Reporters' Notebook

Dolphins' antsiness, Jaguars' frisky D, Jesse James' ascension

As we roll on to Week 2 of the 2017 season,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

» The "toxic" feel emerging in 0-2 Cincinnati's locker room.

» What Tom Brady loves about Brandin Cooks.

» Big Ben's new Heath Miller?

But first, Steve Wyche catches up with a Dolphins team dealing with a delayed start to the season ...

OXNARD, Calif. -- Miami Dolphins defensive end Andre Branch kissed his teeth, leaned his head back and said, "Come on man. You know what's up."

He was in a hotel lobby, wearing sweats and a T-shirt, walking to a team meeting on Wednesday behind a black curtain in a cordoned-off hallway. If he could have had on his pads and uniform and been walking to the line of scrimmage instead, he would have felt much better.

"We can't wait," he said.

Dolphins players want to play football. Badly. Hurricane Irma caused their season-opener in Miami to be canceled and rescheduled for Week 11, leaving the team with an unexpected week off. This week, the Dolphins will begin their regular season against the 0-1 Los Angeles Chargers at StubHub Center in Carson, 75 miles from their current, temporary harborin Southern California.

Add those 75 miles to the 2,750 traveled by coaches, staffers and most players as they flew from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to California last weekend after evacuating Irma's path. Toss in an offseason of training and prepping -- and then stressing over Irma -- and you get a better grip on the tension that's built up.

"Yeah, we're anxious," Dolphins center Mike Pouncey said. "We're excited to get this going."

They're also human.

As much as players and coaches put a football spin on things after their first practice in Oxnard Wednesday, at the site where the Dallas Cowboys hold training camp -- about 63 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles -- they still were sorting out so many things.

How were their families and pets back in South Florida? Were the initial, positive reports on their properties back there still on point? What about those who suffered a lot more than they did? What could they do to help?

Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills said they're trying to figure out what players can do in the community when they get back. The Miami Herald reported that Stills and other players already donated funds to help accommodate the high school football team from Miami Central, which was stuck in Las Vegas after Irma interrupted travel plans following the team's victory against Bishop Gorman (Nevada).

Defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh said he treated the situation like a bye week. He went to Detroit and trained, then went home to Portland for a few days. Other players went to various destinations or stayed in Florida before arriving in Oxnard.

"As mature adults as well as professionals, when we're at work, we have to understand what our task is and deal with it," Suh added.

The initial task is dealing with a Chargers team that lost its opener at Denver in a thriller. Yes, the Dolphins got to watch and scout the Chargers, but that would have happened anyway, since the Chargers-Broncos game was played on Monday night. Miami coach Adam Gase said the Bolts' defensive front, especially pass rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, got his attention.

The Dolphins got a head-start on prep time, but the Chargers got to experience all of their starters playing four quarters in a game that counts. The Chargers know what needs to be fixed and tweaked. The Dolphins are fresh and eager, but they have yet to learn about themselves in real time.

This is especially true of the ground that is still to be broken with quarterback Jay Cutler, who was coaxed out of retirement and the television broadcasting booth by Gase -- Cutler's offensive coordinator in Chicago in 2015 -- after Miami starter Ryan Tannehill sustained a season-ending knee injury in training camp.

"Everything is coming together really well," wide receiver Jarvis Landry said of meshing with Cutler. "We're so fortunate that he's been inside the system already. He's got a great relationship with Coach Gase, and that allows us to come out here and still play fast. The first couple days, we were trying to get the timing down. Now that we've got some weeks together, it's all coming together."

Pouncey also said that for years, he was the designated player to come to the line of scrimmage and make the "Mike" call -- that is, identifying the Mike, or middle linebacker, which helps set protections, blocking schemes and audible calls if needed. "Jay came here and did it right away," Pouncey said. "That allows me to play faster."

There clearly have been a lot of moving parts for the Dolphins -- especially, because of a natural disaster, the moving part. Though fortunately, a Dolphins spokesman said, no players, coaches or team staffers sustained any major property damage from Irma.

The variables are many, and it's hard to tell how they will impact Miami's performance against the Chargers, who eagerly want to get on the winning track in their first home game in Los Angeles at the 27,000-seat StubHub Center.

Regardless of the outcome, things don't get easier for the Dolphins. They will play 16 straight games, with their Week 11 bye having been given over to the rescheduled Bucs game. After playing the Chargers, they travel to face the New York Jets, then go to London to play the Saints. They don't play at home until Week 5, on Oct. 8 against the Titans.

That is a brutal run that truly will test the "one game at a time" cliché.

"It's all about a mindset," Suh said.


NFL: Game flow moving along. The offseason focus on removing dead time from games was apparently a success in Week 1. League spokesman Joe Lockhart said that 10 of 15 games were completed in less than three hours, the first time that's happened since 2009. That, of course, does not include the kickoff game between the Patriots and Chiefs, which stretched to 3 hours, 37 minutes.

Particularly popular, Lockhart said, was using a double box during broadcasts, so that ads could run while, in the other box, officials could be shown during a replay review. And officials are no longer waiting for commercial breaks to end before announcing the result of a review.

Dawn of a new RB era on hold? There was a lot of focus on the running back position this offseason. Most of the concentration was on the future contracts of a few top-tier ball-carriers. The Falcons' Devonta Freemanagreed to a new deal. Franchise-tagged Steelers RB Le'Veon Bellstayed away from the team until Sept. 1, after he and the team failed to agree on a long-term extension. An eye was also fixed on emerging Cardinals star David Johnson, who will be entering the final season of his current contract in 2018. Johnson will now miss a substantial amount of time with a wrist injury suffered in Week 1, which ended his goal of collecting 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.

All of the above are versatile backs who are changing the way the game is being played. But are they being paid appropriately? Will they change the market, or will it remain the same moving forward?

Texans head coach Bill O'Brien was asked if the NFL has been shifting back to a running back league more in recent years.

"I would say that the guys, for the most part, the two positions that make the most money would be the quarterbacks and probably pass rushers," O'Brien said. "So, I think as long as that's the case, I think it will always come down, in some way, shape or form, to the last two minutes of a game and how well you can throw the football."

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CINCINNATI BENGALS: 'Toxic' feel developing around 0-2 team. While more and more fans continue to question Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis' job security, there's no pretending the Bengals don't have massive issues with their offense just two games into the season.

"It's toxic in here," one player said while leaving the locker room after the Bengals lost their second straight home game to start the year. Worse yet, they've yet to score a touchdown.

"It's difficult to win many games when you don't score touchdowns," Lewis said to open his postgame press conference following the 13-9 defeat to the Texans.

With a trip to Lambeau Field looming in Week 3, Lewis told me Andy Dalton's job is secure at this point, and that he's not worried about his seventh-year quarterback's play.

"I don't think he's taken a step back," Lewis said. "I think we have to continue to let Andy do his thing. We have to do things better around him."

Dalton told me he appreciates that vote of confidence, but without any more excuses to hide behind, the sense of urgency to save the season has already hit home.

"It's all about winning in this league, and we haven't done that yet," Dalton said. "We put ourselves behind to get where we want to go. We have to start winning, and start winning now."

But first, they have to find the end zone.

(UPDATE: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Friday that the Cincinnati Bengals have fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese.

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HOUSTON TEXANS: Spate of concussions examined. In their "Thursday Night Football" win over the Bengals, the Texans were without five players -- including linebacker Brian Cushing and three tight ends -- who suffered concussions last Sunday, an unusually large number that caught the league's attention. (On Wednesday, it was announced that Cushing has also been suspended 10 games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances.)

League spokesman Joe Lockhart said the NFL's chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, spoke to team physicians, among others, to try to determine if there was something systemic that led to the outsize number. Sills reviewed all of the plays that resulted in concussions and consulted with the officiating department about whether any of them were the result of illegal hits. There was, Lockhart said, no medical explanation for the figure.

"We're always concerned -- this is our top priority -- but after reviewing with all of the medical personnel, there was nothing he could conclude about the conditions of the game, the type of game, the way it was officiated," Lockhart said.

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JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: A new defensive mindset taking root. The Jaguars recorded 10 sacks in their win over the Texans in Week 1, and in turn, the team changed its Twitter handle to "Sacksonville." The defense also had four takeaways: three fumble recoveries, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and one interception.

The Jaguars have added talent to the defensive side of the ball in free agency over the last two years, complementing draft picks like cornerback Jalen Ramsey, a 2016 first-rounder. One team official in the AFC told me Ramsey is the cornerback he would pick to start his franchise if he were leading an expansion team.

Defensive tackle Malik Jackson -- who signed with the team in 2016 -- told me the Jaguars have an unselfish group and, if they keep learning how to finish games off, they can be the No. 1 defense in this league. The personnel additions can help that. But the change in mentality in Jacksonville might prove to be the last piece of the puzzle.

"It's about coming in here and understanding what we want to do," Jackson told me. "Last year, people came in, and maybe this year, 'Oh, I'm going to change this team.' We don't need changing. We don't need leadership. We already have leaders. We already have a way we are doing stuff. We want people to come in, fit in and follow what we're doing. We don't need any radicals coming in and saying, 'I'm going to do this; I'm going to do this.' We don't need that. We need players to come in here and play this Coach [Todd] Wash defense. Being where they're supposed to be. Being hard-nose, stout people. And that's what is going to get the job done."

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: The Eric Berry Impact. How big is the loss of Eric Berry to the Chiefs' defense, and more, the entire team? Huge.

We all held our breath when Berry, a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, suffered the non-contact rupture of his Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter of his team's dominant win in Foxborough.

He's widely regarded as the heart and soul of Kansas City's defense given his performance in the secondary, and remarkable resilience overcoming obstacles, cancer above all else. While he won't be able to contribute on the field for the remainder of the season -- given a timeline of six months to recover -- his leadership remains unwavering. What's more special, is how that leadership showed up when the injury happened in a Week 1 win against the Patriots few predicted.

I asked 13-year veteran linebacker Derrick Johnson if "EB" spoke to the team, given his role as leader. Of course he did, and he did it at a time nobody expected.

"He addressed the team right after the game when he got hurt," Johnson said. "He just told us: We expect to win -- we're not surprised -- don't be surprised with us winning. Just keep it going."

Johnson explained to me just how tough that is, for any player. He reminded me of his own season-ending Achilles injury, which he suffered last December.

"When I hurt my Achilles, I wasn't breaking the team down at the end [of the game]," Johnson said. [Berry's] mindset, he's been through a lot more than anybody on the team. He's a big-time leader. He's younger than me, and I'm a guy at times, that looks up to him, and that's saying a lot of because of what he's been through off the field."

There's no question, filling Berry's shoes won't be easy. How will they do it starting Sunday against the incoming Eagles? Secondary by committee. Specifically, Johnson told me, 2014 undrafted safety Daniel Sorensen will move into Berry's role. Further, when the defense goes to nickel sub-packages, Sorensen will shift, while second-year safety Eric Murray will enter the picture.

"I think people will be surprised by how tough and hard-nosed [Murray] is," Johnson said. "He's gonna be put in some situations where he has to cover and do some things. I can't wait to see him."

Eagles focused on Hunt. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt racked up 246 scrimmage yards against New England in the season opener, the most by any player in his first NFL game since the 1970 merger. As you can imagine, the Eagles' top priority will be to keep Hunt locked down.

"We really just gotta make sure we rally in numbers on him," Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham told me. "Because when I see him, he's a big back ... he's 220. He's gonna be a guy that we gotta go in and make sure that we wrap up -- make sure that we get after him, because for him, I see he's got that confidence already, as far as having a good game last week. That's only gonna carry over to this week."

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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Brady a believer in Cooks. In recent weeks, Tom Brady has been effusive in his praise for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. That didn't change after the Patriots' season-opening loss to the Chiefs.

"Well, I've just loved the time I've had with him," Brady said. "He's been so much fun to play with and to work with. He's got great talent, but he's even a better person. He's young. He's professional. He's diligent. He's very competitive. I just have nothing but great things to say about him."

Cooks caught three passes on seven targets for 88 yards against Kansas City. He provides Brady and the Patriots offense' with the type of vertical threat they have not had since Randy Moss.

On Sunday, Cooks will see the team that traded him to New England when the Patriots visit the Saints.

"I think he's pretty unique. I don't think there's many that I've played with that are like him," Brady said. "Every day, he shows up. He works his butt off. He wants to do extra. He wants to know what I'm thinking. He just wants to do the right thing all of the time. It's fun to see."

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NEW YORK JETS: From one transcendent back to another. Good fortune hasn't often favored the Jets lately.

In their opening loss to Buffalo, the Jets faced the Bills and LeSean McCoy, who rushed 22 times for 110 yards and added five catches for 49. Three of his runs went for at least 20 yards.

In their first road game, the Jets travel to Oakland on Sunday to face the Raiders in Marshawn Lynch's first home game playing for his hometown team.

"He looks better than ever. He actually looks quicker," Jets coach Bowles said. "Laterally, he looks just as good as he always has."

Bowles wasn't happy with his defensive line's performance last week, citing missed assignments as they tried to corral McCoy. He's challenged the linemen to eliminate mental errors going into what is a tougher assignment, considering the Black Hole and the Raiders' myriad weapons.

"Our room, we take a lot of pressure. Coach even called us out," Mo Wilkerson said. "We take pride in ourselves and our work, and we definitely accepted the challenge and know we got to play better this week."

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NEW YORK GIANTS: Offensive drought lingers on. Big Blue managed three points, 35 rushing yards and four third-down conversions in the 19-3 season-opening loss to the Cowboys. As ugly as the game was, the more concerning issue for the Giants is this trend: They have scored fewer than 20 points in seven consecutive games (including playoffs), the longest such streak in the league, by far. The next longest? Two games, by the Bears, Texans, Dolphins and Redskins.

Asked about the trend, quarterback Eli Manning said: "Well, I think you take it season by season. I don't think you convert back to last year. It's a new year, new team, and we have to score more points than we did last week."

Despite O-line struggles, Eli keeping the faith. The Giants' offensive line is a popular topic in the media, on social media and on sports talk radio in the metropolitan area. That only intensified after the line was manhandled by the Cowboys. The Giants averaged 2.9 yards per carry and Manning was sacked three times.

Asked if he hears the criticism, left guard Justin Pugh said, "Every time I turn around, somebody is asking us what is wrong with the O-line."

Pugh talked about the linemen keeping "our nose to the grindstone." Not surprisingly, they received backing from Manning, whose support has been unwavering, dating back a couple of seasons.

"Those guys are good guys," Manning said. "They're good players and they'll be fine. They know I have their back and we'll be alright."

Tenth anniversary of Giants' Super Bowl XLII win to get diamond celebration. At Monday night's home opener against Detroit, the Giants will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their Super Bowl XLII victory over the then-undefeated New England Patriots.

On Saturday, when they play the Orioles, the New York Yankees will host more than 40 members of the 2007 Giants team and their Lombardi Trophy. Four of the team's captains -- linebacker Antonio Pierce, wide receiver David Tyree, center Shaun O'Hara and punter Jeff Feagles -- will throw out ceremonial first pitches.

"We have a long, storied history with the New York Yankees," Giants president John Mara said. "It's fitting that part of the celebration of this great Giants team and the 10th anniversary of their championship includes being recognized by the New York Yankees, and we are grateful."

One player is unlikely to take part in any of the ceremonies. Eli Manning has work to do. "My mindset is on Detroit and on getting a win right now," he said. "I'll be there for the 25th anniversary. I don't think I'll be playing for that long."

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PITTSBURGH STEELERS: No peeking!Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, who is also a member of the competition committee, said this week he was "irate" about an unnecessary roughness penalty called on William Gay. He wasn't upset about the call itself -- which was clearly correct, because Gay made contact with the receiver's helmet. The problem was how it was called.

Tomlin believed that officials threw the flag only after they saw a replay of Gay on the big stadium replay board, a no-no for officials.

"That's why I was irate," Tomlin said. "I'm a big player-safety guy. Obviously, I'm on the competition committee. So very rarely, you're going to hear arguments from me regarding calls relative to that. Provided they're done in real time. I thought they called it off the Jumbotron, and I won't accept that."

League spokesman Michael Signora said Al Riveron, the head of officiating, has told game officials that they are not to use the stadium video boards to aid officiating for any reason. The only replays that officials are allowed to use during reviews are those shown on the screen brought to them. All final review decisions are made from the officiating control center in New York.

Tight end James takes a step forward. Less than two weeks before the season kicks off, your organization trades for another guy at your position. Your head coach dismisses you and your teammates who play your position as not "varsity enough."

You respond with twotough touchdownson opening weekend. And if you're Steelers tight end Jesse James, you don't even smile afterwards.

"My goal coming in is to be a go-to guy for Ben," James said. "That's an every week process."

Ben -- as in Ben Roethlisberger -- was far less exacting in his assessment of James, going so far as to say his play Sunday in Cleveland was Heath Miller-like, citing the tight end who, for 11 years, was his security blanket: a tremendously reliable pass catcher, precise route runner and exceptional blocker.

James, a Pittsburgh-area native, was a rookie in 2015, Miller's final season. Since then, the Steelers have struggled to find one tight end who can handle the full complement of duties Miller did -- that is to say, a tight end who is equally adept at catching the ball and blocking in the run game. James has been a productive pass catcher, and he showed a good rapport with Roethlisberger, but at just 23 years old, he is not yet moving people in the run game as the Steelers would like. That's part of why, just before the fourth preseason game, the Steelersmade a trade with the 49ers, sending San Francisco a fourth-round pick in exchange for tight end Vance McDonald and a fifth-round pick. At the time, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of his current tight ends: "The guys just haven't been consistently varsity enough for our comfort."

James openly said that bothered him. And though McDonald started 11 games for San Francisco last fall, this past week, it was James who got the start against the Browns, James to whom Roethlisberger turned twice in the red zone and James whom the quarterback praised for his blocking on one Antonio Brown catch.

"We were asked to do some things on the inside of the field, and it was our job to do them," James said, refusing to cop to any feelings of vindication. For his part, Tomlin wouldn't say his intention in speaking so frankly was to light any sort of fire, nor would he specifically note any changes in James since McDonald's arrival, saying only, "It's reasonable to expect guys to rise up in the face of competition."

Roethlisberger, on his weekly radio show, said in his opinion, that's exactly what happened in the case of James.

And as for James, he did finally grin once on Sunday -- when talk turned to his alma mater, Penn State, and the beatdown it put on the University of Pittsburgh.

"You're right," he said. "It's a great weekend."

What made Haden's transition so smooth.One week into his Steelers tenure, Joe Haden fit right in, head coach Mike Tomlin said. The veteran cornerback was a key part of Pittsburgh's solid secondary play in an opening win against the Browns. He had six tackles and made no major mistakes. And when his new team called a corner blitz for him, he got home, notching one of the Steelers' seven sacks. All in all, Haden acquitted himself well against his old team, who released him on Aug. 30.

Haden's new teammates had joked that after having had five defensive coordinators in eight seasons in Cleveland (yes, he could name them all: Rob Ryan, Dick Jauron, Ray Horton, Jim O'Neil, Horton again and Gregg Williams), he'd probably played in every defensive scheme possible. And while Haden happily agreed that he had, he credited the communication in the Steelers' secondary for Sunday's seamlessness.

"Those guys talk more than any team I've been on," Haden said. "They weren't going to let me have to guess on anything."

Communication is certainly one of the Steelers' key tenets. When veteran safety Mike Mitchell missed most of camp, defensive coordinator Keith Butler said it was the talking part he most worried over, not anything physical. For his part, Mitchell said he definitely engages in much more chatter on the field than he did as a younger player.

"I've probably played 1,000 reps with Will Gay, but there's not a play we don't talk," Mitchell said of the Steelers' most veteran corner. "You have to talk. I thought we did a good job of it last week, irrespective of whether it was Joe's first game or not."

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