TAMPA — At mid-morning Friday, anticipation was heavy in the air at Bucs training camp, as heavy as the stifling humidity. Heat index: exactly 100 degrees. GM Jason Licht, in a Bucs-orange mask dotted with team logos, walked near (not within six feet) a camp visitor and said quietly: “The defense has been secretly scouting the offense, and the offense has been scouting the defense.”
The camp air-horn blew. A rustling in the air, a few whoops, a “LET’S GET IT!” Period three of the Bucs’ 10th training-camp practice would be special. Five months after Tom Brady signed with the Bucs, two months after NFL offenses and defenses would normally square off in OTA practices, and one month before he’d quarterback his first pro game not for the New England Patriots, today would feature the first practice for Brady against the feisty Tampa Bay defense. Helmets, no pads, light contact. Normally, you’d figure, Who cares? It’s just a football practice. But in this COVID season of no off-season work and a gradual return to real practice after two slow-played weeks of acclimation to football, the anticipation was justifiably amped up. Intense morning. Vomit would be spewed before it was over. Three Tampa DBs—Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Mike Edwards—had a bet: Who’d pick Brady first this summer?
“Definitely didn’t feel like a normal day in training camp, that’s for sure,” backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert. “This was OTA 1, what should have been the May 15 practice. But now we’re in a time crunch. Plus, the defense’s first shot at Tom.”
The last pass Brady had thrown against competition was to Tennessee cornerback Logan Ryan, a pick-six that sealed a gloomy Patriots loss and ended Brady’s New England career seven months ago. No quarterback in pro football history has left a team after two decades to start somewhere else. This was the practice that would start to answer the biggest question (Non-Virus Division) of the 2020 NFL season: What’s the 43-year-old man got left?
Shortly after 9 a.m., Brady—in a creamsicle-orange practice shirt, his name and number in white on the back, the only Buc in back-in-the-day calf-length white socks—got Tampa’s first offensive unit in a huddle. Something else new: With no spring practice and distancing restrictions enforced in the first two weeks of camp, this was the first huddle of calendar year 2020 for the Bucs. Imagine that. In 30 days, the new-look Bucs, with a new quarterback learning his first new offense in 20 years, would open in New Orleans against genius collaborators Sean Payton and Drew Brees, together since 2006. And here was Tom Brady, huddling with his new team for the first time.
And they’ve got some work to do. On one of Brady’s first throws as a Buc, with a linebacker bursting through the middle of the line and a safety blitzing from the left (coordinator Todd Bowles was not fooling around in this practice), free-agent receiver Cyril Grayson busted a route. Looked like he should have curled or ran an out at eight yards . . . but he ran past that, and Brady threw to the spot he thought his receiver would be, and safety Mike Edwards dove uncontested and picked it off. Edwards (you won the bet, son) got up and exultantly sprinted down the sideline. Coach Bruce Arians, who is very good at swearing, let Grayson know that his mistake was, well, costly. Grayson probably won’t run that route wrong again.
Brady never saw Edwards cross into the end zone, nor did Brady see Edwards underhand-thrusting the ball skyward while his screaming mates ran to celebrate with him. Brady, emotionless, walked back to see what offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich had for him. Next play.
Such a different year playing in the NFL, which has been well-documented. Covering it is weird too. A two-day visit in Tampa was the first stop on an abbreviated camp tour for me—four camps in eight days. Then home to Brooklyn for a mandatory 14-day quarantine. No in-person interviews at team facilities. This was my routine Thursday: Watch practice at the Bucs 10 feet away from anyone else, then hustle back to room 416 of the Epicurean Hotel, 4.5 miles from the Bucs facility, to await phone and videoconference interviews. “Are you in a hotel room right now?” Brady, sounding surprised, asked me when I interviewed him Thursday afternoon. Yes, I said. “So different for everybody,” he said. “We’re trying to sort through it like you are.”
There’s a lot of the Brady story to sort through, watching him for two days. His arm, I thought, looked very good, better than it did late last season. Before getting to that, watch this short video from Thursday’s practice. NBC videographer Annie Koeblitz shot it, and when I was combing through her video Thursday night to see what I might have missed at practice, this 46-second piece of tape jumped out at me. It’s rare for me to make a piece of video an actual part of my column, but Koeblitz’s work is important to the Brady/Bucs acclimation story that I found in Tampa. It shows that Brady is doing a heck of a lot of coaching.
From the far sideline, Koeblitz and I were maybe 50 yards away from Brady as he ran through an obstacle-course-and-throw drill, and the sound isn’t pristine, but you should be able to hear Brady’s words. I’ll describe the scene. You see Rob Gronkowski (wow—there’s Gronk) catching a ball from Brady up the right seam and putting it away. Then the camera pans back to Brady maneuvering in and out of four padded dummies, simulating moving quickly in a crowded pocket. He emerged to loft a pass to tight end O.J. Howard up the left sideline. Then Brady called to Howard.
“Juice!” Brady called out. “Keep those shoulders square.”
Then Brady stood in place, pumping his arms like pistons, up and down.
“Right here!” Still pumping his arms. “Last minute . . . Catch it on your hip,” Brady said, with some garbled words in the middle.
I was dying to know what it all meant. I figured Howard wasn’t sprinting full-go, and maybe Brady was urging him to have better mechanics running. But last minute and catch it on your hip . . . What was that? So I got Howard on the phone and asked him.
“You hit it on the head,” Howard said. “That’s Tom coaching me. Tom’s been coaching a lot of guys one-on-one.
“When he says, ‘Shoulders square,’ if you watch me on film, and he watched me, watched me a lot, I’d be running a vertical route, not going as fast as I should have. That’s because I’d be running a vertical route, but I’d look back and it’d slow me down. He’d say, ‘Keep those shoulders square. Don’t slow down for me. Six, eight yards, pump your arms, sell it like a go route—I’ll get you the ball.”
Unpacking: In the 2017 draft, Howard was the best size-speed player of all. At 251 pounds, he ran a 4.51-second 40, and the Bucs made him their first-round pick. Three meh seasons and some bad habits later, here’s Howard at the crossroads, on a tight-end-rich team, the subject of trade rumors since the day Gronkowski came out of retirement to wear the pewter. But if a 4.51 guy is peeking back to the line all the time, he’s not going to be a 4.51 guy—he’s negating one of the best qualities any NFL tight end has. Catch it on your hip means, in essence, “Don’t worry—the ball’s going to be where only you can catch it.” (Howard should watch tape of ex-Brady faves Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell abusing the Falcons secondary with precision throws down the stretch in the Super Bowl comeback win over Atlanta. Relatively new receivers, in perfect sync with Brady. Cornerback Jalen Collins must still have nightmares over that fourth quarter and OT.)
Brady liked what he saw when Howard came to Tampa for QB/receiver workouts in May. And of all the great weapons Brady has here—it’s perhaps the best arsenal he’s ever had, and certainly since the 16-0 Randy Moss year in 2007—the one that looked the best in the two days I watched was Howard. Easy.
“When Tom does that,” Howard said of the coaching point, “it’s huge for me to hear. I worked on that all offseason, a bad habit I had to break. He puts it in my head every day. That’s what a true leader does. He does it in a humble way. So chill. That’s Tom Brady, one of the best to ever play our game, and every day he’s got something for me to make me better.”
That’s going to be a huge issue for Brady and this group of receivers. Timing. Familiarity. Brady got rapped for holding informal throwing sessions with his receivers at a private school in Tampa in the pandemic, which was bemusing. Philip Rivers moved to Indianapolis in the spring and threw with his new receivers. MVP Lamar Jackson had spring sessions in south Florida with receivers both on and not on his team. But Brady got called out for it. “I think every quarterback and receiver combination, really throughout the league, they were throwing to some extent,” said tight end Cameron Brate. “I think we were the only ones who had a helicopter watching us throw. That was definitely a little bizarre. The spring is mostly about working out timing, timing on routes, getting comfortable with the different concepts you’re running. We were able to do all that this spring. We really don’t feel like we’re too behind the 8-ball right now.”
What’s different for Brady, besides everything, is the head coach. Bruce Arians is, well, he’s not Bill Belichick. Arians can bite heads off, but he’s a teaching pal to passers. He has coached Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston. And now Brady, the six-time Super Bowl winner. That’s a wealth of quarterback-coaching experience right there, and Brady is trying to learn from it.
Brady surprised me when he said: “It’s my 30th year of playing football, including high school, and it’s the first time I’ve ever had an offensive head coach. That provides something a little different for the quarterback.” Recently, Arians and Brady sat at the facility for three hours to talk plays. Not philosophy, just plays. Arians said: “Show me on the board what you love to do.” Brady, Arians said, has adopted most of the Bucs’ verbiage after knowing one offensive language for 20 years. Brady would bring up a play he liked, Arians told him the particulars of what it was called. “He said, ‘Oh cool,’ “ Arians said.
“Tom’s used to audibling so much and we haven’t asked our guys to audible that much in the last few years,” Arians continued. “Going back to [coaching] Peyton, he’d have three plays in the huddle. And he might run a fourth one, because he saw something he liked. Tom can do those types of things. We’ll give him those types of things to do but right now it’s just, Let’s get it all down pat, which he probably has 90 percent of it in the book right now in his mind.”
Arians is convinced—and has told Brady this—that he won’t have to worry about making the perfect decision on every pass-drop. Last season in New England, with a beat-up and lesser group of skill players, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had to scheme everything intricately to give a play a chance to work, and Brady had little margin for error. This year, Arians said, “It’s gonna be a lot easier for what we’re doing because I’m not gonna ask him to put us in the perfect play every play. He’s got two wide receivers that can beat anybody one on one and tight ends and, basically, if you read out our patterns, you’ll get to the right guy.”
Now for the narrative that follows Brady to Tampa: He doesn’t have the arm to fit Arians’ deep-passing scheme, and to make great downfield connections with star wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich sneered at those with that opinion.
“They’re not that smart,” Arians said. “The guy can make every throw. He threw a ball 60 yards the other day to [wide receiver] Scotty Miller that was on a dime. The thing about our offense is you throw it to the guy that’s open. If Tom [sees an open man deep], he takes the shot. If not, read it out. He and Peyton have that same characteristic. Like, I’m not gonna take a 50/50 shot when I got a 90 percent shot underneath.”
“People who say that don’t know our offense,” Leftwich said. “I know what we really do. Who he is, and as smart as he is . . . He’s done everything we ask our quarterbacks to do in this offense. I’m just telling you, he fits us extremely well.”
I’m pretty sure without the camera on, and without knowing his answer to this question would be parsed from Nantucket to the Pacific, Brady’s opinion of those who doubt his arm wouldn’t have been as diplomatic as this:
“Everybody’s got an opinion about a lot of different things. My opinion is the only one that matters to me. In the end, you can prove them wrong or prove them right. For me, I’ve got the opportunity to go out there and play and I’m going to make the most of it and do what I’ve always done. I’m just gonna have to go out there and do it. There are certainly no entitlements in football. You’ve got to earn it in football regardless of what you say or think, or what anyone says or thinks, it doesn’t matter because you get a chance to go out there and prove it. I never really put a lot of credence or credit into what . . . ”
“You know, I have a belief or confidence in myself, but I still have to go do it and prove it to myself too and I think that’s what motivates me and get me going each day. I don’t give a s— what happened yesterday, the day before. Today’s the day and that’s where you have to put your time and energy.”
The 43-year-old Brady sounds like the 38 and 35 and 31-year-old Brady.
So the takeaway from the morning practice Thursday, a day for QB agility drills run by quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen (another former Manning mentor) and throwing from a messy pocket and sprinting right and left and throwing line drives to tight ends, was that Brady was throwing bullets. It felt oppressive—98 heat index—and after every drill, Brady took his helmet off and did a complete toweling-off of his head and arms. Who can like this weather? Brady’s point about it: “I feel like I mastered the cold weather because I’d, again, been up there [in New England] for so long and you know exactly how to do it. Here it’s a different type of inclement weather so it has its challenges because you sweat so much. But I’ll get used to that.”
The Bucs facility is a series of open fields with an indoor field, a few long spirals from Raymond James Stadium. Not much shade. On Friday, post-pick, the sun and humidity baked the place. As Todd Bowles sent extra rushers from different paths, Brady got in a groove. Back-shoulder cross to Mike Evans for 10 . . . checkdown to Evans for five or so . . . intermediate cross to O.J. Howard . . . a threaded eight-yard curl to Rob Gronkowski between two defensive backs . . . shallow cross to Cameron Brate . . . about an eight-yard out to Brate, whistled. Like a lot of his throws this morning—whistled.
“That’s probably the thing I was most surprised with,” Brate said of the fastballs. “I am a big fan of the game and kind of read up on different columns. I obviously saw the narrative, you know, Does Brady still have it? Can he still throw the ball at 43? Whatever. And, man, he can still sling it. All the work we did in the offseason, that’s kinda the one thing I was really most impressed with, his ability to throw the football. He can still spin it.”
Twice, Brady completed at least six in a row. After a deep overthrow in the end zone to little Scotty Miller from Bowling Green (the coaches love him), Howard ran a corner route on the left side, and about three yards deep in the end zone—I’m guessing Brady threw it about 28 yards—the arced pass dropped into the bucket of Howard’s waiting hands. Touchdown.
“That corner route felt good,” Howard said a couple hours later. “That was the very first route me and Tom worked on when we started throwing in May. He wanted to talk the exact details. Like, break at the half-yard line, keep it hot, and I’ll lay it in for you. Exactly what happened today. Poetry in motion.”
Later, Howard caught Brady’s other TD throw, an option route down the seam. “Tom gave me a look,” Howard said. Whatever it was, that’s the kind of non-verbal communication quarterback and receiver have to have under fire. Interesting that Howard’s got it with Brady already.
One last highlight: The 5-9 Miller, a blur with 4.33 speed, scratching and clawing his way into serious plans here two years removed from the Mid-American Conference, got a step on safety Jordan Whitehead running for the right pylon and Brady lofted a 48-yard sky job over the safety—right into a diving Miller’s hands. Great throw and catch. Looked like Miller was shaken up as he slow-jogged back upfield, but he wasn’t letting go of the ball. But he did give it up as he got back to midfield, where his mates were gathered. A minute or so later, Miller still looked like he was in discomfort. He walked a few yards away from the offensive group, took off his helmet, bent over slightly and unleashed a torrent of vomit on the ground.
That’s a five or 10-minute span young Scotty Miller won’t forget for a while.
“Overall a good start for our offense,” said Howard. Brady was crisp. I didn’t count, but it didn’t look like he took too many checkdowns. Those quick-throw timing routes—get the snap, whirl left, throw in an instant—were well-executed. He overthrew Gronkowski on a seam route late (looked like one of those Brady-to-Gronk seam completions that lifted the Patriots over the Chiefs in AFC title game 19 months ago), but no one’s too worried about the chemistry between two of the top 100 players of all time. As for Gronkowski: He looked good, in excellent football shape. It’s early. I’d expect the Bucs to conserve him through the season, maybe using him regularly in the red zone where he has flourished for so long.
The big question about the skill-player group: Is O.J. Howard available? Answer: No, not over Tom Brady’s dead body. The Bucs are keeping him, barring a ridiculous offer which I doubt would be forthcoming with his lack of production. The brass has noticed a different Howard, an excited player with a more positive aura. Who wouldn’t want to play with Brady? I’d bet Howard plays the most snaps of the tight ends, with Brate maybe a few more than Gronkowski; but that’s just a guess. With the athleticism and speed of Howard, the reliability of Brate and the multiple weaponry in Gronkowski’s toolbox, I won’t be surprised to see Brady take advantage of the intermediate threats all three of those guys are. He’s always loved throwing to the tight end, and why wouldn’t he if he’s got three very good ones? But as Arians says, this offense calls for the quarterback to take some shots while prioritizing the open man. So we’ll see.
So the news is good in the middle of August, in Tom Brady’s first steps outside the Belichick bubble. But honestly, if Brady didn’t look good on Aug. 14, there’d be major cause for concern. It’s how he’ll look on Dec. 14 that’s the question. Will his 43-year-old TB12-ed body with all the perfect ingredients therein look this good in four months? As Bill Parcells is fond of saying, They don’t sell insurance for that kind of stuff.
“It definitely, at this age, has its challenges,” Brady said. “I just have to be so diligent with how I take care of myself. There’s really not a lot of room for error. All the pliability treatments I get, they’re daily. The way I work out, I have to be conscious of that. I have to eat the right things. Gotta stay hydrated. . . . . I probably never could get away with fast food and things like that. Maybe you think you can, but in the end, I think those things always catch up to you.
“I’ve had a belief that, for a long period of time, this is what my goal would be and I think over the years my routine and process for taking care of my body has gotten better and better. That’s really allowed me to get to this point where I feel like I have a lot of knowledge. I still physically feel like I can throw the football well and get the job done. Again, I’ve got to work hard at it. It’s not like there’s anything easy about football in general and certainly in your forties it gets tougher than when you were in your thirties.”
But a full season, at 43, at the Brady level. Can he do it?
“How’d I look today out there at practice?” he said, with a laugh.
More Brady: “I feel really good. I think my arm is strong and is good and is as in-shape as it has ever been. I think every offense demands some different things and everybody has a different belief on how to move the ball downfield and score points. Again, being in one place and you have that familiarity, which is why I think continuity in the NFL is so important. When you look at Sean Payton and Drew Brees, they’re so on the same page with their belief of how to do that, it provides them with a lot of margin of error. In a really condensed format that we have, we’re really trying to get on the same page—myself, Byron [Leftwich], BA [Bruce Arians]—trying to really understand each other. They obviously know how I’ve done things; I’m trying to understand how they do things so that it can be as efficient as possible.”
“Are you happy?” I asked.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “That’s a good word.”
Brady said there were about 20 factors he considered, weighted in importance, that he wouldn’t name. “When I added it up, Tampa seemed like it was a great opportunity,” he said. “I am so happy with the decision I made.”
He spent a minute or so praising the Patriots, and saying he left on great terms, and had great regard for them.
“I made a decision to do something different,” he said. “It was a very thoughtful decision. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing. Really since the moment I got here they’ve embraced me. They’ve embraced me with the opportunity to go and lead the team—that’s a big responsibility for me.”
For now, all good on the southern front for Brady and the Bucs. There’s no reason he can’t play well with these weapons, and there’s no reason the Bucs can’t contend for one of the seven playoff spots in the NFC—other than the pandemic, and the Bucs being in the middle of an American COVID hotspot, and the unknown of Brady trying to be the oldest starting quarterback ever to lead a team to the postseason. Being around the Bucs for a couple of days, I think you won’t have the problem of not enough touches to go around, because they’re just so worn down by losing, and losing in some ugly, walk-off ways late. Now there’s a quarterback who won’t stand for that, if it ever started to bubble up. If the early chemistry experiment on offense works, this is going to be an exciting team to watch. And, I predict, a playoff team.
“Brett Favre was the guy I probably respected the most because he had so much damn fun playing the game. You look over in a tense game and he’s doing the YMCA in the huddle or something. To me, George is reminiscent of that. In the midst of intense situations, you see an exuberance with him that’s special. It’s contagious.”
—San Francisco GM John Lynch after making George Kittle the highest-paid tight end in NFL history last week.
“Fellas, this year is not like any year we’ve had in the National Football League. There’s gonna be chaos. There’s gonna be change. It’s gonna come every single day … One team will do this better than the other 31. It might as well be us. So be ready for chaos. Embrace it. Embrace it. The team that handles it best is the team that has the best chance of winning that trophy.”
—Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, in a training-camp speech, via videoconference, to his team in “Hard Knocks.”
“Also, don’t be the guy who takes a sh— in the porta-potties! I went in there and just about threw up. Have a little social awareness! That’s to take a piss. Don’t take a sh— in the porta-potties!”
—Rams coach Sean McVay, in a training-camp speech, in person, to his team in “Hard Knocks.”
“He is a dazzling playmaker. He really fired me up today.”
“If the ACC season is moved to the spring, I would tell you with strong confidence that there’s zero percent chance that Trevor Lawrence plays. And now with the Big Ten playing the spring, there’s zero percent chance Justin Fields plays.”
—Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports, on The Peter King Podcast this week, on the fate of two of the top two quarterbacks in the 2021 draft, Clemson’s Lawrence and Ohio State’s Fields.
Which leads us to the third quarterback, possibly, in the 2021 draft, whenever that is.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
—Trey Lance, North Dakota State quarterback, quoting Scripture on Twitter last week.
Heard of Trey Lance? It’s time you did. He’ll be eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft after a redshirt 2018 season at North Dakota State, playing in 2019 (pretty famously), and sitting in 2020 after the Bison announced the team would not play the fall schedule because of COVID-19. Even though Lance has played only one season, he will be eligible for the 2021 draft next spring, because the NFL clock includes years eligible, not years played. When a player has been eligible to play for three seasons after his high school career, he can enter the draft the next spring. So the 6-4, 222-pound Lance, who exploded onto the draft scene last fall, can come out if he wants in 2021. No announcement yet, but lots of speculation that he’ll come out.
So there could be an embarrassment of riches in the 2021 draft. Imagine if the presumptive top two picks next spring, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Josh Fields of Ohio State, are accompanied by the darkest of dark horses, the raw Lance. Mel Kiper leaves open the chance that he could burst into the Lawrence-Fields area at the top of the draft. Pete Thamel, the Yahoo college football sage, says he will “stand on the table” that Lance will go in the top 10, and perhaps on the early side of that. But smart money says if Lance does come out, he won’t play in any possible spring 2021 games for the Bison.
Carson Wentz, North Dakota State QB, went second overall in 2016. If Lance comes out for the 2021 draft, how will the league judge him if he plays just one season? This is the secret problem with whatever happens with the draft next year. There’s no way NFL scouts and GMs will have anything close to the same idea as usual about players in 2021.
The mystery of Lance will be discussed endlessly in the next few months. Let’s meet him. Look at his 2019 stats for the Bison:
Pass Yds: 2,786
Yds Per Carry: 6.5
Sixteen games, 42 passing-rushing touchdowns, zero interceptions. In a league that values an efficient quarterback who can run, yes, that will play.
In Toronto, at Scotiabank Arena, the videoboard operator had a good thought in the fourth overtime of the Columbus-Tampa Bay playoff hockey game Tuesday night. Overtimes in Stanley Cup games are 20 minutes long, the same as the regular first, second and third periods. When means that the fourth overtime was the seventh period, and that players in this game by this time had played more than two full games, essentially.
So in the fourth OT, this went up on the videoboard:
The other cute thing about that, of course, is that there were zero fans in the stands to stretch.
In March, the Falcons hired a communications coordinator for the media-relations staff, John Deighton. He started his job in May. On Saturday, Deighton was in a big white tent adjacent to the Falcons staff offices in Flowery Branch, Ga., checking in media working the team’s practice session. He asked me some health questions, took my temperature, and okayed me to proceed to practice.
John Deighton, who got hired five months ago and started the job in May, sat 40 feet away from the Falcons facility—a building he has not entered yet.
The Falcons, as NFL team did in the spring, shut its building to employees in the spring, with people working from home, and let them back gradually this summer. Each NFL team has 80 players and 100 team employees allowed in football areas. So a limited number from many departments are allowed to be in the building, interacting with players and coaches. Deighton did not make the cut from the PR staff. During camp, he works the grounds and the tent, not able to be near the players or coaches. Then he’ll work virtually. NFL life, 2020.
A cheerful sort, Deighton does long for the days when he’ll see what it’s really like inside the building where he works.
“Hopefully I see my desk sometime soon—maybe in 2021,” Deighton said.
The 45th pick in 2017 NFL Draft, from Ashland (Ohio) University, Chicago’s Adam Shaheen, caught 26 passes in his first three seasons and was traded to Miami last month for a conditional seventh-round draft pick.
The 145th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, from Iowa, San Francisco’s George Kittle, caught 216 passes in his first three seasons and signed the richest contract (five years, $75 million) for a tight end in NFL history last week.
Cameron Brate, the Tampa Bay tight end, enrolled at Harvard the same year Rob Gronkowski got drafted by the Patriots, 2010. While a student and tight end at Harvard, Brate was a bit of a Gronk fan boy. He bought a GRONKOWSKI 87 jersey and wore it around campus.
So now they’re teammates on the Buccaneers. In the offseason, Brate was at his parents’ home near Chicago, cleaning out a closet, and found the jersey. He took a photo of it, texted it to Gronkowski and asked, “Should I throw it away or donate it to Goodwill?”
“He actually said I should keep it,” Brate told me, “but I thought that would be a little weird. I donated it to Goodwill.”
SARASOTA, Fla. — I had the Dickie V experience Thursday afternoon, and it was glorious.
I figured Dick Vitale, major Bucs fan and idolizer of Tom Brady, would have some good stuff to say about Brady in Tampa, so I texted to see if I could come down with NBC videographer Annie Koeblitz—Vitale lives 55 minutes from the Bucs facility—and get a few bites from him. Interested, too, on his college sports take these days, whether they should play or not play. Of course, he said. Come on down. The directions he texted were about 700 words long. Vitale, 81, lives on a golf course in a home with a huge pool (doesn’t golf, has been in his pool three times in 14 years), but just loves the area and the house and the life.
We careened from one topic to another, swerving and breathless and totally without rhyme or reason, as he showed us his house and the photo-covered walls and his memorabilia-filled office.
In no particular order:
• “I got one Super Bowl ball from the Bucs. Now I want another!” Indeed, in his office, there’s a Super 37 football signed by Jon Gruden after the Bucs beat the Raiders. “Dick—You’re the best BAYBEE! Jon Gruden, Tampa.”
• As University of Detroit head coach in the mid-seventies, Vitale recruited Lansing mega-star Magic Johnson. “He coulda been the king of Detroit!” Did okay otherwise, Vitale admitted.
• I asked him who Tom Brady reminds him of, of all athletes he’s been around. “Magic. They’re winners. They care about nothing else.”
• Photos of Vitale with presidents (Obama, Clinton, Bush the younger, Carter). Two with Barack Obama.
• Giant photo of Vitale getting crowd-surfed at a basketball game at Duke.
• A photo of Dickie V kissing Pope Benedict XVI’s ring in Italy. “I told Lorraine, when I get close, you make sure to get up and snap a picture! I gotta have a picture! So she got up to take it, and what do they call those guys, the Swiss guards? They swarmed her! They told her she couldn’t do that, so she sat down.” Turns out a secret photographer, out of sight, got a jillion pictures, and the Vitales bought them all.
• A platinum Kenny Chesney album on the wall of one staircase. “I did the intro to his concerts on one tour, and he sent me that.”
• In high school (Garfield, N.J.), he had a mad crush on the girl who would become Greg Schiano’s mom.
• A few times, he said his parents would be so thrilled to see his life today. “They taught me, ‘Richie! Never believe in can’t!’ They always said, ‘Be good to people and people will be good to you!’ “
• The 2020 Dick Vitale Gala—benefiting the fight to eradicate cancer in children—got postponed because of the virus. So he decided to do a virtual gala. “So many people helped. A good friend of mine said, ‘I’ll give you a million bucks—but you’ve got to raise a million in the next 24 hours, and then I’ll match it.’ So I start asking around. AND MARK CUBAN AGREES TO GIVE $500,000! MARK CUBAN BAYBEE!” His goal this year for the Sept. 4 event: $7 million.
• He carries a laminated card of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes to Catholics, in his back pocket. He’s done that his entire adult life.
• He talked about Notre Dame probably 14 different times in 90 minutes. He loves the Irish; has a photo of Ara Parseghian on the wall. “I’ll really miss it there this year if we don’t go.” Goes to three or four football games in a season normally.
• On his life: “I am in 14 Hall of Fames and I can’t run or jump or shoot. Plus, I have a body by rigatoni! Wow, am I blessed.”
• Before we leave, he hands Annie a CONNECT WITH DICKIE V card, with his handles on social media.
• “ANNIE!” Vitale, 81 going on 17, hollers. “Will you follow me on Twitter?!”
Billboard in southern Georgia on I-75:
I’ll Be Back ……. Jesus
Flashing sign on I-24 south of Nashville:
WEAR A MASK
WE’RE ALL IN THIS
“I’m Gronk, he’s Brady.”
— Sara Abbott (@sarakate_sports) August 5, 2020
These are the Bucs-crazy children of Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht.
I’ve got the ‘Rona, and you’re probably numb from hearing stories like mine, but here’s what nobody tells you… https://t.co/whzAwfkrl1
— Bill Plaschke (@BillPlaschke) August 13, 2020
Plaschke is a Los Angeles Times columnist.
Lincoln Riley: “Students coming back, I think that’s a concern for every single college football coach in the country right now.”
— Nicole Auerbach 😷 (@NicoleAuerbach) August 15, 2020
Auerbach covers college sports for The Athletic
I told you, I WANT TO DANCE!!! https://t.co/OUeYXrRPEU
— Randy Rainbow (@RandyRainbow) August 11, 2020
Rainbow is a singer, songwriter and satirist.
If we lose the 2020 CFB season, this year’s NFL Scouting Combine will be the most important one in league history. We always preach “it’s all about the tape” but if you haven’t seen a player on grass in over a year, this event will take on a whole new meaning.
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) August 10, 2020
Jeremiah, a former NFL scout, is an analyst for NFL Network.
Of course I am going to include a love note about my day-in-the-life-of-Texans-camp column last week. From David Thalberg: “Amazing piece of writing Peter. What a comprehensive column on the Texans training camp. Did you have help compiling all that? You weren’t there, right? In next column can you explain how you got all those details?”
Thanks a lot, David. So nice of you. Several people asked me about the mechanics of the story in the past few days. Basically, we have to find ways to do things journalistically in this new COVID world that we haven’t had to do before; there’s a chance I won’t interview a player or coach in person all season. In this case, I never got close to Houston for the piece; I did everything from the seventh floor of a Brooklyn apartment building—joining three Zoom videoconference viewings of team meetings or events, a StreamYard video (with Randall Cobb), seven phone interviews (starting with Bill O’Brien calling me from his car at 5:13 a.m. CT Thursday, and keeping me on while he rolled through the parking-lot entry getting his temperature checked), and then checking facts over the next two days.
In a story like this, I like to get in the weeds with details. To really get good detail, you have to be able to witness things happening in real time—you can’t rely on people who might speak in generalizations to remember things like this O’Brien line when talking about John Lewis in the morning meeting, and calling on an undrafted rookie: “Lemme ask a quick question. Who was Rosa Parks? Nate Hall, you know who Rosa Parks was?” That happened because when I was searching for a team to do this with, I said to the media-relations people at several teams that I would need to see a lot of things for myself that normally the team might not let be shown. To me, the only reason to do something like this is if I can show the real, not some gauzy or surface-y version of the real. Teams understand that if they’ve got something to hide or maybe don’t have everything buttoned up, they shouldn’t agree to do something like this.
The Texans have a savvy, smart and progressive VP of communications, Amy Palcic (the only woman atop an NFL team’s team media-relations unit, by the way), and I was plain with her and really might have thrown a scare into her when I said, essentially, Please don’t agree to do this if there are going to roadblocks that spring up. I don’t know how the Texans handled the vetting of this story internally before agreeing, but obviously Bill O’Brien and his de facto GM, Jack Easterby, had to agree. It probably helped that I have long-standing relationships with O’Brien and Palcic.
One last thing: The Texans were good about sharing footage and still photos (like the cool one of Deshaun Watson pausing at the door of the locker room and pulling down his mask so the facial-recognition orb could ID him and swing the doors open). Images like that help bring a story to life.
Glad you liked it, David. I think my attitude in a season like this is I’ve got some obstacles in front of me to be able to do a good job, and I’m going to use my contacts and my relationships to fight through those obstacles every way I know how.
An interesting bubble idea. From Carl Mason, of Plano, Texas: “Watching the success of the NBA and NHL bubbles versus the inconsistency of maintaining a schedule for MLB, it seems to me that creation of a bubble is what would greatly enhance the possibility of an uninterrupted NFL season. I wonder if the league has considered such. Here’s my idea on how the NFL could bubble-ize the season:
“Choose about eight bubble cities. Teams would travel to these cities for a month’s worth of games at a time. During the first month at that site, teams would play their first set of division games. So, for instance, all NFC East teams would play each other in a sort of round robin affair. Games could even be played on Saturday and Monday in order to maximize the stadium usage. So a game on Saturday, two on Sunday (very early and late in the day) and one on Monday. Teams stay at the bubble sites until all of the divisional games have been played, three weeks. During that time they follow guidelines based on NBA and NHL experiences. After those games all teams could go back to their home cities for a bye week. During the bye week players would be expected to continue to practice social distancing protocols. After the bye week teams would travel to another bubble city. This time they would all play the teams from the opposite division on their schedule. Rinse and repeat from the first bubble week. Do this for an entire season.”
Good concepts in here, Carl. But I see a couple issues. One: Any sort of take-the-players-away-for-X-weeks concept would need the approval of the players’ union, and at this late date, in the absence of many positive tests so far, I think the reaction to forming these multiple bubbles would be: Why? We don’t need them. Two: I think your concept would create all the byes in the same weeks during the course of the year. The networks would oppose that. Re: the bubble concept in its entirety, I think we have to understand that to take players out of their worlds for, say, 25 days at a time, and to repeat it three times during the year would be complex and sudden and hard to get consensus.
Oddly, not everyone loves me. From Wayne Provost: “Geez, you’ve gone in the crapper with your ‘journalism.’ I’m done with you.”
It’s been a good run, Wayne. Good luck.
1. I think I’ve heard Roger Goodell is determined to get this season played, ending in a Super Bowl, whenever it’s played. Like, extremely determined.
2. I think there are many really interesting stories in the 2020 NFL seasons. There is only one amazing one: the possible comeback of Alex Smith from a broken leg 21 months ago, an injury that nearly caused the leg to be amputated. He’ll be on the field in Ashburn, Va., at the Washington training camp, trying to win the starting job over Dwayne Haskins. Did you see the great ESPN show with Stephania Bell documenting Smith’s fight to save his leg? And to try to come back? And to try to be a dad in all ways? What a story. What a guy. I’ll be watching, every day.
— NFL (@NFL) August 16, 2020
3. I think this is my biggest question about teams opening their stadiums to very limited numbers of fans: With prepackaged food and maybe 1 in 8 seats filled, what’s the fan experience going to be like? Will fans really want to be in a hollow barn?
4. I think when I read about Everson Griffen to the Cowboys, my first thought was, This is starting to be unfair. “Player acquisition here is 365 days a year,” coach Mike McCarthy said about the surprise signing of the ex-Viking. Sure seems that way. That Dallas front, particularly if Aldon Smith can make the team and take some rotational role, is going to be an absolute monster. At their peaks, the players on this front are all Pro Bowlers, and that’s not hyperbole. Assume the starters at some point early in the season are DeMarcus Lawrence and Griffen at the ends, with Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe inside, with Smith (I don’t consider him a longshot) getting some nickel rush snaps, and youngsters Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore cycling through tackle snaps to give the vets a break. Obviously, with veterans, it’s not all going to work out. One or more will break down or disappoint. But that defensive line is one heck of a depth chart.
5. I think I wasn’t expecting a good “Hard Knocks” this summer, with COVID limiting so much interaction and most real football, but I was pleasantly surprised with the first show last week. I liked the frankness of Chargers coach Anthony Lynn: “I can’t promise you you’re not gonna get infected. I got infected.” The eyes on Joey Bosa when Lynn told the squad in a Zoom call—priceless. I liked Sean McVay’s Grudenesque passion—and the part when he played basketball in the pool with his dog. I also liked the Zoom learning, because I’ve been experiencing it so much in the last four or five months. Videoconference learning and meetings are here for as long as the virus is. If Hard Knocks is true to form for the rest of the series, you’ll see more of that. Just read my “Day in the Life of the Houston Texans in a Pandemic” column from last week to learn about the very new way NFL teams do things this summer.
6. I think I keep hearing players don’t want to wear the lower face shields, the hard plastic pieces build to limit the sweat and spit that both gets out and gets in. But Sunday, center Alex Mack of the Falcons told me he actually isn’t going to wear the visor/shield that covers the forehead/eyes/nose area. Mack said the inside of the visor was a pain to keep clear, and it sweated/fogged up repeatedly. So he has jury-rigged the lower mouth/chin shield to be on his helmet alone. This is going to be an interesting inside-baseball sort of thing, with some players refusing to wear the mouth shield because they feel it limits air flow.
7. I think I wondered in Bucs camp about the five coaches over 65, particularly 81-year-old offensive analyst Tom Moore and Bruce Arians, 67. Watching Thursday and Friday, Moore, masked, spent most of his team far removed from other human beings. Said Arians: “We [wife and Arians] haven’t been out to dinner probably in, I don’t know, four or five months. Neither has Tom. I’m a cancer survivor. I was an asthmatic kid. I got every damn thing you can have to be in high risk. I wear two masks sometimes. . . . I just have to be careful because I love getting in the huddle with our guys. I’ll be a little more careful than I normally would be. But you gotta live. Are there risks? Yeah, I mean, but it’s worth it to me.”
8. I think the best bit of injury news around the league—aside from Alex Smith’s good fortune—probably came for the Niners on Sunday, with the slight opening of the window that Deebo Samuel’s broken foot could be healed enough for him to play in the opener. “Hoping for Week 1” but “not counting on it,” was Kyle Shanahan’s prognosis. They’d be wise to err on the side of Samuel missing September, unless the scans of his foot are pristine. He’s just too important to that offense.
9. I think the Jets-Seahawks Jamal Adams feud is silly and pretty immature. Then again, most verbal Molotov cocktails lobbed from 3,000 miles away have some silliness to them.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. RIP, Howard Mudd, one of the great offensive line coaches of all time, who died Wednesday two weeks after he was hospitalized following serious injuries suffered in a motorcycle crash in the northwest. The reason why Mudd was such a great coach is he combined the science of the position with a love of the physicality of the position. I remember when I was pool reporter at Colts practices before the Indy-Chicago Super Bowl, and Mudd, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, would sidle up to me and just talk football for 10, 15 minutes before he had to be coaching. He was fascinated with the concept of a “pool reporter,” being the eyes and ears for 3,000 media people at the game. He’d ask me every day, “You’re not giving anything away from our game plan, are you? Be careful.”
b. Also remember how much Peyton Manning loved Mudd. Manning loved the old-time ball coaches, and the raspy lifer was certainly that. The other day, Manning said: “In every game plan meeting and every practice I know he was always thinking about how to protect me as a quarterback in the pocket with different blocking schemes and ways to run the ball,” Manning said Wednesday in a statement. “That was always on his mind and he kept that thought process with him throughout his whole career. As a quarterback, I can’t tell you how much that meant to me knowing that was on his mind and that was one of his top priorities.”
c. This is a tough blow. Mudd, at 78, was still an invaluable resource to people around the league. He had a lot to do with the invention and development of the silent snap count. A coach’s coach.
d. Deion Sanders to Barstool. Mike Florio’s theory, I hope, is correct—that part of the decision is appealing to those he might try to recruit one day as a college head coach. Coach Deion. Now that would be a fun team to cover. I mean, if we ever really get to cover things normally again.
e. College Sports Screed of the Week: Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World Herald, with a plaintive wail of a column wondering why a conference with states stretching from the far Midwest (Nebraska) to the East Coach (Rutgers, Maryland) had to pull the plug on the football season. Chatelain makes a couple of very good points:
“If Nebraska wants to play North Dakota State, if Penn State wants to play Syracuse, if Ohio State wants to play the Cleveland Freaking Browns, let them. This is not the time to demand lockstep. This is a time to preserve local economies — and cross country scholarships. This is a time to foster creativity and open minds.
“But that’s not the Big Ten Way. In the Big Ten, you sit down, shut up and cash checks from Chicago . . . Big Ten schools historically think of themselves as siblings in a big family or, if you prefer, fraternity members. They prioritize loyalty and cohesion. This is their tradition. This is their identity . . . Nebraska has historically preferred a spirit of independence. Maybe the attitude goes back to the Homestead Act. Maybe it’s a preference for small government. Or maybe it’s just distrust for schools trying to beat you. You’re seeing the conflicts of those dueling philosophies now.”
f. I’m not so well-versed in the college story, but my initial reaction is, Preach, Dirk!
g. Editorial of the Week: by the editors of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina: “The Daily Tar Heel will no longer use the term ‘student athlete.” As the DTH aptly writes:
The DTH recognizes that this identification doesn’t truthfully describe an athlete’s role on campus. That is why moving forward, the DTH will no longer use the phrase “student athlete” and instead will opt for “college athlete,” “athlete” or “student” as the context requires. The NCAA used the phrase “student athlete” and the reasoning behind it to avoid paying athletes, to control their name, image and likeness rights and to deny them the ability to unionize.
At The Daily Tar Heel, we value accuracy. Language is part of that accuracy, and the way we use it shapes the way we as a society think and interact with the world. We feel the phrases “college athlete,” “athlete”, “player” and “student” portray more accurately that these athletes are students while simultaneously being professionals. To accept the term “student athlete” is to accept the NCAA and the nation’s college athletic departments’ agenda that these athletes are not employees and to silence the voices of these athletes. We think we should frame coverage using our own words instead.
h. Those are some fine, common-sense journalists who can teach the rest of us something.
i. COVID-Related Story of the Week: Zach Lowe of ESPN.com, on the NBA and NBA Players Association working with and helping fund a new coronavirus test developed at Yale University. The new test, called SalivaDirect, could cost as low as $4 per test, a fraction of the cost of all tests now, with the added benefit of being able to produce results in less than 24 hours. Wrote Lowe:
The genesis of the Yale-NBA partnership happened in early April, when Grubaugh and the Yale team published preliminary research indicating saliva tests conducted on coronavirus patients and health care workers were as accurate as nasal swab tests. “That was a critically important paper,” said Martin Burke, a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois whose team developed a similar direct saliva test. “It was inspiring to us.” Illinois is now administering its test to returning faculty and staff — tens of thousands of people. They intend to test people twice per week, Burke said.
j. Delta Flight 2929, JFK to Tampa, Wednesday, late afternoon. As I write and do some emailing, I’ve got DBacks-Rockies on ESPN. Bottom 1: Nolan Arenado up, 2-1 count against Arizona pitcher Luke Weaver. Then, 95-mph fastball, fat, over the middle. The swing wasn’t even that violent and boom, the ball goes 426 feet into left-center field, and the two outfielders give it a slow jog. No use. Bottom 5: Arenado up, 3-2 count against reliever Taylor Clarke. Then, 93-mph fastball, right about the same spot, and Arenado’s swing appears to be even less violent, and still the ball flies deep into the empty bleachers, 441 feet from home plate. That’s 867 feet of home runs. The word that comes to mind when watching Arenado hit is “graceful.” I know he went through a slump to start the year. But just watching him on those two at-bats—and not really knowing much about his season at all—I just thought: The guy doesn’t look like he’s pressing at all. Such a confident player.
k. What a vastly under-appreciated player Arenado is.
l. Last five years, entering this season, on average: 40 homers, 124 RBI. Both numbers are best in the National League in that time.
m. Love you, USPS.
n. Two songs of the (abbreviated) training-camp trip rule the minivan:
• Old: “Million Reasons,” by Lady Gaga. Well, I only missed this by four years—don’t yell at me! I like the Howard Stern Show version of “Million Reasons.” What passion, what a voice, what feeling. Man, what a song.
• Fairly new: “Don’t Leave Me Lonely Tonight” by Mark Ronson, featuring YEBBA. Fun, lively, cool. What a voice on Yebba.
o. I’m not much of a music guy, but every summer when I go on this trip, I hear great music and think I should be listening to music a lot more.
p. Coffeenerdness: Thank you, Roberto Torres of The Blind Tiger coffeeshop in Tampa, for your tremendous cortado (espresso doppled with a taste of whole milk), and what a great egg sandwich you guys make. Glad to see The Blind Tiger surviving with its six shops in Tampa. It is an absolutely must-visit every time I’m in Tampa.
q. Beernerdness: Nashville (where I finished the column Sunday night) has, as so many cities in the country do, a great local beer scene. Sunday night, finishing up, I sampled Dos Perros (two dogs), a Mexican brown ale from Yazoo Brewing Company (Nashville). Just delicious—with a richer taste than I expected. I read aqbout the beer, and it turns out that different taste might come from flaked maize, of all things. One other thing about Yazoo: one of the great logos, and one of the great beer bottles, in the business today.
Still cannot believe
that the Bucs hadn’t huddled
all year till Friday.