NFL Nation: Bob Bratkowski

Back in August we considered the Jaguars’ philosophical commitment to isolation routes in the passing scheme.

Andy Benoit if the New York Times Fifth Down wrote back then:
The questionable talent at wide receiver could be extra debilitating given that (Mike) Mularkey’s scheme uses, almost exclusively, isolation routes. In other words, none of the receivers’ routes will combine to work off one another. Everything is separate and easy for defenses to identify. New offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski (who will actually be the one calling plays) had a similar type of passing game in Cincinnati. This rudimentary approach can work when you have high-powered receivers (Mularkey had Roddy White and Julio Jones in Atlanta; Bratkowski had Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens a few years ago in Cincy), but can be constricting when you don’t.

I thought maybe that would simplify things for Blaine Gabbert and rookie receiver Justin Blackmon.

But it clearly didn’t do much to boost what was a terribly anemic Jaguars’ offense until Sunday.

Monday, I found a very smart comment on this post about Mularkey deciding to go with Henne even if Gabbert was healthy.

Wrote Blackjacks1:
I think the Jags changed their offense in this last game. One of the link[s] you posted to a Jags preview early in the year talked about how Mularkey's offense used isolation routes exclusively. As you know isolation route are WR routes that do not work off of each other (ie. pick plays, moving the safety off his spot, etc). Isolation routes put more pressure on the WR to get open, because they don't get any help from the routes working together. I believe you made a comment about how that's not a good idea for this weak WR corp.

I've got great seats at the Jag home games. I can see the WR routes develop really well from my seat. And I'm telling you that the Jags were running isolation routes pretty exclusively in every home game this year. The WR were having all kinds of issues getting open and were getting no help from the offensive scheme.

But yesterday's game was different. The WR were definitely not running as many isolation routes. They were running pick plays. They were sending a man deep to clear up room for mid-range throws. And the WR (especially Blackmon) excelled in this gameplan because the pressure of getting open wasn't all on them. I also think this is why Houston's defense struggled to adapt. They hadn't seen any of this out of the Jags offense on film this year.

I took that to both Henne and Mularkey in conference calls just before lunch on Wednesday.

Mularkey said the offense is pretty much the same as it has been since his days running it in Pittsburgh, with some things from new assistants sprinkled in.

But Henne offered more, and enough to confirm that Blackjacks1 is a smart football observer.

“I think we’re definitely making combo reads with our receivers and a little bit more progression reading,” he said. “We’re just trying to find ways of how we can attack a defense and get our playmakers the ball. And whether that’s one-on-one matchups or combination routes, we’re going to try to add them all and see what they do best.”

Sunday, the Titans will be more prepared for some of the new stuff that may have been used for the first time in Houston. The Jaguars should continue to try stuff that extends beyond the core isolation routes philosophy.

Final Word: AFC South

September, 7, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Debuting as linebackers: Longtime Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis debut as outside linebackers in Chicago in new coach Chuck Pagano’s 3-4. In nickel situations they’ll probably look a lot like they always have. But on early downs they’ll be moving around and far less predictable than they’ve been in the past. They have the most favorable matchups of anyone on defense for the Colts in this game -- Bears tackles J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi are unproven pieces of a line that needs to offer better protection for quarterback Jay Cutler. (Here is Kevin Seifert on the matchups.) Pagano is going to find ways to attack those guys. The Bears should counter by getting the Colts into nickel and looking to attack nickelback Justin King and strong safety Tom Zbikowski until they prove they can slow the pass.

[+] EnlargeDerek Newton
AP Photo/Frederick BreedonRight tackle Derek Newton is part of a revamped right side of Houston's offensive line.
New right side: The Texans spent the preseason sorting out the right side of the offensive line after guard Mike Brisiel left for Oakland as a free agent and Eric Winston was released in a cost-cutting move. Enter guard Antoine Caldwell and the surprise winner of the right tackle job, Derek Newton. Per ESPN Stats and Info, the Texans averaged 5.1 yards per rush to the right side last season -- the NFL’s sixth-best average to that area. Caldwell played 210 plays at right guard last season, and Newton logged 11 plays at right tackle.

Crafty vs. crafty: Titans nickel cornerback Alterraun Verner is looking forward to going against Wes Welker. There are some things in which Tom Brady and Welker are virtually unstoppable. But Verner has a knack for staying on top of short, underneath stuff out of the slot and is good at trusting the coverage help a defensive call will provide. He said that although Welker is typically cast as crafty, he’s crafty too. Verner said that after this matchup, everything else will seem easier. How he holds up against the league’s most productive inside receiver will be a big piece of the Titans' defensive story Sunday.

Revealing an offense: Mike Mularkey said early in training camp that the Jaguars' offense won’t just be what we saw him call with Atlanta as offensive coordinator. Rather, he and his staff -- with guys like coordinator Bob Bratkowski, quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and running backs coach Sylvester Croom -- sat down and pieced together an offense that combines elements from all of their backgrounds. The first-team offense performed well in the preseason, so we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about its being vanilla. But I expect we’ll see some surprises on offense against the Vikings as we see what, exactly, Mularkey and his staff have constructed.

Questions to be answered: What’s the rotation at outside linebacker look like for Houston, and how much does first-rounder Whitney Mercilus get on the field to offer Connor Barwin a rest? ... Will receiver Austin Collie, not far removed from a concussion, play for the Colts? ... Does rookie linebacker Zach Brown get on the field for the Titans in packages with an emphasis on slowing the Patriots’ tight ends? ... With C.J. Mosley starting beside Tyson Alualu at defensive tackle for the Jaguars, how much will Terrance Knighton get on the field?
Mike Mularkey has the Jaguars' first-teamers lined up for 17-20 plays against the New York Giants Friday night at EverBank Field.

“Maybe more with the O-line to get Chad [Henne] a chance to work with the O-line,"" the coach told Jacksonville media.

As for the overall approach, Mularkey’s selling the same vibe most coaches shoot for -- he wants to win any game he’s part of, even if it’s meaningless.

But what gets done en route to attempting to win is more important.

“It is a practice game,” he said. “We’re practicing a lot of the situations like we do on the practice field. Now, it’s just in front of hopefully a full crowd in a stadium. It is practice. You are going to learn from it. You’re going to evaluate from it. Hopefully you’re going to get better because of it.

“What I’d like to see is us play really good, disciplined football. I would like us not to make a lot of mistakes that we’re in charge of so that we can get a fair evaluation. Let’s have a competitive game. Let’s get our guys out there playing fast and confident. We’re not going to ask them to do a lot of exotic things. We’re going to let them play and let’s just see where we are not only as players but as a team. As an offensive, defensive, special teams when this is over with so we can address what needs to get better or what’s good and keep doing it.”

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski was recently critical of the standing of the team's passing offense.

But Mularkey said he's got high hopes for protection, route running, Blaine Gabbert and the passing game.

Then Mularkey was asked, "Will it look a little better than it has in practice?" -- a question that seemed to turn him a little defensive:

“I don’t know," Mularkey said. "I’ve watched the tape so maybe it’s what you see in practice. I’m not sure what your perception is, but when you’ve watched the tape and you have a chance to study it like we do it’s not as bad as you think it is.”

Mularkey added that first-rounder Justin Blackmon will dress but probably not play.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If you care to think the Jaguars are a mess and going to be in the running for the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, they’re fine with that.

As they worked through the early days of Mike Mularkey’s first training camp, they repeated the new coach’s mantras (like, “we just want to get a little bit better every day”), fell in line with his policies (like potential $10,000 fines for answering media inquiries about injuries) and gave team-first answers to questions about the absence of their two biggest names -- Maurice Jones-Drew (holding out for a new contract) and Justin Blackmon (unable to strike a rookie deal).

Sure, they don’t have much choice but to buy in, but there is an undertone that suggests they have a secret to spring on the league in a couple of weeks.

Every team at this stage of camp thinks it can be good. In Jacksonville, a significant improvement from 5-11 is certainly possible, no matter what the popular storylines are. Honest.

Theirs is a defense loaded with quality, front-line talent. Beyond middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, most of it remains largely unknown. But if you don’t know linebacker Daryl Smith or cornerback Derek Cox or defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, that’s not the Jaguars' concern.

“If anyone feels we are not in a proper place or we have problems, that’s OK,” Posluszny said. “We feel like inside these walls we’re doing everything that we can to be a very successful team.

“Mularkey’s done a great job for us. He’s a former player who’s been through it. To me, that all means a ton, because he knows exactly what we are going through and what it takes to be successful.”

While the offense is being revamped, and Mularkey and his assistants are trying to reformat quarterback Blaine Gabbert after a horrific rookie season, the defensive system and bulk of the staff have been in place for a while now.

Gabbert has nice moments, but his overall inconsistency at practice halts any proclamations that he made a significant offseason jump.

No matter how much players and coaches talk about his gains in leadership, no matter how much faith the organization has in him, no matter how patient they are, it comes down to making throws under pressure.

The early snapshot says the defense can be really good, but that a limited offense could be the obstacle to the surprise the Jaguars would so like to produce. There is a lot of time to work on what’s been installed, to find what works and to run it better than it’s been run so far.


[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Phil Sears/US PresswireBlaine Gabbert finished his first season with 12 TD passes, 11 interceptions and a 50.8 completion percentage.
1. Is Gabbert good enough? He folded under pressure too often last season, but the rush wasn’t all he was facing. The team drafted him 10th overall intending for him to sit and learn for a season, but that plan didn’t pan out and Gabbert was hurried into the starting role for 14 games during which he had poor pass protection and very limited receivers.

There were big distractions off the field, too: Jack Del Rio got fired and the team was sold.

Mularkey was hired in large part because he’s developed quarterbacks, and he, coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson have to get steadier play from Gabbert and get his arrow pointing up. His good moments look very nice, but there are still too many bad ones that leave you shaking your head. A kneel-down would seem less disheartening in many of those instances.

It’s a slow process, installing a new offense and rebuilding a quarterback’s confidence. Exactly how slow is the question we need answered.

Mentions of mechanical or technical adjustments by his coaches have been well-received, and he acts on them quickly. That’s great, but when the rush turns live and the pocket starts collapsing, will he have open people he can stand in and find? We simply can’t know yet.

2. The missing pieces. Jones-Drew is demanding a new contract. The Jaguars have said they won’t give him one with two years left on the old one. Boom -- a stalemate. I can’t see the team altering its stance unless he holds out into the season and it struggles horribly without him. He’s got an ego that will make it hard for him to return without any contract alteration, so this could drag on.

Blackmon is a rangy target who can go get the ball, and missing early camp is helping no one. He got a DUI after being drafted fifth overall, and the team wants insurance against any further troubles. Blackmon's unwilling to give the Jaguars what they are looking for, though.

So we’re seeing second-year man Cecil Shorts work in the Z spot where Blackmon will eventually be, with veteran addition Laurent Robinson at the X. Rashad Jennings is the lead back without Jones-Drew in camp, and is a bigger guy who also ranks as a power runner. I liked what I saw and heard from him.

3. Will there be enough of a pass rush? The Jaguars had 31 sacks last season, and to reach their potential on defense they need more in 2012. More consistent pressure and more sacks will come with improved coordination from the defensive linemen.

Their line coach, Joe Cullen, said they just missed on a bunch of chances last season, and another season together and the work they are doing now will result in better communication. The Jags face Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton in addition to two games against Matt Schaub and two against hotshot rookie Andrew Luck this season, and they won't win many of those without consistent pressure.

The relentless Jeremy Mincey promises the production will increase. Andre Branch was drafted in the second round to help, and looks like a quality player. Depth off the edge remains a concern. Austen Lane suffered yet another injury while I watched practices, during which John Chick walked the width of a practice field dragging heavy weight as he rehabilitated his knee.


[+] EnlargeMike Mularkey
AP Photo/John RaouxNew head coach Mike Mularkey and his staff have made a positive impression on the players.
Mularkey and his staff. There is planning and logic to everything going on here, and the new staff has genuine concern for players on and off the field. Players are being told what the plan is and the right way to execute it. They felt that was lacking with the previous regime, and welcome it.

Position coaches like Olson, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and one of the key holdovers, linebackers coach Mark Duffner, are true teachers, and they have guys under them who want to learn. That leadership and teaching faltered in many areas at the end of Del Rio’s tenure. It’s present in full force now. If guys follow and doing so produces results, it’ll snowball.


A lot more is in place for Gabbert, and everyone has a stake in his performance: the GM who traded up to draft him needs him to succeed; the new coach who was hired to polish him needs him to succeed; the high-priced free-agent receiver and first-round draft pick receiver need him to succeed; the talented defense needs him to succeed.

Gabbert’s saying the right things and working hard, and you can see improvement on some drop backs. But there are still enough dud plays sprinkled into practices to make you wonder if he can succeed. The team wants him to avoid turning the ball over -- staying away from the worst-case scenarios -- and it's a smart goal, but will it make Gabbert too cautious?

Can you ask him to be careful and function as a game-manager type when the best attribute he has is a big arm that can get the ball into tight windows? It might turn out to be complicated.

Also, there is not great roster depth. I have particular concerns about the offensive line, defensive end and safety if someone goes down.


  • The team appears to be high on undrafted rookie linebacker Julian Stanford out of Wagner. With Clint Session’s future in doubt because of post-concussion issues, Russell Allen is likely to start opposite Daryl Smith outside. Stanford could make the team as a special-teamer who can provide depth. Brandon Marshall, a fifth-round pick, also has what looks to be an NFL-ready linebacker frame.
  • Mike Thomas needs Blackmon signed, in camp and taking the bulk of the snaps at one of the two outside receiver spots. I’m convinced that to get his head right, Thomas needs to be given the slot role and allowed to focus on it exclusively. His snaps were cut down during my visit, with Shorts working at the front of the line in Blackmon’s Z spot. The slot is what Thomas is best suited for, and his performance has slipped when he’s been expected to do more. He had a lot of drops early in camp, and Mularkey agrees with the potential for less to be more with Thomas.
  • Josh Scobee has the leg to get a lot of touchbacks and Bryan Anger has the leg to force a lot of fair catches. The Jaguars obviously still have to work on covering kicks and punts, but how often will they actually be covering kicks and punts? If the offense can produce some first downs, we should see more scoring, and more scoring will mean more kickoffs from Scobee and less work for Anger.
  • The depth at tight end is interesting after No. 1 Marcedes Lewis. Colin Cloherty got a lot of work as the No. 2 early on, and Zach Miller is another move guy who’s very intriguing, though Miller is rarely healthy. Zach Potter is giant, but hasn’t earned a lot of time, and undrafted rookie Matt Veldman is also extra large.
  • Posluszny is the centerpiece of this defense. He covers a ton of ground and makes big hits. He’s a model for doing things the right way, which is a major point of emphasis for Mularkey and his staff. Posluszny was a solid signing last season, and continues to deliver just what the team hoped for. That helps offset the fact Session, who also came to Jacksonville for a big contract in 2011, might not be on the field any time soon, or ever again.
  • The cornerbacks look good. Cox is really solid, and Aaron Ross and Rashean Mathis will be effective as the Nos. 2 and 3. The depth grew with last season's injury onslaught, and William Middleton and Kevin Rutland can play, too.
  • Branch, the rookie pass-rusher, came into the league facing questions from many teams about his ability to stand up against the run. The Jaguars have no such concern at this point. He’s got to be an effective part of a four-man group at end with Mincey, Lane and Chick. Branch certainly looks the part, but so did former Jaguars bust Derrick Harvey, so we can’t put much on the early eyeball test.
  • Along with Stanford, running back Jalen Parmele caught my eye. He’s spent time with Miami and Baltimore.

Jaguars Camp Watch

July, 25, 2012
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I'm certain of: Mike Mularkey and his staff will provide more consistent leadership than Jack Del Rio and his staff did -- especially at the end. While Del Rio liked to ride waves, Mularkey will be level and measured in a way that lines up with general manager Gene Smith better. Del Rio had people who everyone regarded as his guys -- in the locker room and even in the staff.

Mularkey is far more likely to not play favorites, to reward production and to privately reprimand guys who may not be doing things the way he wants them done. I think players will be more likely to rally around this coach as they see him avoiding the types of things that were sometimes interpreted as JDR throwing people under the bus.

One thing that might happen: Maurice Jones-Drew could be ready for a prolonged holdout. That’s what his old backfield mate, Fred Taylor, has predicted. Mularkey said this week he doesn’t know whether the Jaguars’ star player and the NFL’s leading rusher from 2011 will show up for camp.

Though he has two years left on his current deal, he feels his production last season warrants more. I can understand his position, because when he finishes this contract the team will be much more wary of his age and wear and tear. But the team is not unreasonable to steer clear of setting such a precedent, and running backs aren’t so valuable these days. Jacksonville was 5-11 with him, and I’d expect it could do the same without him. Hopefully things are resolved quickly. In the meantime we’ll get a better sense of backup Rashad Jennings, who missed last year due to injuries. I think he can run effectively.

One thing we won't see: Chad Henne in line to start at quarterback. Maybe they end up there at some point. But the Jaguars are taking the long view with Blaine Gabbert, and one season in which the team was sold, the coach was fired, the receivers were terrible and the protection was sometimes shaky was hardly enough to make a judgment on the No. 10 pick in the 2011 draft.

The Jaguars feel Henne gives them a better backup situation. But they don’t head into camp with a sense that Henne will wind up running the huddle. It’s Gabbert’s job. Mularkey, coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterback coach Greg Olson were hired to effectively build Gabbert into the quarterback the team envisioned when it drafted him. Their offense and teaching methods will be geared at maximizing his chances at success.
Justin Blackmon and Laurent RobinsonGetty Images/AP PhotoJustin Blackmon, left, and Laurent Robinson will learn from one of the most experienced receiver coaches in the game.
Jerry Sullivan spent the position period of the Jaguars’ offseason practices running slow-motion routes. Put your foot in the ground, like this. Drop your hips, like this. Don’t round the corner, like this.

Although free-agent addition Laurent Robinson and No. 5 overall draft pick Justin Blackmon are the most visible guys the Jaguars brought in to fix some serious problems at wide receiver, the guy who is coaching them in a show-don’t-tell style may prove just as significant.

Mike Mularkey had Sullivan atop his wish list for the job, but didn’t even call him. Sullivan, who will turn 68 on July 14, was retired.

“I didn’t reach out to him, he actually reached out to me,” Mularkey said. “I thought he was retired. Gene Smith and I discussed him initially and I said, ‘I think he’s out of the loop.’ Just by chance I was driving home one of those first weekends after I was hired here and there’s a text: 'Hey Mike, I’d like a chance to work with you and Brat [offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski] -- Jerry S.'

“So I called Gene and said, ‘I don’t know if this is the Jerry S. you and I talked about, but I am going to call and find out.' And it was. He had a couple other options, too, and I am glad he chose this one.”

A year earlier, when Mularkey interviewed in Tennessee but lost out to Mike Munchak, Mularkey had texted Sullivan about wanting him if he got the Titans' job. The link was set.

This time, Sullivan was in Atlanta training Brian Quick for the scouting combine. Sullivan sent that text, got invited to interview and after about three hours said it was easy for him to sign up to be part of Mularkey’s staff despite an opportunity in Arizona, where he could have worked with another receiver he’s close with from work during the lockout, Larry Fitzgerald.

The year before, with little job security as he formulated his final staff, Jack Del Rio wound up with an under-qualified receivers coach in 2011.

Things were such a struggle for Johnny Cox that when Del Rio was fired and Mel Tucker took over as interim coach, he fired Cox and shifted quarterbacks coach Mike Sheppard to receivers.

During the lockout, Robinson worked with Sullivan in Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeJerry Sullivan
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireJerry Sullivan is looking forward to the challenge of developing Jacksonville's receiving corps.
“He kind of helped me get over the hump and get into my breakout year [in Dallas],” Robinson said. “Having the opportunity to learn from him every day is going to be huge for me and the other wide receivers. He’s a great coach, probably the best receiver coach in the NFL. He felt like he could contribute and help turn this thing around.”

Sullivan may be approaching 70, but he carries the energy of a far younger man onto the practice field, where he’s exacting. As he instructs his guys, he leaves little to the imagination, banging home points he’s clearly hit in the meeting room and addressed on the field before.

In May, not having spent long with his new charges, he already seemed to have a feel for who needed pushing and who needed stroking, offering different things to different players.

He’ll be expected to squeeze production out of Robinson and Blackmon. He will also try to rebuild Mike Thomas, who ranked too high a year ago but can be a good third guy. He will attempt to help promising second-year man Cecil Shorts get over what appears to be game-day stage fright. He will aim to develop a gem or two -- perhaps undrafted rookie Mike Brown from Liberty.

“I like the challenge that belies me, I’ll put it that way,” Sullivan said. “I look forward to it. We’ve got a lot of young guys who’ve got a lot to learn, but I’m excited about their attitude and we’ve just got to put one foot in front of the other going up the mountain. Some days you slide a step. Some days you gain two steps. ...

“It’ll be a well-rounded group if everybody gets to where they need to be. We’ve got a ways to go. That’s a common phrase around the league, I know. Nobody wants to put themselves out there. My whole thing is the group needs to improve to be NFL caliber to win games.”

His biggest message in the offseason may have been this: When you run routes against NFL cornerbacks, you’re in control or they are.

“You’re either hearing elevator music, or you’re hearing Guns & Roses,” Sullivan said. “If you’re hearing Guns & Roses, you’re probably not going to be successful. You want to be nice and smooth and calm and in control of how you do it.”

In helping the Jaguars' receivers, Sullivan will be helping quarterback Blaine Gabbert, and that’s the biggest job for everyone connected to this offense.

“They can be more confident in that he knows what they are going to do and how they are going to do it,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s huge. I think he’s a young kid that’s got a nice arm. He’s obviously been maligned, unfairly I think. If we do our job and play at a good NFL level, we’ll help him be better and we’ll help the team be better.

Said Gabbert of Sullivan: “His knowledge of the game is going to help not only the wide receivers, but the quarterbacks, the offense and the entire team.”

Thomas got a lot of attention early in the offseason when he said Sullivan was super-regimented and the group probably needed that.

The new assistant certainly endorsed the signing of Robinson and the drafting of Blackmon.

If they are good, we could be back here saying he’s as important of a new position coach who has landed in the division.

“Jerry’s been everything I thought he’d be with these guys: very detailed, very demanding,” Mularkey said. “Plus, being a former coordinator, I always like to have those kind of guys in the room.

“His drive is still there. There is no way he could sit at home in the living room.”
Blaine GabbertZuma Press/Icon SMIBlaine Gabbert is pleased with his progress as he works to put an ugly rookie season behind him.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- I came to the Jaguars' headquarters at EverBank Field in search of specifics.

Blaine Gabbert’s terrible rookie year was well-documented. But his new coaches believe he still can become a quality NFL quarterback.

What have they seen that fuels their confidence in him? And can we expect to see improvement in summer camp and fall games?

We’ve heard from coach Mike Mularkey about how he respected the way Gabbert dealt with all the negativity connected to his completion percentage of just over 50.0, the 40 sacks he absorbed, the 12 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions, his 14 fumbles (five of them lost) and 65.4 passer rating.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski offered some analysis of what needed fixing in this “Evening with the Coaches” talk early in the offseason.

I wanted to pick up on that.

Enduring early lumps is part of the deal for virtually every quarterback early in his career. Now, with a new start, tell me about what he’s doing better, I asked.

The initial request was a long shot, but I was still disappointed that Gabbert and his coaches were unwilling to show me one play on film -- comparing and contrasting what Gabbert did with it in last year’s training camp or during last season, and what he’s doing now. No, they don’t need to go into that sort of detail or offer that level of information. But what would it have hurt?

Short of that, Bratkowski offered the most detail in discussing Gabbert’s improvements so far, circling back to what he touched on in that chalk talk.

[+] EnlargeBob Bratkowski
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliCoordinator Bob Bratkowski believes better footwork is crucial for quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
“Fundamentally, there were some times last year in his drops when he was getting a little bit long with his footwork and getting a little too fast,” Bratkowski said. “So what we’ve tried to do is get him to slow his feet down just a little bit, take shorter steps and stand taller in the pocket.

“Those are some things we identified when we first looked at him, and he’s improving on those things out there right now. You can see him carrying it into the actual plays we’re running in team situations.”

After a fast drop that took him too deep, he typically wound up shuffling forward as soon as he completed his drop, and his busy feet hurt his ability to make sound throws.

Gabbert said forming the new habit isn’t hard.

“The biggest thing all the quarterbacks are working on is just calming our feet down, staying in the pocket, not getting too long, not taking too long of a drop,” Gabbert said. “Because at some point in time, the angles get off with our offensive tackles when they’re trying to block a rush end …

“A lot of the footwork is dictated on the route concepts, the type of offense you run, the style of offense you run. And we have a different offense. We have different plays, and the drops go with those types of plays.”

Mularkey said the Jaguars' offense is about half installed at this point. Reporters are dismissed from OTA sessions once the team reaches the installation phase.

So, despite the reportorial desire to be shown, not told, those of us trying to track the team are left to rely more on conversations than observations regarding Gabbert and everything else.

In the handful of team plays I saw, one horrific pass stood out: a short throw over the middle that bounced well behind the intended receiver. At another point, as the quarterbacks threw to a couple of stationary receivers while running through some red zone possibilities, they were aiming for a target at the front left corner of the end zone.

The situation required a high, firm pass. After Gabbert’s first try wasn’t loopy enough, quarterbacks coach Greg Olson assumed the position of a cornerback the pass needed to get over. He stood with his back to the throw, an arm extended. But as he anticipated the ball’s arrival, he jokingly pulled his hands back to cover his head.

“Can I trust you?” he joked as he turned back to Gabbert, whose second attempt at the pass had cleared Olson and landed where it needed to, proving him trustworthy.

It was rhetorically symbolic, I thought.

"It really is about that to me, at any position with any position coach -- there's got to be a trust factor," Olson said. "He's got to feel that everything I tell him is meant to get him better. Three months into the relationship, I think we are developing that trust factor. If there is no trust there, you have no chance to grow."

Gabbert's teammates have big expectations for a big bounce-back after a rookie season that included the team's being sold and former coach Jack Del Rio getting fired during a 5-11 season.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a situation where a quarterback gets thrown into a starting role that early with the deficiencies in personnel that we had at that time, with a lot of things stacked against him,” said guard Uche Nwaneri.

“I think people kind of teed off on him. There were some things that he did that weren’t particularly the best, but, you know, he was a rookie. There were so many things happening that affect the quarterback as the result of protection, route running, guys getting open.”

Look, it’s somehow fashionable to say that the bad things Gabbert put on display last year serve as indisputable evidence he can’t be a successful NFL quarterback. I understand his footwork isn’t the only thing that gets sped up -- our assessments come faster than ever.

But judging a quarterback on 15 games and 13 starts with a bad team is simply too hasty.

Gabbert is not going to be Peyton Manning or Troy Aikman. But those guys were awful as rookies, too. Manning threw 28 interceptions, and his Colts were 3-13. Aikman threw 18 interceptions and didn’t win a game for the Cowboys.

Two things struck me as I spoke with Gabbert that I think are significant for right now.

Several times he talked about how’s he’s having fun, how football is fun, how the new offense is fun.

And he still looks and sounds the part -- he’s got confidence as he talks, and in the way he carries himself. He doesn’t look like a broken guy. He looks like a kid ready to go give it another try.

The biggest issue is dealing with the rush. Olson said the team is trading some seven-on-seven passing situations (where there are no linemen) for team periods where Gabbert has to feel pressure and sort it out. In drills without defenders, a coach or an equipment guy typically charges at him with flailing arms.

"For a guy coming out of a system in college where he wasn't only in the shotgun, but they had him lined up 7 yards deep, it was new to him last season," Olson said. "We're just hoping he'll be more comfortable with that environment, coming out from underneath center, taking a drop with an oncoming rush. That's all you can hope for right now, is the comfort level gets much greater. And it's been good."

Not having OTAs and minicamps didn’t hurt Cam Newton when it came to posting big rookie numbers for the Panthers, and it didn’t stop Andy Dalton from leading the Bengals to the playoffs.

Gabbert didn’t get off to the same kind of start, and maybe he’ll never earn his way into a conversation about the top quarterbacks of the 2011 draft class.

He’s getting that OTA time now. There is time to build slowly. It’s a different deal.

I wondered if Gabbert was appreciating the pace now, or finding himself anxious to get to the Jaguars' Sept. 9 opener in Minnesota, so he could do something to start to erase the dud of a first season.

“Everybody’s eager,” he said. “When you have a season where things don’t go the way you want them to, you’re always eager to get back out there. But it’s a process.”

The important people are willing to give him the time to go through it. The rest of us will just have to wait.

Pressure point: Jaguars

May, 17, 2012
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Jaguars and why.

Blaine Gabbert can deliver some big-time passes.

In a rookie season when he was on the field sooner than the Jaguars initially intended, the offensive framework a young quarterback needed was not in place. Injuries on the offensive line meant less-than-stellar pass protection. The receivers were a motley crew. Mike Thomas’ play dropped off after he got a new contract. Tight end Marcedes Lewis' play dropped off after he got a fat new contract.

Gabbert played poorly, drawing criticism for being panicky and, worse, scared. It’s too early to brand him. But the Jaguars' efforts now center on maximizing his chances to succeed.

He needs to pull his game up to at least average to justify the faith of Jaguars management and coaches. The Jaguars added Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson to the receiving corps. They’ll get Eben Britton back on the offensive line. A healed-up defense will do a better job at getting Gabbert and the offense the ball back and in better field position.

Coach Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterback coach Greg Olson are spending the offseason working with Gabbert. Come the season, they will craft game plans that give him the best chance at success.

The issues that contributed to holding him back have all been addressed. It’s time for us to see some of those big-time passes.
Shahid Khan has said he would have drafted Tim Tebow.

He doesn’t intend to tell general manager Gene Smith what to do, and he wouldn’t have drafted Tebow as high as 10th, which is where the Jaguars picked in 2010. But he said the chance to add a guy of Tebow’s magnitude, with the big local tie, is rare and he would have taken it.

So ...

Now that the Denver Broncos are a serious player for Peyton Manning, the presumption is Tebow would be on his way out if Manning was in. And it’s easy to connect the dots and presume Khan would urge his people to deal for Tebow, who surely wouldn’t cost a great deal given the limited market for him.

But no one with the Jaguars has indicated any interest in Tebow right now. No one who covers the Jaguars has reported they’d want him.

A new coaching staff is in place, and it’s looking to fix Blaine Gabbert and find a quality veteran backup to stand behind him.

Where would Tebow fit in that plan?

I don’t think he does.

While Khan said he would have drafted Tebow a couple years ago, he didn’t say he’d pounce on a chance to get him now. He’s got to trust the quarterback brain trust he’s put in place: coach Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterback coach Greg Olson.

I’m guessing they feel like they’ve got a project in rebuilding Gabbert and don’t need another in Tebow.

The Jaguars have cap money and big needs at receiver and defensive end. That's where Khan should be bold.

Leading Questions: AFC South

February, 22, 2012
With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each AFC South team as it begins preparations for the 2012 season:


Can they keep Mario Williams?

He’s an incredible pass-rushing talent most every team would love to have. Yet the Texans might be in a position where they have no choice but to watch him move on as an unrestricted free agent.

They should have had planned better and not have allowed themselves to be in a position where the franchise tag is an impossibility. They cannot tag the defensive end-turned-outside linebacker for $22 million, so they either have to sign him or allow him to test the market. He talks affectionately about the Texans and what the franchise did for him, and that leads some to be optimistic about the team’s chances to hold on to him.

But once he’s out there and being courted, things can change in a big way with big dollars on the table.

Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed are great talents, but they’d be better, and the entire defense would be better, if Williams were part of it.

It would be difficult for the Texans to watch Williams lift someone else's defense and put up big sack numbers. He’s also been hurt a lot, however, and if that continues, maybe there won’t be so much regret if he moves on.


How does the Peyton Manning saga sort out?

It’s widely presumed the team is parting ways with the four-time MVP quarterback.

It would have been impossible to imagine a year ago. But several unlikely developments have all come together at the same time -- the uncertainty surrounding Manning’s arm; the team’s ability to draft Andrew Luck; the dismissal of Bill Polian and Chris Polian in the front office as well as coach Jim Caldwell and most of his staff; the hiring of new general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano; other core players (Reggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday, Robert Mathis) reaching the end of their contracts.

The soap opera has been long and drawn out. It needs to be resolved so the focus on the Colts can be about those new leaders, Grigson and Pagano, the messages they want to send, the guys they want on the roster, and the systems they intend to run.

Owner Jim Irsay has been sloppy as he’s tried to gain upper ground in a public relations battle with Manning, who has not comported himself perfectly, either, as he’s tried to manipulate the story. But for the health of the organization and for the benefit of Manning going forward, this thing needs closure.


Who can they add to help Blaine Gabbert?

No team should do more to assess the free-agent market for wide receivers than the Jaguars, who had a terrible, insufficient group last season.

Mike Thomas can be a good slot guy, but if the Jaguars really want to maximize Gabbert’s chances of success in his second season, he needs his primary targets to be much better. Jacksonville has plenty of cap room, and a new staff can sell someone like Vincent Jackson on the chance to be an unquestioned No. 1 and be paid like it.

Beyond the people he will be throwing to and the ones who will be protecting him, Gabbert’s new coaches will be a big piece to his progress. Can coach Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson get Gabbert more confident in the pocket and better able to focus on his reads than on the people around him?

The team has talked of having a better veteran backup behind Gabbert to help him. The Jags need that guy to be a safety net, too. It’s possible the 2012 Jaguars can compete for a playoff spot, provided they get sufficient play from their quarterback.


Can they become more of a playmaking defense?

The Titans got great contributions from several rookie defenders -- middle linebacker Colin McCarthy and defensive tackles Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug will be a big part of things going forward. So will strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers, who wasn’t as productive in his rookie season as the Titans hoped.

Will the team be able to find more playmakers to fill out their defense? Odds are cornerback Cortland Finnegan will depart as a free agent, and although the team hopes to re-sign Jordan Babineaux as one starting safety, it should be looking for an alternative to another of its free agents, Michael Griffin.

The Titans would be well served to find someone with more upside as a playmaker in Griffin’s spot. And although they still expect big things from Derrick Morgan, it’s again time to find a consistent pass-rushing defensive end.

They need to rush better from everywhere, which is why they hired Keith Millard as a multi-position pass-rush coach.

Getting bigger up front didn’t necessarily pay off the way they planned. Stopping the run first was a theme, and they finished 24th in run defense.

Vick, Bengals would not have worked

August, 18, 2011
Philadelphia Eagles franchise quarterback Michael Vick had some interesting comments about the Cincinnati Bengals in September's edition of GQ Magazine. Vick said he initially believed that the Bengals and Buffalo Bills were better options than the Eagles.

Vick could not have been more wrong.

Cincinnati was not the place if Vick was seeking instant playing time. In 2009, the Bengals had $100-million quarterback Carson Palmer in the fold. Barring injury, Vick would have had no chance to compete or supplant Palmer in the starting lineup. Vick eventually took the job in Philadelphia from Kevin Kolb, who was a much easier target.

Second, the Eagles' foundation on offense is much stronger. Philadelphia's explosive West Coast offense compared with Cincinnati's system under former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski isn't close. Vick found the right system to learn and perfect. Philadelphia, in turn, tailored the offense to fit his strengths. Cincinnati's old offense under Bratkowski didn't have the same flexibility and creativity for Vick's unique talents.

Finally, the stability of the organization counts for something. From ownership, down to coaching and the players, Vick walked into a much better situation in Philadelphia. Vick is now leading a Super Bowl contender just two years after being released from prison. Meanwhile, Cincinnati is hitting the reset button once again and is considered one of the NFL's worst teams.

Best of NFL: NFC South teams

June, 30, 2011
Best of NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

As part of Best of the NFL Week on, here are five bests for the NFC South:

Best training camp venue, Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.,: That’s where the Carolina Panthers train, and they’re the only division team right now that goes away for training camp. There’s been a league-wide trend of moving camps back to regular-season facilities. But if you’re going to go away, this might be the best setup in the NFL. Spartanburg itself isn’t all that picturesque or glamorous. But the Wofford campus is gorgeous, particularly the football facilities. In case you’ve forgotten, team owner Jerry Richardson played football for Wofford -- and, later, the Baltimore Colts, before starting to make his fortune with his first Hardee’s restaurant in Spartanburg -- and he paid for those facilities.

[+] EnlargeKenny Chesney and Drew Brees
AP Photo/Tony TribbleKenny Chesney, pictured here with Drew Brees, has been known to show up at Saints practice.
Best coaching staff, Falcons: Head coach Mike Smith’s going to be challenged a bit this year because the Falcons lost quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave to a coordinator job in Minnesota, but they’ve replaced him with Bob Bratkowski. The rest of the staff is a group of all-stars, highlighted by coordinators Mike Mularkey (offense) and Brian VanGorder (defense). Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau isn’t a household name, but he’s one of the best in the business. For the past three years, the Falcons have given Matt Ryan great protection without having a lot of big names up front.

Best celebrity fan, Kenny Chesney: He’s not just a fan of the New Orleans Saints, he played for them. Well, sort of. A few years back the Saints held a press conference to announce they were signing the country singer/wide receiver to a contract. They never really did, but it was coach Sean Payton’s way of having fun with one of his best friends. It’s not unusual to see Chesney around the Saints. Heck, he’s even gone out on the practice field and attempted to catch punts.

Best team facility, One Buccaneer Place: It’s referred to as “One Buccaneer Palace’’ by some, and it is a palace on the inside. Also, despite popular belief, it was not paid for with taxpayer money. The Glazer family paid for the facility. The lobby and team meeting room are awesome and the locker room is the nicest in the NFC South. Heck, even the media room is, by far, the nicest in the division. The Falcons’ facility gets a strong honorable mention. In some ways, it’s just as nice as Tampa Bay’s facility, but the media room doesn’t even come close.

Best meddling owner, Arthur Blank: He’s not the Cowboys' Jerry Jones or the Redskins' Daniel Snyder, but I think it’s accurate to say Blank is hands-on in a healthy way. You’ll see him on the sidelines at the end of games, and he sits in on Smith’s postgame press conferences, which is pretty unusual for an owner. But I see Blank as more of a guy who cares passionately about his team and likes to keep a close eye on everything. He lets his people do their own thing, but he observes everything. Nothing wrong with that. After all, he owns the team.
Cedric Benson & Ike TaylorUS PresswireSteelers cornerback Ike Taylor, left, and Bengals tailback Cedric Benson are pending free agents.
The lockout has reached 71 days and counting, which continues to push back NFL free agency. This also means the league is bracing itself for an unprecedented whirlwind of player movement this summer once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.

With that said, here are seven questions and answers to get you up to speed on free agency in the AFC North:

Question No. 1: Will the Cincinnati Bengals re-sign tailback Cedric Benson?

Answer: Yes, all signs are pointing toward Benson returning. With back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Benson has been a good fit in Cincinnati. He had issues last season with former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, who was fired, and now Benson is excited about returning to the Bengals. As a 28-year-old running back, there will not be a huge market for Benson. Therefore, Cincinnati wouldn't have to overpay to keep Benson. With a rookie quarterback (Andy Dalton) likely starting this upcoming season, new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden says he wants to run the ball early and often, which has to be music to Benson's ears.

Question No. 2: Will the Pittsburgh Steelers re-sign Ike Taylor?

Answer: This is a tough one. Although I wouldn't be surprised either way, my sense is Taylor will not return to Pittsburgh in 2011. He's 31 and the Steelers would rather avoid the going rate for good cornerbacks on the open market, which is currently $8-$10 million per year. Taylor says he's wants that market value, and he has a much better chance of getting it somewhere else. Taylor already has two Super Bowl rings and this is his final chance to land a big contract. So no one should fault him for leaving. The Steelers will spend money on their front seven but do not value cornerbacks all that much, as evidenced by their recent draft history.

Question No. 3: Will Nnamdi Asomugha land in the AFC North?

Answer: The overall answer is no. I do not expect Asomugha to land in the AFC North. But if any team in the division has a fighting chance to get Asomugha, it's the Baltimore Ravens. Asomugha has a history with new Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who coached Asomugha for two seasons (2005-2006) with the Oakland Raiders. Oakland led the NFL in pass defense in 2006, as Pagano helped Asomugha develop into a star. That connection, along with Baltimore being a contender, could put the Ravens on Asomugha's radar. But money could get in the way as Asomugha is slated to become one of the league's highest-paid players. This summer Baltimore also is expected to make Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata one of the highest-paid at his position, and it's difficult to envision the Ravens fitting in both contracts.

Question No. 4: Will the Browns be aggressive in free agency?

Answer: Yes. The Browns have deep pockets and a lot of needs, which is usually a formula for teams to make significant moves in free agency. The Browns will have plenty of cap space -- if there is a cap -- so look for them to land at least one or two key additions. We mentioned two potential targets recently in defensive end Ray Edwards and safety Donte Whitner. Cleveland won't be able to compete with Pittsburgh and Baltimore until it closes the talent gap, so the Browns need impact players. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Browns is competing with other aggressive teams and convincing free agents why they should join a rebuilding team this season.

Question No. 5: Which players are on the chopping block?

Answer: There are several interesting names to keep an eye on in the division. The two near certainties are Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco and Ravens running back Willis McGahee. Both likely will be cut whenever a new collective bargaining agreement is reached because of their declining production and high salaries. Both are scheduled to make $6 million next season, and the Ravens and Bengals will be eager to slash that off their books and allocate those resources elsewhere. Also, Cleveland Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme and Bengals defensive ends Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom could be additional salary casualties in the AFC North.

Question No. 6: So where will Ochocinco end up?

Answer: The Bengals don't want Ochocinco, but there should be several teams interested in his services. Ochocinco, 33, is no longer a Pro Bowl-type receiver. But he can still be a solid threat and fits best on a contending team as a complementary weapon. In my opinion, the best fits for Ochocinco are the New York Jets and New England Patriots. Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis has publicly campaigned to get Ochocinco to New York, and Ochocinco himself has said he would love to play for the Patriots; he has a good relationship with coach Bill Belichick. Both teams are expected to be contenders next season.

Question No. 7: Will the Bengals trade quarterback Carson Palmer?

Answer: That decision is up to Bengals owner Mike Brown, and I don't see him changing his mind to make a move. From Day 1, Brown has been consistent in saying he has no intention of trading Palmer, who threatened to retire. There was a small ray of hope after the draft, once the Bengals landed Dalton, that Brown could have a change of heart. But he ended that speculation this week. I think it's a mistake for the Bengals to not at least field offers for Palmer and determine if the value is there. Palmer seems serious about his trade demands and it wouldn't do Cincinnati much good to have Palmer sitting at home in California. Multiple draft picks in 2012 could help the future of the Bengals franchise, but it appears Brown is more worried about setting a precedent for other unhappy players to leave. For now, it looks like the ball is back in Palmer's court to either return to Cincinnati or retire.
I still have lots of leftover stuff from the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans in March, so let’s grab onto another chunk of it right now.

The Atlanta Falcons have been very quiet this offseason. The lockout has kept them from making any transactions and their players haven’t been in any trouble (see Aqib Talib in Tampa Bay). Perhaps the biggest move so far in Atlanta has been the hiring of quarterbacks coach Bob Bratkowski.

Bill Musgrave had been in that position through Matt Ryan’s entire tenure in the league. Along with offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, Musgrave widely was credited with Ryan’s rapid development. But Musgrave left after this past season to become offensive coordinator in Minnesota.

The Falcons quickly went out and hired Bratkowski, who recently had been fired by Cincinnati after serving as offensive coordinator there from 2001 through last season. Bratkowski is the son of former University of Georgia quarterback Zeke Bratkowski, but that has nothing to do with why he got the job.

Much of Bratkowski’s time in Cincinnati was spent working with Carson Palmer, who had some good seasons, but also had his career interrupted by injury. Bratkowski’s offense with the Bengals was fairly similar to what the Falcons run and Ryan, like Palmer, is mostly a pocket passer.

Bratkowski also had stints as an assistant coach in Pittsburgh and Seattle, after starting his coaching career on the college level. He did a stint as Seattle’s offensive coordinator. At the owners meeting, I asked coach Mike Smith about the hiring of Bratkowski and he said he expects the transition to be very smooth.

“Bob has worked with a very successful quarterback in this league and is highly respected,’’ Smith said. “He’s been an offensive coordinator for a number of years and a number of teams. I feel Bob is going to be a very solid addition to our coaching staff. He has a very good background in the passing game. His teams through the years have always been able to throw the football. We’re excited about integrating Bob into our coaching staff and our offensive system.”

There’s a little more to this and Smith didn’t get into that, but I will. There had been some thinking around the Falcons that Mularkey could be moving on to a head-coaching job and Musgrave was viewed as his logical heir apparent as coordinator. Mularkey drew some interest this offseason, but only interviewed for one job. He could be a candidate for another job after next season and it’s wise for the Falcons to have a guy like Bratkowski already in place.

He’s experienced as a quarterbacks coach and can be fine in that job. But he also could step up and be a coordinator again if Mularkey moves on.

NFC South labor impact

March, 11, 2011
NFC labor impact: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A team-by-team look at how a continued labor impasse and extended NFL freeze on transactions would affect the division:

New Orleans Saints: This team is probably in the best shape of any in the division to withstand a long labor impasse. You almost get the feeling quarterback Drew Brees could roll out of bed on a September morning and the entire offense would be in midseason form. This is a veteran team with continuity on the coaching staff and the roster. A lengthy impasse actually could give the Saints a big advantage on the rest of the division.

Still, this team could use some time on the practice field. Coordinator Gregg Williams needs to get his defense back to the all-out approach it used to produce constant turnovers in the 2009 Super Bowl season. The Saints are likely to have a couple of defensive draft picks that they will want to work into the rotation quickly.

Atlanta Falcons: This team is somewhat like the Saints because Matt Ryan is an established quarterback, most of the coaching staff has been together the last three seasons and there is a good core of players in their prime. However, quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave left to become offensive coordinator in Minnesota, and it would be nice if Ryan could spend some offseason time with replacement Bob Bratkowski.

Defensive tackle Peria Jerry and receiver Harry Douglas were two players who didn’t produce big results last season. The Falcons have said both were slowed by injuries suffered in the 2009 season and they’re hoping for bigger things from them in the future. Jerry and Douglas are two players who could really use offseason workouts to earn increased roles.

Carolina Panthers: An extended labor impasse probably would hurt the Panthers more than any other team in the division. They’ve got a new head coach in Ron Rivera and a coaching staff filled with mostly new assistants. There is a completely different offense waiting to be installed by coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who doesn’t even know who his quarterback will be yet.

There’s a new defensive system to be installed too. That makes every offseason workout incredibly valuable, and the Panthers are supposed to get an extra minicamp because they have a new coach. Even if the labor impasse is short, every missed workout is going to be a setback for the Panthers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They’ve got their quarterback, Josh Freeman, in place and the coaching staff remains largely intact. But the Bucs aren’t quite like the Falcons and Saints when it comes to experience. They were the league’s youngest team last season and can use the time together.

Part of the reason Freeman blossomed and the Bucs were a surprising 10-6 last season was that Freeman spent so much time in the team facility in the offseason. He established himself as a leader and earned the respect of his teammates. In a labor impasse, Freeman and the rest of the players can’t go near One Buccaneer Place. Freeman has pledged to lead workouts with the receivers at other sites. That’s good, but it won’t be the same as working under the watch of the coaching staff.