Like many players, once they retire, Leonard Johnson was trying to find a way to stick around the game when his time was up following the 2018 season. Johnson, a seven-year cornerback with six different teams, reached out to as many former coaches as he could seeking tips for how to break into the coaching world. Gene Chizik, his former head coach at Iowa State, even helped him put together and send out his resume to college and pro coaches across the country.
Johnson eventually linked up with Bills head coach Sean McDermott, who coached him both in Carolina and Buffalo. He looked for any way in, and in 2019 the Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship offered him a spot with McDermott's Bills. This year, after an offseason unlike any other due to the pandemic, Johnson was able to stay on as a defensive intern through the program.
"As a young coach, (Bills defensive coordinator Leslie) Frazier told me that there's no job too [small]," Johnson told me recently. "Playing in the NFL, you hear stories of guys who have played who don't feel like stapling papers or filing them. Anything that I'm asked to do, just do it with a lot of love and do it to the best of my ability. He told me that and it hit home. I felt like that as a rookie and a veteran player. If you want to be on the field, there's nothing that you shouldn't do to position yourself."
Johnson is one of three former NFL players who took part in the Walsh fellowship who are now full-time interns with teams. Former NFL quarterback Thad Lewis and receiver Denard Robinson are offensive assistants with the Buccaneers and Jaguars, respectively.
The late Bill Walsh introduced the concept of the fellowship to the league in 1987, and since then nearly 2,000 men and women have taken part in the program across all 32 teams. Jets wide receiver coach—and former Pittsburgh Steelers great—Hines Ward participated in the program in 2019. Opportunities are extended to minority coaches during offseason workouts, minicamp and training camp, but obviously those chances were strained this year due to the pandemic. About 135 people participated in virtual sessions in the offseason with 29 clubs taking part.
Lewis, a former undrafted quarterback out of Duke, spent time on nine different teams from 2010 to 2017 before joining Chip Kelly's UCLA staff in 2018. He met Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians at a coaching summit and Arians offered him a Walsh internship, where he now serves as an offensive assistant that focuses mainly on the quarterbacks.
And so every day, Lewis is sharing the QB room with Tom Brady.
"I played against him twice and he remembered that," Lewis says, who for the Bills in Week 17 of 2013 put up better numbers than Brady in the loss. "First thing he's like, 'Thad! How the hell did you throw the ball against me in 2013 like that?' I'm like, 'How the [expletive] do you remember that from seven years ago?'
"It's great to see how he prepares and now I know why he's the goat. I was never around a veteran quarterback of that caliber when I played so just to see now and understand why those guys are like they are and why they're so successful you can see it from Day One."
Lewis said Brady is constantly asking questions. "He wants the answers to the test," Lewis says. He works on getting Brady the answers to whatever questions he has, which makes the job more difficult but more rewarding.
Lewis, as a Black former quarterback, understands well the diversity crisis in NFL coaching circles. There are just three black head coaches in an NFL that's 70 percent black (and a total of five if you include interims Romeo Crennel and Raheem Morris.) There are only two Black offensive coordinators in the league: Kansas City's Eric Bieniemy and Tampa Bay's Byron Leftwich.
"It's definitely hard to not get discouraged. It's more about who you know but what you know. A lot of guys are hiring their buddies and that's the elephant in the room," Lewis says. "You can be qualified and good and guys may want to give you an interview and then stick you in the wide receiver room or running back room because that's a predominantly Black position and you may mesh better there. Not knowing that if you're a dangum good coach it doesn't matter the color of your skin you can relate to anybody.
"One thing about it is, let's talk ball. Let's see what you know… just that they gave me this opportunity and they said this could be a year-long process and I came and worked my tail off and they gave me the year just gives me hope. You just have to be patient and I just hope others will give people a chance. And I know when I get my shot, I definitely want to give somebody a chance because they gave me an opportunity."
Home sweet dome?
I think the Saints are trying their hand at political strong-arming when they publicly state they're considering playing at LSU's Tiger Stadium if the New Orleans mayor won't allow fans in the Superdome.
A Saints spokesman released a statement Tuesday saying the team was exploring talks with LSU about holding their home games in Baton Rouge with 25% capacity since mayor LaToya Cantrell still won't allow fans at the fixed dome stadium.
What's going on in Louisiana is layered, especially considering the state ranks first among all states in number of cases per 1 million people and fifth among deaths per 1 million people. But COVID-19 cases are down from their peak and things are opening up in the state. High school football games in New Orleans can have some fans, but Mayor Cantrell hasn't offered the same for the Saints. Meanwhile, no NFL team with a fixed dome has allowed any number of fans yet this season. Amie Just of NOLA.com has a great roundup of everything here.
I'm on record as understanding the advantage fans bring a team. But is the move to an outdoor stadium worth giving up dome conditions?
Brees: 16-4 W/L record. 75.4% completion. 298 passing yards per game.
Lutz: 45-of-49 on field goals. 77-of-78 on extra points.
Morstead: 44.84 yards per punt. 42.9% inside the 20.
Brees: 8-2 W/L record. 70.5% completion. 229.7 passing yards per game.
Lutz: 24-of-26 on field goals. 41-of-42 on extra points.
Morstead: 46.45 yards per punt. 50.9% inside the 20.
It seems it doesn't matter whether Lutz is indoors or outdoors. And Morstead actually has better stats outdoors. But Brees loses five percentage points on his completion percentage when going outdoors and throws for nearly 70 yards less per game. (I removed the 2019 Rams game from Brees's stats since he injured his throwing hand early in that game.)
In a year where it seems Brees's arm isn't what it used to be, would the Saints want to move away from the friendly confines of the Superdome? Will the addition of 15,000 to 25,000 fans make up for the edge they'll lose in the passing attack? Or is this all a game of politics?
Sideline reporting magic
Sideline reporters this season can't actually be on the sideline. By now you likely know that. But I wanted to know how much ground they're covering, so I asked Sherree Burruss, who just served as the sideline reporter for last week's Jaguars-Texans game for CBS.
Her iPhone indicated she walked about 6,000 steps from start to finish in a pair of fashionable athletic shoes from White House Black Market. Rather than walking the whole stadium throughout the game, she mainly camped out on the Texans sideline while the field producer was on the Jags sideline.
"I always try to stay 10 yards ahead of the play," Burruss says. "So I'm walking back and forth as the ball goes up and down the field. And we are in the very first row of seats (that) that jokingly call the moat."
For more on sideline reporting during a pandemic, I'd invite you to read Nicole Auerbach's great piece from earlier this month. Burruss, by the way, will get more steps in Sunday afternoon when she's reporting from Jets-Dolphins with Andrew Catalon and James Lofton on the call.
Who'll win and cover in Week 6? Pete Prisco, R.J. White and SportsLine's Kenny White join host Will Brinson to break down every game on the Pick Six Podcast; listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness.
The best thing about Week 6 in the NFL is that, without Thursday Night Football, there's no chance I go to 0-5 on my Thursday night picks. I came out of last week with a cool 9-4 record to move to 49-26-1 on the season. I have an even better feeling about this week. Roll that beautiful bean footage.
Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX
Add Robby Anderson to the growing list of players who magically get better once they leave Adam Gase's program. Anderson already has three 100-plus yard games over five weeks. The Panthers have been competitive in all five games this season, and I think they'll have to claw their way through this slugfest against Chicago's defense.
The pick: Panthers
Washington at Giants
Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX
I liked the steps the Giants offense took last week, especially the creativity Jason Garrett (finally) showed. New York had the plays to win the game and they got called back due to penalties. Washington needs to figure out what it's doing at quarterback.
The pick: Giants
Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS
Teams in this league are averaging about nine missed tackles per game, which is right on par with 2019 despite not having a preseason for defenses to sharpen their knives. The Patriots are averaging less than five missed tackles per game. This is a testament to the type of players Bill Belichick brings in, and they won't miss opportunities against the Broncos.
The pick: Patriots
Packers at Buccaneers
Sunday, 4:25 p.m., FOX
I absolutely cannot wait for this matchup. And I really want to pick the Bucs because it's hard to imagine they start 3-3. But Davante Adams is very ready to get back on the field and the Bucs are missing Vita Vea up front to force Aaron Rodgers into some bad throws.
The pick: Packers
Lions over Jaguars
Steelers over Browns
Titans over Texans
Dolphins over Jets
Rams over 49ers
Chiefs over Bills