If the NFL Draft Scouting Combine in Indianapolis is the league’s annual convention, the League Meetings are its Spring Break. Here in Phoenix, owners lounge by the pool with their grandkids, coaches eat nachos with their assistants, agents puff their chests and writers mill around the lobby in polo shirts and khaki shorts, looking for the next big scoop. Monday night was the annual party and Tuesday morning was the AFC coaches breakfast. Plenty of discussions were had. Here are the Day 2 Takeaways:
1. Mike Tomlin doesn’t care what you think about his roster.
The Ravens aren’t the only team that’s undergone a bit of an extreme makeover this offseason. The rival Steelers’ roster has seen a “bloodletting” of their own. Veterans Rashard Mendenhall, James Harrison and Willie Colon were let go, while starters Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis signed elsewhere. Starters Max Starks and Casey Hampton aren’t expected to be back, either. The Steelers have been quiet in free agency and after an 8-8 season, some fans are growing a little restless. Guess what? Mike Tomlin doesn’t want to hear about it.
"That’s March talk," Tomlin said on Tuesday of the concept that the Steelers have been free agency ‘losers’ this year. "I’ll see you at stadiums in the fall."
“Obviously there’s value in those guys,” Tomlin said of the departed veterans. “Obviously change is a part of football. That’s my challenge as a head coach, moving forward. To make that transition insignificant is a tall task, but it’s one that I’m up for. It’s one that I embrace. There will be ascending guys and descending guys, coming and going, and as a coach—that lights my fire.” "I acknowledge we got a ways to go," Tomlin said. "[We lost close games] because we weren’t good enough. Good teams win close games. Teams that are not lose those games. We were an 8-8 team. I’m not going to hide from that."
And if you think the fire that’s lighting the rivalry between the Steelers and Ravens has diminished at all because of the recent departures from both teams’ rosters, think again.
“Pick a season,” said Tomlin. “This year, it was added. Last year, it was added. The year before that, it was added. The Steelers-Ravens rivalry is one of the interesting things in the sport. Our fans dig their teeth into it and our fans understand what it means. We have two teams angling for similar goal. In the midst of that, there are going to be fireworks. I’m not going to apologize for it.”
The faces on the field may be different in 2013, but the rivalry won’t change.
2. John Harbaugh isn’t fazed. By anything.
Ray Lewis is retired. Matt Birk is retired. Dannell Ellerbe is in Miami. Paul Kruger is in Cleveland. And Bernard Pollard is a free agent, Bryant McKinnie and Ed Reed are still unsigned and Anquan Boldin is in San Francisco, suiting up for the other Harbaugh. Oh, and the season opener — traditionally a home game for the defending champions — could be played on the road because of an already scheduled baseball game.
Is John Harbaugh nervous?
Not quite. The Super Bowl winning coach has been as upbeat as ever this week, speaking with the same positive energy that carried his Ravens to a Super Bowl championship in 2012.
“It’s a new season and it’s a new opportunity,” Harbaugh beamed on Tuesday morning. “There’s no defending champion. It’s not like they give you a belt. They give you a trophy and you take it home and you get to keep it. We’re not going to give away our trophy for the 2012 championship. Instead, we’re going to go out and try to win the 2013 championship. That’s going to start from Ground Zero and from the beginning. We’re going to go back to work and approach that with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”
On the loss of Ray Lewis from the locker room this season, Harbaugh argued that his team’s prepared for the change, “The good news is that we’ve had some experience with that. Ray was gone for a good part of the season this year. He was gone for a chunk of the season last year with the injury things. We’ve had that. Guys emerged. We saw Terrell Suggs emerge. We saw Haloti Ngata emerge. Lardarius Webb emerged when he was healthy. We have great leaders. We have 53 leaders and 53 followers. Those leaders are going to emerge.”
The loss of personnel, though, can’t be ignored.
Harbaugh, always the optimist, says he looks forward to the challenge, “Tough and difficult is not the word, because it’s always tough and difficult. But it’s just different. We’re certainly not going to be complacent. We’re not going to walk in there and say we’ll pick up where we left off because we’re not going to pick up where we left off. There are going to be guys who haven’t played as much who are going to be playing huge roles. When guys retire and guys aren’t with you anymore, it means an opportunity for somebody — it’s getting their chance of a lifetime. We’re going to have players who are going to have a chance of a lifetime through all this, and they’re doing it for a team that just won a championship — so the standards and expectations are going to be very high. And that’s a great thing.”
"The worst mistake you can make is trying to hold a team together," Harbaugh said. "It’s impossible."
Harbaugh then brought up some advice from long-time Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler: "If you try to stay the same you end up getting worse."
3. Jaguars first-year head coach Gus Bradley may be the most charismatic coach in the NFL.
The Jaguars went 2-14 in 2012 and have been quiet in free agency this offseason, but Gus Bradley is making me a believer in the future of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He has everyone in Phoenix believing this week, too. The Jaguars have a vision and Bradley’s the right man to carry that out. Beaming with optimism, a contagious positive energy and a pragmatism towards building a team that just makes sense — Bradley is bringing a freshness to a team that hasn’t seen the postseason since 2008.
His key focus in rebuilding the Jaguars? Competition.
At every position, Bradley wants “discomfort” and wants competition.
“We have a strict vision. There’s no doubt that we want to try to get young. We want to get fast,” said Bradley. “And we want to bring that to the field. But things are out there that are appealing. You hear all these free agent signings and you think, ‘Ah, that guy could help us.’ But you have to stay strict and come back and say, ‘No.’ I am so big on competition, so when I see guys sign with other teams, I think, ‘That guy would have really brought competition for us.’ But there are other ways to do it.”
Bradley mentioned the way the Seahawks rebuilt their roster in Seattle in 2011.
“We brought 280 guys through the building and it wasn’t big signees. It was Brandon Browner. Someone who was cut. There are other ways to get competition. There are other ways to make guys uncomfortable in the building. Through all that, if you can get three or four key players who help you team, it’s kind of like draft picks.”
That competition includes the quarterback position. Though he was positive on Blaine Gabbert’s potential, Bradley didn’t deny liking what he saw from a prospect last week. He met with West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith and came away impressed.
“I sat down one on one with him and I just wanted to see how would he be once he entered our facility and our stadium. Are people going to gravitate towards him? Will he be a leader? Is he a guy that everyone will back? I wanted to see his competitiveness. Is he going to step into the building and will it be his team? I really just wanted to get a better feel for his mindset.”
“I was very impressed with him. I had high expectations and he exceeded them.” Jacksonville has the second overall pick in April’s Draft. Whichever way they go with the pick, they appear to have the right man steering the ship.
4. Broncos head coach John Fox hasn’t given up on Rahim Moore.
It was the play that changed a season. Joe Flacco hit Jacoby Jones for 77 yards. The Broncos were eliminated from the playoffs a few minutes later, and Rahim Moore became the subject of great ire in Denver.
“People want to over-react about Rahim Moore,” Fox said. “The Denver Broncos are not giving up on Rahim Moore because he made a bad play. If you ain’t been beat, you ain’t played.”
“We do a great job communicating with our players,” he added. “Rahim’s not lacking for confidence. If you play that position, you have to have a short memory. It kind of comes with the territory. It’s not just corners. Safeties get exposed in space, out in the open for the world to see all the time. At the end of the day, the way we approach things is — we as coaches need to coach them better. We take responsibility. We have to do a better job of coaching the situations.”
5. Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin never watched himself on “Hard Knocks”.
Joe Philbin’s first offseason as Dolphins head coach was on display for the world to see. As the team on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” last summer, all eyes were on Philbin.
Except his own.
“I haven’t seen one of them yet,” Philbin said of the popular series. “The kids thought it was good. They said it was good.”
Philbin said the NFL Films producers became part of the team and as the season went on, he looked forward to seeing them on the road.
With the additions of Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, Brandon Gibson, Dustin Keller and Phillip Wheeler, the Dolphins are a lot more exciting than they were a summer ago.
Then again, there will be no Chad Ochocinco this year.