As we do every week, let’s take a swing around the NFL, looking at a bunch of random things …
So, what’s been up?
1. I can’t help but think that the Steelers’ season will be dictated by two storylines, neither of which will make the Pittsburgh crazies very happy. One is, can QB Ben Roethlisberger stay healthy? He’s already been slowed by a gimpy ankle and, ho hum, he’s got a torn rotator cuff on his throwing shoulder. And from the way it sounded, his offensive line will be a work in progress. Starting two rookies is good for the future, scary for the present, even if the rookies are highly touted like David DeCastro and Mike Adams. And losing a starting fullback like David Johnson will not help OC Todd Haley run the ball. I’m expecting daily updates on how Big Ben is feeling, even knowing that few can tolerate as much or play with more pain than he can. Every player has a shelf life, but it’s mindboggling what he puts himself through. Though, I guess if Brett Favre can play until he’s 63, so can Big Ben. If he can stay upright, the Steelers will be good. If this troubling trend of nagging stuff continues… well, they won’t be. The second issue? Again, the age and speed of this defense. Five players are over 30, and the youth hasn’t quite taken over. Naysayers in 2011 (I was one of them) were shown up last year when the Steelers made the playoffs before getting Tebowed. But the same questions are there. It’s not just that they are on the old side, because they have tried to get younger. It’s also about whether they can match up with slot receivers and tight ends without going to nickel. Will Pittsburgh be fast enough? We shall see.
2. We stopped in on the Tennessee Titans and their quarterback competition last week, and it was intriguing that coach Mike Munchak chose Matt Hasselbeck to start the preseason opener. He didn’t name a starter for the season, but this could be a reward for Hasselbeck looking better than Jake Locker thus far in camp. I still believe what I was hearing during my trip to Nashville, Tenn., that the organization is really hoping that the former first-rounder Locker takes the starting job. As far as physical talents, he is much better than Hasselbeck, though there are plenty of other factors in being a QB. How athletic is Locker? You’ll like this. In high school and while he was at the University of Washington, Locker was drafted into the Major League Baseball draft. He was never drafted that high because everyone knew he was a football player. But I’m told that, had he focused on baseball, Rangers GM Jon Daniels was considering drafting him in the first round. Yes, the first round. In an email (through a spokesman), Daniels told me he did talk with Titans people about Locker, and that area scout Gary McGraw followed him Locker. “We did like him,” Daniels said, “but he made it known early he wasn’t going to play baseball, so never a real consideration.”
3. It was obvious I liked what I saw from the Bucs last Monday, specifically the direction the team is heading under new coach Greg Schiano. The ex-Rutgers coach is embracing the change in job description, from focusing on recruiting to focusing on personnel evaluation. To that end, Schiano has dedicated himself to learning. Just like a college coach goes on a state-wide tour to meet all the high school coaches upon getting hired, Schiano has huddled with GM Mark Dominik to learn the finer points of evaluation. “I have gotten involved,” Schiano told me. “I actually think it’s easier (than evaluating prep prospects). When you’re evaluating a high school player, the differential between a guy and the guy he’s competing against is so vast. He may do special things, but can he do that at the next level? At least when you’re dealing with major college football, there’s more of a parallel. And then with free agency, you certainly know he’s playing against other NFL guys. Each step up the food chain, the evaluation is, I think, more applicable because of the people they are playing against. In high school, you have a great player, and it’s a man amongst boys, usually. When you go to college and the NFL, it’s a little easier to see. When you go free agency, it’s apples to apples.” Dominik continued the thought, noting that he and Schiano meet every day to go over personnel, with Schiano sharing his input from a coaching standpoint. “It’s important to him so he’s spending time doing it,” Dominik told me. “We stay in constant communication. That’s pivotal to the organizations.”
4. One thing I took away from my quickie trip to St. Joseph, Mo., for the Chiefs-Cardinals joint practice was that Kansas City players love Romeo Crennel. I mean, I knew that anyway, considering they were chanting his name in the locker room after the 2011 finale. But still, it was reinforced, and I think GM Scott Pioli absolutely did the right thing in hiring Crennel to help the Chiefs get to where they want to get to. Haley was close, but not quite. It’s still amazing to hear how Haley would get so amped up on the sidelines that he would literally be shrilly screaming plays into the QBs ears. Yikes. Anyway, why do the players like Crennel? “He treats you like a man,” safety Eric Berry told me. “He has his philosophy, he has his rules, he has his guidelines that he enforces. But at the same time, he respects you as a man. He doesn’t talk down to you. He doesn’t kick you when you’re down. Everything is motivation. ‘We gotta get it with this play, we gotta be better with this play. Forget it, that’s in the past, learn from your mistakes. I think a lot of the stuff he coaches teaches you in life, too. I took a lot of what I learned just being in his defense my rookie year to my (knee) rehab, just staying focused on the goal.”
5. There’s been a lot of talk about replacement officials, and that will continue until an agreement is reached for the real dudes to get out there to flex their muscles in shirts that are too tight and offer lengthy explanations to simple rules (or maybe that’s just Ed Hochuli). But while replacement officials are a storyline, I am conflicted about the attention focused on the first female official to work an NFL game, Shannon Eastin. On one hand, it’s awesome. Fantastic. Breaking barriers is hard, being the first to do something is hard, and achieving something no one else in your gender (or class or religion or age group or whatever) ever has is noteworthy. It should be celebrated, just like any milestone. Yet … from an on-field standpoint, the focus should be shifted to one factor: Ability to do the work. I kinda liked what Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said when asked about Eastin. “I thought she did a good job,” Whisenhunt said. “I wouldn’t have even noticed she was (female). That’s a pretty good sign.” Can there be a female official in the NFL? “I hadn’t even really thought about it,” he said. “The way I look at it, if they can make the calls and do the job, they can do the job. I never looked at it that way.” He’s right. Maybe after the first female official reffed a real game, we’ll all sound like Whisenhunt and kinda shrug. All that matters is getting the calls right, anyway.
6. I am still trying to process the fact that Terrell Owens signed with the Seattle Seahawks … or signed anywhere, for that matter. Out of football for a year, embroiled in a legal mess involving failure to pay what he owes, bounced from the esteemed company of the Allen Wranglers … back to the NFL. Weird. Based on coach Pete Carroll’s words, Owens had a fantastic workout. OK, I’ll accept that. Different from going out on the field against real people, but perhaps he could be a contributor. There are two quick things that stand out. One, Carroll will accept talent from anywhere and put that person on the field. It was that way at USC, when he regularly put freshmen on the field to start over seniors just because. He doesn’t care about ruffling feathers. Two, it will be impossible for the media storm that follows T.O. to continue in Seattle. It’s too hard of a place to get to for national reporters, logistically. It’s not like somewhere in the Northeast where news crews are readily available for in-depth reporting (like, say, the Jets and Tim Tebow). Hasselbeck once told me Seattle was the NFL’s “Witness Protection Program,” and he’s not far off. Kind of a perfect spot for T.O. Whatever, I’ll have my popcorn ready.
7. I enjoyed the Peyton Manning show on Thursday, even if it only lasted for 12 plays. There was a lot to like and a little bit not to like. The new Broncos quarterback is on his way to being back. One underrated thing I appreciated that Denver did? Surround Manning with some familiar faces like Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley. Manning was pretty honest after the game, addressing his unfamiliarity with his surroundings. It was real. “There’s always a little bit of an unknown,” the former Colts star said. “New team, new players, not ideal weather conditions. There were different elements for me, so it’s hard to exactly know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to predict … ” As someone who has moved a bunch for work (and always liked where I’ve ended up living), it can be jarring even simply doing what you normally do in a different place. It was easy to tell how happy it made Manning to have some of his guys with him. He noted how earlier in the week, Stokley and Tamme were “hanging out in my room, watching the Olympics. It was like family.” Later, he noted about his acclimation, “It does help.” Nice move by Denver.
8. I think the Jets have a major problem at receiver. We’ve all focused on the quarterbacks this preseason, and with good reason. Who isn’t interested in the soap opera of Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow, and the media that have followed them? But on the field, in this offense, the lack of pass-catching options could severely damage this team. Santonio Holmes is really good, and he can be great. No, not the most dependable player, but if he decides to come to play, he can be game-changing. Paired with whomever else, the Jets will be fine. But what if Holmes isn’t on his game? Or gets injured? Rookie Stephen Hill, who had a drop in the preseason game, might not be 100 percent NFL-ready yet, especially considering the run-first system he came from. Chaz Schilens’ best year includes 29 catches. Jeremy Kerley is just a guy so far. Patrick Turner has already been cut by two teams — the Dolphins and the Jets. It’s not a fantastic sign that RB Joe McKnight was the team’s most productive receiver in the preseason game. How will the Jets open the field up for what should be a power running game? How can they pound it when teams will know they can’t throw deep and stack the box with nine players? I don’t know the answers to those questions. But when Sanchez comes under criticism, remember who he is throwing to.
9. Well, the live look-in, training camp practice part of the preseason mostly is over. There will be practices, but clearly the games are taking most of the focus. As they should. Practice is fine and all, but when the lights come on, it’s real. We learned a little bit in our trip to Chicago, and as of now, there are at least two more trips on our radar this week. I’m in Indianapolis right now, pumped to watch the preseason debut of Colts No. 1 pick Andrew Luck. He was behind after missing all spring, but wanna bet he’s caught up? That franchise will take time to rebuild, but I’m excited about watching Step 1. And then we’re headed to Phoenix on Friday to watch the Cardinals play the Raiders. I’ve seen the Cardinals already, but I can’t wait for the Raiders. The new-look Raiders, I should say. Watching Darren McFadden in person is never bad. Man, if he can stay healthy …