Now that his talent and maturity are in better balance, Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant is finally ready to take off as a pass-catching star, writes Austin Murphy in this week’s SI 2013 NFL Preview. As the Cowboys added structure to his life, it started to click for Bryant, who might have been the NFL’s best receiver in the second half of last season. “It’s not like I didn’t want to do things the right way,” Bryant says. “I just really never knew how to get there, if that makes sense.” (PAGE 60) You can read the entire article on SI.com here.
Bryant has long been pegged as “troubled,” but Murphy finds he wasn’t a bad seed. Rather, his maturity and talent were out of balance. Murphy asks Bryant about his arrest in July 2012 for allegedly assaulting his mother. The police report says he grabbed her by her T-shirt and hair, bruised her arms and hit her across the face with his ball cap. Asked to address those allegations, Bryant says, “I would be a crazy dude, man, to put my hands on my mom. I did not put my hands on my mom, did not even attempt to put my hands on my mom”—other than to defend himself, he clarified. What about the hat? “I remember taking my hat off and slamming it on the ground,” he says, but he denies hitting her. “I love my mom,” he replies. “We love each other.” (PAGE 62)
When he was suspended for most of his 2009 junior year at Oklahoma State for lying to the NCCA about having a relationship with Deion Sanders, Bryant says he panicked. “I lied,” he concedes. “I didn’t take any gifts. But I should’ve told them I went to his home.” (PAGE 62)
Murphy also dives into Bryant’s childhood. His mother, Angela, had Bryant when she was just 15. When Dez was eight, she was arrested for selling crack and spent 18 months in jail. Dez moved in with his father, from whom he is now estranged. Bryant fought through tough times as a child knowing that he was destined to be a great football player. “I always felt chosen,” Bryant says. “By that I mean, God gave me the ability to help myself and my family. I always had that in my head.” (PAGE 60) Bryant is not yet ready to talk at length about his upbringing. “When you hear the whole story, I promise you, you’re gonna be overwhelmed.” (PAGE 66)
Murphy writes that nobody ever questioned Bryant’s love of the game or his work ethic. “Dez is one of my favorite teammates I’ve ever had,” says eight-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten. “What’s happening now is that he’s raised the bar for himself. He’s attacking meetings the way he attacks practices and games. He’s becoming a true pro.”
In Bryant’s rookie year, Dallas coach Jason Garret recalls, “we could have fined him five hundred times. He’s late for this, late for that . . . . He had no structure in his life.” (PAGES 59-60). While Bryant may still squirm through meetings, Garrett says he has become, “a more consistent person,” doing what he’s supposed to do on a more regular basis. “He gets back to you when you text him. His routes are more precise. He knows what his hot adjustments are.” (PAGE 60)
After Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo forced a bullet pass to Bryant in a scrimmage during the Cowboys’ first day of full contact at this year’s training camp, a longtime team observer noted, “That’s why Dez is going to have a big year. Romo trusts him now.” (PAGE 60)
Thanks to four young stars (Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson) and an influx of strong-armed, light-footed rookie hopefuls, the read-option is giving NFL offenses alternatives that produce results. The four teams that ran the read-option in 2012—the 49ers, Panthers, Redskins and Seahawks—were among the league’s top nine in yards gained per play, went a combined 39-24-1 and won two of the NFC’s four divisions. In this week’s SI 2013 NFL Preview, Greg Bedard looks at the scheme that is taking over football and how to stop it.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin likens the read-option to the Wildcat, calling it “the flavor of the month.” On the other hand, Jets coach Rex Ryan, one of the game’s most creative defensive minds, says “I think it’s here to stay for the simple fact that [teams] are getting these mobile quarterbacks [who have] the size, speed and all that type of stuff.” (PAGE 42)
So how do you stop the read-option? Bedard finds that dozens of NFL coaches consulted in the offseason with college coaches who regularly deal with the read-option. Bedard learned that, “Defenses basically have two choices against the read-option: speed up or slow down.” (PAGE 43)
Stanford’s director of defense Derek Mason leads the slow movement. “If you come up the field and then try to squeeze [down toward the running back], it doesn’t give [the quarterback] a fast read,” says Mason, scribbling furiously on the whiteboard in his office. “Don’t give a fast read, give a slow read.” The other option is to attack the quarterback. “A lot of times you want to speed up the quarterback on his read,” says Clemson co-defensive coordinator Marion Hobby. “It allows the defense to dictate what goes on up front.” (PAGE 43)
Bedard notes that the speed-up scenario usually requires the defense to bring an extra defender to the line of scrimmage, taking a player out of the backfield and making the D more susceptible to the pass. “It makes it difficult to defend when you’re able to pull the ball back off one of these fakes and there’s a receiver who’s 20 yards open,” Saints coach Sean Payton says. “We’re not used to seeing that in our game.” (PAGE 46)
A group of NFL coaches believes the read-option will be phased out because of the injury potential for quarterbacks. However, Bedard notes that Griffin’s injury last year came on a scramble from a drop-back play and pocket passers like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have gotten injured in the past too. And nobody that uses the read-option implements it full-time. “[The 49ers] aren’t running Kaepernick an inordinate amount of times,” Mason says. “I don’t see [the read-option] going away anytime soon, but you’re not going to see it 25 times a game.” (PAGE 46)
In this week’s Sports Illustrated, senior writer Tim Layden profiles 38-year-old Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, who has made a career of far exceeding his undersized expectations and is closing in on the NFL’s defensive iron man streak.
After 15 years, Fletcher is tied for the fourth-longest consecutive games played streak in NFL history with 240. In the story he reveals that he has suffered many concussions over the years and admits that he is well aware of the risk that a long career’s worth of head blows brings but doesn’t let it stop him from playing. “I’ve seen the situation some guys are in,” he says, “but this is what I signed up for.” So how many concussions does Fletcher thing he has had? Single digits? “Probably not,” Fletcher says. “I’ve been playing a long time.” (PAGE 36)
The linebacker also has experienced his fair share of other injuries – from his hamstring to his right elbow – over the past few years but continues to play despite the pain might be he in. “Nobody made me do it,” says Fletcher. “I asked the questions I needed to, and then, when I was convinced wasn’t putting myself at risk, I did it. It’s not fun, but I couldn’t imagine myself not being out there on Sunday.” (PAGE 36)
His fearless attitude and passion to succeed is something Fletcher’s teammates recognize and admire. “Everybody talks about how they get after it, but how many guys can say they gave everything they had on every play?” says former linebacker Mike Jones, who played alongside Fletcher in St. Louis. “Almost none. It’s a trait few guys have. London has it.” (PAGE 36)
In order to keep up with the physical demands football requires of its players, Fletcher engages in an intense six-week training regimen before the season starts, one that pushes his limits and exemplifies his devotion the game. “When I’m not playing football,” he says, “I’m thinking about playing football, the new chess matches for every opponent.” (PAGE 37)
Despite his aging body and the possibility for more injuries on the forefront, the Redskins hope to squeeze one more productive year out of the linebacker, while Fletcher looks forward to one more season playing the game he loves with the people closest to him. “Those 60 minutes every week with my team and my teammates,” he says, “that’s what I love.” (PAGE 40)
The new Broncos teammates grace the national cover of this week’s SI along with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker
With fantasy football drafts around the corner, this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED previews the top fantasy football players at each position and also takes a closer look at some of the NFL’s star players. Among the highest rated at their respective positions in SI’s fantasy rankings—Peyton Manning (No. 3 QB) and Wes Welker (No. 14 WR), along with Broncos teammates Demaryius Thomas (No. 6 WR) and Eric Decker (No. 15 WR)—appear on the national cover of this week’s SI, on newsstands now. Senior writer Chris Ballard spent time with both Welker and Manning for this week’s issue and writes that the fantasy dream duo is now the league’s most frightening reality. Ballard also reveals more about the little known Welker.
Despite making five Pro Bowls, playing in two Super Bowls and setting an NFL record by catching more than 110 passes in each of his five seasons with the Patriots, Welker is still somewhat unknown. “After six seasons inside Bill Belichick’s cone of silence, in which thou shalt not raise any individual above the team, it turns out we know surprisingly little about Wes Welker,” writes Ballard. (PAGE 32)
Upon becoming a free agent last winter, Welker says “there were only two places I was going to play [Denver and New England], in my mind.” Once the Broncos came into the picture, Welker texted Manning, who enthusiastically wooed him. “Reminded me a little bit of the old college recruiting days,” Manning says. (PAGE 32) After being offered a two-year, $10 million deal from the Patriots, Welker decided to sign with Denver for two years and $12 million, joining Manning as two of the most unlikely free-agent pickups in sports history. Asked if they’ve talked about their parallel narratives, Manning pauses for a moment. “We haven’t really shared that,” he says. “I think each situation is unique. I know that was not an easy time for him. For me, I know I became more comfortable when I got back on the field.” (PAGE 38)
Toward the end in New England, Welker says Belichick got on him in a way he never had before, admonishing him in front of the team. “It was just kind of hard,” Welker says, “one of those deals where you have to endure him, put up with him. . . .But he does it to everybody, it’s the way he is.” (PAGE 34) Belichick’s ways still affect Welker. “When I’m answering questions from the Denver media, I’m not worried about what the Broncos’ people are going to think,” Welker says. “I’m worried about what Belichick will think. Isn’t that crazy?” (PAGE 34)
So what does he think of his former quarterback, Tom Brady? At first, he couldn’t stand him. “He was very intense, wanted it done a certain way and was like, You can’t do it a different way,” says Welker. He says he soon came to appreciate Brady’s intensity; that he’s one of the toughest players in the NFL; that he is a slave to “the best moisturizers”; and that, in the end, he became a combination of Welker’s big brother and best friend. (PAGE 31)
Welker is working hard to learn Denver’s new offensive system. He says, “In New England, if the middle of the field was closed, I’d run a seam route. It’s something I’ve been doing for six years now, so I have to teach my brain to do it the way he’s [Manning] expecting me to do it.” Asked if he could still try to be creative on his routes, Welker laughs. “At the end of the day you run it the way he wants it, or he won’t throw it to you,” he says. (PAGE 38)
A key to Welker’s success is his renowned work ethic—he says his mantra is “Dominate every day”—and he believes it’s a key to his success .“Guys will play basketball with their boys and think that’s their workout for the day,” Welker says, amazed. “That’s not a workout. I wish they gave us more time off, to be honest. This is where I gain on other players.” (PAGE 33)
Welker, who has been doubted since his high school days, says he doesn’t mind flying under the radar. “Most people growing up just want to get famous, then they get famous and want to be normal people,” he says. “I blend in a lot more than most.” He adds, “Everything in the game is about making something look one way, and it actually being the other.” (PAGE 39)
Packers QB appears on a regional cover of this week’s SI
With fantasy football drafts around the corner, this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED previews the top fantasy football players at each position and also profiles some of the NFL’s star players, including SI’s No. 1-rated fantasy quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Senior writer Michael Rosenberg says that Rodgers, who appears on a regional SI cover of SI, has become the voice of Wisconsin because of his ability to combine stellar play on the field with genuine likeability off it.
Rodgers grew up in California and wasn’t initially happy when he was chosen by Green Bay with the 24th pick in the 2005 draft since he expected to be drafted higher and Brett Favre was still the starter (and a legend) in Green Bay. And yet Rodgers now says, “I’m a Wisconsin guy. I’m here nine months out of the year. This is home for me.” He adds, “People enjoy being able to see you at the Piggly Wiggly and say hello.” (PAGE 42)
It was just last year when Rodgers called PED allegations against his friend Ryan Braun “garbage” and even told a Twitter follower that he would bet his salary on his friend’s innocence. However when Braun, who co-owns the 8-12 MVP Bar & Grill with Rodgers in Brookfield, Wis., was busted for PEDs again a few weeks ago, Rodgers publicly expressed his disappointment on behalf of all Wisconsin fans and said it was O.K. to believe he was innocent at first. “Braun made Wisconsinites look foolish for their most admirable trait,” writes Rosenberg. “Rodgers legitimized their feelings: It was O.K. to believe Braun last time; it’s O.K. to be angry now.” (PAGE 44)
And thanks to Rodgers, who agreed last February to appear on stage with Favre at the NFL Honors award ceremony, the Packers and their fans can welcome Favre back when the Packers eventually retire his number in the near future. The organization and its fans turned on Favre after the unretirement saga in 2008 and his subsequent decision to join the rival Vikings. While Rodgers had his problems with Favre in the past, he would not let himself see a retired Favre as competition. “I thought about it for a day,” Rodgers says. “I didn’t contact the Packers or run it by anybody. I felt like it was the right thing to do. It was a good opportunity to start the healing process—him and I, the Packers and him, the fans and him.” (PAGE 45)
While Rodgers has already won a Super Bowl and his 104.0 career passer rating is by far the highest in NFL history, Rodgers cares more about how he is viewed by teammates when it comes to his legacy. “My legacy in this locker room is [more important]—how guys are going to remember me.” (PAGE 44) That’s why it was no surprise when Green Bay wide receiver James Jones spoke up in defense of Rodgers when former teammate Greg Jennings, who signed with the Vikings this off-season, took a shot at Rodgers’s ego in a recent interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. True to form, Rodgers refused to fire back and turn Jennings’s comments into a two-man feud.