All does not appear to be sunny in Philadelphia. Just days after it was reported that the Philadelphia 76ers are ending trade talks with the Los Angeles Clippers for disgruntled All-Star guard James Harden, the former league MVP publicly criticized Sixers president Daryl Morey.
During an event in China, Harden didn’t mince words about where he stood with Morey.
“Daryl Morey is a liar, and I will never be part of an organization that he’s a part of,” Harden said to a room full of people in a video obtained by Shams Charania. “Let me say that again: Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be part of an organization that he’s a part of.”
James Harden: “Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of. Let me say that again: Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.” pic.twitter.com/AmHJ0WwbF2
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) August 14, 2023 This comes just two days after it was reported that instead of trying to fulfill Harden’s trade request, the team instead intends on bringing him to training camp. It’s a potentially detrimental move for the Sixers, but given Morey’s history of standing firm when he feels there isn’t a worthwhile trade on the table, it’s not surprising.
The same happened when former Sixers guard Ben Simmons requested a trade from the team in 2021. The ordeal was dragged out for months, and Simmons sat out half a season before a trade was agreed to. While the Sixers ultimately got the deal they wanted, which ironically landed them Harden, it came at the expense of unwanted drama around the team for half a season.
With Harden now going public with his feelings toward Morey, a similar situation could play out once again in Philadelphia.
Harden opted in to his $35.6 million player option on June 29, right before free agency started, but then immediately requested a trade from the Sixers. This was after months of reported rumors that the guard could consider a move to his former team, the Houston Rockets. But this surprising decision was done with the intention of landing on his hometown team, the Clippers, which has been viewed as the only team really bidding for the former league MVP’s services.
Now, though, it appears the Sixers are willing to wait this thing out in hopes of landing a better deal. The Clippers have reportedly been against including guard Terance Mann in a deal for Harden, but perhaps they change their minds as the season gets closer. There’s also always the possibility that another team jumps into the Harden sweepstakes, especially around the trade deadline in February if this isn’t resolved.
Dallas Cowboys right guard Zack Martin is a generational talent. The eight-time Pro Bowler and six-time first-team All-Pro — tied for the third-most all-time for a guard in league history railing only the seven earned by a couple of Hall of Famers in Randall McDaniel and John Hannah — hadn’t participated in the Cowboys’ training camp because of a contract dispute around his value in relation to his position’s around the NFL.
Martin was holding out of camp with two years left on his six-year, $84 million contract he signed back in 2018. He was slated to earn base salaries of $1.7 million and $13 million in addition to signing bonus payments of $9.34 million in each season, according to OverTheCap.com.
Now, his holdout is over, thanks to a deal that will compensate Martin $18 million in each of the next two seasons, all of which is fully guaranteed. He will take home an extra $8.5 million over the next two seasons, according to ESPN. That increase closes the gap between his average annual salary on his previous deal, $14 million, and the top of the market — Atlanta Falcons offensive guard Chris Lindstrom’s five-year, $105.2 million contract that averages $20.5 million a season. Once the news broke of Martin’s return to training camp after his renegotiated deal was complete, his offensive coaches celebrated like they won the lottery.
“It was great to get him back,” Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday. “When we got the news in the offensive staff meeting yesterday, the room erupted. There were a lot of high fives and hugs all day and night yesterday once he got in. I think that shows you what he means to us and our football team, especially the offense. It is a business, part of our industry, but we’re about connecting and doing what we need to do to win, and he’s a big part of that.”
Zack is BACK…tell a friend! ⭐️#DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/iChMlv2EfT
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) August 15, 2023 Not only is Martin a superstar on the field — his six First-Team All-Pro selections since entering the league in 2014 are the second most in that span behind future Hall of Famer and Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s seven — but the team captain is one of McCarthy’s favorite lead-by-example presences in the Cowboys locker room.
“So many ways on and off the field,” McCarthy said when asked how Martin makes his teammates better. “Look at the way he trains and prepares. His training is top notch. He’s super consistent and humble. He pays it forward and helps young guys. Has excellent relationships throughout the building. Other than that, when he puts his hand in the ground, he’s really good. He does everything right. … When you go through the spring and you install the runs and protections, a very high percentage of the time he’s a part of that teaching reel,” McCarthy said. “Obviously his reputation in the locker room and the leadership council, all of those things. It’s very beneficial for his teammates [for Martin to be in camp], especially for the younger guys.”
Since the 32-year-old missed the first few weeks of camp, he won’t be jumping into any 11-on-11 action in practice this week. However, the Silver and Blue plan to have him ready to butt heads with defensive linemen again as early as next week.
“The goal for Zack is to ramp him up through individual work,” McCarthy said. “I think you can understand he’s been training, so he just wants to get in his pads and get moving. That’s where we will start today and see how that goes. Maybe we’ll do more tomorrow. We’re going to be smart with him. … He’s just excited to get everything buttoned up this week, and then get into some live drills next week.”
Kenny Pickett’s rookie stat line is nothing short of puzzling, and it’s led some to wonder whether or not the Steelers have actually found Ben Roethlisberger’s long-term successor.
Pickett’s supporters point to his 7-6 record as a starting quarterback (that included a 4-0 finish) and his four game-winning drives. His detractors counter with his seven touchdowns against just nine interceptions and his pedestrian 63 percent completion percentage. Just one of those picks, however, occurred during Pickett’s final eight starts, a drop-off Pickett attributes to getting more reps with the first-team offense after replacing Mitch Trubisky in Week 4.
“I think just seeing it and being able to play a little bit,” Pickett recently told NBC Sports’ Peter King from training camp. “Being on the practice team the first couple weeks, I wasn’t able to play in our system. I was just running other people’s stuff. So all of my reps in our system was really mental reps.
“So I think after the bye week — and I was able to play the previous three weeks — I had a chance to get a good practice week in with the guys. Things started to slow down for me and the system felt more comfortable. I had a lot of reps, I got to see things, and I felt like the game slowed down for me a little bit. That’s something that I want to continue to do; take a lot of reps out there and see different looks. It just helps in being able to play fast on Sundays.”
ASHBURN, Va. — Ignore, for a moment, the fact that it’s Sam Howell — he of one career start — and not two-time MVP and two-time Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, and there are some similarities. At least in warmups. The tosses to get his arm loose are followed by little underhand flips and side-arm flicks and run-pass options and other movements that have been a big part of making Mahomes the league’s best. Heck, there’s even Eric Bieniemy whispering in his ear one moment and then yelling loud enough for all to hear the next.
Howell isn’t Mahomes. He won’t be Mahomes. But that’s not the point. Bieniemy and Howell are in new roles — the former a full-time play-caller, the latter an NFL starting quarterback — tasked with jumpstarting a Commanders offense that has been mostly dormant under head coach Ron Rivera and now-former offensive coordinator Scott Turner.
Bieniemy’s new system will surely include the gadgets and gizmos and trickery that existed in Kansas City. It’s a system that Howell said he entered training camp with “full command.” But perhaps the biggest difference will be the short passing game. The Chiefs have done it better than anyone else. The Commanders have not.
“The past system, we didn’t have much of a quick passing game,” tight end Logan Thomas said. “This system… I mean, you gotta have a quick passing game, because if not, everybody’s just gonna drop out, everybody’s gonna be underneath everything. Then you call the deep pass, and they’re ready to step up because they’re tired of giving up 7 (yards), they’re tired of giving up 5, they’re tired of giving up 6. And then you get 25 over the top, and if you look at Kansas City, that’s exactly what they did, too.”
Passes Thrown At or Behind Line of Scrimmage in 2022, with NFL Rank
Chiefs Commanders Yards 914 (1st) 439 (22nd) Yards per attempt 6.0 (2nd) 3.6 (29th) Completion percentage 84.9 (1st) 71.3% (24th) Expected points added per dropback 0.25 (1st) -0.35 (25th) Touchdowns 12 (1st) 0 (T-last) It’s the last column in particular that stands out. The Chiefs’ 12 touchdowns on throws at or behind the line of scrimmage last year were not only more than double the next-closest team but the most by any team since tracking began in 2006. The Commanders, meanwhile, were one of only two teams without a single touchdown on those plays last year along with the Seahawks, who had a much more productive downfield passing attack.
And that wasn’t just a feature of last year’s Tyreek Hill-less attack in Kansas City. The 2020 Chiefs had the second-most touchdowns on throws at or behind the line of scrimmage since 2006 (10). Tied for third most? The 2018 Chiefs with eight. It’s been a staple of Kansas City’s wildly successful offense, of which Bieniemy helped create.
Of those 12 touchdowns last year, six went to running backs, four went to wide receivers and two went to tight ends.
That’s why running back Antonio Gibson says “It’s super exciting — not just to talk about the running backs — what they do with everybody and, you know, what [Bieniemy] got in store for everybody.”
That’s why Rivera has stressed getting balls into playmakers’ hands early and often. On Wednesday, the first four plays of the first series of 11-on-11 work featured exclusively quick throws from Howell: a completion to running back Brian Robinson Jr., a miss to Terry McLaurin, then completions to Curtis Samuel and Dax Milne before scrambling before a check down to Gibson.
“One of the things that we talked about in bringing Eric Bieniemy here was getting the ball to our playmakers in space,” Rivera said. “There’s been several balls that have gone quicker to Terry, to Jahan [Dotson], to Curtis, with the occasional shot going vertical.
“Getting the ball in the tight ends’ hands, utilizing them even more, expanding their role, and then also not just handing the ball off to the running backs. … But also using them as a receiving weapon, getting the ball in their hands in space, whether it was coming out of the backfield or running their swing pattern.”
Samuel could be a particularly intriguing chess piece for Bieniemy to deploy. Last year, Samuel was one of three players — and the only wide receiver — with at least 650 receiving yards and 150 rushing yards.
“I think it fits him very well,” Rivera said. “Go back and get an opportunity to look at the stuff they did in Kansas City and look at how creative and inventive they’ve been over the years with the receivers that they’ve had.”
Of course the short passing game isn’t always a “quick” passing game. A major part of the Chiefs’ success was on screens, a throw behind the line of scrimmage that can take time to develop.
“A lot of it is you’re making the defense believe something is happening, and then it’s just a misdirection making something [else] happen,” said offensive tackle Andrew Wylie, a two-time champion with Kansas City who got a three-year deal with Washington this offseason. “All 11 players need to be dialed into the details. There’s a ton of different screens in this offense, and they are a big part of it.”
Unsurprisingly, the Chiefs were excellent on screens last year, ranking first in the league in passer rating (113.9), second in expected points added per dropback (0.20) and third on yards per attempt (6.6) on those plays. The Commanders, meanwhile, ranked 30th, 22nd, and 20th in those respective metrics.
While the quick passing game depends almost entirely on quarterback and receiver, the screen game relies upon athletic offensive linemen as well. Last year, veteran guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner struggled in that aspect. This year, Washington turns to Sam Cosmi at right guard and Saahdiq Charles at left guard, hoping for an infusion of youth and athleticism.
Cosmi in particular has looked sharp after moving from tackle to guard, garnering praise from Pro-Bowl defensive tackle Daron Payne.
“He’s one of those guys that’s pretty quick and agile,” Payne said. “It’s hard to do kind of some of the things that I like to do against him.”
He’s not alone.
“Just an incredible athlete,” Wylie said of Cosmi. “And the fact that they moved him down to guard and I get to play next to a guard of that athletic capability is just awesome to have. He truly brings it to practice every day. … It’s awesome playing next to Sam.”
Cosmi blew the 2021 NFL Combine out of the water, registered a 9.99 Relative Athletic Score (with 10.00 being the max) and posting “elite” measurements in both speed and agility. Normally pretty stoic when doing interviews, Cosmi couldn’t help but smile just a bit when envisioning leading the way on screens.
“I think it’s a really good package,” Cosmi said. “I think it’s going to be very beneficial for us in the season and opening up drives and doing that type of stuff. I’m a big fan of screens. Hearing that, knowing that, it’s big time.”
Success on the small throws may be the biggest step in improving Washington’s offense. With Howell, Bieniemy, an overhauled offensive line and plenty of capable weapons, they hope the right formula is finally in place.
If there’s been a buzzkill during an otherwise positive opening week of Steelers training camp, it’s been the injuries to Pittsburgh’s secondary. Multiple Steelers defensive backs have suffered injuries over the past week, with one potentially serious injury.
Rookie cornerback Cory Trice Jr. got carted off the field on Wednesday after suffering an injury to his lower right leg, according to the Tribune-Review. He placed placed on the team’s injured reserve list on Wednesday, thus ending his rookie season. In a corresponding move, the Steelers signed cornerback Isaiah Dunn along with safety Trenton Thompson. Pittsburgh also waived/injured running back Alfonzo Graham, who suffered a season-ending injury during the first week of camp.
Earlier in camp, safety Damontae Kazee suffered an ankle injury that has kept him from participating in practice. Pittsburgh’s secondary has also been without All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has been excused from practice for personal reasons. With Fitzpatrick out, fellow safety Kenny Robinson has taken advantage of his extra practice reps. Robinson, a local product who played college football at West Virginia, received first-team reps on Tuesday after having two interceptions during Sunday’s practice.
A seventh-round pick, Trice has enjoyed a solid start to his first NFL training camp. He made two big plays at the start of Saturday’s practice to help the defense win Seven Shots, a seven-play drill between the offense and defense from the two-yard-line. Trice, with several veterans getting a rest day on Sunday, received extensive reps going up against starting wideout George Pickens.
“I love it,” Trice recently told CBS Sports when asked about the challenge of facing Pittsburgh’s deep receiving corps. “All those guys are good at what they’re good at. Everyone’s got different tools. I’m seeing everything. I love going against those guys and seeing different things.”
Once football’s glamour position, running back is currently under attack by a system that has diminished their monetary value. Austin Ekeler — with his and his peers’ livelihoods being challenged — has offered a temporarily solution that could lead to better days for him and the league’s other top-tier running backs.
The solution was formed during a private meeting between organized by Ekeler that included some of the league’s top backs, including Ekeler, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, San Francisco’s Christian McCaffrey, Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, New York’s Saquon Barkley, Las Vegas’ Josh Jacobs and Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris. The issue at hand was the financial hit that the running back position has taken recently, as many of the league’s best backs are playing well below their market value.
“All the running backs out there, what we can do in the short term is to continue to make an impact,” Ekeler said during a one-on-one interview with CBS Sports. “I’m going to go out there and try to score as many touchdowns as I can, play my game, be consistent, make a big impact. And also, when we get asked about it, have some type of narrative. For us, we need to have some consistent messaging when it comes to that. … That’s why we had to have those calls. Things like that are things we can do in the short term to help ourselves out.”
Ekeler is among the league’s top backs who are grossly underpaid. While his current market value is $12.82 million per season (via Spotrac), Ekeler’s 2023 salary includes a $6.5 million base salary and a $1.5 million signing bonus. He requested a trade this offseason over his salary before accepting the Chargers’ offer of an extra $1.75 million in incentives for what is his final year under his current contract.