not be the best thing to get Kaepernick on an NFL roster (the dreaded “distraction” that so many teams quake about would be the result of signing him now), but the more noise that’s made about Kaepernick not being given a chance to play the better.

9. I think there’s an overlooked story you should know about it. It happened last week at a small-college football game in upstate New York, St. Lawrence at Union. Two friends from the Albany area from the early 1940s, World War II vets apart for more than 70 years, gathered to renew their friendship at the game in Schenectady, and the emotion that came out left both men weeping. Donald Sommers (Union class of ’45), age 95, and Ted Rosen (St. Lawrence class of ’48), 93, hadn’t seen each other because of the war and because life took them in different directions. Sommers’ daughter Caroline, a New York City-based TV producer, worked for months to locate Rosen, just as a favor to her father, who recently lost his wife. “This is unbelievable, to be able to spend time with such a good friend after so many years,” said Sommers. “I haven’t seen this young man in 70 years! We chose to do it at the football game. I am a very ardent football watcher.” Caroline Sommers was filled with emotion when the two friends stood with the teams from their respective alma maters as the anthem played. “This was a bucket list thing for me to do for my father,” she said. “You know the scene in the Grinch where his heart grows a lot at the end? That’s what this felt like—to do something that made these two great men so happy.”

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Story of the Week: by John Branch of the New York Times, “The Girl in the No. 8 Jersey,” on the tragedy in Las Vegas hitting home on a soccer field in California.

b. Stacee Etcheber and the Girl in the No. 8 Jersey should have some rights. Rights to live without the fear of being cut down by some normal-seeming sniper from 400 yards away.

c. Goodellian Story of the Week: by Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal, about an anonymous (but no longer) defender of Roger Goodell on Twitter.

d. Baseball Story of the Week: by Peter Gammons of The Athletic, on the Astros’ Game 4 ALDS win in Boston, writing about the rise of one franchise and the fall of another at Fenway Park on a murky October day. “This is what I live for. This place is so great, so electric,” said Justin Verlander, who almost was a goat in the first relief appearance of his life in professional baseball. “To me, baseball is about the moments, walking up on the mound with something on the line.”

e. And that wasn’t even the baseball game of the week. Cubs 9, Nats 8.

f. I cannot rave enough about Jose Altuve. The man invents runs. Friday against the Yankees, in a scoreless game, he bounced a normal ground ball up the middle, and the throw to first was a tick late. Then he stole second, safe by a whisker. Then, on a single up the middle, his little pistons took him home for the first run of a 2-1 game. The man is Pedroia with 40 percent better power and 30 percent better speed.

g. Justin Verlander with the game of his later career in ALCS Game 2. Then I looked up and saw he’s still only 34. Thought he was older. So glad to see a guy throw 124 pitches and a complete game and no one freaks out. Look how good Verlander was late: In the last four innings, he struck out seven, got five batted-ball outs, walked one, allowed one hit. That’s dominance.

h. Cleveland … that one hurt. Not as bad as losing the 3-1 Series lead last year. But watching Corey Kluber go cold, and Jose Ramirez go colder, will lead to some bummer evenings this winter.

i. Coffeenerdness: Not a good idea to run low on Italian Roast at my two local stores, Starbucks. You do realize I’m an addict, don’t you? STOCK THE ITALIAN ROAST!?

j. Beernerdness: I’ve gone Sober October, as you may have read last week, and you filled my inbox with your passion about favorite beers. So I’m going to use the next three columns to feature your choices. The first: from Mitch Clingman of Wisconsin: “I live in Milwaukee but I'm from Minnesota, and I enjoy watching my Vikings while sipping on King Sue, an American Double IPA from Toppling Goliath in Decorah, Iowa. Orange in color, one of the hoppiest fresh noses you will ever find, this is absolutely a life-changing event in a bottle. My leg starts twitching when I take my first sip. I highly suggest giving this one a try in the near future.” Toppling Goliath … well, of course I’m going to try anything from Toppling Goliath.

k. Great job by the Vegas Golden Knights feting the city, the police, the victims and the first-responders at the first home game in franchise history. That 58-second “moment” of silence was marvelous. Truly emotional. Nice start for the first big-league team in the history of the state.

l. Liked the analysis by Don Banks of The Athletic on the quote-unquote Ben McAdoo “losing the locker room” perception. Often, teams settle into cliques during really bad times, and Banks captures it.

Who I Like Tonight

Tennessee 30, Indianapolis 24. I love the battle of the quarterbacks. Who’d have thought Jacoby Brissett might outduel Marcus Mariota on a Monday night in Nashville in October? This will be a competitive game with the Colts having a chance to win in the last five minutes. Tennessee defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s troops are having a very bad year (a league-high 28.4 points per game allowed through five weeks) and may have to make a stop here to win.

The Adieu Haiku

Huge week for Goodell.
Ultimate knotty problem.
It’s mayhem. Trump wins.

• We have a newsletter, and you can subscribe, and it’s free. Get “The Morning Huddle” delivered to your inbox first thing each weekday, by going here and checking The MMQB newsletter box. Start your day with the best of the NFL, from The MMQB.

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NFL Week 6

Alex Okafor #57 of the New Orleans Saints forces a fumble on Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions during the first half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 15, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

NFL Week 6

D.J. Hayden #31 of the Detroit Lions forces Ted Ginn #19 of the New Orleans Saints out of bounds during the first half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 15, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

How to Watch Lions vs. Saints: Live Stream, Game Time, TV Channel

The Detroit Lions travel to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday to face the New Orleans Saints.

Detroit lost to the Carolina Panthers 27-24 last week but have won three out of their first five games. The Lions defense has allowed just 74.6 yards per game and 19.4 points per game. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has thrown for 1116 yards and nine touchdowns against just one interception so far this season.

New Orleans enters Sunday well-rested after a bye week. Quarterback Drew Brees has not thrown an interception on the season and has thrown for 1,135 yards and eight touchdowns. After losing their first two games of the season, the Saints have bounced back with wins at the Carolina Panthers and in London against the Miami Dolphins.

Find out how to watch the game below.

How to Watch:

Game Time: Sunday, Oct. 15, 1 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FOX (check local listings), NFL Sunday Ticket

Live Stream: NFL Game Pass

NFL: New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints

Sep 17, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro (32) intercepts a pass ahead of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) but the play is negated by a defensive holding on safety Vonn Bell (not pictured) during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Patriots defeated the Saints 36-20. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

NFL: New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints

Sep 17, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates after a play against the New Orleans Saints during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Patriots defeated the Saints 36-20. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

NFL: New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints

Sep 17, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates after a play against the New Orleans Saints during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Patriots defeated the Saints 36-20. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

NFL: New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints

Sep 17, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; New England Patriots running back James White (28) runs past New Orleans Saints cornerback P.J. Williams (26) and linebacker A.J. Klein (53) during the second quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Morning Huddle: The NFL’s Hollywood Script Is a Comedy of Errors

The NFL may want to look into the cost of Hollywood extras. The league played two games in Los Angeles on Sunday for the first time since 1995, but someone forgot to tell the fans. The Chargers failed to sell out their 27,000-seat StubHub Center. Across town, the Rams didn’t fare much better. Official attendance at the Coliseum was 56,612. Worst of all: the teams combined to attract fewer fans than USC did the night before for its Coliseum showdown with Texas (84,714).

So far the NFL’s script is playing out like a comedy of errors.

The Chargers had a chance to win as time expired—and for a moment it seemed like they did. Down 19-17 with a minute to go, Philip Rivers led his team 54 yards over six plays, giving Younghoe Koo a chance to kick a 44-yard game-winning field goal. As the ball sailed through the end zone, a stadium cannon was fired and the “crowd” went wild. Just one small detail: the ball sailed wide right. And the screaming crowd? It was largely comprised of Dolphins fans. But don’t blame the cannon operator; Rivers was similarly confused in his new home. “I heard the roar before I saw the official’s signal,” he said. “I wasn’t sure which roar it was.”

Meanwhile, across town . . .

With just under two minutes remaining and his team trailing by seven, Jared Goff got the ball back and had a chance to make a statement. The Rams QB did exactly that . . . by throwing an interception on the first snap of the drive, sealing a 27-20 loss.

Whether L.A. fans were dissuaded by the $100 parking prices, or the negative billboards and flying banners, all those who stayed home can’t regret their choice after seeing how the games unfolded. The Chargers and Rams now limp into Week 3 a combined 1-3. The moral to this story? Hollywood loves winners.

Not getting this newsletter in your inbox yet? Join The MMQB’s Morning Huddle.

* * *

HOT READS

NOW ON THE MMQB: Peter King's MMQB ... Gary Gramling freaks out over Week 2 ... Michael Beller tells you who to snap up in your fantasy league ... and more in our archive.

LATER TODAY ON THE MMQB: Jenny Vrentas covers tonight's Lions-Giants game ... The 10 Things podcast discusses Week 2 ... and more. Stay tuned.

* * *

PRESS COVERAGE

1. Falcons 34, Packers 23. What was supposed to be the best game of the week was pretty much over at halftime. Atlanta jumped out to a 24-7 lead in its new stadium, though Aaron Rodgers managed to make it interesting in the fourth quarter.

2. Broncos 42, Cowboys 17. Here's a prediction: Denver will rise the most in this week's The MMQB Power Poll after Trevor Siemian, unfazed by a lengthy weather delay, threw four touchdowns, and C.J. Anderson rumbled for 118 yards. Maybe most encouraging was the Broncos’ run defense, which took its lumps last year but held Ezekiel Elliott to eight yards on nine carries. Yes, you read that right.

3. Dolphins 19, Chargers 17. The Chargers' curse continues. Once again, Rivers did everything he needed to put the team in position to win—and came away with a loss. The Dolphins’ offense played well (Jay Cutler: 230 yards passing, one touchdown; Jay Ajayi: 122 yards rushing), but it was kicker Cody Parkey who did most of the scoring, with four field goals.

4. Patriots 36, New Orleans 20. Tom Brady refound his form in the Superdome, joining Warren Moon as the only QBs to throw for 400 yards and three touchdowns after turning 40. But it wasn't all good news for New England: Rob Gronkowski left the game with a groin injury, though he said "I'm good" afterwards. So are the Pats, it seems, just like we all expected.

5. Chiefs 27, Eagles 20. This was a wild game, so it's only fitting that wild man Travis Kelce was the difference. The tight end scored the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, leaping three yards to get into the end zone (he finished with 103 yards receiving). Philadelphia had a chance to tie the game after recovering an onside kick, but ultimately came up short of the statement victory.

6. Ravens 24, Browns 10. Baltimore put together another dominant defensive performance—this time forcing five turnovers—but they lost guard Marshal Yanda for the year with a broken left ankle. DeShone Kizer, meanwhile, left the game with a migraine headache, but returned not too long after.

7. Titans 37, Jaguars 16. What had been a terrific Jags defense in Week 1 gave up 390 yards to Tennessee, which righted its season. On the other side of the ball, Blake Bortles threw two interceptions and Leonard Fournette finished with 40 yards.

8. Washington 27, Rams 20. So much for Jared Goff, superstar. Kirk Cousins wasn't better, but Washington rushed for 229 yards, with Samaje Perine coming in and leading the go-ahead scoring drive after Rob Kelley was knocked out with a rib injury.

9. Steelers 26, Vikings 9. Sam Bradford is out for an unannounced period of time, and with Case Keenum under center, Minnesota just isn't the same. Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant led the way for Pittsburgh, combining for 189 yards.

10. Buccaneers 29, Bears 7. Mike Glennon's return to Tampa did not go well, but Chicago's rushing attack did him no favors, finishing with 20 yards. Tampa looked like the contender many expected before its Week 1 game was postponed. We'll know more as they face the Vikings, Giants, and Patriots over the next three weeks.

11. Panthers 9, Bills 3. Another near-perfect defensive effort by the Panthers against an offense we don't expect much of. What will they do with New Orleans next week? Either way, the offense will need to find a rhythm, and it'll have to do so without Greg Olsen, who broke his right foot Sunday.

12. Seahawks 12, 49ers 9. Seattle still has major offensive questions—Russell Wilson was sacked three more times—but at least they have a win now.

?13. Cardinals 16, Colts 13 (OT). The most exciting game on paper went to overtime after Phil Dawson missed a potential game-winning field goal for Arizona at the end of regulation. But on the first possession of the extra period, Jacoby Brissett threw his only pick of the day, setting up a second shot for Dawson that breathed life into the Cardinals’ season.

14. Raiders 45, Jets 20. Marshawn Lynch got his first Oakland touchdown and danced on the sideline.

Have a story you think we should include in tomorrow’s Press Coverage? Let me know here.

* * *

THE KICKER

Vance Joseph seems to have knack for coaching. He also has an amazing "C'mon, son" face.

Question? Comment? Story idea? Email me directly or let the team know at talkback@themmqb.com

The Morning Huddle: The NFL’s Hollywood Script Is a Comedy of Errors

The NFL may want to look into the cost of Hollywood extras. The league played two games in Los Angeles on Sunday for the first time since 1995, but someone forgot to tell the fans. The Chargers failed to sell out their 27,000-seat StubHub Center. Across town, the Rams didn’t fare much better. Official attendance at the Coliseum was 56,612. Worst of all: the teams combined to attract fewer fans than USC did the night before for its Coliseum showdown with Texas (84,714).

So far the NFL’s script is playing out like a comedy of errors.

The Chargers had a chance to win as time expired—and for a moment it seemed like they did. Down 19-17 with a minute to go, Philip Rivers led his team 54 yards over six plays, giving Younghoe Koo a chance to kick a 44-yard game-winning field goal. As the ball sailed through the end zone, a stadium cannon was fired and the “crowd” went wild. Just one small detail: the ball sailed wide right. And the screaming crowd? It was largely comprised of Dolphins fans. But don’t blame the cannon operator; Rivers was similarly confused in his new home. “I heard the roar before I saw the official’s signal,” he said. “I wasn’t sure which roar it was.”

Meanwhile, across town . . .

With just under two minutes remaining and his team trailing by seven, Jared Goff got the ball back and had a chance to make a statement. The Rams QB did exactly that . . . by throwing an interception on the first snap of the drive, sealing a 27-20 loss.

Whether L.A. fans were dissuaded by the $100 parking prices, or the negative billboards and flying banners, all those who stayed home can’t regret their choice after seeing how the games unfolded. The Chargers and Rams now limp into Week 3 a combined 1-3. The moral to this story? Hollywood loves winners.

Not getting this newsletter in your inbox yet? Join The MMQB’s Morning Huddle.

* * *

HOT READS

NOW ON THE MMQB: Peter King's MMQB ... Gary Gramling freaks out over Week 2 ... Michael Beller tells you who to snap up in your fantasy league ... and more in our archive.

LATER TODAY ON THE MMQB: Jenny Vrentas covers tonight's Lions-Giants game ... The 10 Things podcast discusses Week 2 ... and more. Stay tuned.

* * *

PRESS COVERAGE

1. Falcons 34, Packers 23. What was supposed to be the best game of the week was pretty much over at halftime. Atlanta jumped out to a 24-7 lead in its new stadium, though Aaron Rodgers managed to make it interesting in the fourth quarter.

2. Broncos 42, Cowboys 17. Here's a prediction: Denver will rise the most in this week's The MMQB Power Poll after Trevor Siemian, unfazed by a lengthy weather delay, threw four touchdowns, and C.J. Anderson rumbled for 118 yards. Maybe most encouraging was the Broncos’ run defense, which took its lumps last year but held Ezekiel Elliott to eight yards on nine carries. Yes, you read that right.

3. Dolphins 19, Chargers 17. The Chargers' curse continues. Once again, Rivers did everything he needed to put the team in position to win—and came away with a loss. The Dolphins’ offense played well (Jay Cutler: 230 yards passing, one touchdown; Jay Ajayi: 122 yards rushing), but it was kicker Cody Parkey who did most of the scoring, with four field goals.

4. Patriots 36, New Orleans 20. Tom Brady refound his form in the Superdome, joining Warren Moon as the only QBs to throw for 400 yards and three touchdowns after turning 40. But it wasn't all good news for New England: Rob Gronkowski left the game with a groin injury, though he said "I'm good" afterwards. So are the Pats, it seems, just like we all expected.

5. Chiefs 27, Eagles 20. This was a wild game, so it's only fitting that wild man Travis Kelce was the difference. The tight end scored the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, leaping three yards to get into the end zone (he finished with 103 yards receiving). Philadelphia had a chance to tie the game after recovering an onside kick, but ultimately came up short of the statement victory.

6. Ravens 24, Browns 10. Baltimore put together another dominant defensive performance—this time forcing five turnovers—but they lost guard Marshal Yanda for the year with a broken left ankle. DeShone Kizer, meanwhile, left the game with a migraine headache, but returned not too long after.

7. Titans 37, Jaguars 16. What had been a terrific Jags defense in Week 1 gave up 390 yards to Tennessee, which righted its season. On the other side of the ball, Blake Bortles threw two interceptions and Leonard Fournette finished with 40 yards.

8. Washington 27, Rams 20. So much for Jared Goff, superstar. Kirk Cousins wasn't better, but Washington rushed for 229 yards, with Samaje Perine coming in and leading the go-ahead scoring drive after Rob Kelley was knocked out with a rib injury.

9. Steelers 26, Vikings 9. Sam Bradford is out for an unannounced period of time, and with Case Keenum under center, Minnesota just isn't the same. Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant led the way for Pittsburgh, combining for 189 yards.

10. Buccaneers 29, Bears 7. Mike Glennon's return to Tampa did not go well, but Chicago's rushing attack did him no favors, finishing with 20 yards. Tampa looked like the contender many expected before its Week 1 game was postponed. We'll know more as they face the Vikings, Giants, and Patriots over the next three weeks.

11. Panthers 9, Bills 3. Another near-perfect defensive effort by the Panthers against an offense we don't expect much of. What will they do with New Orleans next week? Either way, the offense will need to find a rhythm, and it'll have to do so without Greg Olsen, who broke his right foot Sunday.

12. Seahawks 12, 49ers 9. Seattle still has major offensive questions—Russell Wilson was sacked three more times—but at least they have a win now.

?13. Cardinals 16, Colts 13 (OT). The most exciting game on paper went to overtime after Phil Dawson missed a potential game-winning field goal for Arizona at the end of regulation. But on the first possession of the extra period, Jacoby Brissett threw his only pick of the day, setting up a second shot for Dawson that breathed life into the Cardinals’ season.

14. Raiders 45, Jets 20. Marshawn Lynch got his first Oakland touchdown and danced on the sideline.

Have a story you think we should include in tomorrow’s Press Coverage? Let me know here.

* * *

THE KICKER

Vance Joseph seems to have knack for coaching. He also has an amazing "C'mon, son" face.

Question? Comment? Story idea? Email me directly or let the team know at talkback@themmqb.com

The Morning Huddle: The NFL’s Hollywood Script Is a Comedy of Errors

The NFL may want to look into the cost of Hollywood extras. The league played two games in Los Angeles on Sunday for the first time since 1995, but someone forgot to tell the fans. The Chargers failed to sell out their 27,000-seat StubHub Center. Across town, the Rams didn’t fare much better. Official attendance at the Coliseum was 56,612. Worst of all: the teams combined to attract fewer fans than USC did the night before for its Coliseum showdown with Texas (84,714).

So far the NFL’s script is playing out like a comedy of errors.

The Chargers had a chance to win as time expired—and for a moment it seemed like they did. Down 19-17 with a minute to go, Philip Rivers led his team 54 yards over six plays, giving Younghoe Koo a chance to kick a 44-yard game-winning field goal. As the ball sailed through the end zone, a stadium cannon was fired and the “crowd” went wild. Just one small detail: the ball sailed wide right. And the screaming crowd? It was largely comprised of Dolphins fans. But don’t blame the cannon operator; Rivers was similarly confused in his new home. “I heard the roar before I saw the official’s signal,” he said. “I wasn’t sure which roar it was.”

Meanwhile, across town . . .

With just under two minutes remaining and his team trailing by seven, Jared Goff got the ball back and had a chance to make a statement. The Rams QB did exactly that . . . by throwing an interception on the first snap of the drive, sealing a 27-20 loss.

Whether L.A. fans were dissuaded by the $100 parking prices, or the negative billboards and flying banners, all those who stayed home can’t regret their choice after seeing how the games unfolded. The Chargers and Rams now limp into Week 3 a combined 1-3. The moral to this story? Hollywood loves winners.

Not getting this newsletter in your inbox yet? Join The MMQB’s Morning Huddle.

* * *

HOT READS

NOW ON THE MMQB: Peter King's MMQB ... Gary Gramling freaks out over Week 2 ... Michael Beller tells you who to snap up in your fantasy league ... and more in our archive.

LATER TODAY ON THE MMQB: Jenny Vrentas covers tonight's Lions-Giants game ... The 10 Things podcast discusses Week 2 ... and more. Stay tuned.

* * *

PRESS COVERAGE

1. Falcons 34, Packers 23. What was supposed to be the best game of the week was pretty much over at halftime. Atlanta jumped out to a 24-7 lead in its new stadium, though Aaron Rodgers managed to make it interesting in the fourth quarter.

2. Broncos 42, Cowboys 17. Here's a prediction: Denver will rise the most in this week's The MMQB Power Poll after Trevor Siemian, unfazed by a lengthy weather delay, threw four touchdowns, and C.J. Anderson rumbled for 118 yards. Maybe most encouraging was the Broncos’ run defense, which took its lumps last year but held Ezekiel Elliott to eight yards on nine carries. Yes, you read that right.

3. Dolphins 19, Chargers 17. The Chargers' curse continues. Once again, Rivers did everything he needed to put the team in position to win—and came away with a loss. The Dolphins’ offense played well (Jay Cutler: 230 yards passing, one touchdown; Jay Ajayi: 122 yards rushing), but it was kicker Cody Parkey who did most of the scoring, with four field goals.

4. Patriots 36, New Orleans 20. Tom Brady refound his form in the Superdome, joining Warren Moon as the only QBs to throw for 400 yards and three touchdowns after turning 40. But it wasn't all good news for New England: Rob Gronkowski left the game with a groin injury, though he said "I'm good" afterwards. So are the Pats, it seems, just like we all expected.

5. Chiefs 27, Eagles 20. This was a wild game, so it's only fitting that wild man Travis Kelce was the difference. The tight end scored the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, leaping three yards to get into the end zone (he finished with 103 yards receiving). Philadelphia had a chance to tie the game after recovering an onside kick, but ultimately came up short of the statement victory.

6. Ravens 24, Browns 10. Baltimore put together another dominant defensive performance—this time forcing five turnovers—but they lost guard Marshal Yanda for the year with a broken left ankle. DeShone Kizer, meanwhile, left the game with a migraine headache, but returned not too long after.

7. Titans 37, Jaguars 16. What had been a terrific Jags defense in Week 1 gave up 390 yards to Tennessee, which righted its season. On the other side of the ball, Blake Bortles threw two interceptions and Leonard Fournette finished with 40 yards.

8. Washington 27, Rams 20. So much for Jared Goff, superstar. Kirk Cousins wasn't better, but Washington rushed for 229 yards, with Samaje Perine coming in and leading the go-ahead scoring drive after Rob Kelley was knocked out with a rib injury.

9. Steelers 26, Vikings 9. Sam Bradford is out for an unannounced period of time, and with Case Keenum under center, Minnesota just isn't the same. Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant led the way for Pittsburgh, combining for 189 yards.

10. Buccaneers 29, Bears 7. Mike Glennon's return to Tampa did not go well, but Chicago's rushing attack did him no favors, finishing with 20 yards. Tampa looked like the contender many expected before its Week 1 game was postponed. We'll know more as they face the Vikings, Giants, and Patriots over the next three weeks.

11. Panthers 9, Bills 3. Another near-perfect defensive effort by the Panthers against an offense we don't expect much of. What will they do with New Orleans next week? Either way, the offense will need to find a rhythm, and it'll have to do so without Greg Olsen, who broke his right foot Sunday.

12. Seahawks 12, 49ers 9. Seattle still has major offensive questions—Russell Wilson was sacked three more times—but at least they have a win now.

?13. Cardinals 16, Colts 13 (OT). The most exciting game on paper went to overtime after Phil Dawson missed a potential game-winning field goal for Arizona at the end of regulation. But on the first possession of the extra period, Jacoby Brissett threw his only pick of the day, setting up a second shot for Dawson that breathed life into the Cardinals’ season.

14. Raiders 45, Jets 20. Marshawn Lynch got his first Oakland touchdown and danced on the sideline.

Have a story you think we should include in tomorrow’s Press Coverage? Let me know here.

* * *

THE KICKER

Vance Joseph seems to have knack for coaching. He also has an amazing "C'mon, son" face.

Question? Comment? Story idea? Email me directly or let the team know at talkback@themmqb.com

NFL Week 2

Saintsation cheerleaders perform at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on September 17, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NFL Week 2

Saintsation cheerleaders perform at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on September 17, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NFL Week 2

Saintsation cheerleaders perform at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on September 17, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NFL Week 2

New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro (32) intercepts a pass ahead of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) but the play is negated by a defensive holding on safety Vonn Bell (not pictured) during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Patriots defeated the Saints 36-20. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Which NFL Players Will Bounce Back in Week 2 for Your Fantasy Team?

Beyond the immediate thrill of football being back, Week 1 was a bit of a letdown in the fantasy world. There was a total of 58 touchdowns and 628 points scored. Last year, the league averaged 72.3 touchdowns and 685.9 points per week. Individually, there were six 300-yard passing games, five 100-yard rushing games, and five 100-yard receiving games. Among high-profile picks, only Antonio Brown, LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette delivered what their fantasy owners will expect on a regular basis.

That’s not to say the league was filled with disappointment last week. Kareem Hunt put his teams—both in fantasy and real life—on his back with a monster NFL debut. Ty Montgomery gave his owners good reason to believe in him as a workhorse RB1 all season. Aaron Rodgers delivered a solid performance in a tough assignment with Seattle. And Ezekiel Elliott totaled 140 yards from scrimmage. There were encouraging performances across the league last week, you just had to look harder than expected to find them.

Week 1 could best be described as “fun, but tepid” in the fantasy portion of the football universe. That’s set to change in Week 2. With four of the league’s best offenses facing off in two matchups—Patriots and Saints in New Orleans, Packers and Falcons in Atlanta—there are bound to be fireworks this week. Add to that the return of the Buccaneers and Dolphins, two offenses with justifiably high hopes, the possible 2017 debut of Odell Beckham and the shaking off of season-opening jitters, and Week 2 should make up for what Week 1 lacked.

With that in mind, we asked this of our SI.com fantasy experts:

There was no shortage of disappointing performances from big-name players last week. Give us a player who will bounce back in Week 2.

?

Michael Beller: Le’Veon Bell is the easy answer here because he’s the right one. Bell looked nothing like himself while running for 32 yards on 10 carries and catching three passes for 15 yards in the Steelers’ win over the Browns last week. The Vikings present a tougher assignment, but this is Bell, the best fantasy back over the last three seasons. There’s a reason he turned into the prototypical back for the modern NFL before his 25th birthday. Bell is a superstar who doesn’t stay quiet for long. Even with the Minnesota defense on the other side of the ball, he’s set to detonate this week. And if you don’t believe me, how about the oddsmakers? They’ve installed the Steelers as 5.5-point favorites, and given this game an over/under of 45.5. That means the Steelers have an implied team total of 25.5 points.

I also want to give an endorsement to Michael Thomas. The Patriots deserve a ton of credit and leeway heading into this week for the way they’ve made adjustments under Bill Belichick, but the defense looked woefully slow against the Chiefs last week. The Patriots may very well cover the 6.5-point spread, but the bet here is that it would be the offense doing the heavy lifting in that scenario. As much as the Saints struggled to find the end zone last week, they moved the ball pretty well in their loss to the Vikings. Their 5.83 yards per play ranked fourth in the league in Week 1. That bodes well for a matchup with a New England defense that surrendered 537 yards and 8.26 yards per play to the Chiefs last week. The Saints are going to get up and down the field in their first home game of the season, and Thomas is going to be the biggest thorn in the Patriots’ side. Other than that Brees guy, of course.

John Paulsen: Carson Palmer had a rough go against a tougher-than-advertised Lions defense, but he’s primed to bounce back given a great matchup against the Colts, who yielded 276 yards and 1.69 passing touchdowns per game to opposing quarterbacks last season. The loss of David

Johnson will force more onto Palmer’s plate, which is not ideal in the long term, but in a one-week sample against the Colts, it might actually be a good thing.

Julio Jones managed just four catches for 66 yards on five targets against the Bears in Week 1, but he’s my No. 1 receiver in Week 2 against a Packers defense that was brutal against the pass in 2016. Green Bay’s defense looked pretty good against the Seahawks in Week 1, but I think Jones will be able to have his way at home when the Falcons christen their new stadium.

Jennifer Eakins: I’m on the same page as Paulsen. The Cardinals really struggled in their loss to the Lions last week. Quarterback Carson Palmer threw three interceptions with only one touchdown as the No. 23 highest-scoring fantasy quarterback opening weekend, while perennial fantasy stud Larry Fitzgerald came in as the No. 24 best receiver with just 13.4 PPR points.

This week, we should see a large rebound from those subpar numbers as Arizona heads to Indianapolis to face a Colts defense that allowed Jared Goff to chuck the ball for 306 yards and complete passes to eight different receivers last Sunday. With star running back David Johnson on the shelf due to a wrist injury, Palmer may need to rely more heavily on his receiving corps to make plays. This is a solid week for him to get back on track.

T.J. Hernandez: In what was expected to be one of the higher-scoring contests of Week 1, Russell Wilson turned in an abysmal QB24 performance, completing just 14 of 27 passes for 158 yards and no touchdowns. A look at Wilson's home/road splits over the last two seasons, including last week, might have tipped us off to his Week 1 dud. Since the beginning of 2015, Wilson has averaged nearly 40 more yards, 0.4 more touchdowns and half as many interceptions per game at home opposed to on the road. The Seahawks return to Seattle for a game where they are favored by nearly two touchdowns over the 49ers and are projected to score more than 28 points. What's especially encouraging for Wilson's fantasy prospects this week is Seattle's red-zone play calling—of its seven plays ran inside the 20 last week, five were passes. With the backfield in flux, Wilson will look to Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin often near the goal line, and could approach top-three fantasy numbers at his position this week.

Chris Raybon: With 10 days to prepare for a Saints defense that allowed Sam Bradford to go 27-of-32 for 346 yards and three touchdowns last Monday night, Tom Brady should be back to his usual self after going just 16-of-36 for 267 yards and no touchdowns against the Chiefs on opening night. Quarterback fantasy scoring is directly correlated with team projected points implied by the betting lines, and as a six-point favorite in a game with an over/under of 56.5, the Patriots are implied to score 31.25 points, the most of any team on the Week 2 slate.

I’ll jump on board with T.J., as well. After going just 14-of-27 passing for 158 yards and zero touchdowns in Lambeau last Sunday, Russell Wilson should bounce back against the 49ers, a defense that last week failed to sack Cam Newton and allowed him to throw two touchdowns on just 25 attempts. Seattle's offensive line tends to play better with the 12th Man on its side, and it shows in Wilson's home/road splits, as T.J. noted.

Le'Veon Bell should bounce back this week after failing to muster a run longer than five yards until 2:28 to go in the fourth quarter against Cleveland last week, and amassing a career-low 47 total yards. Minnesota's run defense held Saints’ running backs to just 55 yards on 20 carries but allowed them to catch nine passes for 74 yards, and Bell is certainly capable of posting a receiving line like that all by himself. Since the start of 2016, Bell has been targeted 7.7 times per game. After he uncharacteristically spent 28 percent of Pittsburgh's offensive snaps on the sideline in Week 1, Bell should resume playing north of 90 percent of the snaps in Week 2 now that he's another week removed from his summer-long absence from team activities.

Before Chiefs safety Eric Berry got hurt last week, he played a major part in holding Rob Gronkowski to just two catches and 33 yards on eight targets. This week, however, the Superdome turf better prepare for a Gronk spike or three. In 21 career games with an over/under of 50 or more since 2011, Gronk averages 5.9 catches, 86.1 yards, and a ridiculous 1.1 touchdowns per game.

Rematch of NFC Championship Game Between Packers and Falcons Highlights Week 2 Matchups

When the Atlanta Falcons (1-0) routed the Green Bay Packers (1-0) in last year’s NFC Championship Game 44-21, they were at home and much healthier than their opponent.

This time around, the Falcons will be hosting the Packers once again, but the game will be much more even, as the betting line suggests at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Atlanta is listed as 2.5-point home chalk versus Green Bay on Sunday.

The Falcons also played host to the Packers in Week 8 last season, rallying back for a 33-32 victory but failing to cover the spread as 3-point home favorites. Green Bay led 24-19 at halftime and Aaron Rodgers threw for 246 yards and four touchdowns. Rodgers also led the team in rushing with 60 yards on six carries.

The main differences this year are that the matchup will take place at Mercedes-Benz Stadium rather than the Georgia Dome, and it will be showcased in prime time on Sunday Night Football.

Earlier on Sunday, two winless teams will match up at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome when the New England Patriots (0-1) visit the New Orleans Saints (0-1).

The defending Super Bowl champion Patriots are 4.5-point road favorites and will need to play much better defensively than they did against the Kansas City Chiefs last Thursday night if they are going to repeat this year.

New England has won four of the past five meetings straight up, according to the OddsShark NFL Database, but New Orleans has covered the spread in seven of the last nine in the series overall. This game will feature the return of wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who was traded away to the Patriots by the Saints in the offseason.

The Saints did not look like an offensive threat without Cooks in their season-opening 29-19 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Monday. New Orleans did not generate much of a rushing attack between new addition Adrian Peterson and mainstay Mark Ingram, who combined for 35 yards on just 12 carries between them.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees also did not have many receiving threats, with Ingram and tight end Coby Fleener leading the way with five catches apiece for a total of 108 yards.

Media Circus: 32 Thoughts on the Opening Weekend of the NFL

Welcome back, NFL. Here are 32 NFL media thoughts/reported items for the opening week of the NFL season.

1. Networks will always downplay the impact of social media—especially if the sentiment is negative about their broadcaster—and CBS Sports execs have said repeatedly that they advised new analyst Tony Romo not to overweight what he read on Facebook and Twitter because they expected it to be negative early. Network officials were monitoring Twitter on Sunday during Romo’s broadcasting debut and could not have been more pleased by the overwhelmingly positive reaction for Romo’s work during the Raiders-Titans game. CBS Sports execs were particularly surprised (and very happy) to see employees of competing NFL rights-holders praising Romo’s work. “Was I pleased today that I read some positive things? Yes, I was,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “But as I’ve said before: There will be a plethora of critics because there always are and I don’t think you should look too closely at social media. If you are the QB of the Dallas Cowboys, you already have a lot of people who don’t like you to start with. We all know how critical people are on Twitter. I said to Tony: “Don’t pay attention to the negative, mean-spirited stuff on Twitter. Pay attention to the intelligent, well thought out and well-meaning stuff that comes from people in the business.”

2. I wanted to get a reader to evaluate Romo’s performance because I thought that could be insightful for you compared to the 50th person in the sports media to have a take. When I asked for volunteers on Twitter, I heard quickly from Mark Lauderdale from Gallatin, Tennessee, which is approximately 30 miles north of Nashville. Mark is a longtime Titans fan and retired after 42-plus years as a manager for RR Donnelley, the world's largest commercial printer. He said his company closed their plant operations in March, so he took his retirement. Mark tweeted that he thought Romo did a decent job in the first half, with some issues of talking too fast and talking over partner Jim Nantz. He sent me his review at the end of the game:

As for Tony's performance, my earlier comments about his first half performance stand. However, after what appears to me to have been simply butterflies along with a bit of constructive feedback, his second half was far stronger. His game analysis was spot on, I felt. His timing with Jim Nantz got much better. While he didn't criticize either of the QB's harshly, I didn't detect any hesitancy in doing so.

The comparisons to Phil Simms are inevitable. However, Phil's game calls had gotten stale and it showed to any average fan. Tony was certainly enthusiastic about the game today. He got better as the game went on, calling what he was seeing much as he would have as a quarterback. It was a breath of fresh air from Mr. Simms.

Overall, I give Tony a solid B for his performance. I really think he will settle in and do very well. There's certainly room for improvement, thus no A today. I trust you find this critique helpful. I'm very experienced with giving performance reviews. There's no reason to give gushing reviews for a first-time performance. He definitely prepared and it showed.

Thanks, Mark. Thoughtful review. Mark recently lost his wife, Rita, of 40 years. Give him a follow here if you want to have some football conversations.

3. Romo got big laughs last month during the annual seminar for CBS’s NFL personnel when he explained to a roomful of new colleagues that he wanted to reach out to Phil Simms—the analyst who Romo replaced—but missed Simms couple of times by phone. When Romo finally reached Simms, here is what Simms told him.

“So Phil picks up the phone,” Romo explained, “and says, “Tony Romo, you son of a bitch ... ”

Simms explained what happened next.

“I really couldn’t even be serious because I started laughing as I was saying it,” Simms said. “I knew it was him because he had called and I saw the number. There was not going to be any tension between us. He asked me some things and I offered no advice. I told him he will have 80,000 people telling you what to do but in the end, it is about how you see the game.”

4. The NFL Today began with a cold open from longtime host James Brown that sent viewers immediately to CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor covering Hurricane Irma. That report was immediately followed by the NFL Today cast (Brown, Boomer Esiason, Bill Cowher and newcomers Nate Burleson and Phil Simms) offering their personal connections on Irma. The studio show then moved to analyst Steve Tasker for a report from the Texans-Jags game, the league’s biggest game of significance given those that suffered in Harvey. It was a thoughtful and journalistically cognizant opening 10 minutes. Really well done.

As for the new constitution of The NFL Today, I really liked the pacing of the show, particularly how they rotated each studio member to talk on a different subject via a box in the right corner. I also liked the decision by the producers to have Simms talk to Romo on-air prior to the game given that Romo had replaced Simms. “Don’t be nervous,” Simms told Romo. “Only 50 million people are watching.” Newcomer Burleson is an excellent addition, an intellectual voice in a genre that still tends to locker room-it-up way too much. Very smart too of CBS to have all its games go to Houston for a moment of silence for Harvey victims.

5. Two very strong moves by NBC Sports on Sunday. First, they had information to donate to the Red Cross on the score scroll during Football Night in America. They also decided to stream the Cowboys-Game to all given the recent storms in Texas and Florida

6. Each NFL Today analyst agreed that Colin Kaepernick should make the case for himself publicly, with analyst Bill Cowher being the most outspoken on the subject. Cowher dismissed the idea that Kaepernick was being blackballed by NFL teams. He said the reason Kaepernick was not playing was due to his play last year, and question marks about his passion for the game. Said Cowher: “Are you really committed to wanting to come back into the National Football League and re-establish yourself as a National Football League player? Are you really committed to your craft? Are you going to take the opportunity that any team might give you? Don't let the contract stand in the way. Your agent can put performance clauses in there that if you play. You will get paid. Colin, your silence speaks volumes. And I just wonder, maybe the platform is more important to him than his play on the field. And you know what, Colin, prove me wrong.”

The show’s take was overwhelmingly pro-ownership. None of the analysts discussed the specific quarterbacks with far lesser resumes that had been signed over Kaepernick and the idea that Kaepernick (and this is just my opinion) has to publicly justify his passion after playing in the league for six consecutive years is absurd. Interestingly, during Football Night In America, Mike Florio reported that people close to Kaepernick told him that the quarterback has not spoken publicly because he did not want his words to be more of a distraction. Can’t win.

7. Here is the segment in full. Opinions will be all over the map on it, as they are on Kaepernick.

8. It’s impossible to tell what Sunday NFL Countdown will be ultimately be given one of the main studio analysts (Rex Ryan) appeared on a giant screen above the cast members as if he was President Snow in The Hunger Games. (Ryan is calling Monday Night Football in Denver on Monday.) Because it’s ESPN, which has a doctorate in self-reverence, Countdown spent the early part of its show referencing its cast, including showing photos of Adam Schefter in college, a feature (with dramatic music) on Schefter being an honorary captain for the University of Michigan football team on Saturday, and footage of host Sam Ponder showing off a great arm as a quarterback. It was a contrast to watch ESPN against CBS when it came to Hurricane Irma. (To be fair: It was a very good speech from Schefter to Michigan’s players). The best moment of Countdown on Sunday was a quality discussion about how the Falcons will react to last year’s Super Bowl loss. Ryan was interesting on how that loss could be an anchor, and Charles Woodson referenced his experience with the Raiders in 2003 when after playing in the Super Bowl, Oakland lost Rich Gannon and Rod Woodson to injury and finished 4-12.

9. The host of Sunday NFL Countdown in the current construct has a lot of work given multiple sets, intros and outs, and discussion points. I thought Ponder did a nice job given this is her first year working NFL content.

10. On this note: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an NFL host walk a set more than Ponder did on Sunday. ESPN remains a little too obsessed with its studio space. Producers strangely used their on-site reporters very sparsely.

11. Fox’s new No. 2 team debuted on Sunday in Chicago with Kevin Burkhardt pairing with analyst Charles Davis and reporter Pam Oliver. I think that group is going to be very good. This was the crew Jay Cutler was going to work with prior to his opting to play for the Dolphins this season. Other Fox moves include former ESPN NFL analyst Mark Schlereth joining a team with play-by-play announcer Dick Stockton and sideline reporter Shannon Spake. Here is the list of Fox’s announcing crews for 2017:

•Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Erin Andrews.

•Kevin Burkhardt, Charles Davis and Pam Oliver.

•Kenny Albert, Ronde Barber and Kristina Pink.

•Chris Myers, Daryl Johnston and Laura Okmin.

•Dick Stockton, Mark Schlereth and Shannon Spake.

•Thom Brennaman, Chris Spielman and Peter Schrager.

•Sam Rosen, David Diehl and Jennifer Hale.

12. I thought Fox’s new NFL graphics were awesome—a clean, simple and strong score bug. They debuted in the preseason.

13. Everyone I spoke with who works in NFL television circles thinks NFL ratings are going up this season. For instance:

“I think the NFL has front-loaded the schedule to make sure there are attractive games in almost all the windows,” said NBC Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli. “I will be surprised if they are not up.”

“I honestly think that the [Donald] Trump effect last year had a huge impact on our ratings and those of others,” said ESPN Monday Night Football executive producer Jay Rothman. “I really do. We got clobbered. The first debate we had the 10-year reunion of the reopening of the Superdome in New Orleans, which we worked really hard to get that game, and unfortunately the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton was the same night. We got crushed. I really think just the Trump phenomenon had a huge effect throughout the course of last fall during the presidential campaign. And you could look at the network news and the cable news networks, and it's proof of that.”

14. The NFL, however, did not get off to the ratings start it wanted. The Chiefs’ win over the Pats for the NFL Kickoff game last Thursday drew 22.2 million viewers across NBC and NBC Sports Digital platforms, down from 25.2 million for the kickoff game a year early. One significant caveat: Cable news and the Weather Channel last Thursday was up significantly with the coverage of hurricanes.

15. The commercial format for the NFL this year has changed. There will be four commercial breaks per quarter as opposed to five. The league found fans were more bothered by frequency than the length of commercials. Promos will be included in commercial breaks. “At times they were up to five, six and if networks got behind, seven, so you would have situations where there would be a score, an extra point, a commercial break, and coming back from a break, a kickoff and another commercial break,” Rothman said. “The league is avoiding these double-ups as we refer to them at all costs, and that's dreadful for everybody. So that's a big win. The league claims, and we hope it's all true, in terms of replay review and official reviews, with that being done in New York and officials no longer going under the hood, these decisions should come in a minute, minute, 15 seconds. In those situations, we'll be staying. We won't be using those as break opportunities. So there will just be less interruption of play. The breaks will be a tick longer. They will all be 2 minutes and 20 seconds in length, and we'll make up our sponsorship in that additional time per break, but again, less interruptions, better flow, better for everybody. Some different ad innovations that the league is offering partners, but the idea is to stay alive as much as possible and keep the games moving and keep the flow going.”

16. What new technologies are coming? NBC experimented in the exhibition season with dual sky cams (two sky cams independent of one another, and one flying much higher than the usual heights). They say they will need the league to approve it for the regular season and playoffs.

ESPN said it has spent a lot of time with the NFL on Next Gen technology. “Everybody knows that each of the NFL players for the last three years has worn chips in their pads,” said Rothman. “There's chips in the footballs this year. We've worked really hard on mining what we think is some interesting data that will lead to interesting storytelling and documentation throughout the season, many of which really hasn't been on the air thus far. We think there's some really interesting data that we can mine throughout the season that will be of use to fans, timely and relevant, so we're excited to dig into that.”

17. CBS made five changes to its broadcasting teams, most notably Romo at the top. The new lineup:

•Jim Nantz, Romo and Tracy Wolfson.

•Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts and Evan Washburn.

•Greg Gumbel, Trent Green and Jamie Erdahl.

•Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon.

•Andrew Catalon and James Lofton.

•Spero Dedes and Adam Archuleta.

•Tom McCarthy, Steve Tasker and Steve Beuerlein.

•Beth Mowins and Jay Feely.

18. CBS is very high on Burleson. “He has the advantage of doing a five-day week show on the NFL Network and lives and breathes football every day of the week,” McManus said. “This is now a sixth day. He has a great personality and perspective on the game. I think he will really help us.” He did on Sunday.

19. Here’s a long Q&A I did with Beth Mowins including the significance of being the first woman to call a regular-season NFL game since 1987. She will call the Chargers at Broncos tonight as part of the opening week Monday Night Football doubleheader. I also spent two days in Cleveland with Mowins and Rex Ryan for a profile on how broadcasters use practice games to prepare.

20. The NFL Network made a name change (as well as some personnel changes) on Sundays with its early show—NFL GameDay Morning (7:00 a.m. ET.) The show features Colleen Wolfe, Michael Robinson and Mike Garafolo and newcomer Steve Smith Jr. It airs from NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey.

21. Mike Tirico’s NFL role will continue to grow on NBC. “I don’t think I have to say anything about Al and Cris,” said Gaudelli. “They are widely seen as numero uno. Whenever Al decides to call it a day, the expectation of high quality announcing is not going to go away. It will be different just like it was when Cris replaced Madden but it will be high quality. The football audience already knows how good Mike is.”

22. Fox brass believes they can steal audience away from ESPN at the 11:00 ET spot. They added Michael Vick and Tony Gonzalez as studio analysts this year to go along with host Charissa Thompson and analysts Colin Cowherd, Dave Wannstedt and Cooper Manning. It will be interesting to see how the audience reacts to Vick.

23. CBS was working on getting Mowins to call NFL games before the Monday Night ESPN assignment came up. “When someone brought up Beth Mowins name my thought was why hadn’t we thought about that before,” said McManus. “We had conversations with her agent who had a conversation with ESPN. It was a pretty easy process. ESPN was pretty supportive of giving Beth an opportunity. Given the NFL is the number one sport on television, think they were very gracious about allowing her to be associated with CBS.”

24. Romo will double up on games in a single week four times over the first nine weeks of the season. “We think it is all about the reps,” said McManus said. “The workload will be intense.”

25. Simms said he’s come to a good place on getting replaced by Romo. “I played 15 years in the NFL and went to Pro Bowl in my 15th year and someone replaced me,” Simms said. “I was let go. Hell. I was going to ask for a pay raise. Instead, they said get out. I haven’t thought about it like someone is doing my job. It is not my job. I am really happy with the way it worked out and I am looking forward to the studio. As time goes on I think I will be happy it has become this way.”

26. The NFL Network sent over its new studio shows for the 2017 NFL season. They include:

•NFL Power Rankings (Tuesdays at 6:00 PM ET with Colleen Wolfe, Elliot Harrison and Maurice Jones-Drew)

•21st and Prime (Tuesdays at 6:30 PM ET. with Deion Sanders and Amber Theoharis)

•NFL Playbook (Wednesdays at 6:00 PM ET with Rhett Lewis, Shaun O’Hara, Brian Billick and Daniel Jeremiah)

•NFL Players Only (Fridays at 6:00 PM ET with Terrell Davis, Maurice Jones-Drew, James Jones and DeMarcus Ware)

•TNF First Look (Thursdays at 3:00 PM ET with Andrew Siciliano)

27 Funny moment on Fox’s “The OT.” Co-host Terry Bradshaw gave player of the day honors to Falcons tight end Austin Hooper, but called him “Austin Cooper” The rest of the cast corrected Bradshaw and Howie Long deadpanned, “they [the Bears] could not cover either one of them.”

28. I thought this was pretty funny between Burleson and Simms.

29. NFL Today producer Drew Kaliski said that viewers should look for small groups of analysts on the NFL Today. “I think about that all time,” Kaliski said. “It’s very easy to just put five guys at a desk and do a show but that’s not always the best way to incorporate everyone’s opinions. You have to break the guys up. In my opinion, you have to put them in smaller groups—maybe two at a time—to talk about a topic. They go for three minutes as opposed to five guys at a desk, all talking about the same topic, one comment, one comment, one comment.”

30. America’s most-watched Sunday morning pregame show.

31. Romo’s next broadcast comes next Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET for the Patriots at Saints. At 37, he is younger than both starting quarterbacks (Tom Brady, 40 and Drew Brees, 38).

32. Somebody take NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner to Las Vegas.

THE NOISE REPORT

SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories

1. ABC’s Saturday Night Football broadcast between Oklahoma and Ohio State drew the highest overnight rating for college football this weekend, with a 5.3 rating. ABC’s coverage of Michigan-Cincinnati (2.8) and Pittsburgh-Penn State (2.7) were next up. Per Douglas Pucci of Programming Insider: Georgia-Notre Dame drew a 2.7 rating on NBC. ESPN’s coverage of Clemson-Auburn drew a 2.0 while USC-Stanford drew a 1.7 on Fox. Arkansas-TCU drew a 1.5 on CBS.

2. Episode 136 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features ESPN SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne and longtime college football analyst Ed Cunningham, who opted this spring to no longer call college football for ESPN.

In this podcast, Mayne discusses moving across country to host the 11 p.m. SportsCenter from Bristol, Conn.; how SportsCenter has evolved since the 1990s; how one can forge an untraditional career at ESPN; the role of comedy in sports television; why the company wants him to speak to media buyers; how he views mixing politics on his social media feed and those who tab ESPN as left-leaning; why he likes what Marty Smith is doing; his five-week marriage anniversary, and much more.

Cunningham discusses why he decided to leave his job as a college football analyst and why he no longer can reconcile being a cheerleader for the sport given the health concerns and trauma on the field; how ESPN’s layoffs impacted his decision; how much Iowa handling of former quarterback C.J. Beathard during the Outback Bowl drove him to quit; how Cunningham feels about Al Michaels and others not seeing their role in the booth as an ethical dilemma and much more.

2a. Here’s a piece I did on Cunningham’s decision, including thoughts from NBC Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli and ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas.

3. Episode 135 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast is a bonus podcast featuring best-selling author James Andrew Miller, who this week debuted a new podcast, Origins. The podcast focuses on the beginnings of things in culture, politics and other fields. The first edition of the podcast focuses on the HBO show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. All five episodes of the first edition are currently available.

In this podcast, Miller discusses why he chose to start his podcast series with Curb; how he landed the cast of the show including Larry David; why Curb is a significant show; why his podcast drops all five episodes at the same time; why Ted Danson was a revealing interview; the loyalty Larry David has engendered among actors and more. Miller also discusses sports media topics including the recent decision from ESPN to publicly discuss how it is doing ratings-wise against FS1; what that decision means in the marketplace; ESPN’s tennis coverage of the U.S. Open; the narrative ESPN is fighting on politics; the decisions ESPN producers must make for the U.S. Open; and more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

4. Non-sports pieces of note:

•One of the best pieces of 2017: Evan Osnos on the risk of nuclear war with North Korea.

Via Holly Hartman of the Houston Chronicle: I downloaded an app. And suddenly, was part of the Cajun Navy.

•Via NYT Magazine’s Alice Yin: Statistics show just how profound the inequalities in America’s education system have become.

•Via Scott Shane of NYT: The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election.

From Casey Michael: How Russia Created the Most Popular Texas Secession Page on Facebook.

The Wall Street Journal’s Trump problem.

•The First White President, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

•MIT professor Vipin Narang?, on why Kim Jong-Un wouldn’t be irrational to use a nuclear bomb first.

•Sunday front pages on Hurricane Irma, compiled by Charles Apple.

•From Mosi Secret of the New York Times Magazine: The first to integrate elite Southern prep schools, they entered a world of opportunity — and faced constant racism.

Sports pieces of note:

•From Kyle Munson of the Des Moines Register: He's a black high school quarterback. 5 of his teammates were pictured in white hoods. It may get worse.

•SI’s Steve Rushin, on his Hall of Fame spouse, Rebecca Lobo. Great, great piece.

•Kudos to ESPN producer William Weinbaum for his dedication to the Magomed Abdusalamov story.

•Two Colin Kaepernick pieces worth reading including this from New York Times writer John Branch and this from Washington Post writer Kent Babb.

•A great first person from Cavs guard Isaiah Thomas for the Players’ Tribune.

The MMQB’s Robert Klemko?, on a week in the wake of Harvey with JJ Watt and the Texans.

•Michael Schmidt of the New York Times broke the story of the Boston Red Sox caught using electronic devices to steal signs against the New York Yankees.

•ESPN’s Graham Hays on Notre Dame women’s coach Muffet McGraw making the Basketball Hall.

•From Reid Forgrave of Bleacher Report: The Fall of Rysheed Jordan: How the Streets of Philly Swallowed an NBA Prospect.

•Sixty journalists at the Cincinnati Enquirer examined the heroin epidemic.

5. SBJ’s John Ourand reported that ESPN will simulcast Monday Night Football in Spanish on ESPN2 for the first nine weeks of the NFL season.

5a. US Open Women's Finals overnight ratings the past four years:

2017: 1.9 (Stephens-Keys)

2016: 1.0 (Angelique Kerber/Karolina Pliskova)

2015: 1.1 (Flavia Pennetta/Roberta Vinci)

2014: 2.9 (Serena Williams-Caroline Wozniacki

Texans' chance to show Houston was knocked down but not out

FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2006, file photo, New Orleans Saints' Steve Gleason (37) sprints through the end zone after blocking an Atlanta Falcons punt in the first quarter of their NFL football game at the newly reopened Louisiana Superdome, after Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans. Like countless other New Orleans residents, the franchise spent much of the previous year coping with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Memories wont feed a family or rebuild their house, which is why the first thing J.J. Watt brought back to his adopted hometown in the wake of Hurricane Harvey was $28 million in cold, hard cash. So when the Texans open the NFL season Sunday against Jacksonville at NRG Stadium, Watt and his teammates want to deliver a different kind of gift _ one of those iconic sports moments that will live long after the flood waters recede. (AP Photo/Bill Haber, File)

Texans' chance to show Houston was knocked down but not out

FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2012, file photo, the bronze statue titled 'Rebirth,' which shows former New Orleans Saints' Steve Gleason blocking a punt against the Atlanta Falcons during the first Monday Night Football game after the Superdome reopened, after Hurricane Katrina, is seen outside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Memories wont feed a family or rebuild their house, which is why the first thing J.J. Watt brought back to his adopted hometown in the wake of Hurricane Harvey was $28 million in cold, hard cash. So when the Texans open the NFL season Sunday against Jacksonville at NRG Stadium, Watt and his teammates want to deliver a different kind of gift _ one of those iconic sports moments that will live long after the flood waters recede. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

The Story of Washington's 270-Pound Lineman Shows Why Chris Petersen's System Works

SEATTLE — When Washington coaches came to offensive guard Nick Harris last season and asked the freshman if he’d like to play instead of redshirt, he might have been more shocked than anyone. “I wasn’t that highly recruited. I’m not big,” Harris says. “I’m 6' 1". I was 270 pounds. I wasn’t expecting to play at all.”

But Chris Petersen and his staff saw something in Harris that Harris hadn’t even seen in himself. No other FBS coaching staff saw it, either. Cal Poly and New Hampshire had offered scholarships to the Inglewood, Calif., native who played in Orange County at Junipero Serra Catholic, but no one in the Mountain West wanted him. Certainly no one in the Pac-12 besides Washington did. Some of those Pac-12 schools got interested after Washington offered and Harris committed in the summer of ’15, but that speaks more to Petersen’s pet peeve of staffs only issuing scholarship offers based on which other programs have offered—not on the coaches’ belief that the player can succeed at that level. But Washington coaches believed in Harris, who might be the quintessential OKG.

Several coaching staffs use that acronym, which stands for Our Kind of Guy. Petersen’s staff, at Boise State and now at Washington, takes it more seriously than most. Huskies coaches know what they’re looking for, and they don’t care if anyone else sees it. Everyone recruiting Serra in ’14 and and the spring of ’15 could see that 6' 5", 270-pound left tackle Luke Wattenberg had Power 5 potential, but only the Washington staff saw that in Harris. Both players signed with Washington, but Harris wound up seeing the field faster. He played in 12 of 14 games as a true freshman. He started four, including the Pac-12 championship game against Colorado and the Peach Bowl against Alabama. Six weeks after turning 18, he was trying to block Crimson Tide seniors Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, who would go in the first and second rounds of the most recent NFL draft. “I was still a kid,” Harris says. “Those guys were like 22. They’re men.”

But Harris held his own. He did more than that when he wasn’t playing early-round draft picks.

He did that at 270 pounds. Now he’s 293, and he has spent an offseason focusing on the lessons learned in that Peach Bowl. For instance, he learned that while his height may have been a detriment during his recruitment, it can help him against a stronger opponent by allowing Harris to get lower and use his leverage to neutralize the defender’s strength advantage.

This is what Petersen expected all along from Harris. The coach didn’t consider the choice all that daring when he tossed the 17-year-old, 270-pound freshman into his offensive line. “He was athletic and physical and tough and smart,” Petersen says. “What else do you need?” Once Harris confirmed those traits in Washington’s camp last year, the decision was easy. “We saw that in high school when no one recruited him,” Petersen says. “And we saw that in fall camp when we weren’t really thinking about playing him. He just earned it.”

Players like Harris are the reason why Washington’s 2016 Pac-12 title and playoff berth won’t be isolated incidents. When Petersen moved from Boise State to Washington, we wondered if he could duplicate the same kind of consistency. We also wondered if he could unearth as many underrecruited gems when he needed his signees to play at a higher level. It turns out he can. The trick is to combine those gems with more heavily recruited counterparts. It turns out Petersen can do that, too. Byron Murphy, the highest rated member of that ’16 class that included Harris, redshirted last year and looks ready to step into one of the Huskies’ open cornerback spots. To Petersen, Murphy and Harris were both players Huskies coaches had scouted, evaluated and declared to be OKGs. He would have been just as interested in them no matter who else recruited them. That isn’t the case for many of Petersen’s counterparts, who hand out scholarship offers the way campus pizza joints hand out coupons on the first day of class.

Washington is third from the bottom among Power 5 programs in scholarship offers handed out during the class of 2018 recruiting cycle with 77, according to data compiled by 247Sports.com. Only Northwestern (72) and Stanford (48) have offered fewer. The median number of scholarships offered by the members of the Power 5 and Notre Dame, meanwhile, is 206. “We’re not doing that,” Petersen says. “We want to see tape. We want to get to know the kid. We love to see him play in person. The whole way it’s going is making it harder on us.”

Still, Petersen doesn’t intend to change how he and his staff evaluate. They’re still looking for for the next Shea McClellin or the next Harris, no matter who anyone else wants. If they keep finding them and combining them with the four- and five-star players they now have access to at Washington, they’re going to keep winning for a long time.

A Random Ranking

Yes, there were a few games this past weekend. But since the bulk of college football opens this week, let’s pay tribute to something else that used to start in September: the TV season. Peak TV has changed the rhythms of the TV year, but this is when we used to get all the new shows. Some of them would run for weeks and get canceled. Some of them would run for years and become cultural touchstones. So in honor of a week of debuts—and a lot of working out of the kinks—here are the top 10 TV pilots of all time.

1. Lost

The show begins with Dr. Jack Shephard opening one eye. A plane crashed on an island. Then things got weird. They had to make things up as they went along as the seasons dragged on, but the first episode was magic.

2. Breaking Bad

We see the pants first. Then the Winnebago. Then we learn how chemistry teacher Walter White got into this mess.

3. The Wonder Years

By the end of the half-hour, we were all rooting for Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper.

4. Miami Vice

This one would have worked as a feature film, but instead we got more Crockett and Tubbs every week.

5. Mad Men

We meet Don Draper doing some market research on behalf of client Lucky Strike. Then we meet him with a woman. Then we realize that woman isn’t his wife. The onion keeps getting peeled from there.

6. In Living Color

It felt like every single kid at my school was quoting the Homeboy Shopping Network and Men On Film the morning after the pilot aired. Homie the Clown and Fire Marshall Bill would come later, but it was clear this show was going to be different.

7. Pushing Daisies

This short-lived ABC show couldn’t keep up the momentum, but its first episode features the kind of world-building every pilot should aspire to.

8. Justified

The stakes are established immediately as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens dares a criminal to pull first. The resulting shooting gets Givens transferred back home to Kentucky. He quickly gets matched against childhood acquaintance Boyd Crowder, who would be his nemesis for the entire run of the show.

9. Cheers

Lots of shows start by throwing a combustible new character into a world where the other characters are familiar with one another, but combustible new characters don’t get much better than a jilted Diane Chambers.

10. Friday Night Lights

Jason Street gets hurt. Matt Saracen becomes QB1. We all fall in love with Coach Taylor and Tami Taylor.

Three and Out

1. The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey likely will force a move of Saturday’s LSU-BYU game to another venue. On Sunday night, LSU associate communications director Bill Franques passed along a message from athletic director Joe Alleva. “Almost certainly it will not be played in Houston,” Franques said. “He has not been told that officially yet, but he is almost certain that the game will not be able to be played in Houston on Saturday.”

The game is an ESPN production sponsored by vitamin company Advocare. So ESPN, Advocare, NRG, BYU and LSU must agree on a new venue. The parties hoped to have a location chosen by Monday afternoon. Candidates include the Superdome in New Orleans and Tiger Stadium at LSU.

This is the second time in two seasons a hurricane will force an LSU game to be moved. After a pointless spitting match of a negotiation that should have been handled quietly by the SEC office instead of noisily by the two schools, the Tigers’ game at Florida was moved to November in Baton Rouge last year because of concerns about Hurricane Matthew. LSU lost that game and now has to play Florida in Gainesville this year and next year.

2. Alabama defensive end Raekwon Davis was shot in the leg by a stray bullet early Sunday morning as he stood outside a Tuscaloosa bar, the Tuscaloosa News reported. The 6' 7", 307-pound sophomore is a projected starter. “Our concern at this time is for Raekwon and his health,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement. “While this does not appear to be a serious medical situation, Raekwon is still being evaluated.”

3. The most exciting game of Week Zero was Hawaii’s 38–35 comeback win at UMass. It might have been more exciting had UMass actually attempted to win the game on the final play.

What’s Eating Andy?

Just once in my life I want to pull off a move this slick. It’ll never happen, but a boy can dream…

What’s Andy Eating?

I had planned to go somewhere besides Seattle’s best hidden Japanese joint, but the Internet had failed me with regard to when my intended destination was actually open. So I consulted the various apps—which I realize had just failed me—and sought something in walking distance that would dazzle my tastebuds.

Up popped Tsukushinbo. It was only two-tenths of a mile away from where I stood. The reviews glowed. Get sushi, one said. Get the donburi, another said. If they have fresh fish, get that, said another. But they all contained warnings. This place doesn’t have a sign. So don’t walk right by, one said. They take reservations by phone, but they don’t always answer the phone, another said. Good luck trying to walk in, said another.

Indeed, the place had no sign. Its address—515 South Main Street—didn’t appear to be visible. But 517 stood to its left and 513 stood to its right, so this had to be the place. When I walked inside, closing time was in 90 minutes. The tiny dining room was packed. So was the sushi bar. Four people with reservations stood outside. A server who also acted as hostess and floor manager noticed me and asked if I was Tommy, who presumably had been wise enough to make a reservation. No, I said. I was a humble party of one. I didn’t know if there would be any seats before closing time, but I was intrigued by a place that looked like any other generic sushi bar but inspired fervent allegiance from people throughout a city known for its Japanese food.

“Maybe in an hour,” she told me. “Maybe not” was implied, and it hung in the air as I stood outside and watched people with reservations fill recently emptied tables. After about 45 minutes, I worked my way back inside. Several diners seemed close to finishing. I might have a chance. Suddenly, she walked through the dining room and pointed at me. There was one seat at the sushi bar. It was mine if I wanted it.

After watching happy diners at the bar put their meals in the hands of Chef Sho with the chef’s sushi selection ($50 a person), I know what I’ll do on my next trip. But the reviews of everything else had been so effusive, I couldn’t commit only to sushi. (Or, if I’m there on a Friday morning, I’ll get the ramen. They only make it Fridays for lunch, and they only make about 20 bowls.) I ordered a pork belly donburi (rice bowl) and a Marine roll (scallop, spicy sauce, mayo, flying fish roe and avocado rolled in rice and topped with seared salmon, sea salt and lemon). I tried to order a broiled amberjack collar, but I’d come too late. Don’t worry, my server said. They still had king mackerel.

The king mackerel came first, and at first glance it seemed it had been burned to a crisp. But as I watched the assistant sushi chef use a torch to kiss fish with a touch of heat, I realized it wasn’t burned at all. The inside was hot and juicy, and the outside had been torched to create a glorious crispy skin. This served as the ideal appetizer for the heartiness to come.

The donburi came next. Grilled hunks of pork belly mingle with onions and sesame seeds in a sauce that would be too hot for most diners if not for the sunny-side up egg atop the meat. Break the yolk and let it slide down past the meat and into the rice. Then stir. The egg will temper the kick of the sauce just enough. After that, every bite will balance spicy, sweet, salty and savory. The bowl will seem to grow after a few minutes. That’s O.K. You’ll want to keep eating.

I’m not afraid of raw fish. In truth, I hadn’t noticed the line on the menu that noted my roll had (semi) cooked fish. I was intrigued by the sea salt and lemon, and I skipped past the “seared.” No matter. This particular roll was excellent. The avocado provided a lush backbone, and the drops of lemon juice highlighted the freshness of the flame-kissed salmon. I wished I hadn’t eaten so much donburi, because I wanted to try every piece of sushi on the menu. I washed it all down with Samurai Barley Ale from Japan’s Swan Lake Brewery, drinking the last drops as the sushi chefs sheathed their knives and cleaned the counter. I had stumbled into this secret place and been lucky enough to get a taste. Next time, I’m coming prepared.

The Story of Washington's 270-Pound Lineman Shows Why Chris Petersen's System Works

SEATTLE — When Washington coaches came to offensive guard Nick Harris last season and asked the freshman if he’d like to play instead of redshirt, he might have been more shocked than anyone. “I wasn’t that highly recruited. I’m not big,” Harris says. “I’m 6' 1". I was 270 pounds. I wasn’t expecting to play at all.”

But Chris Petersen and his staff saw something in Harris that Harris hadn’t even seen in himself. No other FBS coaching staff saw it, either. Cal Poly and New Hampshire had offered scholarships to the Inglewood, Calif., native who played in Orange County at Junipero Serra Catholic, but no one in the Mountain West wanted him. Certainly no one in the Pac-12 besides Washington did. Some of those Pac-12 schools got interested after Washington offered and Harris committed in the summer of ’15, but that speaks more to Petersen’s pet peeve of staffs only issuing scholarship offers based on which other programs have offered—not on the coaches’ belief that the player can succeed at that level. But Washington coaches believed in Harris, who might be the quintessential OKG.

Several coaching staffs use that acronym, which stands for Our Kind of Guy. Petersen’s staff, at Boise State and now at Washington, takes it more seriously than most. Huskies coaches know what they’re looking for, and they don’t care if anyone else sees it. Everyone recruiting Serra in ’14 and and the spring of ’15 could see that 6' 5", 270-pound left tackle Luke Wattenberg had Power 5 potential, but only the Washington staff saw that in Harris. Both players signed with Washington, but Harris wound up seeing the field faster. He played in 12 of 14 games as a true freshman. He started four, including the Pac-12 championship game against Colorado and the Peach Bowl against Alabama. Six weeks after turning 18, he was trying to block Crimson Tide seniors Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, who would go in the first and second rounds of the most recent NFL draft. “I was still a kid,” Harris says. “Those guys were like 22. They’re men.”

But Harris held his own. He did more than that when he wasn’t playing early-round draft picks.

He did that at 270 pounds. Now he’s 293, and he has spent an offseason focusing on the lessons learned in that Peach Bowl. For instance, he learned that while his height may have been a detriment during his recruitment, it can help him against a stronger opponent by allowing Harris to get lower and use his leverage to neutralize the defender’s strength advantage.

This is what Petersen expected all along from Harris. The coach didn’t consider the choice all that daring when he tossed the 17-year-old, 270-pound freshman into his offensive line. “He was athletic and physical and tough and smart,” Petersen says. “What else do you need?” Once Harris confirmed those traits in Washington’s camp last year, the decision was easy. “We saw that in high school when no one recruited him,” Petersen says. “And we saw that in fall camp when we weren’t really thinking about playing him. He just earned it.”

Players like Harris are the reason why Washington’s 2016 Pac-12 title and playoff berth won’t be isolated incidents. When Petersen moved from Boise State to Washington, we wondered if he could duplicate the same kind of consistency. We also wondered if he could unearth as many underrecruited gems when he needed his signees to play at a higher level. It turns out he can. The trick is to combine those gems with more heavily recruited counterparts. It turns out Petersen can do that, too. Byron Murphy, the highest rated member of that ’16 class that included Harris, redshirted last year and looks ready to step into one of the Huskies’ open cornerback spots. To Petersen, Murphy and Harris were both players Huskies coaches had scouted, evaluated and declared to be OKGs. He would have been just as interested in them no matter who else recruited them. That isn’t the case for many of Petersen’s counterparts, who hand out scholarship offers the way campus pizza joints hand out coupons on the first day of class.

Washington is third from the bottom among Power 5 programs in scholarship offers handed out during the class of 2018 recruiting cycle with 77, according to data compiled by 247Sports.com. Only Northwestern (72) and Stanford (48) have offered fewer. The median number of scholarships offered by the members of the Power 5 and Notre Dame, meanwhile, is 206. “We’re not doing that,” Petersen says. “We want to see tape. We want to get to know the kid. We love to see him play in person. The whole way it’s going is making it harder on us.”

Still, Petersen doesn’t intend to change how he and his staff evaluate. They’re still looking for for the next Shea McClellin or the next Harris, no matter who anyone else wants. If they keep finding them and combining them with the four- and five-star players they now have access to at Washington, they’re going to keep winning for a long time.

A Random Ranking

Yes, there were a few games this past weekend. But since the bulk of college football opens this week, let’s pay tribute to something else that used to start in September: the TV season. Peak TV has changed the rhythms of the TV year, but this is when we used to get all the new shows. Some of them would run for weeks and get canceled. Some of them would run for years and become cultural touchstones. So in honor of a week of debuts—and a lot of working out of the kinks—here are the top 10 TV pilots of all time.

1. Lost

The show begins with Dr. Jack Shephard opening one eye. A plane crashed on an island. Then things got weird. They had to make things up as they went along as the seasons dragged on, but the first episode was magic.

2. Breaking Bad

We see the pants first. Then the Winnebago. Then we learn how chemistry teacher Walter White got into this mess.

3. The Wonder Years

By the end of the half-hour, we were all rooting for Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper.

4. Miami Vice

This one would have worked as a feature film, but instead we got more Crockett and Tubbs every week.

5. Mad Men

We meet Don Draper doing some market research on behalf of client Lucky Strike. Then we meet him with a woman. Then we realize that woman isn’t his wife. The onion keeps getting peeled from there.

6. In Living Color

It felt like every single kid at my school was quoting the Homeboy Shopping Network and Men On Film the morning after the pilot aired. Homie the Clown and Fire Marshall Bill would come later, but it was clear this show was going to be different.

7. Pushing Daisies

This short-lived ABC show couldn’t keep up the momentum, but its first episode features the kind of world-building every pilot should aspire to.

8. Justified

The stakes are established immediately as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens dares a criminal to pull first. The resulting shooting gets Givens transferred back home to Kentucky. He quickly gets matched against childhood acquaintance Boyd Crowder, who would be his nemesis for the entire run of the show.

9. Cheers

Lots of shows start by throwing a combustible new character into a world where the other characters are familiar with one another, but combustible new characters don’t get much better than a jilted Diane Chambers.

10. Friday Night Lights

Jason Street gets hurt. Matt Saracen becomes QB1. We all fall in love with Coach Taylor and Tami Taylor.

Three and Out

1. The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey likely will force a move of Saturday’s LSU-BYU game to another venue. On Sunday night, LSU associate communications director Bill Franques passed along a message from athletic director Joe Alleva. “Almost certainly it will not be played in Houston,” Franques said. “He has not been told that officially yet, but he is almost certain that the game will not be able to be played in Houston on Saturday.”

The game is an ESPN production sponsored by vitamin company Advocare. So ESPN, Advocare, NRG, BYU and LSU must agree on a new venue. The parties hoped to have a location chosen by Monday afternoon. Candidates include the Superdome in New Orleans and Tiger Stadium at LSU.

This is the second time in two seasons a hurricane will force an LSU game to be moved. After a pointless spitting match of a negotiation that should have been handled quietly by the SEC office instead of noisily by the two schools, the Tigers’ game at Florida was moved to November in Baton Rouge last year because of concerns about Hurricane Matthew. LSU lost that game and now has to play Florida in Gainesville this year and next year.

2. Alabama defensive end Raekwon Davis was shot in the leg by a stray bullet early Sunday morning as he stood outside a Tuscaloosa bar, the Tuscaloosa News reported. The 6' 7", 307-pound sophomore is a projected starter. “Our concern at this time is for Raekwon and his health,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement. “While this does not appear to be a serious medical situation, Raekwon is still being evaluated.”

3. The most exciting game of Week Zero was Hawaii’s 38–35 comeback win at UMass. It might have been more exciting had UMass actually attempted to win the game on the final play.

What’s Eating Andy?

Just once in my life I want to pull off a move this slick. It’ll never happen, but a boy can dream…

What’s Andy Eating?

I had planned to go somewhere besides Seattle’s best hidden Japanese joint, but the Internet had failed me with regard to when my intended destination was actually open. So I consulted the various apps—which I realize had just failed me—and sought something in walking distance that would dazzle my tastebuds.

Up popped Tsukushinbo. It was only two-tenths of a mile away from where I stood. The reviews glowed. Get sushi, one said. Get the donburi, another said. If they have fresh fish, get that, said another. But they all contained warnings. This place doesn’t have a sign. So don’t walk right by, one said. They take reservations by phone, but they don’t always answer the phone, another said. Good luck trying to walk in, said another.

Indeed, the place had no sign. Its address—515 South Main Street—didn’t appear to be visible. But 517 stood to its left and 513 stood to its right, so this had to be the place. When I walked inside, closing time was in 90 minutes. The tiny dining room was packed. So was the sushi bar. Four people with reservations stood outside. A server who also acted as hostess and floor manager noticed me and asked if I was Tommy, who presumably had been wise enough to make a reservation. No, I said. I was a humble party of one. I didn’t know if there would be any seats before closing time, but I was intrigued by a place that looked like any other generic sushi bar but inspired fervent allegiance from people throughout a city known for its Japanese food.

“Maybe in an hour,” she told me. “Maybe not” was implied, and it hung in the air as I stood outside and watched people with reservations fill recently emptied tables. After about 45 minutes, I worked my way back inside. Several diners seemed close to finishing. I might have a chance. Suddenly, she walked through the dining room and pointed at me. There was one seat at the sushi bar. It was mine if I wanted it.

After watching happy diners at the bar put their meals in the hands of Chef Sho with the chef’s sushi selection ($50 a person), I know what I’ll do on my next trip. But the reviews of everything else had been so effusive, I couldn’t commit only to sushi. (Or, if I’m there on a Friday morning, I’ll get the ramen. They only make it Fridays for lunch, and they only make about 20 bowls.) I ordered a pork belly donburi (rice bowl) and a Marine roll (scallop, spicy sauce, mayo, flying fish roe and avocado rolled in rice and topped with seared salmon, sea salt and lemon). I tried to order a broiled amberjack collar, but I’d come too late. Don’t worry, my server said. They still had king mackerel.

The king mackerel came first, and at first glance it seemed it had been burned to a crisp. But as I watched the assistant sushi chef use a torch to kiss fish with a touch of heat, I realized it wasn’t burned at all. The inside was hot and juicy, and the outside had been torched to create a glorious crispy skin. This served as the ideal appetizer for the heartiness to come.

The donburi came next. Grilled hunks of pork belly mingle with onions and sesame seeds in a sauce that would be too hot for most diners if not for the sunny-side up egg atop the meat. Break the yolk and let it slide down past the meat and into the rice. Then stir. The egg will temper the kick of the sauce just enough. After that, every bite will balance spicy, sweet, salty and savory. The bowl will seem to grow after a few minutes. That’s O.K. You’ll want to keep eating.

I’m not afraid of raw fish. In truth, I hadn’t noticed the line on the menu that noted my roll had (semi) cooked fish. I was intrigued by the sea salt and lemon, and I skipped past the “seared.” No matter. This particular roll was excellent. The avocado provided a lush backbone, and the drops of lemon juice highlighted the freshness of the flame-kissed salmon. I wished I hadn’t eaten so much donburi, because I wanted to try every piece of sushi on the menu. I washed it all down with Samurai Barley Ale from Japan’s Swan Lake Brewery, drinking the last drops as the sushi chefs sheathed their knives and cleaned the counter. I had stumbled into this secret place and been lucky enough to get a taste. Next time, I’m coming prepared.

The Story of Washington's 270-Pound Lineman Shows Why Chris Petersen's System Works

SEATTLE — When Washington coaches came to offensive guard Nick Harris last season and asked the freshman if he’d like to play instead of redshirt, he might have been more shocked than anyone. “I wasn’t that highly recruited. I’m not big,” Harris says. “I’m 6' 1". I was 270 pounds. I wasn’t expecting to play at all.”

But Chris Petersen and his staff saw something in Harris that Harris hadn’t even seen in himself. No other FBS coaching staff saw it, either. Cal Poly and New Hampshire had offered scholarships to the Inglewood, Calif., native who played in Orange County at Junipero Serra Catholic, but no one in the Mountain West wanted him. Certainly no one in the Pac-12 besides Washington did. Some of those Pac-12 schools got interested after Washington offered and Harris committed in the summer of ’15, but that speaks more to Petersen’s pet peeve of staffs only issuing scholarship offers based on which other programs have offered—not on the coaches’ belief that the player can succeed at that level. But Washington coaches believed in Harris, who might be the quintessential OKG.

Several coaching staffs use that acronym, which stands for Our Kind of Guy. Petersen’s staff, at Boise State and now at Washington, takes it more seriously than most. Huskies coaches know what they’re looking for, and they don’t care if anyone else sees it. Everyone recruiting Serra in ’14 and and the spring of ’15 could see that 6' 5", 270-pound left tackle Luke Wattenberg had Power 5 potential, but only the Washington staff saw that in Harris. Both players signed with Washington, but Harris wound up seeing the field faster. He played in 12 of 14 games as a true freshman. He started four, including the Pac-12 championship game against Colorado and the Peach Bowl against Alabama. Six weeks after turning 18, he was trying to block Crimson Tide seniors Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, who would go in the first and second rounds of the most recent NFL draft. “I was still a kid,” Harris says. “Those guys were like 22. They’re men.”

But Harris held his own. He did more than that when he wasn’t playing early-round draft picks.

He did that at 270 pounds. Now he’s 293, and he has spent an offseason focusing on the lessons learned in that Peach Bowl. For instance, he learned that while his height may have been a detriment during his recruitment, it can help him against a stronger opponent by allowing Harris to get lower and use his leverage to neutralize the defender’s strength advantage.

This is what Petersen expected all along from Harris. The coach didn’t consider the choice all that daring when he tossed the 17-year-old, 270-pound freshman into his offensive line. “He was athletic and physical and tough and smart,” Petersen says. “What else do you need?” Once Harris confirmed those traits in Washington’s camp last year, the decision was easy. “We saw that in high school when no one recruited him,” Petersen says. “And we saw that in fall camp when we weren’t really thinking about playing him. He just earned it.”

Players like Harris are the reason why Washington’s 2016 Pac-12 title and playoff berth won’t be isolated incidents. When Petersen moved from Boise State to Washington, we wondered if he could duplicate the same kind of consistency. We also wondered if he could unearth as many underrecruited gems when he needed his signees to play at a higher level. It turns out he can. The trick is to combine those gems with more heavily recruited counterparts. It turns out Petersen can do that, too. Byron Murphy, the highest rated member of that ’16 class that included Harris, redshirted last year and looks ready to step into one of the Huskies’ open cornerback spots. To Petersen, Murphy and Harris were both players Huskies coaches had scouted, evaluated and declared to be OKGs. He would have been just as interested in them no matter who else recruited them. That isn’t the case for many of Petersen’s counterparts, who hand out scholarship offers the way campus pizza joints hand out coupons on the first day of class.

Washington is third from the bottom among Power 5 programs in scholarship offers handed out during the class of 2018 recruiting cycle with 77, according to data compiled by 247Sports.com. Only Northwestern (72) and Stanford (48) have offered fewer. The median number of scholarships offered by the members of the Power 5 and Notre Dame, meanwhile, is 206. “We’re not doing that,” Petersen says. “We want to see tape. We want to get to know the kid. We love to see him play in person. The whole way it’s going is making it harder on us.”

Still, Petersen doesn’t intend to change how he and his staff evaluate. They’re still looking for for the next Shea McClellin or the next Harris, no matter who anyone else wants. If they keep finding them and combining them with the four- and five-star players they now have access to at Washington, they’re going to keep winning for a long time.

A Random Ranking

Yes, there were a few games this past weekend. But since the bulk of college football opens this week, let’s pay tribute to something else that used to start in September: the TV season. Peak TV has changed the rhythms of the TV year, but this is when we used to get all the new shows. Some of them would run for weeks and get canceled. Some of them would run for years and become cultural touchstones. So in honor of a week of debuts—and a lot of working out of the kinks—here are the top 10 TV pilots of all time.

1. Lost

The show begins with Dr. Jack Shephard opening one eye. A plane crashed on an island. Then things got weird. They had to make things up as they went along as the seasons dragged on, but the first episode was magic.

2. Breaking Bad

We see the pants first. Then the Winnebago. Then we learn how chemistry teacher Walter White got into this mess.

3. The Wonder Years

By the end of the half-hour, we were all rooting for Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper.

4. Miami Vice

This one would have worked as a feature film, but instead we got more Crockett and Tubbs every week.

5. Mad Men

We meet Don Draper doing some market research on behalf of client Lucky Strike. Then we meet him with a woman. Then we realize that woman isn’t his wife. The onion keeps getting peeled from there.

6. In Living Color

It felt like every single kid at my school was quoting the Homeboy Shopping Network and Men On Film the morning after the pilot aired. Homie the Clown and Fire Marshall Bill would come later, but it was clear this show was going to be different.

7. Pushing Daisies

This short-lived ABC show couldn’t keep up the momentum, but its first episode features the kind of world-building every pilot should aspire to.

8. Justified

The stakes are established immediately as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens dares a criminal to pull first. The resulting shooting gets Givens transferred back home to Kentucky. He quickly gets matched against childhood acquaintance Boyd Crowder, who would be his nemesis for the entire run of the show.

9. Cheers

Lots of shows start by throwing a combustible new character into a world where the other characters are familiar with one another, but combustible new characters don’t get much better than a jilted Diane Chambers.

10. Friday Night Lights

Jason Street gets hurt. Matt Saracen becomes QB1. We all fall in love with Coach Taylor and Tami Taylor.

Three and Out

1. The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey likely will force a move of Saturday’s LSU-BYU game to another venue. On Sunday night, LSU associate communications director Bill Franques passed along a message from athletic director Joe Alleva. “Almost certainly it will not be played in Houston,” Franques said. “He has not been told that officially yet, but he is almost certain that the game will not be able to be played in Houston on Saturday.”

The game is an ESPN production sponsored by vitamin company Advocare. So ESPN, Advocare, NRG, BYU and LSU must agree on a new venue. The parties hoped to have a location chosen by Monday afternoon. Candidates include the Superdome in New Orleans and Tiger Stadium at LSU.

This is the second time in two seasons a hurricane will force an LSU game to be moved. After a pointless spitting match of a negotiation that should have been handled quietly by the SEC office instead of noisily by the two schools, the Tigers’ game at Florida was moved to November in Baton Rouge last year because of concerns about Hurricane Matthew. LSU lost that game and now has to play Florida in Gainesville this year and next year.

2. Alabama defensive end Raekwon Davis was shot in the leg by a stray bullet early Sunday morning as he stood outside a Tuscaloosa bar, the Tuscaloosa News reported. The 6' 7", 307-pound sophomore is a projected starter. “Our concern at this time is for Raekwon and his health,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement. “While this does not appear to be a serious medical situation, Raekwon is still being evaluated.”

3. The most exciting game of Week Zero was Hawaii’s 38–35 comeback win at UMass. It might have been more exciting had UMass actually attempted to win the game on the final play.

What’s Eating Andy?

Just once in my life I want to pull off a move this slick. It’ll never happen, but a boy can dream…

What’s Andy Eating?

I had planned to go somewhere besides Seattle’s best hidden Japanese joint, but the Internet had failed me with regard to when my intended destination was actually open. So I consulted the various apps—which I realize had just failed me—and sought something in walking distance that would dazzle my tastebuds.

Up popped Tsukushinbo. It was only two-tenths of a mile away from where I stood. The reviews glowed. Get sushi, one said. Get the donburi, another said. If they have fresh fish, get that, said another. But they all contained warnings. This place doesn’t have a sign. So don’t walk right by, one said. They take reservations by phone, but they don’t always answer the phone, another said. Good luck trying to walk in, said another.

Indeed, the place had no sign. Its address—515 South Main Street—didn’t appear to be visible. But 517 stood to its left and 513 stood to its right, so this had to be the place. When I walked inside, closing time was in 90 minutes. The tiny dining room was packed. So was the sushi bar. Four people with reservations stood outside. A server who also acted as hostess and floor manager noticed me and asked if I was Tommy, who presumably had been wise enough to make a reservation. No, I said. I was a humble party of one. I didn’t know if there would be any seats before closing time, but I was intrigued by a place that looked like any other generic sushi bar but inspired fervent allegiance from people throughout a city known for its Japanese food.

“Maybe in an hour,” she told me. “Maybe not” was implied, and it hung in the air as I stood outside and watched people with reservations fill recently emptied tables. After about 45 minutes, I worked my way back inside. Several diners seemed close to finishing. I might have a chance. Suddenly, she walked through the dining room and pointed at me. There was one seat at the sushi bar. It was mine if I wanted it.

After watching happy diners at the bar put their meals in the hands of Chef Sho with the chef’s sushi selection ($50 a person), I know what I’ll do on my next trip. But the reviews of everything else had been so effusive, I couldn’t commit only to sushi. (Or, if I’m there on a Friday morning, I’ll get the ramen. They only make it Fridays for lunch, and they only make about 20 bowls.) I ordered a pork belly donburi (rice bowl) and a Marine roll (scallop, spicy sauce, mayo, flying fish roe and avocado rolled in rice and topped with seared salmon, sea salt and lemon). I tried to order a broiled amberjack collar, but I’d come too late. Don’t worry, my server said. They still had king mackerel.

The king mackerel came first, and at first glance it seemed it had been burned to a crisp. But as I watched the assistant sushi chef use a torch to kiss fish with a touch of heat, I realized it wasn’t burned at all. The inside was hot and juicy, and the outside had been torched to create a glorious crispy skin. This served as the ideal appetizer for the heartiness to come.

The donburi came next. Grilled hunks of pork belly mingle with onions and sesame seeds in a sauce that would be too hot for most diners if not for the sunny-side up egg atop the meat. Break the yolk and let it slide down past the meat and into the rice. Then stir. The egg will temper the kick of the sauce just enough. After that, every bite will balance spicy, sweet, salty and savory. The bowl will seem to grow after a few minutes. That’s O.K. You’ll want to keep eating.

I’m not afraid of raw fish. In truth, I hadn’t noticed the line on the menu that noted my roll had (semi) cooked fish. I was intrigued by the sea salt and lemon, and I skipped past the “seared.” No matter. This particular roll was excellent. The avocado provided a lush backbone, and the drops of lemon juice highlighted the freshness of the flame-kissed salmon. I wished I hadn’t eaten so much donburi, because I wanted to try every piece of sushi on the menu. I washed it all down with Samurai Barley Ale from Japan’s Swan Lake Brewery, drinking the last drops as the sushi chefs sheathed their knives and cleaned the counter. I had stumbled into this secret place and been lucky enough to get a taste. Next time, I’m coming prepared.

The Story of Washington's 270-Pound Lineman Shows Why Chris Petersen's System Works

SEATTLE — When Washington coaches came to offensive guard Nick Harris last season and asked the freshman if he’d like to play instead of redshirt, he might have been more shocked than anyone. “I wasn’t that highly recruited. I’m not big,” Harris says. “I’m 6' 1". I was 270 pounds. I wasn’t expecting to play at all.”

But Chris Petersen and his staff saw something in Harris that Harris hadn’t even seen in himself. No other FBS coaching staff saw it, either. Cal Poly and New Hampshire had offered scholarships to the Inglewood, Calif., native who played in Orange County at Junipero Serra Catholic, but no one in the Mountain West wanted him. Certainly no one in the Pac-12 besides Washington did. Some of those Pac-12 schools got interested after Washington offered and Harris committed in the summer of ’15, but that speaks more to Petersen’s pet peeve of staffs only issuing scholarship offers based on which other programs have offered—not on the coaches’ belief that the player can succeed at that level. But Washington coaches believed in Harris, who might be the quintessential OKG.

Several coaching staffs use that acronym, which stands for Our Kind of Guy. Petersen’s staff, at Boise State and now at Washington, takes it more seriously than most. Huskies coaches know what they’re looking for, and they don’t care if anyone else sees it. Everyone recruiting Serra in ’14 and and the spring of ’15 could see that 6' 5", 270-pound left tackle Luke Wattenberg had Power 5 potential, but only the Washington staff saw that in Harris. Both players signed with Washington, but Harris wound up seeing the field faster. He played in 12 of 14 games as a true freshman. He started four, including the Pac-12 championship game against Colorado and the Peach Bowl against Alabama. Six weeks after turning 18, he was trying to block Crimson Tide seniors Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, who would go in the first and second rounds of the most recent NFL draft. “I was still a kid,” Harris says. “Those guys were like 22. They’re men.”

But Harris held his own. He did more than that when he wasn’t playing early-round draft picks.

He did that at 270 pounds. Now he’s 293, and he has spent an offseason focusing on the lessons learned in that Peach Bowl. For instance, he learned that while his height may have been a detriment during his recruitment, it can help him against a stronger opponent by allowing Harris to get lower and use his leverage to neutralize the defender’s strength advantage.

This is what Petersen expected all along from Harris. The coach didn’t consider the choice all that daring when he tossed the 17-year-old, 270-pound freshman into his offensive line. “He was athletic and physical and tough and smart,” Petersen says. “What else do you need?” Once Harris confirmed those traits in Washington’s camp last year, the decision was easy. “We saw that in high school when no one recruited him,” Petersen says. “And we saw that in fall camp when we weren’t really thinking about playing him. He just earned it.”

Players like Harris are the reason why Washington’s 2016 Pac-12 title and playoff berth won’t be isolated incidents. When Petersen moved from Boise State to Washington, we wondered if he could duplicate the same kind of consistency. We also wondered if he could unearth as many underrecruited gems when he needed his signees to play at a higher level. It turns out he can. The trick is to combine those gems with more heavily recruited counterparts. It turns out Petersen can do that, too. Byron Murphy, the highest rated member of that ’16 class that included Harris, redshirted last year and looks ready to step into one of the Huskies’ open cornerback spots. To Petersen, Murphy and Harris were both players Huskies coaches had scouted, evaluated and declared to be OKGs. He would have been just as interested in them no matter who else recruited them. That isn’t the case for many of Petersen’s counterparts, who hand out scholarship offers the way campus pizza joints hand out coupons on the first day of class.

Washington is third from the bottom among Power 5 programs in scholarship offers handed out during the class of 2018 recruiting cycle with 77, according to data compiled by 247Sports.com. Only Northwestern (72) and Stanford (48) have offered fewer. The median number of scholarships offered by the members of the Power 5 and Notre Dame, meanwhile, is 206. “We’re not doing that,” Petersen says. “We want to see tape. We want to get to know the kid. We love to see him play in person. The whole way it’s going is making it harder on us.”

Still, Petersen doesn’t intend to change how he and his staff evaluate. They’re still looking for for the next Shea McClellin or the next Harris, no matter who anyone else wants. If they keep finding them and combining them with the four- and five-star players they now have access to at Washington, they’re going to keep winning for a long time.

A Random Ranking

Yes, there were a few games this past weekend. But since the bulk of college football opens this week, let’s pay tribute to something else that used to start in September: the TV season. Peak TV has changed the rhythms of the TV year, but this is when we used to get all the new shows. Some of them would run for weeks and get canceled. Some of them would run for years and become cultural touchstones. So in honor of a week of debuts—and a lot of working out of the kinks—here are the top 10 TV pilots of all time.

1. Lost

The show begins with Dr. Jack Shephard opening one eye. A plane crashed on an island. Then things got weird. They had to make things up as they went along as the seasons dragged on, but the first episode was magic.

2. Breaking Bad

We see the pants first. Then the Winnebago. Then we learn how chemistry teacher Walter White got into this mess.

3. The Wonder Years

By the end of the half-hour, we were all rooting for Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper.

4. Miami Vice

This one would have worked as a feature film, but instead we got more Crockett and Tubbs every week.

5. Mad Men

We meet Don Draper doing some market research on behalf of client Lucky Strike. Then we meet him with a woman. Then we realize that woman isn’t his wife. The onion keeps getting peeled from there.

6. In Living Color

It felt like every single kid at my school was quoting the Homeboy Shopping Network and Men On Film the morning after the pilot aired. Homie the Clown and Fire Marshall Bill would come later, but it was clear this show was going to be different.

7. Pushing Daisies

This short-lived ABC show couldn’t keep up the momentum, but its first episode features the kind of world-building every pilot should aspire to.

8. Justified

The stakes are established immediately as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens dares a criminal to pull first. The resulting shooting gets Givens transferred back home to Kentucky. He quickly gets matched against childhood acquaintance Boyd Crowder, who would be his nemesis for the entire run of the show.

9. Cheers

Lots of shows start by throwing a combustible new character into a world where the other characters are familiar with one another, but combustible new characters don’t get much better than a jilted Diane Chambers.

10. Friday Night Lights

Jason Street gets hurt. Matt Saracen becomes QB1. We all fall in love with Coach Taylor and Tami Taylor.

Three and Out

1. The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey likely will force a move of Saturday’s LSU-BYU game to another venue. On Sunday night, LSU associate communications director Bill Franques passed along a message from athletic director Joe Alleva. “Almost certainly it will not be played in Houston,” Franques said. “He has not been told that officially yet, but he is almost certain that the game will not be able to be played in Houston on Saturday.”

The game is an ESPN production sponsored by vitamin company Advocare. So ESPN, Advocare, NRG, BYU and LSU must agree on a new venue. The parties hoped to have a location chosen by Monday afternoon. Candidates include the Superdome in New Orleans and Tiger Stadium at LSU.

This is the second time in two seasons a hurricane will force an LSU game to be moved. After a pointless spitting match of a negotiation that should have been handled quietly by the SEC office instead of noisily by the two schools, the Tigers’ game at Florida was moved to November in Baton Rouge last year because of concerns about Hurricane Matthew. LSU lost that game and now has to play Florida in Gainesville this year and next year.

2. Alabama defensive end Raekwon Davis was shot in the leg by a stray bullet early Sunday morning as he stood outside a Tuscaloosa bar, the Tuscaloosa News reported. The 6' 7", 307-pound sophomore is a projected starter. “Our concern at this time is for Raekwon and his health,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement. “While this does not appear to be a serious medical situation, Raekwon is still being evaluated.”

3. The most exciting game of Week Zero was Hawaii’s 38–35 comeback win at UMass. It might have been more exciting had UMass actually attempted to win the game on the final play.

What’s Eating Andy?

Just once in my life I want to pull off a move this slick. It’ll never happen, but a boy can dream…

What’s Andy Eating?

I had planned to go somewhere besides Seattle’s best hidden Japanese joint, but the Internet had failed me with regard to when my intended destination was actually open. So I consulted the various apps—which I realize had just failed me—and sought something in walking distance that would dazzle my tastebuds.

Up popped Tsukushinbo. It was only two-tenths of a mile away from where I stood. The reviews glowed. Get sushi, one said. Get the donburi, another said. If they have fresh fish, get that, said another. But they all contained warnings. This place doesn’t have a sign. So don’t walk right by, one said. They take reservations by phone, but they don’t always answer the phone, another said. Good luck trying to walk in, said another.

Indeed, the place had no sign. Its address—515 South Main Street—didn’t appear to be visible. But 517 stood to its left and 513 stood to its right, so this had to be the place. When I walked inside, closing time was in 90 minutes. The tiny dining room was packed. So was the sushi bar. Four people with reservations stood outside. A server who also acted as hostess and floor manager noticed me and asked if I was Tommy, who presumably had been wise enough to make a reservation. No, I said. I was a humble party of one. I didn’t know if there would be any seats before closing time, but I was intrigued by a place that looked like any other generic sushi bar but inspired fervent allegiance from people throughout a city known for its Japanese food.

“Maybe in an hour,” she told me. “Maybe not” was implied, and it hung in the air as I stood outside and watched people with reservations fill recently emptied tables. After about 45 minutes, I worked my way back inside. Several diners seemed close to finishing. I might have a chance. Suddenly, she walked through the dining room and pointed at me. There was one seat at the sushi bar. It was mine if I wanted it.

After watching happy diners at the bar put their meals in the hands of Chef Sho with the chef’s sushi selection ($50 a person), I know what I’ll do on my next trip. But the reviews of everything else had been so effusive, I couldn’t commit only to sushi. (Or, if I’m there on a Friday morning, I’ll get the ramen. They only make it Fridays for lunch, and they only make about 20 bowls.) I ordered a pork belly donburi (rice bowl) and a Marine roll (scallop, spicy sauce, mayo, flying fish roe and avocado rolled in rice and topped with seared salmon, sea salt and lemon). I tried to order a broiled amberjack collar, but I’d come too late. Don’t worry, my server said. They still had king mackerel.

The king mackerel came first, and at first glance it seemed it had been burned to a crisp. But as I watched the assistant sushi chef use a torch to kiss fish with a touch of heat, I realized it wasn’t burned at all. The inside was hot and juicy, and the outside had been torched to create a glorious crispy skin. This served as the ideal appetizer for the heartiness to come.

The donburi came next. Grilled hunks of pork belly mingle with onions and sesame seeds in a sauce that would be too hot for most diners if not for the sunny-side up egg atop the meat. Break the yolk and let it slide down past the meat and into the rice. Then stir. The egg will temper the kick of the sauce just enough. After that, every bite will balance spicy, sweet, salty and savory. The bowl will seem to grow after a few minutes. That’s O.K. You’ll want to keep eating.

I’m not afraid of raw fish. In truth, I hadn’t noticed the line on the menu that noted my roll had (semi) cooked fish. I was intrigued by the sea salt and lemon, and I skipped past the “seared.” No matter. This particular roll was excellent. The avocado provided a lush backbone, and the drops of lemon juice highlighted the freshness of the flame-kissed salmon. I wished I hadn’t eaten so much donburi, because I wanted to try every piece of sushi on the menu. I washed it all down with Samurai Barley Ale from Japan’s Swan Lake Brewery, drinking the last drops as the sushi chefs sheathed their knives and cleaned the counter. I had stumbled into this secret place and been lucky enough to get a taste. Next time, I’m coming prepared.

New Orleans Saints Fantasy Football 2017 Preview: Drew Brees Is Still Top QB

Fantasy football and the Saints go together like coffee and beignets. There’s always some rich flavor to be savored in N’awlins.

Quarterbacks

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE Drew Brees QB3 QB3 Consider

Drew Brees is 38, but there’s mounting evidence he’s some sort of immortal character straight from an Anne Rice novel and will be one of the first quarterbacks off the board in your great-grandchildren’s fantasy leagues in the year 2092. What concerns me about Brees for 2017 isn’t his age, but rather the offseason departure of mercury-footed receiver Brandon Cooks and the potentially season-ending labrum tear sustained by starting left tackle Terron Armstead in OTAs. The former is less troubling than the latter. The Saints can plug in rookie first-rounder Ryan Ramczyk at left tackle, the position he played at the University of Wisconsin, but there’s no telling whether Ramczyk will be ready to deal with the sort of speed he’s going to see in the pro game, particularly on the Superdome’s synthetic turf. Brees has a Fantasy Football Calculator ADP of QB3 and is going about a round later than Tom Brady and about a round earlier than Andrew Luck. I think he should be closer to Luck than Brady, and if I’m still skittish about the Saints’ left tackle situation come August, I might drop Brees to QB4.

Wide receivers

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE Michael Thomas WR7 WR11 Steer clear Willie Snead WR32 WR30 Buy Ted Ginn Jr. WR59 WR49 Indulge

To say that drafters are infatuated with Michael Thomas after his superb rookie season would be a vast understatement. Drafters are lighting candles, opening a bottle of red wine and putting on a Barry White record for Michael Thomas. Ben Gretch of RotoViz (@YardsPerGretch) makes a compelling case that Thomas is being grossly overdrafted, and I recommend that you read his article. Gretch contends that Thomas is unlikely to duplicate his 2016 catch rate of 75.4% and points out that wide receivers tend not to have big target numbers in the Saints’ offense. Gretch makes some other salient points, too, and I pretty much agree with all of them.

My biggest issue with Thomas is that I don’t see him as anything more than a Marques Colston clone. That’s not a bad thing—Colston was a fine receiver and is the all-time Saints leader in receptions, receiving yardage and TD catches. Colston was 6-4, 225 pounds, with 4.5 speed. Thomas is 6-3, 212 pounds, with 4.57 speed. Colston was a top-15 fantasy receiver six times but cracked the top 10 only once, in 2007, his second NFL season, finishing WR8. Thomas finished WR9 last season. It was a great start to his pro career, no question. But with Cooks gone, Thomas is going to be facing opponents’ top cornerbacks every week—just as Colston did for most of his career. It’s naive to assume that the next step for Thomas will be a step forward. At his current cost of WR7, I’m steering clear.

Willie Snead turned 104 targets into a 72-895-4 stat line last year. With Cooks out of the picture, it’s not hard to envision a slight target bump for Snead, which makes his 2016 output seem like his absolute floor for 2017 (barring injury, of course). The market recognizes the potential here, and while Snead isn’t a screaming bargain at an ADP of WR32, I’m still biting. Everyone needs a Snead.

John Paulsen of 4for4.com (@4for4_John) is the California chapter president of the Ted Ginn Jr. Fan Club. Paulsen is consistently among the top rankers tracked by FantasyPros.com, so if Paulsen likes Ginn, the rest of us probably should, too. Ginn’s hands rank just below topaz on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, but the dude can flat-out fly. He produced 1,491 receiving yards and 14 TD catches for the Panthers over the last two seasons, and he’ll now be taking his throws from a quarterback far more accurate than Cam Newton. Ginn replaces Cooks as the foremost vertical threat in the New Orleans offense. Here’s hoping he isn’t just a smaller version of Devery Henderson, who used to be regarded as the foremost vertical threat in New Orleans but in reality was little more than a deep-route decoy. At WR59, Ginn is worth a home run swing in the twilight rounds of drafts.

It’s not at all inconceivable that one of the other Saints receivers—Brandon Coleman, Corey Fuller, Tommylee Lewis or someone else—could become fantasy-viable. The leading candidate from that group is probably Coleman, a 6-6 willow tree who had a 10-TD season at Rutgers in 2012 and just turned 25.

Running Backs

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE Adrian Peterson RB22 RB21 Dabble Mark Ingram RB29 RB34 Shun Alvin Kamara RB61 RB57 Monitor

If you’re still interested in Mark Ingram at his early-sixth-round price, you and I can’t be charades partners. The Saints have been vigorously pantomiming their intent to marginalize Ingram, first signing future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson, then drafting Alvin Kamara, one of the more highly regarded backs in this year’s class. Perhaps some fantasy owners are reluctant to downgrade Ingram because it’s so hard to find reasons why the Saints might be displeased with him. Ingram had his first 1,000-yard rushing season last year, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He’s averaged 4.65 yards per carry over the last three seasons. He’s gotten handy in the passing game, with 96 receptions over the past two years. Pro Football Focus graded him as the 17th-best running back in the league last year. Could it be a personality issue? Ingram hasn’t gotten into any legal trouble during his six years with the Saints, and there is nothing on the surface to suggest that he has somehow aggravated his bosses.

It’s widely believed that Ingram and Peterson will compete in training camp for the starter’s job, but I suspect that decision was made the day Peterson was signed. Ingram is a jack-of-all-trades who’s qualified for either early-down or third-down work, but he’s unlikely to get the sort of touch volume he’d need to be consistently startable in fantasy leagues. Fade him.

Fantasy football market psychology is fascinating. Peterson played only one game in 2014, spending most of the season under suspension after being charged with child abuse for whipping his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch. Upon his return in 2015, he was the consensus RB1 among fantasy owners despite the layoff. Last season, Peterson tore his meniscus in Week 2, had surgery, then came back to play one game in mid-December before being shut down. He averaged 1.9 yards on 37 carries behind a dreadful offensive line. Granted, Peterson is older now, he did nothing in limited action last season, and an injury is more worrisome than a suspension with regard to the following year’s performance. But a torn meniscus is hardly a death sentence for an NFL player. Peterson has a phenomenal track record, and he’s joining one of the league’s best offenses. His ADP of RB22 no doubt reflects some uncertainty about how carries will be divided in New Orleans—uncertainty that didn’t exist two years ago when Peterson was in Minnesota. I get it. In fact, I have Peterson ranked RB21 myself. Peterson may yet ascend higher on my board, and as long as his price doesn’t go through the roof the first time we see footage of him breaking a long run in a training camp scrimmage, I’ll try to get him in at least one or two leagues.

There’s a vast range of potential outcomes for Kamara this season. His highlight reel from his University of Tennessee career is well worth Googling, and he’s a highly athletic kid who had the best broad jump and vertical jump among the running backs at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine. But Kamara had only 210 carries in two seasons with the Vols and had fewer than 700 rushing yards both years. With his advanced receiving skills, Kamara could pop if injuries opened a door for him, but he could also spend most of the season languishing on the bench.

Tight Ends

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE Coby Fleener TE19 TE13 Pay homage

Gaffe-prone tight end Coby Fleener gets little respect from fantasy owners, as reflected by his ADP of TE19. Over the last four years, Fleener has finished TE14, TE6, TE21 and, in his first year with the Saints, TE12. We surely haven’t seen the last GIF of a perfectly thrown ball clanking off Fleener’s paws, but now that Cooks has vacated all those targets and Fleener has had more than a calendar year to build rapport with Brees, the oft-maligned tight end looks like a value at his current price. I plan to invest in him heavily (and no doubt curse him repeatedly). Backup Josh Hill received some hype prior to the 2015 season, but Ben Watson was the Saints tight end who went off that year. Hill could yet emerge if Fleener steps in a gopher hole or something.

Fantasy Football WR Sleepers: Look Past John Brown's Tough 2016 Season

The Staples Series of the SI/4for4 Fantasy Football Draft Kit will cover the three labels fantasy owners have come to know and love over the years: breakouts, sleepers and busts. In this installment, SI’s Michael Beller and 4for4’s John Paulsen give their sleepers at the wide receiver position.

Kenny Britt, WR, Browns (ADP: Round 10)

The Rams had the worst passing game in the league in 2016, and Britt still managed decent numbers (WR28 in PPR, WR26 in standard)—averaging 4.5 catches for 67 yards and 0.33 touchdowns with Case Keenum and Jared Goff throwing him the ball. This season, Britt joins the Browns, where he’ll replace Terrelle Pryor. Cleveland’s offense is always a giant question mark, especially their quarterback situation, but Britt should have significant upside if he leads the Browns in targets. On that note, nothing about Corey Coleman’s rookie season—33 receptions, 413 yards and three touchdowns on 73 targets—indicates that he’s ready to be the No. 1 option in the passing game. Throw in a pretty favorable fantasy playoff schedule (Packers, Ravens and Bears in Weeks 14–16, respectively), and Britt looks like a terrific value in the 10th round. — John Paulsen

John Brown, WR, Cardinals (ADP: Round 10)

Forget about last season. Brown dealt with injuries related to his sickle-cell trait all year, a diagnosis he received in October. That essentially robbed him of the entire season, which has conspired to send his 2017 ADP tumbling downward. Now with a plan for managing the trait, Brown should be back on the trajectory he set for himself during the first two seasons of his career. Remember, the speedster is just one season removed from a 65-catch, 1,003-yard, seven-touchdown campaign. That could be his ceiling, but there’s no universe in which he should be the 47th receiver off the board in a typical draft. In a perfect world, he puts up WR2 numbers, and a worst-case scenario likely has him no worse than a WR4. — Michael Beller

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Tyrell Williams, WR, Chargers (ADP: Round 11)

Boasting a big frame (6' 3"), good speed (4.48-second 40-yard dash) and a 98th-percentile catch radius, Williams finished as the WR12 in standard formats and the WR18 in PPR formats after taking over as the Chargers’ top wide receiver last season. With Keenan Allen sidelined most of the year, Williams caught 69 passes for 1,059 yards and seven scores, and racked up 12 games with at least 60 receiving yards and/or a touchdown. He showed well as a route-runner, and with rookie Mike Williams (back) missing valuable reps as he struggles to get healthy this summer, Williams should be entrenched as the team’s No. 2 option in the passing game. Considering Allen has missed 23 games over the past two seasons, Williams could quickly ascend to WR1-type targets if Allen were to miss time again this season. — JP

Ted Ginn Jr., WR, Saints (ADP: Round 13)

With Kelvin Benjamin back on the field in 2016 after losing his sophomore season to a torn ACL, Ginn’s targets remained remarkably consistent, dropping to 95 from 97 in ’15. Still one of the fastest receivers in the league, Ginn caught the Saints’ eye after they shipped Brandin Cooks to the Patriots, and he’ll take over as the team’s primary deep threat. Ginn should see a bump in numbers with Brees delivering the ball—the three starting New Orleans receivers each saw at least 104 targets last season, so Ginn could post similar, or slightly better, numbers in 2017 if he enjoys a smooth transition. It’s an extremely small sample, but in Ginn’s last two games in the Superdome, he has caught 10 passes for 134 yards and a pair of touchdowns. — JP

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Zay Jones, WR, Bills (ADP: Round 14)

Barring an absolutely dreadful summer, Jones will start opposite Sammy Watkins when the Bills host the Jets Week 1. The rookie out of East Carolina was the 37th overall pick in the draft after catching 158 passes for 1,746 yards and eight touchdowns last year. His performance at the combine in drills such as the broad jump, 20-yard shuttle, and 60-yard shuttle, all of which he finished in the top four among receivers, speak to his athleticism, and a 4.45-second 40-yard dash isn’t bad for a guy who had a slow label at the end of his college career. Tyrod Taylor has been the most underrated quarterback of the last two years, and is perfectly capable of supporting two fantasy-relevant receivers. Jones is going to make a lot of fantasy owners look smart this season. — MB

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Kevin White, WR, Bears (ADP: Round 14)

I know, I know, you’re not in the market for an oft-injured wide receiver who has played all of four games in his two years in the league, no matter how low the price might be. Say what you will about White’s ineffectual NFL career to this point, the fact remains that he’s a 6' 3", 216-pound receiver who ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash two years ago. He seemed to be finding his way last season, posting consecutive six-catch games in Weeks 3 and 4 before fracturing his fibula, putting his season to an abrupt end. Cameron Meredith emerged in his stead, but White will still start on the other side of the field, with the team’s offseason acquisitions at the position—Kendall Wright, Markus Wheaton and Victor Cruz—competing for slot duty. GM Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox are significantly invested in White, who was their initial first-round pick as the Bears brain trust, so both are strongly committed to his turning into a success. The talent and the opportunity are undoubtedly present. It’s up to White to capitalize. — MB

Josh Doctson, WR, Redskins (ADP: Round 15)

Doctson lost all but two games to an Achilles injury in his rookie year, scuttling last year’s sleeper campaign before it even got started. Still, he enters this season as an expected starter opposite new Washington receiver Terrelle Pryor, with 2016 breakout Jamison Crowder in the slot. Everything that made Doctson a worthy late-round target last year is still present. At 6' 2" and 206 pounds, he’s a big presence in the red zone for Kirk Cousins. He has the speed and size to be a deep threat, as well, making him dangerous all over the field. With Pryor, Crowder and Jordan Reed on the field for every snap, defensive backs aren’t going to have the luxury of paying Doctson much attention. Washington is going to be one of the pass-friendliest offenses again this year, from both volume, and, if the first two years of the Cousins era are any indication, efficiency standpoints. You want a piece of this offense, and Doctson is a all but a free way to get one. — MB

The Reprogramming of Cam Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton is stuck in Motown Hell.

The Carolina Panthers normally stretch and warmup to rap music—the occasional Kings of Leon is thrown in for friend-of-the-band Greg Olsen—and Newton is usually dancing during this two-to-three song timeframe, because he’s done already extensive stretching inside the building before practice. But on this Thursday in June, the last day of veteran minicamp, The Temptation’s “Just My Imagination” is filling the Panthers’ practice field and the quarterback wants none of it.

“I’ll give you $100 to put on some Future or some damn Young Thug,” Newton shouts to the low-level staffer with the aux cord, a young man visibly caught between the $103.8 million quarterback and those who employ him.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera will later say that this was simply Throwback Thursday, as voted on by the coaches, though local reporters are struggling to remember a time in the past seven years when coaches took over the music. A more popular (and plausible) theory is that Jerry Richardson, the octogenarian owner/founder of the Carolina Panthers, is about to make an appearance on his golf cart to see first-round pick Christian McCaffrey in action, and perhaps Motown would be more palatable than Future or some damn Young Thug.

Newton, still nursing his shoulder after March surgery, stands 10-12 yards behind the action during drills led by Derek Anderson. A noted trash-talker to the defense, he begins the day muted, with Richardson’s cart parked a few feet to his left. Within 10 minutes, his typical decibel level has been reached. A big play by the offense is punctuated by Newton’s “Yeahhhhhhhhh!” Later, on a blitz by veteran linebacker (and primary verbal combatant) Thomas Davis, Newton screams, “You ain’t scarin’ nobody, T.D.!”

Less than an hour into practice, it doesn’t matter if Richardson is on his hip or not. Newton is chest-bumping running backs, commending Kelvin Benjamin for boxing out an overmatched cornerback and constantly prodding the defense. It’s the same Cam Newton we’ve seen since he entered the league seven years ago, even if so many want to change him.

There’s no mistake that change is coming to Carolina, though. All signs point to the Panthers transitioning away from its deep-ball offense and designed quarterback runs, two of the staples of an offense that helped make Newton a superstar. This spring the Panthers added McCaffrey and speedy second-rounder Curtis Samuel to the squad in what looks to be a clear attempt to get faster on offense and the ball out of Newton’s hand more quickly.

The average observer might think of it as an easy change. But it’s a drastic transition for a quarterback to make mid-career, and the fate of a coaching staff could hang in the balance. Central to all this is one simple question: Can Cam change?

When the Panthers touched down in the Bay Area a week before Super Bowl 50, they were coming off two postseason wins featuring a combined 90 points of offense and a 17-1 cumulative record. Newton was named NFL MVP the night before the game, commanding 48 of the 50 total votes.

Wade Phillips, the Broncos’ defensive coordinator that season, shudders at the idea that he broke the code to stopping the Panthers. But the decline of Carolina and Newton can be traced back to that Sunday evening at Levi’s Stadium when the newly crowned MVP became newly humbled with an 18-of-41 passing performance, leading just one touchdown drive, throwing an interception and absorbing six sacks in the 24-10 loss to Denver.

First, Phillips says, his defense was skilled all year long at taking away what Carolina did best. The Broncos held opponents to a league-low 3.3 yards per rush, and Carolina’s offense was predicated on a diversified running game that opened up the passing game. Second, that defense had stopped future Hall of Famers Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the playoffs, and both are better passers than Newton. Denver put the Panthers into 12 third-and-8-or-longer situations, then blitzed Carolina into its worst offensive performance of the year at the worst possible time.

But it was Phillips’ keen film eye that saw an opportunity for his Broncos. Newton wasn’t much of an improvisational scrambler in 2015, so Phillips sent green-dog blitzers—meaning a blitzer only came when he was sure the back or tight end that he would otherwise be responsible for in coverage was staying in to block. Those blockers were supposed to help tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers against Von Miller and Friends, but Phillips’ tack took that help away and forced the Panthers’ offensive linemen to win one-on-ones, a near-impossible task against the Broncos’ stout pass rush. The result was six sacks (including two strip sacks) and 13 knockdowns of Newton.

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“We went through the same thing in ’89 in my first year in Denver,” Phillips says. “We led the league in points allowed on defense and had John Elway at quarterback, and then we lost to the 49ers in the Super Bowl 55-10. We gave up the least points during the year and then we got beat like that in the Super Bowl, and the next year we didn’t do well (5-11). It’s like you have a losing season after you lose the Super Bowl—it really is.”

The hits, both literal and figurative, kept coming for Newton in 2016. For all of Rivera’s complaints about the league sending the NFC champs on the road for a Super Bowl rematch to start the season, the Panthers would have left Denver with a win had Graham Gano’s last-second, 50-yard attempt in the thin air not sailed wide left. That September night, Denver defenders made Newton’s head a piñata and the officials allowed it. (He took at least four hits to his helmet during the game with just one being flagged.) Three weeks later Newton took a vicious but legal hit as he walked into the end zone for a two-point conversion against the Falcons. A few weeks after returning from a concussion that kept him out of a primetime home loss to Tampa Bay, he bemoaned late and low hits by Cardinals defenders. Newton protested enough to demand Roger Goodell pick up his phone.

“I know there are people who are going to say it’s excuses,” Rivera says, “but I think he struggled with—I’m not speaking for him—but from my perspective some of the stuff that went on with some of the hits he took, I think that was one of the things that he struggled with. … And I know he knows there’s a double standard. You know what I’m saying? I think that’s the thing he struggles with. He said he felt he doesn’t get the calls because of who he is.”

Newton, who through a team spokesman declined comment for this story, could still stand after those hits, but some of his teammates weren’t as fortunate. Oher, the starting left tackle, suffered a concussion some time around Week 2 and missed the last 13 games (released by the Panthers last week, he might never play football again). Center Ryan Kalil injured his right shoulder and missed the last half the season. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin, returning from an ACL tear suffered during 2015 training camp, was overburdened and overwhelmed on the field and fell off after September. Newton wasn’t stellar early on; a career 59.6% passer coming into the year, he was at 57.7% at the season’s midpoint.

By the end of the Week 6 loss in New Orleans, Newton’s first game back from his concussion, it was clear Carolina didn’t have the horses to make a fourth-straight playoff run. The 1-4 Panthers trailed 31-17 at the Superdome after three quarters. Newton rallied the offense with a 21-point fourth quarter, tying the game at 38 with less than three minutes to play only to see the defense—specifically Carolina’s green secondary—squander the comeback in a 41-38 loss.

Of course, insult must always follow injury. Russell Wilson is Newton’s rival on the field and antithesis off: Newton is boisterous, colorful and full of braggadocio. Wilson is more muted and traditionally corporate. Both are transcendent young talents, and they were Super Bowl losers in consecutive years. Wilson took questions after his heartbreaking Super Bowl XLIX loss. Newton sulked through his abbreviated post-Super Bowl 50 presser, for which he’s still criticized today.

For Newton to not start against Wilson and the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football was embarrassing enough, but for it to be because the fashionista broke a fashion-related team rule only added to the humiliation. Newton didn’t wear a tie as the team boarded the plane to Seattle and was benched for the first series of the game. That series lasted one play, as Anderson threw a short pass to Mike Tolbert that glanced off the fullback and into the hands of Seahawks linebacker Mike Morgan, a rough start in an eventual 40-7 loss.

“We have rules, and I think Ron did the right thing,” Anderson says. “You’ve got to treat everybody the same way. I think Cam understands that. It wasn’t as big a deal as you guys made it. Unfortunately it happened on a Sunday night game and everyone in the world was watching. And unfortunately that ball bounces off Mike and they pick it and then now it becomes a bigger issue. It just looks bad.

“I had a good talk with Cam the night before the game and I think he understood. It was good to hash some things out and sometimes you need little things to come up to hash other things out. We moved on from it and I think he knows what’s right and what’s wrong.”

When Newton injured his throwing shoulder—eventually requiring surgery in March—in Week 14 on a tackle attempt to prevent a touchdown, the Panthers were 5-8 and still had a chance of making the playoffs, just like they did in 2014 when they finished 7-8-1. Rivera held on to those hopes (250,000-to-1 odds) going into a Monday night game in Washington, and Newton, who doctors said couldn’t damage the shoulder any further, played one of his best games of the season. The Panthers needed 10 games to break exactly one way the following week against Atlanta. They were eliminated before their Week 16 loss to the Falcons was complete.

The shoulder started to give out on him in Week 17 in Tampa Bay. Early in the third quarter Newton threw the weakest comeback route he’s probably ever made, his second of three interceptions that day; Bucs cornerback Brent Grimes picked it off and walked into the end zone untouched. Even with Anderson out with an illness, Rivera still wanted to pull Newton in favor of third-stringer Joe Webb but Newton resisted.

“I’m doing this for the other guys who can’t play because they’re hurt,” Newton told his coaches on the sideline. “I’m doing it because I can play.” Newton led a late touchdown drive, hitting Benjamin for a 5-yard score with 17 seconds left to trail 17-16. Carolina went for two but couldn’t convert, sealing the Panthers’ first 10-loss season since Newton’s 2011 rookie season. His mechanics deteriorated while facing heavy pressure behind a makeshift line in the season’s second half. By the end of the nightmare year he had completed a career-low 52.9% of his attempts, with a sub-80 passer rating (75.8) for the first time in his career. One year after a combined 45 touchdowns as a passer and runner, he accounted for only 24.

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Two topics would dominate the Panthers’ exit interview with Newton. First was possible shoulder surgery. Carolina didn’t want to operate on the quarterback’s throwing shoulder if it didn’t have to, so the idea was to rest him for two months then re-evaluate his partially torn rotator cuff.

Second was Newton’s plans away from football. Many within the Panthers’ organization whispered that Newton had too much on his plate the previous off-season. Concurrent with dealing with his biggest professional loss in the Super Bowl was managing his greatest personal gain of becoming a first-time dad. He moved to Los Angeles for several months in the spring of 2016 to film his Nickelodeon kids’ show, part of his years-long effort to be more than a football player. He continued his charity work, which includes his own 7-on-7 summer tournaments across the southeast before taking his top team (which once included Deshaun Watson) to a national tournament in Florida. His business interests grew with his talent agency WME-IMG’s acquisition of the UFC, of which Newton became a partial owner. Under Armour designed an ad campaign for Newton to kick off the 2016 season with the theme “Prince With 1,000 Enemies.” Subtle, it was not.

Before Rivera could ask, Newton beat his coach to it: “I’m going to be around.”

The first sign of change is the physical transformation.

Each day at OTAs and minicamp this summer, Newton showed up in the North Carolina heat and humidity in black sweats underneath his red jersey. He left the field each day drenched without throwing a single football in the two-hour sessions.

Two years ago, Newton said he hadn’t played at his listed weight of 245 pounds since college, and last year he played at his heaviest (more than 260, one source said). He wasn’t out of shape, but rather he packed on the pounds so he could absorb the hits, a coach said. On Monday, Newton posted a picture of his lean physique to Instagram with a Jay-Z inspired caption, “Sometimes you need your ego, got to remind these fools who they effin with.” A day later, Rivera gleefully told reporters that Newton checked into camp at 246 pounds.

“That’s why the things we talk about changing and doing some things differently are important,” Rivera says. “Now he’s at that point in his career where everything we do with him we have to do judicially if he’s going to run the ball. It has to be the right situation and circumstances. We have to be aware of that.

“He’s not that young guy that we can throw out there and say, ‘Go do your thing.’ He’s now that veteran, crafty guy.”

Panthers coaches say they aren’t throwing out the zone read, but clearly Carolina wants to better protect their 28-year-old franchise quarterback. Newton’s 689 career rushing attempts are the most ever by a quarterback through his first six seasons, and only eight players have ever taken more sacks through six years than he has. So far in his career, his value as a runner has added significant value to Carolina’s offense. He’s the only quarterback in recent memory to be featured consistently on power running plays, forcing the defense to account for all 11 players in the run game (in most offenses, the quarterback hands off then falls out of the play). Despite his reputation, Newton is not a run-first quarterback, or even eager to pull it down and scramble on passing plays. But his legs do provide a safety valve option.

However, time will win. His legs will wear down. His body is showing signs of breaking down. In the past three years he’s endured ankle surgery, cracked ribs, a fractured back, one known concussion and surgery on his throwing shoulder.

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This is Operation Reprogram Cam. Jerry West, the basketball Hall of Famer and friend of Richardson’s, once talked to Newton about “taking the layups” and just getting the ball out of his hands. Newton, whose completion rate dipped below 50% in five games during a six-game stretch last season, is one of the NFL’s foremost downfield throwers (his 82 deep-ball attempts, throws that travel at least 20 yards in the air, in 2015 were fourth-most in the league, and his 76 last year were ninth-most) but McCaffrey and Samuel, two top-40 picks, won’t be going on those sorts of routes.

Carolina can draw from the Steelers’ reimaging of Roethlisberger in 2012, when Todd Haley took over as offensive coordinator. In the early part of his career, Roethlisberger’s M.O. was to extend plays by absorbing and shrugging off pass rushers, then making big plays late in the down. As effective as that was, it took a physical toll; he made it through 16 regular-season games just once in his eight seasons as a 20-something. For Roethlisberger’s age-30 season, the Steelers replaced offensive coordinator Bruce Arians with Haley and instituted a quick-strike passing offense, hoping to keep the big-bodied quarterback from taking so many hits and therefore elongating his career.

Roethlisberger has had two 16-game regular seasons in the five he’s played under Haley. But the Steelers, coming off back-to-back 12-win seasons—including a Super Bowl XLV appearance—when Haley arrived, had consecutive eight-win, no-playoff years to start Haley’s tenure. Carolina wants to avoid that kind of short-term downturn, as well as the well-publicized growing pains that Roethlisberger and Haley went through before Pittsburgh grew into a top-five passing offense for three straight years.

“Where Cam’s had the greatest success is using that deep-field accuracy to his advantage,” soon-to-be Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner says. “Where he hasn’t been as good is seeing and making the quicker decision, and the underneath throws have never really been a part of their game. To say that he can’t do it, I’m not going to say that. It doesn’t seem to be what his strength is.

“But then you’ve never had a guy like Christian McCaffrey and what he’s done out of the backfield. Guys like that, and Marshall Faulk [who played with Warner] can make life really easy on a quarterback where you just drop back and throw it to the guy and he always seems to be open. I think it’s an interesting experiment, and there are a lot of things they’re going to be able to do that will make it ‘easier’ on the quarterback.”

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The man ultimately responsible for getting McCaffrey and Samuel to Charlotte is now gone. The Panthers fired general manager Dave Gettleman last week after his poor bedside manner wore out its welcome (despite it, in part, helping Carolina go to three consecutive postseasons). If McCaffrey and Samuel—and for that matter the entire Panthers offense—can’t turn things around this season, the next person to follow Gettleman could be offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

Rivera has long had Shula’s back. During an interview with The MMQB, the head coach points out that Carolina’s offense had improved steadily year-to-year from 2013 to ’15 with only a minor hiccup related to injuries in 2014. But team sources say Shula won’t get much rope from the owner, who just reminded everyone how swiftly he can write a pink slip, if the rest of the NFL continues to keep pace with the Panthers.

“Perception and reality, we want to make sure we know what reality is,” Shula says. “We’re going to look at maximizing our personnel, all of them, no matter who’s here when they’re in the game. Finding guys who can best make plays for us and finding ways to get them to ball.”

The NFL is cyclical. For instance, defenses have reacted to faster offenses with smaller, faster linebackers, and some offenses are beginning to respond with bigger backs and offensive linemen to re-establish the power running game. Within those cycles, trends come and go. The Wildcat stayed in the league as long as a fifth-round cornerback. The read-option has nearly fizzled out after a half-decade. Shula had built something unique in Carolina, but this might have been inevitable.

“When people say, ‘They caught up with the Panthers’ offense,’ well, we weren’t as good, so how are you going to argue that?” Shula says. “What we have to look at is, offensively they can’t take everything away. When they take this away, you have to be ready for that.”

Panthers coaches have been mum all off-season about how McCaffrey will be used. He’ll be a running back but won’t take away carries from Jonathan Stewart, who campaigned for Carolina to select the Stanford back. He’ll be split out wide and in the slot often, both as a receiver and a decoy to unmask the defense’s intentions. Beyond that, little is known because McCaffrey was allowed to attend just one minicamp practice due to Stanford being on the quarter system. And in that single practice he only caught passes from Anderson.

This past weekend, Newton invited most of his receivers, including McCaffrey, to Baltimore for an annual pre-camp visit to Under Armour facilities for a workout. But this wasn’t the first time the two had worked together. The week before, during Newton’s 7-on-7 tournament in Atlanta, McCaffrey visited Newton. While the region’s top high schoolers battled for the trophy on three football fields split into six 50-yard fields, Newton and McCaffrey used a fourth field to work on routes and timing.

There’s a certain amount of humility involved for any player, two years removed from such a spectacular season, to move away from what had worked so well. It is especially difficult for a player like Newton, who has a sizeable ego. But according to those inside the Panthers building, Newton is embracing the change. More than that, he invited it.

Newton campaigned pre-draft for McCaffrey over Leonard Fournette, according to a team source, because he believed Fournette was too similar to Stewart and that McCaffrey could offer something the Panthers have never had before. Newton does not have Kobe-like pull in this organization but clearly his input matters. Everyone there has hitched their wagon to him, from the owner who, 24 years ago, promised Charlotte a Super Bowl in the first 10 years of the franchise, to Rivera who, after a dozen or so job interviews, got his first head coaching job in 2011 and four months later joined Newton at the hip, to those in uniform who swear by him.

It’s not the dazzling playmaking or even the dancing at practice that endears him to teammates, but rather it’s his refusal to throw anyone under the bus. He won’t assign blame to anyone other than himself in a press conference no matter how obvious it is. And his coaches have to use unique interrogation techniques with him to understand what went wrong on a play even in the film room.

“I’ve had to drag it out of him in terms of, ‘What do you see? What can we fix?,” Rivera says. “It always starts with him. He doesn’t want to sit there and say, ‘I don’t like this play’ or ‘I don’t like that guy at that position.’ In his mind, he’s going to fix it and make it work.”

Newton laid low during Super Bowl LI week. His NFC South rival and hometown Falcons were in the spot he had been in—and failed in—a year earlier. His second child, Sovereign-Dior Cambella Newton, was born the Friday before the game. And as the NFL world descended upon Houston, Newton was in an unexpected place: Georgia’s Walker State Prison, visiting a lifelong friend’s father who was incarcerated there, fulfilling a promise to both men. The friend wrote on Instagram that Newton’s visit, surely one of the few times in history a medium-security prison has hosted the still-reigning NFL MVP during Super Bowl week, “changed a lot of [men] in that prison[’s] life bro you gave them HOPE!”

It’s for his childhood friends, a person close to him said, that Newton starred in his own birthday video lip-synching 2 Chainz’ “Birthday Song,” which has the memorable line “All I want for my birthday is a big booty ho” (Newton edited out that last word). It seems a paradox that Newton, the executive producer of a children’s show (Nickelodeon’s “All In with Cam Newton”), would put out that kind of video. But his personality remains rigid and he doesn’t bend to critics; that’s a big reason why, over the rocky 18 months since Super Bowl 50 slipped away, he has kept the near unconditional support of teammates.

It’s the end of June’s veteran minicamp, and it’s the same ol’ Cam.

Even though Newton can’t throw, his trash talk is out in full force. The same trash talk that led to him fighting Josh Norman during training camp two years ago, on the eve of the 15-1 season. He shouts after Russell Shepard’s diving catch of an Anderson pass against second-year corner Zack Sanchez. He runs from a field away to watch a scuffle between Anderson and veteran defensive back Captain Munnerlyn. And he sings, off-key, “THE BOYSSSSSS ARE BACK IN TOWN” after Kelvin Benjamin snatches a ball out of the air.

Newton isn’t cleared for full practice this camp but he’ll be under center, in control, soon enough. Quarterbacks have immense power when they take the snap, and under duress they can revert to their bad habits. Newton trusts his powerful arm so much that his mechanics and footwork will sometimes fail him. Around the Panthers, the feeling is Newton will use this power for good and that he’s bought into what they’re trying to do with him—and for him. He is going to keep on dancing and keep on jawing with opponents and teammates alike through another season. But you have to look closer and listen closer, like Rivera is, to pick up on the most important thing the quarterback says all day.

With Newton standing behind the action during team drills, Anderson takes the snap on a play that has slow-developing options downfield. Fozzy Whittaker, a seldom used scatback, comes out of the backfield wide and then makes a cut inside, just beyond the line of scrimmage. Newton, so used to launching the ball downfield over the first six seasons of his career, sees it.

“Fozzy … Fozzy,” he mutters under his breath.

Take the layups.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

The Reprogramming of Cam Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton is stuck in Motown Hell.

The Carolina Panthers normally stretch and warmup to rap music—the occasional Kings of Leon is thrown in for friend-of-the-band Greg Olsen—and Newton is usually dancing during this two-to-three song timeframe, because he’s done already extensive stretching inside the building before practice. But on this Thursday in June, the last day of veteran minicamp, The Temptation’s “Just My Imagination” is filling the Panthers’ practice field and the quarterback wants none of it.

“I’ll give you $100 to put on some Future or some damn Young Thug,” Newton shouts to the low-level staffer with the aux cord, a young man visibly caught between the $103.8 million quarterback and those who employ him.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera will later say that this was simply Throwback Thursday, as voted on by the coaches, though local reporters are struggling to remember a time in the past seven years when coaches took over the music. A more popular (and plausible) theory is that Jerry Richardson, the octogenarian owner/founder of the Carolina Panthers, is about to make an appearance on his golf cart to see first-round pick Christian McCaffrey in action, and perhaps Motown would be more palatable than Future or some damn Young Thug.

Newton, still nursing his shoulder after March surgery, stands 10-12 yards behind the action during drills led by Derek Anderson. A noted trash-talker to the defense, he begins the day muted, with Richardson’s cart parked a few feet to his left. Within 10 minutes, his typical decibel level has been reached. A big play by the offense is punctuated by Newton’s “Yeahhhhhhhhh!” Later, on a blitz by veteran linebacker (and primary verbal combatant) Thomas Davis, Newton screams, “You ain’t scarin’ nobody, T.D.!”

Less than an hour into practice, it doesn’t matter if Richardson is on his hip or not. Newton is chest-bumping running backs, commending Kelvin Benjamin for boxing out an overmatched cornerback and constantly prodding the defense. It’s the same Cam Newton we’ve seen since he entered the league seven years ago, even if so many want to change him.

There’s no mistake that change is coming to Carolina, though. All signs point to the Panthers transitioning away from its deep-ball offense and designed quarterback runs, two of the staples of an offense that helped make Newton a superstar. This spring the Panthers added McCaffrey and speedy second-rounder Curtis Samuel to the squad in what looks to be a clear attempt to get faster on offense and the ball out of Newton’s hand more quickly.

The average observer might think of it as an easy change. But it’s a drastic transition for a quarterback to make mid-career, and the fate of a coaching staff could hang in the balance. Central to all this is one simple question: Can Cam change?

When the Panthers touched down in the Bay Area a week before Super Bowl 50, they were coming off two postseason wins featuring a combined 90 points of offense and a 17-1 cumulative record. Newton was named NFL MVP the night before the game, commanding 48 of the 50 total votes.

Wade Phillips, the Broncos’ defensive coordinator that season, shudders at the idea that he broke the code to stopping the Panthers. But the decline of Carolina and Newton can be traced back to that Sunday evening at Levi’s Stadium when the newly crowned MVP became newly humbled with an 18-of-41 passing performance, leading just one touchdown drive, throwing an interception and absorbing six sacks in the 24-10 loss to Denver.

First, Phillips says, his defense was skilled all year long at taking away what Carolina did best. The Broncos held opponents to a league-low 3.3 yards per rush, and Carolina’s offense was predicated on a diversified running game that opened up the passing game. Second, that defense had stopped future Hall of Famers Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the playoffs, and both are better passers than Newton. Denver put the Panthers into 12 third-and-8-or-longer situations, then blitzed Carolina into its worst offensive performance of the year at the worst possible time.

But it was Phillips’ keen film eye that saw an opportunity for his Broncos. Newton wasn’t much of an improvisational scrambler in 2015, so Phillips sent green-dog blitzers—meaning a blitzer only came when he was sure the back or tight end that he would otherwise be responsible for in coverage was staying in to block. Those blockers were supposed to help tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers against Von Miller and Friends, but Phillips’ tack took that help away and forced the Panthers’ offensive linemen to win one-on-ones, a near-impossible task against the Broncos’ stout pass rush. The result was six sacks (including two strip sacks) and 13 knockdowns of Newton.

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“We went through the same thing in ’89 in my first year in Denver,” Phillips says. “We led the league in points allowed on defense and had John Elway at quarterback, and then we lost to the 49ers in the Super Bowl 55-10. We gave up the least points during the year and then we got beat like that in the Super Bowl, and the next year we didn’t do well (5-11). It’s like you have a losing season after you lose the Super Bowl—it really is.”

The hits, both literal and figurative, kept coming for Newton in 2016. For all of Rivera’s complaints about the league sending the NFC champs on the road for a Super Bowl rematch to start the season, the Panthers would have left Denver with a win had Graham Gano’s last-second, 50-yard attempt in the thin air not sailed wide left. That September night, Denver defenders made Newton’s head a piñata and the officials allowed it. (He took at least four hits to his helmet during the game with just one being flagged.) Three weeks later Newton took a vicious but legal hit as he walked into the end zone for a two-point conversion against the Falcons. A few weeks after returning from a concussion that kept him out of a primetime home loss to Tampa Bay, he bemoaned late and low hits by Cardinals defenders. Newton protested enough to demand Roger Goodell pick up his phone.

“I know there are people who are going to say it’s excuses,” Rivera says, “but I think he struggled with—I’m not speaking for him—but from my perspective some of the stuff that went on with some of the hits he took, I think that was one of the things that he struggled with. … And I know he knows there’s a double standard. You know what I’m saying? I think that’s the thing he struggles with. He said he felt he doesn’t get the calls because of who he is.”

Newton, who through a team spokesman declined comment for this story, could still stand after those hits, but some of his teammates weren’t as fortunate. Oher, the starting left tackle, suffered a concussion some time around Week 2 and missed the last 13 games (released by the Panthers last week, he might never play football again). Center Ryan Kalil injured his right shoulder and missed the last half the season. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin, returning from an ACL tear suffered during 2015 training camp, was overburdened and overwhelmed on the field and fell off after September. Newton wasn’t stellar early on; a career 59.6% passer coming into the year, he was at 57.7% at the season’s midpoint.

By the end of the Week 6 loss in New Orleans, Newton’s first game back from his concussion, it was clear Carolina didn’t have the horses to make a fourth-straight playoff run. The 1-4 Panthers trailed 31-17 at the Superdome after three quarters. Newton rallied the offense with a 21-point fourth quarter, tying the game at 38 with less than three minutes to play only to see the defense—specifically Carolina’s green secondary—squander the comeback in a 41-38 loss.

Of course, insult must always follow injury. Russell Wilson is Newton’s rival on the field and antithesis off: Newton is boisterous, colorful and full of braggadocio. Wilson is more muted and traditionally corporate. Both are transcendent young talents, and they were Super Bowl losers in consecutive years. Wilson took questions after his heartbreaking Super Bowl XLIX loss. Newton sulked through his abbreviated post-Super Bowl 50 presser, for which he’s still criticized today.

For Newton to not start against Wilson and the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football was embarrassing enough, but for it to be because the fashionista broke a fashion-related team rule only added to the humiliation. Newton didn’t wear a tie as the team boarded the plane to Seattle and was benched for the first series of the game. That series lasted one play, as Anderson threw a short pass to Mike Tolbert that glanced off the fullback and into the hands of Seahawks linebacker Mike Morgan, a rough start in an eventual 40-7 loss.

“We have rules, and I think Ron did the right thing,” Anderson says. “You’ve got to treat everybody the same way. I think Cam understands that. It wasn’t as big a deal as you guys made it. Unfortunately it happened on a Sunday night game and everyone in the world was watching. And unfortunately that ball bounces off Mike and they pick it and then now it becomes a bigger issue. It just looks bad.

“I had a good talk with Cam the night before the game and I think he understood. It was good to hash some things out and sometimes you need little things to come up to hash other things out. We moved on from it and I think he knows what’s right and what’s wrong.”

When Newton injured his throwing shoulder—eventually requiring surgery in March—in Week 14 on a tackle attempt to prevent a touchdown, the Panthers were 5-8 and still had a chance of making the playoffs, just like they did in 2014 when they finished 7-8-1. Rivera held on to those hopes (250,000-to-1 odds) going into a Monday night game in Washington, and Newton, who doctors said couldn’t damage the shoulder any further, played one of his best games of the season. The Panthers needed 10 games to break exactly one way the following week against Atlanta. They were eliminated before their Week 16 loss to the Falcons was complete.

The shoulder started to give out on him in Week 17 in Tampa Bay. Early in the third quarter Newton threw the weakest comeback route he’s probably ever made, his second of three interceptions that day; Bucs cornerback Brent Grimes picked it off and walked into the end zone untouched. Even with Anderson out with an illness, Rivera still wanted to pull Newton in favor of third-stringer Joe Webb but Newton resisted.

“I’m doing this for the other guys who can’t play because they’re hurt,” Newton told his coaches on the sideline. “I’m doing it because I can play.” Newton led a late touchdown drive, hitting Benjamin for a 5-yard score with 17 seconds left to trail 17-16. Carolina went for two but couldn’t convert, sealing the Panthers’ first 10-loss season since Newton’s 2011 rookie season. His mechanics deteriorated while facing heavy pressure behind a makeshift line in the season’s second half. By the end of the nightmare year he had completed a career-low 52.9% of his attempts, with a sub-80 passer rating (75.8) for the first time in his career. One year after a combined 45 touchdowns as a passer and runner, he accounted for only 24.

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Two topics would dominate the Panthers’ exit interview with Newton. First was possible shoulder surgery. Carolina didn’t want to operate on the quarterback’s throwing shoulder if it didn’t have to, so the idea was to rest him for two months then re-evaluate his partially torn rotator cuff.

Second was Newton’s plans away from football. Many within the Panthers’ organization whispered that Newton had too much on his plate the previous off-season. Concurrent with dealing with his biggest professional loss in the Super Bowl was managing his greatest personal gain of becoming a first-time dad. He moved to Los Angeles for several months in the spring of 2016 to film his Nickelodeon kids’ show, part of his years-long effort to be more than a football player. He continued his charity work, which includes his own 7-on-7 summer tournaments across the southeast before taking his top team (which once included Deshaun Watson) to a national tournament in Florida. His business interests grew with his talent agency WME-IMG’s acquisition of the UFC, of which Newton became a partial owner. Under Armour designed an ad campaign for Newton to kick off the 2016 season with the theme “Prince With 1,000 Enemies.” Subtle, it was not.

Before Rivera could ask, Newton beat his coach to it: “I’m going to be around.”

The first sign of change is the physical transformation.

Each day at OTAs and minicamp this summer, Newton showed up in the North Carolina heat and humidity in black sweats underneath his red jersey. He left the field each day drenched without throwing a single football in the two-hour sessions.

Two years ago, Newton said he hadn’t played at his listed weight of 245 pounds since college, and last year he played at his heaviest (more than 260, one source said). He wasn’t out of shape, but rather he packed on the pounds so he could absorb the hits, a coach said. On Monday, Newton posted a picture of his lean physique to Instagram with a Jay-Z inspired caption, “Sometimes you need your ego, got to remind these fools who they effin with.” A day later, Rivera gleefully told reporters that Newton checked into camp at 246 pounds.

“That’s why the things we talk about changing and doing some things differently are important,” Rivera says. “Now he’s at that point in his career where everything we do with him we have to do judicially if he’s going to run the ball. It has to be the right situation and circumstances. We have to be aware of that.

“He’s not that young guy that we can throw out there and say, ‘Go do your thing.’ He’s now that veteran, crafty guy.”

Panthers coaches say they aren’t throwing out the zone read, but clearly Carolina wants to better protect their 28-year-old franchise quarterback. Newton’s 689 career rushing attempts are the most ever by a quarterback through his first six seasons, and only eight players have ever taken more sacks through six years than he has. So far in his career, his value as a runner has added significant value to Carolina’s offense. He’s the only quarterback in recent memory to be featured consistently on power running plays, forcing the defense to account for all 11 players in the run game (in most offenses, the quarterback hands off then falls out of the play). Despite his reputation, Newton is not a run-first quarterback, or even eager to pull it down and scramble on passing plays. But his legs do provide a safety valve option.

However, time will win. His legs will wear down. His body is showing signs of breaking down. In the past three years he’s endured ankle surgery, cracked ribs, a fractured back, one known concussion and surgery on his throwing shoulder.

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This is Operation Reprogram Cam. Jerry West, the basketball Hall of Famer and friend of Richardson’s, once talked to Newton about “taking the layups” and just getting the ball out of his hands. Newton, whose completion rate dipped below 50% in five games during a six-game stretch last season, is one of the NFL’s foremost downfield throwers (his 82 deep-ball attempts, throws that travel at least 20 yards in the air, in 2015 were fourth-most in the league, and his 76 last year were ninth-most) but McCaffrey and Samuel, two top-40 picks, won’t be going on those sorts of routes.

Carolina can draw from the Steelers’ reimaging of Roethlisberger in 2012, when Todd Haley took over as offensive coordinator. In the early part of his career, Roethlisberger’s M.O. was to extend plays by absorbing and shrugging off pass rushers, then making big plays late in the down. As effective as that was, it took a physical toll; he made it through 16 regular-season games just once in his eight seasons as a 20-something. For Roethlisberger’s age-30 season, the Steelers replaced offensive coordinator Bruce Arians with Haley and instituted a quick-strike passing offense, hoping to keep the big-bodied quarterback from taking so many hits and therefore elongating his career.

Roethlisberger has had two 16-game regular seasons in the five he’s played under Haley. But the Steelers, coming off back-to-back 12-win seasons—including a Super Bowl XLV appearance—when Haley arrived, had consecutive eight-win, no-playoff years to start Haley’s tenure. Carolina wants to avoid that kind of short-term downturn, as well as the well-publicized growing pains that Roethlisberger and Haley went through before Pittsburgh grew into a top-five passing offense for three straight years.

“Where Cam’s had the greatest success is using that deep-field accuracy to his advantage,” soon-to-be Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner says. “Where he hasn’t been as good is seeing and making the quicker decision, and the underneath throws have never really been a part of their game. To say that he can’t do it, I’m not going to say that. It doesn’t seem to be what his strength is.

“But then you’ve never had a guy like Christian McCaffrey and what he’s done out of the backfield. Guys like that, and Marshall Faulk [who played with Warner] can make life really easy on a quarterback where you just drop back and throw it to the guy and he always seems to be open. I think it’s an interesting experiment, and there are a lot of things they’re going to be able to do that will make it ‘easier’ on the quarterback.”

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The man ultimately responsible for getting McCaffrey and Samuel to Charlotte is now gone. The Panthers fired general manager Dave Gettleman last week after his poor bedside manner wore out its welcome (despite it, in part, helping Carolina go to three consecutive postseasons). If McCaffrey and Samuel—and for that matter the entire Panthers offense—can’t turn things around this season, the next person to follow Gettleman could be offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

Rivera has long had Shula’s back. During an interview with The MMQB, the head coach points out that Carolina’s offense had improved steadily year-to-year from 2013 to ’15 with only a minor hiccup related to injuries in 2014. But team sources say Shula won’t get much rope from the owner, who just reminded everyone how swiftly he can write a pink slip, if the rest of the NFL continues to keep pace with the Panthers.

“Perception and reality, we want to make sure we know what reality is,” Shula says. “We’re going to look at maximizing our personnel, all of them, no matter who’s here when they’re in the game. Finding guys who can best make plays for us and finding ways to get them to ball.”

The NFL is cyclical. For instance, defenses have reacted to faster offenses with smaller, faster linebackers, and some offenses are beginning to respond with bigger backs and offensive linemen to re-establish the power running game. Within those cycles, trends come and go. The Wildcat stayed in the league as long as a fifth-round cornerback. The read-option has nearly fizzled out after a half-decade. Shula had built something unique in Carolina, but this might have been inevitable.

“When people say, ‘They caught up with the Panthers’ offense,’ well, we weren’t as good, so how are you going to argue that?” Shula says. “What we have to look at is, offensively they can’t take everything away. When they take this away, you have to be ready for that.”

Panthers coaches have been mum all off-season about how McCaffrey will be used. He’ll be a running back but won’t take away carries from Jonathan Stewart, who campaigned for Carolina to select the Stanford back. He’ll be split out wide and in the slot often, both as a receiver and a decoy to unmask the defense’s intentions. Beyond that, little is known because McCaffrey was allowed to attend just one minicamp practice due to Stanford being on the quarter system. And in that single practice he only caught passes from Anderson.

This past weekend, Newton invited most of his receivers, including McCaffrey, to Baltimore for an annual pre-camp visit to Under Armour facilities for a workout. But this wasn’t the first time the two had worked together. The week before, during Newton’s 7-on-7 tournament in Atlanta, McCaffrey visited Newton. While the region’s top high schoolers battled for the trophy on three football fields split into six 50-yard fields, Newton and McCaffrey used a fourth field to work on routes and timing.

There’s a certain amount of humility involved for any player, two years removed from such a spectacular season, to move away from what had worked so well. It is especially difficult for a player like Newton, who has a sizeable ego. But according to those inside the Panthers building, Newton is embracing the change. More than that, he invited it.

Newton campaigned pre-draft for McCaffrey over Leonard Fournette, according to a team source, because he believed Fournette was too similar to Stewart and that McCaffrey could offer something the Panthers have never had before. Newton does not have Kobe-like pull in this organization but clearly his input matters. Everyone there has hitched their wagon to him, from the owner who, 24 years ago, promised Charlotte a Super Bowl in the first 10 years of the franchise, to Rivera who, after a dozen or so job interviews, got his first head coaching job in 2011 and four months later joined Newton at the hip, to those in uniform who swear by him.

It’s not the dazzling playmaking or even the dancing at practice that endears him to teammates, but rather it’s his refusal to throw anyone under the bus. He won’t assign blame to anyone other than himself in a press conference no matter how obvious it is. And his coaches have to use unique interrogation techniques with him to understand what went wrong on a play even in the film room.

“I’ve had to drag it out of him in terms of, ‘What do you see? What can we fix?,” Rivera says. “It always starts with him. He doesn’t want to sit there and say, ‘I don’t like this play’ or ‘I don’t like that guy at that position.’ In his mind, he’s going to fix it and make it work.”

Newton laid low during Super Bowl LI week. His NFC South rival and hometown Falcons were in the spot he had been in—and failed in—a year earlier. His second child, Sovereign-Dior Cambella Newton, was born the Friday before the game. And as the NFL world descended upon Houston, Newton was in an unexpected place: Georgia’s Walker State Prison, visiting a lifelong friend’s father who was incarcerated there, fulfilling a promise to both men. The friend wrote on Instagram that Newton’s visit, surely one of the few times in history a medium-security prison has hosted the still-reigning NFL MVP during Super Bowl week, “changed a lot of [men] in that prison[’s] life bro you gave them HOPE!”

It’s for his childhood friends, a person close to him said, that Newton starred in his own birthday video lip-synching 2 Chainz’ “Birthday Song,” which has the memorable line “All I want for my birthday is a big booty ho” (Newton edited out that last word). It seems a paradox that Newton, the executive producer of a children’s show (Nickelodeon’s “All In with Cam Newton”), would put out that kind of video. But his personality remains rigid and he doesn’t bend to critics; that’s a big reason why, over the rocky 18 months since Super Bowl 50 slipped away, he has kept the near unconditional support of teammates.

It’s the end of June’s veteran minicamp, and it’s the same ol’ Cam.

Even though Newton can’t throw, his trash talk is out in full force. The same trash talk that led to him fighting Josh Norman during training camp two years ago, on the eve of the 15-1 season. He shouts after Russell Shepard’s diving catch of an Anderson pass against second-year corner Zack Sanchez. He runs from a field away to watch a scuffle between Anderson and veteran defensive back Captain Munnerlyn. And he sings, off-key, “THE BOYSSSSSS ARE BACK IN TOWN” after Kelvin Benjamin snatches a ball out of the air.

Newton isn’t cleared for full practice this camp but he’ll be under center, in control, soon enough. Quarterbacks have immense power when they take the snap, and under duress they can revert to their bad habits. Newton trusts his powerful arm so much that his mechanics and footwork will sometimes fail him. Around the Panthers, the feeling is Newton will use this power for good and that he’s bought into what they’re trying to do with him—and for him. He is going to keep on dancing and keep on jawing with opponents and teammates alike through another season. But you have to look closer and listen closer, like Rivera is, to pick up on the most important thing the quarterback says all day.

With Newton standing behind the action during team drills, Anderson takes the snap on a play that has slow-developing options downfield. Fozzy Whittaker, a seldom used scatback, comes out of the backfield wide and then makes a cut inside, just beyond the line of scrimmage. Newton, so used to launching the ball downfield over the first six seasons of his career, sees it.

“Fozzy … Fozzy,” he mutters under his breath.

Take the layups.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

The Reprogramming of Cam Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton is stuck in Motown Hell.

The Carolina Panthers normally stretch and warmup to rap music—the occasional Kings of Leon is thrown in for friend-of-the-band Greg Olsen—and Newton is usually dancing during this two-to-three song timeframe, because he’s done already extensive stretching inside the building before practice. But on this Thursday in June, the last day of veteran minicamp, The Temptation’s “Just My Imagination” is filling the Panthers’ practice field and the quarterback wants none of it.

“I’ll give you $100 to put on some Future or some damn Young Thug,” Newton shouts to the low-level staffer with the aux cord, a young man visibly caught between the $103.8 million quarterback and those who employ him.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera will later say that this was simply Throwback Thursday, as voted on by the coaches, though local reporters are struggling to remember a time in the past seven years when coaches took over the music. A more popular (and plausible) theory is that Jerry Richardson, the octogenarian owner/founder of the Carolina Panthers, is about to make an appearance on his golf cart to see first-round pick Christian McCaffrey in action, and perhaps Motown would be more palatable than Future or some damn Young Thug.

Newton, still nursing his shoulder after March surgery, stands 10-12 yards behind the action during drills led by Derek Anderson. A noted trash-talker to the defense, he begins the day muted, with Richardson’s cart parked a few feet to his left. Within 10 minutes, his typical decibel level has been reached. A big play by the offense is punctuated by Newton’s “Yeahhhhhhhhh!” Later, on a blitz by veteran linebacker (and primary verbal combatant) Thomas Davis, Newton screams, “You ain’t scarin’ nobody, T.D.!”

Less than an hour into practice, it doesn’t matter if Richardson is on his hip or not. Newton is chest-bumping running backs, commending Kelvin Benjamin for boxing out an overmatched cornerback and constantly prodding the defense. It’s the same Cam Newton we’ve seen since he entered the league seven years ago, even if so many want to change him.

There’s no mistake that change is coming to Carolina, though. All signs point to the Panthers transitioning away from its deep-ball offense and designed quarterback runs, two of the staples of an offense that helped make Newton a superstar. This spring the Panthers added McCaffrey and speedy second-rounder Curtis Samuel to the squad in what looks to be a clear attempt to get faster on offense and the ball out of Newton’s hand more quickly.

The average observer might think of it as an easy change. But it’s a drastic transition for a quarterback to make mid-career, and the fate of a coaching staff could hang in the balance. Central to all this is one simple question: Can Cam change?

When the Panthers touched down in the Bay Area a week before Super Bowl 50, they were coming off two postseason wins featuring a combined 90 points of offense and a 17-1 cumulative record. Newton was named NFL MVP the night before the game, commanding 48 of the 50 total votes.

Wade Phillips, the Broncos’ defensive coordinator that season, shudders at the idea that he broke the code to stopping the Panthers. But the decline of Carolina and Newton can be traced back to that Sunday evening at Levi’s Stadium when the newly crowned MVP became newly humbled with an 18-of-41 passing performance, leading just one touchdown drive, throwing an interception and absorbing six sacks in the 24-10 loss to Denver.

First, Phillips says, his defense was skilled all year long at taking away what Carolina did best. The Broncos held opponents to a league-low 3.3 yards per rush, and Carolina’s offense was predicated on a diversified running game that opened up the passing game. Second, that defense had stopped future Hall of Famers Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the playoffs, and both are better passers than Newton. Denver put the Panthers into 12 third-and-8-or-longer situations, then blitzed Carolina into its worst offensive performance of the year at the worst possible time.

But it was Phillips’ keen film eye that saw an opportunity for his Broncos. Newton wasn’t much of an improvisational scrambler in 2015, so Phillips sent green-dog blitzers—meaning a blitzer only came when he was sure the back or tight end that he would otherwise be responsible for in coverage was staying in to block. Those blockers were supposed to help tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers against Von Miller and Friends, but Phillips’ tack took that help away and forced the Panthers’ offensive linemen to win one-on-ones, a near-impossible task against the Broncos’ stout pass rush. The result was six sacks (including two strip sacks) and 13 knockdowns of Newton.

The MMQB 400: Analyst Andy Benoit’s ranking of football’s top players for 2017.

“We went through the same thing in ’89 in my first year in Denver,” Phillips says. “We led the league in points allowed on defense and had John Elway at quarterback, and then we lost to the 49ers in the Super Bowl 55-10. We gave up the least points during the year and then we got beat like that in the Super Bowl, and the next year we didn’t do well (5-11). It’s like you have a losing season after you lose the Super Bowl—it really is.”

The hits, both literal and figurative, kept coming for Newton in 2016. For all of Rivera’s complaints about the league sending the NFC champs on the road for a Super Bowl rematch to start the season, the Panthers would have left Denver with a win had Graham Gano’s last-second, 50-yard attempt in the thin air not sailed wide left. That September night, Denver defenders made Newton’s head a piñata and the officials allowed it. (He took at least four hits to his helmet during the game with just one being flagged.) Three weeks later Newton took a vicious but legal hit as he walked into the end zone for a two-point conversion against the Falcons. A few weeks after returning from a concussion that kept him out of a primetime home loss to Tampa Bay, he bemoaned late and low hits by Cardinals defenders. Newton protested enough to demand Roger Goodell pick up his phone.

“I know there are people who are going to say it’s excuses,” Rivera says, “but I think he struggled with—I’m not speaking for him—but from my perspective some of the stuff that went on with some of the hits he took, I think that was one of the things that he struggled with. … And I know he knows there’s a double standard. You know what I’m saying? I think that’s the thing he struggles with. He said he felt he doesn’t get the calls because of who he is.”

Newton, who through a team spokesman declined comment for this story, could still stand after those hits, but some of his teammates weren’t as fortunate. Oher, the starting left tackle, suffered a concussion some time around Week 2 and missed the last 13 games (released by the Panthers last week, he might never play football again). Center Ryan Kalil injured his right shoulder and missed the last half the season. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin, returning from an ACL tear suffered during 2015 training camp, was overburdened and overwhelmed on the field and fell off after September. Newton wasn’t stellar early on; a career 59.6% passer coming into the year, he was at 57.7% at the season’s midpoint.

By the end of the Week 6 loss in New Orleans, Newton’s first game back from his concussion, it was clear Carolina didn’t have the horses to make a fourth-straight playoff run. The 1-4 Panthers trailed 31-17 at the Superdome after three quarters. Newton rallied the offense with a 21-point fourth quarter, tying the game at 38 with less than three minutes to play only to see the defense—specifically Carolina’s green secondary—squander the comeback in a 41-38 loss.

Of course, insult must always follow injury. Russell Wilson is Newton’s rival on the field and antithesis off: Newton is boisterous, colorful and full of braggadocio. Wilson is more muted and traditionally corporate. Both are transcendent young talents, and they were Super Bowl losers in consecutive years. Wilson took questions after his heartbreaking Super Bowl XLIX loss. Newton sulked through his abbreviated post-Super Bowl 50 presser, for which he’s still criticized today.

For Newton to not start against Wilson and the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football was embarrassing enough, but for it to be because the fashionista broke a fashion-related team rule only added to the humiliation. Newton didn’t wear a tie as the team boarded the plane to Seattle and was benched for the first series of the game. That series lasted one play, as Anderson threw a short pass to Mike Tolbert that glanced off the fullback and into the hands of Seahawks linebacker Mike Morgan, a rough start in an eventual 40-7 loss.

“We have rules, and I think Ron did the right thing,” Anderson says. “You’ve got to treat everybody the same way. I think Cam understands that. It wasn’t as big a deal as you guys made it. Unfortunately it happened on a Sunday night game and everyone in the world was watching. And unfortunately that ball bounces off Mike and they pick it and then now it becomes a bigger issue. It just looks bad.

“I had a good talk with Cam the night before the game and I think he understood. It was good to hash some things out and sometimes you need little things to come up to hash other things out. We moved on from it and I think he knows what’s right and what’s wrong.”

When Newton injured his throwing shoulder—eventually requiring surgery in March—in Week 14 on a tackle attempt to prevent a touchdown, the Panthers were 5-8 and still had a chance of making the playoffs, just like they did in 2014 when they finished 7-8-1. Rivera held on to those hopes (250,000-to-1 odds) going into a Monday night game in Washington, and Newton, who doctors said couldn’t damage the shoulder any further, played one of his best games of the season. The Panthers needed 10 games to break exactly one way the following week against Atlanta. They were eliminated before their Week 16 loss to the Falcons was complete.

The shoulder started to give out on him in Week 17 in Tampa Bay. Early in the third quarter Newton threw the weakest comeback route he’s probably ever made, his second of three interceptions that day; Bucs cornerback Brent Grimes picked it off and walked into the end zone untouched. Even with Anderson out with an illness, Rivera still wanted to pull Newton in favor of third-stringer Joe Webb but Newton resisted.

“I’m doing this for the other guys who can’t play because they’re hurt,” Newton told his coaches on the sideline. “I’m doing it because I can play.” Newton led a late touchdown drive, hitting Benjamin for a 5-yard score with 17 seconds left to trail 17-16. Carolina went for two but couldn’t convert, sealing the Panthers’ first 10-loss season since Newton’s 2011 rookie season. His mechanics deteriorated while facing heavy pressure behind a makeshift line in the season’s second half. By the end of the nightmare year he had completed a career-low 52.9% of his attempts, with a sub-80 passer rating (75.8) for the first time in his career. One year after a combined 45 touchdowns as a passer and runner, he accounted for only 24.

TOM BRADY TURNS 40: How the quarterback has established himself as an ageless wonder.

Two topics would dominate the Panthers’ exit interview with Newton. First was possible shoulder surgery. Carolina didn’t want to operate on the quarterback’s throwing shoulder if it didn’t have to, so the idea was to rest him for two months then re-evaluate his partially torn rotator cuff.

Second was Newton’s plans away from football. Many within the Panthers’ organization whispered that Newton had too much on his plate the previous off-season. Concurrent with dealing with his biggest professional loss in the Super Bowl was managing his greatest personal gain of becoming a first-time dad. He moved to Los Angeles for several months in the spring of 2016 to film his Nickelodeon kids’ show, part of his years-long effort to be more than a football player. He continued his charity work, which includes his own 7-on-7 summer tournaments across the southeast before taking his top team (which once included Deshaun Watson) to a national tournament in Florida. His business interests grew with his talent agency WME-IMG’s acquisition of the UFC, of which Newton became a partial owner. Under Armour designed an ad campaign for Newton to kick off the 2016 season with the theme “Prince With 1,000 Enemies.” Subtle, it was not.

Before Rivera could ask, Newton beat his coach to it: “I’m going to be around.”

The first sign of change is the physical transformation.

Each day at OTAs and minicamp this summer, Newton showed up in the North Carolina heat and humidity in black sweats underneath his red jersey. He left the field each day drenched without throwing a single football in the two-hour sessions.

Two years ago, Newton said he hadn’t played at his listed weight of 245 pounds since college, and last year he played at his heaviest (more than 260, one source said). He wasn’t out of shape, but rather he packed on the pounds so he could absorb the hits, a coach said. On Monday, Newton posted a picture of his lean physique to Instagram with a Jay-Z inspired caption, “Sometimes you need your ego, got to remind these fools who they effin with.” A day later, Rivera gleefully told reporters that Newton checked into camp at 246 pounds.

“That’s why the things we talk about changing and doing some things differently are important,” Rivera says. “Now he’s at that point in his career where everything we do with him we have to do judicially if he’s going to run the ball. It has to be the right situation and circumstances. We have to be aware of that.

“He’s not that young guy that we can throw out there and say, ‘Go do your thing.’ He’s now that veteran, crafty guy.”

Panthers coaches say they aren’t throwing out the zone read, but clearly Carolina wants to better protect their 28-year-old franchise quarterback. Newton’s 689 career rushing attempts are the most ever by a quarterback through his first six seasons, and only eight players have ever taken more sacks through six years than he has. So far in his career, his value as a runner has added significant value to Carolina’s offense. He’s the only quarterback in recent memory to be featured consistently on power running plays, forcing the defense to account for all 11 players in the run game (in most offenses, the quarterback hands off then falls out of the play). Despite his reputation, Newton is not a run-first quarterback, or even eager to pull it down and scramble on passing plays. But his legs do provide a safety valve option.

However, time will win. His legs will wear down. His body is showing signs of breaking down. In the past three years he’s endured ankle surgery, cracked ribs, a fractured back, one known concussion and surgery on his throwing shoulder.

WHY THE STEELERS SHOULD SECRETLY WANT LE’VEON BELL TO HOLD OUT: Business of Football columnist Andrew Brandt on why Bell missing time could be in Pittsburgh’s best interest.

This is Operation Reprogram Cam. Jerry West, the basketball Hall of Famer and friend of Richardson’s, once talked to Newton about “taking the layups” and just getting the ball out of his hands. Newton, whose completion rate dipped below 50% in five games during a six-game stretch last season, is one of the NFL’s foremost downfield throwers (his 82 deep-ball attempts, throws that travel at least 20 yards in the air, in 2015 were fourth-most in the league, and his 76 last year were ninth-most) but McCaffrey and Samuel, two top-40 picks, won’t be going on those sorts of routes.

Carolina can draw from the Steelers’ reimaging of Roethlisberger in 2012, when Todd Haley took over as offensive coordinator. In the early part of his career, Roethlisberger’s M.O. was to extend plays by absorbing and shrugging off pass rushers, then making big plays late in the down. As effective as that was, it took a physical toll; he made it through 16 regular-season games just once in his eight seasons as a 20-something. For Roethlisberger’s age-30 season, the Steelers replaced offensive coordinator Bruce Arians with Haley and instituted a quick-strike passing offense, hoping to keep the big-bodied quarterback from taking so many hits and therefore elongating his career.

Roethlisberger has had two 16-game regular seasons in the five he’s played under Haley. But the Steelers, coming off back-to-back 12-win seasons—including a Super Bowl XLV appearance—when Haley arrived, had consecutive eight-win, no-playoff years to start Haley’s tenure. Carolina wants to avoid that kind of short-term downturn, as well as the well-publicized growing pains that Roethlisberger and Haley went through before Pittsburgh grew into a top-five passing offense for three straight years.

“Where Cam’s had the greatest success is using that deep-field accuracy to his advantage,” soon-to-be Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner says. “Where he hasn’t been as good is seeing and making the quicker decision, and the underneath throws have never really been a part of their game. To say that he can’t do it, I’m not going to say that. It doesn’t seem to be what his strength is.

“But then you’ve never had a guy like Christian McCaffrey and what he’s done out of the backfield. Guys like that, and Marshall Faulk [who played with Warner] can make life really easy on a quarterback where you just drop back and throw it to the guy and he always seems to be open. I think it’s an interesting experiment, and there are a lot of things they’re going to be able to do that will make it ‘easier’ on the quarterback.”

RON RIVERA ON THE PANTHERS’ GM CHANGE: The head coach weighed in after a wild week in Carolina.

The man ultimately responsible for getting McCaffrey and Samuel to Charlotte is now gone. The Panthers fired general manager Dave Gettleman last week after his poor bedside manner wore out its welcome (despite it, in part, helping Carolina go to three consecutive postseasons). If McCaffrey and Samuel—and for that matter the entire Panthers offense—can’t turn things around this season, the next person to follow Gettleman could be offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

Rivera has long had Shula’s back. During an interview with The MMQB, the head coach points out that Carolina’s offense had improved steadily year-to-year from 2013 to ’15 with only a minor hiccup related to injuries in 2014. But team sources say Shula won’t get much rope from the owner, who just reminded everyone how swiftly he can write a pink slip, if the rest of the NFL continues to keep pace with the Panthers.

“Perception and reality, we want to make sure we know what reality is,” Shula says. “We’re going to look at maximizing our personnel, all of them, no matter who’s here when they’re in the game. Finding guys who can best make plays for us and finding ways to get them to ball.”

The NFL is cyclical. For instance, defenses have reacted to faster offenses with smaller, faster linebackers, and some offenses are beginning to respond with bigger backs and offensive linemen to re-establish the power running game. Within those cycles, trends come and go. The Wildcat stayed in the league as long as a fifth-round cornerback. The read-option has nearly fizzled out after a half-decade. Shula had built something unique in Carolina, but this might have been inevitable.

“When people say, ‘They caught up with the Panthers’ offense,’ well, we weren’t as good, so how are you going to argue that?” Shula says. “What we have to look at is, offensively they can’t take everything away. When they take this away, you have to be ready for that.”

Panthers coaches have been mum all off-season about how McCaffrey will be used. He’ll be a running back but won’t take away carries from Jonathan Stewart, who campaigned for Carolina to select the Stanford back. He’ll be split out wide and in the slot often, both as a receiver and a decoy to unmask the defense’s intentions. Beyond that, little is known because McCaffrey was allowed to attend just one minicamp practice due to Stanford being on the quarter system. And in that single practice he only caught passes from Anderson.

This past weekend, Newton invited most of his receivers, including McCaffrey, to Baltimore for an annual pre-camp visit to Under Armour facilities for a workout. But this wasn’t the first time the two had worked together. The week before, during Newton’s 7-on-7 tournament in Atlanta, McCaffrey visited Newton. While the region’s top high schoolers battled for the trophy on three football fields split into six 50-yard fields, Newton and McCaffrey used a fourth field to work on routes and timing.

There’s a certain amount of humility involved for any player, two years removed from such a spectacular season, to move away from what had worked so well. It is especially difficult for a player like Newton, who has a sizeable ego. But according to those inside the Panthers building, Newton is embracing the change. More than that, he invited it.

Newton campaigned pre-draft for McCaffrey over Leonard Fournette, according to a team source, because he believed Fournette was too similar to Stewart and that McCaffrey could offer something the Panthers have never had before. Newton does not have Kobe-like pull in this organization but clearly his input matters. Everyone there has hitched their wagon to him, from the owner who, 24 years ago, promised Charlotte a Super Bowl in the first 10 years of the franchise, to Rivera who, after a dozen or so job interviews, got his first head coaching job in 2011 and four months later joined Newton at the hip, to those in uniform who swear by him.

It’s not the dazzling playmaking or even the dancing at practice that endears him to teammates, but rather it’s his refusal to throw anyone under the bus. He won’t assign blame to anyone other than himself in a press conference no matter how obvious it is. And his coaches have to use unique interrogation techniques with him to understand what went wrong on a play even in the film room.

“I’ve had to drag it out of him in terms of, ‘What do you see? What can we fix?,” Rivera says. “It always starts with him. He doesn’t want to sit there and say, ‘I don’t like this play’ or ‘I don’t like that guy at that position.’ In his mind, he’s going to fix it and make it work.”

Newton laid low during Super Bowl LI week. His NFC South rival and hometown Falcons were in the spot he had been in—and failed in—a year earlier. His second child, Sovereign-Dior Cambella Newton, was born the Friday before the game. And as the NFL world descended upon Houston, Newton was in an unexpected place: Georgia’s Walker State Prison, visiting a lifelong friend’s father who was incarcerated there, fulfilling a promise to both men. The friend wrote on Instagram that Newton’s visit, surely one of the few times in history a medium-security prison has hosted the still-reigning NFL MVP during Super Bowl week, “changed a lot of [men] in that prison[’s] life bro you gave them HOPE!”

It’s for his childhood friends, a person close to him said, that Newton starred in his own birthday video lip-synching 2 Chainz’ “Birthday Song,” which has the memorable line “All I want for my birthday is a big booty ho” (Newton edited out that last word). It seems a paradox that Newton, the executive producer of a children’s show (Nickelodeon’s “All In with Cam Newton”), would put out that kind of video. But his personality remains rigid and he doesn’t bend to critics; that’s a big reason why, over the rocky 18 months since Super Bowl 50 slipped away, he has kept the near unconditional support of teammates.

It’s the end of June’s veteran minicamp, and it’s the same ol’ Cam.

Even though Newton can’t throw, his trash talk is out in full force. The same trash talk that led to him fighting Josh Norman during training camp two years ago, on the eve of the 15-1 season. He shouts after Russell Shepard’s diving catch of an Anderson pass against second-year corner Zack Sanchez. He runs from a field away to watch a scuffle between Anderson and veteran defensive back Captain Munnerlyn. And he sings, off-key, “THE BOYSSSSSS ARE BACK IN TOWN” after Kelvin Benjamin snatches a ball out of the air.

Newton isn’t cleared for full practice this camp but he’ll be under center, in control, soon enough. Quarterbacks have immense power when they take the snap, and under duress they can revert to their bad habits. Newton trusts his powerful arm so much that his mechanics and footwork will sometimes fail him. Around the Panthers, the feeling is Newton will use this power for good and that he’s bought into what they’re trying to do with him—and for him. He is going to keep on dancing and keep on jawing with opponents and teammates alike through another season. But you have to look closer and listen closer, like Rivera is, to pick up on the most important thing the quarterback says all day.

With Newton standing behind the action during team drills, Anderson takes the snap on a play that has slow-developing options downfield. Fozzy Whittaker, a seldom used scatback, comes out of the backfield wide and then makes a cut inside, just beyond the line of scrimmage. Newton, so used to launching the ball downfield over the first six seasons of his career, sees it.

“Fozzy … Fozzy,” he mutters under his breath.

Take the layups.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

The Reprogramming of Cam Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton is stuck in Motown Hell.

The Carolina Panthers normally stretch and warmup to rap music—the occasional Kings of Leon is thrown in for friend-of-the-band Greg Olsen—and Newton is usually dancing during this two-to-three song timeframe, because he’s done already extensive stretching inside the building before practice. But on this Thursday in June, the last day of veteran minicamp, The Temptation’s “Just My Imagination” is filling the Panthers’ practice field and the quarterback wants none of it.

“I’ll give you $100 to put on some Future or some damn Young Thug,” Newton shouts to the low-level staffer with the aux cord, a young man visibly caught between the $103.8 million quarterback and those who employ him.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera will later say that this was simply Throwback Thursday, as voted on by the coaches, though local reporters are struggling to remember a time in the past seven years when coaches took over the music. A more popular (and plausible) theory is that Jerry Richardson, the octogenarian owner/founder of the Carolina Panthers, is about to make an appearance on his golf cart to see first-round pick Christian McCaffrey in action, and perhaps Motown would be more palatable than Future or some damn Young Thug.

Newton, still nursing his shoulder after March surgery, stands 10-12 yards behind the action during drills led by Derek Anderson. A noted trash-talker to the defense, he begins the day muted, with Richardson’s cart parked a few feet to his left. Within 10 minutes, his typical decibel level has been reached. A big play by the offense is punctuated by Newton’s “Yeahhhhhhhhh!” Later, on a blitz by veteran linebacker (and primary verbal combatant) Thomas Davis, Newton screams, “You ain’t scarin’ nobody, T.D.!”

Less than an hour into practice, it doesn’t matter if Richardson is on his hip or not. Newton is chest-bumping running backs, commending Kelvin Benjamin for boxing out an overmatched cornerback and constantly prodding the defense. It’s the same Cam Newton we’ve seen since he entered the league seven years ago, even if so many want to change him.

There’s no mistake that change is coming to Carolina, though. All signs point to the Panthers transitioning away from its deep-ball offense and designed quarterback runs, two of the staples of an offense that helped make Newton a superstar. This spring the Panthers added McCaffrey and speedy second-rounder Curtis Samuel to the squad in what looks to be a clear attempt to get faster on offense and the ball out of Newton’s hand more quickly.

The average observer might think of it as an easy change. But it’s a drastic transition for a quarterback to make mid-career, and the fate of a coaching staff could hang in the balance. Central to all this is one simple question: Can Cam change?

When the Panthers touched down in the Bay Area a week before Super Bowl 50, they were coming off two postseason wins featuring a combined 90 points of offense and a 17-1 cumulative record. Newton was named NFL MVP the night before the game, commanding 48 of the 50 total votes.

Wade Phillips, the Broncos’ defensive coordinator that season, shudders at the idea that he broke the code to stopping the Panthers. But the decline of Carolina and Newton can be traced back to that Sunday evening at Levi’s Stadium when the newly crowned MVP became newly humbled with an 18-of-41 passing performance, leading just one touchdown drive, throwing an interception and absorbing six sacks in the 24-10 loss to Denver.

First, Phillips says, his defense was skilled all year long at taking away what Carolina did best. The Broncos held opponents to a league-low 3.3 yards per rush, and Carolina’s offense was predicated on a diversified running game that opened up the passing game. Second, that defense had stopped future Hall of Famers Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the playoffs, and both are better passers than Newton. Denver put the Panthers into 12 third-and-8-or-longer situations, then blitzed Carolina into its worst offensive performance of the year at the worst possible time.

But it was Phillips’ keen film eye that saw an opportunity for his Broncos. Newton wasn’t much of an improvisational scrambler in 2015, so Phillips sent green-dog blitzers—meaning a blitzer only came when he was sure the back or tight end that he would otherwise be responsible for in coverage was staying in to block. Those blockers were supposed to help tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers against Von Miller and Friends, but Phillips’ tack took that help away and forced the Panthers’ offensive linemen to win one-on-ones, a near-impossible task against the Broncos’ stout pass rush. The result was six sacks (including two strip sacks) and 13 knockdowns of Newton.

The MMQB 400: Analyst Andy Benoit’s ranking of football’s top players for 2017.

“We went through the same thing in ’89 in my first year in Denver,” Phillips says. “We led the league in points allowed on defense and had John Elway at quarterback, and then we lost to the 49ers in the Super Bowl 55-10. We gave up the least points during the year and then we got beat like that in the Super Bowl, and the next year we didn’t do well (5-11). It’s like you have a losing season after you lose the Super Bowl—it really is.”

The hits, both literal and figurative, kept coming for Newton in 2016. For all of Rivera’s complaints about the league sending the NFC champs on the road for a Super Bowl rematch to start the season, the Panthers would have left Denver with a win had Graham Gano’s last-second, 50-yard attempt in the thin air not sailed wide left. That September night, Denver defenders made Newton’s head a piñata and the officials allowed it. (He took at least four hits to his helmet during the game with just one being flagged.) Three weeks later Newton took a vicious but legal hit as he walked into the end zone for a two-point conversion against the Falcons. A few weeks after returning from a concussion that kept him out of a primetime home loss to Tampa Bay, he bemoaned late and low hits by Cardinals defenders. Newton protested enough to demand Roger Goodell pick up his phone.

“I know there are people who are going to say it’s excuses,” Rivera says, “but I think he struggled with—I’m not speaking for him—but from my perspective some of the stuff that went on with some of the hits he took, I think that was one of the things that he struggled with. … And I know he knows there’s a double standard. You know what I’m saying? I think that’s the thing he struggles with. He said he felt he doesn’t get the calls because of who he is.”

Newton, who through a team spokesman declined comment for this story, could still stand after those hits, but some of his teammates weren’t as fortunate. Oher, the starting left tackle, suffered a concussion some time around Week 2 and missed the last 13 games (released by the Panthers last week, he might never play football again). Center Ryan Kalil injured his right shoulder and missed the last half the season. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin, returning from an ACL tear suffered during 2015 training camp, was overburdened and overwhelmed on the field and fell off after September. Newton wasn’t stellar early on; a career 59.6% passer coming into the year, he was at 57.7% at the season’s midpoint.

By the end of the Week 6 loss in New Orleans, Newton’s first game back from his concussion, it was clear Carolina didn’t have the horses to make a fourth-straight playoff run. The 1-4 Panthers trailed 31-17 at the Superdome after three quarters. Newton rallied the offense with a 21-point fourth quarter, tying the game at 38 with less than three minutes to play only to see the defense—specifically Carolina’s green secondary—squander the comeback in a 41-38 loss.

Of course, insult must always follow injury. Russell Wilson is Newton’s rival on the field and antithesis off: Newton is boisterous, colorful and full of braggadocio. Wilson is more muted and traditionally corporate. Both are transcendent young talents, and they were Super Bowl losers in consecutive years. Wilson took questions after his heartbreaking Super Bowl XLIX loss. Newton sulked through his abbreviated post-Super Bowl 50 presser, for which he’s still criticized today.

For Newton to not start against Wilson and the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football was embarrassing enough, but for it to be because the fashionista broke a fashion-related team rule only added to the humiliation. Newton didn’t wear a tie as the team boarded the plane to Seattle and was benched for the first series of the game. That series lasted one play, as Anderson threw a short pass to Mike Tolbert that glanced off the fullback and into the hands of Seahawks linebacker Mike Morgan, a rough start in an eventual 40-7 loss.

“We have rules, and I think Ron did the right thing,” Anderson says. “You’ve got to treat everybody the same way. I think Cam understands that. It wasn’t as big a deal as you guys made it. Unfortunately it happened on a Sunday night game and everyone in the world was watching. And unfortunately that ball bounces off Mike and they pick it and then now it becomes a bigger issue. It just looks bad.

“I had a good talk with Cam the night before the game and I think he understood. It was good to hash some things out and sometimes you need little things to come up to hash other things out. We moved on from it and I think he knows what’s right and what’s wrong.”

When Newton injured his throwing shoulder—eventually requiring surgery in March—in Week 14 on a tackle attempt to prevent a touchdown, the Panthers were 5-8 and still had a chance of making the playoffs, just like they did in 2014 when they finished 7-8-1. Rivera held on to those hopes (250,000-to-1 odds) going into a Monday night game in Washington, and Newton, who doctors said couldn’t damage the shoulder any further, played one of his best games of the season. The Panthers needed 10 games to break exactly one way the following week against Atlanta. They were eliminated before their Week 16 loss to the Falcons was complete.

The shoulder started to give out on him in Week 17 in Tampa Bay. Early in the third quarter Newton threw the weakest comeback route he’s probably ever made, his second of three interceptions that day; Bucs cornerback Brent Grimes picked it off and walked into the end zone untouched. Even with Anderson out with an illness, Rivera still wanted to pull Newton in favor of third-stringer Joe Webb but Newton resisted.

“I’m doing this for the other guys who can’t play because they’re hurt,” Newton told his coaches on the sideline. “I’m doing it because I can play.” Newton led a late touchdown drive, hitting Benjamin for a 5-yard score with 17 seconds left to trail 17-16. Carolina went for two but couldn’t convert, sealing the Panthers’ first 10-loss season since Newton’s 2011 rookie season. His mechanics deteriorated while facing heavy pressure behind a makeshift line in the season’s second half. By the end of the nightmare year he had completed a career-low 52.9% of his attempts, with a sub-80 passer rating (75.8) for the first time in his career. One year after a combined 45 touchdowns as a passer and runner, he accounted for only 24.

TOM BRADY TURNS 40: How the quarterback has established himself as an ageless wonder.

Two topics would dominate the Panthers’ exit interview with Newton. First was possible shoulder surgery. Carolina didn’t want to operate on the quarterback’s throwing shoulder if it didn’t have to, so the idea was to rest him for two months then re-evaluate his partially torn rotator cuff.

Second was Newton’s plans away from football. Many within the Panthers’ organization whispered that Newton had too much on his plate the previous off-season. Concurrent with dealing with his biggest professional loss in the Super Bowl was managing his greatest personal gain of becoming a first-time dad. He moved to Los Angeles for several months in the spring of 2016 to film his Nickelodeon kids’ show, part of his years-long effort to be more than a football player. He continued his charity work, which includes his own 7-on-7 summer tournaments across the southeast before taking his top team (which once included Deshaun Watson) to a national tournament in Florida. His business interests grew with his talent agency WME-IMG’s acquisition of the UFC, of which Newton became a partial owner. Under Armour designed an ad campaign for Newton to kick off the 2016 season with the theme “Prince With 1,000 Enemies.” Subtle, it was not.

Before Rivera could ask, Newton beat his coach to it: “I’m going to be around.”

The first sign of change is the physical transformation.

Each day at OTAs and minicamp this summer, Newton showed up in the North Carolina heat and humidity in black sweats underneath his red jersey. He left the field each day drenched without throwing a single football in the two-hour sessions.

Two years ago, Newton said he hadn’t played at his listed weight of 245 pounds since college, and last year he played at his heaviest (more than 260, one source said). He wasn’t out of shape, but rather he packed on the pounds so he could absorb the hits, a coach said. On Monday, Newton posted a picture of his lean physique to Instagram with a Jay-Z inspired caption, “Sometimes you need your ego, got to remind these fools who they effin with.” A day later, Rivera gleefully told reporters that Newton checked into camp at 246 pounds.

“That’s why the things we talk about changing and doing some things differently are important,” Rivera says. “Now he’s at that point in his career where everything we do with him we have to do judicially if he’s going to run the ball. It has to be the right situation and circumstances. We have to be aware of that.

“He’s not that young guy that we can throw out there and say, ‘Go do your thing.’ He’s now that veteran, crafty guy.”

Panthers coaches say they aren’t throwing out the zone read, but clearly Carolina wants to better protect their 28-year-old franchise quarterback. Newton’s 689 career rushing attempts are the most ever by a quarterback through his first six seasons, and only eight players have ever taken more sacks through six years than he has. So far in his career, his value as a runner has added significant value to Carolina’s offense. He’s the only quarterback in recent memory to be featured consistently on power running plays, forcing the defense to account for all 11 players in the run game (in most offenses, the quarterback hands off then falls out of the play). Despite his reputation, Newton is not a run-first quarterback, or even eager to pull it down and scramble on passing plays. But his legs do provide a safety valve option.

However, time will win. His legs will wear down. His body is showing signs of breaking down. In the past three years he’s endured ankle surgery, cracked ribs, a fractured back, one known concussion and surgery on his throwing shoulder.

WHY THE STEELERS SHOULD SECRETLY WANT LE’VEON BELL TO HOLD OUT: Business of Football columnist Andrew Brandt on why Bell missing time could be in Pittsburgh’s best interest.

This is Operation Reprogram Cam. Jerry West, the basketball Hall of Famer and friend of Richardson’s, once talked to Newton about “taking the layups” and just getting the ball out of his hands. Newton, whose completion rate dipped below 50% in five games during a six-game stretch last season, is one of the NFL’s foremost downfield throwers (his 82 deep-ball attempts, throws that travel at least 20 yards in the air, in 2015 were fourth-most in the league, and his 76 last year were ninth-most) but McCaffrey and Samuel, two top-40 picks, won’t be going on those sorts of routes.

Carolina can draw from the Steelers’ reimaging of Roethlisberger in 2012, when Todd Haley took over as offensive coordinator. In the early part of his career, Roethlisberger’s M.O. was to extend plays by absorbing and shrugging off pass rushers, then making big plays late in the down. As effective as that was, it took a physical toll; he made it through 16 regular-season games just once in his eight seasons as a 20-something. For Roethlisberger’s age-30 season, the Steelers replaced offensive coordinator Bruce Arians with Haley and instituted a quick-strike passing offense, hoping to keep the big-bodied quarterback from taking so many hits and therefore elongating his career.

Roethlisberger has had two 16-game regular seasons in the five he’s played under Haley. But the Steelers, coming off back-to-back 12-win seasons—including a Super Bowl XLV appearance—when Haley arrived, had consecutive eight-win, no-playoff years to start Haley’s tenure. Carolina wants to avoid that kind of short-term downturn, as well as the well-publicized growing pains that Roethlisberger and Haley went through before Pittsburgh grew into a top-five passing offense for three straight years.

“Where Cam’s had the greatest success is using that deep-field accuracy to his advantage,” soon-to-be Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner says. “Where he hasn’t been as good is seeing and making the quicker decision, and the underneath throws have never really been a part of their game. To say that he can’t do it, I’m not going to say that. It doesn’t seem to be what his strength is.

“But then you’ve never had a guy like Christian McCaffrey and what he’s done out of the backfield. Guys like that, and Marshall Faulk [who played with Warner] can make life really easy on a quarterback where you just drop back and throw it to the guy and he always seems to be open. I think it’s an interesting experiment, and there are a lot of things they’re going to be able to do that will make it ‘easier’ on the quarterback.”

RON RIVERA ON THE PANTHERS’ GM CHANGE: The head coach weighed in after a wild week in Carolina.

The man ultimately responsible for getting McCaffrey and Samuel to Charlotte is now gone. The Panthers fired general manager Dave Gettleman last week after his poor bedside manner wore out its welcome (despite it, in part, helping Carolina go to three consecutive postseasons). If McCaffrey and Samuel—and for that matter the entire Panthers offense—can’t turn things around this season, the next person to follow Gettleman could be offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

Rivera has long had Shula’s back. During an interview with The MMQB, the head coach points out that Carolina’s offense had improved steadily year-to-year from 2013 to ’15 with only a minor hiccup related to injuries in 2014. But team sources say Shula won’t get much rope from the owner, who just reminded everyone how swiftly he can write a pink slip, if the rest of the NFL continues to keep pace with the Panthers.

“Perception and reality, we want to make sure we know what reality is,” Shula says. “We’re going to look at maximizing our personnel, all of them, no matter who’s here when they’re in the game. Finding guys who can best make plays for us and finding ways to get them to ball.”

The NFL is cyclical. For instance, defenses have reacted to faster offenses with smaller, faster linebackers, and some offenses are beginning to respond with bigger backs and offensive linemen to re-establish the power running game. Within those cycles, trends come and go. The Wildcat stayed in the league as long as a fifth-round cornerback. The read-option has nearly fizzled out after a half-decade. Shula had built something unique in Carolina, but this might have been inevitable.

“When people say, ‘They caught up with the Panthers’ offense,’ well, we weren’t as good, so how are you going to argue that?” Shula says. “What we have to look at is, offensively they can’t take everything away. When they take this away, you have to be ready for that.”

Panthers coaches have been mum all off-season about how McCaffrey will be used. He’ll be a running back but won’t take away carries from Jonathan Stewart, who campaigned for Carolina to select the Stanford back. He’ll be split out wide and in the slot often, both as a receiver and a decoy to unmask the defense’s intentions. Beyond that, little is known because McCaffrey was allowed to attend just one minicamp practice due to Stanford being on the quarter system. And in that single practice he only caught passes from Anderson.

This past weekend, Newton invited most of his receivers, including McCaffrey, to Baltimore for an annual pre-camp visit to Under Armour facilities for a workout. But this wasn’t the first time the two had worked together. The week before, during Newton’s 7-on-7 tournament in Atlanta, McCaffrey visited Newton. While the region’s top high schoolers battled for the trophy on three football fields split into six 50-yard fields, Newton and McCaffrey used a fourth field to work on routes and timing.

There’s a certain amount of humility involved for any player, two years removed from such a spectacular season, to move away from what had worked so well. It is especially difficult for a player like Newton, who has a sizeable ego. But according to those inside the Panthers building, Newton is embracing the change. More than that, he invited it.

Newton campaigned pre-draft for McCaffrey over Leonard Fournette, according to a team source, because he believed Fournette was too similar to Stewart and that McCaffrey could offer something the Panthers have never had before. Newton does not have Kobe-like pull in this organization but clearly his input matters. Everyone there has hitched their wagon to him, from the owner who, 24 years ago, promised Charlotte a Super Bowl in the first 10 years of the franchise, to Rivera who, after a dozen or so job interviews, got his first head coaching job in 2011 and four months later joined Newton at the hip, to those in uniform who swear by him.

It’s not the dazzling playmaking or even the dancing at practice that endears him to teammates, but rather it’s his refusal to throw anyone under the bus. He won’t assign blame to anyone other than himself in a press conference no matter how obvious it is. And his coaches have to use unique interrogation techniques with him to understand what went wrong on a play even in the film room.

“I’ve had to drag it out of him in terms of, ‘What do you see? What can we fix?,” Rivera says. “It always starts with him. He doesn’t want to sit there and say, ‘I don’t like this play’ or ‘I don’t like that guy at that position.’ In his mind, he’s going to fix it and make it work.”

Newton laid low during Super Bowl LI week. His NFC South rival and hometown Falcons were in the spot he had been in—and failed in—a year earlier. His second child, Sovereign-Dior Cambella Newton, was born the Friday before the game. And as the NFL world descended upon Houston, Newton was in an unexpected place: Georgia’s Walker State Prison, visiting a lifelong friend’s father who was incarcerated there, fulfilling a promise to both men. The friend wrote on Instagram that Newton’s visit, surely one of the few times in history a medium-security prison has hosted the still-reigning NFL MVP during Super Bowl week, “changed a lot of [men] in that prison[’s] life bro you gave them HOPE!”

It’s for his childhood friends, a person close to him said, that Newton starred in his own birthday video lip-synching 2 Chainz’ “Birthday Song,” which has the memorable line “All I want for my birthday is a big booty ho” (Newton edited out that last word). It seems a paradox that Newton, the executive producer of a children’s show (Nickelodeon’s “All In with Cam Newton”), would put out that kind of video. But his personality remains rigid and he doesn’t bend to critics; that’s a big reason why, over the rocky 18 months since Super Bowl 50 slipped away, he has kept the near unconditional support of teammates.

It’s the end of June’s veteran minicamp, and it’s the same ol’ Cam.

Even though Newton can’t throw, his trash talk is out in full force. The same trash talk that led to him fighting Josh Norman during training camp two years ago, on the eve of the 15-1 season. He shouts after Russell Shepard’s diving catch of an Anderson pass against second-year corner Zack Sanchez. He runs from a field away to watch a scuffle between Anderson and veteran defensive back Captain Munnerlyn. And he sings, off-key, “THE BOYSSSSSS ARE BACK IN TOWN” after Kelvin Benjamin snatches a ball out of the air.

Newton isn’t cleared for full practice this camp but he’ll be under center, in control, soon enough. Quarterbacks have immense power when they take the snap, and under duress they can revert to their bad habits. Newton trusts his powerful arm so much that his mechanics and footwork will sometimes fail him. Around the Panthers, the feeling is Newton will use this power for good and that he’s bought into what they’re trying to do with him—and for him. He is going to keep on dancing and keep on jawing with opponents and teammates alike through another season. But you have to look closer and listen closer, like Rivera is, to pick up on the most important thing the quarterback says all day.

With Newton standing behind the action during team drills, Anderson takes the snap on a play that has slow-developing options downfield. Fozzy Whittaker, a seldom used scatback, comes out of the backfield wide and then makes a cut inside, just beyond the line of scrimmage. Newton, so used to launching the ball downfield over the first six seasons of his career, sees it.

“Fozzy … Fozzy,” he mutters under his breath.

Take the layups.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

The Reprogramming of Cam Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton is stuck in Motown Hell.

The Carolina Panthers normally stretch and warmup to rap music—the occasional Kings of Leon is thrown in for friend-of-the-band Greg Olsen—and Newton is usually dancing during this two-to-three song timeframe, because he’s done already extensive stretching inside the building before practice. But on this Thursday in June, the last day of veteran minicamp, The Temptation’s “Just My Imagination” is filling the Panthers’ practice field and the quarterback wants none of it.

“I’ll give you $100 to put on some Future or some damn Young Thug,” Newton shouts to the low-level staffer with the aux cord, a young man visibly caught between the $103.8 million quarterback and those who employ him.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera will later say that this was simply Throwback Thursday, as voted on by the coaches, though local reporters are struggling to remember a time in the past seven years when coaches took over the music. A more popular (and plausible) theory is that Jerry Richardson, the octogenarian owner/founder of the Carolina Panthers, is about to make an appearance on his golf cart to see first-round pick Christian McCaffrey in action, and perhaps Motown would be more palatable than Future or some damn Young Thug.

Newton, still nursing his shoulder after March surgery, stands 10-12 yards behind the action during drills led by Derek Anderson. A noted trash-talker to the defense, he begins the day muted, with Richardson’s cart parked a few feet to his left. Within 10 minutes, his typical decibel level has been reached. A big play by the offense is punctuated by Newton’s “Yeahhhhhhhhh!” Later, on a blitz by veteran linebacker (and primary verbal combatant) Thomas Davis, Newton screams, “You ain’t scarin’ nobody, T.D.!”

Less than an hour into practice, it doesn’t matter if Richardson is on his hip or not. Newton is chest-bumping running backs, commending Kelvin Benjamin for boxing out an overmatched cornerback and constantly prodding the defense. It’s the same Cam Newton we’ve seen since he entered the league seven years ago, even if so many want to change him.

There’s no mistake that change is coming to Carolina, though. All signs point to the Panthers transitioning away from its deep-ball offense and designed quarterback runs, two of the staples of an offense that helped make Newton a superstar. This spring the Panthers added McCaffrey and speedy second-rounder Curtis Samuel to the squad in what looks to be a clear attempt to get faster on offense and the ball out of Newton’s hand more quickly.

The average observer might think of it as an easy change. But it’s a drastic transition for a quarterback to make mid-career, and the fate of a coaching staff could hang in the balance. Central to all this is one simple question: Can Cam change?

When the Panthers touched down in the Bay Area a week before Super Bowl 50, they were coming off two postseason wins featuring a combined 90 points of offense and a 17-1 cumulative record. Newton was named NFL MVP the night before the game, commanding 48 of the 50 total votes.

Wade Phillips, the Broncos’ defensive coordinator that season, shudders at the idea that he broke the code to stopping the Panthers. But the decline of Carolina and Newton can be traced back to that Sunday evening at Levi’s Stadium when the newly crowned MVP became newly humbled with an 18-of-41 passing performance, leading just one touchdown drive, throwing an interception and absorbing six sacks in the 24-10 loss to Denver.

First, Phillips says, his defense was skilled all year long at taking away what Carolina did best. The Broncos held opponents to a league-low 3.3 yards per rush, and Carolina’s offense was predicated on a diversified running game that opened up the passing game. Second, that defense had stopped future Hall of Famers Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the playoffs, and both are better passers than Newton. Denver put the Panthers into 12 third-and-8-or-longer situations, then blitzed Carolina into its worst offensive performance of the year at the worst possible time.

But it was Phillips’ keen film eye that saw an opportunity for his Broncos. Newton wasn’t much of an improvisational scrambler in 2015, so Phillips sent green-dog blitzers—meaning a blitzer only came when he was sure the back or tight end that he would otherwise be responsible for in coverage was staying in to block. Those blockers were supposed to help tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers against Von Miller and Friends, but Phillips’ tack took that help away and forced the Panthers’ offensive linemen to win one-on-ones, a near-impossible task against the Broncos’ stout pass rush. The result was six sacks (including two strip sacks) and 13 knockdowns of Newton.

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“We went through the same thing in ’89 in my first year in Denver,” Phillips says. “We led the league in points allowed on defense and had John Elway at quarterback, and then we lost to the 49ers in the Super Bowl 55-10. We gave up the least points during the year and then we got beat like that in the Super Bowl, and the next year we didn’t do well (5-11). It’s like you have a losing season after you lose the Super Bowl—it really is.”

The hits, both literal and figurative, kept coming for Newton in 2016. For all of Rivera’s complaints about the league sending the NFC champs on the road for a Super Bowl rematch to start the season, the Panthers would have left Denver with a win had Graham Gano’s last-second, 50-yard attempt in the thin air not sailed wide left. That September night, Denver defenders made Newton’s head a piñata and the officials allowed it. (He took at least four hits to his helmet during the game with just one being flagged.) Three weeks later Newton took a vicious but legal hit as he walked into the end zone for a two-point conversion against the Falcons. A few weeks after returning from a concussion that kept him out of a primetime home loss to Tampa Bay, he bemoaned late and low hits by Cardinals defenders. Newton protested enough to demand Roger Goodell pick up his phone.

“I know there are people who are going to say it’s excuses,” Rivera says, “but I think he struggled with—I’m not speaking for him—but from my perspective some of the stuff that went on with some of the hits he took, I think that was one of the things that he struggled with. … And I know he knows there’s a double standard. You know what I’m saying? I think that’s the thing he struggles with. He said he felt he doesn’t get the calls because of who he is.”

Newton, who through a team spokesman declined comment for this story, could still stand after those hits, but some of his teammates weren’t as fortunate. Oher, the starting left tackle, suffered a concussion some time around Week 2 and missed the last 13 games (released by the Panthers last week, he might never play football again). Center Ryan Kalil injured his right shoulder and missed the last half the season. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin, returning from an ACL tear suffered during 2015 training camp, was overburdened and overwhelmed on the field and fell off after September. Newton wasn’t stellar early on; a career 59.6% passer coming into the year, he was at 57.7% at the season’s midpoint.

By the end of the Week 6 loss in New Orleans, Newton’s first game back from his concussion, it was clear Carolina didn’t have the horses to make a fourth-straight playoff run. The 1-4 Panthers trailed 31-17 at the Superdome after three quarters. Newton rallied the offense with a 21-point fourth quarter, tying the game at 38 with less than three minutes to play only to see the defense—specifically Carolina’s green secondary—squander the comeback in a 41-38 loss.

Of course, insult must always follow injury. Russell Wilson is Newton’s rival on the field and antithesis off: Newton is boisterous, colorful and full of braggadocio. Wilson is more muted and traditionally corporate. Both are transcendent young talents, and they were Super Bowl losers in consecutive years. Wilson took questions after his heartbreaking Super Bowl XLIX loss. Newton sulked through his abbreviated post-Super Bowl 50 presser, for which he’s still criticized today.

For Newton to not start against Wilson and the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football was embarrassing enough, but for it to be because the fashionista broke a fashion-related team rule only added to the humiliation. Newton didn’t wear a tie as the team boarded the plane to Seattle and was benched for the first series of the game. That series lasted one play, as Anderson threw a short pass to Mike Tolbert that glanced off the fullback and into the hands of Seahawks linebacker Mike Morgan, a rough start in an eventual 40-7 loss.

“We have rules, and I think Ron did the right thing,” Anderson says. “You’ve got to treat everybody the same way. I think Cam understands that. It wasn’t as big a deal as you guys made it. Unfortunately it happened on a Sunday night game and everyone in the world was watching. And unfortunately that ball bounces off Mike and they pick it and then now it becomes a bigger issue. It just looks bad.

“I had a good talk with Cam the night before the game and I think he understood. It was good to hash some things out and sometimes you need little things to come up to hash other things out. We moved on from it and I think he knows what’s right and what’s wrong.”

When Newton injured his throwing shoulder—eventually requiring surgery in March—in Week 14 on a tackle attempt to prevent a touchdown, the Panthers were 5-8 and still had a chance of making the playoffs, just like they did in 2014 when they finished 7-8-1. Rivera held on to those hopes (250,000-to-1 odds) going into a Monday night game in Washington, and Newton, who doctors said couldn’t damage the shoulder any further, played one of his best games of the season. The Panthers needed 10 games to break exactly one way the following week against Atlanta. They were eliminated before their Week 16 loss to the Falcons was complete.

The shoulder started to give out on him in Week 17 in Tampa Bay. Early in the third quarter Newton threw the weakest comeback route he’s probably ever made, his second of three interceptions that day; Bucs cornerback Brent Grimes picked it off and walked into the end zone untouched. Even with Anderson out with an illness, Rivera still wanted to pull Newton in favor of third-stringer Joe Webb but Newton resisted.

“I’m doing this for the other guys who can’t play because they’re hurt,” Newton told his coaches on the sideline. “I’m doing it because I can play.” Newton led a late touchdown drive, hitting Benjamin for a 5-yard score with 17 seconds left to trail 17-16. Carolina went for two but couldn’t convert, sealing the Panthers’ first 10-loss season since Newton’s 2011 rookie season. His mechanics deteriorated while facing heavy pressure behind a makeshift line in the season’s second half. By the end of the nightmare year he had completed a career-low 52.9% of his attempts, with a sub-80 passer rating (75.8) for the first time in his career. One year after a combined 45 touchdowns as a passer and runner, he accounted for only 24.

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Two topics would dominate the Panthers’ exit interview with Newton. First was possible shoulder surgery. Carolina didn’t want to operate on the quarterback’s throwing shoulder if it didn’t have to, so the idea was to rest him for two months then re-evaluate his partially torn rotator cuff.

Second was Newton’s plans away from football. Many within the Panthers’ organization whispered that Newton had too much on his plate the previous off-season. Concurrent with dealing with his biggest professional loss in the Super Bowl was managing his greatest personal gain of becoming a first-time dad. He moved to Los Angeles for several months in the spring of 2016 to film his Nickelodeon kids’ show, part of his years-long effort to be more than a football player. He continued his charity work, which includes his own 7-on-7 summer tournaments across the southeast before taking his top team (which once included Deshaun Watson) to a national tournament in Florida. His business interests grew with his talent agency WME-IMG’s acquisition of the UFC, of which Newton became a partial owner. Under Armour designed an ad campaign for Newton to kick off the 2016 season with the theme “Prince With 1,000 Enemies.” Subtle, it was not.

Before Rivera could ask, Newton beat his coach to it: “I’m going to be around.”

The first sign of change is the physical transformation.

Each day at OTAs and minicamp this summer, Newton showed up in the North Carolina heat and humidity in black sweats underneath his red jersey. He left the field each day drenched without throwing a single football in the two-hour sessions.

Two years ago, Newton said he hadn’t played at his listed weight of 245 pounds since college, and last year he played at his heaviest (more than 260, one source said). He wasn’t out of shape, but rather he packed on the pounds so he could absorb the hits, a coach said. On Monday, Newton posted a picture of his lean physique to Instagram with a Jay-Z inspired caption, “Sometimes you need your ego, got to remind these fools who they effin with.” A day later, Rivera gleefully told reporters that Newton checked into camp at 246 pounds.

“That’s why the things we talk about changing and doing some things differently are important,” Rivera says. “Now he’s at that point in his career where everything we do with him we have to do judicially if he’s going to run the ball. It has to be the right situation and circumstances. We have to be aware of that.

“He’s not that young guy that we can throw out there and say, ‘Go do your thing.’ He’s now that veteran, crafty guy.”

Panthers coaches say they aren’t throwing out the zone read, but clearly Carolina wants to better protect their 28-year-old franchise quarterback. Newton’s 689 career rushing attempts are the most ever by a quarterback through his first six seasons, and only eight players have ever taken more sacks through six years than he has. So far in his career, his value as a runner has added significant value to Carolina’s offense. He’s the only quarterback in recent memory to be featured consistently on power running plays, forcing the defense to account for all 11 players in the run game (in most offenses, the quarterback hands off then falls out of the play). Despite his reputation, Newton is not a run-first quarterback, or even eager to pull it down and scramble on passing plays. But his legs do provide a safety valve option.

However, time will win. His legs will wear down. His body is showing signs of breaking down. In the past three years he’s endured ankle surgery, cracked ribs, a fractured back, one known concussion and surgery on his throwing shoulder.

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This is Operation Reprogram Cam. Jerry West, the basketball Hall of Famer and friend of Richardson’s, once talked to Newton about “taking the layups” and just getting the ball out of his hands. Newton, whose completion rate dipped below 50% in five games during a six-game stretch last season, is one of the NFL’s foremost downfield throwers (his 82 deep-ball attempts, throws that travel at least 20 yards in the air, in 2015 were fourth-most in the league, and his 76 last year were ninth-most) but McCaffrey and Samuel, two top-40 picks, won’t be going on those sorts of routes.

Carolina can draw from the Steelers’ reimaging of Roethlisberger in 2012, when Todd Haley took over as offensive coordinator. In the early part of his career, Roethlisberger’s M.O. was to extend plays by absorbing and shrugging off pass rushers, then making big plays late in the down. As effective as that was, it took a physical toll; he made it through 16 regular-season games just once in his eight seasons as a 20-something. For Roethlisberger’s age-30 season, the Steelers replaced offensive coordinator Bruce Arians with Haley and instituted a quick-strike passing offense, hoping to keep the big-bodied quarterback from taking so many hits and therefore elongating his career.

Roethlisberger has had two 16-game regular seasons in the five he’s played under Haley. But the Steelers, coming off back-to-back 12-win seasons—including a Super Bowl XLV appearance—when Haley arrived, had consecutive eight-win, no-playoff years to start Haley’s tenure. Carolina wants to avoid that kind of short-term downturn, as well as the well-publicized growing pains that Roethlisberger and Haley went through before Pittsburgh grew into a top-five passing offense for three straight years.

“Where Cam’s had the greatest success is using that deep-field accuracy to his advantage,” soon-to-be Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner says. “Where he hasn’t been as good is seeing and making the quicker decision, and the underneath throws have never really been a part of their game. To say that he can’t do it, I’m not going to say that. It doesn’t seem to be what his strength is.

“But then you’ve never had a guy like Christian McCaffrey and what he’s done out of the backfield. Guys like that, and Marshall Faulk [who played with Warner] can make life really easy on a quarterback where you just drop back and throw it to the guy and he always seems to be open. I think it’s an interesting experiment, and there are a lot of things they’re going to be able to do that will make it ‘easier’ on the quarterback.”

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The man ultimately responsible for getting McCaffrey and Samuel to Charlotte is now gone. The Panthers fired general manager Dave Gettleman last week after his poor bedside manner wore out its welcome (despite it, in part, helping Carolina go to three consecutive postseasons). If McCaffrey and Samuel—and for that matter the entire Panthers offense—can’t turn things around this season, the next person to follow Gettleman could be offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

Rivera has long had Shula’s back. During an interview with The MMQB, the head coach points out that Carolina’s offense had improved steadily year-to-year from 2013 to ’15 with only a minor hiccup related to injuries in 2014. But team sources say Shula won’t get much rope from the owner, who just reminded everyone how swiftly he can write a pink slip, if the rest of the NFL continues to keep pace with the Panthers.

“Perception and reality, we want to make sure we know what reality is,” Shula says. “We’re going to look at maximizing our personnel, all of them, no matter who’s here when they’re in the game. Finding guys who can best make plays for us and finding ways to get them to ball.”

The NFL is cyclical. For instance, defenses have reacted to faster offenses with smaller, faster linebackers, and some offenses are beginning to respond with bigger backs and offensive linemen to re-establish the power running game. Within those cycles, trends come and go. The Wildcat stayed in the league as long as a fifth-round cornerback. The read-option has nearly fizzled out after a half-decade. Shula had built something unique in Carolina, but this might have been inevitable.

“When people say, ‘They caught up with the Panthers’ offense,’ well, we weren’t as good, so how are you going to argue that?” Shula says. “What we have to look at is, offensively they can’t take everything away. When they take this away, you have to be ready for that.”

Panthers coaches have been mum all off-season about how McCaffrey will be used. He’ll be a running back but won’t take away carries from Jonathan Stewart, who campaigned for Carolina to select the Stanford back. He’ll be split out wide and in the slot often, both as a receiver and a decoy to unmask the defense’s intentions. Beyond that, little is known because McCaffrey was allowed to attend just one minicamp practice due to Stanford being on the quarter system. And in that single practice he only caught passes from Anderson.

This past weekend, Newton invited most of his receivers, including McCaffrey, to Baltimore for an annual pre-camp visit to Under Armour facilities for a workout. But this wasn’t the first time the two had worked together. The week before, during Newton’s 7-on-7 tournament in Atlanta, McCaffrey visited Newton. While the region’s top high schoolers battled for the trophy on three football fields split into six 50-yard fields, Newton and McCaffrey used a fourth field to work on routes and timing.

There’s a certain amount of humility involved for any player, two years removed from such a spectacular season, to move away from what had worked so well. It is especially difficult for a player like Newton, who has a sizeable ego. But according to those inside the Panthers building, Newton is embracing the change. More than that, he invited it.

Newton campaigned pre-draft for McCaffrey over Leonard Fournette, according to a team source, because he believed Fournette was too similar to Stewart and that McCaffrey could offer something the Panthers have never had before. Newton does not have Kobe-like pull in this organization but clearly his input matters. Everyone there has hitched their wagon to him, from the owner who, 24 years ago, promised Charlotte a Super Bowl in the first 10 years of the franchise, to Rivera who, after a dozen or so job interviews, got his first head coaching job in 2011 and four months later joined Newton at the hip, to those in uniform who swear by him.

It’s not the dazzling playmaking or even the dancing at practice that endears him to teammates, but rather it’s his refusal to throw anyone under the bus. He won’t assign blame to anyone other than himself in a press conference no matter how obvious it is. And his coaches have to use unique interrogation techniques with him to understand what went wrong on a play even in the film room.

“I’ve had to drag it out of him in terms of, ‘What do you see? What can we fix?,” Rivera says. “It always starts with him. He doesn’t want to sit there and say, ‘I don’t like this play’ or ‘I don’t like that guy at that position.’ In his mind, he’s going to fix it and make it work.”

Newton laid low during Super Bowl LI week. His NFC South rival and hometown Falcons were in the spot he had been in—and failed in—a year earlier. His second child, Sovereign-Dior Cambella Newton, was born the Friday before the game. And as the NFL world descended upon Houston, Newton was in an unexpected place: Georgia’s Walker State Prison, visiting a lifelong friend’s father who was incarcerated there, fulfilling a promise to both men. The friend wrote on Instagram that Newton’s visit, surely one of the few times in history a medium-security prison has hosted the still-reigning NFL MVP during Super Bowl week, “changed a lot of [men] in that prison[’s] life bro you gave them HOPE!”

It’s for his childhood friends, a person close to him said, that Newton starred in his own birthday video lip-synching 2 Chainz’ “Birthday Song,” which has the memorable line “All I want for my birthday is a big booty ho” (Newton edited out that last word). It seems a paradox that Newton, the executive producer of a children’s show (Nickelodeon’s “All In with Cam Newton”), would put out that kind of video. But his personality remains rigid and he doesn’t bend to critics; that’s a big reason why, over the rocky 18 months since Super Bowl 50 slipped away, he has kept the near unconditional support of teammates.

It’s the end of June’s veteran minicamp, and it’s the same ol’ Cam.

Even though Newton can’t throw, his trash talk is out in full force. The same trash talk that led to him fighting Josh Norman during training camp two years ago, on the eve of the 15-1 season. He shouts after Russell Shepard’s diving catch of an Anderson pass against second-year corner Zack Sanchez. He runs from a field away to watch a scuffle between Anderson and veteran defensive back Captain Munnerlyn. And he sings, off-key, “THE BOYSSSSSS ARE BACK IN TOWN” after Kelvin Benjamin snatches a ball out of the air.

Newton isn’t cleared for full practice this camp but he’ll be under center, in control, soon enough. Quarterbacks have immense power when they take the snap, and under duress they can revert to their bad habits. Newton trusts his powerful arm so much that his mechanics and footwork will sometimes fail him. Around the Panthers, the feeling is Newton will use this power for good and that he’s bought into what they’re trying to do with him—and for him. He is going to keep on dancing and keep on jawing with opponents and teammates alike through another season. But you have to look closer and listen closer, like Rivera is, to pick up on the most important thing the quarterback says all day.

With Newton standing behind the action during team drills, Anderson takes the snap on a play that has slow-developing options downfield. Fozzy Whittaker, a seldom used scatback, comes out of the backfield wide and then makes a cut inside, just beyond the line of scrimmage. Newton, so used to launching the ball downfield over the first six seasons of his career, sees it.

“Fozzy … Fozzy,” he mutters under his breath.

Take the layups.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

The Reprogramming of Cam Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton is stuck in Motown Hell.

The Carolina Panthers normally stretch and warmup to rap music—the occasional Kings of Leon is thrown in for friend-of-the-band Greg Olsen—and Newton is usually dancing during this two-to-three song timeframe, because he’s done already extensive stretching inside the building before practice. But on this Thursday in June, the last day of veteran minicamp, The Temptation’s “Just My Imagination” is filling the Panthers’ practice field and the quarterback wants none of it.

“I’ll give you $100 to put on some Future or some damn Young Thug,” Newton shouts to the low-level staffer with the aux cord, a young man visibly caught between the $103.8 million quarterback and those who employ him.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera will later say that this was simply Throwback Thursday, as voted on by the coaches, though local reporters are struggling to remember a time in the past seven years when coaches took over the music. A more popular (and plausible) theory is that Jerry Richardson, the octogenarian owner/founder of the Carolina Panthers, is about to make an appearance on his golf cart to see first-round pick Christian McCaffrey in action, and perhaps Motown would be more palatable than Future or some damn Young Thug.

Newton, still nursing his shoulder after March surgery, stands 10-12 yards behind the action during drills led by Derek Anderson. A noted trash-talker to the defense, he begins the day muted, with Richardson’s cart parked a few feet to his left. Within 10 minutes, his typical decibel level has been reached. A big play by the offense is punctuated by Newton’s “Yeahhhhhhhhh!” Later, on a blitz by veteran linebacker (and primary verbal combatant) Thomas Davis, Newton screams, “You ain’t scarin’ nobody, T.D.!”

Less than an hour into practice, it doesn’t matter if Richardson is on his hip or not. Newton is chest-bumping running backs, commending Kelvin Benjamin for boxing out an overmatched cornerback and constantly prodding the defense. It’s the same Cam Newton we’ve seen since he entered the league seven years ago, even if so many want to change him.

There’s no mistake that change is coming to Carolina, though. All signs point to the Panthers transitioning away from its deep-ball offense and designed quarterback runs, two of the staples of an offense that helped make Newton a superstar. This spring the Panthers added McCaffrey and speedy second-rounder Curtis Samuel to the squad in what looks to be a clear attempt to get faster on offense and the ball out of Newton’s hand more quickly.

The average observer might think of it as an easy change. But it’s a drastic transition for a quarterback to make mid-career, and the fate of a coaching staff could hang in the balance. Central to all this is one simple question: Can Cam change?

When the Panthers touched down in the Bay Area a week before Super Bowl 50, they were coming off two postseason wins featuring a combined 90 points of offense and a 17-1 cumulative record. Newton was named NFL MVP the night before the game, commanding 48 of the 50 total votes.

Wade Phillips, the Broncos’ defensive coordinator that season, shudders at the idea that he broke the code to stopping the Panthers. But the decline of Carolina and Newton can be traced back to that Sunday evening at Levi’s Stadium when the newly crowned MVP became newly humbled with an 18-of-41 passing performance, leading just one touchdown drive, throwing an interception and absorbing six sacks in the 24-10 loss to Denver.

First, Phillips says, his defense was skilled all year long at taking away what Carolina did best. The Broncos held opponents to a league-low 3.3 yards per rush, and Carolina’s offense was predicated on a diversified running game that opened up the passing game. Second, that defense had stopped future Hall of Famers Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the playoffs, and both are better passers than Newton. Denver put the Panthers into 12 third-and-8-or-longer situations, then blitzed Carolina into its worst offensive performance of the year at the worst possible time.

But it was Phillips’ keen film eye that saw an opportunity for his Broncos. Newton wasn’t much of an improvisational scrambler in 2015, so Phillips sent green-dog blitzers—meaning a blitzer only came when he was sure the back or tight end that he would otherwise be responsible for in coverage was staying in to block. Those blockers were supposed to help tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers against Von Miller and Friends, but Phillips’ tack took that help away and forced the Panthers’ offensive linemen to win one-on-ones, a near-impossible task against the Broncos’ stout pass rush. The result was six sacks (including two strip sacks) and 13 knockdowns of Newton.

The MMQB 400: Analyst Andy Benoit’s ranking of football’s top players for 2017.

“We went through the same thing in ’89 in my first year in Denver,” Phillips says. “We led the league in points allowed on defense and had John Elway at quarterback, and then we lost to the 49ers in the Super Bowl 55-10. We gave up the least points during the year and then we got beat like that in the Super Bowl, and the next year we didn’t do well (5-11). It’s like you have a losing season after you lose the Super Bowl—it really is.”

The hits, both literal and figurative, kept coming for Newton in 2016. For all of Rivera’s complaints about the league sending the NFC champs on the road for a Super Bowl rematch to start the season, the Panthers would have left Denver with a win had Graham Gano’s last-second, 50-yard attempt in the thin air not sailed wide left. That September night, Denver defenders made Newton’s head a piñata and the officials allowed it. (He took at least four hits to his helmet during the game with just one being flagged.) Three weeks later Newton took a vicious but legal hit as he walked into the end zone for a two-point conversion against the Falcons. A few weeks after returning from a concussion that kept him out of a primetime home loss to Tampa Bay, he bemoaned late and low hits by Cardinals defenders. Newton protested enough to demand Roger Goodell pick up his phone.

“I know there are people who are going to say it’s excuses,” Rivera says, “but I think he struggled with—I’m not speaking for him—but from my perspective some of the stuff that went on with some of the hits he took, I think that was one of the things that he struggled with. … And I know he knows there’s a double standard. You know what I’m saying? I think that’s the thing he struggles with. He said he felt he doesn’t get the calls because of who he is.”

Newton, who through a team spokesman declined comment for this story, could still stand after those hits, but some of his teammates weren’t as fortunate. Oher, the starting left tackle, suffered a concussion some time around Week 2 and missed the last 13 games (released by the Panthers last week, he might never play football again). Center Ryan Kalil injured his right shoulder and missed the last half the season. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin, returning from an ACL tear suffered during 2015 training camp, was overburdened and overwhelmed on the field and fell off after September. Newton wasn’t stellar early on; a career 59.6% passer coming into the year, he was at 57.7% at the season’s midpoint.

By the end of the Week 6 loss in New Orleans, Newton’s first game back from his concussion, it was clear Carolina didn’t have the horses to make a fourth-straight playoff run. The 1-4 Panthers trailed 31-17 at the Superdome after three quarters. Newton rallied the offense with a 21-point fourth quarter, tying the game at 38 with less than three minutes to play only to see the defense—specifically Carolina’s green secondary—squander the comeback in a 41-38 loss.

Of course, insult must always follow injury. Russell Wilson is Newton’s rival on the field and antithesis off: Newton is boisterous, colorful and full of braggadocio. Wilson is more muted and traditionally corporate. Both are transcendent young talents, and they were Super Bowl losers in consecutive years. Wilson took questions after his heartbreaking Super Bowl XLIX loss. Newton sulked through his abbreviated post-Super Bowl 50 presser, for which he’s still criticized today.

For Newton to not start against Wilson and the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football was embarrassing enough, but for it to be because the fashionista broke a fashion-related team rule only added to the humiliation. Newton didn’t wear a tie as the team boarded the plane to Seattle and was benched for the first series of the game. That series lasted one play, as Anderson threw a short pass to Mike Tolbert that glanced off the fullback and into the hands of Seahawks linebacker Mike Morgan, a rough start in an eventual 40-7 loss.

“We have rules, and I think Ron did the right thing,” Anderson says. “You’ve got to treat everybody the same way. I think Cam understands that. It wasn’t as big a deal as you guys made it. Unfortunately it happened on a Sunday night game and everyone in the world was watching. And unfortunately that ball bounces off Mike and they pick it and then now it becomes a bigger issue. It just looks bad.

“I had a good talk with Cam the night before the game and I think he understood. It was good to hash some things out and sometimes you need little things to come up to hash other things out. We moved on from it and I think he knows what’s right and what’s wrong.”

When Newton injured his throwing shoulder—eventually requiring surgery in March—in Week 14 on a tackle attempt to prevent a touchdown, the Panthers were 5-8 and still had a chance of making the playoffs, just like they did in 2014 when they finished 7-8-1. Rivera held on to those hopes (250,000-to-1 odds) going into a Monday night game in Washington, and Newton, who doctors said couldn’t damage the shoulder any further, played one of his best games of the season. The Panthers needed 10 games to break exactly one way the following week against Atlanta. They were eliminated before their Week 16 loss to the Falcons was complete.

The shoulder started to give out on him in Week 17 in Tampa Bay. Early in the third quarter Newton threw the weakest comeback route he’s probably ever made, his second of three interceptions that day; Bucs cornerback Brent Grimes picked it off and walked into the end zone untouched. Even with Anderson out with an illness, Rivera still wanted to pull Newton in favor of third-stringer Joe Webb but Newton resisted.

“I’m doing this for the other guys who can’t play because they’re hurt,” Newton told his coaches on the sideline. “I’m doing it because I can play.” Newton led a late touchdown drive, hitting Benjamin for a 5-yard score with 17 seconds left to trail 17-16. Carolina went for two but couldn’t convert, sealing the Panthers’ first 10-loss season since Newton’s 2011 rookie season. His mechanics deteriorated while facing heavy pressure behind a makeshift line in the season’s second half. By the end of the nightmare year he had completed a career-low 52.9% of his attempts, with a sub-80 passer rating (75.8) for the first time in his career. One year after a combined 45 touchdowns as a passer and runner, he accounted for only 24.

TOM BRADY TURNS 40: How the quarterback has established himself as an ageless wonder.

Two topics would dominate the Panthers’ exit interview with Newton. First was possible shoulder surgery. Carolina didn’t want to operate on the quarterback’s throwing shoulder if it didn’t have to, so the idea was to rest him for two months then re-evaluate his partially torn rotator cuff.

Second was Newton’s plans away from football. Many within the Panthers’ organization whispered that Newton had too much on his plate the previous off-season. Concurrent with dealing with his biggest professional loss in the Super Bowl was managing his greatest personal gain of becoming a first-time dad. He moved to Los Angeles for several months in the spring of 2016 to film his Nickelodeon kids’ show, part of his years-long effort to be more than a football player. He continued his charity work, which includes his own 7-on-7 summer tournaments across the southeast before taking his top team (which once included Deshaun Watson) to a national tournament in Florida. His business interests grew with his talent agency WME-IMG’s acquisition of the UFC, of which Newton became a partial owner. Under Armour designed an ad campaign for Newton to kick off the 2016 season with the theme “Prince With 1,000 Enemies.” Subtle, it was not.

Before Rivera could ask, Newton beat his coach to it: “I’m going to be around.”

The first sign of change is the physical transformation.

Each day at OTAs and minicamp this summer, Newton showed up in the North Carolina heat and humidity in black sweats underneath his red jersey. He left the field each day drenched without throwing a single football in the two-hour sessions.

Two years ago, Newton said he hadn’t played at his listed weight of 245 pounds since college, and last year he played at his heaviest (more than 260, one source said). He wasn’t out of shape, but rather he packed on the pounds so he could absorb the hits, a coach said. On Monday, Newton posted a picture of his lean physique to Instagram with a Jay-Z inspired caption, “Sometimes you need your ego, got to remind these fools who they effin with.” A day later, Rivera gleefully told reporters that Newton checked into camp at 246 pounds.

“That’s why the things we talk about changing and doing some things differently are important,” Rivera says. “Now he’s at that point in his career where everything we do with him we have to do judicially if he’s going to run the ball. It has to be the right situation and circumstances. We have to be aware of that.

“He’s not that young guy that we can throw out there and say, ‘Go do your thing.’ He’s now that veteran, crafty guy.”

Panthers coaches say they aren’t throwing out the zone read, but clearly Carolina wants to better protect their 28-year-old franchise quarterback. Newton’s 689 career rushing attempts are the most ever by a quarterback through his first six seasons, and only eight players have ever taken more sacks through six years than he has. So far in his career, his value as a runner has added significant value to Carolina’s offense. He’s the only quarterback in recent memory to be featured consistently on power running plays, forcing the defense to account for all 11 players in the run game (in most offenses, the quarterback hands off then falls out of the play). Despite his reputation, Newton is not a run-first quarterback, or even eager to pull it down and scramble on passing plays. But his legs do provide a safety valve option.

However, time will win. His legs will wear down. His body is showing signs of breaking down. In the past three years he’s endured ankle surgery, cracked ribs, a fractured back, one known concussion and surgery on his throwing shoulder.

WHY THE STEELERS SHOULD SECRETLY WANT LE’VEON BELL TO HOLD OUT: Business of Football columnist Andrew Brandt on why Bell missing time could be in Pittsburgh’s best interest.

This is Operation Reprogram Cam. Jerry West, the basketball Hall of Famer and friend of Richardson’s, once talked to Newton about “taking the layups” and just getting the ball out of his hands. Newton, whose completion rate dipped below 50% in five games during a six-game stretch last season, is one of the NFL’s foremost downfield throwers (his 82 deep-ball attempts, throws that travel at least 20 yards in the air, in 2015 were fourth-most in the league, and his 76 last year were ninth-most) but McCaffrey and Samuel, two top-40 picks, won’t be going on those sorts of routes.

Carolina can draw from the Steelers’ reimaging of Roethlisberger in 2012, when Todd Haley took over as offensive coordinator. In the early part of his career, Roethlisberger’s M.O. was to extend plays by absorbing and shrugging off pass rushers, then making big plays late in the down. As effective as that was, it took a physical toll; he made it through 16 regular-season games just once in his eight seasons as a 20-something. For Roethlisberger’s age-30 season, the Steelers replaced offensive coordinator Bruce Arians with Haley and instituted a quick-strike passing offense, hoping to keep the big-bodied quarterback from taking so many hits and therefore elongating his career.

Roethlisberger has had two 16-game regular seasons in the five he’s played under Haley. But the Steelers, coming off back-to-back 12-win seasons—including a Super Bowl XLV appearance—when Haley arrived, had consecutive eight-win, no-playoff years to start Haley’s tenure. Carolina wants to avoid that kind of short-term downturn, as well as the well-publicized growing pains that Roethlisberger and Haley went through before Pittsburgh grew into a top-five passing offense for three straight years.

“Where Cam’s had the greatest success is using that deep-field accuracy to his advantage,” soon-to-be Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner says. “Where he hasn’t been as good is seeing and making the quicker decision, and the underneath throws have never really been a part of their game. To say that he can’t do it, I’m not going to say that. It doesn’t seem to be what his strength is.

“But then you’ve never had a guy like Christian McCaffrey and what he’s done out of the backfield. Guys like that, and Marshall Faulk [who played with Warner] can make life really easy on a quarterback where you just drop back and throw it to the guy and he always seems to be open. I think it’s an interesting experiment, and there are a lot of things they’re going to be able to do that will make it ‘easier’ on the quarterback.”

RON RIVERA ON THE PANTHERS’ GM CHANGE: The head coach weighed in after a wild week in Carolina.

The man ultimately responsible for getting McCaffrey and Samuel to Charlotte is now gone. The Panthers fired general manager Dave Gettleman last week after his poor bedside manner wore out its welcome (despite it, in part, helping Carolina go to three consecutive postseasons). If McCaffrey and Samuel—and for that matter the entire Panthers offense—can’t turn things around this season, the next person to follow Gettleman could be offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

Rivera has long had Shula’s back. During an interview with The MMQB, the head coach points out that Carolina’s offense had improved steadily year-to-year from 2013 to ’15 with only a minor hiccup related to injuries in 2014. But team sources say Shula won’t get much rope from the owner, who just reminded everyone how swiftly he can write a pink slip, if the rest of the NFL continues to keep pace with the Panthers.

“Perception and reality, we want to make sure we know what reality is,” Shula says. “We’re going to look at maximizing our personnel, all of them, no matter who’s here when they’re in the game. Finding guys who can best make plays for us and finding ways to get them to ball.”

The NFL is cyclical. For instance, defenses have reacted to faster offenses with smaller, faster linebackers, and some offenses are beginning to respond with bigger backs and offensive linemen to re-establish the power running game. Within those cycles, trends come and go. The Wildcat stayed in the league as long as a fifth-round cornerback. The read-option has nearly fizzled out after a half-decade. Shula had built something unique in Carolina, but this might have been inevitable.

“When people say, ‘They caught up with the Panthers’ offense,’ well, we weren’t as good, so how are you going to argue that?” Shula says. “What we have to look at is, offensively they can’t take everything away. When they take this away, you have to be ready for that.”

Panthers coaches have been mum all off-season about how McCaffrey will be used. He’ll be a running back but won’t take away carries from Jonathan Stewart, who campaigned for Carolina to select the Stanford back. He’ll be split out wide and in the slot often, both as a receiver and a decoy to unmask the defense’s intentions. Beyond that, little is known because McCaffrey was allowed to attend just one minicamp practice due to Stanford being on the quarter system. And in that single practice he only caught passes from Anderson.

This past weekend, Newton invited most of his receivers, including McCaffrey, to Baltimore for an annual pre-camp visit to Under Armour facilities for a workout. But this wasn’t the first time the two had worked together. The week before, during Newton’s 7-on-7 tournament in Atlanta, McCaffrey visited Newton. While the region’s top high schoolers battled for the trophy on three football fields split into six 50-yard fields, Newton and McCaffrey used a fourth field to work on routes and timing.

There’s a certain amount of humility involved for any player, two years removed from such a spectacular season, to move away from what had worked so well. It is especially difficult for a player like Newton, who has a sizeable ego. But according to those inside the Panthers building, Newton is embracing the change. More than that, he invited it.

Newton campaigned pre-draft for McCaffrey over Leonard Fournette, according to a team source, because he believed Fournette was too similar to Stewart and that McCaffrey could offer something the Panthers have never had before. Newton does not have Kobe-like pull in this organization but clearly his input matters. Everyone there has hitched their wagon to him, from the owner who, 24 years ago, promised Charlotte a Super Bowl in the first 10 years of the franchise, to Rivera who, after a dozen or so job interviews, got his first head coaching job in 2011 and four months later joined Newton at the hip, to those in uniform who swear by him.

It’s not the dazzling playmaking or even the dancing at practice that endears him to teammates, but rather it’s his refusal to throw anyone under the bus. He won’t assign blame to anyone other than himself in a press conference no matter how obvious it is. And his coaches have to use unique interrogation techniques with him to understand what went wrong on a play even in the film room.

“I’ve had to drag it out of him in terms of, ‘What do you see? What can we fix?,” Rivera says. “It always starts with him. He doesn’t want to sit there and say, ‘I don’t like this play’ or ‘I don’t like that guy at that position.’ In his mind, he’s going to fix it and make it work.”

Newton laid low during Super Bowl LI week. His NFC South rival and hometown Falcons were in the spot he had been in—and failed in—a year earlier. His second child, Sovereign-Dior Cambella Newton, was born the Friday before the game. And as the NFL world descended upon Houston, Newton was in an unexpected place: Georgia’s Walker State Prison, visiting a lifelong friend’s father who was incarcerated there, fulfilling a promise to both men. The friend wrote on Instagram that Newton’s visit, surely one of the few times in history a medium-security prison has hosted the still-reigning NFL MVP during Super Bowl week, “changed a lot of [men] in that prison[’s] life bro you gave them HOPE!”

It’s for his childhood friends, a person close to him said, that Newton starred in his own birthday video lip-synching 2 Chainz’ “Birthday Song,” which has the memorable line “All I want for my birthday is a big booty ho” (Newton edited out that last word). It seems a paradox that Newton, the executive producer of a children’s show (Nickelodeon’s “All In with Cam Newton”), would put out that kind of video. But his personality remains rigid and he doesn’t bend to critics; that’s a big reason why, over the rocky 18 months since Super Bowl 50 slipped away, he has kept the near unconditional support of teammates.

It’s the end of June’s veteran minicamp, and it’s the same ol’ Cam.

Even though Newton can’t throw, his trash talk is out in full force. The same trash talk that led to him fighting Josh Norman during training camp two years ago, on the eve of the 15-1 season. He shouts after Russell Shepard’s diving catch of an Anderson pass against second-year corner Zack Sanchez. He runs from a field away to watch a scuffle between Anderson and veteran defensive back Captain Munnerlyn. And he sings, off-key, “THE BOYSSSSSS ARE BACK IN TOWN” after Kelvin Benjamin snatches a ball out of the air.

Newton isn’t cleared for full practice this camp but he’ll be under center, in control, soon enough. Quarterbacks have immense power when they take the snap, and under duress they can revert to their bad habits. Newton trusts his powerful arm so much that his mechanics and footwork will sometimes fail him. Around the Panthers, the feeling is Newton will use this power for good and that he’s bought into what they’re trying to do with him—and for him. He is going to keep on dancing and keep on jawing with opponents and teammates alike through another season. But you have to look closer and listen closer, like Rivera is, to pick up on the most important thing the quarterback says all day.

With Newton standing behind the action during team drills, Anderson takes the snap on a play that has slow-developing options downfield. Fozzy Whittaker, a seldom used scatback, comes out of the backfield wide and then makes a cut inside, just beyond the line of scrimmage. Newton, so used to launching the ball downfield over the first six seasons of his career, sees it.

“Fozzy … Fozzy,” he mutters under his breath.

Take the layups.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

The NFL's Optimism Season

As the NFL entered its dead period this past week, that blink of a break between the end of minicamps and the start of training camps, optimism reigned. Always does this time of year.

Every story about every player on every team oozed with hope and possibility. No fan base called to replace its starting quarterback (although Jets fans would like to find one), no coach found his proverbial seat at a temperature above lukewarm, and every team could at least extol its playoff chances, although some sounded more realistic than others. The Panthers say it feels like 2015 again, and in Los Angeles, Todd Gurley is communicating better with his offensive linemen after a rough second season. Even Cleveland quarterback Brock Osweiler sounded like a Comeback Player of the Year candidate.

Thus this attempt to fill in for the vacationing Peter King in this space—which I liken to how Brian Griese felt in Denver after John Elway retired—will focus on what’s possible across the league, as Optimism Season ramps up. Below you’ll read about...

• A Saint who thinks New Orleans can win the Super Bowl (and a fan who thinks so too).

• A nosetackle in Buffalo who’s excited about the new regime, and a Vikings linebacker who sees dominance ahead in Minnesota.

• A Seahawks defensive end who builds homes in Haiti when not tearing down opposing quarterbacks.

• A retired running back’s business pursuit to become the Gatorade of hygiene.

• A nod to the next project at The MMQB—Smarter Football Week begins Tuesday— and the most intelligent players I’ve covered.

And so much more. Let’s get it going...

• 1967 WEEK AT THE MMQB: Our series of articles on what the game, the players and the culture of professional football were like a half-century ago

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When The Saints...

You could argue that the Saints’ Cameron Jordan is the most underrated player in the game. Pro Football Focus bolstered that argument recently when it ranked Jordan 15th overall on its list of 101 Best Players from last season. The website touted the defensive end’s total QB pressures (79, tied with Broncos sackmaster Von Miller) and his “consistent” play against the run as factors that solidified his ranking.

So why isn’t Jordan a household name outside of Louisiana? “Well, we finished the last three seasons 7-9 and our defense was in the mid-20s,” he told me. “That’s not where we want to be. Last time we were a top-five defense we made the playoffs [2013, defense ranked fourth]. That’s what we want to be.”

Jordan is high on the Saints this season, particularly on defense. He notes the addition of free-agent pass rusher Alex Okafor, how New Orleans deepened its linebacker core and the signing of running back Adrian Peterson, who will share a backfield with Mark Ingram (a Pro Bowl replacement in Jan. 2015) and quarterback Drew Brees (one of the best players on earth). “We’re building a team to win a Super Bowl,” Jordan says. “We’re not building for the future. It’s hard not to believe in our team. We’re ready to win it now.”

Here’s what else Jordan had to say about the Saints (and Tom Brady):

• On Brees: “Is there a better quarterback? You tell me how many 5,000-yard seasons have been produced in NFL history. I would say eight. (Close, but it’s nine.) Drew has five of those seasons.”

• On Brees/Brady: “That being said, TB12 is the GOAT when it comes to rings. But when it comes to the King of the Air, we’ll call him Drew.” (May we suggest a Game of Thrones spin-off?)

• On Brady: “Can you ask him to adopt me? Between him and Giselle that’s a lot of money.”

• On Peterson: “I’m a fan. He runs the angriest of any back I’ve ever hit.”

For more proof that Jordan rules, here he is competing against Ingram in a lip sync battle for charity.

• COLIN KAEPERNICK NEEDS TO SPEAK UP: Albert Breer on what the unemployed quarterback should do if he still wants a job playing football

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My Favorite Person in Sports

For 13 years, Louisiana native Jarrius Robertson fought for a liver transplant after he was diagnosed with a chronic liver disease called biliary atresia. He underwent dozens of surgeries, started his own foundation, “It Takes Lives to Save Lives,” and followed his beloved Saints. Even in his worst moments, Robertson told his father, Jordy, “If I die, I want you to donate my organs.”

I met Robertson, now 15, last fall, while on the field at the Superdome, reporting the series Football in America with home-run hitter Michael McKnight. I followed Robertson’s story in the months since—the appearance on “Good Morning America,” where he signed a contract to become a hype man for the Saints; the ESPN video segments; his star turn at the NBA All-Star game; all the way through the liver transplant he received last month. Jordan counts Jarrius as a friend, as do most of the Saints players.

I wanted to see how Jarrius was doing post-transplant, so I called Jordy last week. “I saw a change in my son,” he says. “He’s enjoying life more. He pushes himself more. He doesn’t have any restrictions on him now. He’s able to take a breather now.”

Last week, Jarrius even tried wrestling.

I told Jordy what Cam Jordan had said about the Saints and their Super Bowl chances. He noted that before Jarrius was the Saints’ hype man, he did the same at Lutcher High School, where the football team won back-to-back state titles in 2015 and ’16. In fact, Jarrius received his latest championship ring the day before his transplant and went to his eighth grade graduation ceremony the same day as his surgery. “I’ll tell you this,” Jordy says, “If he can help Lutcher High School win a championship, I know damn well he can bring the Saints back to the Super Bowl.”

Here’s the foundation’s website and Robertson’s Go Fund me page.

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A Must-Read Story and How It Came Together

That would be this story on former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan. It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read this year.

Start with the first sentence, a lede unlike any I can remember: Ryan O’Callaghan’s plan was always to play football and then, when his career was over, kill himself.

I asked the author of the piece (and Outsports co-founder), Cyd Zeigler, about that sentence specifically. He said he often starts writing in the middle of the story, but not with this one. Those were the first words he typed. Incredible.

Same went for reaction to the story. Zeigler said Outsports doesn’t release traffic numbers but did say that the volume of readers for the O’Callaghan story was among the highest he had ever seen on the site. He heard from friends who are gay but have no interest in sports and saw the story. “What’s most important is people in the NFL saw it,” he said. “It has been three years since they’ve had a reason to talk about this issue.”

For O’Callaghan, the interest in his story was overwhelming—in a good way. He went on Dan Patrick’s radio show, did “SI Now” with Maggie Gray and talked to several reporters, including me. O’Callaghan said he will have upcoming segments with CBS and HBO, and he laughed at the news outlets that asked him not to talk to other news outlets. They were missing the aim of why he told his story in the first place: “To reach as many people as possible,” he says. “People who might be going through what I went through.”

Quick background: O’Callaghan played college football at Cal, winning the Pac-10’s Morris Trophy (best lineman) in 2005. He then spent time in the NFL with the Patriots and Chiefs, all while trying to conceal his sexual orientation and wracked with worry and suicidal thoughts over the secret he was keeping.

Here’s how it came together: O’Callaghan sent Zeigler a friend request on Facebook. At first, Zeigler thought it might be a prank. He is a die-hard Patriots fan, and he knew who O’Callaghan was, but Outsports had received fake emails about specific athletes being gay and wanting to tell their story many times before. A few minutes after Zeigler accepted the request, though, O’Callaghan sent him a message.

A week ago, they met in West Hollywood for LA Pride weekend. That was the first time O’Callaghan had ever attended a pride event. He couldn’t tell anyone about the story and no one knew who he was. That changed when the story broke. He received more than 5,000 emails, and many of those missives were thousands of words long. He heard from dozens of friends and family members. One man wrote and said he hadn’t taken it well when his son came out and now he wanted another chance. “That was the whole goal,” O’Callaghan says.

I don’t want to spoil the piece but two things stood out. One was Scott Pioli, an executive for both the NFL teams O’Callaghan played for, and the role Pioli played in helping O’Callaghan find acceptance. That part of the story stayed with me. I was still thinking about Pioli and O’Callaghan long after I read it. O’Callaghan said he had spoken to Pioli last week and the executive had also received a ton of reaction.

The second part was this (and Zeigler said this passage had almost been cut in the final round of edits): In 2014 he was being inducted into the Shasta County Sports Hall of Fame. He had moved back to Redding, a familiar place with a support system where he could continue to learn how to manage his addiction.

He decided the thing to do at these events was to bring a significant other. O’Callaghan embraced the moment and brought his then-boyfriend, thanking him from the stage.

Then … crickets. Even with the local media there, and NFL prospect Michael Sam having come out publicly just months earlier, no one reported on it. No one asked him questions.

One last note. As O’Callaghan made the media rounds last week, several outlets asked him if he thinks the NFL is ready to accept a gay superstar. That’s the wrong question, Zeigler said. The league has already proven that it is. “We’re so addicted to thinking the NFL is homophobic and these athletes are all big, dumb jocks,” he said. “Sports have moved beyond that. I’m shocked we’re still asking the question.”

O’Callaghan agreed. “I can’t remember hearing a gay slur in the locker room,” he said, adding that “football players are more open-minded than people give them credit for. Teams are made up of so many different people from all walks of life. You become open to each other’s differences that way.”

• HOW TO BUILD WINNING FRANCHISE IN NFL: Andrew Brandt on how tanking could be part of vital strategy to achieve to long-term success

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Smarter Football Week at The MMQB

Please keep an eye out for our Smarter Football stories this week at The MMQB. We’ll examine the cerebral side of America’s favorite sport, the growth of advanced analytics and examine how one big-brained linebacker prepares for games.

I think people who fall easily into stereotypes get it wrong about pro football players. I’ve covered many sports, from pro cycling to gay softball leagues to the NFL, and I’ve always found football players to be the most insightful and thought-provoking in sports. That whole dumb-jock thing was always a dumb concept, especially in football locker rooms. Think of all the information football players have to process, the decisions they make in seconds, over and over, that determine the outcomes of their games, even all the plays they have to memorize. To hear football people talk about the game itself is to hear a foreign language, Football French. The sport is brutal, yes, but it’s cerebral in its soul as well. Most of the best football players mix brawn and brainpower. They see openings before they exist, guess plays before they unfold and win because they studied more than they practiced.

At the risk of some blowback, as a general rule, I’ve always found offensive linemen to be the smartest players in a locker room. I’m not sure exactly why that is. As for individual players, I’d cite Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who asks astronauts about astrophysics), Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin (who recommends Netflix documentaries on the prison industrial complex) and the retired fullback Tony Richardson (who’s fluent in wine snobbery, acupuncture and leadership).

• PARTING THOUGHTS: An interview with The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan on her way out

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The Haitian Creation

Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril saw the damage Hurricane Matthew did to Haiti last October and pledged to build a house there for every sack he registered last season. Then he made the Pro Bowl, after registering 11.5 sacks. Then he built 12 homes.

Avril’s parents grew up in Haiti and came to the United States in the 1980s. He used to visit relatives there most summers during his childhood, but stopped visiting once he started playing college football. Then he saw his former teammate, running back Marshawn Lynch, doing charity work in Haiti, and so Avril went back, helping how he could, along with Lynch, Michael Bennett and others. (Quick aside: Avril agrees with my assessment that all roads in the NFL lead back to Lynch. He’s like the football version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. “One of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Avril said.)

To build the homes, Avril partnered with the charitable organization New Story, and they used Haitian workers and local materials in their efforts, helping to boost the local economy. When Avril visited the completed residences this spring, the occupants cried and prayed. He also saw their old homes, with dirt floors that turned muddy when it rained.

As for the Seahawks, Avril notes that the defense returns with its core intact, now that safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are back to full health after both suffered injuries in the past two seasons. “I feel like we’re getting back to who we are,” he said.

Avril plans to continue with his pledge this season.

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The New-Look Bills and a Voice of Reason

So much is new in Buffalo this season, from a new coach in Sean McDermott to a new general manager in Brandon Beane. For defensive tackle Marcell Dareus that’s a good thing. Dareus made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and ’14, when he also was named first-team all-pro. The next off-season he inked a six-year extension for $96.5 million (with $60 million guaranteed, the highest guarantee at that time for a non-quarterback in NFL history). But his numbers dropped in the past two seasons, thanks in part to a four-game suspension and a hamstring injury in 2016.

Now, Dareus appears primed for a resurgence—and, if all goes well, the Bills hope to end the longest playoff drought in the league. (Their last appearance was in 1999.) To that end, Dareus praised quarterback Tyrod Taylor for taking a more active leadership role this spring. But here’s a twist: even in this Optimism Season, Dareus wants to see how the team actually plays before he makes any pronouncements. “We have a lot of pieces,” he said. “But I always say everything looks good on paper. Everything sounds good on the radio. But until we put the toys on and run around you just don’t know.” Points for honesty there.

Also worth noting: Dareus loves Bills fans. He does a lot of charity work when he’s in town (including a “Marcell Dareus Day” at the minor league stadium for the Buffalo Bisons) and said members of Bills Mafia have stopped him at Starbucks, Toys “R” Us and even tried to talk football … in a theater … during a movie. “Bills fans are crazy,” he said affectionately. “Most of them feel like they should be head coach.”

• EVOLUTIONARY, NOT REVOLUTIONARY: Albert Breer on the Derek Carr contract and what it means for future blockbuster deals

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In Minnesota, Pointed Forward

In his two seasons in Minnesota, inside linebacker Eric Kendricks has … established himself as a dominant force on an underappreciated defense … seen a legend (Adrian Peterson) leave … studied under a defensive guru in Mike Zimmer, until Zimmer was sidelined with eye surgeries for a detached retina … and witnessed an injury to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater that was so gruesome some teammates threw up. “We’ve gone through a lot,” Kendricks said. “I can’t say I’ve ever been on a team that went through that much in one year.”

Yet Kendricks prefers to look forward to next season, rather than back at the insanity that unfolded in 2016. He cares little that PFF ranked him as the sixth most-improved player in the league last year—his overall grade improved from 48.3 to 80.3—but agreed with my contention that the Vikings could make the postseason next fall. (I’ll throw in some disclaimers there: if quarterback Sam Bradford minimizes mistakes, the offensive line improves and the offense keeps the Vikings’ D in games. Is that a lot of disclaimers? Well, it’s the Optimism Season!)

Kendricks says his improvement last year stemmed mostly from becoming more comfortable on the field, thinking less and following his instincts. He learned that from Zimmer, who guided the Vikings to third overall in total defense last season, sixth in points allowed per game and ninth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average rankings. Like Kendricks, Minnesota’s D is young, improving and ready to join units like the Broncos, Seahawks and Texans in competition for the league’s best. I think the Vikings can compete with the Packers for NFC North supremacy next season.

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Sweat Equity for Forsett

Back inside the Cal the locker room in the mid-2000s, running back Justin Forsett and his teammates would lament how they often had to choose between showering and eating lunch. They would make jokes about needing to take a shower pill to continue with their day.

Then one of those teammates, Wale Forrester, became a firefighter and one day after a workout, he was called suddenly into work. He stopped by a sporting goods store and asked if they sold wipes for athletes after workouts. And the salesman said that the store did not but added that it would love to.

That’s when the ShowerPill Athletic Body Wipe was born. It’s an extra-thick disposable wipe that athletes can use when they don’t have time to shower. The product, launched commercially in 2014 but now consuming Forsett’s time post football, has been approved by the FDA and kills 99.9 percent of germs. Perhaps it can even help sportswriters.

As Forsett played for seven teams over nine seasons, he often brought the wipes into the locker room. The feedback was intense. In Seattle, even the team employees started using the wipes after yoga sessions or long flights. Forsett started the company with Forrester and Wendell Hunter, and they donated their product to residents of Flint, Mich., during the water crisis, along with homeless communities in Baton Rouge and the people of Haiti after Hurricane Matthew.

The product is backed by NFL stars from Ronnie Lott to Steve Smith and its brand ambassadors include Jared Goff, Golden Tate and Marshawn Lynch. (Everything comes back to Lynch, remember?)

Forsett recently purchased a home in Dallas, his first permanent residence since he started in the NFL in 2009. No NFL team has called him, and he said the running back market in particular is oversaturated, but he hasn’t entirely ruled out a return to the NFL. In fact, he’s playing in a flag football league this summer, staying in shape. Should he return to the NFL, he’ll have to take the ShowerPill back on the road. “We’re trying to be the Gatorade of hygiene,” Forsett said.

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Quotes of the Week

I

“I mean, I don’t tank nothing. So that’s all opinions outside of this organization. We don’t come here—and we’re not going to go through training camp, and have 14-hour days—to go tank a season. I’ll be damned.”

—Jets DT Sheldon Richardson to NJ.com.

Fair question. Fair answer. Good times as always in Florham Park, N.J.

II

“I really think that may be overdone a little bit. I mean, I don’t think the game has ever been safer than it is now.”

—Patriots owner Robert Kraft to the Associated Press, speaking about player safety.

From limiting practice contact to mandating the removal of potentially concussed players from games to penalizing with increased regularity helmet-to-helmet hits, Kraft makes a fair point. The NFL has never taken more steps to make the game safer. His argument, though, also ignores physics—that bigger, faster players will produce more forceful collisions. No rule change can alter that.

III

“Business should reflect productivity.”

—Panthers tight end Greg Olsen to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The two were discussing Olsen’s contract, worth $6.5 million in base salary in both 2017 and ’18, and how he wants a new one. He’s clearly among the best tight ends in football. He hasn’t missed a game since before President Obama took office. He’s right, too, but right here doesn’t equal likely or even possible.

IV

“Robert is very important to me personally. We both understand that we have jobs.”

—NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on his relationship with Kraft, to Allon Sinai of the Jerusalem Post, during a trip to open the Kraft Family Sports Complex in Jerusalem.

I don’t doubt that the men could reconcile after Deflategate. Or even that they became friends again. But Goodell saying there’s never been a problem with him and Kraft is at best disingenuous. Anybody who saw Kraft rip into Goodell on numerous occasions knows that’s not true.

V

“Teamwork, fair play and the pursuit of personal excellence are the values—in the religious sense, we can say virtues—that have guided your own commitment on the field. Yet these same values are urgently needed off the field, on all levels of our life as a community. They are the values that help build a culture of encounter, in which we anticipate and meet the needs of our brothers and sisters, and combat the exaggerated individualism, indifference and injustice that hold us back from living as one human family. How greatly our world needs this culture of encounter!”

—Pope Francis, to the group of NFL Hall of Famers that visited the Vatican last week.

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Stat of the Week

Raiders signal caller Derek Carr signed a five-year extension last week good for $125,025,000 over five seasons. The $25 million average makes him the highest paid quarterback in the NFL. I agree with The MMQB’s Albert Breer that the contract is more evolutionary than revolutionary, because it’s only slightly higher than the average salaries of Andrew Luck (Colts, $24.6 million), Carson Palmer (Cardinals, $24.4 million), Brees (Saints, $24.3 million) and Kirk Cousins (Redskins, $23.9 million). In a year when the salary cap increased by 7 percent, Carr’s deal, while life changing, is closer to what should have been expected than anything transformative.

That said, no one should be more excited about the Raiders move to Las Vegas in 2020 than Carr. He’ll play out the final three years of this deal in Nevada, a state that does not tax income. I reached out to Stephen Kidder of Hemeney & Barnes in Boston, because he has a deep background in sports tax law. He said that California taxes will cost Carr about $3,286,000 in income while the Raiders are in Oakland. That means he’ll pocket almost $10 million more in Nevada than he would have if the Raiders had stayed put.

Some other points of note. The top 12 highest paid quarterbacks in terms of average salary are Carr, Luck, Palmer, Brees, Cousins, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. (At $20.5 million per season, Brady’s deal ranks among the best bargains in sports.) This list confirms what’s obvious: that if you have a franchise quarterback, you don’t quibble on dollars, you pay. The only franchise-caliber QB who’s not on that list if Matthew Stafford, and he’ll be there soon enough. The rest of the NFL teams are looking for their next franchise signal caller, rather than paying one.

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Factoid That May Only Interest Me

As noted by Pro Football Talk, Chiefs coach Andy Reid is currently tied for 11th on the all-time wins list, with 173. He needs 13 wins to pass Chuck Knox and move into the top 10. If Reid records an average of 11 victories in the next five years, he’d be fifth all-time, behind only Don Shula, George Halas, Tom Landry and Bill Belichick. I think that’s worthy of the Hall of Fame and a slam dunk nomination should Reid win a Super Bowl in K.C.

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Mr. Marriott Lifetime Platinum Member Travel Note

If you’ve never been to Ketchikan, Alaska, do yourself a favor and go visit. That’s where I’m typing this column, in a hotel downtown, near what seems like thousands of cruise ship tourists. Mountains. Water. Bears. This is God’s country.

I’d recommend Bar Harbor restaurant. If you don’t order some sort of fresh seafood, I’ll trust that you’re allergic.

Only downside: no Marriotts.

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Tweets of the Week

I

How this man @DavidJohnson31 only have 56k follows? That's a damn shame! He won y'all TOO MANY fantasy s for you not to follow the man!— Patrick Peterson /P2 (@P2) June 20, 2017

Truer words have rarely been typed. If you’re one of the thousands who needed Cardinals running back David Johnson to win your fantasy football league last season, the least you can do is follow the man on Twitter.

II

Tom Brady with Takashi Kurihara!!!route wide version #tombrady #patriots #nfl #underarmour #iwill #japan #football #?????????????????? pic.twitter.com/LyH0knfFrC— Takashi Kurihara ??? (@TeeKeyy) June 21, 2017

Incredible how many fans in China showed up to watch Patriots Tom Brady play catch.

III

USC's QB can even throw darts from a boat (: samdarnold/IG) pic.twitter.com/49NKipIRn4— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) June 19, 2017

This video (reposted from USC signal caller’s Sam Darnold’s Instagram account) shows why Jets fans might not mind a 1-15 record in 2017. (Although their players insist, as they should, that the concept of tanking is for people who, you know, write Monday Morning Quarterback columns.)

IV

Former Jets LB David Harris has reached agreement on a two-year deal with...the New England Patriots, source tells ESPN.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) June 21, 2017

Can’t beat ‘em, well …

The longtime Jet, by the way, is one of my favorite players I’ve ever covered. Always accessible, generally solid with the insight. That’s all you can ask.

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Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think the Titans will make the playoffs next season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a run into late January, depending on the match-ups. Not only did they add free agent wideout Eric Decker, but they also drafted another receiver, Corey Davis of Western Michigan, in the first round. Add those two into a target mix that includes Delanie Walker, Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe, plus two capable running backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, plus an emerging star at quarterback in Marcus Mariota, plus Super Bowl experience from signees Logan Ryan (CB), Sylvester Williams (NT) and Eric Weems (WR). Houston will also compete in the AFC South—and maybe, dare I say, Jacksonville—but Tennessee will challenge the Texans and Jaguars.

2. I think I’d be grateful if you read some of the excellent Where Are They Now? pieces we’ll be running on SI.com in the next week. I have one on Vince Young and there’s another fascinating NFL story on retired running back Clinton Portis. Plus Lee Jenkins on Allen Iverson and more.

3. I think this story confirms that Eric Berry is a good human being and that not all football news is negative. The story, told by a stranger watching from a distance without Berry’s knowledge, describes the Chiefs safety coming out of a restaurant in Knoxville, handing food he purchased to three homeless people. They asked Berry to pray with them. He did. “I don’t do it for the attention,” Berry told The Kansas City Star. “I do it to better myself and just give back. That’s what you should do it for.”

4. I think my editor/life coach, Adam Duerson, couldn’t be more wrong when he sent a passage from a soon-to-be-released bonus story written by the legendary Steve Rushin on hot dogs and their place in sports. Duerson described one line in the passage as “nasty” and said it offended him.

The line in question: Lohr would like to criminalize even some who do eat them. “I think people over 12 who put ketchup on hot dogs should have to do 100 hours of community service,” he says. “It’s the desecration of a national food. It’s like defacing Mount Rushmore.”

The last time Duerson was this wrong was the last time he cut from one of my magazine pieces. Ketchup on a hot dog is a crime against one’s taste buds. They shouldn’t even stock ketchup at ballparks, to avoid letting anyone make a horrible, life-altering mistake. The only condiment that belongs on a hot dog is mustard. That should be obvious.

“I guess I’m alone here,” Duerson wrote back. Yes, yes you are.

5. I think it was smart of Odell Beckham Jr. to read Brady’s favorite book this off-season. It’s called The Four Agreements, and the second agreement in particular—don’t take anything personally—applies to famous football players. I called the book’s author, Don Miguel Ruiz, before Super Bowl 51 and asked how that agreement applied to Brady, after his Deflategate suspension and revenge tour.

From our Super Bowl cover story: Ruiz writes that people tend to fall into narratives that others create for them, that they’re angry because they’re expected to be angry, aggrieved because most others would be too. Brady—at least publicly—never blamed Goodell, never let the noise appear to influence him.

“Brady,” Ruiz says, “has created his own truth.”

Beckham, with years of prime ahead of him, can do the same.

6. I think that Lions president Rod Wood made total sense when he told Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com that he’s comfortable making Matt Stafford the highest-paid player in pro football. There just aren’t many franchise-level quarterbacks walking around the planet. (See Stat of the Week, above.) When you have one—and Stafford is definitely one; look what he did last season without Calvin Johnson; or check back on the 5,000-yard passing year—you don’t let them walk. Unless you want to spend that next however-many-years looking for your next quarterback, drafting replacements, signing journeymen, etc. I also think that’s why regardless of any tension between the offense and the defense in Seattle, Russell Wilson isn’t going anywhere. With franchise signal-callers, as Wood told Rothstein, “it’s going to be whatever it takes.”

7. I think it’s wise of wideout Anquan Boldin to skip the NFL’s off-season programs and look to sign with a receiver-needy team before training camp. That’s the Walter Jones Approach to Optimism Season, named after the perpetual holdout at left tackle in Seattle. It worked pretty well for Jones, who made the Hall of Fame. If I’m Boldin, I try to sign with New England, looking for a ring. He’d also fit well in Kansas City, Washington, Minnesota and elsewhere.

8. I think that Jason Taylor’s choice of his former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson as his Hall of Fame presenter could not be more perfect, given the year. Taylor will be inducted along with kicker Morten Andersen, quarterback Kurt Warner, running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrell Davis, safety Kenny Easley and … Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. In recent years, Jones and Johnson have both said publicly that they patched up their feud over who could take more credit for the Cowboys dynasty in the ‘90s. But look for that to continue on stage in Canton, Ohio, this summer.

9. I think you should read this story by Malika Andrews in The New York Times. It’s about Jeff Charles, a former football coach who couldn’t bring himself to watch football anymore after one of his players sustained a fatal brain injury on the field. I won’t ruin the rest of it for you.

10. I think these are the rest of my thoughts, including some non-football ones:

a. It doesn’t matter if Rob Gronkowski spent $102,407 at a casino nightclub in Connecticut. Wasteful? Sure. Could be put to better use? Absolutely. But the time to worry about Gronk being Gronk is the day he’s anything other than amazing on the football field. I don’t think that day will come any time soon.

b. There is a football link to the anniversary last Monday of the night the Purple Cobras of Globo Gym collapsed with a four-man advantage against regional qualifier Average Joe’s Gym in the American Dodgeball Association of America tournament. That’s because one NFL star trained and starred on a traveling dodgeball team growing up. You’ll read about that—and him—in the pages of SI soon.

c. My colleague Ben Baskin is one of the best young writers exploring the world of pro football. Check out his piece on the Saints first season, as part of The MMQB’s 1967 package from last week.

d. Editors across the nation should resist all Juice is Loose headlines should O.J. Simpson be released from prison in October. His parole hearing is scheduled for July 20.

e. Having been to China a few times, I think it will be difficult to play an NFL regular season game there. The biggest problem is just how far it is. That said, I also think the NFL will play a regular season game there anyway. When Brady visited the country last week as part of a tour he said it was his “dream” to play a game there someday. He also noted how the NFL tried to send the Patriots and Seahawks there in 2007 (the league also attempted to reschedule that game for 2009) but the efforts haven’t been successful—yet. For more on the logistics, check out this piece from the excellent Jonathan Jones.

f. Stories like these are why I pay $10 a week for the Sunday version of The New York Times. I read this version in the paper (shocker) and it was better than anything I watch on Netflix. (And, let’s be honest, I watch a lot of Netflix.)

g. The piece is called The Sheriff’s War and it’s about an NYT legend (Walt Bogdanich), a murder at the home of a Sheriff’s Department employee in Florida, an investigation into that murder and the subsequent investigation into the investigator. Beyond that, I think I’ll just say enjoy.

h. Beernerdness: I’m on IR now with a displaced fracture in my left pinkie toe, which I’m embarrassed to admit resulted from when I snagged my foot on a door frame. So I was surprised to see a package arrive at my house last week that was addressed to the “Association for Disabled Sportswriters.” It came from my friend and colleague Pete Thamel, and it was a package of local beers intended to ease the pain. I particularly enjoyed the Reuben's Daily Pale, which is brewed in Seattle. The beer was light in body, balanced, crisp and clean at the finish, and chalk full of delicious undertones (citrus, passion fruit, honeydew and kiwi) … ah, who am I kidding? It tasted like beer and went down smooth.

i. Coffeenerdness: I live outside Seattle. We call coffeenerdness “Tuesday.” But I have been enjoying Urban Coffee Lounge in my new neighborhood. Wrote half a story there recently. (I think Duerson probably cut it.)

* * *

The Adieu Haiku

What doesn't kill mewill only make me stronger.So take that, haters.

(That’s actually a Kanye West song and not the exact lyrics but more of a summary. Still, s/o.)

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

The NFL Optimism Season

As the NFL entered its dead period this past week, that blink of a break between the end of mini camps and the start of training camps, optimism reigned. Always does this time of year.

Every story about every player on every team oozed with hope and possibility. No fan base called to replace its starting quarterback (although Jets fans would like to find one), no coach found his proverbial seat at a temperature above lukewarm and every team could at least extol its playoff chances, although some sounded more realistic than others. The Panthers say it feels like 2015 again, and Todd Gurley is communicating better with his offensive linemen in Los Angeles after a rough second season. Even Cleveland quarterback Brock Osweiler sounded like a comeback player of the year candidate.

Thus this attempt to fill in for the vacationing Peter King in this space—which I liken to how Brian Griese felt in Denver after John Elway retired—will focus on what’s possible across the league, as Optimism Season ramps up. Below you’ll read about...

• A Saint who thinks New Orleans can win the Super Bowl (and a fan who thinks so too).

• A nose tackle in Buffalo who’s excited about the new regime, and a Vikings linebacker who sees dominance ahead in Minnesota.

• A Seahawks defensive end who builds homes in Haiti when not tearing down opposing quarterbacks.

• A retired running back’s business pursuit to become the Gatorade of hygiene.

• A nod to the next project at The MMQB—Smarter Football Week begins Tuesday— and the most intelligent players I’ve covered.

And so much more. Let’s get it going...

• 1967 WEEK AT THE MMQB: Our series of articles on what the game, the players and the culture of professional football were like a half-century ago

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When The Saints...

You could argue that the Saints’ Cameron Jordan is the most underrated player in pro football. Pro Football Focus bolstered that argument recently when it ranked Jordan 15th overall on its list of 101 Best Players from last season. The website touted the defensive end’s total QB pressures (79, tied with Broncos sackmaster Von Miller) and his “consistent” play against the run as factors that solidified his ranking.

So why isn’t Jordan a household name outside of Louisiana? “Well, we finished the last three seasons 7-9 and our defense was in the mid-20s,” he told me. “That’s not where we want to be. Last time we were a top-five defense we made the playoffs (2013, fourth). That’s what we want to be.”

Jordan is high on the Saints this season, particularly on defense. He notes the addition of free agent pass rusher Alex Okafor, how New Orleans deepened its linebacker core and the signing of running back Adrian Peterson, who will share a backfield with Mark Ingram (a Pro Bowl replacement in Jan. 2015) and quarterback Drew Brees (one of the best players on earth). “We’re building a team to win a Super Bowl,” Jordan says. “We’re not building for the future. It’s hard not to believe in our team. We’re ready to win it now.”

Here’s what else Jordan had to say about the Saints (and Tom Brady):

• On Brees: “Is there a better quarterback? You tell me how many 5,000-yard seasons have been produced in NFL history. I would say eight. (Close, but it’s nine.) Drew has five of those seasons.”

• On Brees/Brady: “That being said, TB12 is the GOAT when it comes to rings. But when it comes to the King of the Air, we’ll call him Drew.” (May we suggest a Game of Thrones spin-off?)

• On Brady: “Can you ask him to adopt me? Between him and Giselle that’s a lot of money.”

• On Peterson: “I’m a fan. He runs the angriest of any back I’ve ever hit.”

For more proof that Jordan rules, here he is competing against Ingram in a lip sync battle for charity.

• COLIN KAEPERNICK NEEDS TO SPEAK UP: Albert Breer on what the unemployed quarterback should do if he still wants a job playing football

* * *

My Favorite Person in Sports

For 13 years, Louisiana native Jarrius Robertson fought for a liver transplant after he was diagnosed with a chronic liver disease called biliary atresia. He underwent dozens of surgeries, started his own foundation, “It Takes Lives to Save Lives,” and followed his beloved Saints. Even in his worst moments, Robertson told his father, Jordy, “If I die, I want you to donate my organs.”

I met Robertson, now 15, last fall, while on the field at the Superdome, reporting the series Football in America with home-run hitter Michael McKnight. I followed Robertson’s story in the months since—the appearance on Good Morning America, where he signed a contract to become a hype man for the Saints; the ESPN video segments; his star turn at the NBA All-Star game; all the way through the liver transplant he received last month. Jordan counts Jarrius as a friend, as do most of the Saints players.

I wanted to see how Jarrius was doing post-transplant, so I called Jordy last week. “I saw a change in my son,” he says. “He’s enjoying life more. He pushes himself more. He doesn’t have any restrictions on him now. He’s able to take a breather now.”

Last week, Jarrius even tried wrestling.

I told Jordy what Cam Jordan had said about the Saints and their Super Bowl chances. He noted that before Jarrius was the Saints’ hype man, he did the same at Lutcher High School, where the football team won back-to-back state titles in 2015 and ’16. In fact, Jarrius received his latest championship ring the day before his transplant and went to his eighth grade graduation ceremony the same day as his surgery. “I’ll tell you this,” Jordy says, “If he can help Lutcher High School win a championship, I know damn well he can bring the Saints back to the Super Bowl.”

Here’s the foundation’s website and Robertson’s Go Fund me page.

* * *

A Must-Read Story and How It Came Together

That would be this story on former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan. It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read this year.

Start with the first sentence, a lede unlike any I can remember: Ryan O’Callaghan’s plan was always to play football and then, when his career was over, kill himself.

I asked the author of the piece (and Outsports co-founder), Cyd Zeigler, about that sentence specifically. He said he often starts writing in the middle of the story, but not with this one. Those were the first words he typed. Incredible.

Same went for reaction to the story. Zeigler said Outsports doesn’t release traffic numbers but did say that the volume of readers for the O’Callaghan story were among the highest he had ever seen on the site. He heard from friends who are gay but have no interest in sports and saw the story. “What’s most important is people in the NFL saw it,” he said. “It has been three years since they’ve had a reason to talk about this issue.”

For O’Callaghan, the interest in his story was overwhelming—in a good way. He went on Dan Patrick’s radio show, did SI Now with Maggie Gray and talked to several reporters, including me. O’Callaghan said he will have upcoming segments with CBS and HBO, and he laughed at the news outlets that asked him not to talk to other news outlets. They were missing the aim of why he told his story in the first place: “To reach as many people as possible,” he says. “People who might be going through what I went through.”

Quick background: O’Callaghan played college football at Cal, winning the Pac-10’s Morris Trophy (best lineman) in 2005. He then spent time in the NFL with the Patriots and Chiefs, all while trying to conceal his sexual orientation and wracked with worry and suicidal thoughts over the secret he was keeping.

Here’s how it came together: O’Callaghan sent Zeigler a friend request on Facebook. At first, Zeigler thought it might be a prank. He is a die-hard Patriots fan, and he knew who O’Callaghan was, but Outsports had received fake emails about specific athletes being gay and wanting to tell their story many times before. A few minutes after Zeigler accepted the request, though, O’Callaghan sent him a message.

A week ago, they met in West Hollywood for LA Pride weekend. That was the first time O’Callaghan had ever attended a pride event. He couldn’t tell anyone about the story and no one knew who he was. That changed when the story broke. He received more than 5,000 emails, and many of those missives were thousands of words long. He heard from dozens of friends and family members. One man wrote and said he hadn’t taken it well when his son came out and now he wanted another chance. “That was the whole goal,” O’Callaghan says.

I don’t want to spoil the piece but two things stood out. One was Scott Pioli, an executive for both the NFL teams O’Callaghan played for, and the role Pioli played in helping O’Callaghan find acceptance. That part of the story stayed with me. I was still thinking about Pioli and O’Callaghan long after I read it. O’Callaghan said he had spoken to Pioli last week and the executive had also received a ton of reaction.

The second part was this (and Zeigler said this passage had almost been cut in the final round of edits): In 2014 he was being inducted into the Shasta County Sports Hall of Fame. He had moved back to Redding, a familiar place with a support system where he could continue to learn how to manage his addiction.

He decided the thing to do at these events was to bring a significant other. O’Callaghan embraced the moment and brought his then-boyfriend, thanking him from the stage.

Then … crickets. Even with the local media there, and NFL prospect Michael Sam having come out publicly just months earlier, no one reported on it. No one asked him questions.

One last note. As O’Callaghan made the media rounds last week, several outlets asked him if he thinks the NFL is ready to accept a gay superstar. That’s the wrong question, Zeigler said. The league has already proven that it is. “We’re so addicted to thinking the NFL is homophobic and these athletes are all big, dumb jocks,” he said. “Sports have moved beyond that. I’m shocked we’re still asking the question.”

O’Callaghan agreed. “I can’t remember hearing a gay slur in the locker room,” he said, adding that “football players are more open-minded than people give them credit for. Teams are made up of so many different people from all walks of life. You become open to each other’s differences that way.”

• HOW TO BUILD WINNING FRANCHISE IN NFL: Andrew Brandt on how tanking could be part of vital strategy to achieve to long-term success

* * *

Smarter Football Week at The MMQB

Please keep an eye out for our Smarter Football stories this week at The MMQB. We’ll examine the cerebral side of America’s favorite sport, the growth of advanced analytics and examine how big-brained Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner prepares for games.

I think people who fall easily into stereotypes get it wrong about pro football players. I’ve covered many sports, from pro cycling to gay softball leagues to the NFL, and I’ve always found football players to be the most insightful and thought-provoking in sports. That whole dumb jocks thing was always a dumb concept, especially in football locker rooms. Think of all the information football players have to process, the decisions they make in seconds, over and over, that determine the outcomes of their games, even all the plays they have to memorize. To hear football people talk about the game itself is to hear a foreign language, Football French. The sport is brutal, yes, but it’s cerebral in its soul as well. Most of the best football players mix brawn and brainpower. They see openings before they exist, guess plays before they unfold and win because they studied more than they practiced.

At the risk of some blowback, as a general rule, I’ve always found offensive linemen to be the smartest players in a locker room. I’m not sure exactly why that is. As for individual players, I’d cite Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who asks astronauts about astrophysics), Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin (who recommends Netflix documentaries on the prison industrial complex) and the retired fullback Tony Richardson (whose fluent in wine snobbery, acupuncture and leadership).

• PARTING THOUGHTS: An interview with The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan on her way out

* * *

The Haitian Creation

Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril saw the damage Hurricane Matthew did to Haiti last October and pledged to build a house there for every sack he registered last season. Then he made the Pro Bowl, after registering 11.5 sacks. Then he built 12 homes.

Avril’s parents grew up in Haiti and came to the United States in the 1980s. He used to visit relatives there most summers during his childhood, but stopped visiting once he started playing college football. Then he saw his former teammate, running back Marshawn Lynch, doing charity work in Haiti, and so Avril went back, helping how he could, along with Lynch, Michael Bennett and others. (Quick aside: Avril agrees with my assessment that all roads in the NFL lead back to Lynch. He’s like the football version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. “One of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Avril said.)

To build the homes, Avril partnered with the charitable organization New Story, and they used Haitian workers and local materials in their efforts, helping to boost the local economy. When Avril visited the completed residences this spring, the occupants cried and prayed. He also saw their old homes, with dirt floors that turned muddy when it rained.

As for the Seahawks, Avril notes that the defense returns with its core intact, now that safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are back to full health after both suffered injuries in the past two seasons. “I feel like we’re getting back to who we are,” he said.

Avril plans to continue with his pledge this season.

* * *

The New-Look Bills and a Voice of Reason

So much is new in Buffalo this season, from a new coach in Sean McDermott to a new general manager in Brandon Beane. For defensive tackle Marcell Dareus that’s a good thing. Dareus made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and ’14, when he also was named first-team all-pro. The next off-season he inked a six-year extension for $96.5 million (with $60 million guaranteed, the highest guarantee at that time for a non-quarterback in NFL history). But his numbers dropped in the past two seasons, thanks in part to a four-game suspension and a hamstring injury in 2016.

Now, Dareus appears primed for a resurgence—and, if all goes well, the Bills hope to end the longest playoff drought in the league. (Their last appearance was in 1999.) To that end, Dareus praised quarterback Tyrod Taylor for taking a more active leadership role this spring. But here’s a twist: even in this Optimism Season, Dareus wants to see how the team actually plays before he makes any pronouncements. “We have a lot of pieces,” he said. “But I always say everything looks good on paper. Everything sounds good on the radio. But until we put the toys on and run around you just don’t know.” Points for honesty there.

Also worth noting: Dareus loves Bills fans. He does a lot of charity work when he’s in town (including a “Marcell Dareus Day” at the minor league stadium for the Buffalo Bisons) and said members of Bills Mafia have stopped him at Starbucks, Toys “R” Us and even tried to talk football … in a theater … during a movie. “Bills fans are crazy,” he said affectionately. “Most of them feel like they should be head coach.”

• EVOLUTIONARY, NOT REVOLUTIONARY: Albert Breer on the Derek Carr contract and what it means for future blockbuster deals

* * *

In Minnesota, Pointed Forward

In his two seasons in Minnesota, inside linebacker Eric Kendricks has … established himself as a dominant force on an underappreciated defense … seen a legend (Adrian Peterson) leave … studied under a defensive guru in Mike Zimmer, until Zimmer was sidelined with eye surgeries for a detached retina … and witnessed an injury to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater that was so gruesome some teammates threw up. “We’ve gone through a lot,” Kendricks said. “I can’t say I’ve ever been on a team that went through that much in one year.”

Yet Kendricks prefers to look forward to next season, rather than back at the insanity that unfolded in 2016. He cares little that PFF ranked him as the sixth most-improved player in the league last year—his overall grade improved from 48.3 to 80.3—but agreed with my contention that the Vikings could make the postseason next fall. (I’ll throw in some disclaimers there: if quarterback Sam Bradford minimizes mistakes, the offensive line improves and the offense keeps the Vikings’ D in games. Is that a lot of disclaimers? Well, it’s the Optimism Season!)

Kendricks says his improvement last year stemmed mostly from becoming more comfortable on the field, thinking less and following his instincts. He learned that from Zimmer, who guided the Vikings to third overall in total defense last season, sixth in points allowed per game and ninth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average rankings. Like Kendricks, Minnesota’s D is young, improving and ready to join units like the Broncos, Seahawks and Texans in competition for the league’s best. I think the Vikings can compete with the Packers for NFC North supremacy next season.

* * *

Sweat Equity for Forsett

Back inside the Cal the locker room in the mid-2000s, running back Justin Forsett and his teammates would lament how they often had to choose between showering and eating lunch. They would make jokes about needing to take a shower pill to continue with their day.

Then one of those teammates, Wale Forrester, became a firefighter and one day after a workout, he was called suddenly into work. He stopped by a sporting goods store and asked if they sold wipes for athletes after workouts. And the salesman said that the store did not but added that it would love to.

That’s when the ShowerPill Athletic Body Wipe was born. It’s an extra-thick disposable wipe that athletes can use when they don’t have time to shower. The product, launched commercially in 2014 but now consuming Forsett’s time post football, has been approved by the FDA and kills 99.9 percent of germs. Perhaps it can even help sportswriters.

As Forsett played for seven teams over nine seasons, he often brought the wipes into the locker room. The feedback was intense. In Seattle, even the team employees started using the wipes after yoga sessions or long flights. Forsett started the company with Forrester and Wendell Hunter, and they donated their product to residents of Flint, Mich., during the water crisis, along with homeless communities in Baton Rouge and the people of Haiti after Hurricane Matthew.

The product is backed by NFL stars from Ronnie Lott to Steve Smith and its brand ambassadors include Jared Goff, Golden Tate and Marshawn Lynch. (Everything comes back to Lynch, remember?)

Forsett recently purchased a home in Dallas, his first permanent residence since he started in the NFL in 2009. No NFL team has called him, and he said the running back market in particular is oversaturated, but he hasn’t entirely ruled out a return to the NFL. In fact, he’s playing in a flag football league this summer, staying in shape. Should he return to the NFL, he’ll have to take the ShowerPill back on the road. “We’re trying to be the Gatorade of hygiene,” Forsett said.

* * *

Quotes of the Week

I

“I mean, I don’t tank nothing. So that’s all opinions outside of this organization. We don’t come here—and we’re not going to go through training camp, and have 14-hour days—to go tank a season. I’ll be damned.”

—Jets DT Sheldon Richardson to NJ.com.

Fair question. Fair answer. Good times as always in Florham Park, N.J.

II

“I really think that may be overdone a little bit. I mean, I don’t think the game has ever been safer than it is now.”

—Patriots owner Robert Kraft to the Associated Press, speaking about player safety.

From limiting practice contact to mandating the removal of potentially concussed players from games to penalizing with increased regularity helmet-to-helmet hits, Kraft makes a fair point. The NFL has never taken more steps to make the game safer. His argument, though, also ignores physics—that bigger, faster players will produce more forceful collisions. No rule change can alter that.

III

“Business should reflect productivity.”

—Panthers tight end Greg Olsen to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The two were discussing Olsen’s contract, worth $6.5 million in base salary in both 2017 and ’18, and how he wants a new one. He’s clearly among the best tight ends in football. He hasn’t missed a game since before President Obama took office. He’s right, too, but right here doesn’t equal likely or even possible.

IV

“Robert is very important to me personally. We both understand that we have jobs.”

—NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on his relationship with Kraft, to Allon Sinai of the Jerusalem Post, during a trip to open the Kraft Family Sports Complex in Jerusalem.

I don’t doubt that the men could reconcile after Deflategate. Or even that they became friends again. But Goodell saying there’s never been a problem with him and Kraft is at best disingenuous. Anybody who saw Kraft rip into Goodell on numerous occasions knows that’s not true.

V

“Teamwork, fair play and the pursuit of personal excellence are the values—in the religious sense, we can say virtues—that have guided your own commitment on the field. Yet these same values are urgently needed off the field, on all levels of our life as a community. They are the values that help build a culture of encounter, in which we anticipate and meet the needs of our brothers and sisters, and combat the exaggerated individualism, indifference and injustice that hold us back from living as one human family. How greatly our world needs this culture of encounter!”

—Pope Francis, to the group of NFL Hall of Famers that visited the Vatican last week.

* * *

Stat of the Week

Raiders signal caller Derek Carr signed a five-year extension last week good for $125,025,000 over five seasons. The $25 million average makes him the highest paid quarterback in the NFL. I agree with The MMQB’s Albert Breer that the contract is more evolutionary than revolutionary, because it’s only slightly higher than the average salaries of Andrew Luck (Colts, $24.6 million), Carson Palmer (Cardinals, $24.4 million), Brees (Saints, $24.3 million) and Kirk Cousins (Redskins, $23.9 million). In a year when the salary cap increased by 7 percent, Carr’s deal, while life changing, is closer to what should have been expected than anything transformative.

That said, no one should be more excited about the Raiders move to Las Vegas in 2020 than Carr. He’ll play out the final three years of this deal in Nevada, a state that does not tax income. I reached out to Stephen Kidder of Hemeney & Barnes in Boston, because he has a deep background in sports tax law. He said that California taxes will cost Carr about $3,286,000 in income while the Raiders are in Oakland. That means he’ll pocket almost $10 million more in Nevada than he would have if the Raiders had stayed put.

Some other points of note. The top 12 highest paid quarterbacks in terms of average salary are Carr, Luck, Palmer, Brees, Cousins, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. (At $20.5 million per season, Brady’s deal ranks among the best bargains in sports.) This list confirms what’s obvious: that if you have a franchise quarterback, you don’t quibble on dollars, you pay. The only franchise-caliber QB who’s not on that list if Matthew Stafford, and he’ll be there soon enough. The rest of the NFL teams are looking for their next franchise signal caller, rather than paying one.

* * *

Factoid That May Only Interest Me

As noted by Pro Football Talk, Chiefs coach Andy Reid is currently tied for 11th on the all-time wins list, with 173. He needs 13 wins to pass Chuck Knox and move into the top 10. If Reid records an average of 11 victories in the next five years, he’d be fifth all-time, behind only Don Shula, George Halas, Tom Landry and Bill Belichick. I think that’s worthy of the Hall of Fame and a slam dunk nomination should Reid win a Super Bowl in K.C.

* * *

Mr. Marriott Lifetime Platinum Member Travel Note

If you’ve never been to Ketchikan, Alaska, do yourself a favor and go visit. That’s where I’m typing this column, in a hotel downtown, near what seems like thousands of cruise ship tourists. Mountains. Water. Bears. This is God’s country.

I’d recommend Bar Harbor restaurant. If you don’t order some sort of fresh seafood, I’ll trust that you’re allergic.

Only downside: no Marriotts.

* * *

Tweets of the Week

I

How this man @DavidJohnson31 only have 56k follows? That's a damn shame! He won y'all TOO MANY fantasy s for you not to follow the man!— Patrick Peterson /P2 (@P2) June 20, 2017

Truer words have rarely been typed. If you’re one of the thousands who needed Cardinals running back David Johnson to win your fantasy football league last season, the least you can do is follow the man on Twitter.

II

Tom Brady with Takashi Kurihara!!!route wide version #tombrady #patriots #nfl #underarmour #iwill #japan #football #?????????????????? pic.twitter.com/LyH0knfFrC— Takashi Kurihara ??? (@TeeKeyy) June 21, 2017

Incredible how many fans in China showed up to watch Patriots Tom Brady play catch.

III

USC's QB can even throw darts from a boat (: samdarnold/IG) pic.twitter.com/49NKipIRn4— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) June 19, 2017

This video (reposted from USC signal caller’s Sam Darnold’s Instagram account) shows why Jets fans might not mind a 1-15 record in 2017. (Although their players insist, as they should, that the concept of tanking is for people who, you know, write Monday Morning Quarterback columns.)

IV

Former Jets LB David Harris has reached agreement on a two-year deal with...the New England Patriots, source tells ESPN.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) June 21, 2017

Can’t beat ‘em, well …

The longtime Jet, by the way, is one of my favorite players I’ve ever covered. Always accessible, generally solid with the insight. That’s all you can ask.

* * *

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think the Titans will make the playoffs next season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a run into late January, depending on the match-ups. Not only did they add free agent wideout Eric Decker, but they also drafted another receiver, Corey Davis of Western Michigan, in the first round. Add those two into a target mix that includes Delanie Walker, Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe, plus two capable running backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, plus an emerging star at quarterback in Marcus Mariota, plus Super Bowl experience from signees Logan Ryan (CB), Sylvester Williams (NT) and Eric Weems (WR). Houston will also compete in the AFC South—and maybe, dare I say, Jacksonville—but Tennessee will challenge the Texans and Jaguars.

2. I think I’d be grateful if you read some of the excellent Where Are They Now? pieces we’ll be running on SI.com in the next week. I have one on Vince Young and there’s another fascinating NFL story on retired running back Clinton Portis. Plus Lee Jenkins on Allen Iverson and more.

3. I think this story confirms that Eric Berry is a good human being and that not all football news is negative. The story, told by a stranger watching from a distance without Berry’s knowledge, describes the Chiefs safety coming out of a restaurant in Knoxville, handing food he purchased to three homeless people. They asked Berry to pray with them. He did. “I don’t do it for the attention,” Berry told The Kansas City Star. “I do it to better myself and just give back. That’s what you should do it for.”

4. I think my editor/life coach, Adam Duerson, couldn’t be more wrong when he sent a passage from a soon-to-be-released bonus story written by the legendary Steve Rushin on hot dogs and their place in sports. Duerson described one line in the passage as “nasty” and said it offended him.

The line in question: Lohr would like to criminalize even some who do eat them. “I think people over 12 who put ketchup on hot dogs should have to do 100 hours of community service,” he says. “It’s the desecration of a national food. It’s like defacing Mount Rushmore.”

The last time Duerson was this wrong was the last time he cut from one of my magazine pieces. Ketchup on a hot dog is a crime against one’s taste buds. They shouldn’t even stock ketchup at ballparks, to avoid letting anyone make a horrible, life-altering mistake. The only condiment that belongs on a hot dog is mustard. That should be obvious.

“I guess I’m alone here,” Duerson wrote back. Yes, yes you are.

5. I think it was smart of Odell Beckham Jr. to read Brady’s favorite book this off-season. It’s called The Four Agreements, and the second agreement in particular—don’t take anything personally—applies to famous football players. I called the book’s author, Don Miguel Ruiz, before Super Bowl 51 and asked how that agreement applied to Brady, after his Deflategate suspension and revenge tour.

From our Super Bowl cover story: Ruiz writes that people tend to fall into narratives that others create for them, that they’re angry because they’re expected to be angry, aggrieved because most others would be too. Brady—at least publicly—never blamed Goodell, never let the noise appear to influence him.

“Brady,” Ruiz says, “has created his own truth.”

Beckham, with years of prime ahead of him, can do the same.

6. I think that Lions president Rod Wood made total sense when he told Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com that he’s comfortable making Matt Stafford the highest-paid player in pro football. There just aren’t many franchise-level quarterbacks walking around the planet. (See Stat of the Week, above.) When you have one—and Stafford is definitely one; look what he did last season without Calvin Johnson; or check back on the 5,000-yard passing year—you don’t let them walk. Unless you want to spend that next however-many-years looking for your next quarterback, drafting replacements, signing journeymen, etc. I also think that’s why regardless of any tension between the offense and the defense in Seattle, Russell Wilson isn’t going anywhere. With franchise signal-callers, as Wood told Rothstein, “it’s going to be whatever it takes.”

7. I think it’s wise of wideout Anquan Boldin to skip the NFL’s off-season programs and look to sign with a receiver-needy team before training camp. That’s the Walter Jones Approach to Optimism Season, named after the perpetual holdout at left tackle in Seattle. It worked pretty well for Jones, who made the Hall of Fame. If I’m Boldin, I try to sign with New England, looking for a ring. He’d also fit well in Kansas City, Washington, Minnesota and elsewhere.

8. I think that Jason Taylor’s choice of his former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson as his Hall of Fame presenter could not be more perfect, given the year. Taylor will be inducted along with kicker Morten Andersen, quarterback Kurt Warner, running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrell Davis, safety Kenny Easley and … Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. In recent years, Jones and Johnson have both said publicly that they patched up their feud over who could take more credit for the Cowboys dynasty in the ‘90s. But look for that to continue on stage in Canton, Ohio, this summer.

9. I think you should read this story by Malika Andrews in The New York Times. It’s about Jeff Charles, a former football coach who couldn’t bring himself to watch football anymore after one of his players sustained a fatal brain injury on the field. I won’t ruin the rest of it for you.

10. I think these are the rest of my thoughts, including some non-football ones:

a. It doesn’t matter if Rob Gronkowski spent $102,407 at a casino nightclub in Connecticut. Wasteful? Sure. Could be put to better use? Absolutely. But the time to worry about Gronk being Gronk is the day he’s anything other than amazing on the football field. I don’t think that day will come any time soon.

b. There is a football link to the anniversary last Monday of the night the Purple Cobras of Globo Gym collapsed with a four-man advantage against regional qualifier Average Joe’s Gym in the American Dodgeball Association of America tournament. That’s because one NFL star trained and starred on a traveling dodgeball team growing up. You’ll read about that—and him—in the pages of SI soon.

c. My colleague Ben Baskin is one of the best young writers exploring the world of pro football. Check out his piece on the Saints first season, as part of The MMQB’s 1967 package from last week.

d. Editors across the nation should resist all Juice is Loose headlines should O.J. Simpson be released from prison in October. His parole hearing is scheduled for July 20.

e. Having been to China a few times, I think it will be difficult to play an NFL regular season game there. The biggest problem is just how far it is. That said, I also think the NFL will play a regular season game there anyway. When Brady visited the country last week as part of a tour he said it was his “dream” to play a game there someday. He also noted how the NFL tried to send the Patriots and Seahawks there in 2007 (the league also attempted to reschedule that game for 2009) but the efforts haven’t been successful—yet. For more on the logistics, check out this piece from the excellent Jonathan Jones.

f. Stories like these are why I pay $10 a week for the Sunday version of The New York Times. I read this version in the paper (shocker) and it was better than anything I watch on Netflix. (And, let’s be honest, I watch a lot of Netflix.)

g. The piece is called The Sheriff’s War and it’s about an NYT legend (Walt Bogdanich), a murder at the home of a Sheriff’s Department employee in Florida, an investigation into that murder and the subsequent investigation into the investigator. Beyond that, I think I’ll just say enjoy.

h. Beernerdness: I’m on IR now with a displaced fracture in my left pinkie toe, which I’m embarrassed to admit resulted from when I snagged my foot on a door frame. So I was surprised to see a package arrive at my house last week that was addressed to the “Association for Disabled Sportswriters.” It came from my friend and colleague Pete Thamel, and it was a package of local beers intended to ease the pain. I particularly enjoyed the Reuben's Daily Pale, which is brewed in Seattle. The beer was light in body, balanced, crisp and clean at the finish, and chalk full of delicious undertones (citrus, passion fruit, honeydew and kiwi) … ah, who am I kidding? It tasted like beer and went down smooth.

i. Coffeenerdness: I live outside Seattle. We call coffeenerdness “Tuesday.” But I have been enjoying Urban Coffee Lounge in my new neighborhood. Wrote half a story there recently. (I think Duerson probably cut it.)

* * *

The Adieu Haiku

What doesn't kill mewill only make me stronger.So take that, haters.

(That’s actually a Kanye West song and not the exact lyrics but more of a summary. Still, s/o.)

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

The NFL Optimism Season

As the NFL entered its dead period this past week, that blink of a break between the end of mini camps and the start of training camps, optimism reigned. Always does this time of year.

Every story about every player on every team oozed with hope and possibility. No fan base called to replace its starting quarterback (although Jets fans would like to find one), no coach found his proverbial seat at a temperature above lukewarm and every team could at least extol its playoff chances, although some sounded more realistic than others. The Panthers say it feels like 2015 again, and Todd Gurley is communicating better with his offensive linemen in Los Angeles after a rough second season. Even Cleveland quarterback Brock Osweiler sounded like a comeback player of the year candidate.

Thus this attempt to fill in for the vacationing Peter King in this space—which I liken to how Brian Griese felt in Denver after John Elway retired—will focus on what’s possible across the league, as Optimism Season ramps up. Below you’ll read about...

• A Saint who thinks New Orleans can win the Super Bowl (and a fan who thinks so too).

• A nose tackle in Buffalo who’s excited about the new regime, and a Vikings linebacker who sees dominance ahead in Minnesota.

• A Seahawks defensive end who builds homes in Haiti when not tearing down opposing quarterbacks.

• A retired running back’s business pursuit to become the Gatorade of hygiene.

• A nod to the next project at The MMQB—Smarter Football Week begins Tuesday— and the most intelligent players I’ve covered.

And so much more. Let’s get it going...

• 1967 WEEK AT THE MMQB: Our series of articles on what the game, the players and the culture of professional football were like a half-century ago

* * *

When The Saints...

You could argue that the Saints’ Cameron Jordan is the most underrated player in pro football. Pro Football Focus bolstered that argument recently when it ranked Jordan 15th overall on its list of 101 Best Players from last season. The website touted the defensive end’s total QB pressures (79, tied with Broncos sackmaster Von Miller) and his “consistent” play against the run as factors that solidified his ranking.

So why isn’t Jordan a household name outside of Louisiana? “Well, we finished the last three seasons 7-9 and our defense was in the mid-20s,” he told me. “That’s not where we want to be. Last time we were a top-five defense we made the playoffs (2013, fourth). That’s what we want to be.”

Jordan is high on the Saints this season, particularly on defense. He notes the addition of free agent pass rusher Alex Okafor, how New Orleans deepened its linebacker core and the signing of running back Adrian Peterson, who will share a backfield with Mark Ingram (a Pro Bowl replacement in Jan. 2015) and quarterback Drew Brees (one of the best players on earth). “We’re building a team to win a Super Bowl,” Jordan says. “We’re not building for the future. It’s hard not to believe in our team. We’re ready to win it now.”

Here’s what else Jordan had to say about the Saints (and Tom Brady):

• On Brees: “Is there a better quarterback? You tell me how many 5,000-yard seasons have been produced in NFL history. I would say eight. (Close, but it’s nine.) Drew has five of those seasons.”

• On Brees/Brady: “That being said, TB12 is the GOAT when it comes to rings. But when it comes to the King of the Air, we’ll call him Drew.” (May we suggest a Game of Thrones spin-off?)

• On Brady: “Can you ask him to adopt me? Between him and Giselle that’s a lot of money.”

• On Peterson: “I’m a fan. He runs the angriest of any back I’ve ever hit.”

For more proof that Jordan rules, here he is competing against Ingram in a lip sync battle for charity.

• COLIN KAEPERNICK NEEDS TO SPEAK UP: Albert Breer on what the unemployed quarterback should do if he still wants a job playing football

* * *

My Favorite Person in Sports

For 13 years, Louisiana native Jarrius Robertson fought for a liver transplant after he was diagnosed with a chronic liver disease called biliary atresia. He underwent dozens of surgeries, started his own foundation, “It Takes Lives to Save Lives,” and followed his beloved Saints. Even in his worst moments, Robertson told his father, Jordy, “If I die, I want you to donate my organs.”

I met Robertson, now 15, last fall, while on the field at the Superdome, reporting the series Football in America with home-run hitter Michael McKnight. I followed Robertson’s story in the months since—the appearance on Good Morning America, where he signed a contract to become a hype man for the Saints; the ESPN video segments; his star turn at the NBA All-Star game; all the way through the liver transplant he received last month. Jordan counts Jarrius as a friend, as do most of the Saints players.

I wanted to see how Jarrius was doing post-transplant, so I called Jordy last week. “I saw a change in my son,” he says. “He’s enjoying life more. He pushes himself more. He doesn’t have any restrictions on him now. He’s able to take a breather now.”

Last week, Jarrius even tried wrestling.

I told Jordy what Cam Jordan had said about the Saints and their Super Bowl chances. He noted that before Jarrius was the Saints’ hype man, he did the same at Lutcher High School, where the football team won back-to-back state titles in 2015 and ’16. In fact, Jarrius received his latest championship ring the day before his transplant and went to his eighth grade graduation ceremony the same day as his surgery. “I’ll tell you this,” Jordy says, “If he can help Lutcher High School win a championship, I know damn well he can bring the Saints back to the Super Bowl.”

Here’s the foundation’s website and Robertson’s Go Fund me page.

* * *

A Must-Read Story and How It Came Together

That would be this story on former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan. It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read this year.

Start with the first sentence, a lede unlike any I can remember: Ryan O’Callaghan’s plan was always to play football and then, when his career was over, kill himself.

I asked the author of the piece (and Outsports co-founder), Cyd Zeigler, about that sentence specifically. He said he often starts writing in the middle of the story, but not with this one. Those were the first words he typed. Incredible.

Same went for reaction to the story. Zeigler said Outsports doesn’t release traffic numbers but did say that the volume of readers for the O’Callaghan story were among the highest he had ever seen on the site. He heard from friends who are gay but have no interest in sports and saw the story. “What’s most important is people in the NFL saw it,” he said. “It has been three years since they’ve had a reason to talk about this issue.”

For O’Callaghan, the interest in his story was overwhelming—in a good way. He went on Dan Patrick’s radio show, did SI Now with Maggie Gray and talked to several reporters, including me. O’Callaghan said he will have upcoming segments with CBS and HBO, and he laughed at the news outlets that asked him not to talk to other news outlets. They were missing the aim of why he told his story in the first place: “To reach as many people as possible,” he says. “People who might be going through what I went through.”

Quick background: O’Callaghan played college football at Cal, winning the Pac-10’s Morris Trophy (best lineman) in 2005. He then spent time in the NFL with the Patriots and Chiefs, all while trying to conceal his sexual orientation and wracked with worry and suicidal thoughts over the secret he was keeping.

Here’s how it came together: O’Callaghan sent Zeigler a friend request on Facebook. At first, Zeigler thought it might be a prank. He is a die-hard Patriots fan, and he knew who O’Callaghan was, but Outsports had received fake emails about specific athletes being gay and wanting to tell their story many times before. A few minutes after Zeigler accepted the request, though, O’Callaghan sent him a message.

A week ago, they met in West Hollywood for LA Pride weekend. That was the first time O’Callaghan had ever attended a pride event. He couldn’t tell anyone about the story and no one knew who he was. That changed when the story broke. He received more than 5,000 emails, and many of those missives were thousands of words long. He heard from dozens of friends and family members. One man wrote and said he hadn’t taken it well when his son came out and now he wanted another chance. “That was the whole goal,” O’Callaghan says.

I don’t want to spoil the piece but two things stood out. One was Scott Pioli, an executive for both the NFL teams O’Callaghan played for, and the role Pioli played in helping O’Callaghan find acceptance. That part of the story stayed with me. I was still thinking about Pioli and O’Callaghan long after I read it. O’Callaghan said he had spoken to Pioli last week and the executive had also received a ton of reaction.

The second part was this (and Zeigler said this passage had almost been cut in the final round of edits): In 2014 he was being inducted into the Shasta County Sports Hall of Fame. He had moved back to Redding, a familiar place with a support system where he could continue to learn how to manage his addiction.

He decided the thing to do at these events was to bring a significant other. O’Callaghan embraced the moment and brought his then-boyfriend, thanking him from the stage.

Then … crickets. Even with the local media there, and NFL prospect Michael Sam having come out publicly just months earlier, no one reported on it. No one asked him questions.

One last note. As O’Callaghan made the media rounds last week, several outlets asked him if he thinks the NFL is ready to accept a gay superstar. That’s the wrong question, Zeigler said. The league has already proven that it is. “We’re so addicted to thinking the NFL is homophobic and these athletes are all big, dumb jocks,” he said. “Sports have moved beyond that. I’m shocked we’re still asking the question.”

O’Callaghan agreed. “I can’t remember hearing a gay slur in the locker room,” he said, adding that “football players are more open-minded than people give them credit for. Teams are made up of so many different people from all walks of life. You become open to each other’s differences that way.”

• HOW TO BUILD WINNING FRANCHISE IN NFL: Andrew Brandt on how tanking could be part of vital strategy to achieve to long-term success

* * *

Smarter Football Week at The MMQB

Please keep an eye out for our Smarter Football stories this week at The MMQB. We’ll examine the cerebral side of America’s favorite sport, the growth of advanced analytics and examine how big-brained Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner prepares for games.

I think people who fall easily into stereotypes get it wrong about pro football players. I’ve covered many sports, from pro cycling to gay softball leagues to the NFL, and I’ve always found football players to be the most insightful and thought-provoking in sports. That whole dumb jocks thing was always a dumb concept, especially in football locker rooms. Think of all the information football players have to process, the decisions they make in seconds, over and over, that determine the outcomes of their games, even all the plays they have to memorize. To hear football people talk about the game itself is to hear a foreign language, Football French. The sport is brutal, yes, but it’s cerebral in its soul as well. Most of the best football players mix brawn and brainpower. They see openings before they exist, guess plays before they unfold and win because they studied more than they practiced.

At the risk of some blowback, as a general rule, I’ve always found offensive linemen to be the smartest players in a locker room. I’m not sure exactly why that is. As for individual players, I’d cite Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who asks astronauts about astrophysics), Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin (who recommends Netflix documentaries on the prison industrial complex) and the retired fullback Tony Richardson (whose fluent in wine snobbery, acupuncture and leadership).

• PARTING THOUGHTS: An interview with The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan on her way out

* * *

The Haitian Creation

Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril saw the damage Hurricane Matthew did to Haiti last October and pledged to build a house there for every sack he registered last season. Then he made the Pro Bowl, after registering 11.5 sacks. Then he built 12 homes.

Avril’s parents grew up in Haiti and came to the United States in the 1980s. He used to visit relatives there most summers during his childhood, but stopped visiting once he started playing college football. Then he saw his former teammate, running back Marshawn Lynch, doing charity work in Haiti, and so Avril went back, helping how he could, along with Lynch, Michael Bennett and others. (Quick aside: Avril agrees with my assessment that all roads in the NFL lead back to Lynch. He’s like the football version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. “One of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Avril said.)

To build the homes, Avril partnered with the charitable organization New Story, and they used Haitian workers and local materials in their efforts, helping to boost the local economy. When Avril visited the completed residences this spring, the occupants cried and prayed. He also saw their old homes, with dirt floors that turned muddy when it rained.

As for the Seahawks, Avril notes that the defense returns with its core intact, now that safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are back to full health after both suffered injuries in the past two seasons. “I feel like we’re getting back to who we are,” he said.

Avril plans to continue with his pledge this season.

* * *

The New-Look Bills and a Voice of Reason

So much is new in Buffalo this season, from a new coach in Sean McDermott to a new general manager in Brandon Beane. For defensive tackle Marcell Dareus that’s a good thing. Dareus made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and ’14, when he also was named first-team all-pro. The next off-season he inked a six-year extension for $96.5 million (with $60 million guaranteed, the highest guarantee at that time for a non-quarterback in NFL history). But his numbers dropped in the past two seasons, thanks in part to a four-game suspension and a hamstring injury in 2016.

Now, Dareus appears primed for a resurgence—and, if all goes well, the Bills hope to end the longest playoff drought in the league. (Their last appearance was in 1999.) To that end, Dareus praised quarterback Tyrod Taylor for taking a more active leadership role this spring. But here’s a twist: even in this Optimism Season, Dareus wants to see how the team actually plays before he makes any pronouncements. “We have a lot of pieces,” he said. “But I always say everything looks good on paper. Everything sounds good on the radio. But until we put the toys on and run around you just don’t know.” Points for honesty there.

Also worth noting: Dareus loves Bills fans. He does a lot of charity work when he’s in town (including a “Marcell Dareus Day” at the minor league stadium for the Buffalo Bisons) and said members of Bills Mafia have stopped him at Starbucks, Toys “R” Us and even tried to talk football … in a theater … during a movie. “Bills fans are crazy,” he said affectionately. “Most of them feel like they should be head coach.”

• EVOLUTIONARY, NOT REVOLUTIONARY: Albert Breer on the Derek Carr contract and what it means for future blockbuster deals

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In Minnesota, Pointed Forward

In his two seasons in Minnesota, inside linebacker Eric Kendricks has … established himself as a dominant force on an underappreciated defense … seen a legend (Adrian Peterson) leave … studied under a defensive guru in Mike Zimmer, until Zimmer was sidelined with eye surgeries for a detached retina … and witnessed an injury to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater that was so gruesome some teammates threw up. “We’ve gone through a lot,” Kendricks said. “I can’t say I’ve ever been on a team that went through that much in one year.”

Yet Kendricks prefers to look forward to next season, rather than back at the insanity that unfolded in 2016. He cares little that PFF ranked him as the sixth most-improved player in the league last year—his overall grade improved from 48.3 to 80.3—but agreed with my contention that the Vikings could make the postseason next fall. (I’ll throw in some disclaimers there: if quarterback Sam Bradford minimizes mistakes, the offensive line improves and the offense keeps the Vikings’ D in games. Is that a lot of disclaimers? Well, it’s the Optimism Season!)

Kendricks says his improvement last year stemmed mostly from becoming more comfortable on the field, thinking less and following his instincts. He learned that from Zimmer, who guided the Vikings to third overall in total defense last season, sixth in points allowed per game and ninth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average rankings. Like Kendricks, Minnesota’s D is young, improving and ready to join units like the Broncos, Seahawks and Texans in competition for the league’s best. I think the Vikings can compete with the Packers for NFC North supremacy next season.

* * *

Sweat Equity for Forsett

Back inside the Cal the locker room in the mid-2000s, running back Justin Forsett and his teammates would lament how they often had to choose between showering and eating lunch. They would make jokes about needing to take a shower pill to continue with their day.

Then one of those teammates, Wale Forrester, became a firefighter and one day after a workout, he was called suddenly into work. He stopped by a sporting goods store and asked if they sold wipes for athletes after workouts. And the salesman said that the store did not but added that it would love to.

That’s when the ShowerPill Athletic Body Wipe was born. It’s an extra-thick disposable wipe that athletes can use when they don’t have time to shower. The product, launched commercially in 2014 but now consuming Forsett’s time post football, has been approved by the FDA and kills 99.9 percent of germs. Perhaps it can even help sportswriters.

As Forsett played for seven teams over nine seasons, he often brought the wipes into the locker room. The feedback was intense. In Seattle, even the team employees started using the wipes after yoga sessions or long flights. Forsett started the company with Forrester and Wendell Hunter, and they donated their product to residents of Flint, Mich., during the water crisis, along with homeless communities in Baton Rouge and the people of Haiti after Hurricane Matthew.

The product is backed by NFL stars from Ronnie Lott to Steve Smith and its brand ambassadors include Jared Goff, Golden Tate and Marshawn Lynch. (Everything comes back to Lynch, remember?)

Forsett recently purchased a home in Dallas, his first permanent residence since he started in the NFL in 2009. No NFL team has called him, and he said the running back market in particular is oversaturated, but he hasn’t entirely ruled out a return to the NFL. In fact, he’s playing in a flag football league this summer, staying in shape. Should he return to the NFL, he’ll have to take the ShowerPill back on the road. “We’re trying to be the Gatorade of hygiene,” Forsett said.

* * *

Quotes of the Week

I

“I mean, I don’t tank nothing. So that’s all opinions outside of this organization. We don’t come here—and we’re not going to go through training camp, and have 14-hour days—to go tank a season. I’ll be damned.”

—Jets DT Sheldon Richardson to NJ.com.

Fair question. Fair answer. Good times as always in Florham Park, N.J.

II

“I really think that may be overdone a little bit. I mean, I don’t think the game has ever been safer than it is now.”

—Patriots owner Robert Kraft to the Associated Press, speaking about player safety.

From limiting practice contact to mandating the removal of potentially concussed players from games to penalizing with increased regularity helmet-to-helmet hits, Kraft makes a fair point. The NFL has never taken more steps to make the game safer. His argument, though, also ignores physics—that bigger, faster players will produce more forceful collisions. No rule change can alter that.

III

“Business should reflect productivity.”

—Panthers tight end Greg Olsen to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The two were discussing Olsen’s contract, worth $6.5 million in base salary in both 2017 and ’18, and how he wants a new one. He’s clearly among the best tight ends in football. He hasn’t missed a game since before President Obama took office. He’s right, too, but right here doesn’t equal likely or even possible.

IV

“Robert is very important to me personally. We both understand that we have jobs.”

—NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on his relationship with Kraft, to Allon Sinai of the Jerusalem Post, during a trip to open the Kraft Family Sports Complex in Jerusalem.

I don’t doubt that the men could reconcile after Deflategate. Or even that they became friends again. But Goodell saying there’s never been a problem with him and Kraft is at best disingenuous. Anybody who saw Kraft rip into Goodell on numerous occasions knows that’s not true.

V

“Teamwork, fair play and the pursuit of personal excellence are the values—in the religious sense, we can say virtues—that have guided your own commitment on the field. Yet these same values are urgently needed off the field, on all levels of our life as a community. They are the values that help build a culture of encounter, in which we anticipate and meet the needs of our brothers and sisters, and combat the exaggerated individualism, indifference and injustice that hold us back from living as one human family. How greatly our world needs this culture of encounter!”

—Pope Francis, to the group of NFL Hall of Famers that visited the Vatican last week.

* * *

Stat of the Week

Raiders signal caller Derek Carr signed a five-year extension last week good for $125,025,000 over five seasons. The $25 million average makes him the highest paid quarterback in the NFL. I agree with The MMQB’s Albert Breer that the contract is more evolutionary than revolutionary, because it’s only slightly higher than the average salaries of Andrew Luck (Colts, $24.6 million), Carson Palmer (Cardinals, $24.4 million), Brees (Saints, $24.3 million) and Kirk Cousins (Redskins, $23.9 million). In a year when the salary cap increased by 7 percent, Carr’s deal, while life changing, is closer to what should have been expected than anything transformative.

That said, no one should be more excited about the Raiders move to Las Vegas in 2020 than Carr. He’ll play out the final three years of this deal in Nevada, a state that does not tax income. I reached out to Stephen Kidder of Hemeney & Barnes in Boston, because he has a deep background in sports tax law. He said that California taxes will cost Carr about $3,286,000 in income while the Raiders are in Oakland. That means he’ll pocket almost $10 million more in Nevada than he would have if the Raiders had stayed put.

Some other points of note. The top 12 highest paid quarterbacks in terms of average salary are Carr, Luck, Palmer, Brees, Cousins, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. (At $20.5 million per season, Brady’s deal ranks among the best bargains in sports.) This list confirms what’s obvious: that if you have a franchise quarterback, you don’t quibble on dollars, you pay. The only franchise-caliber QB who’s not on that list if Matthew Stafford, and he’ll be there soon enough. The rest of the NFL teams are looking for their next franchise signal caller, rather than paying one.

* * *

Factoid That May Only Interest Me

As noted by Pro Football Talk, Chiefs coach Andy Reid is currently tied for 11th on the all-time wins list, with 173. He needs 13 wins to pass Chuck Knox and move into the top 10. If Reid records an average of 11 victories in the next five years, he’d be fifth all-time, behind only Don Shula, George Halas, Tom Landry and Bill Belichick. I think that’s worthy of the Hall of Fame and a slam dunk nomination should Reid win a Super Bowl in K.C.

* * *

Mr. Marriott Lifetime Platinum Member Travel Note

If you’ve never been to Ketchikan, Alaska, do yourself a favor and go visit. That’s where I’m typing this column, in a hotel downtown, near what seems like thousands of cruise ship tourists. Mountains. Water. Bears. This is God’s country.

I’d recommend Bar Harbor restaurant. If you don’t order some sort of fresh seafood, I’ll trust that you’re allergic.

Only downside: no Marriotts.

* * *

Tweets of the Week

I

How this man @DavidJohnson31 only have 56k follows? That's a damn shame! He won y'all TOO MANY fantasy s for you not to follow the man!— Patrick Peterson /P2 (@P2) June 20, 2017

Truer words have rarely been typed. If you’re one of the thousands who needed Cardinals running back David Johnson to win your fantasy football league last season, the least you can do is follow the man on Twitter.

II

Tom Brady with Takashi Kurihara!!!route wide version #tombrady #patriots #nfl #underarmour #iwill #japan #football #?????????????????? pic.twitter.com/LyH0knfFrC— Takashi Kurihara ??? (@TeeKeyy) June 21, 2017

Incredible how many fans in China showed up to watch Patriots Tom Brady play catch.

III

USC's QB can even throw darts from a boat (: samdarnold/IG) pic.twitter.com/49NKipIRn4— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) June 19, 2017

This video (reposted from USC signal caller’s Sam Darnold’s Instagram account) shows why Jets fans might not mind a 1-15 record in 2017. (Although their players insist, as they should, that the concept of tanking is for people who, you know, write Monday Morning Quarterback columns.)

IV

Former Jets LB David Harris has reached agreement on a two-year deal with...the New England Patriots, source tells ESPN.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) June 21, 2017

Can’t beat ‘em, well …

The longtime Jet, by the way, is one of my favorite players I’ve ever covered. Always accessible, generally solid with the insight. That’s all you can ask.

* * *

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think the Titans will make the playoffs next season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a run into late January, depending on the match-ups. Not only did they add free agent wideout Eric Decker, but they also drafted another receiver, Corey Davis of Western Michigan, in the first round. Add those two into a target mix that includes Delanie Walker, Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe, plus two capable running backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, plus an emerging star at quarterback in Marcus Mariota, plus Super Bowl experience from signees Logan Ryan (CB), Sylvester Williams (NT) and Eric Weems (WR). Houston will also compete in the AFC South—and maybe, dare I say, Jacksonville—but Tennessee will challenge the Texans and Jaguars.

2. I think I’d be grateful if you read some of the excellent Where Are They Now? pieces we’ll be running on SI.com in the next week. I have one on Vince Young and there’s another fascinating NFL story on retired running back Clinton Portis. Plus Lee Jenkins on Allen Iverson and more.

3. I think this story confirms that Eric Berry is a good human being and that not all football news is negative. The story, told by a stranger watching from a distance without Berry’s knowledge, describes the Chiefs safety coming out of a restaurant in Knoxville, handing food he purchased to three homeless people. They asked Berry to pray with them. He did. “I don’t do it for the attention,” Berry told The Kansas City Star. “I do it to better myself and just give back. That’s what you should do it for.”

4. I think my editor/life coach, Adam Duerson, couldn’t be more wrong when he sent a passage from a soon-to-be-released bonus story written by the legendary Steve Rushin on hot dogs and their place in sports. Duerson described one line in the passage as “nasty” and said it offended him.

The line in question: Lohr would like to criminalize even some who do eat them. “I think people over 12 who put ketchup on hot dogs should have to do 100 hours of community service,” he says. “It’s the desecration of a national food. It’s like defacing Mount Rushmore.”

The last time Duerson was this wrong was the last time he cut from one of my magazine pieces. Ketchup on a hot dog is a crime against one’s taste buds. They shouldn’t even stock ketchup at ballparks, to avoid letting anyone make a horrible, life-altering mistake. The only condiment that belongs on a hot dog is mustard. That should be obvious.

“I guess I’m alone here,” Duerson wrote back. Yes, yes you are.

5. I think it was smart of Odell Beckham Jr. to read Brady’s favorite book this off-season. It’s called The Four Agreements, and the second agreement in particular—don’t take anything personally—applies to famous football players. I called the book’s author, Don Miguel Ruiz, before Super Bowl 51 and asked how that agreement applied to Brady, after his Deflategate suspension and revenge tour.

From our Super Bowl cover story: Ruiz writes that people tend to fall into narratives that others create for them, that they’re angry because they’re expected to be angry, aggrieved because most others would be too. Brady—at least publicly—never blamed Goodell, never let the noise appear to influence him.

“Brady,” Ruiz says, “has created his own truth.”

Beckham, with years of prime ahead of him, can do the same.

6. I think that Lions president Rod Wood made total sense when he told Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com that he’s comfortable making Matt Stafford the highest-paid player in pro football. There just aren’t many franchise-level quarterbacks walking around the planet. (See Stat of the Week, above.) When you have one—and Stafford is definitely one; look what he did last season without Calvin Johnson; or check back on the 5,000-yard passing year—you don’t let them walk. Unless you want to spend that next however-many-years looking for your next quarterback, drafting replacements, signing journeymen, etc. I also think that’s why regardless of any tension between the offense and the defense in Seattle, Russell Wilson isn’t going anywhere. With franchise signal-callers, as Wood told Rothstein, “it’s going to be whatever it takes.”

7. I think it’s wise of wideout Anquan Boldin to skip the NFL’s off-season programs and look to sign with a receiver-needy team before training camp. That’s the Walter Jones Approach to Optimism Season, named after the perpetual holdout at left tackle in Seattle. It worked pretty well for Jones, who made the Hall of Fame. If I’m Boldin, I try to sign with New England, looking for a ring. He’d also fit well in Kansas City, Washington, Minnesota and elsewhere.

8. I think that Jason Taylor’s choice of his former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson as his Hall of Fame presenter could not be more perfect, given the year. Taylor will be inducted along with kicker Morten Andersen, quarterback Kurt Warner, running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrell Davis, safety Kenny Easley and … Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. In recent years, Jones and Johnson have both said publicly that they patched up their feud over who could take more credit for the Cowboys dynasty in the ‘90s. But look for that to continue on stage in Canton, Ohio, this summer.

9. I think you should read this story by Malika Andrews in The New York Times. It’s about Jeff Charles, a former football coach who couldn’t bring himself to watch football anymore after one of his players sustained a fatal brain injury on the field. I won’t ruin the rest of it for you.

10. I think these are the rest of my thoughts, including some non-football ones:

a. It doesn’t matter if Rob Gronkowski spent $102,407 at a casino nightclub in Connecticut. Wasteful? Sure. Could be put to better use? Absolutely. But the time to worry about Gronk being Gronk is the day he’s anything other than amazing on the football field. I don’t think that day will come any time soon.

b. There is a football link to the anniversary last Monday of the night the Purple Cobras of Globo Gym collapsed with a four-man advantage against regional qualifier Average Joe’s Gym in the American Dodgeball Association of America tournament. That’s because one NFL star trained and starred on a traveling dodgeball team growing up. You’ll read about that—and him—in the pages of SI soon.

c. My colleague Ben Baskin is one of the best young writers exploring the world of pro football. Check out his piece on the Saints first season, as part of The MMQB’s 1967 package from last week.

d. Editors across the nation should resist all Juice is Loose headlines should O.J. Simpson be released from prison in October. His parole hearing is scheduled for July 20.

e. Having been to China a few times, I think it will be difficult to play an NFL regular season game there. The biggest problem is just how far it is. That said, I also think the NFL will play a regular season game there anyway. When Brady visited the country last week as part of a tour he said it was his “dream” to play a game there someday. He also noted how the NFL tried to send the Patriots and Seahawks there in 2007 (the league also attempted to reschedule that game for 2009) but the efforts haven’t been successful—yet. For more on the logistics, check out this piece from the excellent Jonathan Jones.

f. Stories like these are why I pay $10 a week for the Sunday version of The New York Times. I read this version in the paper (shocker) and it was better than anything I watch on Netflix. (And, let’s be honest, I watch a lot of Netflix.)

g. The piece is called The Sheriff’s War and it’s about an NYT legend (Walt Bogdanich), a murder at the home of a Sheriff’s Department employee in Florida, an investigation into that murder and the subsequent investigation into the investigator. Beyond that, I think I’ll just say enjoy.

h. Beernerdness: I’m on IR now with a displaced fracture in my left pinkie toe, which I’m embarrassed to admit resulted from when I snagged my foot on a door frame. So I was surprised to see a package arrive at my house last week that was addressed to the “Association for Disabled Sportswriters.” It came from my friend and colleague Pete Thamel, and it was a package of local beers intended to ease the pain. I particularly enjoyed the Reuben's Daily Pale, which is brewed in Seattle. The beer was light in body, balanced, crisp and clean at the finish, and chalk full of delicious undertones (citrus, passion fruit, honeydew and kiwi) … ah, who am I kidding? It tasted like beer and went down smooth.

i. Coffeenerdness: I live outside Seattle. We call coffeenerdness “Tuesday.” But I have been enjoying Urban Coffee Lounge in my new neighborhood. Wrote half a story there recently. (I think Duerson probably cut it.)

* * *

The Adieu Haiku

What doesn't kill mewill only make me stronger.So take that, haters.

(That’s actually a Kanye West song and not the exact lyrics but more of a summary. Still, s/o.)

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

The NFL's Optimism Season

As the NFL entered its dead period this past week, that blink of a break between the end of minicamps and the start of training camps, optimism reigned. Always does this time of year.

Every story about every player on every team oozed with hope and possibility. No fan base called to replace its starting quarterback (although Jets fans would like to find one), no coach found his proverbial seat at a temperature above lukewarm, and every team could at least extol its playoff chances, although some sounded more realistic than others. The Panthers say it feels like 2015 again, and in Los Angeles, Todd Gurley is communicating better with his offensive linemen after a rough second season. Even Cleveland quarterback Brock Osweiler sounded like a Comeback Player of the Year candidate.

Thus this attempt to fill in for the vacationing Peter King in this space—which I liken to how Brian Griese felt in Denver after John Elway retired—will focus on what’s possible across the league, as Optimism Season ramps up. Below you’ll read about...

• A Saint who thinks New Orleans can win the Super Bowl (and a fan who thinks so too).

• A nosetackle in Buffalo who’s excited about the new regime, and a Vikings linebacker who sees dominance ahead in Minnesota.

• A Seahawks defensive end who builds homes in Haiti when not tearing down opposing quarterbacks.

• A retired running back’s business pursuit to become the Gatorade of hygiene.

• A nod to the next project at The MMQB—Smarter Football Week begins Tuesday— and the most intelligent players I’ve covered.

And so much more. Let’s get it going...

• 1967 WEEK AT THE MMQB: Our series of articles on what the game, the players and the culture of professional football were like a half-century ago

* * *

When The Saints...

You could argue that the Saints’ Cameron Jordan is the most underrated player in the game. Pro Football Focus bolstered that argument recently when it ranked Jordan 15th overall on its list of 101 Best Players from last season. The website touted the defensive end’s total QB pressures (79, tied with Broncos sackmaster Von Miller) and his “consistent” play against the run as factors that solidified his ranking.

So why isn’t Jordan a household name outside of Louisiana? “Well, we finished the last three seasons 7-9 and our defense was in the mid-20s,” he told me. “That’s not where we want to be. Last time we were a top-five defense we made the playoffs [2013, defense ranked fourth]. That’s what we want to be.”

Jordan is high on the Saints this season, particularly on defense. He notes the addition of free-agent pass rusher Alex Okafor, how New Orleans deepened its linebacker core and the signing of running back Adrian Peterson, who will share a backfield with Mark Ingram (a Pro Bowl replacement in Jan. 2015) and quarterback Drew Brees (one of the best players on earth). “We’re building a team to win a Super Bowl,” Jordan says. “We’re not building for the future. It’s hard not to believe in our team. We’re ready to win it now.”

Here’s what else Jordan had to say about the Saints (and Tom Brady):

• On Brees: “Is there a better quarterback? You tell me how many 5,000-yard seasons have been produced in NFL history. I would say eight. (Close, but it’s nine.) Drew has five of those seasons.”

• On Brees/Brady: “That being said, TB12 is the GOAT when it comes to rings. But when it comes to the King of the Air, we’ll call him Drew.” (May we suggest a Game of Thrones spin-off?)

• On Brady: “Can you ask him to adopt me? Between him and Giselle that’s a lot of money.”

• On Peterson: “I’m a fan. He runs the angriest of any back I’ve ever hit.”

For more proof that Jordan rules, here he is competing against Ingram in a lip sync battle for charity.

• COLIN KAEPERNICK NEEDS TO SPEAK UP: Albert Breer on what the unemployed quarterback should do if he still wants a job playing football

* * *

My Favorite Person in Sports

For 13 years, Louisiana native Jarrius Robertson fought for a liver transplant after he was diagnosed with a chronic liver disease called biliary atresia. He underwent dozens of surgeries, started his own foundation, “It Takes Lives to Save Lives,” and followed his beloved Saints. Even in his worst moments, Robertson told his father, Jordy, “If I die, I want you to donate my organs.”

I met Robertson, now 15, last fall, while on the field at the Superdome, reporting the series Football in America with home-run hitter Michael McKnight. I followed Robertson’s story in the months since—the appearance on “Good Morning America,” where he signed a contract to become a hype man for the Saints; the ESPN video segments; his star turn at the NBA All-Star game; all the way through the liver transplant he received last month. Jordan counts Jarrius as a friend, as do most of the Saints players.

I wanted to see how Jarrius was doing post-transplant, so I called Jordy last week. “I saw a change in my son,” he says. “He’s enjoying life more. He pushes himself more. He doesn’t have any restrictions on him now. He’s able to take a breather now.”

Last week, Jarrius even tried wrestling.

I told Jordy what Cam Jordan had said about the Saints and their Super Bowl chances. He noted that before Jarrius was the Saints’ hype man, he did the same at Lutcher High School, where the football team won back-to-back state titles in 2015 and ’16. In fact, Jarrius received his latest championship ring the day before his transplant and went to his eighth grade graduation ceremony the same day as his surgery. “I’ll tell you this,” Jordy says, “If he can help Lutcher High School win a championship, I know damn well he can bring the Saints back to the Super Bowl.”

Here’s the foundation’s website and Robertson’s Go Fund me page.

* * *

A Must-Read Story and How It Came Together

That would be this story on former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan. It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read this year.

Start with the first sentence, a lede unlike any I can remember: Ryan O’Callaghan’s plan was always to play football and then, when his career was over, kill himself.

I asked the author of the piece (and Outsports co-founder), Cyd Zeigler, about that sentence specifically. He said he often starts writing in the middle of the story, but not with this one. Those were the first words he typed. Incredible.

Same went for reaction to the story. Zeigler said Outsports doesn’t release traffic numbers but did say that the volume of readers for the O’Callaghan story was among the highest he had ever seen on the site. He heard from friends who are gay but have no interest in sports and saw the story. “What’s most important is people in the NFL saw it,” he said. “It has been three years since they’ve had a reason to talk about this issue.”

For O’Callaghan, the interest in his story was overwhelming—in a good way. He went on Dan Patrick’s radio show, did “SI Now” with Maggie Gray and talked to several reporters, including me. O’Callaghan said he will have upcoming segments with CBS and HBO, and he laughed at the news outlets that asked him not to talk to other news outlets. They were missing the aim of why he told his story in the first place: “To reach as many people as possible,” he says. “People who might be going through what I went through.”

Quick background: O’Callaghan played college football at Cal, winning the Pac-10’s Morris Trophy (best lineman) in 2005. He then spent time in the NFL with the Patriots and Chiefs, all while trying to conceal his sexual orientation and wracked with worry and suicidal thoughts over the secret he was keeping.

Here’s how it came together: O’Callaghan sent Zeigler a friend request on Facebook. At first, Zeigler thought it might be a prank. He is a die-hard Patriots fan, and he knew who O’Callaghan was, but Outsports had received fake emails about specific athletes being gay and wanting to tell their story many times before. A few minutes after Zeigler accepted the request, though, O’Callaghan sent him a message.

A week ago, they met in West Hollywood for LA Pride weekend. That was the first time O’Callaghan had ever attended a pride event. He couldn’t tell anyone about the story and no one knew who he was. That changed when the story broke. He received more than 5,000 emails, and many of those missives were thousands of words long. He heard from dozens of friends and family members. One man wrote and said he hadn’t taken it well when his son came out and now he wanted another chance. “That was the whole goal,” O’Callaghan says.

I don’t want to spoil the piece but two things stood out. One was Scott Pioli, an executive for both the NFL teams O’Callaghan played for, and the role Pioli played in helping O’Callaghan find acceptance. That part of the story stayed with me. I was still thinking about Pioli and O’Callaghan long after I read it. O’Callaghan said he had spoken to Pioli last week and the executive had also received a ton of reaction.

The second part was this (and Zeigler said this passage had almost been cut in the final round of edits): In 2014 he was being inducted into the Shasta County Sports Hall of Fame. He had moved back to Redding, a familiar place with a support system where he could continue to learn how to manage his addiction.

He decided the thing to do at these events was to bring a significant other. O’Callaghan embraced the moment and brought his then-boyfriend, thanking him from the stage.

Then … crickets. Even with the local media there, and NFL prospect Michael Sam having come out publicly just months earlier, no one reported on it. No one asked him questions.

One last note. As O’Callaghan made the media rounds last week, several outlets asked him if he thinks the NFL is ready to accept a gay superstar. That’s the wrong question, Zeigler said. The league has already proven that it is. “We’re so addicted to thinking the NFL is homophobic and these athletes are all big, dumb jocks,” he said. “Sports have moved beyond that. I’m shocked we’re still asking the question.”

O’Callaghan agreed. “I can’t remember hearing a gay slur in the locker room,” he said, adding that “football players are more open-minded than people give them credit for. Teams are made up of so many different people from all walks of life. You become open to each other’s differences that way.”

• HOW TO BUILD WINNING FRANCHISE IN NFL: Andrew Brandt on how tanking could be part of vital strategy to achieve to long-term success

* * *

Smarter Football Week at The MMQB

Please keep an eye out for our Smarter Football stories this week at The MMQB. We’ll examine the cerebral side of America’s favorite sport, the growth of advanced analytics and examine how one big-brained linebacker prepares for games.

I think people who fall easily into stereotypes get it wrong about pro football players. I’ve covered many sports, from pro cycling to gay softball leagues to the NFL, and I’ve always found football players to be the most insightful and thought-provoking in sports. That whole dumb-jock thing was always a dumb concept, especially in football locker rooms. Think of all the information football players have to process, the decisions they make in seconds, over and over, that determine the outcomes of their games, even all the plays they have to memorize. To hear football people talk about the game itself is to hear a foreign language, Football French. The sport is brutal, yes, but it’s cerebral in its soul as well. Most of the best football players mix brawn and brainpower. They see openings before they exist, guess plays before they unfold and win because they studied more than they practiced.

At the risk of some blowback, as a general rule, I’ve always found offensive linemen to be the smartest players in a locker room. I’m not sure exactly why that is. As for individual players, I’d cite Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who asks astronauts about astrophysics), Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin (who recommends Netflix documentaries on the prison industrial complex) and the retired fullback Tony Richardson (who’s fluent in wine snobbery, acupuncture and leadership).

• PARTING THOUGHTS: An interview with The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan on her way out

* * *

The Haitian Creation

Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril saw the damage Hurricane Matthew did to Haiti last October and pledged to build a house there for every sack he registered last season. Then he made the Pro Bowl, after registering 11.5 sacks. Then he built 12 homes.

Avril’s parents grew up in Haiti and came to the United States in the 1980s. He used to visit relatives there most summers during his childhood, but stopped visiting once he started playing college football. Then he saw his former teammate, running back Marshawn Lynch, doing charity work in Haiti, and so Avril went back, helping how he could, along with Lynch, Michael Bennett and others. (Quick aside: Avril agrees with my assessment that all roads in the NFL lead back to Lynch. He’s like the football version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. “One of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Avril said.)

To build the homes, Avril partnered with the charitable organization New Story, and they used Haitian workers and local materials in their efforts, helping to boost the local economy. When Avril visited the completed residences this spring, the occupants cried and prayed. He also saw their old homes, with dirt floors that turned muddy when it rained.

As for the Seahawks, Avril notes that the defense returns with its core intact, now that safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are back to full health after both suffered injuries in the past two seasons. “I feel like we’re getting back to who we are,” he said.

Avril plans to continue with his pledge this season.

* * *

The New-Look Bills and a Voice of Reason

So much is new in Buffalo this season, from a new coach in Sean McDermott to a new general manager in Brandon Beane. For defensive tackle Marcell Dareus that’s a good thing. Dareus made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and ’14, when he also was named first-team all-pro. The next off-season he inked a six-year extension for $96.5 million (with $60 million guaranteed, the highest guarantee at that time for a non-quarterback in NFL history). But his numbers dropped in the past two seasons, thanks in part to a four-game suspension and a hamstring injury in 2016.

Now, Dareus appears primed for a resurgence—and, if all goes well, the Bills hope to end the longest playoff drought in the league. (Their last appearance was in 1999.) To that end, Dareus praised quarterback Tyrod Taylor for taking a more active leadership role this spring. But here’s a twist: even in this Optimism Season, Dareus wants to see how the team actually plays before he makes any pronouncements. “We have a lot of pieces,” he said. “But I always say everything looks good on paper. Everything sounds good on the radio. But until we put the toys on and run around you just don’t know.” Points for honesty there.

Also worth noting: Dareus loves Bills fans. He does a lot of charity work when he’s in town (including a “Marcell Dareus Day” at the minor league stadium for the Buffalo Bisons) and said members of Bills Mafia have stopped him at Starbucks, Toys “R” Us and even tried to talk football … in a theater … during a movie. “Bills fans are crazy,” he said affectionately. “Most of them feel like they should be head coach.”

• EVOLUTIONARY, NOT REVOLUTIONARY: Albert Breer on the Derek Carr contract and what it means for future blockbuster deals

* * *

In Minnesota, Pointed Forward

In his two seasons in Minnesota, inside linebacker Eric Kendricks has … established himself as a dominant force on an underappreciated defense … seen a legend (Adrian Peterson) leave … studied under a defensive guru in Mike Zimmer, until Zimmer was sidelined with eye surgeries for a detached retina … and witnessed an injury to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater that was so gruesome some teammates threw up. “We’ve gone through a lot,” Kendricks said. “I can’t say I’ve ever been on a team that went through that much in one year.”

Yet Kendricks prefers to look forward to next season, rather than back at the insanity that unfolded in 2016. He cares little that PFF ranked him as the sixth most-improved player in the league last year—his overall grade improved from 48.3 to 80.3—but agreed with my contention that the Vikings could make the postseason next fall. (I’ll throw in some disclaimers there: if quarterback Sam Bradford minimizes mistakes, the offensive line improves and the offense keeps the Vikings’ D in games. Is that a lot of disclaimers? Well, it’s the Optimism Season!)

Kendricks says his improvement last year stemmed mostly from becoming more comfortable on the field, thinking less and following his instincts. He learned that from Zimmer, who guided the Vikings to third overall in total defense last season, sixth in points allowed per game and ninth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average rankings. Like Kendricks, Minnesota’s D is young, improving and ready to join units like the Broncos, Seahawks and Texans in competition for the league’s best. I think the Vikings can compete with the Packers for NFC North supremacy next season.

* * *

Sweat Equity for Forsett

Back inside the Cal the locker room in the mid-2000s, running back Justin Forsett and his teammates would lament how they often had to choose between showering and eating lunch. They would make jokes about needing to take a shower pill to continue with their day.

Then one of those teammates, Wale Forrester, became a firefighter and one day after a workout, he was called suddenly into work. He stopped by a sporting goods store and asked if they sold wipes for athletes after workouts. And the salesman said that the store did not but added that it would love to.

That’s when the ShowerPill Athletic Body Wipe was born. It’s an extra-thick disposable wipe that athletes can use when they don’t have time to shower. The product, launched commercially in 2014 but now consuming Forsett’s time post football, has been approved by the FDA and kills 99.9 percent of germs. Perhaps it can even help sportswriters.

As Forsett played for seven teams over nine seasons, he often brought the wipes into the locker room. The feedback was intense. In Seattle, even the team employees started using the wipes after yoga sessions or long flights. Forsett started the company with Forrester and Wendell Hunter, and they donated their product to residents of Flint, Mich., during the water crisis, along with homeless communities in Baton Rouge and the people of Haiti after Hurricane Matthew.

The product is backed by NFL stars from Ronnie Lott to Steve Smith and its brand ambassadors include Jared Goff, Golden Tate and Marshawn Lynch. (Everything comes back to Lynch, remember?)

Forsett recently purchased a home in Dallas, his first permanent residence since he started in the NFL in 2009. No NFL team has called him, and he said the running back market in particular is oversaturated, but he hasn’t entirely ruled out a return to the NFL. In fact, he’s playing in a flag football league this summer, staying in shape. Should he return to the NFL, he’ll have to take the ShowerPill back on the road. “We’re trying to be the Gatorade of hygiene,” Forsett said.

* * *

Quotes of the Week

I

“I mean, I don’t tank nothing. So that’s all opinions outside of this organization. We don’t come here—and we’re not going to go through training camp, and have 14-hour days—to go tank a season. I’ll be damned.”

—Jets DT Sheldon Richardson to NJ.com.

Fair question. Fair answer. Good times as always in Florham Park, N.J.

II

“I really think that may be overdone a little bit. I mean, I don’t think the game has ever been safer than it is now.”

—Patriots owner Robert Kraft to the Associated Press, speaking about player safety.

From limiting practice contact to mandating the removal of potentially concussed players from games to penalizing with increased regularity helmet-to-helmet hits, Kraft makes a fair point. The NFL has never taken more steps to make the game safer. His argument, though, also ignores physics—that bigger, faster players will produce more forceful collisions. No rule change can alter that.

III

“Business should reflect productivity.”

—Panthers tight end Greg Olsen to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The two were discussing Olsen’s contract, worth $6.5 million in base salary in both 2017 and ’18, and how he wants a new one. He’s clearly among the best tight ends in football. He hasn’t missed a game since before President Obama took office. He’s right, too, but right here doesn’t equal likely or even possible.

IV

“Robert is very important to me personally. We both understand that we have jobs.”

—NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on his relationship with Kraft, to Allon Sinai of the Jerusalem Post, during a trip to open the Kraft Family Sports Complex in Jerusalem.

I don’t doubt that the men could reconcile after Deflategate. Or even that they became friends again. But Goodell saying there’s never been a problem with him and Kraft is at best disingenuous. Anybody who saw Kraft rip into Goodell on numerous occasions knows that’s not true.

V

“Teamwork, fair play and the pursuit of personal excellence are the values—in the religious sense, we can say virtues—that have guided your own commitment on the field. Yet these same values are urgently needed off the field, on all levels of our life as a community. They are the values that help build a culture of encounter, in which we anticipate and meet the needs of our brothers and sisters, and combat the exaggerated individualism, indifference and injustice that hold us back from living as one human family. How greatly our world needs this culture of encounter!”

—Pope Francis, to the group of NFL Hall of Famers that visited the Vatican last week.

* * *

Stat of the Week

Raiders signal caller Derek Carr signed a five-year extension last week good for $125,025,000 over five seasons. The $25 million average makes him the highest paid quarterback in the NFL. I agree with The MMQB’s Albert Breer that the contract is more evolutionary than revolutionary, because it’s only slightly higher than the average salaries of Andrew Luck (Colts, $24.6 million), Carson Palmer (Cardinals, $24.4 million), Brees (Saints, $24.3 million) and Kirk Cousins (Redskins, $23.9 million). In a year when the salary cap increased by 7 percent, Carr’s deal, while life changing, is closer to what should have been expected than anything transformative.

That said, no one should be more excited about the Raiders move to Las Vegas in 2020 than Carr. He’ll play out the final three years of this deal in Nevada, a state that does not tax income. I reached out to Stephen Kidder of Hemeney & Barnes in Boston, because he has a deep background in sports tax law. He said that California taxes will cost Carr about $3,286,000 in income while the Raiders are in Oakland. That means he’ll pocket almost $10 million more in Nevada than he would have if the Raiders had stayed put.

Some other points of note. The top 12 highest paid quarterbacks in terms of average salary are Carr, Luck, Palmer, Brees, Cousins, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. (At $20.5 million per season, Brady’s deal ranks among the best bargains in sports.) This list confirms what’s obvious: that if you have a franchise quarterback, you don’t quibble on dollars, you pay. The only franchise-caliber QB who’s not on that list if Matthew Stafford, and he’ll be there soon enough. The rest of the NFL teams are looking for their next franchise signal caller, rather than paying one.

* * *

Factoid That May Only Interest Me

As noted by Pro Football Talk, Chiefs coach Andy Reid is currently tied for 11th on the all-time wins list, with 173. He needs 13 wins to pass Chuck Knox and move into the top 10. If Reid records an average of 11 victories in the next five years, he’d be fifth all-time, behind only Don Shula, George Halas, Tom Landry and Bill Belichick. I think that’s worthy of the Hall of Fame and a slam dunk nomination should Reid win a Super Bowl in K.C.

* * *

Mr. Marriott Lifetime Platinum Member Travel Note

If you’ve never been to Ketchikan, Alaska, do yourself a favor and go visit. That’s where I’m typing this column, in a hotel downtown, near what seems like thousands of cruise ship tourists. Mountains. Water. Bears. This is God’s country.

I’d recommend Bar Harbor restaurant. If you don’t order some sort of fresh seafood, I’ll trust that you’re allergic.

Only downside: no Marriotts.

* * *

Tweets of the Week

I

How this man @DavidJohnson31 only have 56k follows? That's a damn shame! He won y'all TOO MANY fantasy s for you not to follow the man!— Patrick Peterson /P2 (@P2) June 20, 2017

Truer words have rarely been typed. If you’re one of the thousands who needed Cardinals running back David Johnson to win your fantasy football league last season, the least you can do is follow the man on Twitter.

II

Tom Brady with Takashi Kurihara!!!route wide version #tombrady #patriots #nfl #underarmour #iwill #japan #football #?????????????????? pic.twitter.com/LyH0knfFrC— Takashi Kurihara ??? (@TeeKeyy) June 21, 2017

Incredible how many fans in China showed up to watch Patriots Tom Brady play catch.

III

USC's QB can even throw darts from a boat (: samdarnold/IG) pic.twitter.com/49NKipIRn4— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) June 19, 2017

This video (reposted from USC signal caller’s Sam Darnold’s Instagram account) shows why Jets fans might not mind a 1-15 record in 2017. (Although their players insist, as they should, that the concept of tanking is for people who, you know, write Monday Morning Quarterback columns.)

IV

Former Jets LB David Harris has reached agreement on a two-year deal with...the New England Patriots, source tells ESPN.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) June 21, 2017

Can’t beat ‘em, well …

The longtime Jet, by the way, is one of my favorite players I’ve ever covered. Always accessible, generally solid with the insight. That’s all you can ask.

* * *

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think the Titans will make the playoffs next season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a run into late January, depending on the match-ups. Not only did they add free agent wideout Eric Decker, but they also drafted another receiver, Corey Davis of Western Michigan, in the first round. Add those two into a target mix that includes Delanie Walker, Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe, plus two capable running backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, plus an emerging star at quarterback in Marcus Mariota, plus Super Bowl experience from signees Logan Ryan (CB), Sylvester Williams (NT) and Eric Weems (WR). Houston will also compete in the AFC South—and maybe, dare I say, Jacksonville—but Tennessee will challenge the Texans and Jaguars.

2. I think I’d be grateful if you read some of the excellent Where Are They Now? pieces we’ll be running on SI.com in the next week. I have one on Vince Young and there’s another fascinating NFL story on retired running back Clinton Portis. Plus Lee Jenkins on Allen Iverson and more.

3. I think this story confirms that Eric Berry is a good human being and that not all football news is negative. The story, told by a stranger watching from a distance without Berry’s knowledge, describes the Chiefs safety coming out of a restaurant in Knoxville, handing food he purchased to three homeless people. They asked Berry to pray with them. He did. “I don’t do it for the attention,” Berry told The Kansas City Star. “I do it to better myself and just give back. That’s what you should do it for.”

4. I think my editor/life coach, Adam Duerson, couldn’t be more wrong when he sent a passage from a soon-to-be-released bonus story written by the legendary Steve Rushin on hot dogs and their place in sports. Duerson described one line in the passage as “nasty” and said it offended him.

The line in question: Lohr would like to criminalize even some who do eat them. “I think people over 12 who put ketchup on hot dogs should have to do 100 hours of community service,” he says. “It’s the desecration of a national food. It’s like defacing Mount Rushmore.”

The last time Duerson was this wrong was the last time he cut from one of my magazine pieces. Ketchup on a hot dog is a crime against one’s taste buds. They shouldn’t even stock ketchup at ballparks, to avoid letting anyone make a horrible, life-altering mistake. The only condiment that belongs on a hot dog is mustard. That should be obvious.

“I guess I’m alone here,” Duerson wrote back. Yes, yes you are.

5. I think it was smart of Odell Beckham Jr. to read Brady’s favorite book this off-season. It’s called The Four Agreements, and the second agreement in particular—don’t take anything personally—applies to famous football players. I called the book’s author, Don Miguel Ruiz, before Super Bowl 51 and asked how that agreement applied to Brady, after his Deflategate suspension and revenge tour.

From our Super Bowl cover story: Ruiz writes that people tend to fall into narratives that others create for them, that they’re angry because they’re expected to be angry, aggrieved because most others would be too. Brady—at least publicly—never blamed Goodell, never let the noise appear to influence him.

“Brady,” Ruiz says, “has created his own truth.”

Beckham, with years of prime ahead of him, can do the same.

6. I think that Lions president Rod Wood made total sense when he told Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com that he’s comfortable making Matt Stafford the highest-paid player in pro football. There just aren’t many franchise-level quarterbacks walking around the planet. (See Stat of the Week, above.) When you have one—and Stafford is definitely one; look what he did last season without Calvin Johnson; or check back on the 5,000-yard passing year—you don’t let them walk. Unless you want to spend that next however-many-years looking for your next quarterback, drafting replacements, signing journeymen, etc. I also think that’s why regardless of any tension between the offense and the defense in Seattle, Russell Wilson isn’t going anywhere. With franchise signal-callers, as Wood told Rothstein, “it’s going to be whatever it takes.”

7. I think it’s wise of wideout Anquan Boldin to skip the NFL’s off-season programs and look to sign with a receiver-needy team before training camp. That’s the Walter Jones Approach to Optimism Season, named after the perpetual holdout at left tackle in Seattle. It worked pretty well for Jones, who made the Hall of Fame. If I’m Boldin, I try to sign with New England, looking for a ring. He’d also fit well in Kansas City, Washington, Minnesota and elsewhere.

8. I think that Jason Taylor’s choice of his former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson as his Hall of Fame presenter could not be more perfect, given the year. Taylor will be inducted along with kicker Morten Andersen, quarterback Kurt Warner, running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrell Davis, safety Kenny Easley and … Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. In recent years, Jones and Johnson have both said publicly that they patched up their feud over who could take more credit for the Cowboys dynasty in the ‘90s. But look for that to continue on stage in Canton, Ohio, this summer.

9. I think you should read this story by Malika Andrews in The New York Times. It’s about Jeff Charles, a former football coach who couldn’t bring himself to watch football anymore after one of his players sustained a fatal brain injury on the field. I won’t ruin the rest of it for you.

10. I think these are the rest of my thoughts, including some non-football ones:

a. It doesn’t matter if Rob Gronkowski spent $102,407 at a casino nightclub in Connecticut. Wasteful? Sure. Could be put to better use? Absolutely. But the time to worry about Gronk being Gronk is the day he’s anything other than amazing on the football field. I don’t think that day will come any time soon.

b. There is a football link to the anniversary last Monday of the night the Purple Cobras of Globo Gym collapsed with a four-man advantage against regional qualifier Average Joe’s Gym in the American Dodgeball Association of America tournament. That’s because one NFL star trained and starred on a traveling dodgeball team growing up. You’ll read about that—and him—in the pages of SI soon.

c. My colleague Ben Baskin is one of the best young writers exploring the world of pro football. Check out his piece on the Saints first season, as part of The MMQB’s 1967 package from last week.

d. Editors across the nation should resist all Juice is Loose headlines should O.J. Simpson be released from prison in October. His parole hearing is scheduled for July 20.

e. Having been to China a few times, I think it will be difficult to play an NFL regular season game there. The biggest problem is just how far it is. That said, I also think the NFL will play a regular season game there anyway. When Brady visited the country last week as part of a tour he said it was his “dream” to play a game there someday. He also noted how the NFL tried to send the Patriots and Seahawks there in 2007 (the league also attempted to reschedule that game for 2009) but the efforts haven’t been successful—yet. For more on the logistics, check out this piece from the excellent Jonathan Jones.

f. Stories like these are why I pay $10 a week for the Sunday version of The New York Times. I read this version in the paper (shocker) and it was better than anything I watch on Netflix. (And, let’s be honest, I watch a lot of Netflix.)

g. The piece is called The Sheriff’s War and it’s about an NYT legend (Walt Bogdanich), a murder at the home of a Sheriff’s Department employee in Florida, an investigation into that murder and the subsequent investigation into the investigator. Beyond that, I think I’ll just say enjoy.

h. Beernerdness: I’m on IR now with a displaced fracture in my left pinkie toe, which I’m embarrassed to admit resulted from when I snagged my foot on a door frame. So I was surprised to see a package arrive at my house last week that was addressed to the “Association for Disabled Sportswriters.” It came from my friend and colleague Pete Thamel, and it was a package of local beers intended to ease the pain. I particularly enjoyed the Reuben's Daily Pale, which is brewed in Seattle. The beer was light in body, balanced, crisp and clean at the finish, and chalk full of delicious undertones (citrus, passion fruit, honeydew and kiwi) … ah, who am I kidding? It tasted like beer and went down smooth.

i. Coffeenerdness: I live outside Seattle. We call coffeenerdness “Tuesday.” But I have been enjoying Urban Coffee Lounge in my new neighborhood. Wrote half a story there recently. (I think Duerson probably cut it.)

* * *

The Adieu Haiku

What doesn't kill mewill only make me stronger.So take that, haters.

(That’s actually a Kanye West song and not the exact lyrics but more of a summary. Still, s/o.)

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

The NFL Optimism Season

As the NFL entered its dead period this past week, that blink of a break between the end of mini camps and the start of training camps, optimism reigned. Always does this time of year.

Every story about every player on every team oozed with hope and possibility. No fan base called to replace its starting quarterback (although Jets fans would like to find one), no coach found his proverbial seat at a temperature above lukewarm and every team could at least extol its playoff chances, although some sounded more realistic than others. The Panthers say it feels like 2015 again, and Todd Gurley is communicating better with his offensive linemen in Los Angeles after a rough second season. Even Cleveland quarterback Brock Osweiler sounded like a comeback player of the year candidate.

Thus this attempt to fill in for the vacationing Peter King in this space—which I liken to how Brian Griese felt in Denver after John Elway retired—will focus on what’s possible across the league, as Optimism Season ramps up. Below you’ll read about...

• A Saint who thinks New Orleans can win the Super Bowl (and a fan who thinks so too).

• A nose tackle in Buffalo who’s excited about the new regime, and a Vikings linebacker who sees dominance ahead in Minnesota.

• A Seahawks defensive end who builds homes in Haiti when not tearing down opposing quarterbacks.

• A retired running back’s business pursuit to become the Gatorade of hygiene.

• A nod to the next project at The MMQB—Smarter Football Week begins Tuesday— and the most intelligent players I’ve covered.

And so much more. Let’s get it going...

• 1967 WEEK AT THE MMQB: Our series of articles on what the game, the players and the culture of professional football were like a half-century ago

* * *

When The Saints...

You could argue that the Saints’ Cameron Jordan is the most underrated player in pro football. Pro Football Focus bolstered that argument recently when it ranked Jordan 15th overall on its list of 101 Best Players from last season. The website touted the defensive end’s total QB pressures (79, tied with Broncos sackmaster Von Miller) and his “consistent” play against the run as factors that solidified his ranking.

So why isn’t Jordan a household name outside of Louisiana? “Well, we finished the last three seasons 7-9 and our defense was in the mid-20s,” he told me. “That’s not where we want to be. Last time we were a top-five defense we made the playoffs (2013, fourth). That’s what we want to be.”

Jordan is high on the Saints this season, particularly on defense. He notes the addition of free agent pass rusher Alex Okafor, how New Orleans deepened its linebacker core and the signing of running back Adrian Peterson, who will share a backfield with Mark Ingram (a Pro Bowl replacement in Jan. 2015) and quarterback Drew Brees (one of the best players on earth). “We’re building a team to win a Super Bowl,” Jordan says. “We’re not building for the future. It’s hard not to believe in our team. We’re ready to win it now.”

Here’s what else Jordan had to say about the Saints (and Tom Brady):

• On Brees: “Is there a better quarterback? You tell me how many 5,000-yard seasons have been produced in NFL history. I would say eight. (Close, but it’s nine.) Drew has five of those seasons.”

• On Brees/Brady: “That being said, TB12 is the GOAT when it comes to rings. But when it comes to the King of the Air, we’ll call him Drew.” (May we suggest a Game of Thrones spin-off?)

• On Brady: “Can you ask him to adopt me? Between him and Giselle that’s a lot of money.”

• On Peterson: “I’m a fan. He runs the angriest of any back I’ve ever hit.”

For more proof that Jordan rules, here he is competing against Ingram in a lip sync battle for charity.

• COLIN KAEPERNICK NEEDS TO SPEAK UP: Albert Breer on what the unemployed quarterback should do if he still wants a job playing football

* * *

My Favorite Person in Sports

For 13 years, Louisiana native Jarrius Robertson fought for a liver transplant after he was diagnosed with a chronic liver disease called biliary atresia. He underwent dozens of surgeries, started his own foundation, “It Takes Lives to Save Lives,” and followed his beloved Saints. Even in his worst moments, Robertson told his father, Jordy, “If I die, I want you to donate my organs.”

I met Robertson, now 15, last fall, while on the field at the Superdome, reporting the series Football in America with home-run hitter Michael McKnight. I followed Robertson’s story in the months since—the appearance on Good Morning America, where he signed a contract to become a hype man for the Saints; the ESPN video segments; his star turn at the NBA All-Star game; all the way through the liver transplant he received last month. Jordan counts Jarrius as a friend, as do most of the Saints players.

I wanted to see how Jarrius was doing post-transplant, so I called Jordy last week. “I saw a change in my son,” he says. “He’s enjoying life more. He pushes himself more. He doesn’t have any restrictions on him now. He’s able to take a breather now.”

Last week, Jarrius even tried wrestling.

I told Jordy what Cam Jordan had said about the Saints and their Super Bowl chances. He noted that before Jarrius was the Saints’ hype man, he did the same at Lutcher High School, where the football team won back-to-back state titles in 2015 and ’16. In fact, Jarrius received his latest championship ring the day before his transplant and went to his eighth grade graduation ceremony the same day as his surgery. “I’ll tell you this,” Jordy says, “If he can help Lutcher High School win a championship, I know damn well he can bring the Saints back to the Super Bowl.”

Here’s the foundation’s website and Robertson’s Go Fund me page.

* * *

A Must-Read Story and How It Came Together

That would be this story on former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan. It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read this year.

Start with the first sentence, a lede unlike any I can remember: Ryan O’Callaghan’s plan was always to play football and then, when his career was over, kill himself.

I asked the author of the piece (and Outsports co-founder), Cyd Zeigler, about that sentence specifically. He said he often starts writing in the middle of the story, but not with this one. Those were the first words he typed. Incredible.

Same went for reaction to the story. Zeigler said Outsports doesn’t release traffic numbers but did say that the volume of readers for the O’Callaghan story were among the highest he had ever seen on the site. He heard from friends who are gay but have no interest in sports and saw the story. “What’s most important is people in the NFL saw it,” he said. “It has been three years since they’ve had a reason to talk about this issue.”

For O’Callaghan, the interest in his story was overwhelming—in a good way. He went on Dan Patrick’s radio show, did SI Now with Maggie Gray and talked to several reporters, including me. O’Callaghan said he will have upcoming segments with CBS and HBO, and he laughed at the news outlets that asked him not to talk to other news outlets. They were missing the aim of why he told his story in the first place: “To reach as many people as possible,” he says. “People who might be going through what I went through.”

Quick background: O’Callaghan played college football at Cal, winning the Pac-10’s Morris Trophy (best lineman) in 2005. He then spent time in the NFL with the Patriots and Chiefs, all while trying to conceal his sexual orientation and wracked with worry and suicidal thoughts over the secret he was keeping.

Here’s how it came together: O’Callaghan sent Zeigler a friend request on Facebook. At first, Zeigler thought it might be a prank. He is a die-hard Patriots fan, and he knew who O’Callaghan was, but Outsports had received fake emails about specific athletes being gay and wanting to tell their story many times before. A few minutes after Zeigler accepted the request, though, O’Callaghan sent him a message.

A week ago, they met in West Hollywood for LA Pride weekend. That was the first time O’Callaghan had ever attended a pride event. He couldn’t tell anyone about the story and no one knew who he was. That changed when the story broke. He received more than 5,000 emails, and many of those missives were thousands of words long. He heard from dozens of friends and family members. One man wrote and said he hadn’t taken it well when his son came out and now he wanted another chance. “That was the whole goal,” O’Callaghan says.

I don’t want to spoil the piece but two things stood out. One was Scott Pioli, an executive for both the NFL teams O’Callaghan played for, and the role Pioli played in helping O’Callaghan find acceptance. That part of the story stayed with me. I was still thinking about Pioli and O’Callaghan long after I read it. O’Callaghan said he had spoken to Pioli last week and the executive had also received a ton of reaction.

The second part was this (and Zeigler said this passage had almost been cut in the final round of edits): In 2014 he was being inducted into the Shasta County Sports Hall of Fame. He had moved back to Redding, a familiar place with a support system where he could continue to learn how to manage his addiction.

He decided the thing to do at these events was to bring a significant other. O’Callaghan embraced the moment and brought his then-boyfriend, thanking him from the stage.

Then … crickets. Even with the local media there, and NFL prospect Michael Sam having come out publicly just months earlier, no one reported on it. No one asked him questions.

One last note. As O’Callaghan made the media rounds last week, several outlets asked him if he thinks the NFL is ready to accept a gay superstar. That’s the wrong question, Zeigler said. The league has already proven that it is. “We’re so addicted to thinking the NFL is homophobic and these athletes are all big, dumb jocks,” he said. “Sports have moved beyond that. I’m shocked we’re still asking the question.”

O’Callaghan agreed. “I can’t remember hearing a gay slur in the locker room,” he said, adding that “football players are more open-minded than people give them credit for. Teams are made up of so many different people from all walks of life. You become open to each other’s differences that way.”

• HOW TO BUILD WINNING FRANCHISE IN NFL: Andrew Brandt on how tanking could be part of vital strategy to achieve to long-term success

* * *

Smarter Football Week at The MMQB

Please keep an eye out for our Smarter Football stories this week at The MMQB. We’ll examine the cerebral side of America’s favorite sport, the growth of advanced analytics and examine how big-brained Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner prepares for games.

I think people who fall easily into stereotypes get it wrong about pro football players. I’ve covered many sports, from pro cycling to gay softball leagues to the NFL, and I’ve always found football players to be the most insightful and thought-provoking in sports. That whole dumb jocks thing was always a dumb concept, especially in football locker rooms. Think of all the information football players have to process, the decisions they make in seconds, over and over, that determine the outcomes of their games, even all the plays they have to memorize. To hear football people talk about the game itself is to hear a foreign language, Football French. The sport is brutal, yes, but it’s cerebral in its soul as well. Most of the best football players mix brawn and brainpower. They see openings before they exist, guess plays before they unfold and win because they studied more than they practiced.

At the risk of some blowback, as a general rule, I’ve always found offensive linemen to be the smartest players in a locker room. I’m not sure exactly why that is. As for individual players, I’d cite Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who asks astronauts about astrophysics), Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin (who recommends Netflix documentaries on the prison industrial complex) and the retired fullback Tony Richardson (whose fluent in wine snobbery, acupuncture and leadership).

• PARTING THOUGHTS: An interview with The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan on her way out

* * *

The Haitian Creation

Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril saw the damage Hurricane Matthew did to Haiti last October and pledged to build a house there for every sack he registered last season. Then he made the Pro Bowl, after registering 11.5 sacks. Then he built 12 homes.

Avril’s parents grew up in Haiti and came to the United States in the 1980s. He used to visit relatives there most summers during his childhood, but stopped visiting once he started playing college football. Then he saw his former teammate, running back Marshawn Lynch, doing charity work in Haiti, and so Avril went back, helping how he could, along with Lynch, Michael Bennett and others. (Quick aside: Avril agrees with my assessment that all roads in the NFL lead back to Lynch. He’s like the football version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. “One of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Avril said.)

To build the homes, Avril partnered with the charitable organization New Story, and they used Haitian workers and local materials in their efforts, helping to boost the local economy. When Avril visited the completed residences this spring, the occupants cried and prayed. He also saw their old homes, with dirt floors that turned muddy when it rained.

As for the Seahawks, Avril notes that the defense returns with its core intact, now that safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are back to full health after both suffered injuries in the past two seasons. “I feel like we’re getting back to who we are,” he said.

Avril plans to continue with his pledge this season.

* * *

The New-Look Bills and a Voice of Reason

So much is new in Buffalo this season, from a new coach in Sean McDermott to a new general manager in Brandon Beane. For defensive tackle Marcell Dareus that’s a good thing. Dareus made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and ’14, when he also was named first-team all-pro. The next off-season he inked a six-year extension for $96.5 million (with $60 million guaranteed, the highest guarantee at that time for a non-quarterback in NFL history). But his numbers dropped in the past two seasons, thanks in part to a four-game suspension and a hamstring injury in 2016.

Now, Dareus appears primed for a resurgence—and, if all goes well, the Bills hope to end the longest playoff drought in the league. (Their last appearance was in 1999.) To that end, Dareus praised quarterback Tyrod Taylor for taking a more active leadership role this spring. But here’s a twist: even in this Optimism Season, Dareus wants to see how the team actually plays before he makes any pronouncements. “We have a lot of pieces,” he said. “But I always say everything looks good on paper. Everything sounds good on the radio. But until we put the toys on and run around you just don’t know.” Points for honesty there.

Also worth noting: Dareus loves Bills fans. He does a lot of charity work when he’s in town (including a “Marcell Dareus Day” at the minor league stadium for the Buffalo Bisons) and said members of Bills Mafia have stopped him at Starbucks, Toys “R” Us and even tried to talk football … in a theater … during a movie. “Bills fans are crazy,” he said affectionately. “Most of them feel like they should be head coach.”

• EVOLUTIONARY, NOT REVOLUTIONARY: Albert Breer on the Derek Carr contract and what it means for future blockbuster deals

* * *

In Minnesota, Pointed Forward

In his two seasons in Minnesota, inside linebacker Eric Kendricks has … established himself as a dominant force on an underappreciated defense … seen a legend (Adrian Peterson) leave … studied under a defensive guru in Mike Zimmer, until Zimmer was sidelined with eye surgeries for a detached retina … and witnessed an injury to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater that was so gruesome some teammates threw up. “We’ve gone through a lot,” Kendricks said. “I can’t say I’ve ever been on a team that went through that much in one year.”

Yet Kendricks prefers to look forward to next season, rather than back at the insanity that unfolded in 2016. He cares little that PFF ranked him as the sixth most-improved player in the league last year—his overall grade improved from 48.3 to 80.3—but agreed with my contention that the Vikings could make the postseason next fall. (I’ll throw in some disclaimers there: if quarterback Sam Bradford minimizes mistakes, the offensive line improves and the offense keeps the Vikings’ D in games. Is that a lot of disclaimers? Well, it’s the Optimism Season!)

Kendricks says his improvement last year stemmed mostly from becoming more comfortable on the field, thinking less and following his instincts. He learned that from Zimmer, who guided the Vikings to third overall in total defense last season, sixth in points allowed per game and ninth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average rankings. Like Kendricks, Minnesota’s D is young, improving and ready to join units like the Broncos, Seahawks and Texans in competition for the league’s best. I think the Vikings can compete with the Packers for NFC North supremacy next season.

* * *

Sweat Equity for Forsett

Back inside the Cal the locker room in the mid-2000s, running back Justin Forsett and his teammates would lament how they often had to choose between showering and eating lunch. They would make jokes about needing to take a shower pill to continue with their day.

Then one of those teammates, Wale Forrester, became a firefighter and one day after a workout, he was called suddenly into work. He stopped by a sporting goods store and asked if they sold wipes for athletes after workouts. And the salesman said that the store did not but added that it would love to.

That’s when the ShowerPill Athletic Body Wipe was born. It’s an extra-thick disposable wipe that athletes can use when they don’t have time to shower. The product, launched commercially in 2014 but now consuming Forsett’s time post football, has been approved by the FDA and kills 99.9 percent of germs. Perhaps it can even help sportswriters.

As Forsett played for seven teams over nine seasons, he often brought the wipes into the locker room. The feedback was intense. In Seattle, even the team employees started using the wipes after yoga sessions or long flights. Forsett started the company with Forrester and Wendell Hunter, and they donated their product to residents of Flint, Mich., during the water crisis, along with homeless communities in Baton Rouge and the people of Haiti after Hurricane Matthew.

The product is backed by NFL stars from Ronnie Lott to Steve Smith and its brand ambassadors include Jared Goff, Golden Tate and Marshawn Lynch. (Everything comes back to Lynch, remember?)

Forsett recently purchased a home in Dallas, his first permanent residence since he started in the NFL in 2009. No NFL team has called him, and he said the running back market in particular is oversaturated, but he hasn’t entirely ruled out a return to the NFL. In fact, he’s playing in a flag football league this summer, staying in shape. Should he return to the NFL, he’ll have to take the ShowerPill back on the road. “We’re trying to be the Gatorade of hygiene,” Forsett said.

* * *

Quotes of the Week

I

“I mean, I don’t tank nothing. So that’s all opinions outside of this organization. We don’t come here—and we’re not going to go through training camp, and have 14-hour days—to go tank a season. I’ll be damned.”

—Jets DT Sheldon Richardson to NJ.com.

Fair question. Fair answer. Good times as always in Florham Park, N.J.

II

“I really think that may be overdone a little bit. I mean, I don’t think the game has ever been safer than it is now.”

—Patriots owner Robert Kraft to the Associated Press, speaking about player safety.

From limiting practice contact to mandating the removal of potentially concussed players from games to penalizing with increased regularity helmet-to-helmet hits, Kraft makes a fair point. The NFL has never taken more steps to make the game safer. His argument, though, also ignores physics—that bigger, faster players will produce more forceful collisions. No rule change can alter that.

III

“Business should reflect productivity.”

—Panthers tight end Greg Olsen to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The two were discussing Olsen’s contract, worth $6.5 million in base salary in both 2017 and ’18, and how he wants a new one. He’s clearly among the best tight ends in football. He hasn’t missed a game since before President Obama took office. He’s right, too, but right here doesn’t equal likely or even possible.

IV

“Robert is very important to me personally. We both understand that we have jobs.”

—NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on his relationship with Kraft, to Allon Sinai of the Jerusalem Post, during a trip to open the Kraft Family Sports Complex in Jerusalem.

I don’t doubt that the men could reconcile after Deflategate. Or even that they became friends again. But Goodell saying there’s never been a problem with him and Kraft is at best disingenuous. Anybody who saw Kraft rip into Goodell on numerous occasions knows that’s not true.

V

“Teamwork, fair play and the pursuit of personal excellence are the values—in the religious sense, we can say virtues—that have guided your own commitment on the field. Yet these same values are urgently needed off the field, on all levels of our life as a community. They are the values that help build a culture of encounter, in which we anticipate and meet the needs of our brothers and sisters, and combat the exaggerated individualism, indifference and injustice that hold us back from living as one human family. How greatly our world needs this culture of encounter!”

—Pope Francis, to the group of NFL Hall of Famers that visited the Vatican last week.

* * *

Stat of the Week

Raiders signal caller Derek Carr signed a five-year extension last week good for $125,025,000 over five seasons. The $25 million average makes him the highest paid quarterback in the NFL. I agree with The MMQB’s Albert Breer that the contract is more evolutionary than revolutionary, because it’s only slightly higher than the average salaries of Andrew Luck (Colts, $24.6 million), Carson Palmer (Cardinals, $24.4 million), Brees (Saints, $24.3 million) and Kirk Cousins (Redskins, $23.9 million). In a year when the salary cap increased by 7 percent, Carr’s deal, while life changing, is closer to what should have been expected than anything transformative.

That said, no one should be more excited about the Raiders move to Las Vegas in 2020 than Carr. He’ll play out the final three years of this deal in Nevada, a state that does not tax income. I reached out to Stephen Kidder of Hemeney & Barnes in Boston, because he has a deep background in sports tax law. He said that California taxes will cost Carr about $3,286,000 in income while the Raiders are in Oakland. That means he’ll pocket almost $10 million more in Nevada than he would have if the Raiders had stayed put.

Some other points of note. The top 12 highest paid quarterbacks in terms of average salary are Carr, Luck, Palmer, Brees, Cousins, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. (At $20.5 million per season, Brady’s deal ranks among the best bargains in sports.) This list confirms what’s obvious: that if you have a franchise quarterback, you don’t quibble on dollars, you pay. The only franchise-caliber QB who’s not on that list if Matthew Stafford, and he’ll be there soon enough. The rest of the NFL teams are looking for their next franchise signal caller, rather than paying one.

* * *

Factoid That May Only Interest Me

As noted by Pro Football Talk, Chiefs coach Andy Reid is currently tied for 11th on the all-time wins list, with 173. He needs 13 wins to pass Chuck Knox and move into the top 10. If Reid records an average of 11 victories in the next five years, he’d be fifth all-time, behind only Don Shula, George Halas, Tom Landry and Bill Belichick. I think that’s worthy of the Hall of Fame and a slam dunk nomination should Reid win a Super Bowl in K.C.

* * *

Mr. Marriott Lifetime Platinum Member Travel Note

If you’ve never been to Ketchikan, Alaska, do yourself a favor and go visit. That’s where I’m typing this column, in a hotel downtown, near what seems like thousands of cruise ship tourists. Mountains. Water. Bears. This is God’s country.

I’d recommend Bar Harbor restaurant. If you don’t order some sort of fresh seafood, I’ll trust that you’re allergic.

Only downside: no Marriotts.

* * *

Tweets of the Week

I

How this man @DavidJohnson31 only have 56k follows? That's a damn shame! He won y'all TOO MANY fantasy s for you not to follow the man!— Patrick Peterson /P2 (@P2) June 20, 2017

Truer words have rarely been typed. If you’re one of the thousands who needed Cardinals running back David Johnson to win your fantasy football league last season, the least you can do is follow the man on Twitter.

II

Tom Brady with Takashi Kurihara!!!route wide version #tombrady #patriots #nfl #underarmour #iwill #japan #football #?????????????????? pic.twitter.com/LyH0knfFrC— Takashi Kurihara ??? (@TeeKeyy) June 21, 2017

Incredible how many fans in China showed up to watch Patriots Tom Brady play catch.

III

USC's QB can even throw darts from a boat (: samdarnold/IG) pic.twitter.com/49NKipIRn4— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) June 19, 2017

This video (reposted from USC signal caller’s Sam Darnold’s Instagram account) shows why Jets fans might not mind a 1-15 record in 2017. (Although their players insist, as they should, that the concept of tanking is for people who, you know, write Monday Morning Quarterback columns.)

IV

Former Jets LB David Harris has reached agreement on a two-year deal with...the New England Patriots, source tells ESPN.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) June 21, 2017

Can’t beat ‘em, well …

The longtime Jet, by the way, is one of my favorite players I’ve ever covered. Always accessible, generally solid with the insight. That’s all you can ask.

* * *

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think the Titans will make the playoffs next season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a run into late January, depending on the match-ups. Not only did they add free agent wideout Eric Decker, but they also drafted another receiver, Corey Davis of Western Michigan, in the first round. Add those two into a target mix that includes Delanie Walker, Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe, plus two capable running backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, plus an emerging star at quarterback in Marcus Mariota, plus Super Bowl experience from signees Logan Ryan (CB), Sylvester Williams (NT) and Eric Weems (WR). Houston will also compete in the AFC South—and maybe, dare I say, Jacksonville—but Tennessee will challenge the Texans and Jaguars.

2. I think I’d be grateful if you read some of the excellent Where Are They Now? pieces we’ll be running on SI.com in the next week. I have one on Vince Young and there’s another fascinating NFL story on retired running back Clinton Portis. Plus Lee Jenkins on Allen Iverson and more.

3. I think this story confirms that Eric Berry is a good human being and that not all football news is negative. The story, told by a stranger watching from a distance without Berry’s knowledge, describes the Chiefs safety coming out of a restaurant in Knoxville, handing food he purchased to three homeless people. They asked Berry to pray with them. He did. “I don’t do it for the attention,” Berry told The Kansas City Star. “I do it to better myself and just give back. That’s what you should do it for.”

4. I think my editor/life coach, Adam Duerson, couldn’t be more wrong when he sent a passage from a soon-to-be-released bonus story written by the legendary Steve Rushin on hot dogs and their place in sports. Duerson described one line in the passage as “nasty” and said it offended him.

The line in question: Lohr would like to criminalize even some who do eat them. “I think people over 12 who put ketchup on hot dogs should have to do 100 hours of community service,” he says. “It’s the desecration of a national food. It’s like defacing Mount Rushmore.”

The last time Duerson was this wrong was the last time he cut from one of my magazine pieces. Ketchup on a hot dog is a crime against one’s taste buds. They shouldn’t even stock ketchup at ballparks, to avoid letting anyone make a horrible, life-altering mistake. The only condiment that belongs on a hot dog is mustard. That should be obvious.

“I guess I’m alone here,” Duerson wrote back. Yes, yes you are.

5. I think it was smart of Odell Beckham Jr. to read Brady’s favorite book this off-season. It’s called The Four Agreements, and the second agreement in particular—don’t take anything personally—applies to famous football players. I called the book’s author, Don Miguel Ruiz, before Super Bowl 51 and asked how that agreement applied to Brady, after his Deflategate suspension and revenge tour.

From our Super Bowl cover story: Ruiz writes that people tend to fall into narratives that others create for them, that they’re angry because they’re expected to be angry, aggrieved because most others would be too. Brady—at least publicly—never blamed Goodell, never let the noise appear to influence him.

“Brady,” Ruiz says, “has created his own truth.”

Beckham, with years of prime ahead of him, can do the same.

6. I think that Lions president Rod Wood made total sense when he told Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com that he’s comfortable making Matt Stafford the highest-paid player in pro football. There just aren’t many franchise-level quarterbacks walking around the planet. (See Stat of the Week, above.) When you have one—and Stafford is definitely one; look what he did last season without Calvin Johnson; or check back on the 5,000-yard passing year—you don’t let them walk. Unless you want to spend that next however-many-years looking for your next quarterback, drafting replacements, signing journeymen, etc. I also think that’s why regardless of any tension between the offense and the defense in Seattle, Russell Wilson isn’t going anywhere. With franchise signal-callers, as Wood told Rothstein, “it’s going to be whatever it takes.”

7. I think it’s wise of wideout Anquan Boldin to skip the NFL’s off-season programs and look to sign with a receiver-needy team before training camp. That’s the Walter Jones Approach to Optimism Season, named after the perpetual holdout at left tackle in Seattle. It worked pretty well for Jones, who made the Hall of Fame. If I’m Boldin, I try to sign with New England, looking for a ring. He’d also fit well in Kansas City, Washington, Minnesota and elsewhere.

8. I think that Jason Taylor’s choice of his former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson as his Hall of Fame presenter could not be more perfect, given the year. Taylor will be inducted along with kicker Morten Andersen, quarterback Kurt Warner, running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrell Davis, safety Kenny Easley and … Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. In recent years, Jones and Johnson have both said publicly that they patched up their feud over who could take more credit for the Cowboys dynasty in the ‘90s. But look for that to continue on stage in Canton, Ohio, this summer.

9. I think you should read this story by Malika Andrews in The New York Times. It’s about Jeff Charles, a former football coach who couldn’t bring himself to watch football anymore after one of his players sustained a fatal brain injury on the field. I won’t ruin the rest of it for you.

10. I think these are the rest of my thoughts, including some non-football ones:

a. It doesn’t matter if Rob Gronkowski spent $102,407 at a casino nightclub in Connecticut. Wasteful? Sure. Could be put to better use? Absolutely. But the time to worry about Gronk being Gronk is the day he’s anything other than amazing on the football field. I don’t think that day will come any time soon.

b. There is a football link to the anniversary last Monday of the night the Purple Cobras of Globo Gym collapsed with a four-man advantage against regional qualifier Average Joe’s Gym in the American Dodgeball Association of America tournament. That’s because one NFL star trained and starred on a traveling dodgeball team growing up. You’ll read about that—and him—in the pages of SI soon.

c. My colleague Ben Baskin is one of the best young writers exploring the world of pro football. Check out his piece on the Saints first season, as part of The MMQB’s 1967 package from last week.

d. Editors across the nation should resist all Juice is Loose headlines should O.J. Simpson be released from prison in October. His parole hearing is scheduled for July 20.

e. Having been to China a few times, I think it will be difficult to play an NFL regular season game there. The biggest problem is just how far it is. That said, I also think the NFL will play a regular season game there anyway. When Brady visited the country last week as part of a tour he said it was his “dream” to play a game there someday. He also noted how the NFL tried to send the Patriots and Seahawks there in 2007 (the league also attempted to reschedule that game for 2009) but the efforts haven’t been successful—yet. For more on the logistics, check out this piece from the excellent Jonathan Jones.

f. Stories like these are why I pay $10 a week for the Sunday version of The New York Times. I read this version in the paper (shocker) and it was better than anything I watch on Netflix. (And, let’s be honest, I watch a lot of Netflix.)

g. The piece is called The Sheriff’s War and it’s about an NYT legend (Walt Bogdanich), a murder at the home of a Sheriff’s Department employee in Florida, an investigation into that murder and the subsequent investigation into the investigator. Beyond that, I think I’ll just say enjoy.

h. Beernerdness: I’m on IR now with a displaced fracture in my left pinkie toe, which I’m embarrassed to admit resulted from when I snagged my foot on a door frame. So I was surprised to see a package arrive at my house last week that was addressed to the “Association for Disabled Sportswriters.” It came from my friend and colleague Pete Thamel, and it was a package of local beers intended to ease the pain. I particularly enjoyed the Reuben's Daily Pale, which is brewed in Seattle. The beer was light in body, balanced, crisp and clean at the finish, and chalk full of delicious undertones (citrus, passion fruit, honeydew and kiwi) … ah, who am I kidding? It tasted like beer and went down smooth.

i. Coffeenerdness: I live outside Seattle. We call coffeenerdness “Tuesday.” But I have been enjoying Urban Coffee Lounge in my new neighborhood. Wrote half a story there recently. (I think Duerson probably cut it.)

* * *

The Adieu Haiku

What doesn't kill mewill only make me stronger.So take that, haters.

(That’s actually a Kanye West song and not the exact lyrics but more of a summary. Still, s/o.)

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The NFL's Optimism Season

As the NFL entered its dead period this past week, that blink of a break between the end of minicamps and the start of training camps, optimism reigned. Always does this time of year.

Every story about every player on every team oozed with hope and possibility. No fan base called to replace its starting quarterback (although Jets fans would like to find one), no coach found his proverbial seat at a temperature above lukewarm, and every team could at least extol its playoff chances, although some sounded more realistic than others. The Panthers say it feels like 2015 again, and in Los Angeles, Todd Gurley is communicating better with his offensive linemen after a rough second season. Even Cleveland quarterback Brock Osweiler sounded like a Comeback Player of the Year candidate.

Thus this attempt to fill in for the vacationing Peter King in this space—which I liken to how Brian Griese felt in Denver after John Elway retired—will focus on what’s possible across the league, as Optimism Season ramps up. Below you’ll read about...

• A Saint who thinks New Orleans can win the Super Bowl (and a fan who thinks so too).

• A nosetackle in Buffalo who’s excited about the new regime, and a Vikings linebacker who sees dominance ahead in Minnesota.

• A Seahawks defensive end who builds homes in Haiti when not tearing down opposing quarterbacks.

• A retired running back’s business pursuit to become the Gatorade of hygiene.

• A nod to the next project at The MMQB—Smarter Football Week begins Tuesday— and the most intelligent players I’ve covered.

And so much more. Let’s get it going...

• 1967 WEEK AT THE MMQB: Our series of articles on what the game, the players and the culture of professional football were like a half-century ago

* * *

When The Saints...

You could argue that the Saints’ Cameron Jordan is the most underrated player in the game. Pro Football Focus bolstered that argument recently when it ranked Jordan 15th overall on its list of 101 Best Players from last season. The website touted the defensive end’s total QB pressures (79, tied with Broncos sackmaster Von Miller) and his “consistent” play against the run as factors that solidified his ranking.

So why isn’t Jordan a household name outside of Louisiana? “Well, we finished the last three seasons 7-9 and our defense was in the mid-20s,” he told me. “That’s not where we want to be. Last time we were a top-five defense we made the playoffs [2013, defense ranked fourth]. That’s what we want to be.”

Jordan is high on the Saints this season, particularly on defense. He notes the addition of free-agent pass rusher Alex Okafor, how New Orleans deepened its linebacker core and the signing of running back Adrian Peterson, who will share a backfield with Mark Ingram (a Pro Bowl replacement in Jan. 2015) and quarterback Drew Brees (one of the best players on earth). “We’re building a team to win a Super Bowl,” Jordan says. “We’re not building for the future. It’s hard not to believe in our team. We’re ready to win it now.”

Here’s what else Jordan had to say about the Saints (and Tom Brady):

• On Brees: “Is there a better quarterback? You tell me how many 5,000-yard seasons have been produced in NFL history. I would say eight. (Close, but it’s nine.) Drew has five of those seasons.”

• On Brees/Brady: “That being said, TB12 is the GOAT when it comes to rings. But when it comes to the King of the Air, we’ll call him Drew.” (May we suggest a Game of Thrones spin-off?)

• On Brady: “Can you ask him to adopt me? Between him and Giselle that’s a lot of money.”

• On Peterson: “I’m a fan. He runs the angriest of any back I’ve ever hit.”

For more proof that Jordan rules, here he is competing against Ingram in a lip sync battle for charity.

• COLIN KAEPERNICK NEEDS TO SPEAK UP: Albert Breer on what the unemployed quarterback should do if he still wants a job playing football

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My Favorite Person in Sports

For 13 years, Louisiana native Jarrius Robertson fought for a liver transplant after he was diagnosed with a chronic liver disease called biliary atresia. He underwent dozens of surgeries, started his own foundation, “It Takes Lives to Save Lives,” and followed his beloved Saints. Even in his worst moments, Robertson told his father, Jordy, “If I die, I want you to donate my organs.”

I met Robertson, now 15, last fall, while on the field at the Superdome, reporting the series Football in America with home-run hitter Michael McKnight. I followed Robertson’s story in the months since—the appearance on “Good Morning America,” where he signed a contract to become a hype man for the Saints; the ESPN video segments; his star turn at the NBA All-Star game; all the way through the liver transplant he received last month. Jordan counts Jarrius as a friend, as do most of the Saints players.

I wanted to see how Jarrius was doing post-transplant, so I called Jordy last week. “I saw a change in my son,” he says. “He’s enjoying life more. He pushes himself more. He doesn’t have any restrictions on him now. He’s able to take a breather now.”

Last week, Jarrius even tried wrestling.

I told Jordy what Cam Jordan had said about the Saints and their Super Bowl chances. He noted that before Jarrius was the Saints’ hype man, he did the same at Lutcher High School, where the football team won back-to-back state titles in 2015 and ’16. In fact, Jarrius received his latest championship ring the day before his transplant and went to his eighth grade graduation ceremony the same day as his surgery. “I’ll tell you this,” Jordy says, “If he can help Lutcher High School win a championship, I know damn well he can bring the Saints back to the Super Bowl.”

Here’s the foundation’s website and Robertson’s Go Fund me page.

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A Must-Read Story and How It Came Together

That would be this story on former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan. It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read this year.

Start with the first sentence, a lede unlike any I can remember: Ryan O’Callaghan’s plan was always to play football and then, when his career was over, kill himself.

I asked the author of the piece (and Outsports co-founder), Cyd Zeigler, about that sentence specifically. He said he often starts writing in the middle of the story, but not with this one. Those were the first words he typed. Incredible.

Same went for reaction to the story. Zeigler said Outsports doesn’t release traffic numbers but did say that the volume of readers for the O’Callaghan story was among the highest he had ever seen on the site. He heard from friends who are gay but have no interest in sports and saw the story. “What’s most important is people in the NFL saw it,” he said. “It has been three years since they’ve had a reason to talk about this issue.”

For O’Callaghan, the interest in his story was overwhelming—in a good way. He went on Dan Patrick’s radio show, did “SI Now” with Maggie Gray and talked to several reporters, including me. O’Callaghan said he will have upcoming segments with CBS and HBO, and he laughed at the news outlets that asked him not to talk to other news outlets. They were missing the aim of why he told his story in the first place: “To reach as many people as possible,” he says. “People who might be going through what I went through.”

Quick background: O’Callaghan played college football at Cal, winning the Pac-10’s Morris Trophy (best lineman) in 2005. He then spent time in the NFL with the Patriots and Chiefs, all while trying to conceal his sexual orientation and wracked with worry and suicidal thoughts over the secret he was keeping.

Here’s how it came together: O’Callaghan sent Zeigler a friend request on Facebook. At first, Zeigler thought it might be a prank. He is a die-hard Patriots fan, and he knew who O’Callaghan was, but Outsports had received fake emails about specific athletes being gay and wanting to tell their story many times before. A few minutes after Zeigler accepted the request, though, O’Callaghan sent him a message.

A week ago, they met in West Hollywood for LA Pride weekend. That was the first time O’Callaghan had ever attended a pride event. He couldn’t tell anyone about the story and no one knew who he was. That changed when the story broke. He received more than 5,000 emails, and many of those missives were thousands of words long. He heard from dozens of friends and family members. One man wrote and said he hadn’t taken it well when his son came out and now he wanted another chance. “That was the whole goal,” O’Callaghan says.

I don’t want to spoil the piece but two things stood out. One was Scott Pioli, an executive for both the NFL teams O’Callaghan played for, and the role Pioli played in helping O’Callaghan find acceptance. That part of the story stayed with me. I was still thinking about Pioli and O’Callaghan long after I read it. O’Callaghan said he had spoken to Pioli last week and the executive had also received a ton of reaction.

The second part was this (and Zeigler said this passage had almost been cut in the final round of edits): In 2014 he was being inducted into the Shasta County Sports Hall of Fame. He had moved back to Redding, a familiar place with a support system where he could continue to learn how to manage his addiction.

He decided the thing to do at these events was to bring a significant other. O’Callaghan embraced the moment and brought his then-boyfriend, thanking him from the stage.

Then … crickets. Even with the local media there, and NFL prospect Michael Sam having come out publicly just months earlier, no one reported on it. No one asked him questions.

One last note. As O’Callaghan made the media rounds last week, several outlets asked him if he thinks the NFL is ready to accept a gay superstar. That’s the wrong question, Zeigler said. The league has already proven that it is. “We’re so addicted to thinking the NFL is homophobic and these athletes are all big, dumb jocks,” he said. “Sports have moved beyond that. I’m shocked we’re still asking the question.”

O’Callaghan agreed. “I can’t remember hearing a gay slur in the locker room,” he said, adding that “football players are more open-minded than people give them credit for. Teams are made up of so many different people from all walks of life. You become open to each other’s differences that way.”

• HOW TO BUILD WINNING FRANCHISE IN NFL: Andrew Brandt on how tanking could be part of vital strategy to achieve to long-term success

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Smarter Football Week at The MMQB

Please keep an eye out for our Smarter Football stories this week at The MMQB. We’ll examine the cerebral side of America’s favorite sport, the growth of advanced analytics and examine how one big-brained linebacker prepares for games.

I think people who fall easily into stereotypes get it wrong about pro football players. I’ve covered many sports, from pro cycling to gay softball leagues to the NFL, and I’ve always found football players to be the most insightful and thought-provoking in sports. That whole dumb-jock thing was always a dumb concept, especially in football locker rooms. Think of all the information football players have to process, the decisions they make in seconds, over and over, that determine the outcomes of their games, even all the plays they have to memorize. To hear football people talk about the game itself is to hear a foreign language, Football French. The sport is brutal, yes, but it’s cerebral in its soul as well. Most of the best football players mix brawn and brainpower. They see openings before they exist, guess plays before they unfold and win because they studied more than they practiced.

At the risk of some blowback, as a general rule, I’ve always found offensive linemen to be the smartest players in a locker room. I’m not sure exactly why that is. As for individual players, I’d cite Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who asks astronauts about astrophysics), Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin (who recommends Netflix documentaries on the prison industrial complex) and the retired fullback Tony Richardson (who’s fluent in wine snobbery, acupuncture and leadership).

• PARTING THOUGHTS: An interview with The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan on her way out

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The Haitian Creation

Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril saw the damage Hurricane Matthew did to Haiti last October and pledged to build a house there for every sack he registered last season. Then he made the Pro Bowl, after registering 11.5 sacks. Then he built 12 homes.

Avril’s parents grew up in Haiti and came to the United States in the 1980s. He used to visit relatives there most summers during his childhood, but stopped visiting once he started playing college football. Then he saw his former teammate, running back Marshawn Lynch, doing charity work in Haiti, and so Avril went back, helping how he could, along with Lynch, Michael Bennett and others. (Quick aside: Avril agrees with my assessment that all roads in the NFL lead back to Lynch. He’s like the football version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. “One of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Avril said.)

To build the homes, Avril partnered with the charitable organization New Story, and they used Haitian workers and local materials in their efforts, helping to boost the local economy. When Avril visited the completed residences this spring, the occupants cried and prayed. He also saw their old homes, with dirt floors that turned muddy when it rained.

As for the Seahawks, Avril notes that the defense returns with its core intact, now that safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are back to full health after both suffered injuries in the past two seasons. “I feel like we’re getting back to who we are,” he said.

Avril plans to continue with his pledge this season.

* * *

The New-Look Bills and a Voice of Reason

So much is new in Buffalo this season, from a new coach in Sean McDermott to a new general manager in Brandon Beane. For defensive tackle Marcell Dareus that’s a good thing. Dareus made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and ’14, when he also was named first-team all-pro. The next off-season he inked a six-year extension for $96.5 million (with $60 million guaranteed, the highest guarantee at that time for a non-quarterback in NFL history). But his numbers dropped in the past two seasons, thanks in part to a four-game suspension and a hamstring injury in 2016.

Now, Dareus appears primed for a resurgence—and, if all goes well, the Bills hope to end the longest playoff drought in the league. (Their last appearance was in 1999.) To that end, Dareus praised quarterback Tyrod Taylor for taking a more active leadership role this spring. But here’s a twist: even in this Optimism Season, Dareus wants to see how the team actually plays before he makes any pronouncements. “We have a lot of pieces,” he said. “But I always say everything looks good on paper. Everything sounds good on the radio. But until we put the toys on and run around you just don’t know.” Points for honesty there.

Also worth noting: Dareus loves Bills fans. He does a lot of charity work when he’s in town (including a “Marcell Dareus Day” at the minor league stadium for the Buffalo Bisons) and said members of Bills Mafia have stopped him at Starbucks, Toys “R” Us and even tried to talk football … in a theater … during a movie. “Bills fans are crazy,” he said affectionately. “Most of them feel like they should be head coach.”

• EVOLUTIONARY, NOT REVOLUTIONARY: Albert Breer on the Derek Carr contract and what it means for future blockbuster deals

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In Minnesota, Pointed Forward

In his two seasons in Minnesota, inside linebacker Eric Kendricks has … established himself as a dominant force on an underappreciated defense … seen a legend (Adrian Peterson) leave … studied under a defensive guru in Mike Zimmer, until Zimmer was sidelined with eye surgeries for a detached retina … and witnessed an injury to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater that was so gruesome some teammates threw up. “We’ve gone through a lot,” Kendricks said. “I can’t say I’ve ever been on a team that went through that much in one year.”

Yet Kendricks prefers to look forward to next season, rather than back at the insanity that unfolded in 2016. He cares little that PFF ranked him as the sixth most-improved player in the league last year—his overall grade improved from 48.3 to 80.3—but agreed with my contention that the Vikings could make the postseason next fall. (I’ll throw in some disclaimers there: if quarterback Sam Bradford minimizes mistakes, the offensive line improves and the offense keeps the Vikings’ D in games. Is that a lot of disclaimers? Well, it’s the Optimism Season!)

Kendricks says his improvement last year stemmed mostly from becoming more comfortable on the field, thinking less and following his instincts. He learned that from Zimmer, who guided the Vikings to third overall in total defense last season, sixth in points allowed per game and ninth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average rankings. Like Kendricks, Minnesota’s D is young, improving and ready to join units like the Broncos, Seahawks and Texans in competition for the league’s best. I think the Vikings can compete with the Packers for NFC North supremacy next season.

* * *

Sweat Equity for Forsett

Back inside the Cal the locker room in the mid-2000s, running back Justin Forsett and his teammates would lament how they often had to choose between showering and eating lunch. They would make jokes about needing to take a shower pill to continue with their day.

Then one of those teammates, Wale Forrester, became a firefighter and one day after a workout, he was called suddenly into work. He stopped by a sporting goods store and asked if they sold wipes for athletes after workouts. And the salesman said that the store did not but added that it would love to.

That’s when the ShowerPill Athletic Body Wipe was born. It’s an extra-thick disposable wipe that athletes can use when they don’t have time to shower. The product, launched commercially in 2014 but now consuming Forsett’s time post football, has been approved by the FDA and kills 99.9 percent of germs. Perhaps it can even help sportswriters.

As Forsett played for seven teams over nine seasons, he often brought the wipes into the locker room. The feedback was intense. In Seattle, even the team employees started using the wipes after yoga sessions or long flights. Forsett started the company with Forrester and Wendell Hunter, and they donated their product to residents of Flint, Mich., during the water crisis, along with homeless communities in Baton Rouge and the people of Haiti after Hurricane Matthew.

The product is backed by NFL stars from Ronnie Lott to Steve Smith and its brand ambassadors include Jared Goff, Golden Tate and Marshawn Lynch. (Everything comes back to Lynch, remember?)

Forsett recently purchased a home in Dallas, his first permanent residence since he started in the NFL in 2009. No NFL team has called him, and he said the running back market in particular is oversaturated, but he hasn’t entirely ruled out a return to the NFL. In fact, he’s playing in a flag football league this summer, staying in shape. Should he return to the NFL, he’ll have to take the ShowerPill back on the road. “We’re trying to be the Gatorade of hygiene,” Forsett said.

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Quotes of the Week

I

“I mean, I don’t tank nothing. So that’s all opinions outside of this organization. We don’t come here—and we’re not going to go through training camp, and have 14-hour days—to go tank a season. I’ll be damned.”

—Jets DT Sheldon Richardson to NJ.com.

Fair question. Fair answer. Good times as always in Florham Park, N.J.

II

“I really think that may be overdone a little bit. I mean, I don’t think the game has ever been safer than it is now.”

—Patriots owner Robert Kraft to the Associated Press, speaking about player safety.

From limiting practice contact to mandating the removal of potentially concussed players from games to penalizing with increased regularity helmet-to-helmet hits, Kraft makes a fair point. The NFL has never taken more steps to make the game safer. His argument, though, also ignores physics—that bigger, faster players will produce more forceful collisions. No rule change can alter that.

III

“Business should reflect productivity.”

—Panthers tight end Greg Olsen to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The two were discussing Olsen’s contract, worth $6.5 million in base salary in both 2017 and ’18, and how he wants a new one. He’s clearly among the best tight ends in football. He hasn’t missed a game since before President Obama took office. He’s right, too, but right here doesn’t equal likely or even possible.

IV

“Robert is very important to me personally. We both understand that we have jobs.”

—NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on his relationship with Kraft, to Allon Sinai of the Jerusalem Post, during a trip to open the Kraft Family Sports Complex in Jerusalem.

I don’t doubt that the men could reconcile after Deflategate. Or even that they became friends again. But Goodell saying there’s never been a problem with him and Kraft is at best disingenuous. Anybody who saw Kraft rip into Goodell on numerous occasions knows that’s not true.

V

“Teamwork, fair play and the pursuit of personal excellence are the values—in the religious sense, we can say virtues—that have guided your own commitment on the field. Yet these same values are urgently needed off the field, on all levels of our life as a community. They are the values that help build a culture of encounter, in which we anticipate and meet the needs of our brothers and sisters, and combat the exaggerated individualism, indifference and injustice that hold us back from living as one human family. How greatly our world needs this culture of encounter!”

—Pope Francis, to the group of NFL Hall of Famers that visited the Vatican last week.

* * *

Stat of the Week

Raiders signal caller Derek Carr signed a five-year extension last week good for $125,025,000 over five seasons. The $25 million average makes him the highest paid quarterback in the NFL. I agree with The MMQB’s Albert Breer that the contract is more evolutionary than revolutionary, because it’s only slightly higher than the average salaries of Andrew Luck (Colts, $24.6 million), Carson Palmer (Cardinals, $24.4 million), Brees (Saints, $24.3 million) and Kirk Cousins (Redskins, $23.9 million). In a year when the salary cap increased by 7 percent, Carr’s deal, while life changing, is closer to what should have been expected than anything transformative.

That said, no one should be more excited about the Raiders move to Las Vegas in 2020 than Carr. He’ll play out the final three years of this deal in Nevada, a state that does not tax income. I reached out to Stephen Kidder of Hemeney & Barnes in Boston, because he has a deep background in sports tax law. He said that California taxes will cost Carr about $3,286,000 in income while the Raiders are in Oakland. That means he’ll pocket almost $10 million more in Nevada than he would have if the Raiders had stayed put.

Some other points of note. The top 12 highest paid quarterbacks in terms of average salary are Carr, Luck, Palmer, Brees, Cousins, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. (At $20.5 million per season, Brady’s deal ranks among the best bargains in sports.) This list confirms what’s obvious: that if you have a franchise quarterback, you don’t quibble on dollars, you pay. The only franchise-caliber QB who’s not on that list if Matthew Stafford, and he’ll be there soon enough. The rest of the NFL teams are looking for their next franchise signal caller, rather than paying one.

* * *

Factoid That May Only Interest Me

As noted by Pro Football Talk, Chiefs coach Andy Reid is currently tied for 11th on the all-time wins list, with 173. He needs 13 wins to pass Chuck Knox and move into the top 10. If Reid records an average of 11 victories in the next five years, he’d be fifth all-time, behind only Don Shula, George Halas, Tom Landry and Bill Belichick. I think that’s worthy of the Hall of Fame and a slam dunk nomination should Reid win a Super Bowl in K.C.

* * *

Mr. Marriott Lifetime Platinum Member Travel Note

If you’ve never been to Ketchikan, Alaska, do yourself a favor and go visit. That’s where I’m typing this column, in a hotel downtown, near what seems like thousands of cruise ship tourists. Mountains. Water. Bears. This is God’s country.

I’d recommend Bar Harbor restaurant. If you don’t order some sort of fresh seafood, I’ll trust that you’re allergic.

Only downside: no Marriotts.

* * *

Tweets of the Week

I

How this man @DavidJohnson31 only have 56k follows? That's a damn shame! He won y'all TOO MANY fantasy s for you not to follow the man!— Patrick Peterson /P2 (@P2) June 20, 2017

Truer words have rarely been typed. If you’re one of the thousands who needed Cardinals running back David Johnson to win your fantasy football league last season, the least you can do is follow the man on Twitter.

II

Tom Brady with Takashi Kurihara!!!route wide version #tombrady #patriots #nfl #underarmour #iwill #japan #football #?????????????????? pic.twitter.com/LyH0knfFrC— Takashi Kurihara ??? (@TeeKeyy) June 21, 2017

Incredible how many fans in China showed up to watch Patriots Tom Brady play catch.

III

USC's QB can even throw darts from a boat (: samdarnold/IG) pic.twitter.com/49NKipIRn4— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) June 19, 2017

This video (reposted from USC signal caller’s Sam Darnold’s Instagram account) shows why Jets fans might not mind a 1-15 record in 2017. (Although their players insist, as they should, that the concept of tanking is for people who, you know, write Monday Morning Quarterback columns.)

IV

Former Jets LB David Harris has reached agreement on a two-year deal with...the New England Patriots, source tells ESPN.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) June 21, 2017

Can’t beat ‘em, well …

The longtime Jet, by the way, is one of my favorite players I’ve ever covered. Always accessible, generally solid with the insight. That’s all you can ask.

* * *

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think the Titans will make the playoffs next season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a run into late January, depending on the match-ups. Not only did they add free agent wideout Eric Decker, but they also drafted another receiver, Corey Davis of Western Michigan, in the first round. Add those two into a target mix that includes Delanie Walker, Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe, plus two capable running backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, plus an emerging star at quarterback in Marcus Mariota, plus Super Bowl experience from signees Logan Ryan (CB), Sylvester Williams (NT) and Eric Weems (WR). Houston will also compete in the AFC South—and maybe, dare I say, Jacksonville—but Tennessee will challenge the Texans and Jaguars.

2. I think I’d be grateful if you read some of the excellent Where Are They Now? pieces we’ll be running on SI.com in the next week. I have one on Vince Young and there’s another fascinating NFL story on retired running back Clinton Portis. Plus Lee Jenkins on Allen Iverson and more.

3. I think this story confirms that Eric Berry is a good human being and that not all football news is negative. The story, told by a stranger watching from a distance without Berry’s knowledge, describes the Chiefs safety coming out of a restaurant in Knoxville, handing food he purchased to three homeless people. They asked Berry to pray with them. He did. “I don’t do it for the attention,” Berry told The Kansas City Star. “I do it to better myself and just give back. That’s what you should do it for.”

4. I think my editor/life coach, Adam Duerson, couldn’t be more wrong when he sent a passage from a soon-to-be-released bonus story written by the legendary Steve Rushin on hot dogs and their place in sports. Duerson described one line in the passage as “nasty” and said it offended him.

The line in question: Lohr would like to criminalize even some who do eat them. “I think people over 12 who put ketchup on hot dogs should have to do 100 hours of community service,” he says. “It’s the desecration of a national food. It’s like defacing Mount Rushmore.”

The last time Duerson was this wrong was the last time he cut from one of my magazine pieces. Ketchup on a hot dog is a crime against one’s taste buds. They shouldn’t even stock ketchup at ballparks, to avoid letting anyone make a horrible, life-altering mistake. The only condiment that belongs on a hot dog is mustard. That should be obvious.

“I guess I’m alone here,” Duerson wrote back. Yes, yes you are.

5. I think it was smart of Odell Beckham Jr. to read Brady’s favorite book this off-season. It’s called The Four Agreements, and the second agreement in particular—don’t take anything personally—applies to famous football players. I called the book’s author, Don Miguel Ruiz, before Super Bowl 51 and asked how that agreement applied to Brady, after his Deflategate suspension and revenge tour.

From our Super Bowl cover story: Ruiz writes that people tend to fall into narratives that others create for them, that they’re angry because they’re expected to be angry, aggrieved because most others would be too. Brady—at least publicly—never blamed Goodell, never let the noise appear to influence him.

“Brady,” Ruiz says, “has created his own truth.”

Beckham, with years of prime ahead of him, can do the same.

6. I think that Lions president Rod Wood made total sense when he told Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com that he’s comfortable making Matt Stafford the highest-paid player in pro football. There just aren’t many franchise-level quarterbacks walking around the planet. (See Stat of the Week, above.) When you have one—and Stafford is definitely one; look what he did last season without Calvin Johnson; or check back on the 5,000-yard passing year—you don’t let them walk. Unless you want to spend that next however-many-years looking for your next quarterback, drafting replacements, signing journeymen, etc. I also think that’s why regardless of any tension between the offense and the defense in Seattle, Russell Wilson isn’t going anywhere. With franchise signal-callers, as Wood told Rothstein, “it’s going to be whatever it takes.”

7. I think it’s wise of wideout Anquan Boldin to skip the NFL’s off-season programs and look to sign with a receiver-needy team before training camp. That’s the Walter Jones Approach to Optimism Season, named after the perpetual holdout at left tackle in Seattle. It worked pretty well for Jones, who made the Hall of Fame. If I’m Boldin, I try to sign with New England, looking for a ring. He’d also fit well in Kansas City, Washington, Minnesota and elsewhere.

8. I think that Jason Taylor’s choice of his former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson as his Hall of Fame presenter could not be more perfect, given the year. Taylor will be inducted along with kicker Morten Andersen, quarterback Kurt Warner, running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrell Davis, safety Kenny Easley and … Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. In recent years, Jones and Johnson have both said publicly that they patched up their feud over who could take more credit for the Cowboys dynasty in the ‘90s. But look for that to continue on stage in Canton, Ohio, this summer.

9. I think you should read this story by Malika Andrews in The New York Times. It’s about Jeff Charles, a former football coach who couldn’t bring himself to watch football anymore after one of his players sustained a fatal brain injury on the field. I won’t ruin the rest of it for you.

10. I think these are the rest of my thoughts, including some non-football ones:

a. It doesn’t matter if Rob Gronkowski spent $102,407 at a casino nightclub in Connecticut. Wasteful? Sure. Could be put to better use? Absolutely. But the time to worry about Gronk being Gronk is the day he’s anything other than amazing on the football field. I don’t think that day will come any time soon.

b. There is a football link to the anniversary last Monday of the night the Purple Cobras of Globo Gym collapsed with a four-man advantage against regional qualifier Average Joe’s Gym in the American Dodgeball Association of America tournament. That’s because one NFL star trained and starred on a traveling dodgeball team growing up. You’ll read about that—and him—in the pages of SI soon.

c. My colleague Ben Baskin is one of the best young writers exploring the world of pro football. Check out his piece on the Saints first season, as part of The MMQB’s 1967 package from last week.

d. Editors across the nation should resist all Juice is Loose headlines should O.J. Simpson be released from prison in October. His parole hearing is scheduled for July 20.

e. Having been to China a few times, I think it will be difficult to play an NFL regular season game there. The biggest problem is just how far it is. That said, I also think the NFL will play a regular season game there anyway. When Brady visited the country last week as part of a tour he said it was his “dream” to play a game there someday. He also noted how the NFL tried to send the Patriots and Seahawks there in 2007 (the league also attempted to reschedule that game for 2009) but the efforts haven’t been successful—yet. For more on the logistics, check out this piece from the excellent Jonathan Jones.

f. Stories like these are why I pay $10 a week for the Sunday version of The New York Times. I read this version in the paper (shocker) and it was better than anything I watch on Netflix. (And, let’s be honest, I watch a lot of Netflix.)

g. The piece is called The Sheriff’s War and it’s about an NYT legend (Walt Bogdanich), a murder at the home of a Sheriff’s Department employee in Florida, an investigation into that murder and the subsequent investigation into the investigator. Beyond that, I think I’ll just say enjoy.

h. Beernerdness: I’m on IR now with a displaced fracture in my left pinkie toe, which I’m embarrassed to admit resulted from when I snagged my foot on a door frame. So I was surprised to see a package arrive at my house last week that was addressed to the “Association for Disabled Sportswriters.” It came from my friend and colleague Pete Thamel, and it was a package of local beers intended to ease the pain. I particularly enjoyed the Reuben's Daily Pale, which is brewed in Seattle. The beer was light in body, balanced, crisp and clean at the finish, and chalk full of delicious undertones (citrus, passion fruit, honeydew and kiwi) … ah, who am I kidding? It tasted like beer and went down smooth.

i. Coffeenerdness: I live outside Seattle. We call coffeenerdness “Tuesday.” But I have been enjoying Urban Coffee Lounge in my new neighborhood. Wrote half a story there recently. (I think Duerson probably cut it.)

* * *

The Adieu Haiku

What doesn't kill mewill only make me stronger.So take that, haters.

(That’s actually a Kanye West song and not the exact lyrics but more of a summary. Still, s/o.)

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