Shorts and Shells: Preseason Week Four

Posted Sept. 05, 2011 @ 8:43 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

The idea of Bill Belichick being a football recluse is not wrong. It's just not entirely correct.

The announcement that the highly successful but highly shrouded coach will be shown in a way he never has before — in the form of a two-part documentary on NFL Network, "Bill Belichick: A Football Life" — was met with nothing but shock, even from those few who have been close to him.

Belichick doesn't have the reputation of being the most warm, convivial host for media gatherings, so everyone is curious to see how much he has opened up. The two-part series starts Sept. 15 on NFL Network.

"Yeah, I am definitely surprised," said former Belichick disciple and player Rodney Harrison, who now is an analyst for NBC, as candid in front of the camera as Belichick is reserved. "You look at Bill, and he is always so private about injuries and about what is going on at Patriot Place."

Harrison is one of the few players who was able to enter Belichick's sanctum sanctorum with the Patriots and get to know him like so many people are curious to do but seldom, if ever, get the chance. This documentary could change that, in part.

"Everywhere I go, people ask me, 'What is this guy really like?' " Harrison told me on an NBC conference call promoting the network's NFL season. "In my personal experiences with him, he's very personable; he's a funny, engaging guy, which he doesn't allow members of the media to see that, a lot of them.

"If you get on his bad side, like a lot of guys have seen, then he definitely will close up and will not allow them back into his life or professional life. So, I am really surprised, but I am excited to see this because this is a guy who is a very smart guy. He has a wealth of knowledge, a lot of experiences, and people should see a different side of Bill because it's not all you see under the hood."

It's a place few have been, but this is not Belichick's first time opening up to a media member he trusts. First, Belichick signed off on writer Michael Holley to follow the Patriots from inside the building, with access he never had granted previously. Holley sat in on meetings and had frequent one-on-one interactions with Belichick and his assistants and players. When the 2002 season went awry (a 9-7 record, missing the playoffs), Belichick extended the access another year through the '03 season, after which the Patriots won the Super Bowl.

Belichick also opened the doors to his life for the late David Halberstam, one of the finer journalists and historians of his generation, to write his story. It was an engaging book about the roots of Belichick's football knowledge and how he came to be an NFL icon.

Both books brought rare glimpses to light. But this NFL Films project might reach a different level.

First, it will reach an audience those books never had a chance to get to. And second, it will add a visual element that never was there, past the imagination in the written form. If you have yet to check out the three-minute, 25-second trailer, do yourself a favor — Belichick hater or not — and watch it. Even to the most ardent and engrained Patriots loather, this will be must-watch TV.

It's fascinating to this writer that the project even happened in the first place. It started with an NFL Films pie-in-the-sky idea when the Vince Lombardi documentary was coming together in 2008 with HBO. As they went through the Lombardi footage, which was gathered during the 1967 season, a few light bulbs went on.

"The thought around the building was ... how great is it that we have this treasure trove of material long after (Lombardi is) gone? And it's a shame we don't have that with more people," NFL Films producer Ken Rodgers said. "And that had everyone look at each other and say, 'Well, we should try to capture the same sort of material for someone like Bill Belichick.' "

When they realized that the 2009 season would be both the Patriots' 50th year as a franchise and Belichick's 35th straight as an NFL coach, NFL Films brought the idea to Patriots owner Robert Kraft. It was pitched simply as a chance to capture and document history of this generation's greatest coach.

"There was no film, there was no television program, no idea of how this footage was going to be used," Rodgers said.

Kraft green-lit the idea, and NFL Films accomplished a first, possibly in sports history and definitely in the NFL: wiring up a coach for an entire season, 21 games' worth — four preseason games, 16 more in the regular season and the playoff loss to the Ravens. "He was very accommodating with all of our requests, including that one (to be miked up for every game)," Rodgers said.

This summer, NFL Network and NFL Films came up with the idea to do a new biography series called "A Football Life," and they realized they already had the raw material for a pretty darned good premiere episode.

"We had no idea this stuff would be used when he was retired, or in his 50th season," Rodgers said with a half-laugh. "We just thought, 'Hey, why not show it now when the guy is still coaching and show everyone what it is like to be Bill Belichick?' "

The scene that got Rodgers and is likely to get you — it certainly got to Belichick — was when the coach visited the old Giants stadium for the last time. Belichick was moved quite emotionally, as the trailer shows, and it's a side of him we rarely consider. "I think it's a moment a lot of people will be talking about in the film," Rodgers said.

I found it interesting that Tony Dungy said he wouldn't have done something like this. I suspect a lot of other coaches would have passed on the offer, too.

"NFL Films always comes to you and they say that they will give you total editorial rights and won't use anything that you don't want used. So they try to give you that assurance," Dungy said. "But me, I wasn't comfortable doing it. They asked me to wear a mic during the Super Bowl. I didn't want to do it. I wanted to be able to be myself and not worry about cameras being around."

Also interesting: Belichick had no editorial control. An advance copy was sent to the Patriots, and two small clips that included football terminology were removed to help protect competitive balance and not reveal too much. Otherwise, it was hardly touched.

"I am not even sure if Bill Belichick even saw a final copy," Rodgers said.

Rodgers credits Belichick's understanding and appreciation for history, and his relationship with Steve Sabol, as the reasons this project came to life. Belichick also understands his place in history, and NFL Films pounced on the tremendous opportunity.

"I certainly understand (Dungy's) point, but I can tell you with 100 percent certainty Bill Belichick doesn't change with a microphone on," Rodgers said. "And I can tell you, he has no aspirations of being a movie star."

Good that we cleared that point up. Regardless, my prediction: This project is going to be the best football-related non-game action you watch this season.

 

The 'wow' factor

During the season, this space most often will be reserved for something that deserves a "wow" in a positive way. But it unfortunately smacks of sad reality here, in this case.

Tough week to be a football writer.

First, we learned of the tragic death of longtime (we're talking 30 years long) Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski at the young age of 51. Beloved by local fans, whom he engaged better than almost any other beat man in the country, Kowalski was one of the first ink-stained wretches — even though I really didn't know him personally, I am just guessing he would have loved that title hitched to his wagon — to embrace social media and online writing with all of its potential for change and growth.

Kowalski watched film, he answered emails from fans, he did radio incessantly, even doing a bit with a Detroit-area show mere hours before he passed. In a touching tribute, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz announced that the first question of the following day's press conference would go unasked, as Kowalski had earned the leadoff question spot in the lineup after his amazing tenure on the job. That's respect.

Then we learned that Jeff Offord, 47, who covered the Eagles the past few seasons, also passed away this week. What is going on here? Yes, this is not a healthy business at times: long and strange hours, bad press-box food, hotel beds, too much caffeine. It comes with the territory. But two writers dying well before retirement age? It frightens us.

I also was touched by the gesture of Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio, who heard about the condition of excellent Bills writer Allen Wilson and visited him in the hospital. The coach is from Jacksonville; the writer is from Buffalo; near as I can tell, the two men have no literal connection. But Del Rio spent time talking football with Wilson, who is bravely fighting leukemia in a Buffalo-area facility, doing his best to help pick the man up.

This all has more than hit home for me. It was mere coincidence that I happened to start a CrossFit regimen on Monday night, and though I am not one for drawing eerie connections, I am taking this as a sign. I am fighting through the incredible soreness I felt the day after my first three workouts (way more than I expected) and I am keeping up with this thing no matter what.

I might only be turning 36 later this year, but I can only keep thinking of my three colleagues, two of whom I each met only briefly over the years and one I never knew at all, as I keep pushing through the hardest part of the workout.

I started this workout program to get in shape for my wedding, but I am now continuing it to get healthy. Wow, this week has scared the heck out of me. That's not the kind of "wow" I want for a long time.

 

Controversial call of the week

This week we'll take this in a slightly different direction.

As you likely are aware, the NFL will be replaying all scoring plays this season. Coaches love it because it saves them a challenge; fans have groaned because it delays the call of a key play.

The intention of the rule seems good, but does it work effectively? Its merits have been discussed quite a bit this preseason.

This past week I asked five esteemed NFL broadcasters — five of the best in the biz — what they thought of the new system after having seen it play out through some preseason action. Notice the difference of views of the ESPN guys, who have talked about this quite a bit on the broadcasts this preseason so far.

Here are their takes on the matter:

Al Michaels, play-by-play announcer, NBC: "I don't think it's going to be that big of an issue, Eric, because most of the scoring plays will not involve anything more than looking upstairs and confirming what was called on the field. I think from time to time you'll see a delay — and what you would have seen in those circumstances is probably a challenge from a coach. So, you were going to have that delay to begin with. This takes that away from the coach of having to challenge a scoring play. I think that is good. I think what you are going to see here is much ado about nothing. I don't see it being a very big thing by the end of the year."

Cris Collinsworth, analyst, NBC: "I do think you will see a couple of things different. One, the whole idea, did they cross the goal line or not, something that ordinarily coaches would not challenge if it's going to be placed on the half-yard line. First-and-goal on the half ... is that something you want to challenge? Now we're going to get a full look at that, so maybe we'll see a few touchdowns called back or have added on that part of it. We did a game last year, Al — I think it was in Green Bay. I think it was about the third or fourth replay that finally showed the ball was dropped or the ball was out of bounds or something in the endzone. And from a television standpoint, I think it takes a little of the pressure off the television people to feel obligated to get the replay bang-bang-bang up, so the coaches can take a look at it as opposed to, yeah, you may want to get a reaction shot to the quarterback who is jumping up and down or the head coach who is doing a back flip or all the sort of TV-ish kind of things as opposed to the entire obligation being on us to jam in all the replays possible so that the coaches can get a look at it."

Mike Tirico, play-by-play announcer, ESPN: "I think it's great. I think it will add 2-3 minutes to the game. There will be a little bit of frustration to the game with time in between. But at the end of the day, if there is something that you can see at home and you know that it was or was not a score, I would rather see those plays taken to the max to ensure that they are called correctly. We have had this discussion about baseball — do people complain about a Red Sox-Yankees game because it takes a little bit longer? No. If it's a good game, you don't complain. You get involved in the game. So, in a football game, instead of running 3:05, it's 3:08 or 3:09. Is that really going to matter? To me, what matters more is that scores that are pure touchdowns that should be called touchdowns are not blown calls. Players move so fast, guys are so good at sneaking the ball inside the pylons and breaking the plane, if the technology is there to show it — and our guys are as good as anyone at making sure the plays get on the air — then I think you owe it to the people in the game. If it's a touchdown at home and you can see it on the TV, it should be a touchdown in the stadium. So, I am all for it, even if it takes two or three extra minutes of spending time with Jon and Jaws. Jon?"

Jon Gruden, analyst, ESPN: "I don't like the rule at all. What are we trying to do, save the coaches a challenge? We used to be able to challenge this play, but now it's not. Now it saves a challenge. Thanks a lot. I am sure the coaches appreciate that. It's not the length of the game; it's not the time of the delay to look at the play. It's the timing of the delay. It's the most exciting play in football. Now, where I get concerned is when I called plays on the goal line, I used to look up in the (coaches') box. I couldn't tell if we were in from the one (yard line) or not. It has always been a scrum, and it always will be a scrum. The official has to make that call. I don't like a red light at the most exciting time of the game. The fans are into the game, the place is going nuts ... you're going to stop every one of these 1st-and-goal, 2nd-and-goal, 3rd-and-goal plays to take a look at it? I don't like that and I think it takes away from football, the fans, the noise, the atmosphere. I don't like the red-light traffic stops in exciting points of the game just to save the coaches a challenge. I like the way it was, and sorry for that."

Ron Jaworski, analyst, ESPN: "I am going to give my perspective as a fan and take my analyst hat off. And this perspective was acquired when we watched the Bengals play the Jets in a preseason game a couple of weeks ago before our Bears-Giants Monday-night game. Sitting there as a fan watching the game ... I just thought it created too many interruptions. Each touchdown there is tremendous excitement, the fans are going crazy, and then all of a sudden you get a delay. The NFL is trying everything (it) possibly can to enhance the game stadium live experience, and all of a sudden you have an unbelievable play, Plaxico Burress catches a touchdown, crowd is going crazy ... well, it's an offensive scoring play, we have to review it. It takes 3-4 minutes to look at it, and all of a sudden the enthusiasm and the crowd is gone and they are sitting on their hands. I look at it from a fan's perspective, and I am not disagreeing with Mike because I think we want to get it right. But somehow it has got to be expedited."

 

Entertainers and icons

This week's edition includes some timely performances just as the preseason has wrapped up.

Golden Tate: The Seahawks probably were not seriously considering cutting Tate, but he certainly didn't hurt his standing with the team by finishing strong in the fourth preseason game. His 5-79 receiving performance against the Raiders included a 43-yard catch, as he separated in man coverage against S Michael Huff. Tate right now is a raw, unpolished playmaker but a dangerous one. His special-teams work in that game (a 43-yard punt return and a 34-yard kick return) shows that he still has some value to his team.

Vic So'oto: Who needs Frank Zombo when you have So'oto, the Packers' latest unearthing. The college DE-turned-pro-linebacker won a job on the world champs with a standout preseason, capped off by his pick-six against the Chiefs and QB Tyler Palko. The Lambeau Leap that followed? Not bad for a first-timer; he got pretty deep into the crowd. He also added 1½ sacks and a forced fumble in the game. The week before, So'oto strip-sacked Colts QB Curtis Painter, beating ORT Ryan Diem on the rush. How do you cut a guy like that? It's just the next in a line of amazing discoveries by GM Ted Thompson and his staff. Every year, they seem to find 2-3 of these Zombo-So'oto type of players, and last season it was exactly this kind of contributor (Sam Shields, anyone?) who came up huge and helped the Packers go the distance.

Reggie Bush: Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano pretty much sealed things up when he said that Bush "probably is going to have the most touches and the most carries" this season, using him in a variety of ways. It sounds good to say that Bush will be the star of the offense, that he'll be used on draws, delays, screens and the like, as well as on punt returns. Behind a subpar offensive line? I don't see it. Bush often struggled to find space to run behind a very good offensive line in New Orleans against defenses that were designed to take away the Saints' passing game. The Saints knew that and they traded Bush for a No. 3 safety with 15 career tackles in Jonathon Amaya. What exactly did the Dolphins see in Bush to make them think he could fill this role on an offensively limited team? To me, this move wreaks of the Hollywood-esque path the franchise has gone down the past few years under owner Stephen Ross and was not a sound football decision.

 

Ten takeaways of the week

 Here are 10 things I took from the fourth and final (yes!) week of the preseason, with clearly limited on-field results:

1. Here's how I think the Titans can justify spending more than $13 million per year in the final four years of RB Chris Johnson's deal: He's the only true offensive superstar on the team, and they know the reasonable price they are paying Jake Locker, their would-be starting QB of the future, for the next four years. Locker averages $3.15 million per season, and if you throw in Matt Hasselbeck's contract (if he stays for all three years), the Titans only have committed to pay their top two quarterbacks a total of about $32.6 million over that four-year period. That's not that bad when you think about it. Then, following the 2014 season, when they will have to address Locker, the salary cap could be north of $150 million. The length of Johnson's deal makes him 31, going on 32, when the contract expires in 2016. That works out for both parties. Plus, really, as colleague Arthur Arkush put it best, did the Titans really have a choice here? They needed their best player to suit up — and start.

2. I am guessing the Vikings now can go to work on Adrian Peterson's deal. And though he might be tickled, they are probably taking a deep sigh. They had to know Johnson would get paid, but more than $13M per year? That's tough. But like Tennessee, they have relatively little invested in their quarterbacks long term and can sustain a bigger hit financially. They pretty much have to, after watching big-name free agents WR Sidney Rice and DE Ray Edwards walk in free agency. Those moves were part of the bigger plan to keep Peterson, even though they made an effort to keep Rice.

3. The three leading passers from the 2010 preseason were: Charlie Whitehurst (635 yards), Matt Flynn (583) and Stephen McGee (524). So, we should take with a grain of a salt this year's leaders: McGee (610, quickly becoming Mr. August in this league), Richard Bartel (530) and Chase Daniel (447). Still, in the way that Flynn and McGee put their best feet forward and solidified their positions with the Packers and Cowboys, respectively, I think Daniel has done the same for the Saints. If Drew Brees went down for a game or two, I don't think they would be in big trouble.

4. To extend that stat to the leading preseason rushers, I would warn my fantasy-playing brethren not to get too excited about the prospects of rookie RBs Kendall Hunter or Da'Rel Scott producing big numbers for the 49ers or Giants this season based on the fact that Anthony Dixon (300 rushing yards, four TDs) and Jonathan Dwyer (183, one) were rookie studs last preseason but combined for only 265 rushing yards and two TDs in the regular season, mostly from Dixon. Still, both Hunter and Scott have shown their speed in the preseason and broken off long, impressive runs, and Hunter passed Dixon on the depth chart in San Fran in doing so. Scott was a seventh-round pick the Giants thought was too good and too visible to stash on the practice squad.

5. Higher-round pick today, cut tomorrow. It's the way this league is. Brandon Ghee, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and Rennie Curran, third-rounders in 2010: gone on Cutdown Saturday, 2011. Mardy Gilyard, Phillip Dillard, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, fourth-rounders a year ago: also cut this weekend. We've already seen Taylor Mays (second-round pick) from that same class dealt for pennies on the dollar, Jimmy Clausen (also a second) clearly on the outs in Carolina and, of course, we know what is happening with first-rounder Tim Tebow. It's amazing how quickly saviors turn stale in this league.

6. Belichick sometimes has some unorthodox methods, but it's fairly clear he has been dissatisfied with Brandon Meriweather for a while now. If you wonder whether the Pro Bowl is a semi-sham or not, this concludes the argument. Players routinely make the team based on reputation and name recognition. In Meriweather's case, you had a talented player who too often freelanced and consistently took bad angles to the ball and missed makeable plays. Belichick had seen enough. It appears that he has tried some interesting ways to motivate his club this preseason by bringing in a slew of big-name free agents for workouts (with Brian Waters the only one he actually signed), but his biggest message was cutting Meriweather. Maybe Belichick thought his team, coming off a 14-2 season, needs to be a little more urgent and realize their jobs are not safe based on where they are drafted.

7. Some players just play so well in the preseason that, no matter the odds they faced to make the roster initially, they just weren't going to be cut, a la Mark Herzlich with the Giants. Saints RB Joique Bell was another one of them. Bell, with 321 yards on 40 touches in three preseason games, is the kind of player the Saints wished they had last season when they were losing a tailback a week by year's end. I remember talking to a scout down at the 2010 Senior Bowl who said Bell was the best back in Mobile that year. I rechecked the roster. Clearly, LaGarrette Blount has rights to that claim as of now, and I suspect that Ben Tate will make some noise if Arian Foster misses any time. But there's no reason why Bell, one of the better stories of the preseason not named Herzlich, can't be a good complementary back in New Orleans at some point.

8. My reaction to Cam Newton being named starter? Nothing shocking. We knew this was how it was going. The good news: He keeps improving by small steps. One play that stood out in the preseason finale was actually an incomplete pass in which Newton, on a rollout, whizzed a pass about 30 yards on a rope to TE Jeremy Shockey as Steelers LB Larry Foote was draped all over the quarterback. He couldn't bring Newton down, and though the pass was incomplete, it showed just how athletic and strong the rookie is.

9. The Chiefs losing TE Tony Moeaki for the season is an absolute gut shot. This absolutely will damage this offense, which already appeared to be in some trouble. I really don't know how they replace their best chain mover inside the hashmarks unless it includes a lot more work for Dexter McCluster, a player who probably can't endure a major increase in workload because of size concerns. I picked the Chiefs to fall back to 6-10 and I now feel more confident they will struggle because of this huge, unfortunate loss.

10. The Colts' hiring of Jim Tressel as a game-day consultant got me thinking: Why shouldn't an NFL team bring on Butch Davis for a similar role? Davis is often chided in Cleveland for his tenure with the Browns, but he's a highly successful and smart football coach who really understands defensive football. Wonder if Jerry Jones might call up his old defensive coordinator one day and give him a job ...

Early Week One teasers

The top story lines heading into the first week of the regular season: