Articles By Athlon Sports
When the Clemson offensive coaches meet, Robbie Caldwell has to feel a little bit out of place, even if he has been coaching the Tiger offensive line for four seasons.
Leading the meeting is likely to be Jeff Scott or Tony Elliott, the program’s new co-coordinators and each a former Clemson wide receiver. Tight ends coach Danny Pearman played the position for the Tigers. Graduate assistants Tyler Grisham and Thomas Austin wore the Orange.
Caldwell went to Furman. It’s in South Carolina, but that’s not the same.
So, what happens during the meetings? Perhaps the other coaches make Caldwell bring coffee and donuts every day. They could force him to sing “Hail the Purple and White,” the Furman fight song. Or maybe “Tiger Rag,” the Clemson battle hymn, would be more appropriate. Do they speak in code around him? Grill him about school traditions, like the $2 bill?
“He’s been here longer than a lot of the other coaches have,” Elliott says about Caldwell. “Plus he has a daughter at Clemson. He belongs.”
It’s unlikely any program in the country has so many of its alumni coaching on one side of the ball. And while Caldwell no doubt feels comfortable amidst all of those Tigers, it will be interesting to see how he and the others handle the departure of former coordinator Chad Morris — now the boss at SMU — and the dual ascensions of Elliott and Scott to the vacant spot. Clemson’s attacks under Morris were extremely potent, and one of the more interesting stories heading into the 2015 season is how well Scott and Elliott, in their new co-coordinator roles, will be able to replicate Morris’ success.
In 2012, the Tiger offense was ninth nationally in total yards (512.7 ypg) and sixth in scoring (41.0 ppg). The following season, Clemson was again ninth in total offense (508.5 ypg) and tied for eighth in scoring (40.2 ppg). That performance earned Morris AFCA National Assistant Coach of the Year honors. Although the losses of weapons such as wideout Sammy Watkins and quarterback Tajh Boyd caused a drop in the Tigers’ 2014 production, Morris remained a man in demand, and the Mustangs hired him last Dec. 1, leaving Clemson coach Dabo Swinney with a decision to make. He stayed in-house, elevating Scott, who had been the Tigers’ receivers coach, and Elliott, who handled the running backs.
Related: Buy the 2015 ACC Preview Magazine
“This has been my plan for a while,” Swinney says. “It’s one of the easiest decisions I have had to make. The last four years, we have had a lot of success, and Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott are huge reasons why. They are incredibly bright young coaches who know what we do and love Clemson. It’s an easy fit.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy job. No coach in Clemson history has won more games during a four-year period than has Swinney. But there is a sense that his strong assistant coaching staff, led by Morris and defensive coordinator Brent Venables, has been largely responsible for his success. Losing Morris, who had been one of the hottest assistants in the country, could interrupt that success.
No pressure, Jeff and Tony. Just keep cranking out units that score 40 points per game, and everything will be all right.
“Every coach knows they are judged by wins and losses and how the offense does,” Scott says. “When you move up the ladder and get coordinator titles, the expectations go up.
“We want to perform better than any Clemson offense has performed.”
• • •
Morris gets the awards, the attention, the opportunity to resurrect SMU’s flagging fortunes — and a fat contract to do. But during any given week over the past four seasons, he had a lot of help. Scott, Elliott and the rest of the Clemson offensive staff didn’t just focus on their positions. They had significant roles in developing gameplans.
For instance, Scott, the wideouts coach at Clemson for four of his seven years on the staff, was involved in deciding which passing plays the Tigers would use on first and second downs. He also decided which deep throws would work best against specific opponents and helped put together the offensive options on third-and-long situations. During games, Scott would make suggestions to Morris about when to try long shots.
“Coach Morris did a good job of delegating gameplan responsibilities among the other four coaches in the (offensive) room,” says Scott, the son of former South Carolina head coach and Clemson assistant Brad Scott. “This isn’t a huge transition.”
Elliott was in charge of studying opponents’ blitz packages and devising pickup strategies for the running backs, whom he coached for the past four seasons at Clemson. He also decided which plays would comprise the first- and second-down ground package. During games, he would recommend running plays to Morris.
Both coaches expect to have a similarly collaborative effort in the coming seasons. The process worked well in the Tigers’ 40–6 rout of Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl that gave Swinney his fourth straight season with at least 10 wins. Although Clemson managed a modest 387 total yards, much of the second half was spent protecting the giant lead it had amassed in the first 30 minutes. Elliot and Scott, who were teammates and stretching partners during their time at CU, worked well together during the month leading up to the game and expect similar harmony moving forward.
Related: Clemson 2015 Preview and Prediction
“We complement each other well,” says Elliott, who has a degree in industrial engineering. “There are no egos involved. We want to put young men into position to succeed. It’s not going to be about me or Jeff.
“We are battle tested together. When you play with someone, you develop a bond that’s deep. When we get put into tough situations that we have to get through, the foundation of our friendship will help.”
Elliott will spend game days in the booth, where he is most comfortable, and will make the final decision on playcalling. Scott is more comfortable on the field, especially since he will continue to coach the receivers and needs to be close to the action to manage substitutions. The concept of co-coordinators has been gaining some steam in college football of late. TCU went to that model last season, and Ed Warinner and Tim Beck are splitting the position at Ohio State. Florida State, Mississippi State and Michigan State were among 2014’s top teams that employed the concept, so it’s not like Swinney was doing something outrageous when he elevated Elliott and Scott.
Since the two spent the past four years working under Morris and learning how he implemented the system, there is limited risk. Granted, it’s impossible to tell how their playcalling will work out and if they can maintain production with an offense that will include plenty of new faces. But Swinney hasn’t done this hastily.
“Four years ago, it wasn’t the right time for (Elliott and Scott) to be coordinators,” he says. “But I knew it was coming. Those guys are more than ready now.”
Scott and Elliott will direct an offense that hopes to have DeShaun Watson back as its primary triggerman. Watson underwent surgery for a partially torn ACL in December but expects to be ready for fall practice. In eight games last year (Watson missed three due to a broken bone in his throwing hand), the true freshman completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 1,466 yards and 14 TDs with only two interceptions. He also ran for 200 yards and five scores. He is perfect for the Tigers system and will have a bunch of talented skill players around him. Wayne Gallman (769 rushing yards, four TDs) leads a deep stable of backs, and Artavis Scott (76 catches, eight TDs) and Mike Williams (57 catches, six TDs) are back on the outside.
“I feel the same way I felt last year under Coach Morris,” Watson says. “I’m comfortable with the offense. I want to go out each game and get a W, get a lot of points, score touchdowns and play with a fast tempo. I want to spread the ball around so everybody gets the chance to make plays.”
Sounds like the Clemson way. Elliott and Scott are ready to keep the good times going, and they have plenty of Orange support in the meeting room — even from Caldwell.
It was a previously scheduled trip with some college buddies to experience the whole Sin City thing after finishing their senior year at Michigan. There were the usual Vegas trappings, coupled with the added bonus of being in town during one of the most memorable sporting days in recent memory. But there were a few times — actually, more than a few — when Miller found himself in his hotel room, flipping on ESPN or the NFL Network to see what was happening with the draft.
He watched the scroll and saw names of familiar foes throughout the Big Ten. Names of kids he knew from high school games and offseason camps. And of course, three of his Wolverine teammates.
A few years ago, Miller would’ve pictured this day unfolding differently. He’d be watching with eagerness. He’d be thinking how a year from now, he’d be waiting for his name to be called — waiting to find out which NFL team would be providing his livelihood for the next decade. Instead, Miller was having what he calls his “rare days.”
Days where he misses football.
“There are days where it’s hard,” Miller says, “where I think, ‘Boy, I do miss the game.’ There’s no other way in the world where you can hit somebody at full-speed and not get in trouble for it. Part of that, I have to get used to. But at the end of the day, I know it was the right decision for me. And I’m at peace with it.”
Jack Miller is 21 years old. He’s in his second month of retirement from the game of football.
His story, though, is becoming far less uncommon. Miller, a 16-game starter at center for Michigan, announced in early March that he would be leaving the team and quitting football before his fifth season with the Wolverines. One reason was that he was burned out from the game. Another was that he was concerned about his own health, largely because of concussions. He was a kid with a potential future in the NFL who decided that continuing to play wasn’t worth the risk.
And he’s not the only one who has recently made the difficult decision to walk away. Patrick Willis, the San Francisco 49ers All-Pro linebacker, retired in the offseason at the age of 30 after eight seasons. Jason Worilds, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, retired in March at the age of 27 after five seasons — despite being one of the most coveted free agents this offseason. Jake Locker, the Tennessee Titans quarterback and eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft, called it a career after only four seasons at age 26. And Chris Borland, a linebacker and teammate of Willis in San Francisco, retired at the age of 24 after only one season in the NFL.
“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” in March. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
He’s not alone.
Getting out too late?
By the time that Hunter Hillenmeyer decided to retire, there wasn’t much football left for him to play. At 29, he’d already maxed out his potential with the Chicago Bears. A fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt in the 2003 draft, he was selected by the Green Bay Packers and was assigned to the team’s practice squad. He was cut by the end of the preseason but resurfaced with the Bears and spent most of his rookie season on special teams.
A year later, he started 11 games at strong-side linebacker. The next season, 12 starts. Pretty soon, he was an invaluable member of a Bears linebacking corps that was the nucleus for the 2006 NFC champion team, which lost to the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI.
He also was being concussed at an alarming rate.
“I had a concussion in the preseason of 2010, got out there for the season-opener and, without even getting hit, just didn’t feel right,” Hillenmeyer recalls about his final game. “They pulled me off the field and ran the battery of tests. And after the game, we went through my entire history of my five diagnosed concussions. And the fact is that I had gotten to a susceptibility point where I really couldn’t take a hit to the head.”
That was when Hillenmeyer knew it was time to retire.
Today, at 34, he doesn’t consider his decision to retire to be anything like that of Borland, Willis, Worilds or Locker. Those players decided to walk away from the game while their health was still intact. Hillenmeyer didn’t, despite being at the forefront on the head trauma issue during his time in the league. He managed his career around his concussions instead of stopping it because of them.
He says he is symptom-free of any concussions five years later. He doesn’t have chronic headaches or memory loss or any of the early signs of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), which has been linked to concussions related to football. Yet, he wonders sometimes if a headache is just a headache or if it’s a warning sign of something more serious. If forgetting a phone number or where he put the car keys is cause for alarm.
Hillenmeyer has great respect for the players who choose to walk away early, because for them, staying in the game another year for another big payday or fame or any of the other trappings associated with being in the NFL simply isn’t a priority.
“I feel great,” Hillenmeyer says. “In some ways, the fact that I was as informed as I was for a player playing during the 2000s helped. Even in 2006-07, I was aware that I needed to be very cautious with how I handled a brain injury. But when you’re a retired player in your 30s and you look at the generation ahead of you — I’ve been to a couple of alumni events in Chicago — and anecdotally, they paint a pretty grim picture.”
Hillenmeyer knows that his situation might be on the rosier side, too. He was an academic All-American at Vanderbilt and while in the league served on the NFL’s Player Safety and Welfare Committee. He was privy to the arguments being made by the medical community about the long-term effects of concussions.
Hillenmeyer, who co-founded the gaming app company OverDog, where fans can compete against pro athletes, wonders what his life might be like in a few years if that “grim picture” becomes a reality for him. He never hid concussions from the Bears, but he also continued to play the sport even though he was aware of the risks. He wonders if going the route that Borland, Worilds and Willis took might not have been the better plan.
“You don’t see a lot of guys that are aging very well — and that scares you,” Hillenmeyer says of his conversations with older NFL retirees. “Unless you’re just burying your head in the sand, any player would get a little nervous when they look at that. So at worst, you’re headed in the exact same trajectory. So you do have to step back, take pause and ask yourself, ‘Was it all worth it?’”
‘It’s kind of like a depression’
Before the end came for Reggie Wilkes, he had begun the process of preparing himself. A linebacker with the Eagles and Falcons from 1978-87, Wilkes took classes at Temple University’s School of Medicine early in his career. After realizing that medical school and the NFL couldn’t co-exist, he turned his attention to business, and he began taking classes at Penn’s Wharton School.
Midway through his career, he started working for Merrill Lynch in the offseason as a second job. So when he was released following an injury during the 1987 season, he decided it was time for the next step.
“I was just ready, mentally, to go and move on,” Wilkes says. “I knew it was going to end.”
Why is Wilkes’ story an important one? Because he was prepared for life after the NFL. He parlayed his experiences with Merrill Lynch while he was a player into a successful career in business, returning to the wealth management giant in 2007. He is now a senior financial advisor in suburban Philadelphia, where many of his clients are current or former professional athletes.
And more often than not, he sees players who think they are mentally ready to leave professional sports. But most aren’t.
“Every professional athlete — whether you’ve played one year in the league or 10 — goes through a physiological change,” Wilkes says. “It’s kind of like a depression. You’re trying to figure out how you wean yourself off of something that you’ve been so emotionally and physically attached to.”
For Wilkes, his safety net was his financial career. For Hillenmeyer, it was his own company.
Some players transition better than others.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall, a former first-round pick in 2008 with the Steelers, abruptly retired after the 2013 season. He was 26. “Football was pretty cool, but I don’t want to play anymore,” he wrote in an article for The Huffington Post announcing his retirement. Mendenhall is now a screenwriter, living in Los Angeles, where he recently served as a script consultant for an upcoming HBO series about the life of retired pro football players.
Worilds, whose representatives declined an interview for this story on his behalf, left the NFL and began working with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
For others, the absence of football can only make a bad situation worse.
“For football players, on average, the retirement age is 25,” Wilkes says. “You still have 60 years of living, so you’ve got to figure out how your money is going to last. Players don’t think about that — that normal people are earning income until around 55 years, but for football players, it’s half that. The average length of a career is 3.5 years, so once you’re 25, you’re on the down end of your career in football.”
A new path
When he’s asked about football, Miller is clear: He did not leave the game to become a crusader against it.
Without football, he doesn’t get from Perrysburg, Ohio, to the University of Michigan. Without football, he doesn’t get the opportunity to learn some of the life lessons about discipline, accountability and teamwork. Without football, he doesn’t get to begin the next phase of his life — entering the business world.
But at some point, between high school and college, it stopped being fun.
“It’s a job. It’s your livelihood, whereas before that, it’s a game,” Miller says. “It becomes work, and that’s okay. We all know that’s what we’re signing up for.”
Miller had thoughts last season about making the 2014 campaign his final one in a Michigan uniform, but he decided to give it another go after Jim Harbaugh was hired to replace Brady Hoke. He went through the offseason workout programs and the first week of spring practice — which he described as one of his best. But he no longer had the desire to play and announced his intention to leave the team.
“For some people that’s really hard to understand,” he says. “And I understand that. To play college football is a blessing.”
There were some people who tried to convince him that he was making a short-sighted and ill-informed decision. Miller wouldn’t be swayed. He had already suffered one concussion in high school, and he believes he had two or three more at Michigan (though he only reported one). Given what he knows about the long-terms effects, he decided that if he had lost the desire to play, it wasn’t worth it.
Miller wasn’t the only college football player to make that decision this spring. Vanderbilt quarterback Patton Robinette — who started five games in two seasons — retired from the sport in March. Robinette, who will enroll at Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine in the fall, missed five games last fall after suffering a concussion against South Carolina. He also had a concussion in high school.
West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett, a two-year starter, was forced into retirement before the Mountaineers’ bowl game. Trickett had suffered five concussions in a 14-month span. He hid two of them from team trainers in order to keep playing.
That’s a familiar refrain, even at the next level.
“After I retired, I had two good friends of mine who were still on the Bears call me with a slightly different version of the same story,” Hillenmeyer says. “That Tuesday or Wednesday after they took a big hit in a game, they definitely felt a little bit off, but they didn’t tell the trainers or get noticed by the trainers. But now they were pretty sure they had a concussion, and they were trying to decide whether or not to tell the doctors.”
That’s why Borland decided not to risk more years in the NFL. That’s why Willis and Worilds and Locker made the same decision. That’s why Hillenmeyer decided it was time to stop playing and trying to avoid the next big hit. That’s why Wilkes warns players that their careers won’t last forever.
That’s why one of Miller’s “rare days” when he misses football lasted only briefly during the NFL Draft.
It was his dream, but now he has a different one. He hopes to get into high school coaching, where he can work with kids before the game of football gets to be too big.
“Some people love the game more than I do, and that’s their only way,” he says. “And that’s fine. That’s their prerogative. For me, it wasn’t that. And I’m very excited about the next chapter.”
-By Brendan Prunty
There may not be a better general manager/head coach tandem in the NFL than what the Cardinals have with GM Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians. In just two years, they’ve completely transformed the franchise, in terms of both perception and results. But the Cardinals are in a tricky place. Their window to win is small given the age (35) and injury history of quarterback Carson Palmer. Also, Larry Fitzgerald will be 32 when the season begins. Arizona suffered significant losses on defense in the offseason, the most notable being defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who left to become the head coach of the New York Jets. Bowles’ blitzing schemes were widely credited for Arizona’s sum being better than its parts. Given those losses — and Palmer’s knees — it’s tempting to write off the Cardinals. But the Keim/Arians combo engenders more trust — and faith — than any front office in franchise history. Doubt them at your own risk.
Arizona’s offense comes with a big if: If Palmer can stay healthy, the Cardinals should be a productive if not particularly high-scoring offense. The drop-off from Palmer to back-up Drew Stanton is steep; Stanton simply isn’t as accurate and doesn’t throw the deep ball as well as Palmer.
Palmer isn’t the most mobile of quarterbacks but shouldn’t have to be given the resources the Cardinals have put into the offensive line. The addition of Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati and the expected development of former first-round draft pick Jonathan Cooper should fortify what was a weakness last year, the interior of the line.
The line’s improvement also should bode well for the Cardinals’ running game, which took a hit last season when Andre Ellington went down with a knee injury in Week 1 and then was lost for the season in early December due to a hernia. When healthy, Ellington is a game-changer, capable of going long every time he touches the ball. Ellington’s only drawback is his size. He’s not built to carry the ball 20 to 25 times per game or thrive in short-yardage situations. The Cardinals hoped to land either Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley in the draft to complement Ellington, but both were long gone by the team’s 24th overall pick. Arizona needs either Stepfan Taylor or third-round pick David Johnson from Northern Iowa to step up and carry the ball 10 to 12 times per game. That would help keep Ellington fresh — and dangerous — over the course of the season.
If Palmer stays healthy — there’s that “if” again — the wide receivers should be a strength. Fitzgerald was on pace for a 1,000-yard season in 2014 before Palmer got hurt; without the starting QB he was ineffective and sometimes ignored. Fitzgerald is no longer one of the NFL’s elite receivers, but he can still be a productive No. 1 wideout for a playoff team. Michael Floyd is still too inconsistent heading into his fourth season — there are weeks he disappears — but he still had 841 yards and six touchdowns last year. Like Fitzgerald, he needs Palmer to stay upright. John Brown provides the deep threat. He averaged 14.5 yards per reception last year, his first in the league.
Talk about a unit that suffered some big losses. Bowles left to become a head coach. Defensive end Darnell Dockett, who missed the 2014 season with a knee injury but still was a team leader, signed as a free agent with San Francisco, and nose tackle Dan Williams joined the Oakland Raiders. Inside linebacker Larry Foote retired, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie joined Bowles with the Jets.
The biggest problem — besides losing Bowles’ innovative mind — is the lack of an edge pass rusher. The Cardinals had just 35 sacks last year and didn’t have a single player in double digits. The draft didn’t provide any immediate help, so improvement will have to come from within. The onus falls on defensive end Calais Campbell to become a dominant player. He has his moments — he had seven sacks last year — but there are too many weeks where he’s not a factor.
Williams’ loss can’t be overstated. He was playing at a Pro Bowl level late in the 2014 season, and no one on the current roster can duplicate his abilities. With the Cardinals also being vulnerable at inside linebacker with Foote’s retirement, teams might be able to exploit Arizona up the middle in the run game. The Cardinals signed Sean Weatherspoon to replace Foote, but he’s been injury-prone his entire career, only once playing a full 16-game season.
The strength of the defense will be the secondary, even with Cromartie’s departure. Patrick Peterson had a rough 2014, but some of his issues can be attributed to the discovery that he has diabetes. Assuming he has the disease under control, he should revert back to being one of the best corners in the game. Arizona also believes the combination of Justin Bethel, who’s been a special-teams demon, Jerraud Powers and New England cast-off Alfonzo Dennard can more than make up for Cromartie’s absence. Arizona could have one of the best safety tandems in the league with Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon. Mathieu is a ball hawk who also will light up receivers, and Bucannon excels against the run. He’s also an effective pass rusher, particularly when the Cardinals blitz.
The Cardinals’ kicking game is in good hands. The same can’t be said yet for the kick returners. Placekicker Chandler Catanzaro had a brilliant rookie season, making 29-of-33 field-goal attempts, including 12-of-14 from 40 yards plus. He could find his way to the Pro Bowl at some point in the near future. Punter Dave Zastudil should be back after a 2014 season that was lost to a nagging groin injury. He led the league in punts inside the 20 in 2013 and ’12. Arizona needs to find someone who can give its return game some pop. Peterson could return punts, but the Cardinals are hesitant to let such a valuable every-down player expose himself to injury on special teams. Look for rookie receiver J.J. Nelson to get a shot. Nelson averaged 38.3 yards per kickoff return for UAB his senior year and was the national leader in combined kick returns (kickoffs and punts).
The Cardinals finished 11–5 last year despite Palmer being lost for the season in early November with a torn ACL and Ellington never being healthy all year. Palmer, whose quarterback rating was 95.6 (the second-highest mark of his career) at the time of his injury, makes Arizona’s offense go; receivers Fitzgerald and Brown in particular were much more effective when he was behind center.
If there’s a concern, it’s the defense. Arizona lost key contributors at every level, from Dockett to Foote to Cromartie. The Cardinals still don’t have a great edge pass rusher, and they have no idea if or when inside linebacker Daryl Washington will return from his league-imposed suspension. But if Arizona can figure out a way to be just average on defense, the offense should be good enough for another double-digit win season and a shot at supplanting Seattle atop the NFC West.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC West
Coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead walked into a mess in 2012, inheriting a franchise that lost 65 of 80 games from 2007-11 — an NFL record for futility over a five-year span.
They brought the team back to respectability immediately with a 7–8–1 record in 2012. But as they enter their fourth season in St. Louis, the Rams haven’t been able to get over the hump despite harvesting a bounty of draft picks in the RGIII trade. In fact, they’ve backslid a bit each season, going 7–9 in 2013 and 6–10 in ’14.
After three consecutive years of entering the season as the youngest team in the league, that won’t be the case this season. St. Louis has a roster full of young veterans who should be approaching their primes.
The Rams can no longer blame their woes on injuries to quarterback Sam Bradford. He was traded. So with a defense that should be formidable, there really are no excuses this season. It’s win or go home.
After weeks of hearing Fisher and Snead utter variations of “Sam’s our guy,” Bradford was unceremoniously shipped off to Philadelphia for Nick Foles in a surprising trade that also included an exchange of draft picks. Foles’ arrival is just part of a massive facelift on offense. The Rams also have a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti and a new quarterbacks coach in Chris Weinke. They will have a new feature back in Todd Gurley and an overhauled offensive line.
Cignetti promises to streamline the playbook and simplify the play-calling. But the overall theory will remain the same for a Fisher-coached team: The Rams want to run the football, be physical and mix in the play-action pass. After a so-so 2014 season in Philadelphia that was over by midseason because of a broken collarbone, Foles will try to recapture some of the magic he displayed in 2013, when he threw 27 touchdowns with just two interceptions and had success throwing the deep ball.
A strong running game would obviously helps Foles out, and the hope around Rams Park is that Gurley is ready sooner rather than later as he completes his rehab from a November knee injury and subsequent surgery at Georgia. A healthy Gurley can be a game-changer, and paired with speedy Tre Mason — last year’s Rams rushing leader as a rookie — St. Louis has the makings of a formidable one-two backfield punch.
The receiving corps returns intact — all five wideouts from the ’14 squad and all four tight ends. In terms of continuity, that’s a luxury few teams have. Kenny Britt and Brian Quick will provide big targets as the starting wide receivers, and once again the theme for Tavon Austin is to get more involved in the offense. We’ll see if Cignetti can accomplish what predecessor Brian Schottenheimer couldn’t on that front.
The key question comes on the offensive line, where the Rams are inexperienced and could have as many as three linemen making their first NFL starts to open 2015.
With the exception of a December meltdown against Odell Beckham Jr. and the Giants, the Rams had one of the league’s elite defenses over the second half of 2014. There’s no reason to believe they can’t pick up where they left off. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, entering his second season with the club, knows his players and how to use them.
Basically the entire defense is back: Seven of the top nine defensive linemen from a year ago return, as do all three starting linebackers. All 11 defensive backs who were under contract at the end of 2014 remain under contract.
In short, the Rams could be formidable on this side off the ball. Robert Quinn and Chris Long are the bookends at end in the team’s 4-3 alignment. Reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald provides a disruptive force at tackle with his quickness and savvy. Free-agent pickup Nick Fairley gives the Rams five first-round draft picks on their defensive front. If motivated and healthy, the former Detroit defensive tackle provides another playmaking presence in the trenches.
The addition of Akeem Ayers at outside linebacker gives the Rams yet another pass-rushing option; it will be interesting to see what packages Williams cooks up for him. James Laurinaitis is as steady as it gets in the middle. Alec Ogletree on the weak side has shown pursuit and playmaking ability in his first two NFL seasons but needs to get out of the gate quicker to start the season.
The strength of the secondary is the McSafeties — strong safety T.J. McDonald and free safety Rodney McLeod. McDonald is a thumper in the box; McLeod was much improved in coverage a year ago. But the cornerbacks still give up too many big plays. Consistency remains elusive for Janoris Jenkins, who makes big plays at times and then gambles and gives up big plays at times. Look for Lamarcus Joyner, who at times looked overmatched as a rookie, to step up his play.
Punter Johnny Hekker and placekicker Greg Zuerlein form one of the league’s top kicking tandems. Hekker made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and was nearly as good in ’14. He can punt for distance and direction and is amazingly consistent, almost never hitting a bad one. And watch out for him on trick plays: The former high school quarterback can’t be ignored as a threat passing the ball out of punt formation. Zuerlein hasn’t been booming them from long distance like he did in his 2012 rookie season, when he earned the nicknamed Greg The Leg, but his accuracy has improved. In the return game, Austin hasn’t disappointed on punt returns. He still needs to be more decisive, with a little more north-and-south and a little less wiggle. But he has had a lot of big returns called back by penalties in his first two seasons, so a little more discipline by blockers should lead to bigger and better things. Benny Cunningham is an unlikely looking kickoff returner. While most are sleek and fast, Cunningham looks like a tank rumbling up field at 5'10" and 217 pounds.
The Rams have invested a lot of money and high draft picks on the defense. Now it’s time for that defense to carry the day by shutting teams down and flashing dominance whenever possible. That will be especially important early in the season while the offense gets its act together. Even without a 100 percent Gurley early, the Rams should have enough on offense with Mason and the receiving corps to grind out some victories. There are two big “ifs” attached here, however. Foles must stay healthy, and the offensive line must overcome its youth and provide effective protection. We’re guessing Foles gets it done; it’s a little more dicey when it comes to the offensive line. But after 11 long seasons at or below sea level, the ingredients are in place for the Rams to post their first winning season since 2003 and keep Fisher and Snead around for another year or more.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC West
After leading the 49ers to the NFC title game three times and the Super Bowl once in his first three years, Jim Harbaugh saw his reign in San Francisco end with a tumultuous, dysfunctional 8–8 season. Harbaugh says he was pushed out by 49ers owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke. The team claims there was a “mutual” decision to part ways. The bottom line is the 49ers lost a coach who went 49–22–1 (including the postseason) and replaced him with Jim Tomsula, their longtime defensive line coach. Tomsula’s only experience as a head coach came during one season in the defunct NFL Europe and the 49ers’ final game in 2010 after they fired Mike Singletary.
“Jim did a heck of a job,” Baalke says of Harbaugh, who took the job as Michigan’s coach. “I think he’s gone his direction, we’ve gone ours. I feel very good about the direction we’re headed, and I’m sure he does as well.”
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the architect of San Francisco’s elite defense, left to fill the same position with the Chicago Bears after being bypassed for the 49ers’ top job. The 49ers promoted offensive assistant coach Eric Mangini, a former NFL head coach and defensive coordinator, to replace Fangio. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman left for the same job with the Buffalo Bills after taking much of the blame for the 49ers’ offensive futility in 2015. Quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst was promoted to replace Roman. Chryst’s only experience as an offensive coordinator was in 1999-2000 for the Chargers under Mike Riley.
Tomsula will try to resurrect a 49ers team that lost a long list of key players, including running back Frank Gore, guard Mike Iupati and linebacker Patrick Willis.
The 49ers believe Harbaugh and Roman strayed too far from the power-running attack last season in an attempt to boost their anemic passing game. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick actually regressed, and the 49ers ranked a dismal 25th in scoring at 19.1 points per game, down from 11th (25.4) in 2013. Kaepernick’s passer rating dropped from 91.6 in 2013 to 86.4 last year, and the 49ers ranked 30th in passing offense, exactly where they ranked in 2013. For the first time in Harbaugh’s four seasons, the 49ers had more passing attempts (487) than runs (470). Even so, the 49ers ranked fourth in the league in rushing at 136.0 yards per game.
As Chryst tries to get the 49ers’ offense untracked, he won’t have Gore, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, to lean on. Gore signed with Indianapolis as a free agent after the 49ers showed little interest in keeping him. Carlos Hyde, who rushed for 333 yards and four touchdowns on 83 carries in a solid rookie season, will start and should get most of the carries. But he’ll share the running load with veteran Reggie Bush, a key free-agent pickup, and Kendall Hunter, who’s returning from a knee injury.
The 49ers lost wide receiver Michael Crabtree in free agency, but they added former Ravens wideout Torrey Smith, giving Kaepernick a legitimate deep threat for the first time. Smith will be paired with Anquan Boldin, one of the NFL’s most physical receivers. The 49ers need former Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis to rebound after catching just 26 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns.
San Francisco’s offensive line, which had long been a team strength, needs to bounce back, too. Kaepernick was sacked 52 times last season, and the line was in disarray most of the season. Center Daniel Kilgore missed the final nine games with a broken leg. Right tackle Anthony Davis missed nines games with assorted injuries. Right guard Alex Boone reported late because of a contract dispute and never got untracked, and he’s still unhappy with his contract. After the season, the 49ers lost Pro Bowl left guard Iupati to Arizona as a free agent. Brandon Thomas, who missed his rookie season last year with an ACL injury, should get the first shot at replacing Iupati, but he’ll battle free-agent pickup Erik Pears. Left tackle Joe Staley, a four-time Pro Bowl choice, still anchors a line that needs to regain its spot among the NFL’s elite.
The hits kept on coming during the offseason for a 49ers defense that is still solid but nowhere near the force it was a few years ago. Willis, a seven-time Pro Bowl pick, retired in early March because of chronic foot injuries. Days later Chris Borland, his backup, retired because of health concerns over concussions. Then in late May, Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith announced he was retiring after a successful 14-year career. Defensive end Ray McDonald was released after yet another off-field incident. The 49ers also lost two of their top three cornerbacks — Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox — to free agency. The 49ers used a first-round draft pick on Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead, but he needs time to develop. Veteran defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, a free-agent pickup, is coming off a knee injury that forced him to miss the entire 2014 season. Young D-linemen Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine might have to take larger roles.
The 49ers’ biggest loss on defense could well be Fangio, who set the bar extremely high. Under Fangio, the 49ers’ ranked as high as third and never dropped below fifth in total yards allowed.
The 49ers expect to have All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman back in the lineup after he missed the entire 2014 season while recovering from a devastating knee injury. Starting cornerback Tramaine Brock missed most of last season with a turf toe injury but is expected to regain a spot in the starting lineup and be paired with ex-Chargers cornerback Shareece Wright, a free-agent pickup. The 49ers have one of the NFL’s top safety tandems in Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who had 19.5 sacks in 2012, should get back on track after being suspended the first nine games last season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct and substance-abuse policies.
Punter Andy Lee, a three-time Pro Bowler, was traded in early June to Cleveland for a 2016 seventh-round draft pick. This move was expected as soon as the 49ers used a fifth-round draft pick in May to select Clemson punter Bradley Pinion, who doubles as a kickoff man. That could turn out to be a key skill, considering that placekicker Phil Dawson, who is coming off of a subpar season, struggled to kick the ball deep. As a rookie last season, wide receiver Bruce Ellington handled most of the return duties. Jarryd Hayne, a rugby superstar from Australia, was signed as a free agent and could give Ellington some competition.
The 49ers won’t have to deal with as much dysfunction this year, but they lost a lot of talent, both on the field and in the coaching ranks. Baalke did little in free agency or the draft to help the 49ers’ struggling offense. The 49ers finished third in the NFC West last year, and it’s difficult to see them finishing ahead of defending division champion Seattle or Arizona, which was second. Even holding off the last-place St. Louis Rams could be a problem.
Prediction: 4th in NFC West
The Seahawks were less than a yard from the end zone — a Marshawn Lynch plunge from sure victory, just 26 seconds from becoming an NFL dynasty — when they made what has been labeled the worst play call in Super Bowl history.
In the wake of Russell Wilson’s disastrous goal-line interception against New England, preventing consecutive victories for this team on pro football’s largest stage, Seattle will attempt to shake off any lingering residue and resume its role as a championship contender.
Outside of a blockbuster trade — acquiring tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round draft pick from New Orleans for one-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round selection — the Seahawks didn’t make mass changes. They used the offseason to forgive and forget.
Seattle retains all of its important ingredients — the vaunted defense, inhospitable stadium, feel-good coach, durable Lynch and now rededicated Wilson — as it attempts to become the third team to make three or more consecutive Super Bowl appearances, joining Miami (1972-74) and Buffalo (1991-94). At 30–8 (including playoffs), the Seahawks still have the best record in the league for two seasons running. There’s plenty to play for, especially redemption. “I won’t allow one play or one moment to define my career,” Wilson promises. “Every setback has a major comeback.”
Any major retooling for this team will come across the offensive line, where two starters must be replaced, seemingly a yearly chore. Patrick Lewis and Alvin Bailey are the new center and left guard, respectively, though not all that new. Lewis started four times in place of Unger, with his steady performance making it easier for the team to part with the incumbent player. The versatile Bailey was in the opening lineup five times at three different line positions, starting on three occasions for departed left guard James Carpenter, a former first-round draft pick who couldn’t stay healthy and earn the team’s considerable investment in him. Bailey, with his long arms and good balance, was especially effective against the pass rush. Left tackle Russell Okung, right tackle Justin Britt and right guard J.R. Sweezy are returning starters — solid, rather than upper-echelon players.
The big position upgrade was adding Graham to the receiving corps, giving the Seahawks something they haven’t had for several seasons — a superior pass-catcher. Graham’s 51 touchdowns in five seasons in New Orleans and general elusiveness bode well for his new team’s preference to emphasize the tight end position, which also features speedy Luke Willson. Seattle had a combined 48 tight end receptions in 2014, sixth fewest in the NFL, necessitating added help. Holdover wideouts Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin are capable of making big plays but often go unnoticed for long stretches. Rookie Tyler Lockett will get an opportunity to cut into their playing time.
The backfield is the only place on the offense that remains unchanged. Lynch continues to defy the standard aging process for an NFL running back, to the point the Seahawks signed him in the offseason to a three-year, $31 million contract extension. Considering the punishment he takes and delivers, the player known as Beast Mode might be good for just one more year. At 29, he’s turned in four consecutive regular seasons of more than 1,200 rushing yards while carrying the ball nearly 1,200 times, numbers that typically invite rapid decline.
Wilson returns for his fourth season, offering a Seahawks career highlighted by a 42–14 overall record as a starter and a resounding Super Bowl championship. The team is hoping Wilson’s slow-paced contract-extension negotiations don’t detract from his play.
No unit across the NFL is more respected, feared or solidified than the Seattle defense. It returns all but one starter, needing only an able cornerback replacement for the departed Byron Maxwell. The Seahawks come off three consecutive seasons as the league leader in scoring defense, something not done since Minnesota from 1969-71, after limiting opposing teams to a modest 15.9 points per game in 2014. Talk persists that this is one of the league’s better defenses of modern times.
The front four gets an effective push from ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril and tackles Tony McDaniel and Jordan Hill. Bennett, the best of this bunch, reportedly used his status to demand a trade (which he denied) and skipped voluntary workouts. The tackles get much-needed depth with the return of former starter Brandon Mebane from a season-ending hamstring injury and the free-agent acquisition of Cleveland starter Ahtyba Rubin.
The linebacking corps is just as sturdy as the front wall if not a lot less complicated, comprised of K.J. Wright and Bruce Irvin on the outside flanking Bobby Wagner. A former defensive end, Irvin is the flashy one, scoring twice in 2014 on interception returns. However, Wagner is the indispensible one, with the Seahawks stumbling through a lackluster 3–2 spell when a toe injury sidelined the highly productive player who has been compared to Ray Lewis and others because of his dependability.
The real jewel of this smothering group remains the secondary, manned by All-Pro safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor and similarly decorated cornerback Richard Sherman, and one that still identifies itself as the Legion of Boom. The three returnees are all potential Hall of Famers, each capable of holding his own in one-on-one coverage without the benefit of blitzing teammates. Thomas is considered the league’s best at his position, Sherman at his. Each of them played injured in the Super Bowl. Sherman came up with a team-best six interceptions, counting the postseason, even as most teams refused to throw his way. Maxwell’s replacement will come from among offseason acquisitions Cary Williams and Will Blackmon and holdover Tharold Simon.
For four consecutive seasons now, the Seahawks’ kicking game has been in solid hands across the board. Placekicker Steven Hauschka has extended his field-goal range to 58 yards and been no worse than 83 percent on accuracy, while punter Jon Ryan averaged 44.1 yards per kick and threw a crucial postseason touchdown pass. Where the team needs a noticeable boost is in each return game, where a multitude of players failed to post a runback longer than 47 yards. Lockett was drafted to fill this need.
The Seahawks still have the talent to make another Super Bowl run, which is getting almost routine for the franchise. Over the previous decade, just three teams took three trips to the big game: Pittsburgh (2–1), New England (1–2) and Seattle (1–2). While there’s always concern that complacency, big-contract squabbles or, in this case, bitter disappointment will break up a good thing, the Seahawks would be pursuing an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl victory and entertaining best-ever chatter if not for that fateful interception against the Patriots. Provided the offensive line comes together, there’s still football life in Lynch, and Wilson has a short memory, this team should be a serious postseason factor once more
Prediction: 1st in NFC West
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
There is no lack of talent at wide receiver right now, considering Calvin Johnson, who set the single-season record for receiving yards (1,964) in 2012, is fourth on this list. And in case you were curious as to why Green Bay's offense is considered one of the best in the league, look no further than the fact that Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb give the Packers a pair of top 10 wideouts to go with the a top-10 running back and the No. 1 quarterback in the game.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Wide Receivers
1. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh
Was voted All-Pro after setting a Steelers single-season record with 1,698 yards and 129 receptions. Brown is dangerous in space with his vision, quickness, and elusiveness.
2. Demaryius Thomas, Denver
The big, explosive receiver has the strength to beat bump coverage and the burst to get up the field and separate. Also has the size to run all the inside routes.
3. Dez Bryant, Dallas
Was voted first-team All-Pro and is a big play waiting to happen. The mercurial receiver averaged 15.0 yards per catch and 82.5 yards per game. Productive with 88 catches, 1,320 yards and a league-high 16 TD receptions.
4. Calvin Johnson, Detroit
For the sixth time in the last seven seasons, Megatron caught at least 70 passes and had at least 1,000 yards receiving.
5. Jordy Nelson, Green Bay
Nelson has soft, suction-cup-type hands. The competitive receiver is particularly productive between the hash marks. Has topped 1,000 yards in three of the last four seasons.
6. Julio Jones, Atlanta
After missing 11 games in 2013 with injuries, the ex-Alabama receiver reminded opponents they must account for him.
7. Odell Beckham Jr., N.Y. Giants
The reigning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year started out slowly due to injuries, but more than got up to speed from Weeks 5 through 16, catching 91 balls for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns.
8. Emmanuel Sanders, Denver
Highly productive in the Broncos’ time-share offense. The hand catcher runs crisp and sharp routes. Excels tracking and adjusting to Peyton Manning’s deep passes.
9. Randall Cobb, Green Bay
Re-signed in the offseason with the Packers after catching 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 TDs in 2014. He played in only six games the previous year but made his contract year count.
10. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis
Became the sixth player in NFL history to record 10 100-yard receiving games in the first two seasons of a career. Hilton’s 2014 numbers: 82 receptions, 1,345 yards, 16.4 yards per catch and seven TDs.
11. A.J. Green, Cincinnati
12. Alshon Jeffery, Chicago
13. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston
14. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay
15. Jeremy Maclin, Kansas City
16. Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina
17. Julian Edelman, New England
18. Golden Tate, Detroit
19. Andre Johnson, Indianapolis
20. Rueben Randle, N.Y. Giants
21. Jarvis Landry, Miami
22. Anquan Boldin, San Francisco
23. Doug Baldwin, Seattle
24. Keenan Allen, San Diego
25. Eric Decker, N.Y. Jets
26. Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay
27. Sammy Watkins, Buffalo
28. Brandon Marshall, N.Y. Jets
29. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona
30. Steve Smith, Baltimore
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
While the value of a running back, in terms of salary cap allocation and draft status, may be diminishing, the importance of a strong ground game remains the same. Take Adrian Peterson for example. Even though the 30-year-old back missed practically all of last season, he's still considered the best at his position. Much of that probably stems from the fact that's he's just three seasons removed from rushing for 2,097 yards. The other interesting trend with this year's top 10 list is that three of the members changed teams during the offseason, including DeMarco Murray, the 2014 NFL rushing champion.
And not to be outdone, Ourlads also shows some love to the fullbacks, the unsung heroes in the backfield, whose contributions don't always show up on the stat sheet.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Running Backs
1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
Peterson was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list and then suspended indefinitely last November after his much publicized off-the-field issues. He’s back now and is still under contract with the Vikings. Peterson is poised for a big 2015 season.
2. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle
Banged out 1,306 yards, fifth best in the league, and earned a new contract after leading the Seahawks to their second consecutive Super Bowl. The extra-effort runner cuts without the loss of speed.
3. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh
The second-year pro slashed his way to 1,361 yards and eight TDs on the ground in 2014. In addition, he had no fumbles in 373 total touches. Bell likely will sit out the first three games this fall due to a marijuana arrest.
4. DeMarco Murray, Philadelphia
Led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards, averaging 115.3 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry for Dallas. A good fit for the Eagles’ offense with his quick reactions, vision and the ability to split a crease with good body lean.
5. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo
Was traded to Buffalo after jitterbugging his way to 1,319 yards for the Eagles in 2014. The Bills are gambling that McCoy will return to his days of being a north/south runner.
6. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City
Passed former Chiefs great Priest Holmes as the all-time leading rusher in team history despite battling injuries in 2014. He rushed for 1,033 yards, the fifth time he collected more than a 1,000 yards in a season.
7. Arian Foster, Houston
Since 2010, he has rushed for 6,052 yards and 50 touchdowns. In the same time frame, he has caught 219 passes for 1,948 yards and 12 TDs. Foster is a downhill power runner with good vision and cutback ability.
8. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay
He followed his successful rookie season with a 1,139-yard rushing effort in 2014. The former Alabama star improved his route running and snatched 42 passes for 427 yards, averaging 10.2 yards per reception.
9. Matt Forte, Chicago
Forte broke Larry Centers’ record for receptions by a running back by catching 102 passes in 2014. He also rushed for 1,038 yards, the fifth time in seven years he joined the 1,000-yard club.
10. Frank Gore, Indianapolis
Signed as an unrestricted free agent by Indianapolis, leaving the 49ers as their all-time leading rusher with 11,073 yards. The ageless warrior brings a dedication and work ethic to a team seeking to upgrade its running attack.
11. Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati
12. Justin Forsett, Baltimore
13. Mark Ingram, New Orleans
14. Lamar Miller, Miami
15. Joique Bell, Detroit
16. Alfred Morris, Washington
17. Chris Ivory, N.Y. Jets
18. Tre Mason, St. Louis
19. Fred Jackson, Buffalo
20. Darren Sproles, Philadelphia
21. C.J. Anderson, Denver
22. Jacquizz Rodgers, Chicago
23. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati
24. Rashad Jennings, N.Y. Giants
25. Andre Williams, N.Y. Giants
26. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina
27. Steven Jackson, Free Agent
28. Pierre Thomas, Free Agent
29. Branden Oliver, San Diego
30. Ahmad Bradshaw, Free Agent
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Fullbacks
1. John Kuhn, Green Bay
The pride of Shippensburg University was an All-Pro selection in 2014. The old-school battering ram relishes contact and special teams play.
2. Marcel Reece, Oakland
Brings a complete tool box of block, run and catch to the table. As a pass receiver with rare speed to run away from defenders, he is an explosive check-down option for Derek Carr.
3. Anthony Sherman, Kansas City
A productive role player in the Chiefs’ West Coast offense as a blocker first and occasional receiver. In addition, he is one of the league’s top special teams players.
4. Bruce Miller, San Francisco
Is the most versatile member of the 49ers as a lead blocker, sometime receiver and whirling dervish special teams player. He makes an impact drawing blocks when he doesn’t make the tackle himself.
5. Henry Hynoski, N.Y. Giants
An H-back-type who blocks well on the run. Good size to run over inside linebackers or kick out penetration. Contributes on all special teams.
His middle daughter, Skylar, a 17-year-old high school athlete and Nebraska football fan, needed a history lesson. As the Cornhuskers struggled to become a power in their relatively new Big Ten home, Skylar Taylor wanted a little perspective. Losses to Minnesota and Iowa had stung. So had that conference championship debacle against Wisconsin a couple years back. And the 63–38 embarrassment in Columbus in 2012 wasn’t easy to take, either. So, Skylar asked.
“Dad, were we ever good?”
Somebody get the trainer.
“Wow,” says Taylor, who played for the Huskers from 1985-88 and rolled up a 31–6 record as a starter. “Think about that. We were once a national power.”
Nebraska hasn’t exactly been stumbling about the college football landscape throughout Skylar Taylor’s 17 years. The Huskers have won 10 or more games in a season seven times during her lifetime and hit nine on six other occasions, including last year. But it’s not the same in Lincoln as it was from 1970-97, when the Cornhuskers won five national titles and tore through the Big Eight Conference every year in advance of the annual post-Thanksgiving Plains showdown with Oklahoma. That was what drew Taylor, a blue-chip recruit from Fresno, Calif., to commit to Nebraska. It certainly wasn’t the weather.
“I tell people the reason I came to Nebraska was that they always seemed to be first or second in the country, and when I came here on a visit, the facilities were amazing, and the fans were crazy,” Taylor says. “That’s why I decided to come and play in the cold for Nebraska.”
Now a real estate agent in Lincoln and a host of pre- and post-game radio broadcasts on the Husker radio network, Taylor is like many other Nebraska fans who wonder why their beloved team isn’t relevant on the national scene the way it once was.
Since Tom Osborne retired from coaching after the 1997 season — with a national title, by the way — Nebraska has enjoyed the kind of success that many other programs envy. And some would scoff at those Cornhusker supporters who complain after a 9–4 campaign. Think the folks in Bloomington, Ind., Pullman, Wash., or Lawrence, Kan., might enjoy a season like that?
Nebraska had plenty of that under Bo Pelini, who was fired after going 9–4 in 2014. Pelini’s teams never won fewer than nine games during his seven-year tenure, but good isn’t good enough in Lincoln. And trips to the Holiday, Gator and Capital One Bowls aren’t what fans want in their Christmas stockings, especially since the Cornhuskers played in 19 “major” bowls from 1970-97 and four Fiesta classics after it earned major status.
Former Oregon State coach Mike Riley is the latest man charged with returning Nebraska to prominence. He follows Pelini, who took over for Bill Callahan, who replaced Frank Solich. None matched Osborne’s exploits, and as the 2015 season dawns, Skylar Taylor isn’t the only one wondering whether it’s possible for Nebraska to return to college football’s elite.
“The expectations are super high here,” Riley says. “That’s what the history is at Nebraska. They weren’t losing a whole bunch of games in the past. We have to take the next step and move forward.
“There are two things that have to happen. First, recruiting has to get better. We were 30th in the nation in recruiting, and we have to get into the top 25 and higher. It’s proven that teams at the top of the recruiting charts play in championship games. The second is that we have to use our talent in the best way. We get good players, but we have to utilize them in the right way.”
• • •
When junior defensive tackle Maliek Collins played at Kansas City (Mo.) Center High, his practice jersey was black. It was a nod to the famous Nebraska Blackshirt defenders, a tradition dating back to 1964, when the Huskers first went to offensive and defensive platoons and used the ebony pullovers to distinguish the first-team defense. Even though Collins admits he didn’t follow college football too closely while a prep standout, he does remember the days when Nebraska’s regular opponents were from a different part of the country.
“It’s odd,” Collins says. “I was used to seeing them play Kansas State, Kansas and Missouri.”
Related: Big Ten 2015 Predictions
The Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, and there remains something of an identity crisis in Lincoln. The last 20 years have produced considerable upheaval among the nation’s conferences, and it’s not unusual that Nebraska bolted the Big 12 for a new home, especially since the state borders Iowa. But it also abuts Kansas and Missouri, Wyoming and Colorado, and there are residents of the state who live closer to Pac-12 country than the Big Ten’s traditional boundaries. When Nebraska played at Wyoming in 2011, it was more of a home game for many Cornhusker fans than are the ones contested in Lincoln. Nebraska’s address may be in the Big Ten’s neighborhood, but the Huskers still have some boxes to unpack before they can be considered true members of the conference.
“(The Big Ten) has impacted us somewhat,” Riley says. “It has to be fixed.”
There are those who wonder whether hiring Riley will solve the problem. No one can deny that he achieved a certain level of success at Oregon State, posting a 93–80 record, but he won more than nine games only once, in 2006. While the Beavers were 6–2 in bowl games during his tenure, they never played in a major bowl or even on New Year’s Day. Riley is universally liked, something that stands in stark contrast to the irascible Pelini, and he is respected. A native of Idaho and an Alabama alum who has spent the majority of his coaching career west of the Mississippi, Riley has to find a way to recruit the Midwest and East Coast.
He also has to get some players from California — like Taylor — as well as dip into the fertile grounds of Texas and Florida. When Osborne had it going at top speed during his tenure, he did it with a core of Plains personnel (not to mention the vaunted walk-on program) but also with some standouts from other parts of the country who were drawn by Nebraska’s success. Quarterback Tommie Frazier, who led the Huskers to national titles in 1994 and ’95, was from Florida. All-America linebacker Broderick Thomas (Texas), Neil Smith (Louisiana) and Irving Fryar (New Jersey) also traveled far to join the Nebraska family. The 2015 roster is heavy on the Heartland, but there are some players from the fertile crescents south and southeast of Lincoln. The key is attracting four- and five-star talents from those areas to augment the base.
“We’re right in the middle here,” Riley says. “We can reach to Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis and Denver and maybe even Dallas. We can get kids to come unofficially in the spring, and if they can get here, we can grab them.”
While Riley tries to impress prospects, he spent the spring developing a new culture within the Nebraska program. His relentlessly positive attitude was refreshing to the players, who actually found it odd to see him dining with them after practices. With a new staff comes a new opportunity for those who didn’t play as much under Pelini. Although the members of the team haven’t come close to the success their forefathers enjoyed, they understand what is expected at Nebraska.
“We can talk about winning games, but we’re here to win championships,” junior safety Nate Gerry says. “We can think about the Big Ten championship, but we need to make the picture bigger. There’s more out there for us.”
If Riley and his staff can lift the Cornhuskers to the top of the Big Ten, he will create interest throughout the country and get fans, alumni and former players to embrace some new glory days and stop living on prior successes.
“These players don’t have the same commitment to the program,” Taylor says. “They say, ‘Oh, well, there’s always next year.’ Dude, this is Nebraska!
“That’s what I carried on my shoulders, to keep the tradition going. Have times changed? Absolutely. Is there more parity? Absolutely. I can speak for myself when I say that I didn’t want to be part of the (recruiting) class that wasn’t ranked in the top five or top 10.
“When you have that kind of success before you, you want to keep it going.”
In this case, Nebraska wants to get it started. Again.
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
Quarterback is considered the most important position on the field, so it should be no surprise that the top 10 is littered by those who have taken their team to the ultimate goal — winning a Super Bowl. Led by reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers, this year's top 10 quarterbacks include seven signal-callers that have combined to win 12 Lombardi Trophies and two others who could join this exclusive club in the near future. And while it's entirely likely that first-round draft picks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, will get the starting nod in Week 1 for Tampa Bay and Tennessee, respectively, you won't see either rookie listed below since they have yet to take a single snap in an NFL game.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Quarterbacks
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
The consistent and confident signal-caller was awarded his second league MVP after he completed 341-of-520 passes for 4,381 yards and 38 touchdowns. He threw only five interceptions and hit 65.6 percent of his throws.
2. Tom Brady, New England
Joined Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only QBs in NFL history to win four Super Bowls. Brady may now have passed Montana, his boyhood idol, as the greatest QB to play the game.
3. Drew Brees, New Orleans
There was no drop-off in Brees’ performance in 2014 — in fact, he delivered one of the best statistical seasons of his career. He continues to be an outstanding ball handler in play action and is one of the most accurate passers in NFL history.
4. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
Signed a new contract in 2015, confirming the Steelers’ faith that he is playing at an elite level. His career 7.9 yards-per-attempt average is tied for sixth in NFL history.
5. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis
In his third season, the former Stanford Cardinal threw for 4,761 yards and 40 TDs. The big righthander processes information quickly and is a respected team leader.
6. Tony Romo, Dallas
Heading into his 13th year as a pro, Romo time and again has demonstrated the athletic ability to elude the rush, see the open receiver and hit him for a big play.
7. Philip Rivers, San Diego
The five-time Pro Bowler is back in San Diego after some speculated he would be traded to the Titans. Few field generals sense the rush and step up and away from pressure as effectively as Rivers.
8. Peyton Manning, Denver
Age and time may well be the only opponents that the five-time MVP will not be able to defeat in his quest for another Super Bowl win. The 17-year veteran has 14 Pro Bowl appearances and is still one of the league’s undisputed superstars.
9. Russell Wilson, Seattle
The youngest QB to win a Super Bowl, Wilson had a banner 2014 season, throwing for 3,475 yards, rushing for 849 and accounting for 26 touchdowns.
10. Eli Manning, N.Y. Giants
The 34-year-old concluded last season with a career-best 63.1 completion percentage and threw for 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in the Giants’ version of the West Coast offense.
11. Matt Ryan, Atlanta
12. Joe Flacco, Baltimore
13. Cam Newton, Carolina
14. Matthew Stafford, Detroit
15. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati
16. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco
17. Ryan Tannehill, Miami
18. Alex Smith, Kansas City
19. Carson Palmer, Arizona
20. Jay Cutler, Chicago
21. Geno Smith, N.Y. Jets
22. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville
23. Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota
24. Ryan Fitzpatrick, N.Y. Jets
25. Mark Sanchez, Philadelphia
26. Nick Foles, St. Louis
27. Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay
28. Zach Mettenberger, Tennessee
29. Matt Cassel, Buffalo
30. Derek Carr, Oakland
When the Baltimore Ravens trudged out of the locker room at Gillette Stadium following a bitter playoff loss to the New England Patriots, feisty veteran wide receiver Steve Smith vowed they’d be back and that the outcome would be different the next time.
Following an offseason defined by change — offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak left to become the Denver Broncos’ head coach; defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was traded to the Detroit Lions; and wide receiver Torrey Smith and pass rusher Pernell McPhee departed as free agents — the Ravens are confident that their roster is well stocked to make another serious playoff run.
The Ravens have made the playoffs six of the past seven years under coach John Harbaugh and are upbeat about their prospects following a strong draft that filled several needs. That included drafting UCF wide receiver Breshad Perriman (a bigger, faster version of Torrey Smith) in the first round and tight end Maxx Williams in the second.
Although the Ravens weren’t particularly active in free agency due to a tight salary cap situation, general manager Ozzie Newsome cautions that he’s not done building the roster.
Although he is never among the first names mentioned in conversations about top NFL quarterbacks, Joe Flacco is a strong-armed, accurate, mobile QB who owns a Super Bowl ring and a $120.6 million contract. Flacco improved significantly under Kubiak a year ago. Now, he’ll collaborate with new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman to try to capitalize on his arm strength in more of a vertical passing game.
Flacco has a faster deep threat to work with in Perriman than Smith, who was no slouch. Flacco could still stand to improve on his deep-ball accuracy but has matured into a sharp football mind who makes sound decisions and gets the football out of his hands quickly. Matt Schaub is Flacco’s new backup.
Justin Forsett has transformed his NFL reputation from undersized journeyman to featured back. Forsett was rewarded with a three-year, $9 million contract. He’ll remain the primary back despite the Ravens drafting USC running back Javorius “Buck” Allen, a big back with pass-catching skills. Lorenzo Taliaferro is in the mix as a red-zone presence but has to concentrate on avoiding the fumbles that sent him to the bench as a rookie.
Despite being 36 years old and entering his 15th NFL season, Steve Smith remains fast enough to create separation. He’s still physical and combative after the catch, not conceding anything and challenging defensive backs every snap. Smith will be targeted frequently, but Marlon Brown, Michael Campanaro and Kamar Aiken will also be involved.
Williams is expected to have an immediate impact in a passing game that has sorely missed the presence of Dennis Pitta over the past two seasons as he has twice fractured and dislocated his right hip. Pitta’s career is in doubt.
The offensive line represents one of the major strengths of the team. Flacco was sacked only 19 times last year, and all five starters are back. Powerful left guard Kelechi Osemele and gritty veteran right guard Marshal Yanda are entering contract years and are competing for one big deal with at least one expected to leave after this season. Center Jeremy Zuttah’s size and athleticism represent a major upgrade over Gino Gradkowski, a former starter traded to the Broncos. Left tackle Eugene Monroe is coming off a disappointing season in which he struggled in pass protection and didn’t have as much punch as a blocker after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Rick Wagner emerged as one of the NFL’s top right tackles, utilizing his strength and sound technique to wall off pass rushers. The top backup is John Urschel, a math whiz from Penn State who can play both guard spots and center in a pinch.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ aggressive 3-4 scheme creates a lot of pressure without blitzing with an emphasis on getting outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs isolated in one-on-one blocking situations. Dumervil and Suggs combined for 29 sacks last season as one of the most formidable pass-rushing tandems in the game.
Ngata was a disruptive force who will be replaced by Timmy Jernigan. Jernigan showed flashes of being a capable full-time starter with four sacks as a rookie. He needs to be more consistent, though, and maintain his intensity. Built low to the ground and with the ability to bench press more than 500 pounds, massive lineman Brandon Williams is one of the top nose tackles in the game. Chris Canty is a starter and an experienced leader but will be pushed by young defensive linemen Brent Urban, Carl Davis and Kapron Lewis-Moore. Defensive end Lawrence Guy is an underrated player who has a nose for the football. This should be a strong rotation.
C.J. Mosley is one of the most instinctive young inside linebackers in the NFL. He has great recognition skills and the speed to chase down running backs in the open field. Middle linebacker Daryl Smith is up in years but rewarded the Ravens’ faith in him last season when he piled up 128 tackles — five fewer than Mosley — and forced two fumbles. Outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw hasn’t shown much more than being a brawny edge-setter; the team needs more pass-rush production out of him. Rookie rush linebacker Za’Darius Smith is the top candidate to replace McPhee as a situational pass rusher.
The secondary was decimated by injuries last season. Jimmy Smith was arguably playing at a Pro Bowl level before suffering a Lisfranc foot sprain that required surgery. The Ravens felt good enough about his recovery this offseason to invest a four-year, $48 million contract in him. Veteran corner Lardarius Webb restructured his contract and has made a sound return from a troublesome back injury that hampered him last year. The Ravens lack a proven nickel back and will audition Asa Jackson, Rashaan Melvin and rookie Tray Walker for that role. The team also signed veterans Kyle Arrington and Cassius Vaughn to add to its cornerback depth and give the coaches more options to look at during training camp.
Safety was one of the weakest positions on the team last season, but rangy new free safety Kendrick Lewis is expected to stabilize the position. Matt Elam has been a bust through two NFL seasons but will get another chance to redeem himself at strong safety, his natural position. Will Hill revived his career last year after off-field problems cost him his job with the New York Giants. Hill is slated to compete with Elam for a starting position.
The kicking game is headlined by Justin Tucker, a former Pro Bowl selection and the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Tucker has enough range that he’s a constant scoring threat. The return game is in flux after the Ravens cut Jacoby Jones. Punter Sam Koch averaged 47 yards last season and has good hang time and directional punting skills. Long snapper Morgan Cox is good enough at his job that the Ravens keep signing him to new contracts, even after he tore an ACL for the second time in his career last year.
Although the schedule is demanding, the Ravens remain playoff contenders — if a receiving corps in flux can get the job done and if the secondary can avoid the injuries that have prevented them from getting past Tom Brady in the postseason.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC North
Building on an 11–5 season and an AFC North title won’t be easy for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The offense is loaded and returns every starter from a unit that averaged 411.1 yards per game last season, second best in the NFL. But the defense is a serious work in progress after the Steelers managed just 33 sacks last season, their lowest total since 1989, and allowed 4.4 yards per carry.
The schedule doesn’t do the team any favors, and by at least one measure it is the most difficult in the NFL. The Steelers’ opponents combined for a .578 winning percentage last season, the highest in the league. What’s more, the Steelers have to visit Seattle, San Diego, Kansas City and St. Louis after playing no games west of the Mississippi River in 2014. The Steelers parlayed a favorable schedule last season and a breakout campaign by the offense into their first division title since 2010. It will be much tougher for them to repeat as division champions, especially in the rugged AFC North.
Mike Tomlin has hardly tempered expectations for the unit that carried the Steelers last season. The ninth-year coach said at the NFL owners meetings in late March that the Steelers could have the best offense in the NFL this season because they “have the goods.” He won’t get any arguments in Pittsburgh or beyond the Steel City. The Steelers have arguably the best quarterback-running back-wide receiver trio in the NFL in Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger threw for 4,952 yards last season and became the first player on franchise history to win a passing title (he shared the honor with Drew Brees). Roethlisberger, who turned 33 in March, is seemingly getting better with age. And the Steelers backed up general manager Kevin Colbert’s assertion that Roethlisberger’s best playing days are still ahead of him by signing Big Ben to a five-year contract extension that could be worth as much as $108 million.
Roethlisberger has reigned in the sandlot style that defined him earlier in his career in large part because the players around him are better. Brown led the NFL in catches (129) and receiving yards (1,698) last season and plays bigger than his listed size of 5'10", 186 pounds because of his ability to separate and make contested catches in traffic. If Brown’s production dips this season, it could be because the Steelers have an emerging star in second-year wideout Martavis Bryant as well as Markus Wheaton, who made a significant leap in his second season after playing sparingly as a rookie.
As good as Roethlisberger and Brown were last season, Bell won the Steelers’ MVP Award — as voted on by the players — and for good reason. The second-year man rushed for 1,361 yards and led all NFL running backs with 854 receiving yards. There is not a better all-around back than Bell, who also excels at picking up blitzing linebackers. The Steelers have to hope that DeAngelo Williams can do a credible job of filling in for Bell, who is out at the start of the season because of an NFL suspension.
The offensive line returns intact and is still young but also experienced. Maurkice Pouncey re-established himself as one of the top centers in the NFL last season after coming back from a major knee injury. Right guard David DeCastro is the Steelers’ best pulling guard since perennial Pro Bowler Alan Faneca.
It wasn’t that long ago that questions about whether the Steelers’ defense had gotten too old were as much an autumn ritual in Western Pennsylvania as the leaves changing colors. Not anymore. The average age of the Steelers’ projected starters on defense is 26.5. That number dips if rookie Bud Dupree, the team’s first-round pick, beats out Arthur Moats at left outside linebacker.
The Steelers have a new defensive coordinator with former linebackers coach Keith Butler taking over for Dick LeBeau. Butler won’t stray from the LeBeau’s core philosophy of shutting down the run first and foremost or the Steelers’ base 3-4 defense. He will try to simplify the defense to accommodate the youth he has inherited, and Butler has said that the Steelers have to become more opportunistic. They forced more than two turnovers in a game just twice last season, and they have 41 takeaways in their last two seasons. To put that into perspective, consider that the Steelers had 35 takeaways in 2010 alone, the last time they made the Super Bowl.
The linebackers playing to their pedigree could go a long way toward the Steelers fielding the kind of defense that can complement the offense. They should, at some point, have former first-round picks starting at all four linebacker spots. Two of those players in particular are key. Right outside linebacker Jarvis Jones has to make a big jump in his third season after missing most of 2014 because of a dislocated wrist. Ryan Shazier may be the most likely candidate to break out after a high-ankle sprain and normal rookie growing pains limited the 15th overall pick of the 2014 draft last season. Shazier’s speed and ability to play in space make him more valuable than ever with the Steelers playing their nickel defense more than 50 percent of the time. He is a playmaker, and the competition at inside linebacker, the Steelers’ deepest position, should only bring out the best in Shazier.
The secondary has gotten younger, and third-year man Shamarko Thomas gets the first crack at replacing the iconic Troy Polamalu at strong safety. Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has said that the Steelers’ two safety positions are interchangeable, but does the team have a player who can cover ample ground on the back end of their defense? Thomas and starting free safety Mike Mitchell are big hitters who support the run. There are questions about how well both can cover.
Shaun Suisham occasionally stubs his toe on field goals he should make but is otherwise as reliable as they come. Punter Brad Wing has to become more consistent in his second season, and the former LSU All-American will be challenged after having training camp all to himself last season. The Steelers have to get more out of kickoff returns after averaging only 21.7 yards per return last season. They drafted Dri Archer in the third round in 2014 to give them a jolt in the return game. He fared so poorly that he lost his job as the team’s primary kickoff returner before the midway point of the season. Archer, the fastest player on the team, has to emerge this season or he is in danger of becoming a bust.
The offense may have to carry the Steelers until a defense in transition comes together. The offense should be a tour de force if it stays relatively healthy, though the Steelers have to start faster. They managed just 19 points on 16 opening drives last season, and scoring first could help take some pressure off the defense.
Few people expected the Steelers to win 11 games last season, and it will be hard to duplicate that number in 2015. Ten victories could be enough to repeat as AFC North champions if the Steelers win at least four division games.
Prediction: 1st in AFC North
The Browns enter 2015 having changed offensive coordinators again, still searching for a real answer at quarterback and still trying to climb out of fourth place in the rugged AFC North. Though this year’s team should have better overall talent and depth and should benefit from having coach Mike Pettine and several key veterans back, it’s fair to wonder if there’s enough offensive firepower to allow the Browns to compete with the league’s best teams.
The defense has been upgraded, and with better tackling and better health among the front seven, there should be a noticeable improvement against the run. The secondary is an experienced and well-paid bunch, too, and has leaders and playmakers in Joe Haden, Donte Whitner, Tashaun Gipson and Tramon Williams.
The offensive line is the team’s strongest and deepest unit, with Alex Mack set to return at center after an injury-shortened 2014 season and perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas back at left tackle. Thomas will tutor second-year guard Joel Bitonio and 2015 first-rounder Cameron Erving, who is Mack’s likely eventual successor at center but could play right guard or right tackle. The Browns will try to establish the run and hope to throw off play-action from that.
They’re still building for the future, too; a year after spending two first-round picks on early draft entries who brought maturity issues to the NFL, the Browns went with older, productive players, many of whom figure as 2015 contributors and 2016 starters.
Brian Hoyer was allowed to leave after starting 13 games at quarterback before giving way to Johnny Manziel, who was totally overwhelmed in two starts and spent 10 weeks of the offseason in a rehab center for undisclosed issues. Veteran journeyman Josh McCown was signed to start at quarterback, and veteran receivers Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline were added after the Browns learned their most talented receiver, Josh Gordon, was suspended for at least one year.
Tight end Jordan Cameron departed via free agency, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan asked out, meaning 2015 marks a fresh start for almost everybody who will touch the ball. Running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell showed promise as rookies, and both are strong, physical runners who figure to have a chance to improve as they get more comfortable with the NFL game. Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins is a playmaker whose opportunities to be productive figure to depend on the ability of Bowe and Hartline to get open down the field.
Manziel returned to the team in the spring, but the Browns’ decision not to draft a quarterback affirmed the assumption that McCown will start 2015 and Manziel will be given a chance to learn how to be an NFL quarterback from the sideline. His task is to prove to the team that his admitted work-ethic issues from last season are in the past. McCown took a beating last year in Tampa Bay, but the Browns believe with a better offensive line and a run-first approach, he’ll be more like the player who kept the Bears afloat in 2013 when Jay Cutler was injured.
Improvement will be judged by efficiency and on the scoreboard. The 2014 Browns had the league’s worst completion percentage (54.6) and third-down success rate and were 27th in the NFL in scoring. The loss of Mack was huge to the offense’s identity and ability to convert key short-yardage chances. But even with the line set to return intact — and possibly with more depth — the Browns still have to prove they have the skill players to turn routine plays into big gains and consistently score more than 20 points per game.
The one offensive certainty: Thomas will come to play. Amazingly, the Browns left tackle has not missed an offensive snap since he was drafted in 2007.
The Browns have been aggressive in consecutive offseasons in trying to add talent to every level of the defense and believe they’ve built a unit with the necessary talent and depth to be among the best in the AFC.
The defensive line was overvalued a year ago and suffered when injuries hit. But the linebacking corps got big seasons from Karlos Dansby and Paul Kruger, and the secondary added Williams to a group that could really make a leap if 2014 first-round pick Justin Gilbert can overcome the maturity issues that plagued him a year ago.
Gipson contended for the NFL interception lead, and though Whitner is 30, he’s still active and disruptive. Haden has emerged as one of the league’s top cornerbacks, and the Browns believe Gilbert has the talent to be a playmaker, too. Even with his issues last season he showed flashes on the field.
There’s age across the defense — Dansby, Whitner, Kruger, Williams, defensive end Desmond Bryant and new defensive end Randy Starks all have plenty of experience — but there are some young legs, too, in Haden, linebacker Chris Kirksey and rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton. The Browns considered Shelton, the No. 12 overall pick in the draft, the best player to immediately shore up a run defense that ranked last in the NFL a season ago. The Browns drafted two defensive linemen in the first three rounds with Bryant nearing 30 and former first-round pick Phil Taylor entering the final year of his contract.
The Browns will ask a lot of this defense, but they believe that the group is up to the challenge if the run defense improves. Some help from the offense on the scoreboard and in time of possession would be welcomed, but there are pieces to work with here.
The Browns had to make a change at placekicker last season when Billy Cundiff struggled. Garrett Hartley was a December addition who faced no real pressure kicks, and it’s surprising the Browns didn’t draft a kicker to give him some competition this summer. Young punter Spencer Lanning established himself last season, but the Browns decided to make a change , acquiring Andy Lee from the 49ers in June. In Lee, Cleveland gets a three-time Pro Bowler who averaged 46.2 yards per punt (39.6 net) since taking over as San Francisco's punter in 2004, while the 49ers reportedly will receive the Browns' seventh-round pick in the 2017 draft. Lanning was released to make room for Lee. The punt-return game was a disaster last season, and Travis Benjamin is probably down to his last chance with the Browns in this training camp. Among the other candidates to return kicks and punts are rookie running back Duke Johnson, Gilbert and speedy second-year receiver Taylor Gabriel.
The Browns won seven games last year, the most by the franchise since 2007. But the offense went totally flat late in the year, there were too many off-field incidents, and the season ended with a five-game losing streak. The 2015 team should be equipped with better leaders, better chemistry and better depth, but it’s still fair to wonder who’s going to make big plays and if this team will score enough touchdowns to be a legitimate playoff contender.
Prediction: 4th in AFC North
Marvin Lewis is dubbing this season a “revival.” There’s been new construction at Paul Brown Stadium to upgrade the training facilities for the players as well as the game-day experience for fans. It’s a visual metaphor for the team itself: While things have been good in Cincinnati the past few seasons, they haven’t been good enough.
Four straight playoff berths have equaled four straight first-round defeats. Each loss has been similar in nature; the Bengals play well in the first half only to be dominated and eliminated in the second half. The offseason didn’t bring major changes to the roster, but there have been subtle moves, such as bringing back defensive end Michael Johnson and adding former Green Bay linebacker A.J. Hawk for stability in the front seven.
Some things don’t change, such as the need for quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green to step up in the biggest moments. When that revival takes place, then the Bengals can be thought of as a real contender.
Dalton enters his fifth season as the starter. He has shown he’s capable of taking a team to the playoffs, but whether the Bengals have matched up against elite quarterbacks in the postseason (Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck) or the pedestrian sort (T.J. Yates, Matt Schaub), Dalton has been outperformed by the opposing signal caller. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson took the ball out of Dalton’s hands more than predecessor Jay Gruden last season, and there’s reason to expect the focus of the offense again this season to be running the ball.
The backfield combination of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard produced more than 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground, as well as 70 receptions. They are the most reliable weapons in this offense, and Jackson doesn’t care if defenses know they’re coming. Put it this way: Jackson wouldn’t have called for a pass on the goal line with the Super Bowl in the balance.
A return to health by numerous receivers should make Dalton more efficient and the passing game more productive. Green missed three games entirely plus significant portions of two others with toe and biceps injuries, then didn’t play in the postseason because of a concussion. Wide receiver Marvin Jones missed the entire season with a broken foot. Tight end Tyler Eifert had three catches in the opening game before suffering a dislocated elbow that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
The offensive line returns intact, led by left tackle Andrew Whitworth. The Bengals used their first two draft picks on tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, but don’t take that as a sign that the heart and soul of the Bengals is going anywhere anytime soon. Whitworth sets the tone on the field and in the locker room. He may be 33 and entering his 10th season, but he’s still an elite left tackle. Left guard Clint Boling was re-signed to a five-year deal, while the Bengals picked up the option for 2016 on right guard Kevin Zeitler. Center Russell Bodine will be in his second season, while Andre Smith and Eric Winston will get competition from Fisher at right tackle.
This unit needs new life infused into it. A lot of that infusion needs to come from recent draft picks whose time has come to put up or shut up.
The Bengals are hopeful that the return of Johnson after an ill-fated season in Tampa Bay will help revitalize a defensive line that lost its moxie last season. The Bengals managed just 20 sacks. No player outside of Carlos Dunlap (eight) and Geno Atkins (three) had as many as two sacks. Bringing back Johnson will allow the Bengals to put Wallace Gilberry back into the specialist role in which he was so effective from 2012-13. Gilberry can play inside or on the end, but he played too much last season. The strength of the line in the past was in its rotation, but that rotation failed the Bengals last season. There’s a question as to whether Geno Atkins will ever regain the All-Pro form he had prior to an ACL tear in 2013. He was just another guy last year, showing only flashes of the power and quickness that made offenses fear him.
Margus Hunt was a project when the Bengals drafted him out of SMU two years ago. The Estonia native had played football for just four years when the Bengals took him in the second round. The project phase of Hunt’s development is over. It’s time to put that 6'8", 290-pound body to good use. Hunt was plagued by an ankle injury last season, but he needs to be more than a body on the field. His size and athleticism make him a perfect complement in the rotation with Dunlap and Johnson.
The great unknown of the defense is linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He played in just five games last season because of various injuries, including two concussions suffered in the first two games of the season. There aren’t many players with his aggressiveness and instincts for diagnosing a play and making the tackle. That was missing from the defense throughout 2014. Burfict had microfracture knee surgery in the offseason, so just how good he can be this year remains to be seen. That’s one reason Hawk was signed; the other is for his leadership. Much like James Harrison in 2013, Hawk is a player who’s been there and done that. He’s not at the top of his game anymore, but he can still provide a strong presence.
Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard were first-round picks in 2012 and 2014, respectively. They were stuck behind Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones last year. That won’t be the case this season. They’ll be starting sooner than later. The Bengals are solid at safety with Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, a fourth-year player who is emerging as one of the better young safeties in the NFL.
The Bengals have a solid trio in kicker Mike Nugent, punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris. Huber is finally getting some due for his ability to control field position with punts inside the 20. He has a career 4-to-1 ratio on punts inside the 20 vs. touchbacks. Nugent showed off his mental toughness by making 16 of his final 17 field-goal attempts, including a 57-yarder in the playoffs, after missing a 36-yarder in overtime against Carolina in October.
The scenarios for the Bengals haven’t changed much from a season ago. They have proven they are among the top six teams in the AFC. They are playoff-worthy. They have talent. Do they have the mental toughness to get over the hump? At some point you just have to make plays. Everyone has to deal with injuries. No team is always at its best. Sometimes you just have to find a way to win a game.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC North
The scoreboard was still smoking in the wake of the highest-scoring Iron Bowl in history when Gus Malzahn made his decision. In reality, he had probably known what he had to do for a few weeks. No team closes a season by giving up at least 31 points in six straight games (against FBS foes) and doesn’t change some things. When you give up 55 points and 539 yards to your archrival in the season finale, the urgency to find a new way gets even greater.
Malzahn needed a new defensive coordinator, and he knew he was going to have to shop in the luxury aisle to get one. Some might think the 850 large the program had allotted for former DC Ellis Johnson was Ritz-level pricing, but that was discount stuff compared to the $1.6 million the Tigers will send Will Muschamp’s way this season. Muschamp — who was fired after four years as head coach at Florida but built successful defenses before that at Auburn, LSU and Texas — brings instant credibility to a side of the ball that had little last season. And he will be paid quite handsomely for that experience. In fact, he’ll be the second-highest-paid assistant in the country.
“That’s where the college game is at with the money and the TV,” Malzahn says. “It’s the cost of doing business. If you want the best, you need to pay for it.”
Given Muschamp’s track record, his Riviera-level price tag isn’t so outrageous. Florida fans obviously focus on his 28–21 record during four years in Gainesville; but at Auburn, they’re more interested in the fact that none of his defenses finished worse than 15th nationally during that time. During his six years directing defenses at LSU (2001-04) and Auburn (’06-07), his units finished in the top 10 every year.
His 2008 Texas edition led the Big 12 in rushing and scoring defense and held seven opponents to 14 or fewer points. Muschamp is an excellent recruiter and brings some top-shelf assistants with him. If the Tigers D has the same success as Malzahn’s spread attack, Auburn will be back in the national title hunt. And it will make perfect sense that Muschamp gets a salary above those paid to more than 60 FBS head coaches in 2014.
“If you’re going to be consistently good and have a chance to win championships, you have to be good on defense, especially in our league,” Malzahn says.
Malzahn’s not the only SEC coach who thinks that way. Texas A&M will pay former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis a reported $5 million over the next three years to fix a D that ranked 102nd in total yards allowed last year. That makes him No. 1 on the assistant coach payroll. He and Muschamp join four other conference coordinators (Alabama DC Kirby Smart, LSU OC Cam Cameron, LSU DC Kevin Steele and Georgia DC Jeremy Pruitt) who make at least seven figures. Last year, only three — Smart, Cameron and Chavis — earned that much.
The growing collection of million-dollar men makes sense in a conference that boasted nine of the nation’s top 19 assistant coaching salary pools. LSU’s $5.499 million outlay to assistants topped the national list, with Alabama ($5.213 million) second.
The growth has been quick. Consider that six years ago, Chavis made $400,000 at LSU. Last year, he earned $1.3 million. He’ll get $400,000 more than that in 2015. That’s a pretty steep climb in a short amount of time.
“There are rising salaries for all coaches — head coaches, coordinators and assistants,” says South Carolina boss Steve Spurrier, who made $4 million last year, the 10th-highest payday in the country. “It’s all about the rising revenues that are coming in.
“Hopefully, we’ll give some to the players soon, too.”
Hold on, Steve. That’s another topic altogether. The recent SEC binge on coordinator salaries is certainly about the big piles of cash flowing into schools’ coffers from TV deals, the new College Football Playoff and the growing professionalization of athletic departments. But coaches also realize that they had better beef up their staffs to attract, develop and deploy the best players in order to compete in the most cutthroat league around.
Related: SEC 2015 Predictions
Last year, the SEC West went from merely brutal to absolutely pitiless. All seven teams finished the year with above-.500 records and played in the postseason. The last-place finisher, Arkansas, dismantled Texas in a bowl game, and the Mississippi schools reached heights they hadn’t experienced in decades. It is imperative that schools have the best possible coaches to run their attacks, or they risk getting overrun in one of the most competitive environments in all of sports.
LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been a head coach in the Big Ten, was the Miami Dolphins’ boss and directed the Baltimore Ravens’ attack for five seasons. As he tries to make the Tigers potent again — after a shaky 2014 — he understands the need for head coaches to bulk up their staffs as much as possible. That begins with their top lieutenants.
“When you have coached in the Big Ten and the NFL and then come to the SEC, and especially the SEC West, you realize the margin for error is so small,” Cameron says. “Coordinators can have huge impacts. The games are so close, so everybody has to be as qualified as possible.”
Cameron is right about the slim difference between success and failure. Last season, 19 SEC conference games were decided by seven or fewer points, and 10 had margins of three or fewer. In situations like that, it’s imperative for programs to have the most experienced and talented people possible in top assistant positions. Muschamp’s arrival in Auburn and Kevin Steele taking over in Baton Rouge mean there are now four former Power 5 conference head coaches among the coordinator ranks in the SEC. (Cameron and Alabama OC Lane Kiffin are the others.) In 2014, former UCLA head man Karl Dorrell led the Vanderbilt offense. Last year’s A&M defensive coordinator, Mark Snyder, directed Marshall’s program for five years.
“You have former head coaches as coordinators and future head coaches as coordinators,” Cameron says. “There is so much at stake that everybody is trying to get as many good people as possible.”
• • •
The two highest-profile SEC hires of the offseason were curious less for their price tags than for those who brought them on board. Throughout their coaching careers, Malzahn and A&M’s Kevin Sumlin have been known for their explosive offenses and overwhelming desire to pile up the points and yards, even if that put undue stress on their defenses.
High-speed attacks pressure rivals for 60 minutes, but they impact the defenses on their own teams every minute of the year. The most obvious effect is in the time of possession department. If an offense is holding onto the ball for only 20-25 minutes a game, that means opponents have it for a draining 35-40. Defenses trying to prepare for the kind of physical, pro-style opponents found throughout the SEC don’t have the ability to practice against that kind of scheme during the summer and then week-to-week. And when versatile prospects come into programs as freshmen, coaches try to decide whether they should play offense or defense. If the man in charge is more disposed to scoring points than preventing them, the toss-ups will often end up on the offensive side of the ball.
So, Sumlin’s decision to bring Chavis to College Station and Malzahn’s choice of Muschamp show how important those two creative offensive minds now consider the ability to stop people. At LSU, Chavis worked with an attack designed to complement his unit. The Tigers ran the ball. They worked the clock. And they were delighted with a 23–14 victory. It’s fun trying to score 50 but even more enjoyable to get the win. Muschamp’s defenses at Florida were stingy, but he lost his job because the Gators, who once spun scoreboards under Spurrier and Urban Meyer, were boring. Malzahn and Sumlin have invested big money in their new coaches, but they have to be willing to adapt their styles of play to let the defenses have a chance to thrive.
When Chavis met with Sumlin, the two discussed how the team would practice and any concerns Chavis had about tempo. And when spring drills began, the Aggies had actually slowed things down so much that it was Chavis who requested a change of pace. At Auburn, Muschamp’s unit will complement an attack that has averaged 493.4 yards in Malzahn’s 27 games at the helm.
“Will and (offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee) work real closely together,” Malzahn says. “We are making sure both sides’ needs are met. The experience so far has been really positive.”
Muschamp may have to convince his boss to play a little more to the defensive side of the ball at times, but the good news is that he won’t have too much interference from Malzahn. Lashlee may be the offensive coordinator, but the Tigers’ attack belongs to the head coach, who literally wrote the book (“The Hurry Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy”) on the kind of run-based, spread attack he favors. According to Brandon Marcello, who covers Auburn for AL.com, which combines content from three Alabama newspapers — Birmingham News, Mobile Press-Register and Huntsville Times — Malzahn “doesn’t meddle with the defense” and is “hesitant” even to stick his head in the room.
There have been great coordinators in the SEC for decades. One of the reasons Spurrier won a national title at Florida was that he had Bob Stoops, now the head man at Oklahoma, to run his defense. But Stoops wasn’t a huge name when he arrived from Kansas State. Cameron was when Miles brought him to Baton Rouge in 2013. He had spent 10 of the previous 11 seasons as an NFL coordinator and head man, so he brought instant credibility to the job at LSU.
A year later, Alabama coach Nick Saban got himself a high-profile coordinator when he hired Kiffin, the former Raiders, USC and Tennessee coach, to direct his offense. Although the Tide paid defensive coordinator Kirby Smart almost twice as much as the $680,000 Kiffin earned, having a former NFL boss running the attack was big news. It also showed that Saban, who has four national titles to his credit, doesn’t mind having big names on his staff, especially on the side of the ball that isn’t his expertise. The goal is to win games, not rule absolutely — although Saban does a pretty good job with that, too.
“These coaches know they are the big men on campus, so they take the ego out of it and get someone in there to handle the other side of the ball,” Marcello says.
Cameron says there is more to it than just putting together and executing a game plan. Having former head coaches on the staff helps with recruiting. Since assistants spend more time on the road than do those who run the programs, having a former NFL assistant or college head man in the living room adds some serious cachet.
Thanks to television, coaches such as Muschamp, Kiffin and LSU’s Steele are recognizable and therefore have an edge over some of their lesser-known counterparts at other schools. Everybody on a staff must be out there selling, but top coordinators with national personalities can help a lot. They had better want to be part of the equation, rather than thinking they are above the daily grind of being an assistant.
“It’s very important that all coaches on a staff recruit and evaluate,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt says. “Our coordinators do that, too. They have good relationship skills. If you have a coordinator who doesn’t recruit or have interest in recruiting, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
Once the assistants lure top prospects to campus, they have to develop them — and not just to win games against SEC foes. Conference teams recruit some of the best players in the country, and though we would all like to think they are heading to school to become doctors and lawyers, most harbor NFL dreams. The exposure and level of competition in the SEC help them make progress toward that goal, but it’s imperative they receive the kind of development necessary to become attractive to professional talent evaluators.
That’s one reason why Miles considered Cameron an attractive candidate for the OC job. What young offensive player wouldn’t want to learn from someone who has not only helped produce NFL players but who also has coached them? At LSU, where the end of each season brings an exodus to the NFL of players who have been on campus the minimum of three years, it’s vital to have coaches who are capable of helping them maximize their talents — to help the Tigers but also to get them into the professional ranks as quickly as possible.
“When you talk to kids, they are looking for coaches who can help them develop today and for the next level,” Cameron says.
Muschamp and Chavis will be expected to provide immediate results for their new teams. At their price tags, they had better deliver quickly. If they do, you can bet that this time next year, there will be some new high-profile coordinators joining the SEC ranks at premium prices.
“It’s the demand for the position,” Richt says. “We’re in an academic setting, but it’s also a competitive setting. You want to hire the type of people who can get the job done in an excellent way. The higher the demand, the higher the salaries go.”
And it’s unlikely that they’re going to stop rising.
Since their days in the youth football leagues of Miami, running backs Dalvin Cook and Joseph Yearby have been the subject of an ongoing debate: Who’s better?
“Every game, people would argue,” says Cook’s brother, former University of Miami basketball player Deandre Burnett. “Dalvin should be getting more carries. Joe should have got the ball there. They’re both good. Whoever gets the ball, it’s going to be an exciting run.”
They played together at Miami Central High, producing some of the gaudiest rushing stats in the rich history of South Florida high school football and helping the elite program win three state titles.
This year, Cook and Yearby — both sophomores and still best friends — are key figures on opposite sides of one of college football’s best rivalries.
Seminoles fans in the post-Jameis Winston era feel the offense is in good hands with Cook (6'0", 203 pounds), who led ACC freshmen in rushing yards (1,008) and scored eight touchdowns. Hurricanes fans missing Duke Johnson are happy to have Yearby (5'9", 195), who rushed for 509 yards and a touchdown.
Related: Buy the 2015 ACC Football Preview
Cook established himself as a star at the end of last season, rushing for 592 yards in his final five games with an MVP performance (220 total yards and a touchdown) in the ACC Championship Game. As Johnson’s backup, Yearby broke the 100-yard mark in two games.
Both feel it’s time, as Cook says, to “take over.” They’ve been waiting for this chance since they first bonded over workouts, video games and a whole lot of wins at Central High.
“We’d say to each other, we want to win championships, be in the race for the Heisman,” Yearby says. “We wanted to be the greatest to come out of high school and college.”
Cook grew up in Miami Gardens, around the corner from the Hurricanes’ home field. Yearby was raised a few neighborhoods south in Liberty City. When they joined together as high school sophomores, they instantly recognized something special.
Related: Florida State Preview and Prediction
They even went to Central coach Telly Lockette and stated a goal: “We’re going to be the best two running backs you ever coached,” Cook said.
Few metro areas in the nation produce as much football talent as Miami. Every year, Division I rosters contain some 350 players who hail from its 60 high school programs. But Cook and Yearby weren’t just city legends. Veteran recruiting analysts like Larry Blustein and Scout.com’s Jamie Newberg consider Cook and Yearby two of the best high school running backs the state of Florida has ever produced.
To have both in the same backfield? Unheard of.
After backing up future NFL back Devonta Freeman as a freshman, Yearby became the first sophomore in Miami-Dade County history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. He finished high school with 5,592 yards; had he not broken his left fibula in a regional semifinal his senior year, he would have had two games to gain the 104 yards needed to break Bobby Washington’s county record.
Cook played fewer games, having made his varsity debut as a sophomore and missing half of a season because of shoulder surgery, but he finished with 4,267 yards. His yards-per-carry average broke the county record held by Johnson, who went on to earn All-America honors at Miami.
Related: Miami Hurricanes Preview and Prediction
Their combined rushing yardage would rank seventh all-time in high school history. In four years with Yearby (three of them with Cook), Central went 53–5.
“We were just unselfish,” Cook says. “Whoever was hot that night, we’d let them put on a show. Most of the time, we were both hot, so Joe would go to quarterback and I’d go to running back. We’d never take it too serious. We’d just run. We could run forever.”
In his senior year, Cook created a lasting memory. In the 2013 Class 6A state title game in Orlando, he ran for 223 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries. He swapped his No. 4 jersey for the No. 3 of Yearby, who sat on the bench in a cast, cheering him on.
“You don’t find too many guys just like you,” Cook says. “You cherish those guys. Joe’s going to be my brother forever.”
“When we first got together, we clicked,” Yearby says. “He knows everything about me. I know everything about him. We balance out each other.”
At a get-together in February, former Hurricanes star Clinton Portis talked about the pair with his former position coach, Don Soldinger. Portis saw them in the 2012 Class 6A state championship, when they combined for 251 total yards and four rushing touchdowns, two apiece.
“I couldn’t tell the difference between them,” Portis said. “Every time they had the ball, it was a gash — 40 yards, 50 yards.”
Soldinger, who once coached a UM backfield featuring future NFL Pro Bowlers in Portis, Frank Gore and Willis McGahee, was similarly impressed when he watched Cook and Yearby play on a hot Friday night.
“It was impossible to handle them,” Soldinger says. “One would come in — boom, 20-yard run. The other would come in — boom, 35-yard run. I remember saying, ‘Boy, if Miami could get both of those guys, they’d be something special.’”
For a time, it was unclear whether the Hurricanes would land either. Yearby committed to Florida State in May of his sophomore year. Cook pledged to Clemson a month later. When offensive coordinator James Coley left the Seminoles for the Canes in January 2013, he pulled Yearby with him. Soon after, Cook flipped to Florida. Jimbo Fisher later lured him to Tallahassee.
They teased the possibility of an on-campus reunion, but those close to them say that was never a possibility. Besides, the debate is more fun when they are opponents.
• “We wouldn’t trade Joe for anybody,” UM coach Al Golden says.
• “Cook is the more explosive of the pair,” says Newberg. “I see Yearby as the Barry Sanders type. You can never get a clean shot.”
• “Joe’s not as fast as Dalvin, but not a lot of people are,” Coley says. “Joe’s got more wiggle than Dalvin.”
• “You want to compare by pure speed? It’s Dalvin,” says Lockette, now Oregon State’s running backs coach. “But Joe is not far behind.”
Cook’s Seminoles got the upper hand last year, finishing 13–1 with a blowout loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Yearby’s Hurricanes went a disappointing 6–7 and ended with four losses in a row, including an Independence Bowl defeat at the hands of South Carolina. Yearby says his main goal is to infuse a fractured locker room with the “championship mentality” he and Cook shared.
Miami’s slide started with a Nov. 15 home loss to FSU. On the turf of Sun Life Stadium, a 10-minute drive from Cook’s home, he grabbed hold of the rivalry for the first time. Late in the fourth quarter with the Seminoles down three points, Cook lined up 26 yards from the end zone. He was confident he would score on his next touch. He knew exactly how he would celebrate, too.
With his right hand, he would touch his thumb to his forefinger. That’s a gesture of Miami pride; the three fingers and circle of the right hand and the five fingers of the left signal “305,” the local area code.
Cook drifted right, took the handoff from Winston and slipped through a series of Hurricanes defenders like a ghost. With the game on the line, Yearby says, Cook is “like Michael Jordan.” He eluded one tackle, then another, then another, until he crossed the goal line. In a perfect bit of symmetry, the clock read 3:05. Cook spread his arms wide, letting cheers and boos rain down.
“I always wanted to do that,” he says. “It was a moment I will never forget.”
Neither will Yearby, who says he’s checking off days on his calendar until Oct. 10. This year’s game is in Tallahassee. He says if he scores a touchdown or two, he’ll throw up the “305.” Further playing his part in their newfound rivalry, Yearby jokes that he’s going to meet with his coaches that week and give them a detailed scouting report on Cook.
After all, few know him better.
New Bears head coach John Fox and his staff have an infinitely easier task than the one Marc Trestman undertook in 2013 and failed to achieve. Fox will not be burdened by lofty expectations. He inherits a 5–11 team that isn’t realistically expected to contend in Year 1. Trestman took over a 10–6 team that barely missed the playoffs and was considered, right or wrong, to be primed for a deep playoff run. Never happened. Under Trestman, the Bears regressed to 8–8 and then to the 5–11 disaster that terminated his employment and ushered in Fox, whose last three Broncos teams went 38–10 in the regular season and won the AFC West in each of his four seasons. But Fox failed to produce the postseason success expected by team president John Elway and was replaced by Gary Kubiak.
In Chicago, Fox has the additional advantage of a much more accomplished and highly regarded staff than what Trestman was able to cobble together.
Fox has an added obstacle since the Bears will be transitioning to a 3-4 defense for the first time ever, but he’s got highly respected coordinator Vic Fangio overseeing the conversion.
Adam Gase was one of the hottest head-coaching candidates in the offseason, interviewing for top jobs with four teams, including the Bears, but he settled for re-upping with Fox. Gase spent the previous six years in Denver, including four under Fox, the last two as offensive coordinator.
He inherits quarterback Jay Cutler, who will be playing for his fifth offensive coordinator as he enters his seventh season in Chicago. Cutler’s inability to play up to his potential is the major reason the Bears’ offensive coordinator job has been a revolving door of men who have tried but never succeeded in getting Cutler to avoid the mistakes and inconsistencies that have plagued his career. Last season was no different. Cutler’s 88.6 passer rating was the second best of his career, but he led the NFL with 24 turnovers, including 18 interceptions, which tied for second most in his nine-year career.
All-purpose, workhorse running back Matt Forté enters his contract year wanting an extension that he’s unlikely to get. He turns 30 in December and, despite becoming only the second player in NFL history to gain at least 1,000 yards rushing while catching at least 100 passes last year, he is not getting better. He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry last season, his lowest number by far in five years, and he averaged a pedestrian 7.9 yards on his 102 receptions. Forté had one run of 20 yards or longer last season on 266 carries. Cutler had three on just 39 attempts.
One of new GM Ryan Pace’s first major personnel moves was to send productive but distracting wide receiver Brandon Marshall packing. Pace sent the five-time Pro Bowler and a seventh-round draft pick to the Jets and was content to get just a fifth-round pick in return. The Bears used the seventh overall selection in the draft on his replacement, Kevin White.
The Bears also signed free agent Eddie Royal, a quick, veteran slot receiver who gives them something they’ve been missing. Royal had a bounce-back season with the Chargers in 2014, posting his best numbers since his rookie year in 2008 with the Broncos, when his quarterback was, yep, Cutler. The Bears had high expectations for long, lanky Marquess Wilson a year ago, but a fractured collarbone in training camp limited him to seven games.
Alshon Jeffery is the go-to guy with Marshall gone and White a bit of a project. Jeffery has nice size, a wide catch radius and the ability to win jump balls downfield. He has 174 receptions for 2,554 yards and 17 touchdowns in the previous two seasons, but it remains to be seen how he handles the No. 1 role without Marshall around.
Tight end Martellus Bennett stayed away from a voluntary minicamp, wanting a new contract just halfway through his four-year, $20.4 million deal. Difficult as it is to believe, Bennett may be more self-involved than Marshall, but he turned in a career year in 2014.
The offensive line, not great to begin with, was devastated by injuries. The guard tandem of Kyle Long and Matt Slauson is excellent, but left tackle Jermon Bushrod’s best years appear to be behind him, and the Bears need better play at right tackle than they got from Jordan Mills. Will Montgomery seems like a stopgap solution at center. Michael Ola, a rookie last year with CFL experience, showed exceptional versatility, starting games at every O-line position except center.
Fox and Pace downplay the effect that a scheme change will have on a roster built to play a 4-3, because they’ll play 4-3 on some passing downs, making the defense more of a hybrid. Defensive linemen Ray McDonald and Jarvis Jenkins were signed based on their 3-4 experience, and 336-pound Eddie Goldman was drafted 39th overall to play nose tackle. Unfortunately, McDonald was released in May following another arrest on domestic violence-related charges, the same situation that led to his suspension and eventual release when was with the 49ers last season.
The Bears’ biggest free-agent acquisition was 280-pound Pernell McPhee, who is primarily a linebacker but has the versatility to play almost anywhere in the front seven on a 3-4. McPhee was a key backup to superstars Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil last year with the Ravens, getting 7.5 sacks while playing 49 percent of the snaps. The Bears are convinced that the 26-year-old is an ascending player whose numbers will rise proportionately with increased playing time.
The key to the conversion will be how former 4-3 defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young adapt to playing outside linebacker in a 3-4. Young seems like a natural, but he’s coming off a late-December Achilles injury. Houston will be trying to bounce back from a forgettable 2014 that ended in Week 8 when he suffered a torn ACL celebrating his only sack. The Bears also added inside linebackers Sam Acho and Mason Foster to their holdover collection of run-of-the-mill linebackers.
Veteran safety Antrel Rolle should upgrade a position that has been a weakness for years, but he’ll be 33 before the season ends. Cornerback is thin: Last year’s first-round pick Kyle Fuller could be a centerpiece, but he had an up-and-down rookie season, and veteran Tim Jennings slumped badly after getting a big contract following back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons. In early June, the Bears signed veteran Tracy Porter to a one-year deal to boost both the depth and experience at the position.
There’s no reason to believe that Robbie Gould, the seventh-most-accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history, won’t bounce back from the worst season of his 10-year career. Gould hit a career-low 75 percent of his 12 attempts and missed the final four games with a quad injury. Punter Pat O’Donnell was a bit inconsistent as a rookie, but he’s a keeper. The long-snapper job will probably go to free-agent addition Thomas Gafford. Late-season veteran pickup Marc Mariani upgraded the kick return game in 2014 and is the leading contender to handle punt returns.
The Bears have been to the postseason once in eight years, and hardly anyone believes that this is a one-year fix. In his two other head-coaching stops, Fox has taken the Panthers (2003) and the Broncos (2013) to the Super Bowl. But neither of those teams was in the same division with Aaron Rodgers.
Prediction: 4th in NFC North
There’s a better chance of Mike McCarthy having a training-camp movie night showing of “Remember the Titans” on a VHS tape than there is of the Green Bay Packers coach pinning his team’s motivational hopes on its gut-wrenching loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.
In the wake of their 28–22 overtime loss to the Seahawks — in which the Packers held a 16–0 lead at halftime and had the ball with a 19–7 lead with less than five minutes to play in regulation — McCarthy insists he will not use the loss as the basis for his annual theme, something he presents to the players every year at the start of training camp.
“(Come) hell or high water, we’re not going to run out there and come up with some slogan, ‘Remember Seattle!’” McCarthy says. “I’m not going to do that.”
There’s no doubt that the loss, with a berth in Super Bowl XLIX on the line, was heartbreaking — arguably the worst in franchise history, given the stakes and everything that went wrong in a short period of time.
So how do the Packers channel their disappointment into something positive going forward?
“That’s the million-dollar question right there,” says quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who won his second career NFL MVP award in 2014. “We had a great opportunity right in front of us to do something special. That’s what makes it hard.”
It all starts with Rodgers. Not only did he throw for 4,381 yards with 38 touchdown passes and just five interceptions (112.2 rating) last season, but he also played through a torn left calf that initially occurred at Tampa Bay on Dec. 21 and plagued him the rest of the year. Back to full health in the prime of his career at age 31, there’s no reason to believe one of the league’s best quarterbacks won’t keep putting up those numbers — especially with the talent around him.
By re-signing wide receiver Randall Cobb (91 receptions, 1,287 yards, 12 touchdowns) and starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga in the spring, the Packers bring back everyone on an offense that led the NFL in scoring last season. Not only does Cobb return, but so do Jordy Nelson, who set the single-season franchise record for receiving yards (1,519) and caught a career-high 98 passes; and third-year running back Eddie Lacy, who has put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons during his first two years in the league. Lacy was healthier and more efficient (4.6-yard average) while not altering his bruising, physical style. Backup James Starks provides a more-than-capable No. 2 option in the backfield.
The offense should be even more potent if wide receiver Davante Adams, a second-round pick a year ago, and tight end Richard Rodgers, a third-round pick, make the Year 1 to Year 2 jump that the draft-and-develop Packers demand of their young, up-and-coming players. Adams flashed his ability with big games against New England in the regular season (six receptions, 121 yards) and against Dallas in the playoffs (seven receptions, 117 yards, TD) and has the look of another smart Ted Thompson pick at receiver. Rodgers the tight end, meanwhile, started slowly but caught 12 passes in the final four games (including playoffs), as his connection with Rodgers the quarterback — no relation — grew.
The consensus — from McCarthy to Aaron Rodgers to the offensive linemen themselves — was that the offensive success started with high-caliber play and consistency up front. Of the 18 games the Packers played, the same quintet — left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Josh Sitton, rookie center Corey Linsley, right guard T.J. Lang and Bulaga — started 17 of them. Bulaga, who’d suffered back-to-back season-ending injuries the previous two years, missed one game with a knee injury, but by season’s end he’d regained the form he had in 2012. Linsley, meanwhile, was a godsend as a rookie fifth-round pick who played every offensive snap, while resident tough guys Lang and Sitton played through leg injuries late in the year. This group will take on all comers and won’t cede the title of the NFL’s best line to the Dallas Cowboys.
The Packers had the league’s worst run defense until, in desperation, McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers moved four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews inside, where he played primarily in the nickel defense. It was a stroke of genius that saved the season and turned the unit around. While Matthews is hoping to spend less time in the middle this year — with the fourth-round selection of Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan and the coaches’ high hopes for Carl Bradford after essentially a redshirt year, Matthews could get his wish — having No. 52 inside will still be part of the scheme. He had 11 sacks and made his fifth Pro Bowl in that hybrid role, so he can be effective splitting his time.
Matthews’ move was made possible by the rarest of moves by Thompson — the signing of a big-name veteran. Outside linebacker Julius Peppers had a turn-back-the-clock season, recording seven sacks while intercepting two passes, both of which he returned for touchdowns. At age 35, it’s possible he could fall off the table, but he certainly doesn’t look like a player at the end of the line.
Up front, defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion came back on one-year deals and should anchor the middle. The two key players, though, are 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones, who has been a disappointment in his first two seasons, and Mike Daniels, who has had a greater impact each season. Youngsters Josh Boyd and Khyri Thornton have done little to this point and must contribute more.
The safety position has gone from a weakness to a strength with an improved Morgan Burnett and 2014 first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but now there are questions at cornerback with the departures of starter Tramon Williams and trusted backup Davon House. Casey Hayward is penciled in as the starter opposite Sam Shields, but nickel back Micah Hyde and draft picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins will have something to say.
Veteran kicker Mason Crosby is coming off two excellent seasons after struggling in 2012, while punter Tim Masthay had perhaps his worst season when the bottom fell out during the second half of the year. While Hyde has been excellent as a punt returner, the kickoff return game was abysmal and needs a boost. Perhaps rookie third-round pick Ty Montgomery, the all-time kickoff return leader in Stanford history, is the answer.
Four straight division titles are nothing to sneeze at, but the annual postseason disappointments have gotten tougher to bear for the Packers — the hardest being the way they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Seattle last January. With the offense intact and the defense still having room for improvement, the Packers deserve to be in the Super Bowl 50 conversation as long as Rodgers is healthy. The biggest question mark is coaching. McCarthy relinquished the play-calling duties during the offseason, so if the offense is still potent and allows McCarthy to pay more attention to the defense and horrendous special teams, it could be a game-changer.
Prediction: 1st in NFC North
Coach Jim Caldwell didn’t do exactly what he promised in his first year in Detroit. The new boss was supposed to unlock the Lions’ offensive potential, but instead he unleashed arguably the NFL’s most ferocious defense. He forged better team chemistry, but couldn’t keep his best player from bolting in free agency. He returned the Lions to the playoffs with an 11-win season — the franchise’s best record since 1991 — but he also watched as his team blew a fourth-quarter lead and, after the refs picked up a flag, handed a wild-card playoff game to the Dallas Cowboys.
Still, there was something to build on, even with one of the cornerstone pieces of the Lions’ massive rebuilding effort — Ndamukong Suh — taking his talents to South Beach. Caldwell’s steady, straightforward approach has made a difference with a once-reckless bunch, on and off the field. And there’s plenty of playmaking talent returning on both sides of the ball. But the next step is where the Lions — 20 years removed from their last back-to-back playoff berths — have historically stumbled.
The Matthew Stafford 2.0 reboot wasn’t an unqualified success. But with the arrival of a quarterback whisperer in Caldwell, new coordinator Joe Lombardi and position coach Jim Bob Cooter, the changes were evident. Stafford, who has started every game the last four seasons, improved his footwork and his completion percentage, cut down on interceptions (from 19 to 12) and still led five game-winning, fourth-quarter drives.
But he clearly struggled with a more conservative mandate in a new offense that borrowed heavily from Lombardi’s voluminous Saints playbook. “I thought that he played smart football,” Lombardi says, “and sometimes to a fault.” This season, Lombardi says he’ll encourage Stafford to take more risks, and more shots down the field.
He has to, with one of the best pass-catching tandems in the league in Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. The Lions were one of five NFL teams with multiple 1,000-yard receivers last season. And after a disappointing rookie season, tight end Eric Ebron — the 10th overall pick in 2014 — is expected to play a much bigger role in the passing game this fall.
But all that’s dependent on an overhauled offensive line that allowed 45 sacks — a career-high for Stafford — and a running game that ranked 28th in the NFL a year ago. In the backfield, rookie second-round pick Ameer Abdullah, a hard-working, productive runner at Nebraska, replaces oft-injured Reggie Bush in a tandem with Joique Bell. Theo Riddick, a pass-catching threat, figures to get more snaps as well.
The Lions invested a first-round pick in Duke’s Laken Tomlinson, a massive run-blocking guard who draws favorable comparisons to the Lions’ Larry Warford. Tomlinson will replace departed vet Rob Sims at left guard, while a healthy Warford returns on the right, flanking second-year pro Travis Swanson, who steps in for Dominic Raiola, the Lions’ starting center for the last 14 seasons. Manny Ramirez, a former Lions draft pick acquired during the draft from Denver, is back as veteran insurance on the interior. And Riley Reiff remains the left tackle for now, with LaAdrian Waddle (coming off ACL surgery) and Cornelius Lucas on the right.
Suh is gone, and though the Lions replaced him with five-time Pro Bowl tackle Haloti Ngata in a trade with Baltimore, they’ll be hard-pressed to match last season’s dominance up front. With Suh commanding double teams on every play, the Lions led the league in run defense. They also recorded 42 sacks, with 34 coming from the defensive line.
But it’s not just Suh who left. The Lions also let Nick Fairley, who missed half the season with a knee injury, walk in free agency, along with primary backup C.J. Mosley and end George Johnson. Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones are the returning starters at end. In Ansah the Lions believe they have a Pro Bowl-caliber right end who’ll post double-digit sack totals, provided he can stay healthy. Jones offers inside-out versatility, and rookie Gabe Wright, a high-motor player from Auburn, will get thrown into the tackle rotation immediately with Ngata and Tyrunn Walker, an under-the-radar free-agent pickup from New Orleans.
The one key contributor the Lions did keep last winter, though, was coordinator Teryl Austin, a rising star who interviewed for multiple head-coaching vacancies. His aggressive, blitzing schemes brought the best out of a back seven that used to be the Lions’ Achilles heel.
DeAndre Levy emerged as one of the NFL’s best outside linebackers, and sure-tackling Stephen Tulloch returns in the middle after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. The Lions had big plans for 2014 second-rounder Kyle Van Noy as a hybrid pass rusher, but a sports hernia derailed his season. Expect to see more of that role this fall, with Tahir Whitehead also factoring in.
The safeties — led by All-Pro Glover Quin — led the NFL with 11 interceptions. And though James Ihedigbo was absent at the start of offseason workouts over a contract dispute, the secondary returns largely intact. Rashean Mathis returns as a steady, savvy vet opposite Darius Slay, who enjoyed a breakout sophomore season. Injuries proved costly at nickel back, and both Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson remain question marks this fall. But the Lions have added depth there, signing Josh Wilson and drafting Alex Carter and Quandre Diggs. And they often went with three-safety looks last year thanks to the versatility of backups Isa Abdul-Quddus and Don Carey.
The Lions’ kicking game might’ve cost them a division title. They missed eight of their first nine field-goal attempts from 40-plus yards last season, and all three kicks in a 17–14 home loss to Buffalo. They shuffled through two kickers — first rookie draft pick Nate Freese, then Alex Henery — before signing free agent Matt Prater coming off an alcohol suspension. Only then did things settle down, which is why re-signing Prater was an offseason priority. Punter Sam Martin was a goat in the playoff loss at Dallas — his fourth-quarter shank set up the Cowboys’ winning drive — but he ranked among the league’s best in net punting and kickoffs. The coverage units struggled all year, though, and the Lions lacked explosiveness in the return game, so in comes a fiery new coordinator in Joe Marciano. And in Abdullah, the Lions believe they’ve drafted a player who’ll contribute as a kick returner as well, possibly supplanting Jeremy Ross.
When the Lions made the playoffs in 2011, they acted like they’d arrived, only to discover they hadn’t with a 4–12 record after a disastrous offseason full of risky draft picks and off-field trouble. This time, they’re not standing pat, with major changes in the trenches. And in Caldwell, they’ve got a well-respected coach who GM Martin Mayhew insists “makes a difference.” With a brutal early-season schedule, it may not take long to find out if he’s right.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC North
Young Teddy Bridgewater’s unusual composure and good old Mike Zimmer’s as-expected defensive acumen gave the Vikings a renewed sense of direction despite their 7–9 finish a year ago. Now comes the next step, which the Vikings will take with the full-on power of Adrian Peterson’s unbridled return to the NFL.
Bridgewater went 5–4 in his last nine games as a rookie quarterback, and Zimmer orchestrated a turnaround from last in scoring defense to 11th in his first year as a head coach. And they did it with 2012 NFL MVP Peterson missing all but the season opener as he dealt with the law and the league over injuries he inflicted while disciplining his 4-year-old son. So, despite Peterson’s reservations about returning to a team and a city he feels didn’t support him initially, the Vikings held him to his contract because they believe he can help carry Bridgewater past the verge of being something special.
“I think Teddy’s play gives fans hope,” Zimmer says. “Hopefully, they also like how we compete. There’s no question what Adrian gives us. But we’ve got a long way to go.”
Bridgewater didn’t become a starter until Week 3, so he hasn’t played with Peterson or enjoyed the steady diet of eight and nine defenders crowding the box. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner, for one, can’t wait to get started.
Turner has had decades of success running an offense that melds John Robinson’s running game with the old Air Coryell route-numbering system. He’s expecting a return to greatness for the 30-year-old Peterson and a significant residual effect on Bridgewater and the play-action, deep-ball attack. That part of the offense struggled last year until Charles Johnson, who was claimed off of Cleveland’s practice squad, emerged late as the No. 1 receiver by default.
General manager Rick Spielman executed a low-risk trade, sending his extra fifth-round pick to Miami for moody receiver Mike Wallace. His contract contains no guaranteed money beyond this season, and room for his $9.9 million cap hit was created painlessly with the release of Greg Jennings, whose $11 million cap figure was outlandish for an aging player who could no longer consistently separate from defenders. If Wallace plays like he did in Pittsburgh, when he was the league’s fastest deep threat, the Vikings got a steal. If Wallace pouts like he did in Miami, the Vikings can remove the cancer before it infects teammates, particularly receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who took a big step backward last year and has been given numerous warnings to take his job more seriously.
The offensive line has been an overrated liability. Right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt return from injuries, while the pressure is intense on left tackle Matt Kalil, who blamed last year’s awful performances on preseason knee surgery. Left guard is undetermined and a big question mark. Veteran interior backup Joe Berger, who started nine games at right guard last year, is the safety net and an upgrade over Charlie Johnson, who was released. David Yankey is the preferred candidate, but the 2014 fifth-round pick wasn’t strong enough to play as a rookie. Center John Sullivan had one of his finest seasons a year ago.
At tight end, Turner still has high hopes for Kyle Rudolph, who has prototypical size and enough speed to be one of the league’s tougher mismatches. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to nine games last season and 17 over the past two years.
Meanwhile, the sense of excitement about the offense is rooted in the popular belief that the Vikings finally found a franchise quarterback. Poise, touch and adequate arm strength contributed to Bridgewater posting the third-best completion percentage (64.4) by a rookie in NFL history.
Zimmer’s first priority last year was transforming a reactionary Cover-2 scheme into an aggressive unit that attacked from multiple fronts and blitz packages. Initial results were encouraging as the unit ranked seventh in pass defense, but the 25th-ranked run defense disappointed often and needed more time for linemen to adjust to an unfamiliar scheme.
Four defenders have shown All-Pro potential, and all are younger than 28. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr (23) was a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate before suffering a knee injury. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (25) was shadowing No. 1 receivers with a swagger during a breakout season under Zimmer, a noted defensive backs whisperer. Safety Harrison Smith (26) was the team’s biggest Pro Bowl snub. And end Everson Griffen (27) had a career-high 12 sacks while justifying the team’s decision to let Jared Allen walk.
Spielman used the draft to add two more likely starters in cornerback Trae Waynes and Eric Kendricks, who should become the team’s first three-down middle linebacker in years.
Backup tackle Tom Johnson posted a career-high 6.5 sacks as part of a deep rotation. Meanwhile, starter Sharrif Floyd had 43 quarterback hurries and will enjoy a breakout season once he stays healthy enough.
At linebacker, Barr is a three-down star with no limitations. Chad Greenway, 32, returns for a 10th season at outside linebacker. The coaches still value his experience and leadership but are likely to give Kendricks his reps in the nickel.
In the secondary, Waynes gives the Vikings a big cover corner, a must against the big receivers in the NFC North. With Waynes on board, Captain Munnerlyn can slide inside exclusively as the nickel back. Meanwhile, at strong safety, Robert Blanton won the job by default last summer but didn’t establish himself as a long-term solution. The preferred candidate to win the job this year is Antone Exum Jr., a second-year player who was converted to safety a year ago.
Two former Bengals — cornerback Terence Newman, who will be 37 when the season starts, and safety Taylor Mays — could start or contribute this season for Zimmer, their former defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.
Kicker Blair Walsh’s accuracy was a career-low 74.3 percent as the Vikings moved outdoors to their temporary new home last season. But don’t fret. The 2012 first-team All-Pro remains a viable scoring threat from 50 yards and farther. And the team is moving back indoors in 2016. Punter Jeff Locke enters his third season still needing more consistency and precision on punts inside the 10-yard line. Patterson, who was All-Pro first team as a rookie kick returner in 2013, regressed there as well. Punt returner Marcus Sherels remains a safety blanket, but rookie Stefon Diggs could push Sherels for his roster spot.
Peterson could challenge 2,000 yards, while Bridgewater and the defense each hope to take another step. But whether the team can close the gap in its own division will be the big question. After all, the Vikings were 0–4 against Green Bay and Detroit and were the only team in the league not to beat an opponent with a winning record. And their schedule gets tougher with the NFC West and AFC West in the rotation. The Vikings are heading in the right direction and should be a playoff contender. Getting there and winning their first postseason game since the 2009 season could be another matter.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC North
Two of the biggest blindside hits fifth-year quarterback Joel Stave has absorbed during his career at Wisconsin occurred off the field.
The first came in December 2012 when news broke that coach Bret Bielema was leaving the Badgers for Arkansas. Two years and six days later, Bielema’s replacement, Gary Andersen, sent shock waves through Madison and beyond by bolting for Oregon State.
For a 23-season stretch starting in 1990, Wisconsin had two coaches: Barry Alvarez for 16 seasons, followed by Bielema, Alvarez’s hand-picked successor after he slid into the athletic director’s seat. The program was the picture of stability.
Now, Stave and some other veterans on the roster are set to work under their third coach in four seasons. That figure doesn’t include Alvarez twice filling in as interim coach in bowl games. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind here,” Stave says.
The first person Alvarez thought of after Andersen delivered his bombshell was Paul Chryst. A week later, Chryst was officially hired by his alma mater. Alvarez can sleep easy at night knowing Chryst isn’t going to surprise him with a phone call that he’s leaving for greener pastures: Chryst grew up in Madison, played for the Badgers in the 1980s and had two stints as an assistant coach at Wisconsin, including a successful run as the program’s offensive coordinator from 2005-11.
“With Coach Chryst coming back, you can tell he wants to be here,” senior linebacker Joe Schobert says. “This is his dream job. I think he’ll be here for a long time. He certainly seems like he wants to be here.”
Related: Buy the 2015 Big Ten Football Preview
• • •
That Bielema and Andersen didn’t share that same feeling has been difficult to process for Alvarez and the Wisconsin fanbase. Alvarez had several chances to leave after turning the Badgers from a doormat in the Big Ten to a program that won three conference and Rose Bowl titles in a span of seven seasons, but he turned down each opportunity and continued to build his legacy in Madison. He hired Bielema with the idea he’d be in it for the long haul, and he felt the same way about Andersen.
“When I’ve hired people I’ve always thought this is a destination job, but people change,” Alvarez says. “People don’t always see things the same way or have different visions, and that’s OK. That’s what makes the world go ’round.”
Bielema’s departure was particularly painful to Alvarez because the two were close. Alvarez didn’t even know Bielema was flirting with Arkansas until the deal was done. While Bielema’s move was stunning, it was understandable on some levels.
Setting up base in a region that ruled college football for the better part of a decade — at least until Urban Meyer resurfaced at Ohio State — gave Bielema access to a fertile recruiting area and more money for himself and his assistants. Yes, it’d be difficult to navigate through the powerful SEC West Division, but Bielema figured he had a better chance of winning a national title with the Razorbacks than the Badgers.
Related: Big Ten 2015 Predictions
Andersen, on the other hand, left people scratching their heads with his decision to leave Wisconsin for Oregon State, which has reached double-digit wins only twice in program history, hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl in five decades and, oh yeah, has to compete with a national powerhouse located 50 miles down the road in Eugene.
So why did Andersen choose to leave Wisconsin on the heels of leading the Badgers to a Big Ten West Division title with an impressive recruiting class on the way? A big reason was his frustration with Wisconsin’s admission policies, which are more rigid than some other Big Ten programs.
“It’s been well (documented) there were some kids I couldn’t get in school,” Andersen told CBSSports.com. “That was highly frustrating to me. I lost some guys, and I told them I wasn’t going to lose them. I think they did what they were supposed to do (academically), and they still couldn’t get in. That was really hard to deal with.”
At his previous stop, Utah State, a significant chunk of Andersen’s roster was filled with junior college transfers. Wisconsin had had only a handful of junior college players under Alvarez and Bielema. There were also high school prospects whom Andersen had to turn away due to academics. Missing out on one in particular — highly touted defensive tackle Craig Evans, from the Madison suburb of Sun Prairie — “really bothered” Andersen, Alvarez told the Wisconsin State Journal. Not only did Evans, who had orally committed to the Badgers, change his mind when it became apparent he wouldn’t be admitted to Wisconsin, but he also ended up at Big Ten rival Michigan State instead.
Related: Wisconsin 2015 Preview and Prediction
“That’s not Wisconsin’s fault,” Andersen, speaking of his old school’s admission policies in general, told CBSSports.com. “That’s Wisconsin’s deal. ... I want to surround myself with those kids I can get in school.”
Chryst, for his part, embraces the academic aspect to Wisconsin. Part of that comfort level had to do with the fact that he lived it, both as a student-athlete and as an assistant. Chryst views Wisconsin’s academic profile as a strength, not an obstruction.
“I think I believe it because I’ve been around it,” Chryst says. “Now, I think I’m still finding out, how has it changed? Because nothing really ever stays the same. But I believe in the concept of it. It will reduce your pool of recruits. But all that matters in recruiting is that those guys are the right fit for this place and they can have success. And I think those types of guys that find Wisconsin appealing because of the football and the academics and the town and all the things that go with it, those that truly know it and embrace it, that’s a good starting point.”
• • •
A visitor to Chryst’s office in mid-April, four months after he took the Wisconsin job, might have thought he was on his way out the door. The shelves were practically empty, and so were the walls for the most part, giving the room a sparse feeling.
There was also the matter of Chryst spending the spring sleeping in an extra room at his mother Patty’s home. “You picture this 50-year-old guy down in the basement,” Chryst says.
But don’t be fooled. Chryst’s wife Robin stayed behind in Pittsburgh until the couple’s son Danny finished his senior year in high school. She planned to relocate to Madison in June, when the high school sweethearts could begin the process of moving into their new home.
As for the lack of decorations in his office, part of that is due to Chryst’s no-frills personality, and part of it is simply a matter of priorities. Making his base camp more aesthetically pleasing falls somewhere near the bottom of a long to-do list during the early stages of taking over a program that has been to a bowl game in 20 of the past 22 seasons, with nine double-digit win totals and six trips to the Rose Bowl during that stretch.
As coaching transitions go, this one was certainly made easier by the fact that Chryst knows the lay of the land on campus, has a good working relationship with the high school coaches in the state and doesn’t need introductions to boosters and most of the school’s administration. People are familiar with Chryst. “Except for the ones that matter the most,” he says, “and that’s the players. So we’re still trying to figure that out. I think that’s one of the things we had to accomplish in the spring — us knowing them, and equally them getting to know us.”
One advantage for Chryst: Veterans such as Stave who were around in 2011, Chryst’s final season as offensive coordinator, could provide a good scouting report on their new coach to the younger players on the roster. It’s easy for players’ trust to be damaged when they’ve been burned by coaches leaving for other programs, but Alvarez quickly found someone who didn’t view the Wisconsin job as a stepping stone.
“He loves this place,” senior fullback Derek Watt says of Chryst, who went 19–19 in three seasons at Pittsburgh. “It’s home for him. I think he’s focused on the here and the now and is just going to do everything he can for this program. I don’t think we have to worry too much about where his mindset is at.”
The greatest coach in NFL history — the architect of the Green Bay Packers and the namesake of the league’s championship trophy — died 45 years ago this September.
Though more than four decades have passed since Lombardi last coached a game, he remains a giant in the game’s history and an icon for leadership in and out of the sports world.
At the time of this 1989 remembrance of Lombardi, the coach was 20 years removed from his final game as head coach of the Washington Redskins.
The writer, Tim Cohane, knew Lombardi at Fordham University, where Cohane was a sports information director and Lombardi was a graduate and an assistant coach. Cohane, the sports editor of Look magazine from 1944-65, shared stories of Lombardi’s drive from early in his career, his struggle to find his first head coaching job and his rarely seen humorous side.
The Lombardi I Knew
A Block of Granite with a Soul
By Tim Cohane
Originally appeared in Athlon’s 1989 Pro Football Preview
Ironically, since his Green Bay dynasty would do most to perpetuate the legend of the Seven Blocks of Granite, Vince Lombardi was the least publicized man of that immortal Fordham line.
As Fordham’s sports information director two years ahead of Lombardi — graduated in 1935, two years ahead of Lombardi — I often heard coach Jim Crowley say, “He is the most underrated player on our team. Smart. You never have to tell him anything twice. Dedicated. He always gives 100 percent. And tough.”
In one game with Pittsburgh, a lethal elbow caused him to play most of 60 minutes with a mouthful of blood. Afterward, Dr. Gerry Carroll, Fordham’s team physician, sewed 30 stitches. In a spring practice scrimmage, a blow that punctured the wall of Lombardi’s stomach forced him to live for weeks on cream and poached eggs. But he kept scrimmaging. He also donated his teeth.
Looking back on it 30 years later, Lombardi mused: “It was nothing compared to what the Packers have played with. Dave Hanner was an outstanding defensive tackle against the Bears 10 days after an appendectomy. We had to tear the jersey from Bart Starr, whose shoulder and ribs were racked with pain. Offensive guard Jerry Kramer played with enough serious injuries to make the medical books.
“And we had not copyright on playing with pain. All pros do it. The game is not for men with low pain tolerance. Nor is it for those with a temperament unfit to accept punishment and discipline. To weed out the unfit is a coach’s duty to the fit.”
Lombardi’s own attitude toward pain was matched by his dedication as a scholar; the deepest roots in his ability to motivate lay in his talent for teaching. It became clear when he was a dean’s list student in the Bachelor of Arts course, graduating cum laude.
The respect for discipline, which he inherited from a father perhaps even stronger-minded than himself, was further molded at West Point under Lombardi’s idol, Coach Earl H. “Red” Blaik, whom he worked under as an offensive coordinator from 1949 through ’53. “If you think you see a military precision in the Packers,” Lombardi said, “you are right. It came from ‘The Old Man’ through me.”
Blaik and Lombardi first came together by a coincidence in which I had a part. As sports editor of LOOK, I was at the Biltmore Hotel in New York for the 1948 Eastern College Athletic Conference meeting and went to dinner with Blaik, whom I had first met at Dartmouth 14 years before.
“Sid Gillman, our line coach, is leaving to become the head coach at Cincinnati,” Blaik said. “I found out this year that we need two line coaches for two-platoon football. I’ve got the defensive man lined up: Murray Warmath. But I’m looking for an offensive man. Know anybody?”
“This is strange,” I said. “About two weeks ago I had a call about a young fellow who is an assistant at Fordham and wants to move ahead. He was a smart, competitive guard there for Jim Crowley. His position coach was Frank Leahy. He was also an honor student.
“As a high school coach at St. Cecilia in Englewood, N.J., his teams won seven championships in eight years. He also taught Latin, chemistry and physics. He’s about 35. He’s smart, tough, a madman for work and a born leader. I think he’s your kind of cat. His name is Lombardi. Vincent Lombardi.”
“Send him up to see me,” said Blaik.
From the start Lombardi impressed Blaik. Curious, I phoned Blaik for his reaction, and he delivered to me the best sum-up of Lombardi I ever heard: “He’s a rough soul.”
In 1949, with Blaik delegating offensive responsibility to Lombardi, the Cadets won the Lambert Trophy (champions of the East) with a 9-0 record highlighted by snapping Michigan’s 25-game winning streak, at Ann Arbor, and by defeating Navy 38-0 in a game that was a clinical showcase of two-platoon efficiency. Blaik was quietly delighted with “Conquering Longbeard,” as the Latin roots for Vincent Lombardi translate.
“But he has a vile temper,” Blaik said. “He becomes profane on the field.” Blaik lectured him: “We just don’t do it that way here. You can’t talk that way to cadets.” Blaik tamed him. For a while.
The Packers sometimes felt Lombardi was the first cousin to the Wild Man of Borneo. “I have a naturally explosive temper that I’ve never been able to subdue wholly,” he admitted. “And a seething impatience. In a way, it’s a good thing, maybe. I’ve often wondered whether it’s my greatest strength — or weakness. But I feel the chances are that if I were otherwise, I wouldn’t be as effective.”
We spent many hours together at the academy. Because of our Fordham background, I wanted badly for him to succeed, and he knew it. Our relationship indulged strong differences of opinion. One developed into a juvenile shouting match following an Army victory over Fordham that resembled two pirate crews at work with dirks and cutlasses. I maintained that Army had been the instigator, while Vince blamed Fordham. Naturally, he was working for Army.
Mostly, though, we had laughs. As a gag, I used to pick an annual silly All-America, named for Bull Pond where Blaik, his staff and a few friends used to camp each August, their only time off. The Bull Pond heroes included Ugh, storied guard from Carlisle, who transferred from Geronimo’s Finishing School in Oklahoma; tackles Excalibur Slim of King Arthur’s Knight School and Yak Blubber of the Igloo Institute of Electrical Appliances; ends Chuckles Axemurder of Bedlam Hall and Nero Fiddle of Hook and Ladder No. 7; and guard Oscar Upchuck of Old Nausea.
Even after Vince left Army to serve as the New York Giants’ offensive coach under Jim Lee Howell, 1954 through ’58, I used to read the Bull Pond team to him by phone because his bellowing, infectious laughter was funnier than the team. In 1958, we decided to pick an all-time Bull Pond team, and votes were solicited by mail. Lombardi mailed me his selections with the following letter, dated June 24, 1958:
As you will see from my note, the 1957 team was by far the best. I often wish it were possible to see them play as a unit under the great all-time coach, Blaik Von Leahy of South Bend on the Hudson.
Selecting the all-time team was comparatively simple except for the guard positions. Ugh, of course, stands put. But it took a great deal of thought to pick Oscar Upchuck over Heinrich Schnorkel of Unterwasser U. I guess, however, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for old Upchuck.
With best wishes
After Giants practices, Lombardi used to love to read the Bull Pond selections to Howell, Tom Landry and the rest of the staff. Howell told me on a plane once that they looked forward to it. So I guess I wasn’t the only madman involved, nor was Lombardi.
In those years, the Giants were winning or regularly contending for the pro title, usually against the Cleveland Browns, coached by Paul Brown. From those games, Lombardi and Brown developed a deep mutual respect.
Meanwhile, Vince was ready to be a head coach, had long been ready and was aching for his chance. Some jobs opened to him that he recognized as posing impenetrable road blocks. So he turned them down. The jobs he did go after passed him by. In some of them I was his unofficial ambassador, with portfolio but without success.
General Hubert Harmon, first superintendent of the Air Force Academy, was with me at the bar in Mama Leone’s restaurant in New York one night. He said he was looking for a head coach. I recommended Lombardi. (This was probably the early 50s while Vince was still at The Point.)
On the 20th Century train en route to the 1956 Notre Dame-Oklahoma game at South bend, I met by chance with the Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, former ND president, whom I’d known for 10 years. At dinner, he confided that they might want to replace Terry Brennan in a couple of years, which they did, and asked me to recommend a successor. “Unless you want a graduate,” I told him, “you can’t go wrong with Vince Lombardi.”
When Southern California was considering at successor to Jess Hill, who was about to succeed the retiring Bill Hunter as athletic director, Braven Dyer, Los Angeles Times writer and Trojan historian, asked for a recommendation. I cited Lombardi. “He’ll make it tough on Notre Dame, UCLA and everybody else,” I said.
Same when Bill Leiser, San Francisco scribe and Stanford almnus, discussed a successor to Chuck Taylor, who was moving up to athletic director at Palo Alto.
Why they all passed him by, I have no idea. Perhaps because he had been a head coach only in high school. Perhaps because his talents were known mainly among the pros and among relatively few college people. Vince always suspected his name might have something to do with it.
Once night in the mid-1950s after a Rose Bowl game, we drove out to a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley and kicked it around for about three hours.
“I know I can coach,” Lombardi brooded, “but the right people never seem to know. I’m 43 now. I’m not getting any younger. Maybe I’ll never get my chance.”
That just couldn’t be. Finally the door opened in 1959, when he was 46. The once mighty Green Bay Packers had taken a lease on Skid Row. Jack Vainisi, then business manager, was empowered to search out a new coach. For advice he went to men he knew would know. Bert Bell, the NFL commissioner. Paul Brown. Red Blaik. From all he got he same answer: Lombardi.
Within three years Skid Row bloomed into the Palace Gardens, which Kramer later dubbed Camelot. Five world champions in seven years. A dynasty that erupted from a dynamo. Twenty years later, the Lombardi Packers remain the standard by which all the great modern teams are measured. It would be silly to categorically call Vince the all-time best. But did or will anyone ever leave a greater impact?
I used to get to Green Bay a couple of Sundays a year, and I never saw Lombardi team lose. Afterwards, we’d go out to dinner with friends, his only in-season relaxation. We’d have a few scotches. We’d render a duet of “The Fordham Run,” unmelodious but loud. Or he’d ask me to recite his favorite poem: Grantland Rice’s tribute to the Granites. It was titled “Old Gibraltar.”
As with many geniuses, complexity rode position to Lombardi. He could be domineering, arrogant, abrasive, harshly realistic. He could also be conciliatory, courtly, kind and sentimental. He could be ruthless. Yet, in his acceptance speech at the first testimonial in Green Bay after his first world title, he shocked his audience by breaking down into tears. They had never suspected this side of him.
Almost invariably, the old Green Bay heroes of Lombardi’s day agree that his relationship to them was that of a harsh but deeply caring father, an amalgam of fear, respect, hate and love. He was the first coach, this menace pacing the sidelines, who ever attributed the success of his team to the players’ love for one another.
At dinner after a 1961 game with the Bears, I saw Jim Ringo, who felt he had played poorly at offensive center that day despite the victory, approach Lombardi like a prodigal and receive encouragement. (Three years later, when Ringo sought to negotiate a contract through an agent, Lombardi traded him before sundown.)
As the championships piled up, so did the pressures. Strong as Lombardi was physically, he blacked out a couple of times. After he gave up smoking, he began to put on the weight. All this contributed to the bad press he called down himself in his later years with The Pack. He must have been at his worst the day he answered Arthur Daley, Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist of The New York Times and a fellow alumnus, “Arthur, how can you ask a stupid question like that?”
Next time we were together, I chided him: “With your mind and will and success, this situation with the writing media is not making you look very smart.” He replied: “You are right. I’ve got to mend some fences.” Which he did.
The labeling of Lombardi as the arch-apostle of “winning is everything” is inaccurate, but it was his own fault. “I never meant that,” he said. “I meant that a total commitment to winning is everything.” He didn’t make that clear enough to enough people.
Although the story has been told thousands of times, it can’t go unmentioned in the recollections of a friend. As a boy, Lombardi studied five years for the Catholic priesthood before he decided he did not have a vocation. But he remained an almost daily communicant.
“Prayer has always been necessary to me,” he said. “It was part of my upbringing. Without it, I never could have taken the pressures of coaching.” Publicly, however, he tried to steer interviewers away from the subject of his religion.
After The Pack bounced Oakland around 33-14 in the 1968 Super Bowl game, Lombardi resigned as coach but stayed on as general manager. After one year, however, he accepted the challenge of rebuilding the Washington Redskins. He got off a promising start with a 7-5-2 record but was stricken by cancer and died Sept. 3, 1970.
There is still a host of memories around (my) house. Files full of clippings. Magazines. Books. The Packer blanket and 1961 world championship tie clasp, shaped like a football. But I guess my favorite is the postcard of the Coliseum he sent me from Rome the winter of 1962: “Having a beer and pizza at the half. The score: Lions 8, Christians 7.”
Marshall arrived at Auburn when the Tigers badly needed a revolution at the quarterback position. In the two years between Cam Newton’s Heisman Trophy season and Marshall’s arrival, Auburn tried four different starters at the position — including Clint Moseley twice — and tumbled all the way to arguably the worst season in the program’s history.
One junior college transfer reversed that trend. A dual threat with a big-play arm and electric feet, Marshall threw for more than 4,500 yards, rushed for more than 1,800, produced 57 total touchdowns and earned 20 wins in two seasons as Auburn’s starter. By the time he was finished, Marshall had arguably earned a place next to players such as Newton, Pat Sullivan, Jason Campbell and Dameyune Craig among Auburn’s all-time greats at the position.
“He was a big part of leading us to the national championship (game), and it would have been extremely hard to get there without him,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn says. “He’s one of the best to ever come through here.”
Replacing a player with that kind of legacy should be hard.
But many around the program believe Jeremy Johnson can be even better.
• • •
The days of programs being able to land only one elite quarterback at a time are gone, as Ohio State so poignantly proved last season during its national championship run.
Auburn never had to call on Johnson in the same way the Buckeyes had to rely on J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones last season. The few times Johnson had to step in for Marshall were temporary; all Johnson could do was give the Tigers a few brief but brilliant glimpses into the future. “We have a lot of confidence in Jeremy,” Malzahn says.
In the first start of his career as a freshman, Johnson stepped in for an injured Marshall and threw for 201 yards and four touchdowns against Western Carolina. His second start was even better. Forced into the starting lineup for Auburn’s 2014 season opener against Arkansas, Johnson completed his first eight passes and finished 12-of-16 for 243 yards and two touchdowns.
Related: Auburn Team Preview and Prediction
In two seasons as Marshall’s backup, Johnson completed 73.1 percent of his 78 throws for 858 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions. Given what he’s done, it’s hard for most of Auburn’s coaches and teammates to understand any uncertainty surrounding Johnson’s ascension to the starting job.
“There’s so much emphasis put on starting quarterbacks at most schools, we always forget about what they’ve done,” Craig, now a wide receivers coach at Auburn, says. “Jeremy started an SEC game last year and threw for 240 yards in the first half against one of the top defenses in the conference. I’m not concerned about him or his possibilities.”
• • •
Despite two seasons as Marshall’s understudy, Johnson will be a very different weapon than the man who preceded him as Auburn’s quarterback. A towering specimen at 6'5", 230 pounds, Johnson is built more like Newton than the 6'1", 220-pound Marshall, but he’s more of a pocket passer than either of those two star signal callers.
From the time he first started taking snaps for Carver-Montgomery High in Alabama’s state capital, Johnson has been most dangerous from the pocket, where he can unleash an NFL-caliber arm.
“He’s got all the arm talent you could want,” Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee says. “He can throw the ball vertically down the field. He can hit every throw on the field to boundary, to intermediate, to field comebacks. He can make every throw on the NFL route tree — throw a very tight, good ball.”
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Malzahn won’t try to fit Johnson into Marshall’s unique mold. In nine seasons at the college level, Malzahn has always built his system around his quarterback’s strengths, rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
With Marshall at the helm, Auburn deployed a devastating running game built around the zone-read, a play uniquely suited to capitalize on Marshall’s prodigious talents in the open field.
Johnson presents a different test for defenses. Although Malzahn doesn’t like to go into detail, expect Auburn’s hurry-up, no-huddle to return to the Wing-T-influenced, running back-driven rushing attack of 2009 and emphasize the passing game more to take advantage of Johnson’s incredible arm.
He has the weapons to beat teams through the air. D’haquille Williams, who might be the No. 1 receiver in the 2016 NFL Draft, returns as one of the nation’s best possession and red-zone threats to lead the receiving corps.
“I’m expecting some big things from those two guys,” Craig says. “They’ll probably break all (of Auburn’s) passing records this year.”
The Tigers also bring back experienced pass catchers Ricardo Louis and Marcus Davis, talented receivers who’ve been biding their time in complementary roles and now finally have a chance to shine.
Johnson looks like the perfect distributor to get the ball to all of that talent.
“It’s my strength,” Johnson says. “I feel really good about sitting back and making throws, but I’ll run if I have to.”
• • •
Auburn may not abandon the quarterback run entirely with Johnson at the helm. His right arm might be Johnson’s best asset, but the notion that he can’t make defenses pay with his legs is beginning to bother him. In high school, Johnson was a two-sport star, athletic enough to lead Carver to a state basketball championship in 2012.
And in a highly anticipated high school showdown against Auburn High and five-star linebacker Reuben Foster (now at Alabama), Johnson rushed for 114 yards and three touchdowns, often on quarterback draws where he was isolated against Foster in the open field.
He might not have Marshall’s speed and elusiveness on the perimeter, but Johnson believes he can be a different kind of weapon in the running game.
“I’m a downhill runner, the power read instead of the read option,” Johnson says. “I can also use my feet if I have to if the pocket breaks down and make plays. People say I can’t run, but I’m going to show them what I can do.”
• • •
Due to the difference in playing styles, Johnson didn’t pick up much from the way Marshall played on the field.
Off the field, though, the two quarterbacks were close, and one of Marshall’s underrated abilities caught Johnson’s attention. Early in Marshall’s career, the team rallied around his leadership; although he was quiet, Marshall’s calm demeanor in the clutch set the tone for the rest of the Tigers.
“Being a quarterback, you have to be that leader to where your teammates are going to follow you no matter what,” Johnson says. “I’ve got to be able to get them to look right at me and be able to say: ‘Can I trust this person?’”
Johnson has tried to follow in those footsteps this offseason, organizing impromptu throwing sessions with receivers, cultivating a close relationship with Williams and focusing on making the Tigers his team.
Before Williams decided to return for his senior season, he consulted with Johnson, who offered the receiver his support without begging him to come back.
That spoke volumes to Williams.
Now, Johnson’s task is to become that kind of confidant for the entire team.
“I’m looking forward to bringing everybody in to where if I say we’re going to move right, the whole team moves right,” Johnson says.
Johnson spent two long years waiting behind Marshall. For two years, he was the perfect understudy, learning to lead without undermining Marshall’s status as Auburn’s bell cow. Now, after all that waiting, it’s his team.
“It feels great,” Johnson says. “I’m just trying to become a leader first to where my team can follow me, but mainly my goal is to win a national championship.”
If Johnson can do that, he’ll take his place with Marshall in the Auburn pantheon.
During the summer of 2010, the college football world hinged on what Texas might do next. True, Nebraska had left for the Big Ten, Texas A&M and Missouri were soon to leave for the SEC, and the Pac-10 expanded to 12 teams.
Yet for a time, it was reported at one point Texas would abandon the Big 12 to join the Pac-10. Five Big 12 members would join the Longhorns to form a Pac-16 superconference. That development remained a pipe dream, but this piece from 2011 explains how Texas still solidified itself as college football’s biggest power player.
Originally published in Athlon’s 2011 Big 12 Annual
By Michael Bradley
When DeLoss Dodds took over as athletic director at Texas in 1981, he didn’t have to try so hard to learn everybody’s name. With only 70 or so people working in the department, he probably needed less than a month to meet his staff and become acquainted with their job descriptions. A welcome luncheon or two and a couple trips around the building probably did it.
Of course, anybody trying to do the same thing at UT today would need a collection of mnemonic devices, a mandatory name-tag policy and an assistant willing to follow him around whispering people’s names and their positions just to get a good start. Maybe after a year, he would know that Doris coordinates team travel, Bob is in charge of the equipment room and Mack is the football coach. Okay, so maybe remembering Mack’s name wouldn’t be so hard, especially since he’s responsible for about $94 million in income for the department each year.
“We have $143 million in revenues, and that’s different than when I came — it was just $4.5 million,” Dodds says. “It takes more people to run that kind of a business.”
The operative word in college athletics today is “business.” Schools are searching for more creative and effective ways to fatten their bottom lines, whether it’s through sponsorship deals, stadium expansions, media partnerships or all of the above. Financing a broad-based and successful program takes money and lots of it. Generating the revenue necessary to be first class these days involves a collection of moving parts and a vision that is always trained on future opportunities and revenue streams.
Right now, no school does it better than Texas, which has the highest revenues of any NCAA school and which should hold on to that title for years to come thanks to the new Longhorn Network, a UT-centric TV initiative that will generate $300 million over the next 20 years and provide the kind of promotional vehicle that is unparalleled in college athletics. When added to Texas’ already-successful collection of initiatives — including the Big 12 Conference’s recent 13-year, $90 million per year deal with Fox Sports — the groundbreaking partnership with ESPN will establish the department further as not only the wealthiest but also the most innovative in the nation.
“(The network) is a huge branding thing for the university, not just athletics,” Dodds says. “We have a network we can use for promoting the brand of the university.”
For years, schools have been using successful sports programs as first-tier methods of attracting interest. Win a national championship and watch admissions applications double. Reach the Final Four and set new records for alumni donations. Although faculty members grouse — rightly — about high salaries and facilities arms races that require huge expenditures, there can be no denying the impact of winning on the fields and courts. Texas, which has captured 13 national titles and more than 100 conference crowns during Dodds’ tenure, certainly has the résumé to justify its spending ($136.7 million in ’09-10) and the profit ($6.8 million in ’09-10) to counter any argument about frivolous economic practices.
Face it: Although Texas has the second-largest endowment of any university in the nation, behind Harvard, and has several world-class academic programs, its identity for many involves a full football stadium and the band’s playing “The Eyes of Texas” after a touchdown. To that end, Dodds and his people are working to improve every facet of the program, from facilities to personnel to fundraising and more. That way, the Longhorns will be able to maximize the use of their athletics success for the university.
“On many campuses, athletics are looked at as separate,” Dodds says. “We don’t want to be separate. We want to be an integral part.”
While Dodds works on that synergy, other Big 12 members are in lower tax brackets. Sure, Oklahoma is trying to set up a sports network of its own, but the state’s small population (one-sixth of the Lone Star State’s) won’t guarantee a payday like Texas received. Although the Fox deal, coupled with the league’s relationship with ESPN/ABC, will guarantee most schools between $15-17 million a year, Texas will go well beyond that, thanks to the Longhorn Network.
UT also reaps more money from the other TV deals, thanks to its stronger national profile. In 2007, the last year tax data was available, Texas received $10.2 million from the league’s TV deals, while Baylor got only $7.1 million. Believe it or not, that does not bother the other schools, who understand Texas’ value to the Big 12 — it would have broken apart had the Longhorns left for the Pac-12 last summer, as was rumored — and what it means to have the chance to play in Texas.
If the Big 12 is worried about anything, it shouldn’t be whether Texas is making more money — it’s whether the Longhorns will consider going independent, the better to cut TV deals that will bring them more money and greater scheduling flexibility. The loss of the Longhorns would cripple the Big 12 and perhaps signal an exodus of Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. Against that doomsday scenario, what’s a few million dollars?
“Our overhead and expenses at Kansas State are lower than those at Texas,” says John Currie, athletic director at KSU, which received $8.21 million in TV revenues in ’07. “If they get two or three million more a year, that’s no big deal. Their expense ratio’s much larger.
“We’re not worried about how we share it. We have to worry about growing the pie. We have to realize individual institutions have different needs.”
It’s a pretty simple equation for David Carter, a professor of sports business at USC and executive director of the school’s Sports Business Institute. With each passing day and every new groundbreaking deal, college athletics become less about the competition and more about the money.
“The major Division I programs are looking and feeling more like professional sports all the time,” Carter says.
Few fans are naïve enough any more to think that the college sports climate of the 1950s and ’60s was of the idyllic, extra-curricular variety. Schools were trying to maximize success and revenues then, but the model had not yet been constructed to allow for a flood of profit. Visionaries like Michigan AD Don Canham in the 1970s helped lay the groundwork for modern marketing efforts, and the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1984 that gave schools and conferences control over their television rights was a major step toward the Longhorn Network.
But as technology booms, new media spreads and promotional tactics (luxury suites, corporate sponsorships, merchandise options) become more sophisticated and professional in style, the potential for revenue increases is colossal. Thanks to the increased opportunities, schools are pushing ahead with programs like never before, to the point where the on-field competitions themselves seem complementary to the overall “experience,” rather than the reason for it all.
“Schools are recognizing the tremendous demands to consume their products in all forms,” Carter says. “So, they are running to daylight as fast as they can.”
Texas is certainly in full sprint. From 2005-10, the Longhorn athletic department’s revenues grew nearly 50 percent, from $98.1 million in ’05-06, to the $143.6 million that came in ’09-10. Many of the line items found in the department’s fiscal report — like concessions, camps or conference distributions — remained relatively the same or experienced modest growth. The real money was made in three primary areas — ticket sales, contributions and sponsorships. And each represents a new approach to the collegiate athletics model.
Consider Memorial Stadium, home to the Longhorn football program. Its capacity has swelled from 80,000 to 94,000, and a portion of the new seats has been of the suite/club variety. Revenue on football ticket sales went from $20 million in ’05 to $33 million in ’09, a big reason for the football program’s robust bottom line.
The Longhorns have also had a big spike in overall advertising and sponsorship revenues, with the bottom line growing from $9.7 million to $22.1 million from ’05-10. More sophisticated techniques and expanded partnership programs gave a greater number of businesses access to UT athletics during that time. Like many big-time athletic programs, the taboos of in-stadium/arena signage or overt promotional considerations, such as game sponsorship and scoreboard advertising, no longer exist for Texas. Memorial Stadium has not reached the level of many professional venues, which are festooned with ads, but don’t be surprised if that happens soon.
“There was no marketing staff a year ago,” Dodds says. “Now, we have 10 people on that staff. Our fundraising arm has tripled in size and tripled in revenues.”
It’s important to remember that a lot of that $143.6 million — and a sizeable portion of the football program’s $70 million net income in 2009 — funds other Longhorn teams. Only men’s basketball ($6.7 million net income) and baseball ($1.9 million) made money in 2009-10. Each of the school’s other 17 sports relied on money raised by football, men’s basketball and baseball to survive. Granted, the tennis teams’ combined budget of $1.68 million is nearly $800,000 less than what the football team’s travel expenses were in 2009-10, but those squads still depend on the athletic department’s ability to squeeze every dollar out of the profitable programs.
Then there are the facilities. In addition to improving and expanding Memorial Stadium, Texas has in the past five years added a new softball venue, expanded the school’s rowing center, built a golf academy and renovated the Erwin Center, which houses the men’s and women’s basketball programs. It’s one thing to have a successful program and another to have the types of arenas, stadia, fields and practice facilities to lure future athletes to campus.
“You have to keep up with the Joneses,” Carter says. “When you’re recruiting players, a lot of times it comes down to the training facilities and other amenities that in their minds prepare them for the next level.”
You can’t blame some people for thinking that any opponent that happens to take part in a game being televised by the Longhorn Network might just be in for a tough time. It’s hard to imagine Iowa State’s women’s basketball team getting fair analysis from courtside commentators who rode to the game on Bevo’s back and are dressed like members of the Longhorn Marching Band.
Okay, so maybe that is an exaggeration. A big exaggeration. Network broadcasters won’t have to sign off with a quick “Hook ’em” sign to the cameras or wear burnt orange blazers on the air.
“We might have ‘The Eyes of Texas’ playing during a broadcast,” Stephanie Druley says. “But we won’t have it running under commentary or analysis.”
Druley is a proud UT graduate (broadcast journalism, ’89) who is heading back to Austin to help oversee the Longhorn Network’s launch and subsequent daily operations. She and fellow ESPN alum Dave Brown are tasked with making the school’s TV initiative look and feel like a top-shelf outfit. They’ll employ the same production tactics that one finds on any other ESPN game telecast, studio show or remote broadcast and make sure to give viewers a high-quality presentation while advancing the Texas brand. “We intend this to look like an ESPN product,” Druley says.
When Texas’ multimedia rights holder IMG College first set out to find a TV partner for the school, which had the ability to create its own network because the Big 12 Conference does not own its members’ television rights, ESPN had never been involved in anything like it. It paid big fees to broadcast professional and collegiate games but never was allied directly with a team, league or conference. The idea of working directly with Texas was not only unheard of; it was also a big risk. It was one thing for the Big Ten to create its own network, since it included 11 (now 12) schools that spanned six (now seven) states. To create a station that would focus on just one school was a big step.
“There are 25 million people in the state,” Brown says. “If there were not 25 million people, the economics wouldn’t allow us to take a shot at making this work.”
The numbers just work in Texas’ favor. That’s not to say ESPN won’t try to build a partnership with another school down the road, but the numbers and flexibility available through Big 12 membership make Texas the perfect place to start.
So does the breadth of available programming options. Even though the Longhorn Network will televise only one football and eight men’s hoops games per year, there is plenty of other inventory across the school’s other 18 varsity programs. Plus, the network will air non-sports programming that provides avenues for the arts, sciences and general university activity. The Texas archives will also come into play. “Robert DeNiro’s personal archives are there,” Druley says. “There’s a wealth of stuff.”
The network’s overriding goal, as with everything done in the name of athletics, is to advance the university’s reputation — and bottom line. To that end, one-third to one-half of revenues for at least the first few years will go to the school, rather than the athletic department. The money will be used to finance a pair of endowed faculty chairs in physics and philosophy, among other things. At a time when UT is facing proposed cutbacks of nearly $100 million in the state’s two-year budget, everything helps, even though you don’t have to work hard to find faculty members who aren’t thrilled with Texas’ athletic expenditures when academic programs face the reaper’s scythe.
But as Texas builds its brand, what does it mean for the rest of the Big 12? The conference already distributes TV funds unequally, the better to reward its more popular teams. By generating another $10-20 million per year, UT can gain a competitive edge through better facilities, coaches and equipment. Dodds, of course, believes this rising TV tide will lift all Big 12 vessels.
“The other Big 12 teams are part of this network, too,” he says. “In the end, there are a lot of joint things going on in the conference. If we play Baylor in baseball, they could be on our network, and it’s a win-win for everybody.
“It’s not Texas getting too big athletically. We did it for our student-athletes and the university.”
Currie echoes that sentiment, although what other choice does he have? He points to Kansas State’s “national” alumni base as a reason for supporting Texas’ initiative and reminds us that the Wildcats beat Texas in football and basketball this year. So much for a competitive disadvantage.
“We like the Longhorn Network,” Currie says. “When Kansas State plays the University of Texas in any sport, we’ll be on the Longhorn Network in the state of Texas. That allows us to reach our second-largest alumni base, the Dallas Metroplex.”
And play a supporting role in Longhorns, Inc.’s latest initiative.
Five years ago this week, Nebraska became the first domino in a wave of conference realignment. The Cornhuskers broke from their traditional Big 8 roots and became the 12th member of the Big Ten.
The move gave us the Legends and Leaders divisions and disrupted college football summers for two years to come.
Here’s how and why Nebraska made the move.
Originally published in Athlon 2011 Big Ten annual
By Mike Babcock
Tim Marlowe was already thinking about tickets to the Nebraska-Ohio State football game in the spring, even though the game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln won’t be played until Oct. 8.
Marlowe, a junior wide receiver and kick returner for the Huskers, is from Youngstown, Ohio, and he needs tickets for family and friends —as many tickets as he can get. Players are allotted four tickets for each game. But they can trade among themselves. And that’s what Marlowe plans to do.
“There’ll be a lot of fighting in the locker room come October,” he says.
Not because of the number of Huskers from Ohio, however — Marlowe is among only a handful — but rather because of Ohio State’s tradition, and because it is now a conference opponent.
On June 11, 2010, Nebraska applied for membership in the Big Ten. And later that day, the Big Ten unanimously accepted its 12th member, commencing on July 1, 2011.
Marlowe might have been the happiest Husker when the official announcement was made.
“I’d say so,” he says. “At first, I was thinking it was just a rumor. I didn’t want to get too hyped up on it. But then when I saw that it was really getting serious, I’m getting real excited, calling all my friends, setting dates when we’re going to play them.”
Talk of a possible change in conference affiliation went from speculative to serious because of Nebraska’s concerns about the stability of the Big 12 Conference, which University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman said “probably wasn’t going to hold together.”
The rumors had several schools leaving the Big 12. There was talk of a group of teams — including Texas and Oklahoma — going to the Pac-10, where Colorado did go. Missouri was rumored to be headed to the Big Ten, either instead of Nebraska or in addition to the Huskers.
Also at issue was concern over a disproportionate South Division influence, in particular that of Texas. From the Big 12’s first season in 1996, the focus of the conference began gravitating to the south, symbolized by its offices being moved from traditional home Kansas City, Mo., to Dallas.
“There’s a little bit of nostalgia because you realize some of the history’s going by the wayside,” Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne said the day the move was announced.
“It isn’t that we weren’t sensitive (to tradition). Believe me, I agonized about this.”
From the point of view of many Nebraskans, however, the disconnect had begun when Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor joined the former Big Eight, setting tradition aside.
For example, the formation of the Big 12, with its divisional alignment, meant that the Huskers would no longer play Oklahoma annually but rather twice every four years. The schools had been members of the same conference since 1921 and had played each other in football every season since 1928. Nebraska-Oklahoma was the Big Eight’s signature rivalry.
Nebraska’s association with Missouri, Kansas, Iowa State and Kansas State goes back even further. Missouri and Kansas were first on Nebraska’s schedule in 1892, though Missouri forfeited rather than compete against an African-American player, Nebraska’s George Flippin.
Later they were members together of the Missouri Valley Conference, which preceded the Big Six (formed in 1929). With the addition of Colorado, the conference began competition as the Big Seven in 1948, and with the addition of Oklahoma State, the league became the Big Eight in 1960.
Despite that history, however, Nebraska had to make the move for what Osborne called “the long-term trajectory of the athletic program and the university.”
Affiliation with the Big Ten has significant academic and research implications as well. Athletic revenue was also a factor, as was exposure on the Big Ten Network, which will help offset travel considerations for Husker fans. Big 12 campuses were more accessible, in general, for team travel and fans in the state’s most populous areas, Lincoln and Omaha.
Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State and Missouri are within reasonable driving distance, as is Colorado for fans in the central and western parts of the state. Even Oklahoma and Oklahoma State weren’t that far. Now, the closest to Nebraska’s campus is Iowa, at 300 miles. Next is Minnesota, at 430. Every other Big Ten school is at least 450 miles from Lincoln.
Nebraska does, however, fit the culture of the Big Ten. “It’s a comfortable fit,” says Osborne. “I do think that there’s a lot of similarity, an emphasis on work ethic; a lot of people are fairly blue collar, pretty good values throughout the Midwest, so I think that’s going to help.”
Also, Nebraska has some history with Iowa and Minnesota. Iowa was its first out-of-state football opponent in 1891, and the Huskers played Minnesota regularly, though not annually, from 1900 through the early 1970s. In fact, Minnesota leads the all-time series 29–20–2, despite losing the last 14 games.
The Huskers are in the Big Ten’s Legends Division for football, along with Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern. Penn State is Nebraska’s designated cross-divisional rival, which means those teams will play every season.
The Big Ten designated four college football “brands” in aligning the divisions, with two in each division. Nebraska and Michigan are in the Legends, Ohio State and Penn State in the Leaders Division. The Huskers’ other cross-divisional opponent in the first two years is Wisconsin. Welcome to the Big Ten. “The schedule will be challenging,” Osborne said when it was announced.
“I think it will be cool going to Michigan and Penn State, even though we’ve got them back-to-back,” says senior safety Austin Cassidy. “Playing in front of 100,000 people, that’s not something very many people get to say that they’ve done in their lifetime.”
Cassidy went to high school in Lincoln but grew up in Texas.
“Do we play Michigan State away?” Alfonzo Dennard, a senior cornerback from Rochelle, Ga., asked at the start of spring practice. “I haven’t looked at the schedule really. … Oh yeah, Michigan. I want to play at Michigan because (of) how big the stadium is. I want to, like, experience that.”
Only a few Huskers are from Big Ten country, senior wide receiver Brandon Kinnie among them. Though Kinnie graduated high school in Kansas City, Mo., he was born and raised in Fort Wayne, Ind., where much of his extended family lives. A cousin, Dre Muhammad, plays for Indiana. And even though he and Muhammad, also a senior, will be finished before Nebraska and Indiana are scheduled to play in football, “I’m excited about it (the move),” Kinnie says.
Nebraska’s coaching staff has a pronounced Big Ten background. Coach Bo Pelini, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini and first-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck are all (like Marlowe) from Youngstown’s Cardinal Mooney High School. So they’re returning home, sort of.
During a news conference to announce the Big Ten’s acceptance of Nebraska, Bo Pelini was asked about the move. “I’m not a real emotional guy,” he said with a wry smile.
The comment drew laughter. The Huskers’ fourth-year head coach is emotional, all right. If you don’t think so, watch him on the sideline. He’s just not sentimental about such things.