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TEMPE, Ariz. — Five years ago, Tyrann Mathieu went to the NFL scouting combine on a mission.

He spent his few days in Indianapolis in February 2013 trying to rehabilitate his image with NFL teams. He had to explain himself. Explain why he was kicked off LSU’s football team. Explain why he smoked so much marijuana. Explain why he was arrested. Explain why he was worth drafting after spending a year out of football.

The questions were abundant.

One by one, Mathieu answered them.

After the Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the third round (No. 69 overall) that year — after five teams passed over him once, 16 teams passed over him twice — and 10 teams skipped by him three times, Mathieu kept answering them, both on and off the field.

Five years later, Mathieu has become an example of why people give second chances. He’s stayed out of trouble. He’s signed a mega contract extension worth up to $62.5 million over five years. He’s become a household name in the NFL — by some accounts a bona fide superstar.

But if there was one example of how far Mathieu has come, it happened in September of last year. That’s when the LSU Board of Supervisors approved a name change for the Tigers’ football players lounge to the “Mathieu Players’ Lounge at Football Operations” after a $1 million donation by Mathieu.

Seeing his name on the lounge will be “humbling,” Mathieu said, and will make him feel like “one of those old, rich dudes.”

“I’m still in awe about that,” said Del Lee-Collins, Mathieu’s defensive backs coach at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans and a close confidant. “Nothing ceases to amaze me with him. I never would’ve imagined it. I said things to coaches like, ‘He’s going to be a Heisman candidate.’ But I would never had imagined that he would have his own legacy on that campus.

“When you think about it, how great is that, that you can play for a university — and only play two years — and have trouble and get kicked off of the team, and you can still go back and donate for the betterment of the university and football program? I applauded him for a long time for that.”

On a chilly December 2017 winter night in Phoenix, five years ago seemed like a different lifetime.

‘I’m just taking it in stride, all of it.’

Mathieu was behind the wheel of his military-like Mercedes SUV, one hand on the steering wheel, the other elbow resting on the door. Chaka Khan’s voice filled the car, followed by Stevie Wonder’s, Drake’s and J. Cole’s. Mathieu’s diverse taste in music doesn’t come as a surprise. This is a man who’s as comfortable talking about the intricacies of an NFL defense as he is explaining the latest conspiracy theory he’s researched — and there are plenty of those.

Mathieu was navigating the streets of Phoenix, stopping at homes of families in need, surprising kids with $1,000 worth of food, toys, clothes and cash, just in time to finish their Christmas shopping. The $10,000 Mathieu spent was all his. He didn’t take donations from corporations and then put his name on it. He wanted to give back, just like so many gave to him throughout his life, throughout the past five years.

“The inside of Ty has always been a humanitarian side because he gives more than he receives,” said Nick Rapone, Mathieu’s former position coach with the Cardinals. “The part that’s remarkable is Ty is no longer a follower. When you deal with marijuana and all that stuff, you’re a follower. Ty now has matured to where he’s making decisions for himself, his family and his livelihood. That’s the maturity that I saw.”

Part of Mathieu’s evolution has been the five-year contract extension he received in August 2016.

It was evidence of not just Mathieu’s development as a football player, it fulfilled the belief the Cardinals put in him. They gave him a back-loaded contract as a rookie, deferring most of his signing bonus to the last three years of his four-year rookie deal to protect them in case Mathieu wasn’t the rehabilitated person he told them he was and who they believed he was. In August 2016 — four years after he was suspended by LSU — he was given a five-year extension worth as much as $62.5 million. Of that, $21.25 million was guaranteed at signing.

In November 2016, Mathieu donated $1 million to LSU’s football program.

“I don’t have any bad vibes with LSU,” Mathieu said. “I learned so much there. I experienced so much there. I had so much fun. I met great people. I still have relationships with people there, but they just gave me the platform to really just be who I am and to show the world who I was, and I was cool with that.

“It’ll always hold a sweet place in my heart just because of the opportunity it gave me to just be who I am.”

To get from 2013 to today hasn’t been easy for Mathieu. It’s been, to some degree, a daily struggle.

He’s not ashamed of his past. He doesn’t hide it. He uses it as a reminder of what could’ve been and what could still happen. Mathieu carries it with him every day, learning from it, using it as his moral compass.

The key to getting through the past five years, Mathieu believes, was staying “levelheaded.”

“I think just me being patient, too, with myself,” he told ESPN. “All of it is learning experiences and all of it is just taking things as they come, so I don’t think you can really prepare yourself for situations or experiences unless you actually live it or do it.

“I’m always thankful for the stuff I went through and thankful for the people I’ve met, and I’m thankful even for some of the bad times because all of it helps get you to wherever you are in your life.”

So, where is Mathieu?

He’s 25. He just finished his fifth NFL season. He has two sons, a big house, fancy cars, a lot of money in the bank. He’s been an All-Pro and a Pro Bowler. He’s had two major knee injuries and has finished just two of his five seasons healthy. He’s also been a team captain, and he’s one of the Cardinals’ NFLPA player reps.

But Mathieu’s still not who he ultimately wants to be.

“I’m working toward that person and I’m trying to be that person, and I’m trying to handle relationships and I’m trying to be better with being a father and being a better football player.

“I’m just taking it in stride, all of it.”

‘Life is funny and weird. It’s real.’

He had to grow up faster than most people.

Mathieu’s biological father is in prison for murder. He was adopted by his aunt and uncle, Sheila and Tyrone, at 5 years old from his birth mother — Tyrone’s sister. In 2005, when Mathieu was 13, he had to evacuate New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina was approaching. He lived in Alexandria, Louisiana for two weeks before relocating to Houston for a few months. When his family decided to return to New Orleans, they found four and a half feet of water in their living room. Mathieu then watched them rebuild. In college, Mathieu turned to pot to escape the mounting pressures of being not just an SEC star but a national phenomenon nicknamed the “Honey Badger.”

The rest, well, is history.

He was suspended from the LSU football team on Aug. 10, 2012. To this day, former LSU coach Les Miles said it was one of the “hardest things” he’s ever done in coaching.

“It was terrible,” Miles told ESPN. “It was a standard policy and not one you changed on a whim. It was what you did.

“It was tremendously hard for me because I knew what kind of person Ty was. Ty was going to give you everything that he had and be a great teammate — a great leader and a quality teammate. He was never going to be a social problem.”

Mathieu was arrested in October that year. Any hope of returning to the Tigers was gone. Mathieu left school and began his full-time pursuit of the NFL. He was 20 years old at the time.

Mathieu doesn’t know how close he is to being the person he wants to be.

“Life is funny and weird,” he said. “It’s real. It’s challenging. It’s all those things. At the end of the day, I just try to balance it all out and not focus on the good, not focus on the negative, but just focus on moving forward, whether things are going good or bad.”

When Mathieu was drafted, he made a conscious decision to “walk a fine line.”

He knew the stakes. He understood his reputation. He saw the temptations. He just didn’t put himself in situations where the ability to make career- or life-defining decisions were easy.

“I just didn’t do a lot of stuff,” Mathieu said. “I didn’t go a lot of places. I didn’t put myself in situations because I didn’t think I could really handle it.

“Now, I’m cool. It’s cool. Temptation is what it is. I think my mind’s a little bit stronger.”

Mathieu feels like he missed out on the fun of his early 20s as a young adult in the real world with money in his pocket. There were times he stayed home from Las Vegas when his teammates took the short flight for a few days in Sin City. But, while he feels like he missed out, he doesn’t see it as a negative.

It was just Mathieu doing what he felt he had to do.

“I was just being me,” he said. “Other people were being them, and I was just being me. I try to hold on to that the most because, to me, that’s what’s so easy to lose, is yourself. That’s the first thing you lose before we lose anything else. I just try to be me, hold on to me, and that’s it.”

The closest Mathieu has come to giving into those temptations was after his first knee injury. Even today Mathieu said he has “about three or four reasons that I could probably use as an excuse to do whatever I want to do,” he said. “That was the way I used to think. Now, I’m 25. I feel like I’ve been in the NFL 12 years.

“I just got a different way of looking at stuff.”

‘He is a mature man at this point.’

The challenge of not giving in, of not regressing, surrounds him daily. As he keeps fending off temptation, Mathieu said he won’t look at life’s “scoreboard” to see how well he’s doing. He’s not even tempted to sneak a glimpse.

“Because, at the end of the day, I’m not perfect, so I don’t try to be perfect,” Mathieu said. “I don’t even worry about the score. I just try to live my life.”

Among all his guiding lights, Mathieu believes the biggest are his two sons, Noah and Tyrann Jr. Everything Mathieu does — good, bad or ugly — will affect them to some degree, he said. He wants them to learn from him, but he also hopes he’s the type of father and man who doesn’t have to teach his sons how to do things differently than how he did them.

Unlike Mathieu’s biological father, Darrin Hayes, who has been incarcerated for most of Mathieu’s life.

“I want to be present for my kids, and my biological father wasn’t present for me,” he said. “I have an adopted father [and] there’s certain things, good and bad, that I try to take from that relationship and try to make myself better at being a father.”

Fatherhood put a lot into perspective for Mathieu.

Lee-Collins talks to Mathieu often about providing for and protecting his kids, and when Mathieu sees his sons, he understands what that message means, Lee-Collins said.

“He grew up real quick and real fast when he was able to see it for himself in front of him,” Lee-Collins said.

Those who have known Mathieu the best during the past five years have seen the changes in him.

He’s more mature. He’s more responsible. He’s smarter. He’s more reserved. He tends to sit back and listen, then analyze what’s happening in front of him more now than he used to.

Lee-Collins used to have conversations with Mathieu where Mathieu would pepper questions about any variety of topics at Lee-Collins. Now Mathieu is the one informing Lee-Collins about different things.

When Lee-Collins visits Mathieu in Arizona, he sees an adult. Mathieu’s always been an emotional person, Lee-Collins said, but now he doesn’t let things bother him like he used to.

“He’s really at peace with himself and his surroundings,” Lee-Collins said. “You can only see that when you’re with him in his own home or with him out to eat. He’s really comfortable with himself.”

Miles believes Mathieu was trying to please everyone in college, and that’s one reason why his story at LSU ended how it did.

“I think he’s realized he can’t live his life for other people,” Miles said. “As long as he controls those things, and it appears he has, he’s going to do all the things he’s going to do.”

Rapone, who saw Mathieu as much as anyone during the season, watched Mathieu mature each year. It started when Mathieu met with the Cardinals in 2013 during a pre-draft visit in a full suit and tie, while others wore buttoned-down shirts and slacks. From there, Rapone said Mathieu has continued to grow.

“Just the accomplishments of him being able to depart from who he was and the world he was living in to what he is now is just remarkable,” Rapone said. “He is an example to every person who needs a second chance or third chance.

“Each year, he would get more and more mature. He fully understands the situation he is in at this moment, and that is because he is a mature man at this point.”

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NFL COVID opt-outs like the Browns’ Malcolm Pridgeon grapple with a season that wasn’t

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THE CLEVELAND BROWNS were in the middle of their best season in decades, and Malcolm Pridgeon was sitting alone in his Dodge Durango outside the Berkshire Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in West Babylon, New York, thinking about better times.

When there was no pandemic, and the doors to the nursing home were open, Pridgeon would visit his mom during his breaks from football. He’d bring plain buttered bagels and chocolate milk for breakfast, and she always knew he was coming before he even walked into the room, possibly because 6-foot-6, 330-pound offensive linemen do not walk softly. Her face would light up when she saw him, and she would almost always say the same thing. “Look, my football player’s home!”

Pridgeon didn’t play football this season. According to the NFL Players Association, he was one of 69 NFL athletes to opt out because of COVID-19 concerns. He never thought he’d do something like this, voluntarily sit out a football season. He believed that this was going to be his year. Maybe all players on the NFL margins think this way, that they’re one break away from making the 53-man roster. Throughout the spring and summer, Pridgeon was intent on playing. If he kept his mind occupied, he could block just about everything else out and forget how much he missed her.

Peggy Jean White died of COVID-19 on March 31 at the age of 60. She had a hard life. Her last conversation with her four children took place over the phone, except no one knew it would be the last time they would talk. Pridgeon and his siblings repeated, “We love you, Ma,” but they weren’t sure whether Peggy, who had tubes snaking out of her, had even heard what they’d said. She was laid to rest in front of a handful of mourners after a scramble to find a funeral home that would take her because the East Coast was being overrun by the coronavirus.

For most of his life, Pridgeon played football for his mother. He wanted to memorize the new playbook, and be the most-improved lineman on the team, because he figured that’s what his mom would’ve wanted him to do. He worked with two trainers on Long Island who said he was down to about 25% body fat by midsummer. He participated in the Browns’ virtual offseason workouts and trained with a purpose. “I wanted to play so bad,” Pridgeon said.

In early July, Pridgeon drove to Cleveland to get a jump on training camp. But something didn’t feel right. His blood pressure soared, and his mind wandered to worst-case scenarios involving his family and his health.

Pridgeon wasn’t the only one grappling with the risks of playing football during a pandemic. Three of the Browns’ offensive linemen opted out by Aug. 5, and two of them were guards like Pridgeon. Those developments, along with the possibility of in-season outbreaks and quarantines, increased the chances of Pridgeon possibly suiting up for a game. But on Aug. 6, the last day to opt out, Pridgeon decided he couldn’t do it. He informed Kevin Stefanski of his decision, and the first-year coach walked outside the facility to talk to him. Stefanski acknowledged that it had been a difficult year for him, and said he understood. He told Pridgeon to stay safe.

Pridgeon drove back to Central Islip, New York, where he lives with his older sister and his 10-year-old niece — isolated from his team and watching games on a living room couch.

“Of course I wish I was out there,” he said. “I can’t look back on it. That causes stress that I don’t need.

“I feel like if someone was in my shoes, they would’ve made the same decision I made.”

ON JULY 24, with training camp looming and the United States’ COVID-19 death toll surpassing 144,000, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to an opt-out amendment for the 2020 season. Players at high risk of COVID-19 complications such as those with diabetes, cancer or heart issues could sit out the year and receive $350,000 and accrue a season toward free agency, and players not deemed high risk could obtain a $150,000 stipend toward their 2021 salary (with no accrued season). All of their contracts would push forward to the 2021 season, when the pandemic would presumably be under control.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a starting guard on the Kansas City Chiefs‘ Super Bowl championship team, was the first one to opt out. Duvernay-Tardif spent months as an orderly in a long-term care facility in Canada during the early throes of the pandemic, and it gave him a different perspective of how COVID-19 stresses not only the infected but also the people and the health care system around them. “I cannot allow myself to potentially transmit the virus in our communities to simply play the sport I love,” he said in an announcement. “If I am to take risks, I will do it caring for patients.”

His teammate Damien Williams, who ran for 104 yards in the Super Bowl, opted out a few days later. Williams’ mom is battling stage 4 cancer, and he didn’t want to put her at risk. Thirty-six of the players who opted out started at least one game in 2019, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Others were like Pridgeon — young, undrafted and unknown. No quarterbacks, punters or kickers opted out. More than half of the list consisted of linemen, players who don’t substitute much and are constantly grabbing, touching and breathing on one another. Linemen are also larger beings who often weigh more than 300 pounds, which in some cases could be considered a co-morbidity.

But Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, a sports medicine specialist and co-chair of medical affairs at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute, said it’s impossible to assume anything about health-risk concerns or motivations. In an unprecedented year, with a pernicious virus that has claimed more than 425,000 American lives, everyone has to make choices, and there’s a different story behind each one of those choices.

To address players’ concerns, the NFLPA held a series of Zoom calls over the summer. Carl Francis, the NFLPA’s director of communications, said roughly 2,000 people were on the calls, which usually stretched past two hours. Some of the most-asked questions revolved around what happens if a player carries the virus home to his family, and the long-term impact of COVID-19 on an athlete’s body. Six months later, neither question can be fully answered. Yet the season prevailed through 16 regular-season games and the playoffs, all the way to next week’s Super Bowl.

“I really didn’t think they’d make it this far,” said Indianapolis Colts safety Rolan Milligan, who opted out to protect his young, high-risk family. “I knew they’d probably make it halfway, maybe a little past halfway through the season. Everybody did a good job of handling their business for the most part and being able to let the season play all the way through.”

The New England Patriots had eight players who opted out; the Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers had none. Francis said he did not hear any stories of teams that tried to discourage their players from sitting out or threats that the decision would be held against them. Patriots receiver Marqise Lee, who opted out because of concerns over his baby daughter, said coach Bill Belichick wasn’t angry when he told him the news. He said Belichick called it a “grown-man’s decision.”

None of the six opt-outs interviewed for this story said he regretted his decision. These men found purpose in their season without football. Lee has been there for daughter Alia’s first word — Papa — first tooth and first steps. She turns 1 next month, born just before the onset of the pandemic in the United States. Buffalo Bills safety E.J. Gaines, who sat out because his fiancée survived cancer and his son has breathing problems, has been dabbling in the real estate business. He put a playground in the backyard and watches his children run around. New York Giants co-captain Nate Solder is working with Compassion International on an initiative called Fill The Stadium, which aims to provide food and medicine for 70,000 economically vulnerable children during the pandemic.

On a recent January morning, Solder was talking on the phone while his infant son let out a series of small screams, indicating that he was finished with his breakfast. Taking the season off seemed like a no-brainer for Solder, who has survived cancer and whose 5-year-old son, Hudson, has been battling cancer since he was a baby.

But when you’re giving up something so fleeting, something you’ve worked so hard for, it’s never easy to stop.

“In a lot of ways, I felt like I was letting my teammates down,” Solder said. “I felt like I was letting the new coaching staff down. The fact is, as a 32-year-old NFL player, it just hurts my chances of having my career trajectory take off at this point. I just have to trust in God and see where he leads me.

“Trust me, it was an internal tension. But once it became clear, the priority of my family’s lives, of our children and my in-laws and parents and all the connections in our community, man, I just value people more than I value my career in the NFL.”

MALCOLM PRIDGEON WAS 8 years old when his father introduced him to football. James Pridgeon would meet his son at the bus stop after school, and they’d toss a football around in the backyard. Malcolm couldn’t play youth football at first. He was told he was too big. James was a large man too, standing about 6-4, and he worked nights as a street sweeper. One day, when Malcolm was 11, James died of an aneurysm. He was 46 years old.

Malcolm’s mom was inconsolable. They were high school sweethearts, and she always said a piece of her went with him that day. Two years later, Peggy suffered a heart attack and a stroke that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Malcolm’s sister Kalisha Garrison, who is 15 years older than he is, assumed the role of family matriarch. She tried to work while caring for her brothers and her mother, but Peggy required around-the-clock care and her insurance paid for only six hours a day. It eventually became too much, and she had to move to the nursing home. She wasn’t happy about it at first, but when her children promised to visit often, and bring food, she became comfortable.

When Malcolm was recruited by Ohio State in 2016 after two seasons at Nassau Community College, he was conflicted. He didn’t want to leave, but he wanted to play for one of the best college football programs in the country and knew he had to go. So he left for Columbus, while his mother waited for him. Pridgeon started every game in 2018, his senior year, and graduated with a degree in human development and family science. When he signed a rookie free-agent contract with the Texans the next spring, Kalisha told Peggy that her baby was going to the pros. “It’s not just my baby,” Peggy told Kalisha. “It’s our baby.”

The Texans waived him in August 2019, and Pridgeon came back home, took two days off to decompress, and started working out at Xceleration Sports Training with John Furia and Steve Wilk, trainers who had become his friends over the years. Pridgeon’s agent, Eugene Lee, called a few weeks later and said that the Browns were interested in bringing him in for a workout. In September 2019, he was signed to the Cleveland practice squad. He was happy to be back in Ohio. His then-girlfriend, Emma Hnat, lived there, and Pridgeon was just an eight-hour drive from his mom. And after years of futility, the Browns were on the verge of finally contending.

“It was good times,” he said. “They treated me with respect. I just miss that, playing football and learning from the older dudes.”

PRIDGEON WAS CONSIDERED at higher risk because he suffers from hypertension, a condition that was so worrisome that it temporarily halted his football career in junior high. He had to sit out a season because he couldn’t get his blood pressure under control.

He did a lot of research on COVID-19 health risks this past summer and talked to just about everyone close to him — his girlfriend, his siblings, his trainers and his agent — about what he should do. “He was really conflicted,” Lee said, so he connected Pridgeon with Dr. Herb Martin, a psychologist who works with Lee’s agency, Vanguard Sports.

Pridgeon eventually told his sister he had a gut feeling that opting out was what he was supposed to do. She asked him how he felt. “I feel hurt,” he told her. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get picked to play on the team after I opt out.”

The decision weighed heavy for players in all stages of NFL life. Colts’ safety Rolan Milligan had been playing football since he was 4 years old. It had taken him three years and three teams before he was finally promoted to Indianapolis active roster in 2019 . And now he was going to opt out?

His girlfriend is due on Jan. 30, and her pregnancy is high-risk because she only has one kidney. She told him to play. “She knew how much playing meant to me,” he said. “She didn’t want to be the reason why I didn’t play.”

He couldn’t take the risk.

Chandler Brewer wanted to play so badly that he took an exit-row seat on a flight to California this past summer, slathered on the Germ-X and was intent on getting to training camp even though he was considered at higher risk. Brewer’s toughness is well-documented. His senior year at Middle Tennessee State, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, underwent radiation in between games and still played the entire season.

But his agent, Buddy Baker, consulted with a number of doctors, and they decided the risk was too great for him to play. To keep himself connected, Brewer, an offensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, held onto his team-issued tablet. He watched archived team meetings and game film for games he would never play.

“I don’t want to do nothing,” he said. “I’m coming back, and this is going to make me better, having rest and recovery. I’m going to be ready to go and not miss an inch.”


IF THERE WAS anything positive to be taken from 2020, it’s that Pridgeon got engaged. It happened in late December. He took his then-girlfriend to look at Christmas lights, and then he was down on one knee, and then Hnat said yes.

Then it was back to the reality of waiting. The second weekend of January, he was sitting in his sister’s living room in Central Islip on a Sunday night, watching football with his brothers. Pridgeon was wearing his Browns sweatshirt, a reminder of his life before the pandemic. Cleveland was on the verge of winning a playoff game for the first time in 26 years. A guard named Blake Hance subbed into the game, filling in for injured Michael Dunn, who was filling in for Joel Bitonio, who was on the COVID-19 list. Hance had never played in the NFL before and was acquired in Week 17 from the New York Jets‘ practice squad.

Pridgeon couldn’t help but wonder, on another cold night in isolation, what could’ve been. He couldn’t dwell on it anymore. He smiled and cheered and waited for better times.

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Trent Dilfer still bitter about split with Baltimore Ravens after winning Super Bowl XXXV

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BALTIMORE — As the Baltimore Ravens celebrate the 20th anniversary of their Super Bowl XXXV triumph on Thursday, Trent Dilfer remains disappointed that he became the first quarterback not given the chance to defend his title.

On Jan. 28, 2001, Dilfer made a triumphant return to Tampa, Florida, where he left as a struggling first-round pick for the Buccaneers and came back to help the Ravens to a 34-7 win over the New York Giants. Two weeks later, Dilfer was informed that Baltimore intended to sign another starting quarterback in free agency.

“You know, I’ve been through a lot in my life and I try not to be bitter about anything,” said Dilfer, who is now a high school head coach at Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, Tennessee. “I’d say that’s one I’m still harboring a little bit of bitterness because of the why. It was so poorly evaluated on their behalf. They knew I was hurt.”

Dilfer, 48, plans to participate in the Ravens’ virtual reunion and speaks fondly of the camaraderie of that 2000 Ravens team. In going 11-1 as the starting quarterback — including 11 straight wins — he was considered the perfect complement to Baltimore’s historic defense by producing few turnovers and timely big plays, which included a 38-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley in the Super Bowl.

But Dilfer only completed 47.9% of his passes in the postseason and heard the criticism that he was the worst quarterback to play in a Super Bowl. He estimated that he played at 65% to 70% because he was coming off a shoulder injury from the previous season and was dealing with osteitis pubis, an inflammation around the pubic bone and hip flexor muscle.

“There’s legendary stories of how bad I was in practice and they’re all true,” Dilfer said. “I had some of the worst practices in the history of football for a quarterback. If my high school quarterback practiced like I did sometimes that year, I wouldn’t play him. But I was hurt. There was a reason for it. It wasn’t that I was trying. I didn’t suck. I sucked physically.”

Dilfer, who had joined the Ravens on a one-year, $1 million deal, was a free agent after winning the Super Bowl and hoped he could return to Baltimore healthier than the previous year. As he waited in the airport with his wife to fly to the ESPYS, Dilfer received a call from offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh.

“He could barely talk. He could barely get it out of his mouth,” Dilfer said. “You’re their third choice in free agency. And I just went, ‘What?’ I was shell-shocked.”

The Ravens eventually signed Elvis Grbac to replace Dilfer after Brad Johnson, their top choice, signed with Tampa Bay. Baltimore was enamored by the big arm of Grbac, who had just gone to the Pro Bowl after throwing for 4,000 yards.

Dilfer said neither general manager Ozzie Newsome nor Brian Billick ever called him to inform him of the team’s decision to not re-sign him. Newsome and Billick didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

“That’s one of the few things that Brian Billick did that I didn’t agree with,” Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden said. “Just give the guy a chance to come back and win his job. But it didn’t happen that way.”

Ravens defensive tackle Sam Adams said Dilfer earned the right to compete for another championship.

“I felt betrayed by them letting Trent go,” Adams said. “I was hurt by that. He was a great leader, he was a scrapper, and he was the consummate Baltimore Raven. If it wasn’t for Trent Dilfer, I don’t care what we did on defense — if it wasn’t for him coming in doing what he did — we would have never won a Super Bowl.”

Dilfer said he approached Newsome at the 10-year reunion of the Super Bowl team about not bringing him back.

“It didn’t go very far,” Dilfer said. “It doesn’t matter at that point, but it was a tough one. Still is tough because I do think that 2001 team was better probably from a talent standpoint and I would have loved to have been able to captain that ship.”

Grbac played only one season with the Ravens, losing to Pittsburgh in the divisional round. He retired after refusing to accept a $5 million pay cut.

“I’ll take a shot at Elvis because it doesn’t bother me at all,” Dilfer said. “The core value of that team was toughness. And Brian didn’t realize that. It wasn’t their coaching. It wasn’t their talent evaluation. It wasn’t all the things that they think it was. The core value of that team was mental and physical toughness and that’s who I am and that’s the opposite of who Elvis is. They set their identity back light years by getting it wrong.”

Dilfer remains the only Super Bowl-winning quarterback to immediately change teams.

After winning the Super Bowl with the Ravens, Dilfer played six more seasons, bouncing from the Seattle Seahawks to the Cleveland Browns to the San Francisco 49ers. He went 13-16 as a starter from 2001 to 2007 and never returned to the postseason.

Dilfer, who worked with ESPN as an analyst after his playing career, has kept his Super Bowl ring primarily in an underwear drawer over the years. He still hasn’t watched the Super Bowl win over the Giants from start to finish.

“It’s a period of my life that I’m so grateful for and sometimes I feel guilty I don’t think about it more, but I just really don’t,” Dilfer said. “I don’t identify with that. I identify with husband, father, coach. Now the one thing, I’m not stupid, is all that allowed for what’s happened in my life since. You can never undervalue enough how being a part of greatness helps accelerate your ability to do other great things in life.”

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Houston Texans coach David Culley tasked with changing culture, but will he have Deshaun Watson?

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HOUSTON — Before all of the trade talk, reports about his future and the hiring of coach David Culley, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was asked what he was looking for in his next head coach.

“I mean, we just need a whole culture shift,” Watson said earlier in the month. “We just need new energy. We need discipline, we need structure, we need a leader so we can follow that leader as players. That’s what we need. We’ve got to have the love of not just the game of football, because that’s what we do, but the love for people and the people in this organization.”

“… We need someone that stands tall and [says] this is who we’re following and this is the way it goes … and we’re going to do it this way to win.”

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who hired Culley in 2019 as assistant head coach, said he was respected “as a teacher, game-planner and motivator.” Culley is the first Black head coach hired by the Texans and the first in the NFL hiring cycle.

Of course, Watson might not be with the Texans to play for Culley, as ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported Sunday the quarterback is expected to want out of Houston regardless of whom the team hires. Watson isn’t the only one who feels there needs to be a culture change.

By hiring Culley, the Texans hope they’ve found that person to build the foundation for which Watson asked.

But, for most Texans fans, Culley’s name isn’t a familiar one. So who is he and why did Texans CEO Cal McNair and general manager Nick Caserio pick him to be the franchise’s next coach?

Who is David Culley?

Culley, 65, has spent the past two seasons in Baltimore as the Ravens’ assistant head coach, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. He just finished his 27th season as an NFL coach after 16 seasons in various college coaching roles. He’ll be the oldest coach in NFL history at the time of his head-coaching debut.

Culley has never been an offensive coordinator at the NFL level, but he has been an assistant head coach before his stint in Baltimore, for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Ravens were a run-first offense in 2020, as they led the NFL in rushing yards and ranked last in passing yards.

What does he bring to Houston?

The Texans are serious about fixing the organization’s culture and believe Culley is the person to do it.

After doing a second interview with the Texans — this time in person — the team was impressed by Culley’s energy and believes he has the NFL experience to deliver that cultural shift within the building, even if he hasn’t been a coordinator.

“The thing I would emphasize about Coach Culley, more than anything, is what an amazing teacher and communicator he is,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in 2019. “He’s probably the best — I would say he’s the best straight-up teacher, communicator that I’ve seen coaching football one-on-one, not just because he coaches it so well, but because he’s so relentless and he coaches the important things.”

“You can be relentless, but if you’re coaching things that don’t matter, then that’s just a lot of hot air. He’s coaching the things that matter, and you see the guys getting better every day within his position group.”

McNair knew he wanted his general manager to take the lead on the coaching search. That is Caserio, who said the characteristic he was looking for most in a head coach is an ability to “lead people.”

“Because in the end, football is a sport but it’s about people, right?” Caserio said. “You have to make an investment in people. You have to be able to lead people. … Those are some of the things that will be important relative to whether or not they’re a good playcaller on their respective side of the ball. But whoever it is will have some competency in some area.”

“… I would say in our situation, relative to Deshaun, trying to put something in place that’s sustainable for him that can allow him and the rest of the team and the organization to go out there and perform to their maximum capacity on a week-to-week basis. That’s the goal.”

What does this mean for Deshaun Watson?

This is perhaps the most important question and only Watson can answer it. If Watson still wants out regardless of whom the Texans hired, as Mortensen reported, then hiring Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy wouldn’t have made a difference.

Now that the Texans have hired their new coach, the question is whether Watson will be here to see the culture shift he asked for in Houston. The quarterback hasn’t requested a trade, but he could decide to do so once the hire is officially announced.

While the Texans could agree to trade terms with another team before the start of the new league year on March 17, a trade cannot be executed until then. The key time frame to pay attention to is before the NFL draft in April, because if the Texans were to trade Watson, they would want to make sure they’re getting 2021 draft capital, when the pick slots are locked in.

What’s next in Houston?

Watson put up the best numbers of his young career in 2020, and the team won only four games. Houston’s defense struggled, finishing 30th in Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA. Of course, there are still a lot of holes on a defense that lacked young difference-makers, so whomever Culley hires as defensive coordinator will have a tall task ahead.

Regardless of whether the Texans trade Watson, those holes on the roster will remain. The Texans’ first pick in this draft is No. 67, so they won’t be able to add impact talent at a team-friendly price, and are currently $18 million over the projected 2021 salary cap (although that matters less than the cash they’ve already committed, which gives them some flexibility).

If Houston trades Watson, it will be able to plug in pieces on the defense and upgrade that side of the ball significantly, but then questions will remain at quarterback.

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