We have reached the time of year when the sound of shoulder pads colliding is music to our ears.
NFL training camps are open all over the country and fans will flock to see their favorite teams practice — and hopefully meet some of their favorite players.
Every team is optimistic. Every team is asking, “Why not us?”
There is magic in the start of something new. New beginnings allow us a moment of self-reflection, too, a chance to remember all of the wonderful people we have met along the way.
One person who enters my mind annually during the dwindling days of July is former Cleveland Plain Dealer editor Hal Lebovitz. Hal covered Cleveland sports for more than six decades and was always fair, honest and willing to lend a listening ear. Each Friday, he would come into my office in Cleveland, bringing bagels from the East Side of town (not as good as a New York bagel, but damn close). We would talk about all things Browns, the NFL, the past and the present, life, officiating (Lebovitz had a weekly column in the Sporting News called “Ask Hal the Referee”) and the future. Many of our conversations would end up in his Sunday column — in his words, not mine — where Lebovitz would give his readers his stream of his thoughts heading into each Sunday’s game.
In honor of Hal, I am going to borrow from his column idea and write down my own thoughts for the upcoming NFL season. There will be no specific order, only the things that have gone through my mind since the end of last season, through the offseason and into the summer sun waiting for the start of this season.
— Davis Mills of the Houston Texans is paying a price for being a third-round pick last year. Had he gone in the later rounds, most of the league would be talking about his excellent season as a rookie, where he outplayed all of the first-round quarterbacks except Mac Jones. Don’t overlook Mills — he is talented and, if he can stay healthy, he can be a legitimate starter in the league.
— I love how fans react when a team signs a once-great player who hasn’t been all that great in recent seasons. Can Julio Jones really help the Tampa Bay Bucs? I doubt it. He hasn’t been the same player since he turned 30 in 2019. He only played in 19 games the last two seasons, and in most of those games he's been injured.
— Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy shouldn’t be worried about Sean Payton looking over his shoulder but he should be more demanding of his offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore. McCarthy needs Moore to be better at in-game adjustments and getting the ball to his best players. If Moore improves, then McCarthy won’t have to deal with the Payton questions each week.
— Is there a clause in Tyreek Hill’s contract that says he must help promote Tua Tagovailoa? I didn’t think Patrick Mahomes played his best last year, but to say Tua is more accurate and better than Mahomes is a huge stretch.
— Last year, everyone was predicting a Carolina Panthers turnaround because Matt Rhule had a history of turning teams around in his second season. Now, everyone is predicting Rhule will be fired after this season. How did Rhule become such a bad coach in one year? Rhule’s team isn’t a five-win team in terms of talent. If the Panthers get decent quarterback play and Christian McCaffrey can stay healthy for the season — I know, big ifs — they will easily surpass their win total of 5.5.
— There are 10 new head coaches in the NFL this season — five first-time head coaches and five getting a second chance. Which one of the latter five — Josh McDaniels, Todd Bowles, Dennis Allen, Lovie Smith or Doug Pedersen — will have learned the most from their first stint as head coach and not make the same mistakes again? I believe all five will be much better this time around. A second-time head coach might be viewed as a “retread,” which is often wrong. Gaining experience in one of sports’ hardest professions can make you better in your second opportunity.
— Which one of the five first-time head coaches will demonstrate the skills to lead and be more than a glorified play-caller who’s in charge of the assistants? Nathaniel Hackett, Mike McDaniel, Kevin O’Connell, Brian Daboll or Matt Eberflus? My early money is on Hackett to make the Broncos better in all three phases.
— I find it fascinating that the New York Giants, with little salary-cap room, are the third betting favorite to acquire Jimmy Garoppolo. It makes sense. Daboll knows Garoppolo from their New England days and the Giants’ new regime can’t be sold on what they have seen from Daniel Jones after 38 career starts. As it stands, there’s no way the G-Men win eight games to cash their win total. Remember, they have only won 22 games the last five seasons. If I was in New York's position, I would be all over Garoppolo.
— Can we please place Clark Shaughnessy in the Hall of Fame? If it were not for Clark, there would be no forward pass. None. The man invented the T-formation and helped coaches such as Frank Leahy and George Halas win games. Then he became a defensive coordinator and started pressuring from the A-gap, which eliminated the shotgun formation in the early 1960s (the shotgun didn’t return until Tom Landry brought it back for the Cowboys). If former 49ers coach Bill Walsh were alive today, he would echo my sentiment. Walsh loved watching old tapes of Shaughnessy’s passing offense and would often borrow concepts for his own offense. My new book (coming next football season) will detail why Shaughnessy belongs and why there needs to be specific criteria for all eligible coaches.
— Pat McAfee on Peyton Manning’s preparation: "He dove into it. ‘Gotta watch every game the other team’s played, every snap they made, every practice clip from your week of practice, every game that your guys have played against a similar defense that they're playing, every single third-down situation broke up in there, every red zone, every first down.’ ” That’s what elite players do to prepare; they don’t need it contractually obligated. I could go on and on about Manning.
— Don’t sleep on the Vikings. Their offense is good and if they can get back to decent defensively, they can make a playoff run. I believe Kirk Cousins will play even better this season for O’Connell, the Vikings’ new coach..
— Until I witness Jalen Hurts throwing the ball with anticipation and timing in a dropback system, I will continue to have my doubts about his chances of becoming a top-10 player at his position. To win a Super Bowl a team needs a top-10 talent at quarterback. Unless Hurts makes huge strides this season, the Eagles will be looking for his replacement next spring.
— Ron Rivera has only three winning seasons in 11 years as a head coach. I don’t see that number going to four anytime soon.
— For all the love the Jets have received after the draft, I’m not sure fans have looked at their schedule and their numbers from last season, both offensively and defensively. They were not just bad, they were atrocious. Winning six games would be a huge improvement and I’m not sure I can find six wins on their schedule. Can you?
Keep checking back at VSIN.com. When news breaks I plan on writing, and hopefully I’ll be as good as Hal was back in his day.