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Sports Illustrated

Saleh’s Optimism Starts With the Intangibles

There’s been plenty for coaches to watch the last few weeks, as NFL offseason programs have started to ramp up with the summer approaching.

Robert Saleh has actually taken more from listening.

“We have so many new faces, both offensively and defensively,” the Jets coach told me from his house Sunday morning. “And what’s been encouraging through Phase II was to hear it. I always listen to volume, a player’s voice and volume on whether or not he’s understanding. The more he understands, the louder his voice will get. It’s confidence in communication. And so offensively, defensively, as Phase II went, as we went to the last week of Phase II, you could hear the volume of practice increasing in terms of communication.

“It’s players speaking to one another, having alerts, being aware of things. So from that regard, it’s good. And you anticipate when it gets faster this week, it’ll have to rebuild again, trying to get comfortable doing it while competing against their teammates.”

Organized team activities begin, in earnest, Monday morning across the NFL.

In layman’s terms, it really means, finally, football practice can begin. The way the league’s offseason sets up, Phase I of the offseason program is for classroom work, lifting and running; and Phase II is for the beginning of on-field instruction. Phase III, which contains each team’s allotted OTAs and mandatory minicamp, allows for nonpadded, noncontact competitive action out on the field for the first time.

So no, this isn’t what you’ll witness in training camp. And yes, everyone still has a long way to go. But for a team like Saleh’s Jets, this is the first chance to see all the new pieces assembled for the first time. Laken Tomlinson lining up opposite Alijah Vera-Tucker. Garrett Wilson catching the ball from Zach Wilson. Sauce Gardner and Jermaine Johnson II lining up on the edges of the secondary and front seven.

“The athletes, we’re excited about for sure,” Saleh continued. “Obviously, we believe they fit our system, and fit what we’re trying to get accomplished. Our front seven, it is long and athletic, we’ve got a bunch of three-techniques and a bunch of rush ends—throw four guys on the field and let’s go play. And we got C.J. [Mosley] and Quincy [Williams], and revamped the entire back end …

Saleh went on for a while on the roster before stopping and pivoting.

“But if you’re really going to comment on something, Albert, it’s gotta be the character,” Saleh said. “And the shift to guys who love this game and love working, love their teammates, love hanging out and want nothing more than to win.”

Today’s a new day for everyone in the NFL, as on-field work ramps up. All have big plans.

With that established, Saleh isn’t making any proclamations about where all this will lead the roster he and GM Joe Douglas have revamped over the last 17 months. But this much is for sure—he likes who he’s going to work with.

Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports (Saleh); Jamie Germano/USA TODAY Network (Bills players); Mitch Stringer/USA TODAY Sports (Koch)


I’m in Atlanta for the NFL’s spring meeting (after a weird set of flight delays), and I’m coming to you with plenty to cover. Inside this week’s edition of the MMQB column, you’ll find …

• A detailed look at the Bills’ efforts to help a crestfallen community.

• Reasons why the retirement of a Ravens punter deserves your attention.

• Updates on the Panthers’ quarterback situation and Baker Mayfield’s status.

• More on the timing of the league’s investigation into Deshaun Watson.

And a whole lot more. But we’re starting with the beginning of OTAs, and a whole new outlook in New Jersey for a team that’s struggled for a decade to get out of its own way.


Vasha Hunt/USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of interesting story lines to follow across the league over the coming weeks before the NFL takes its annual mid-June to mid-July nap. Is Trey Lance ready to be the guy in San Francisco? How is Russell Wilson adjusting to his surroundings in Denver? What’s the vibe in New Orleans post–Sean Payton? In Houston post-Watson? And so on.

There are lots of pro football stories out there worth your attention, even though it’s May.

And to me, somehow, even being in New York, the Jets are one that’s overlooked. They’ve got a quarterback going into his second year with an exciting playing style but not a ton from his rookie year to go off of. They’ve brought in five first-round picks over the last two springs, thanks to the Jamal Adams trade. They were major players in free agency in each of the last two offseasons.

The time to turn the corner, it would seem, is now, with Douglas heading into his third full year at the helm, and the honeymoons for Saleh and Wilson soon to expire.

“I think no matter what type of roster you think you have, and this is where I get cliché on you, I apologize—but it’s the urgency at which you approach every day,” Saleh said, when I asked if urgency to win is ramped up now. “We have this ‘all gas, no brake’ mantra here; what does it mean? It means you go to bed better than when you woke up. Which means you wake up every morning and put your best foot forward and you do everything you can to be your personal best—not the best, but your personal best.

“And you’re trying to PR every single day. And you hope, if we do that as a collective group, we’ll love our results. Obviously, the main goal is to win. Obviously, we’re trying to win Super Bowls, all that stuff. But none of that happens unless you really understand the process and how to get there.”

Which, then, comes back to that detail of what he’s heard out on the field through the first two phases of this spring’s offseason program—to him, the tone, inflection and force in the players’ voices show they’re starting to get it, which is one of a few reasons why, even if he won’t say it explicitly, the volume in his own voice paints a picture of optimism.


And yes, to be clear, Saleh is excited for Phase III.

“I think anytime we can get on the grass—I’ll speak for any coach in football—we love being on the grass with our guys,” he said. “The film room is great, the weight room is great, all that stuff is great. But there’s nothing better than being on the grass with the guys. So for that, I’m always excited, when we get those opportunities.”

But there are also some specifics that he and I covered, as to just why this team at least has the look of one that could make a significant jump in a division with perhaps the NFL’s best team (the Bills), its preeminent power of the last 20 years (the Patriots) and another up-and-comer that’s been pretty aggressive itself the last couple of months (the Dolphins).

That, of course, will have to start with the quarterback. It’s no secret that the Jets have a lot riding on the 22-year-old who went No. 2 in the draft 13 months ago, after a rough rookie year that included three wins, nine touchdown passes, 11 picks and a month missed.

The good news is that the lessons of 2021, as the coaches see it, have sunk in for Wilson. In particular, Saleh cited the time he missed, and in particular a game he was out for—the Jets’ 34–31 upset of the eventual conference champion Bengals, in which journeyman backup Mike White threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns—as valuable in showing Wilson where he needed to grow.

“Where I think he’s really, really focused is on the more important parts of the game, rather than what he perceived the game to be a year ago,” Saleh said. “A year ago, it felt like he was trying to find ways to make every play, rather than just taking what the defense gives you—and the defense is always giving you something. It’s just a matter of taking it. He’s really learning about space, and he’s able to say, Well, shoot, there’s space. Let me get the ball to my athletes, and my athletes will go make plays.

“And I think the starting point for that trigger was the Mike White game against the Bengals. … Mike just played quarterback. He executed the offense and did an unbelievable job doing it. I think from that point on, [Wilson] has really changed, at least in those meeting rooms. That part has been fun to watch.”

The idea, Saleh continued, is to feast on layups, and be judicious shooting three-pointers (so to speak).

“Every once in a while, you’re going to have to do something special,” Saleh said. “But Tom Brady is Tom Brady because he wasn’t afraid to take layups. And he’s done it, for it seems like 100 years now. But there are other quarterbacks; they all do it. Like [Patrick] Mahomes is the coolest example for me, because everyone goes crazy for his splash plays, but he will play small ball all day with you if you let him.

“And I think once Zach realizes that the small-ball element is what creates the explosive plays, and gives you the opportunity to create explosive plays, that’s where I think you’ll see all the special traits he possesses.”

One thing that should help is having a growing line (how left tackle Mekhi Becton plays is a big swing factor there), and young weapons like Elijah Moore and Garrett Wilson to throw to, with veterans like Corey Davis and C.J. Uzomah complementing them. And for his part, Wilson has come back thicker and stronger and, per Saleh, “He’s got a mullet going …”

Which might be the one thing from Wilson this spring the coach hasn’t really approved of.

“I’m bald; I don’t like hair,” he said, laughing. “But he’s in a really good place, I’m just excited to get him to the competitive part. I’m really excited for training camp to be honest with you, because Phase III isn’t going to be overly hard. You get to training camp, and the competitive juices are flying again; that’s gonna be exciting.”

Also exciting: how the new pieces on defense are fitting together. This, really, is where Saleh and I went initially, when he was taking me through how he can hear the difference this year in the on-field communication versus where it was at this point in 2021.

“Defense is where most of the communicating happens,” he said. “The offense lines up, they do their thing; the only one really doing the talking is the quarterback, making his checks and all that stuff, and maybe the center making some Mike points. Defensively, you’ve got to make all the adjustments, and there was a lot of communication happening.

“Lamarcus Joyner missed all of last year, and we added Jordan Whitehead, getting D.J. Reed in there, there’s new faces on that back end. Those three guys in particular, understanding the nuances of our scheme and what we’re being asked to do. The entire safety group, for the most part, is relatively new. … And you can tell they were getting comfortable as Phase II came to a close. Now it’s just, can you take it to Phase III, and let’s roll into training camp.”

It’s good news, too, because so much of Saleh’s defense is predicated on playing fast. That the communication is working well this early on the back end, with mainstays like Mosley handling it on the front end, should have everyone in a good spot going into summer.

The makeup of the team is getting to where Saleh wants it. And this is probably where there’s some risk of sounding a little cliché again. But the truth is that the general vibe of the team is one thing you actually can read a little into this early in the season, and seeing scenes like Wilson leading teammates into Madison Square Garden for Rangers playoff games does have more than a little meaning for the coach—and maybe as much as what they’re doing inside the team’s walls at this time of year.

“The attendance we got was phenomenal, which I’m sure it’s phenomenal for everyone in Phase I and II, even with it being voluntary,” he said. “But I look at it in the way they hang out with one another. You go to the cafeteria; everybody’s hanging out with one another. You go to the weight room, and they’re laughing. On the practice field, they’re talking in stretch lines. There’s just an energy to them.

“You’re seeing them at baseball games together, they’re golfing together; it’s not come to work and leave and everyone goes their separate ways. Guys are hanging out when they leave here. These guys actually like one another, and like being around one another; and I think that’s cool.”

These things, of course, still have to stand the tests of time, injuries and the inevitable losing streak. But Saleh and Douglas have been pretty intentional on the types of guys they’re bringing in—and that part of the equation does seem to be adding up now.


O.K., so now the truth about why no one’s really talking up the Jets right now: The track record is not good. Since making the AFC title game after the 2010 season, New York has gone 8–8, 6–10, 8–8, 4–12, 10–6, 5–11, 5–11, 4–12, 7–9, 2–14 and 4–13, and made the playoffs precisely zero times.

That’s 11 years of futility. The challenge of breaking the mentality that surrounds a drought like that, a mentality that the other shoe is always about to drop, remains there.

“And that’s the hard part,” Saleh said. “But you go back to the question you asked, about what stood out. You have to understand process. Football is not easy, and so the process of football, and the process of getting to game day is hard. It’s not for everyone. The weight room, the rehab, the hitting, the grind on your body, it is brutal. And so if you do not love this game, you will not enjoy the process.

“If you do not enjoy the process, you’re not gonna put everything you can into the process, which means you’re not going to be your best on Sunday. So that goes back to the whole thing we’ve been trying to accomplish here, in bringing in guys who love everything about ball. Because at the end of the day they’re gonna maximize who they are. And you trust that if they maximize who they are, it’s gonna be good enough.”

It’s hard to say, in May, whether it will be. But even if Saleh wasn’t making any grandiose predictions that a breakthrough was coming, it really wasn’t hard to sniff out how he feels.

“We’re gonna keep that focus,” he continued. “Now, we’re a super young team and we’re going to try to grow up as fast as we can. But I love the direction we’re going.”

And Monday morning should be another step in figuring out how soon they get there.


Jamie Germano/USA TODAY Network

BILLS HELP BUFFALO’S HEALING PROCESS

Last Monday was a different one at the Bills’ facility.

Coach Sean McDermott gathered players, coaches and football staff before the work for the morning began, and, for the benefit of those who didn’t yet have all the information, took them through the tragedy that unfolded in their city less than 48 hours earlier. A domestic terrorist had entered a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood. He’d opened fire with an assault rifle. Ten people were dead.

The gist of the message to follow from McDermott: There are a lot of causes you can throw money at. But if you’re like me, this is one where you want to go do something about it.

McDermott then opened it up, and the players and staff talked.

“We went down the avenue that racism is definitely real—because it is,” said left tackle Dion Dawkins, now in his sixth season as a Bill. “Then, we steered it to the point of action, what we were going to do. And nothing was forced; it was kind of an open conversation. And with that open conversation we figured out the best thing was to be present, to be at the location and let the community see that we’re with them and we’re affected as well.”

“Everything we’ve been doing has been completely voluntary. Coach has been doing a great job of letting everybody know that they don’t have to do a lot of the stuff that’s been going on,” said special-teamer Taiwan Jones, whose history in Buffalo also goes back to 2017. “It just shows you the kinds of men and women we have in our organization, that everyone wants to be involved. It speaks volumes for the character we have in our locker room.”

You may have seen the pictures by now. Last Wednesday, around 80 players (including Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, Dawson Knox, Tremaine Edmunds and Tre’Davious White) and the entire coaching staff visited the neighborhood surrounding the Tops grocery store. Owners Terry and Kim Pegula, commissioner Roger Goodell and Bills legends Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith were there Thursday.

And the idea to be there really surfaced from a common-sense discussion: What would the community affected need? Well, in the wake of the shooting, the grocery store would be closed indefinitely, and that particular grocery store was the only one of its kind in that area. Which is why setting up a food distribution location near the site of the shooting made sense.

So on Wednesday, the players had a brief workout in the morning, then boarded a fleet of four buses to make the trip to the neighborhood. On their visit, they passed out hot food to those in the area. The Thursday visit from the second group was more focused on handing out grocery items to the people.

“It was breathtaking. If I could give it a word, it was definitely breathtaking,” Dawkins said. “Being in the community, and physically being where that happened, you can feel the energy there; you can feel the darkness of the event that occurred. But the biggest thing that impacted me was seeing the faces of some of the people in the community that actually live there and how they looked at us being there, how they looked at us as players and us as Buffalo Bills, how excited, how welcoming they were of us coming into their community.”

Meanwhile, Jones, who’s long been a leader for the Bills in community work, enlisted people he’d worked with at Candles in the S.U.N. (the organization was represented on Jones’s shoes for the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign), a Buffalo area nonprofit that works to provide opportunity and programs for people in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The organization mentioned to Jones there was a family that couldn’t afford a funeral—so Jones went and got a quote from a funeral home; and he and a few teammates will cover a $15,000 bill for it.

On top of that, the Bills players’ unofficial photographer, Joe Croom, went around collecting memorabilia from the guys and used Instagram to get people bidding to raise money for Candles in the S.U.N. Croom has already cut a five-figure check to the organization.

“There’s numerous people involved,” Jones said. “I don’t have an exact number. But it’s a lot of people trying to do little things to raise money, as well as trying to be there to show up and show support.”

And, Jones added, the Bills don’t want this to be a one-week flyover.

“A lot of guys had a lot of ideas, finding out that was the only grocery store in that area, and there’s uncertainty how long it’ll be closed for,” he continued. “Thoughts have been thrown out as far as getting other grocery stores set up, or maybe helping out with transportation in the area to get to other grocery stores. There’s been a lot of ideas. I think it’s just our duty to keep the ball moving and actually get some of these things done.

“Nothing’s been set, but like Coach McDermott said, we are going to take the steps to be involved and try to create something positive out of this tragic, tragic event.”

Now, certainly, there are a lot of teams and a lot of players across the NFL that would react like the Bills did if this kind of situation were to happen in their backyard. So it’s probably not fair to say that the reaction by the players and coaches is unique.

But I do think the ties that Buffalo has to its football team actually are a little different. And never was that more apparent than it has been over the last week.

“Yeah, we’re family,” Dawkins said. “The Mafia, the community, everything Buffalo, we are all family. And not to say this event happened because it wasn’t family—someone drove in 200-plus miles to cause the act. The Buffalo people, themselves, they’re great people, they’re beautiful souls, and we’ve bonded off each other; we throw the energy back and forth. They love on us and we love on them. And they help us.

“They support us, and we support them. It’s the relationship we have. When we need them, they’re there. And when they need us, we’re there.”

“Since I’ve been here, one thing you’ll notice is the amount of support and love from the fans,” Jones added. “There’s been times where we’ll lose a game and we’ll fly in at 3 o’clock in the morning, and it’s freezing outside. And we have fans out there in the cold just to let us know they still support us and believe in us. So in times like this, it’s our duty to show them the same support, the same love. We want them to know that whatever we can do to reduce the pain, we’ll do that. Same reaction the fans give us, we’re gonna give them back.”

Safe to say, over the last 10 days, the Bills really have.


Sam Greene/Cincinnati Enquirer/USA TODAY Network

TEN TAKEAWAYS

Sam Koch’s retirement didn’t get a ton of attention, and I get that. But some of the stories about the impact the longtime Ravens punter had are amazing. And, full disclosure, I hadn’t heard many of them either before the 39-year-old decided to hang ’em up last week. But getting to listen to some of it through social media last week prompted me to reach out to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, himself an old special teams coach, to find out more, and Harbaugh didn’t leave me disappointed.

The stories really went back to the start for Harbaugh, when in 2008 he inherited the ’06 Ravens draft pick. “I didn’t remember this, but he said the very first training camp, he wasn’t punting too well, and I came over to him and I said, ‘You don’t really think you got that job? You’re not locked up here,’” Harbaugh said. “And he goes no. He goes, ‘Well, I’m a punter.’ And I said something like, ‘You’re the training camp punter right now, but you’re not the punter.’”

The interesting part is that Harbaugh actually meant it. He and the new special teams coach he’d hired, Jerry Rosburg, groused during those early days over Koch’s form. “His technique was really horrible,” Harbaugh said. “Jerry Rosburg, he brought Sam in after we first got hired. Jerry brought him in, and he watched all his tape. He studied him, and he said, ‘Why don’t you give me the stats this year?’ So Sam told him what his stats were, and Jerry said, ‘That’s incredible. That’s absolutely amazing for as bad as your technique sucks. The stats shouldn’t be that good.’ And Sam was like, that caught [Rosburg’s] attention.”

Koch indeed would be the team’s punter for a third year, Harbaugh’s first, in Baltimore—and 13 more after that, combining with Justin Tucker over the last 10 to make up the NFL’s most reliable punter/kicker battery. And over that time, a lot more memories were made.

Koch was a worker until the end, and from that work came a type of punt he playfully called a four-letter word starting with the sixth letter of the alphabet. Specifically, it was a “middle cutter,” in Harbaugh’s words, dropped too far inside, making the kick way more returnable than it should be. “He just worked his ass off, right up until the last day,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, his last [practice] day, before we’re playing the Steelers, he hits a bad punt on Friday and he’s got a name for that middle cutter where he drops it inside. The punt is called ‘F---.’ He screams it as loud as he can when he hits it like that. It’s unbelievable. He gets so pissed when he doesn’t hit a great ball, and to me, that’s what drove him. He just was a perfectionist.”

This perfectionist would work out the technique issue with time and keep growing from there. He, Rosburg and Randy Brown, over time, worked out the aforementioned kink—he was catching the snap too far inside, dropping the ball too far inside and overstriding on his kick. And once he got that squared away, and got a little older and more experienced, around 2014, he started to work on new tricks. One came in ’15, when he and his coaches discussed keeping the ball away from Antonio Brown. Harbaugh wanted Koch to pin the ball on the left sideline. Rosburg had another idea, suggesting they unleash an end-over-end punt he and Koch had started to adapt from Australian rugby. “He hits eight out of eight on the left sideline over there, and Antonio Brown never gets a return,” Harbaugh said. “So that’s kind of where it started.”

What started, you ask? Basically Koch and his coaches creating punts. “There’s double-digit different punts he has,” Harbaugh said. “He has one where he slices it to the right. It looks like my driver, you know? It slices hard to the right out of bounds, but it starts in the middle, looks like a helicopter. It just takes a right turn out of bounds. He’s got this knuckleball thing that falls apart; our guys can’t catch it in practice. He’s done it a few times in games, not as many as I wanted him to, but it’s usually when you have like a short punt—like if you punt from the 35 to 40. Tucker’s kicking field goals from there so we never got a chance to use it very much. But he’s got a bunch of those punts.” And that, I said to Harbaugh, would seem to make him a little like a pitcher. “Yeah, and he just knows how to miss the bat with the ball,” Harbaugh said. “That’s it exactly, I don’t know who you compare him to; Gaylord Perry comes to mind. I wouldn’t call Sam a knuckleball guy, but he has a knuckleball punt. He’s just a junk-ball pitcher, especially here the last three or four years.“

And the work there carried over to every detail of his job. Even the one that most people would probably pay the least attention to. “Jerry Rosburg says he’s the best holder in the history of football, and I believe it,” Harbaugh said. “Nobody was basically spotting the ball, snapping the ball over the spot until Sam and Jerry and [long-snapper] Morgan [Cox] started doing it. … We snap the ball right over the field goal spot. Sam’s got great hands, he just drops the ball right down over his spot, and Tucker’s got probably a half a step more than the average kicker in the league to actually see the ball. And Sam always has the right pressure on it, always has the right angle on it, but the main thing is he doesn’t cover the ball up if he’s ever late with ball on the spot. So that helps Tucker tremendously, because he just knows the ball’s gonna be teed up for him perfectly every single time.”

All of this is why, over the last few months, it was so important for Harbaugh and GM Eric DeCosta to do right by Koch. After the season ended, the two of them, and special teams coach Randy Brown, told the punter that they’d be taking a hard look at the position in the draft, with this year’s class a strong one. Koch thanked them for the heads-up and let them know he didn’t want to leave the area. where his family had put down roots. He’d asked if he’d be cut, and the Ravens asked if he wanted to be in order to examine his options. Koch said no. After that, Koch said, “Just try to keep me posted. And just before the draft, with Penn State’s Jordan Stout on the board going into Day 3, DeCosta said to Harbaugh, “We should call Sam.” They did, then took Stout in the fourth round, and after that invited Koch to come in and compete with the rookie. Koch took a couple weeks, before deciding to retire—at which point Harbaugh invited him to coach. Koch took him up on it. “I think he’s gonna be unbelievable,” Harbaugh said. And so will continue a pretty unbelievable story, with Koch set to help train the kid who will replace him. Stout, to be sure, could learn a lot from him.

The Panthers’ quarterback situation remains in flux. New offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo had hopes he could turn Sam Darnold around, and there’s reason for cautious optimism there—coming back from the weekend following the team’s first week of on-field work, Darnold made a big jump. Meanwhile, rookie Matt Corral picked up the offense nicely, coming from Lane Kiffin’s simplistic, RPO-heavy scheme at Ole Miss. He flashed competitiveness and a whip for a right arm, has had no issues through lighter install days and managed himself well through the heavier installs. Corral is lights-out after the snap but still swimming mentally a little before the snap.

So where does that leave the Panthers? The two operative questions, along those lines, then are whether Darnold can build enough belief in those around him after the way last year went, and how quickly Corral comes along. I don’t think Carolina has the answer to either one of those questions yet, and may not for a while, which leaves the door open for Baker Mayfield. But for Carolina to do it, my sense is the Browns would have to eat a healthy majority of Mayfield’s $18.858 million number for 2022. So for now, they’re monitoring that situation, with how the spring goes for Darnold and Corral, one way or the other, over the next month a big variable that could change their posture with Cleveland. Of course, if the Browns eat more salary sooner, I think the possibility exists he could be moved to Carolina (or Seattle) in the next few weeks.

I think we’ll get a ruling on Deshaun Watson from the league before the season. A few things I’ve heard in the last couple of days, as NFL officials met with Watson in Texas …

1. I don’t know whether the league’s investigation is complete. I also don’t know if all 22 of Watson’s accusers were willing to speak with the league (lacking subpoena power, the NFL can’t force anyone to talk). But I do know that the NFL has spoken with at least half of the women who’ve filed lawsuits against Watson.

2. Generally, in these sorts of cases, the NFL speaks to the player last—after it has all its ducks in a row, which would indicate that the league has spoken to everyone who’s willing to talk.

3. Of late, the NFL hasn’t wanted to jump the line and make decisions ahead of cases reaching closure through the legal system. However, this case is a different one, in that it has both a criminal and a civil component. My sense is, with the criminal investigation closed, the league feels like it’s close to having enough information to make a decision, even with the civil cases still open.

And I think it’d be naive not to think the profile of both the player and case doesn’t play a role in this one. The optics of having Watson’s case unresolved in the league’s disciplinary system going into Week 1 wouldn’t be great—and with an agreement in place to pause civil cases on July 1 until after the season if there isn’t a resolution, not making a call for Week 1 would probably mean kicking the can down the road and into 2023. My guess is the NFL won’t do that. It’s risky, sure, given that new developments could arise through the civil proceedings next year, but the NFL can leave itself room to do more after levying an initial punishment. That said, again, this case is tough to compare to most other ones.

I don’t think the Browns are holding on to Baker Mayfield as a Deshaun Watson suspension insurance policy. And I think how they’ve operated is proof. My understanding is Cleveland’s already offered to take on a good chunk of his $18.858 million in guaranteed money for this fall to facilitate a trade. And a trade may have already happened if they were willing to take on more. Which is where this really does come down to value, plain and simple. From the Browns’ perspective, here’s a rundown …

• If the team cuts Mayfield, it’ll be on the hook for all but whatever another team signs him for. And at that point, there would be little motivation for Mayfield to sign for anything but the minimum ($1.035 million), which would mean sticking Cleveland with the remaining $17.823 million. The other avenue Mayfield could take here would be to double-dip, and take termination pay, in which case Cleveland would be stuck with the full $18.858 million. So even paying $12 million or $13 million of the freight would mean big savings for the Browns.

• If the team cuts Mayfield, the Browns will get no return. So in spending whatever the team is spending to facilitate a trade, it would also be buying itself a draft pick. And if they hold on to him, and just put him on ice for the year, they could get a comp pick in 2024.

• And if you add that up, the benefits of swallowing salary in a trade, rather than just cutting Mayfield, are threefold: You save a few bucks, you get a draft pick and you dictate Mayfield’s destination.

Now, I do understand the logic in thinking, sure, the Browns should look at keeping Mayfield as an insurance policy, given the win-now place the team is in. But their actions behind the scenes paint the same sort of picture that the acquisitions of Jacoby Brissett and Josh Dobbs do—the team is preparing to go on without Mayfield, regardless of what happens with Watson. So what’s the logic in waiting this out a little longer now, if you’re Cleveland? You’re leaving open the possibility that Mayfield’s value jumps if another team gets desperate, either because of an injury, or because the spring didn’t play out as expected for them. Or, as we’ve seen the last few years (the Cam Newton signings the last two years, the Joe Flacco trade), chances to move a quarterback can materialize even later than that.

Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers are in this picture, too—and while they’ve played patiently throughout on Jimmy Garoppolo, I don’t believe the plan right now is to keep him. San Francisco, for what it’s worth, has had an open line of communication with Garoppolo’s camp the last few months, and both sides are willing to be flexible to find the best situation for the 30-year-old who’s led the Niners to two NFC title games over the last three years. And that means, if a team’s out there wanting to renegotiate the final year of his contract, which has $24.8 million on it (and is not guaranteed), as part of a trade, the opportunity’s there to do it, and other teams know it.

The hope here, of course, is that where the Niners’ deliberate slow play in March didn’t really work out, after the quarterback’s delayed decision to have rotator cuff surgery (they hoped resolution of the Watson, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers situations would open up a market for Garoppolo); a similar tact could work here with Garoppolo’s shoulder on the mend (presumably, he could throw for a team in early July to show his progress), and there’s potential for latecomers to the quarterback trade table. We’ll see if it works out.

The Seahawks are the other team out there with the possibility of a quarterback opening lingering. To this point, through Phase II of the offseason program, incumbent Geno Smith is taking the first snap in drills, with newcomer Drew Lock having ground to make up, and expectation going into OTAs is that Smith will get most of the first-team reps to start, as Lock gets his footing in his new surroundings. But I still like Lock to come out ahead, in time. For two reasons.

1. Seahawks GM John Schneider really liked Lock coming out in 2019. As such, Lock was no throw-in, at least in Seattle’s view, to the Russell Wilson trade (similar to how the Lions genuinely liked, and wanted to add, Jared Goff in the Matthew Stafford trade a year ago).

2. Perhaps the Broncos’ tape most intriguing to the Seahawks came in the final five games of Lock’s rookie year, through which he threw seven touchdown passes against three picks, posting a respectable 89.7 passer rating. His coordinator then? Rich Scangarello, whose offense is very similar to Seahawks OC Shane Waldron’s.

Add it up, and Lock’s heading into an important month or so. It could influence, similar to the situation in Carolina, how the Seahawks approach the possibility of dealing for Mayfield. And it’ll certainly paint where Seattle is heading into its first camp without Wilson on the roster in 11 years.

Most of the participants I’ve talked to about this week’s diversity summit are optimistic about it. We explained what’s been dubbed the Coach and Front Office Accelerator Program in detail in Friday’s GamePlan. And I think there’s an overall appreciation for the primary objective here—to address complaints coach and GM candidates have had in the past that familiarity and comfort level are common reasons they’ve gotten for not landing jobs by putting said candidates in front of owners. But there’s also some skepticism over some elements of the symposium (such as leadership) that might be a little … redundant for guys who’ve already got those qualities. The other issue? I know at least a couple of coaches declined invites because the program coincides with the first couple of days of OTAs for most teams, which is essentially the start of football practice for the 2022 season.

That said, I’ve also talked to executives and coaches who weren’t invited who’ve more or less said that they’d love the chance to get in front of owners. So, again, there’s good reason for optimism that the event will make a difference, in giving owners exposure to bright, young candidates. And the concern being addressed is a real one.

The Patriots’ coaching situation bears watching. Josh McDaniels leaves 14 years (2005 to ’08 and ’12 to ’21) as New England’s primary play-caller behind, and there’s still a lot to sort out as to where things go from here. Since the Patriots’ media availability featured a lot of talking in circles last week, here’s some clarity on where things stand as New England dives into OTAs this week …

• Joe Judge has spent the balance of the offseason program to this point working with the quarterbacks. He’ll likely have a lead role coordinating the passing game, and will be working with all the skill players in doing so.

• Matt Patricia has been with the offensive line, and will likely work with the run game similar to how Judge will work with the pass game.

• Tight ends coach Nick Caley’s role seems to be a little in flux. I’d expect he’ll have more responsibility in ’22. The Patriots blocked Caley from talking to the Raiders, and his role in New England this fall could dictate whether he stays put or goes to Las Vegas in ’23.

And hanging over all this is the development of second-year quarterback Mac Jones, who had the benefit of working with McDaniels as a rookie. The sense I get is the coaches who spoke last week were being forthright in saying that pieces of their roles still need to be hammered out. My question, then, would be whether developing coaches into those roles makes it more difficult to develop … you know … the quarterback. We’ll see what happens. But I’d say this definitely bears watching. And who calls plays (Judge? Patricia? Caley? Could it be Belichick?) is obviously a big component of it.

I believe Judge and Patricia are really good football coaches. The difficult part here, for me, is time on task. Though he was a college quarterback, the extent of Judge’s experience coaching the position over his career was meeting with the Giants’ quarterbacks the night before games the last two years. Patricia, meanwhile, last worked on offense in 2005, when he was New England’s assistant O-line coach (he switched to defense the next year). Can those guys get there as offensive coaches? Sure. But I’m not sure now—with Mac Jones going into Year 2 and losing four of the five assistants responsible for building the offense for him last year—is the time to be negotiating that learning curve.

I think when Brian Daboll talks about the psychology of his quarterback, we should listen. I can still remember talking to Daboll early in his time with Josh Allen on how he was feeding Allen tape of Tom Brady, whom Daboll was with over two stints in New England, to impress on him the value of easy-money throws (the kind we referenced in the lead with Wilson)—showing the young quarterback just how many of them Brady would take, and how it was a big part of what made Brady great. So it’s pretty interesting to see Daboll’s tact now with Daniel Jones being the exact opposite.

“Yeah, look, we want to make sure we protect the ball,” Daboll told the media before the Giants’ workout Thursday. “But again, you can’t go out there and play afraid. Be smart, not reckless, if you will. If he’s got a shot on the right read, let it go. There’s going to be things that happen in every game. The defense is going to make a good play; there might be a tipped ball. We’re going to have to do a good job of taking care of the football, but I want him to turn it loose.”

It’s not a shocker that Daboll would see that as an issue with Jones. It’s normal that a quarterback who’s been through coaching turnover would start to play with hesitancy—it was a huge problem with Alex Smith early in his career, and why Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman had success simplifying things for him in 2011 to get him playing fast. And Jones is now on his fourth offensive play-caller in as many years. Now, I don’t know whether Jones will do enough to be back with the Giants in ’23. But I think if the potential is still there for that to happen, and for Jones to become a long-term answer at the position for the team, Daboll’s got as good a shot as anyone would to find it.

We’ve got quick-hitters for you to wrap up the takeaways. And here they are …

• Diversity, equality and inclusion, even aside from the aforementioned symposium, will be a big focus for owners in Atlanta this week. The other thing to keep an eye on is the update coming on Denver’s ownership situation. Walmart billionaire Rob Walton seems to be in the catbird seat, but he has competition in bidding that could wind up topping $5 billion (if it gets there, that’d be more than double what the Panthers sold for in 2019).

• The Washington ownership situation also bears watching, given what USA Today’s Jarrett Bell reported the other day, about the owners “counting votes” on a potential ouster of Dan Snyder from their club. To me, Roger Goodell so willingly discussing the possibility of it happening at the Super Bowl was pretty telling.

• While we’re there, big congrats to Bell for winning the 2022 Bill Nunn Award, which effectively gives a writer/reporter entry into the media wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. JB’s an awesome dude and a dogged reporter, and is very well-deserving of the honor.

• It does look like the Browns gave a little to get Jadeveon Clowney back. We’d mentioned a few weeks back how the team wanted a two-year deal, so as to not have to do this dance again with the pass rusher in 2023. In the end, they did get Clowney back but on just a one-year deal.

• No offense to James Bradberry, who’s a good (not great) player. But it’s always amazing how we play up guys who come available in May and June to be a little bit more than they are just because, well, there’s not a lot else to talk about.

• That said, the signing of Bradberry is another good example of how Eagles GM Howie Roseman’s been able to walk the tightrope this offseason of doing right by this year’s team while also setting the team up for the future. (I led my column after the draft with more on Roseman and the Eagles.)

• I really like Drew Brees personally, and I know he’s got a prickly, competitive streak to him and that, to me, is what we saw come out with last Sunday’s tweet. Having the news that he was out at NBC positioned like it was had to be a tough pill to swallow.

• Greg Olsen’s going to be really good with the No. 1 team on Fox, sitting shotgun to Kevin Burkhardt.

• The Robert Woods trade has quietly become a pivotal one in the AFC race. Woods, coming off a torn ACL, always shaped up as an important piece for the Titans. Even more so now after the A.J. Brown trade.

• Cool story from ESPN Vikings reporter Kevin Seifert this week on new Minnesota assistant Mike Pettine trying to do his part to help diversify his profession. Mike’s always been a good dude, but this really is taking it to another level to do the right thing.


SIX FROM THE SIDELINES

1. I will not complain about the airlines. … I will not complain about the airlines. … I will not complain about the airlines … (while stuck on the tarmac).

2. I thought the PGA Championship being moved from August to May was a smart move, and that I’d pay more attention to it as a result, especially because I’m pretty busy with training camps later in the summer. But really, the fourth major just doesn’t move the needle for me. Not sure why.

3. Calgary-Edmonton’s been a blast.

4. I think Jayson Tatum’s on his way to being a top-five player in the NBA. And I think what’s keeping him from that rarefied air right now are nights like Saturday, when the team needs him to be a superstar, and he just sort of blends in with the furniture.

5. And with that in mind, Tatum’s got a golden opportunity to take that next step starting Monday night.

6. Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is an eye-opening documentary.


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Things did look so good …

… but pro athletes aren’t built like the rest of us.

Nice of Cassel to keep his shirt on and not show the rest of those guys up on the boat trip.

This isn’t an NFL figure, really. But speaking of going shirtless … Coach O showing up shirtless all over America the last six months has been an interesting trend in our sport.

Yeah, not really NFL. But Joey’s hilarious, and his Brian Kelly is off the charts.

Love what the Bills did last week.

This is fantastic.

It is funny looking at the number of mean mugs in the NFLPA picture from the weekend—I guess it’s tough to break the habit everyone had in high school of trying to look like a badass anytime you’re in pads.

Good insightful interview of George Kittle from Pat and his guys.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Mike Vick announced over the weekend that he won’t come out of retirement to play in the Fan Controlled Football league. And at first, I was a little disappointed. The idea of a guy about to turn 42—who was once the most freakishly gifted athlete ever to play quarterback—trying to mount a comeback was fascinating.

But the more I think on this one, the more I’m happy he won’t be playing.

Vick was a truly unique player, and if he really wanted give it another go, I don’t think any one of us should begrudge him that. That said, he’s also one of those athletes who, I think, is best remembered for who he was at his athletic height. I’ll never forget what that looked like, and I’m glad none of it will be sullied with less-flattering images of where he is.