New Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley addressed his hiring by saying that the 2017 Browns “obviously” played “a lot of close games.”
One could forgive the fans if they said it didn’t seem that way.
Such is life for a winless team whose record overcomes a final score.
The Browns finished with a point differential of minus-176, which means they lost by an average of 11 points. That was the worst in the league, by 34 points. They lost six games by six points or fewer, and Haley saw two when his former team, the Steelers, beat the Browns by three and four points, respectively.
Were the Browns that close last season? Here’s a look at the games that were out of reach and those that weren’t:
Out of reach
At Baltimore (24-10), at Indianapolis (31-28), Cincinnati (31-7), at Houston (33-17), Minnesota in London (33-16), Jacksonville (19-7), Baltimore (27-10)
Average point differential: 15 points. The Colts score looks close, but that result was deceiving because the Browns were blown out in the first half. Jacksonville was a three-point game in the fourth quarter, but the offense never moved the ball consistently. In the rest, the other team was simply better.
With some luck, maybe
Pittsburgh (21-18), Tennessee (12-9 in overtime), at Los Angeles Chargers (19-10)
A play here or there would have changed momentum in each of these games, though the Browns would have had to create their own good fortune to finish each with a win.
Two plays made a big difference in the opener against Pittsburgh. Down three and trying to hold the Steelers without a first down for another chance in the final minutes, Antonio Brown somehow caught a fly ball from Ben Roethlisberger that descended as if it had a parachute. Brown leaped and made the catch between two Browns defenders. Previously, late in the third quarter, DeShone Kizer threw a pass that was intercepted by T.J. Watt at the Pittsburgh 17 — a pass basically thrown to nobody. Either of these plays could have changed the feel of the game, given the Browns a chance and helped Kizer’s early-season confidence. At times, the Steelers seemed to treat the game as more of a glorified scrimmage, but in the end the Browns had chances.
In the overtime loss to Tennessee, the Browns could not sustain enough drives and threw three interceptions. The score was close, but the Browns never threatened to take the win.
Philip Rivers threw for 344 yards and controlled the Chargers game, but in the first half, Kizer missed a wide-open Josh Gordon for what would have been an easy touchdown. Does that play change the result? Maybe not, but it could have changed the feel of the game.
Winnable with a play or a break
New York Jets (17-14), at Detroit (38-24), at Cincinnati (30-16), Green Bay (27-21 in overtime), at Chicago (20-3), at Pittsburgh (28-24)
Each of these games warrants a closer look.
A key play in the Jets loss came when coach Hue Jackson went for a first down on fourth-and-2 from the 4 early in the fourth quarter and the Browns down 10-7. A field goal would have tied the score, but Zane Gonzalez already had missed two and Jackson thought it was time to win the game, not tie. He was roundly criticized for it when the Browns didn’t make the first down. Naturally, the Jets followed with a 97-yard touchdown drive that essentially put the game away. Two other important plays earlier in the game also affected the outcome. Kizer threw a goal-line interception to snuff out a scoring threat when he misread the coverage. He also had a poor pitch on an option play at the goal line that led to a fumble inside the 10. If any one of those plays goes differently, the Browns have a chance to win. This game counts as one that got away.
In Detroit, a couple of missed chances affected the outcome of a two-touchdown game. The end of the first half was a lesson in clock mismanagement and ended when Kizer thought he saw an opening for a quarterback sneak on second-and-goal from the 2 with 19 seconds left and the Browns out of timeouts. The Lions stuffed the play, and the Browns got no points. Later, with Kizer sidelined with sore ribs, Cody Kessler overthrew a sure touchdown to a wide-open Bryce Treggs. Earlier, Seth DeValve‘s fumble gave the Lions a defensive touchdown. The Browns actually led by seven late in the third quarter. They could have won this game.
One key play in Cincinnati still has the Browns banging their foreheads on their desks. The Bengals led by seven in the fourth quarter and faced third-and-5 from the Browns’ 40-yard line. Andy Dalton threw down the sideline to Josh Malone, who caught the ball just before receiving a hard tackle from safety Jabrill Peppers. Officials called it a hit on a defenseless player, and Peppers was flagged, which allowed the Bengals to score the clinching touchdown. The Browns were bitter about the flag, and their position seemed justified when the league rescinded a fine on Peppers. If that play goes the Browns’ way, Cleveland at least has a chance to tie.
The Packers loss remains toothache-style painful, especially because the Browns blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead. Any of three plays makes this a Browns win. First, David Njoku dropped a third-down pass with 2:59 left and the Browns up seven that would have meant a first down and an opportunity to run out the clock. On the ensuing punt, the Browns gave up a 65-yard return on a Keystone Cops effort that gave the Packers the chance to tie the score on the second-to-last play of the game.
That was the seventh-longest punt return in the NFL last season. In overtime, Kizer held the ball too long — Gordon could not get off the line for a quick slant — and was hit as he threw. The resulting pass turned into a pop fly that the Packers intercepted. They scored the game-winning touchdown soon after. This loss was a teeth-gnasher.
A 17-point loss in Chicago shouldn’t have had any meaningful plays for the Browns, but in this game one defensive play could have altered the outcome. On the first play of the second half, defensive end Myles Garrett returned an interception for a touchdown that would have put the Browns up 10-6. It was the kind of uplifting big play that energizes a team, but it turned out that Carl Nassib was flagged for offside, negating the interception and touchdown. It’s not inconceivable to think the Browns win if the play stands.
The season ended in Pittsburgh with a crushing mistake, as Corey Coleman dropped an easy catch at the Steelers’ 10-yard-line with 1:46 left. Kizer had played by far his best game, and he was guiding what appeared to be a last-minute, dramatic, game-winning drive. Instead, Coleman’s drop turned into a play that will live in Browns lore. The Browns had two turnovers on their previous drives on a Kizer interception and a Duke Johnson Jr. fumble, but the Coleman drop stands out as almost excessively cruel.
That adds up to six games when a play or three could have swung things for the Browns.
Which QBs have the 49ers targeted at No. 3 in the NFL draft? Follow the clues – San Francisco 49ers Blog
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Imagine if the recent volume of social media inquiries connecting or disconnecting the San Francisco 49ers to quarterbacks Justin Fields, Mac Jones and Trey Lance in the upcoming NFL draft were put into solving actual mysteries.
We’d know the contents of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase in “Pulp Fiction” and whether Tony Soprano is alive while sitting on the beach near the lost city of Atlantis. If we were really lucky, we could finally get to the bottom of who, exactly, let the dogs out.
But none of that moves the needle like the 49ers’ quarterback quandary.
“We looked at it as to move up to three, we had to feel good that there’s three guys we’d be comfortable with leading our team for a long time and we couldn’t make that decision before there was three guys so we had to feel that way with three,” Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said on March 29. “I think there’s a chance to get there with four and five.”
One thing we know for sure is that this is the season of confirmation bias. Have an opinion about which quarterback you want the 49ers to take? Chances are, you’ll embrace any nugget that supports your choice and ignore anything to the contrary.
Is it possible the 49ers moved to three without a firm decision but knew they wanted to have time to finalize that choice? Sure, but they had to be convinced on three players to make such a bold trade. They could, as Shanahan said, still “get there” with a fourth and fifth quarterback, but that player would have to pass whoever was No. 3 at the time of the trade.
The case for Ohio State’s Justin Fields
Relive the highlights from Justin Fields at Ohio State as the QB is poised to be a top draft pick in the NFL.
Some observers believe Shanahan is hopelessly devoted to immobile pocket quarterbacks who will robotically do everything he wants and nothing more. Shanahan has had success with those pocket quarterbacks, making the best of the hand he’s been dealt. But he hasn’t had a chance to select his own guy from a lofty draft perch.
Shanahan grew up watching his father, Mike, coach physically gifted quarterbacks such as John Elway and Steve Young. He also watched as Patrick Mahomes snatched Super Bowl LIV away from the 49ers in the closing minutes.
Does Shanahan want someone who can check the boxes of pre-snap ability, accuracy and decision-making? Of course. But that’s not all he wants.
“You want an elite player,” Shanahan said. “And, of course, if you can get a guy who’s elite with his arm and can play in the pocket and do everything and still run around and make off-schedule plays, I mean, that’s what you’ve seen with Mahomes. Everybody wants something like that.”
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One option would be Fields. At 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds with a 4.44 40-yard dash, Fields is a dynamic athlete with elite accuracy to all levels and the decision-making to operate Shanahan’s offense at its base but also elevate it to the next level.
Some meaningful numbers on Fields, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
The 49ers have used motion at the highest rate in the NFL (67%) since Shanahan took over in 2017. Fields rushed for 867 yards in two season with the Buckeyes, while Shanahan quarterbacks have rushed for a total of 611 yards since 2014. Fields also threw six touchdowns while using motion at Ohio State, tied for third in the FBS during that span.
The 49ers have used play-action the eighth most in the NFL since 2017 and the third-most from under center during that time. Although Fields did most of his play-action damage from the shotgun, he also proved more than capable of getting it done under center — where he would play from on the 49ers — completing 26 of 35 throws for 384 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions during his college career.
Shanahan worked with Fields at the QB Collective camp for promising young quarterbacks when Fields was in high school. Fields has been working with former NFL quarterback John Beck, who played for Shanahan in Washington during 2010 and 2011 and the two remain close. In fact, Shanahan has been in contact with Beck throughout the pre-draft process as Beck has worked with Fields, Wilson and Lance.
None of that guarantees anything, but it does mean Shanahan has access to someone he trusts who has been around Fields often in the run up to the draft, no small thing given the remaining COVID-19-related restrictions on private workouts and prospect visits.
The case for Alabama’s Mac Jones
Check out highlights from Alabama QB Mac Jones’ college career ahead of the 2021 NFL draft.
In the same quote in which Shanahan talked about finding an elite quarterback, he expounded on the idea that he only wants pocket quarterbacks such as Kirk Cousins, the player he drafted in the fourth round as offensive coordinator of the Washington Football Team in 2012.
Part of why Shanahan liked Cousins so much was the value in finding a quarterback capable of doing things Shanahan cares most about so late in the draft. Shanahan prioritizes accuracy, pocket poise and decision-making above all else.
“If you can’t sit in that pocket and play that position, eventually it’s not going to matter,” Shanahan said. “They both go hand in hand.”
It’s no secret that Shanahan sought to bring Cousins to San Francisco in 2018. The Niners passed on Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft in order to wait for Cousins. As it turned out, the opportunity to trade for Jimmy Garoppolo came first and the Niners took it. When Garoppolo played well over the final five games, the plan changed.
All of that is necessary context to understand why Jones is in the mix for the Niners with the third pick. Jones has drawn comparisons to Cousins for his ability to diagnose coverages before the snap, his footwork and his accuracy. ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen says Jones “throws with anticipation, location and timing” and “he’s very good short to intermediate in terms of accuracy, putting the ball in location.”
Those are qualities that undoubtedly apply to the 49ers, who put a premium on that short to intermediate accuracy because of what it can do for their ability to gain yards after catch.
Some meaningful numbers on Jones:
A whopping 21.4% of Jones’ 2020 pass attempts were screens, and while those screen passes undoubtedly contributed to Jones’ 77.4% completion percentage becoming the highest in FBS history, his overall accuracy was still among the best in the nation. Jones had an off-target percentage of just 5.9% on all throws, which was seventh best in the FBS.
One way Jones could elevate San Francisco’s offense is with his deep ball accuracy. Jones’ 61.2% completion percentage on passes traveling at least 20 yards in the air was third in the FBS (just behind Wilson and Fields, notably) as he went 30-of-49 for 1,310 yards and 15 touchdowns with one interception. His off-target percentage on such throws was 16.3%, sixth best in the nation and ahead of all the other top quarterbacks in the draft except for Wilson.
While Shanahan went on to insist that Cousins isn’t his idealized version of a quarterback, he still acknowledged there’s a lot to like there.
“If you’re going to draw it up, you’re going to draw the biggest, fastest strongest and best quarterback in the pocket,” Shanahan said. “So, I think that’s pretty ridiculous to say that [about Cousins]. I’ll also tell you I love Kirk. I know I’m not allowed to talk about other players but Kirk’s a hell of a player and a lot of people would be lucky to have a quarterback like that.”
The case for North Dakota State’s Trey Lance
Relive some of the incredible plays from Trey Lance’s college career.
When Shanahan took over the 49ers in 2017, there was a chance that Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen was going to enter the draft. There’s an alternate universe in which Allen declared and became a 49er. That didn’t happen, and Shanahan watched helplessly from the sideline last December as Allen shredded the 49ers to the tune of 375 yards and four touchdowns with an 80% completion rate in a 34-24 Buffalo win.
When Allen went through the draft process, he was regarded as a raw prospect from a smaller school with the physical tools to become a franchise quarterback. In Buffalo, Allen has done that, making progress every year before becoming an MVP candidate last season.
A day after the Niners lost to Allen and the Bills, Shanahan was asked if the way he evaluates quarterbacks has evolved.
“How I evaluate everything is always changing,” Shanahan said on Dec. 9. “You start to see you can win football games with any type of quarterback as long as they are good enough and you can be good enough in hundreds of different ways. … So, I evaluate quarterbacks in terms of trying to find people who can have a chance to be one of those elite-type guys and there’s lots of different ways to do it.”
If the Allen way of doing it is of particular interest to Shanahan, Lance could be the player he seeks. Much like Allen, Lance is a bit of an unknown after starting just 17 games at the FCS level and comes with questions about his ability to be consistently accurate. Also like Allen, the 6-4, 226-pound Lance boasts a powerful arm and the athleticism to rush for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2019.
Some meaningful numbers on Lance:
Since 2017, the 49ers have run the third-most play-action dropbacks from under center, with 33.8% of their total passing yards coming from play-action during that span. Of the top quarterbacks, Lance easily has the most experience in similar situations. Of Lance’s dropbacks, 30% came from under center and 24.3% of his dropbacks came from under center with play-action. What’s more, Lance excelled in those situations, completing 53 of 77 passes for 847 yards with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions on play-action dropbacks from under center. For comparison’s sake, of the other top five quarterback prospects, Wilson’s 47 play-action dropbacks from under center were the closest to Lance.
In addition to his rushing skills, Lance also has a reputation for excellent ball security, an important factor for the 49ers, who had 11 turnovers during four one-score losses last season without starter Jimmy Garoppolo. In 2019, Lance’s only full season, he had zero interceptions on 287 pass attempts. In the past 20 seasons, he’s the only Division I quarterback to attempt 200-plus passes in a season without a pick. According to Pro Football Focus, Lance only had five turnover-worthy plays during 335 career dropbacks, which is tied for second-fewest among quarterbacks in this draft class.
Because of his lower level of competition, relative inexperience and accuracy questions, many view Lance as the guy in this class who most needs at least a year to sit and learn before playing. While that could be true, the amount of pre-snap responsibilities he had for the Bison and the type of offense he ran at North Dakota State suggests he could catch up quickly.
If he does need a year to sit, the Niners offer a desirable situation. Garoppolo or another veteran (if the Niners get a good offer for Garoppolo) can start before turning it over to the No. 3 pick in 2022. If it’s Lance, there are plenty of reasons to believe he has the potential to become the elite player Shanahan is hoping to find.
Two weeks later there are still more questions than answers about former NFL player Phillip Adams
ROCK HILL, S.C. — Robert Lesslie loved playing the bagpipes. He loved practicing medicine, his community, his faith, his wife, Barbara, and their big family. Barbara Lesslie loved her husband, their church, leading bible study, singing hymns and mentoring kids with disabilities at Camp Joy. They each loved their grandchildren, including Adah and Noah, and were proud of the warmth the two kids showed regularly to others. Adah Lesslie loved books, she loved singing, handmade cards and hugs. Noah Lesslie loved physical comedy and horses, so much so that he frequently asked if one day he would be able to ride a horse in heaven, particularly Artax from The NeverEnding Story.
In his memorial service for the Lesslies last week, Rev. Dr. J. Barry Dagenhart said it is important to remember these things as we grieve, because by grieving this way, we make hope a living thing. And, Dagenhart told the audience, hope will be particularly important as we wrestle, in the months and years to come, with the question of why such a terrible thing happened to them, even though it ultimately won’t change the reality of the tragedy.
On April 7, a former NFL football player, Phillip Adams, emerged from the woods behind the Lesslies’ property in Rock Hill with two handguns — a .45-caliber and 9 mm — and opened fire. He shot and killed Robert, 70, Barbara, 69, Adah, 9, and Noah, 5. He also shot and killed two air conditioning repairmen, James Lewis and Robert Shook, both 38, working at the house before Adams fled to another location, where police said Adams shot and killed himself after a standoff. He was 32.
No known motive exists, and the connection between Adams and the Lesslies, if even one existed prior to April 7, remains unknown as well. The police report was expected to shed new light on what happened and why, but added few details when it was released last Friday. A community in which the Lesslies were beloved for their generosity, their charity and their connection to their church, remains shaken. Lesslie was the director of the emergency department at Piedmont Medical Center, Rock Hill’s general hospital, for nearly 15 years, and had founded two urgent care clinics. During his time there, he’d treated many people in Rock Hill, including Adams’ own father.
“They were such peaceful, good people,” said Ralph Norman, a congressman who represents Rock Hill. “[Robert] treated everybody in town at some point. … His wife and my wife were in a singing trio that went over and sang at different functions, and we went skiing and were in the same church for a long time. They were some of our best friends. This is just horrific, unbelievable.”
Adams’ friends and family are also grieving, wrestling with memories of the person they thought they knew, and a reality of the monstrous acts he committed. “I just can’t fathom it,” said Kevin Smith, a three-time Super Bowl-winning cornerback with the Cowboys who was a mentor and friend to Adams during his career. “I don’t know what the situation was, but I just can’t imagine him shooting kids.”
In the absence of answers, people who knew Adams can’t help but contemplate the inevitable question: Was he suffering from some form of psychological illness, perhaps set in motion by collisions and concussions during his football career? His father, Alonzo, gave a brief interview to Charlotte television WCNC-TV after the shooting, indicating as much: “I can say he’s a good kid — he was a good kid, and I think the football messed him up.”
The family has made few public statements since but agreed as part of the autopsy that his brain be sent to Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center for further study. Adams’ sister, Lauren, declined to comment to ESPN until the CTE results are back from BU. “Right now, we’re just trying to grieve and wrap our heads around everything,” she said.
Even that effort likely won’t provide definitive answers. In the last research from BU’s CTE Center, researchers found CTE in the brains of 223 of 266 amateur and pro football players that they studied. But there has never been a link established between CTE and violence.
This much is known about Adams, though: The local standout had always been a quiet introvert who could be hard to track down. Once his football career was over in 2015, he’d done some volunteer coaching at a nearby high school in recent years, and tried starting up a health food shop with a friend. But in the past year to 18 months, family members had a harder and harder time finding and connecting with him.
Adams’ longtime agent, Scott Casterline, said he can’t help but feel a little haunted by a missed call the morning of the shooting, wondering if he could have done something that would have prevented the situation. There is a mixture of guilt and sadness in his voice when he talks. “Phillip’s dad had called me and it went straight to voicemail,” Casterline said. “I didn’t realize it. I guess it was right before all this happened. His tone was normal. It was like ‘Hey Scott, this Alonzo, I’m just trying to touch base with you to talk a little bit about Phillip.’ And it wasn’t alarming or like, ‘Hey man, Phillip is in trouble.’ It was normal, because Phillip was a loner. Even when he played, he was really private. He was hard to reach unless he wanted to talk to his parents, to me, to everybody.”
ADAMS’ PATH to the NFL was, for years, seen as one small part of a football pipeline coming out of Rock Hill, a sleepy, bedroom community 25 miles south of Charlotte that manages to produce an inordinate number of talented football players. Jadeveon Clowney, Stephon Gilmore and Cordarrelle Patterson are among those the city has sent to the NFL in recent years, inspiring one local sports editor to dub the 75,000-population town “Football City, USA,” a moniker that stuck.
Adams wasn’t a star on the level of Clowney, but he was well-known for his athletic prowess. He won a state championship in football and in basketball at Rock Hill High School, and earned a scholarship to South Carolina State. His classmates nicknamed him “Fresh” because he was always so sharply dressed and well-groomed. “His whole family is actually very naturally gifted athletically,” said Lawrence “Snoop” Brown, one of Adams’ high school teammates. “His brother was an all-ACC wrestler. His sister played volleyball and basketball. And Phillip was no different. Always a very good athlete. From the get-go, he has always been super talented.”
Casterline says Adams talked sparingly about his childhood in Rock Hill, but when he did, he usually described it as a happy time in his life. His father, Alonzo, worked as a commercial truck driver who typically limited his work to local routes so he wouldn’t have to spend nights away from his family. Sometimes Phillip, the youngest of three kids, would accompany him on trips. His mother, Phyllis, worked for many years as an educator in the Rock Hill school system until 2009, when she was involved in a serious car accident that left her paralyzed. A community fundraiser brought in more than $15,000 for her after the accident.
Adams was in college at the time, and said it was only after he and his mother prayed together in the hospital that he decided to continue playing football. She was to be part of his motivation to make it to the NFL. “This just makes you appreciate the people in your life,” Adams told a reporter in 2010, discussing his mother’s accident. “It makes you … not worry about material things. It brings you closer to God. That is what it did for me. It helped me out in that aspect. It made me work harder. It can either change you for the worst or the best. Because of my family and the strength that I have, it changed me for the best.”
Adams was a standout cornerback and punt returner at South Carolina State, tying for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference lead in interceptions as a junior and earning first-team all-conference honors as a senior in 2009. But an NFL career was no sure thing. No South Carolina State player had been drafted in a decade. A friend put Adams in touch with Casterline prior to the NFL Draft, and the two clicked in a brief conversation over the phone. Adams moved to Dallas to train, hoping to improve his draft stock, primarily by working with Smith, who was a key member of the Dallas dynasty. “He was just a young, quiet kid, and he wanted all the information,” Smith said. “I used to get on him a little bit. He overworked. It was information overload. He studied it, he dreamed it. It was a long shot coming from South Carolina State, but he had the talent. I told him, ‘Man, you got something.'”
It wasn’t long before Adams and Casterline built a bond that went beyond a professional relationship. “Phillip was like a little brother to me,” Casterline said. “Initially, I put him up in a hotel, but then I said, ‘Why don’t you come over to my house?’ I’ve got a big house. He just started staying with me. We’d go eat and train together. We even took jiu-jitsu together because we took a class and it would be me versus him because we were both beginners. We were both very competitive. Over time, we just became really good friends. I wish I could have foreseen the future. … I just can’t imagine him shooting anybody, especially two kids. That’s just not in his nature.”
Adams was drafted by the 49ers in the seventh round of the 2010 draft, but he managed to make the roster because of a relentless work ethic and willingness to play special teams. But late in the year, in a game against the Rams, Adams suffered a compound ankle fracture on the field, an injury that required emergency surgery and screws inserted into his leg, and it turned his football career into a nomadic existence. For the rest of his time in the NFL, he was a fringe roster player, moving from city to city, barely hanging on from one week to the next with little to no job security. Still, Adams did better than most, scratching out a six-year career that paid him upward of $3.6 million.
The Patriots signed him in 2011, but they ultimately cut him three times in the same season. He spent two full seasons with the Raiders, even cracking the starting lineup for four games over two seasons, but that too came to an unceremonious end because of injuries. It was during his time with the Raiders that he suffered two concussions in a short span. “I remember one of them was really bad,” Casterline said.
Adams had one-year stints with the Jets and Falcons, but he could never move up from being considered a fringe NFL guy. “That does a lot to the psyche of a player,” Casterline said. “Every time he’d get released, I’d pick him up and tell him, ‘Hey, we’ll find your place. Your time will come.’ But he kept bouncing around. I know that frustrated him because he was such a competitor. He wanted to win and be great.”
Smith says he’d travel to Atlanta a couple times a year after Adams signed with the Falcons, mostly just to check in with his friend, and would usually stay with Adams for a weekend. What he saw always perplexed him. “All he would want to do is watch film,” Smith said. “That was it. He had film of every NFL receiver he was going to face the next year, and he’d sit there watching that film all day long. I’d tell him, ‘Phillip, you’re overdoing it. You can’t be working out three times a day. You’re going to ruin your body. You have to preserve your body. The longer you’re in the NFL, it’s about preserving your body and recovery.’ But he was one of those guys who was going to push it to the edge. He was all football.”
After Adams’ contract with the Falcons expired in 2015, the fire that burned inside of him to hang on to an NFL career seemed to wane. He moved back to Rock Hill and started volunteering as a coach at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill, SC, telling Casterline he felt like he was important again, that he was making a difference. He told friends he was also trying to be a present father to his young son, even though he and the boy’s mother were no longer involved.
Casterline got a call from the Colts during training camp in 2016, inquiring about Adams’ availability. They wanted to sign him, but they needed an answer immediately. A cornerback had been injured, they liked Adams’ experience and wanted him to fill in, but only if Adams could be on a flight to Indianapolis that night. Casterline couldn’t reach Adams, which wasn’t unusual. Eventually, Adams’ father got in touch with his daughter, and she tracked down her brother at his old high school, putting him on the phone with Casterline. “I said, ‘OK, your sister is going to take you to the airport right now, we’ll send you clothes,'” Casterline said. “And he started hesitating. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. That’s not like Phillip. But I think he had clocked out of the experience of being signed and cut so many times. It wears on a player. He ended up going to the airport after I talked to him, but he got there late and missed the flight. That was it. The Colts moved on. They signed somebody else. I could tell he wasn’t really into it anymore.”
ADAMS’ FRIENDS insist he wasn’t ashamed of the way his NFL career ended, but it also wasn’t a subject he liked discussing. When he decided to open a Rock Hill smoothie shop in 2019, dubbing it “Fresh Life,” he refused to use his past NFL career as part of the marketing. He saw food as medicine, according to Tynetta Moore, a long-time friend who ran the business for Adams. He wanted to provide healthy fruits and vegetables to a predominantly Black part of town that didn’t even have a grocery store.
He had big ideas for the community that didn’t involve football. He talked of starting a podcast about wellness, and a mentorship to teach people a trade, like plumbing. His dream, he told Moore, was to grow his own food eventually. He had visions of her running the store while he spent his days riding a tractor. “He was just wanting to live a very quiet life,” Moore said. “He was not a flashy guy in the first place. If you bring up something about the NFL, he was, ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’ It was like that was off limits to him.”
Adams’ ambitions, however, once again clashed with his reality. Moore says business was slow, and foot traffic was nonexistent. The store ended up closing, Moore says, even before COVID-19 arrived and began devastating small businesses. Outwardly, Adams tried to shrug it off, but friends and family started to notice small changes in his demeanor. “I sensed standoffishness, kind of retreating, but nothing that popped in my mind and thought, ‘Oh, he’s depressed.”’ Moore said.
He became harder and harder to get in touch with. He’d always enjoyed being by himself, but it had progressed recently, worrying his family and friends. He’d been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon in 2016, but that charge was dismissed. According to published reports, in the days leading up to the shootings, Adams had been convicted of driving under suspension and failure to maintain proper insurance.
“He was just doing weird things,” said Aaron Neely, one of Adams’ cousins. “Like, his mind wasn’t right. He was doing weird stuff. Like riding a four-wheeler in the woods at night with no lights on. That’s dangerous. People would talk to him, he’d look at you and not say nothing. All kinds of weird stuff.”
Casterline says Adams called him in the fall of 2020, asking if he could help him find a job. His agent was eager to help. “I said, ‘You move to Texas, I’ll put you to work immediately,'” Casterline said. “He said, ‘No, I can’t leave South Carolina.’ I assumed because of his son.”
Before that, in the fall of 2017, Smith had connected Adams with Paul Scott, a former NFL executive who now owns and runs Benefits Huddle, a small business he runs by himself that helps NFL veterans submit the right paperwork to be approved for disability benefits from the league. It’s a complicated, often frustrating process, and one that Scott knows all too well because he used to work on the other side of the aisle, denying benefit applications on behalf of the NFL. He has grown to be seen as something of an angel in the world of retired NFL players, because he knows how the league thinks and can anticipate the red tape they use to discourage or reject claims.
Adams was interested in applying but didn’t know where to begin. “I think he was looking at applying for the line of duty disability benefit at the time, but with line of duty disability, you have to have your team medical records to support your claim,” Scott said. “He was having a difficult time getting his records from teams.”
Scott called an executive he knew with the Raiders, who said he was busy but promised to get in touch with Adams in a few weeks. Scott exchanged emails with Adams a few weeks later, and Adams said he still hadn’t received his records. Scott told him to keep trying. If he was approved for line of duty disability, which is usually granted only to players who suffered on-field injuries that required surgery (such as Adams’ compound ankle fracture), he’d be eligible to receive at least $4,000 per month. “I assumed that he got the records or whatever,” Scott said. “I don’t like to push these guys. I’m not like a salesman. In my experience, a lot of these guys get annoyed at me if I push them. I’ll remind them one time, and then if they don’t respond, I assume they’ve chosen to do something else or found someone else to help them, whatever.”
At no point, Scott said, did Adams inquire about seeking neurocognitive benefits. He just wanted to know, if he was approved, how long it would be before he started getting a check. “Usually what happens with these guys when they come to me, they’ve already exhausted all of their friends and family business associates,” Scott said. “They don’t want to apply for disability, but this is their last chance. And when they’re strung along like this, they feel kind of desperate. They feel it. When they’re approved, great. Because they usually have some debt to repay people. But when they’re denied, they got no other place to go. And there’s nothing else out there for them because they have to wait a full year before they’re able to reapply.”
When Scott saw the news of the shooting, the name sounded familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. “I looked him up in my contacts and was like, ‘Yup, talked to him before,'” Scott said. “He just never followed through. I needed authorization. If he’d sent back authorization forms that I had sent him and some of the teams had sent him in order to send the records to me, then maybe things would have been easier on the disability end. I don’t know. He may have had someone helping him. I don’t know.”
ON APRIL 7, 2021, the York County Sheriff’s Department received a 911 call at 4:46 p.m. from a 80-year-old man reporting a “bad shooting” at his neighbor’s house on Marshall Road. That man said he’d been outside cutting his grass when he heard “about 20” gunshots. He’d just seen someone he suspected was the shooter — a man dressed in a black hoodie — run out of the house carrying something under his arm (police would later include burglary among the charges against Adams). There were at least two people in the yard who’d been shot, he said, and likely more inside.
When officers arrived on the scene, one of the HVAC workers — Shook, a married father of three — was still alive, and conscious, despite wounds that would eventually kill him. Shook told the officers a Black male wearing camouflage pants and a black sweatshirt had emerged from the woods outside the Lesslie house and just started shooting. He went inside, fired more shots, then exited the house and disappeared into the same woods. Shook was rushed to the hospital but died three days later. James Lewis, a single father of three, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Police haven’t said how they identified Adams as a suspect. But the officers soon surrounded his parents’ house, just up the road from the Lesslie residence, where he had barricaded himself inside. A standoff that lasted several hours ensued, with police eventually getting Adams to let his mother, Phyllis, come out safely, according to a neighbor. When officers finally entered the house, they found Adams dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. “It’s disheartening hearing people call him a monster,” Moore said. “Don’t get me wrong. Nobody is trying to excuse the acts. It’s just the acts don’t match the person that we know.”
It’s still unclear what kind of relationship, if any, Adams had with Lesslie. Norman gave an interview on April 8, the day after the shooting, in which he said law enforcement officials had told him that Adams had been a patient of Lesslie’s and been upset that Lesslie stopped giving him medication. But law enforcement officials never confirmed that, and Norman has since walked back his initial statement.
On April 15, a small crowd gathered to say goodbye to Phillip Adams at the Robinson Funeral Home. The family held a private service beforehand, welcoming the public to pay their respects after they’d gone home. The parking lot sat mostly empty for an hour before a few mourners trickled in. Kevin Davis, 54, a friend of the family, was one of the first to arrive. “I didn’t really know Phillip,” he said. “I knew the grandmother and father. We were church members.”
Davis said the impact on the community has been tough, particularly for people like him who knew the Lesslie family as well. “It’s just all messed up,” he said. “It’s odd for him just to go into that doctor’s house and do that. It’s really hard. They’re a great family. It’s sad.”
Inside, Adams was laid out in an open casket. A large arrangement of red and white roses was draped on the lower half of the casket. A framed picture of Adams wearing his No. 35 San Francisco 49ers uniform from 2010, was displayed next to the casket. Visitors were not allowed to linger, or sit in the pews. They moved past slowly and went out another side door. “The only one that can make sense of this is the Lord Above,” said a woman directing visitors.
One of Adams’ cousins, who did not want to be identified, quietly spoke to the sentiment of the room, and for so many others who knew Adams. “None of us understand.”
AT THE LESSLIE family memorial, Rev. Dagenhart did not attempt to explain the inexplicable. Instead, he told stories about the Lesslies, about how important their faith was to them. They regularly invited the entire church to their property for picnics. It was Robert Lesslie who encouraged the congregation, even before America’s recent racial unrest, to forge a connection with a Black church in town, Mount Prospect Baptist in Rock Hill.
Every year for the past 20 years, they spent a week volunteering at Camp Joy, a place where teenagers and adults with disabilities retreated for a respite in the North Carolina mountains. Barbara led bible study and Robert served as the camp doctor, but he threw himself into every activity he could: canoeing, horseback riding, playing bagpipes. “They were encouragers,” Dagenhart said. “They would pray with you. They’d try to make a tense situation better.”
So many mourners came to pay their respects to the Lesslies, the service was held at the cavernous West End Baptist Church instead of the First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, where the Lesslies were members. The building was packed, the parking lot full, an hour before it began. Dagenhart asked the congregation to pray not just for the Lesslies, the Shook and Lewis families, but also for Adams’ family members, a reminder that, hard as it was to understand, they had lost someone as well. He asked the congregation to join him in singing “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” a hymn that was special to the Lesslie Family. It was Adah’s and Noah’s bedtime song.
“Why questions have no answers,” Dagenhart said. “But one question we can pose in which we, as believers, can know. The question is: ‘Do I serve a master that I trust? Do I serve a lord I can trust?’ If the answer is yes, then you can be about the next thing that needs doing. Keep doing the next thing until the day is done, trusting all else, the next day start all over again. Time gives you the peace and strength you need.”
When the memorial ended, the Lesslies’ friends and loved ones slowly gathered their things and began to leave the church. As they packed into vans outside, they all passed a man walking back and forth amongst the crowd, filling the air with the sound of bagpipes.
This story was reported and written by ESPN’s Michael Fletcher, David Newton and Kevin Van Valkenburg.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers bring back QB Ryan Griffin of viral video fame
TAMPA, Fla. — After re-signing all 22 starters on offense and defense from their Super Bowl LV win, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally have a backup quarterback on their roster for the 2021 season, re-signing Ryan Griffin.
Sources told ESPN that the deal, which the team announced Tuesday, is for one year.
Griffin, 31, will enter his seventh year with the Buccaneers and second backing up future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, whom Griffin infamously whisked away from cameras after the Super Bowl boat parade, a moment that went viral on social media, and something Brady chalked up to “just litTle avoCado tequila.”
Noting to see her…just litTle avoCado tequila https://t.co/vew2otBw5T
— Tom Brady (@TomBrady) February 10, 2021
Griffin served as the Bucs’ No. 3 quarterback last season behind Blaine Gabbert, who remains unsigned. A source told ESPN that Gabbert is still an option for the team to bring back.
Griffin has seen action in two regular-season games, both in 2019, completing 2 of 4 passes for 18 yards. He originally entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the New Orleans Saints in 2013 after serving as a four-year starter at Tulane.
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