Friday March 13th, 2009

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we tip-toe through a Friday the 13th in the NFL offseason...

• Boil it all down and for a moment strip away the contentious nature of the NFL Players Association's search for a new executive director, and the following facts can't be ignored: The union will open its pivotal 2009 annual meeting Saturday in Maui with one of its four finalists (Troy Vincent) having been eliminated by its high-priced outside executive search firm in the cut from 14 candidates late last year, and another of its finalists (David Cornwell) having been eliminated when the list of contenders was pared from nine to five earlier this year.

Complicating the picture a bit further, of course, is that Vincent is believed to currently still be under investigation by the union for admittedly sending confidential information from the files of 41 high-profile agents to a longtime friend and business partner, a move he has labeled inadvertent.

At best it seems a curious and potentially flawed way to settle on the figure who will replace Gene Upshaw as the public face of the most powerful union in professional sports, and determine who will lead the NFLPA into what is shaping up as its toughest labor fight with the league in more than two decades.

Vincent, the former union president and longtime NFL cornerback, was re-added to the list of candidates when one member of the union's six-man search committee insisted he be included in the final group of nine, despite the search firm's judgment. Cornwell, an Atlanta-based attorney who has a history of representing players as an agent, was re-instated to the field relatively late in the game, after he found three team player representatives willing to nominate him last week as a write-in finalist, as the union's constitution allows.

While the union will attempt to come out of Maui with a united front alongside its newly elected executive director, this much is abundantly clear: Solidarity is in fairly short supply going into Maui. I've talked to numerous NFLPA members in recent weeks, and a search process that was supposed to lead to the union coalescing around a finalist field filled with nothing but good choices has done anything but that. In fact, most sources told me they're not exactly sure what level of mayhem to expect when the four-man election that also includes former union president and NFL defensive lineman Trace Armstrong and Washington, D.C.-based attorney DeMaurice Smith unfolds Sunday. The winner will be elected by a simple majority vote of the 32 player reps, once the field is pared down to two.

"There has been some unrest and some division,'' one union member told me. "I guess it's natural and part of the process. But I know we've got to get past the angst and get moving at some point, because the other side (NFL management) isn't waiting for us to get our house in order. We started with something like 100 candidates, and now we're down to four.''

Said another longtime union member: "This is not out of blind loyalty to the guy (Upshaw) who was leading us for the past 25 years, but some of the judgment used in this (search) process has been horrendous, and I'm pissed off about it. But the players have to pick their guy and decide. It's not anyone's else decision.''

Here are my observations about how things might go down in Maui this weekend:

-- By my reading, the majority of the team player reps are in favor of following the Upshaw model and having an ex-player as executive director. That obviously bodes well for Armstrong and Vincent, who have been seen as the two leading candidates throughout the process. But the schism between the Armstrong faction and the Vincent faction is so pronounced that one union source told me he believes Smith has a legitimate opportunity to emerge as a winning compromise candidate.

-- My sense is there are more Vincent supporters who could live with the reality of Armstrong winning than the other way around. Vincent has been a lightning rod throughout the search process, and the questions that surround his candidacy have far out-numbered the issues surrounding Armstrong, Smith or Cornwell. If Vincent wins the election, the union has a significant internal healing process to go through. Finding common ground and going forward with a sense of unity figures to be somewhat easier if any of the other three candidates prevail.

-- The issues that ultimately may influence who wins the election may not surface until the 32 player reps are alone with each candidate on Saturday and allowed to fire away with questions. I've been told by more than one union source that there will be a level of vetting conducted in the interview sessions that some player reps feel should have been done by the union's search committee or executive committee in an earlier stage of the process. Things could get contentious in some of those interviews.

Vincent and Armstrong are likely to both face questions regarding their business associations and practices, and Vincent in particular could incur detailed questioning regarding what he claims was his inadvertent passing of confidential information on to his financial services firm business partner. Other matters that could spawn questions regarding some of the candidates have been hinted at to me by sources, but not fully explained, leaving some potential for intrigue in Maui.

"In some cases, it's factual stuff. It's not open to debate,'' said one influential union board member. "And we need to hear about it. There are some guys in the room who have an uncanny ability to overlook a lot of stuff in the (vetting) process, but if you shoot someone and say I didn't mean to, it's still manslaughter. That is essentially Troy's defense for the leak of information.''

Whoever emerges with the winning vote total this weekend, there won't be much of a honeymoon period for the incoming executive director. Before he begins preparing for the start of tough collective bargaining negotiations with the NFL that will come later this year, there will be some fence-mending to do within the ranks of the union's leadership. One thing almost all parties agree on within the NFLPA is that the mood coming out of Maui has to be far different than the one going in.

• As mediocre as Andre Smith's pro workout day results were, and as much as he has become the poster child of all draft-season sliders this year, I still think it's a wild overreaction to project him slipping out of the first round, as some draft-niks are theorizing.

His combine disappearing act and so-so pro-day workout undoubtedly hurt Smith's grade with many teams, but there will be a team -- and it only takes one -- that sees his game film and decides he's a first-round offensive tackle with enough potential to be worthy of the risk.

The stock of the Alabama junior isn't rising, to be sure. But I don't think the sky is falling to the degree I've read about either. With six weeks to go before the draft, there's still time for Smith to rally somewhat. He may no longer be a top 10 lock, but I'll be surprised if he makes it past the No. 13 Redskins.

• Here's a good example for Denver quarterback Jay Cutler, who needs to get over his hurt feelings about a potential trade and return to the task of making himself a true untouchable in the eyes of the Broncos brass: LaDainian Tomlinson.

At one point this offseason, the superstar Chargers running back was also hearing trade rumors and didn't like it, letting that be known publicly. But he got over it, and Cutler should too. If L.T.'s ego eventually could handle that San Diego was even considering living without him, what right does Cutler have to consider himself immune to such a possibility?

Maybe, just maybe, the very concerns that Denver has about Cutler's immaturity and how it might impact his level of accomplishment were validated by Cutler's pronounced reaction to the news that his name had surfaced in trade talks.

• If the Patriots do wind up securing the services of a certain ex-Redskins defensive end, will New England's offseason personnel thrust continue to be pursuing the best available Taylor? And speaking of Jason Taylor and Fred Taylor, isn't it mind-numbingly consistent how free agents who sign with the Patriots rave about the opportunity to come to New England and fall in line with the Patriot Way?

Just as Fred Taylor did two weeks ago, veteran cornerback Shawn Springs sounded a very familiar tune this week in his introductory news conference in New England: Players just want to win, and they still view the Patriots as the NFL's gold standard in that regard.

"Being a football player, ultimately you want to go somewhere where you're going to win and compete and get a chance to play in the postseason and maybe get a ring,'' Springs said. "You see them on TV all the time and everybody around the league watches them, so why wouldn't you go to a place like that?''

You see them on TV all the time? That's a deciding factor in a player's choice of where to play?

• Though I haven't heard anything so far, I'm guessing Carson Palmer isn't going to like the T.J. Houshmandzadeh for Laveranues Coles trade the Bengals essentially made during free agency. Coles is no slouch, but he's also no threat to be the consistent 90-catch option that Houshmandzadeh had developed into.

Palmer and the Bengals' No. 2 receiver were known for being perfectly in-sync on the field, and that's not going to be duplicated any time soon by Coles, even though he has played with many quarterbacks over his NFL career.

• The easy assumption to make is that judgment day is coming for Matt Jones in Jacksonville, now that the Jags receiver and former first-round pick is back in trouble over violating the terms of his plea agreement stemming from a July 2008 felony cocaine arrest.

But will Jacksonville really part ways with him for violating the terms of his drug-treatment program by drinking beer while on a golf outing late last month? Rules are rules, and Jones tested positive for alcohol when he has promised to abstain from it. But given that Jones finally came around on the field last season, leading the Jags in catches with 65 for 761 yards and two touchdowns, I'd say it's only 50-50 that he has played his last game in black and teal. Especially since Jacksonville remains thin at receiver.

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