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Cutler's time as Bronco nearing end

Quite an offseason we're having. The NFLPA elects someone no one outside the District of Columbia Bar Association has ever heard of to succeed the late Gene Upshaw -- and all he has to do is go head-to-head with Roger Goodell on the most important CBA negotiation in a generation. One of the rising star quarterbacks in football, Jay Cutler, moves closer and closer toward divorce court with the Broncos. And LaDainian Tomlinson, who was supposed to get his contract cut to smithereens in his renegotiation deal with the Chargers, actually did quite well. Maybe not well enough to retire a Charger, but close.

I'll tell you a few nuggets about the election of DeMaurice Smith as the new NFLPA head, but this story has been Don Banks' baby on this site all month, so please give him a read this morning. I'm going to lead with the Cutler story, following two chats I had with Denver coach Josh McDaniels late Sunday night. I got the sense he can't believe it's come to this duel at the OK Corral.

"I would probably be really good for Jay, and I know he would be really good for me,'' McDaniels told me over the phone from Denver. "I think that's the part that's shocking to me.''

That it probably will never happen, he means.

It makes no sense. None. When the Broncos report for the start of their offseason program this morning at their plush complex south of town, Cutler will be a no-show. I reported recently that Cutler wanted to be traded after the Broncos lost both Mike Shanahan (fired) and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates (went to USC as offensive coordinator), and that message was delivered to the Denver front office. Now I expect Cutler, through agent Bus Cook, to reiterate his demand ... and what's more, I expect the Broncos to seriously consider it. Owner Pat Bowlen said Sunday night, "we might lose'' Cutler, though he was not specific about how, or why, or when, and Cutler told Chris Mortensen of ESPN he has asked Cook to formally request a trade.

Denver has to tread carefully here. McDaniels told me he is frustrated by Cutler's interpretation of a conference call and then an in-person meeting this weekend, and he still wants to talk with Cutler again face-to-face to see if they can iron out their differences. If McDaniels walks into his first meeting with his players this morning, and they think he's trying to kick Cutler to the curb, they're going to ask, "Why did Bowlen hire this idiot?''

But in the end, Denver will have to strongly consider trading Cutler. If you're a rookie coach, as McDaniels is, and you've got to set the right tone for the team, how can you have a quarterback who doesn't want to be there as your franchise leader? Parting with Cutler would be forcing the Broncos to start over at the game's most important position when they thought they had the position filled for the next decade. But Cutler, who is one of the best quarterback prospects to enter the NFL in years, can be moody, and if he never buys what McDaniels is selling, it could drag the team down.

How we got to this point, in chronological order:

McDaniels said he was not considering trading Cutler until he was contacted "by two teams'' at the Scouting Combine -- presumably Detroit and Tampa. They were pie-in-the-sky inquiries, though, and he didn't consider anything seriously, he said, until the day before the Feb. 27 beginning of free-agency, when he got a serious proposal for Cutler.

"This was a non-issue until Thursday [Feb. 26],'' McDaniels said. "There was obviously a scenario where teams figured we'd be interested in Matt Cassel, because I'd coached him in New England. When someone calls, I'm going to consider it, because that's my job.''

Cutler believes the Broncos were much more interested in trading him and signing Cassel than they've said. I asked McDaniels if he'd been interested in Cassel before the contact by the two teams at the combine, going back to when he knew Cassel might be on the market and available in trade from the Patriots. "No, that's totally untrue,'' he said.

McDaniels did pursue a deal with New England on the first day of free agency, but not intensely, he said, because he and Broncos general manager Brian Xanders were in the middle of doing six free-agent negotiations in the opening two days of free-agency. "I think we were too late to the dance,'' he said, meaning the Chiefs had already made the deal with New England -- a second-round pick for Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel. Denver would have given more, likely a first-round pick, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick had his deal done with the Chiefs.

"Do I understand about Jay being hurt that we'd consider this?'' McDaniels said. "Sure. But I can tell you that it wasn't like there was any grand plan by us to trade Jay Cutler. That wasn't the case. But when we've told them [Cutler and Cook], I think it's fallen on deaf ears.''

I texted Cutler and got no response. In his comments to Mortensen earlier, he said his time in Denver "had run its course,'' the rift between him and McDaniels is "not something they want to fix,'' that McDaniels -- in their meeting Saturday -- "made it clear he could still entertain trading me,'' and said the coach "made it clear he wants his own guy.''

I texted McDaniels, and shortly before 1 a.m. Eastern on Monday, he called to react to Cutler's words.

"Oh boy,'' he said, and sighed. "No, no, no. Nothing like that was conveyed.'' And he sighed again.

"I think the hangup is, 'Well, you considered doing it once, would you ever consider it again?' It keeps coming out like I want my own guy. Thinking we want to trade him now is totally opposite what we've been trying to do here ... We've been trying like hell for two weeks to get a face-to-face meeting.''

What frustrates McDaniels is that the two sides met -- he thinks without acrimony -- and then word gets out that there was tension or vindictiveness in the meeting. "It's hard to believe we're sharing the same intentions and can have such different interpretations of the meeting,'' he said. "When we met [Saturday], my point was, 'We all know where this was, and now we all have to try to move forward.' After we met for a while, and went over a lot of the same ground we'd been over, Jay said to me, 'Can I have a few more hours to think?' I said, 'Yeah, give me a call on my cell phone.' He never called. Bus [Cook] called Brian [Xanders], but Jay didn't call me.''

I asked McDaniels if he feels he'll be forced to trade Cutler.

"No,'' he said. "He's got three years left on his contract. We're not at the point where we're going to do it now ... [But] it's probably something we're going to have to talk about. We've been trying to communicate, and I still want to try, but if that's the direction we're headed, we're going to have to talk.''

There's such a gulf in the two versions of events. But it looks like, taking the long view, Cutler will be playing elsewhere unless he and McDaniels sit in a room together for two hours and come out married. That's not likely to happen. Maybe Cutler can't take the dissing he feels from McDaniels, or maybe he's fabricating the dissing to justify in his own mind going somewhere else. I don't know. But I do know this: If I had the choice of Denver, Tampa Bay, Detroit and the Jets, and the Denver coach has worked successfully with Tom Brady and Matt Cassel, I'd be thinking very hard about not burning a bridge that can't be reconstructed.

***

"It's like the Dutch beating the Dominicans,'' one player agent said early this morning.

DeMaurice [pronounced De-Morris, not Dee-mo-REESE) Smith winning the executive director's job at the NFLPA might have been seen as possible in the last 24 hours, but before that? Few in the league knew much of anything about him before the player reps and others watched his overly impressive presentation to them Saturday in Maui, where the union was meeting.

"There was one important thing in this election,'' said one player agent who'd spoken to a couple of reps after the vote. "Change. The winds of change. I really think the union wanted to start fresh, from scratch, without the animosity of the past few weeks.''

That, I'm told, helped Smith, who was glad to push himself to the 32 player reps as the outsider. There was so much infighting between Troy Vincent (who'd likely have installed an entirely new regime) and Trace Armstrong loyalists that Smith didn't have to worry about stepping on toes on either side; he simply avoided the dogfight. Plus, his one-hour presentation to the players on Saturday, I'm told, left them with a vision of how they could get a deal done with the owners in what is shaping up as a contentious CBA process. The current bargaining agreement has two years left, and then the 2011 season would be the year with no football.

I'd heard Vincent planned to drive a hard bargain with the owners, and if he couldn't get a deal, he'd have pushed the players to play in their own league in 2011 and beyond, if necessary. Armstrong was more of an Upshaw man, planning to continue the policies of the current regime. Smith will be open to all ideas -- but I'm also told he won't hesitate to use political or Congressional means to try to move the owners off their position if need be.

Smith didn't take a call from Goodell Sunday night because the election wasn't over until about 11:15 p.m. Eastern time. But they'll speak today. Smith, I'm told, is very tough to intimidate, so I don't expect the Dan Snyders, Bob Krafts and Jerry Joneses will throw much of a scare into him. But he's got a heck of a task in front of him. In this economy, with owners opting out of the current CBA last year, how can he make the pie big enough for everyone?

***

Didn't we all think LaDainian Tomlinson was going to get squashed by the Chargers if he stayed in San Diego? Well, he stayed, and he did just fine. He was supposed to make $6.725 million this year, and he'll make every dime. He was supposed to make $8 million next year, and that's where the Chargers could recoup some dough if Tomlinson continues to decline. His pay was cut to $5 million in 2010, but he'll have three incentives: increments of $1 million if he gains 1,200, 1,300 and 1,400 yards. So if he has a typical LT year at 31 in 2010, he'll still make his $8 million. But the Chargers will be motivated to make their decision on Tomlinson early next year; $2 million of his pay is a roster bonus due in March.

I'm a little surprised San Diego did right by Tomlinson. The Chargers don't know if he's going to struggle again next year, and they've got to find increased carries for young and hungry backs Darren Sproles and Jacob Hester. If Tomlinson plays well and reclaims his spot as one of the league's best backs (how many runners do that at 30?), he'll be a Charger in 2010. If not, he'll probably go elsewhere to continue his chase of Emmitt Smith (see page 2).

"I'm very disappointed. I'm disappointed in the whole picture, not just disappointed that we might lose our star quarterback.''

-- Denver owner Pat Bowlen, quoted by the Denver Post Sunday night on the bizarre relationship between his franchise quarterback, Jay Cutler, and his rookie head coach, Josh McDaniels.

"When I played in Indianapolis, I was within 5 percent of my peak strength when I was using steroids. I want to take a hammer and hit myself in the head. The message is, you can definitely make it in football without steroids.''

-- Tony Mandarich, the out-of-the-closet steroid user who played for the Packers and Colts in a star-crossed seven-year NFL career, on our Sirius NFL Radio show.

"Stop following me around.''

-- Text message from Shawn Springs, who signed with the Patriots, to longtime rival Terrell Owens, who signed with the Bills last week. The two will play twice a year in 2009.

The first Buffalo-New England matchup, with Tom Brady making his first start in a year (presumably) and Owens lining up across from Springs (also presumably, considering Springs has played him so well over the years), would be a gift to ESPN in the Monday night opener in September. But I get a feeling CBS has been scratching and clawing for Brady's re-debut to highlights its Week 1 slate.

Football Quiz:

Who is the only enshrinee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame never to have been associated with the NFL -- never to have played, coached, owned, officiated, general-managed or been commissioner in the NFL?

Clue: He was a guest on our Sirius NFL Radio "Opening Drive'' show Friday morning.

Another clue: He blocked for O.J. Simpson.

Answer: Down in number 10 of Ten Things I Think I Think.

They like dogs in my new neighborhood, Boston's South End. I'm starting to think they like dogs better than people. The bank on our block not only has a sign welcoming dogs, but also a dog play area inside with a fire hydrant and a big water bowl. The pet store in the neighborhood, Polka Dog Bakery, bakes dog-treat cookies and gives them freely to customers, as well as selling some interesting dog food. (One is 100-percent rabbit meat.) And I saw a van Sunday morning stopping to pick up dogs at a couple of apartments in the neighborhood. The driver told me he was taking a passel of dogs out for a "play date.''

LaDainian Tomlinson re-signed with the Chargers for three years last week, but he seemed to be looking beyond that when he said there was "a running back out there with a record I want.'' Tomlinson turns 30 in June. He is 6,595 yards behind all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith, and given the fact that the Chargers plan to use Darren Sproles more in the regular offense, Tomlinson might be California dreamin.'

I looked at the top 10 all-time rushing leaders and examined how many yards they gained after their 30th birthdays. It shows what an uphill fight Tomlinson has to catch Smith, his boyhood hero growing up in Texas.

If Tomlinson is to catch Smith, he'll have to gain 800 yards more than any back in football has ever gained after the age of 30. Can it happen? Sure. The Chargers can also move to Tijuana this week too.

Front door to Logan Airport Wednesday morning, through a couple of sidestreets, one alley and a tunnel, for a flight to Columbus: 11 minutes. I might like it here.

I spent a pleasant day in Sidney, Ohio, speaking to a company there and dining with some executives, and realized the restaurant-chaining of America is leaving most towns the size of Sidney (pop.: 20,211), in western Ohio, without many or any non-Applebee's, non-fast-food options. (Not that there's anything wrong with Applebee's.) They took me to a delightful place in downtown Sidney, Toone P. Wiggins, with steaks from local cows and fresh walleye and beer from Russia and the Big East basketball tournament on the TV at the oak bar. And we talked about how lucky a town the size of Sidney was to have a place as original as this, with a menu like this. Places like Toone P. Wiggins are disappearing with the chaining of America.

Also unearthed this nugget while out in farm country: New England tackle Matt Light is evidently the year-'round Santa Claus of his old high school, Greenville High, in nearby Greenville, Ohio. Equipment and uniforms and shoes sometimes just show up there, and everyone asks, "Where'd this come from?'' But they figure it out pretty easily.

1. I think the new executive director of the NFLPA must like what he sees in his rank-and-file. Last night and early this morning, three of the player reps who said they'd return my call after the meeting in Maui to elect the new leaders demurred. Seems that DeMaurice Smith didn't want to make many public statements last night, and the players (with the exception of Kevin Mawae, the president) declined the chance to talk, out of respect to Smith. They want him to be the first voice the public hears on the road to what they hope will be a new CBA.

2. I think the owners will lock out the players in 2011. Welcome to the new job, Mr. Smith.

3. I think Seattle got the better of the Cory Redding-for-Julian Peterson deal. Without a solid defensive line to open rush lanes for him with the Lions, how is Peterson (five sacks in 2008) going to get to the passer?

4. I think I love Baltimore's addition of Chris Carr in free agency from Tennessee. He's a good, quick corner, with the added dimension that he's one of the AFC's best return men. Last year, he was fourth in the league in kick returns and 12th in punt returns. It's an upgrade over Yamon Figurs for Baltimore.

5. I think everyone in the business, and NFL people from coast to coast, join me in wishing AP pro football guru Dave Goldberg a speedy recovery from a triple bypass. Dave's one of the classics, a guy who can converse on 946 subjects quite well, with only one of them happening to be pro football.

6. I think my money is on Dallas hosting somebody (the Giants, perhaps?) in the first Sunday night game of the year on NBC Sept. 13. The Cowboys are opening the showplace stadium to end all showplace stadiums in Arlington, at a cost of $1.15 billion, and the NFL will want to give Jones this mega-platform to open the place.

7. I think the NFL simply must bring troubled former running back Travis Henry to its annual Rookie Symposium in June. Every rookie is required to attend this three-day meeting to be tutored on the dangers and opportunities of being very young and very rich. Henry, who has had 11 children with 10 women -- none of them his wife -- was profiled in the New York Times Thursday, and young players need to hear the cautionary tale of how a second-round pick has totally wasted his money and his life.

He is 30, and his children range in age from 3 to 11. Whether he was entrapped by women looking for a star husband or a payday is irrelevant; his recklessness is stunningly hard to believe, dating back to impregnating a girlfriend in high school. "I did use protection at first,'' Henry told Mike Tierney of the Times. "Then they'd be saying they'd be on the pill. I was an idiot to trust them. Second or third time with them, I didn't use it. Then, boom!'' He said his counselor asked him, "How can you do the same thing over and over?'' Henry didn't have an answer -- which is why the NFL must allow him to tell this story. Maybe he can stop one of the estimated 250 players from making the same ridiculous mistakes.

8. I think, after the Ohio State Pro Day Friday, I've got one name for you to remember for the end of round two or the guts of round three: Brian Hartline. Receiver. Played in the shadow of Ted Ginn Jr., then Brian Robiskie, in Columbus. Caught just 21 balls last fall while Ohio State struggled adjusting to Terrelle Pryor running the offense.

Hartline had a great combine, can play the slot and outside, and impressed with his hands and route-running on Friday; his 4.50 40- time is OK, but not special. (Teammate Robiskie ran a 4.47.) Two months ago, Hartline was a fifth-round pick. Now he just might go in the top 64.

9. I think the Patriots are going to have to work on their heart and soul this offseason. First Josh McDaniels goes. Then Scott Pioli. Then Mike Vrabel. Now Larry Izzo, their special-teams captain and conscience, who left the other day for the Jets. I suspect Rodney Harrison won't return, though he hasn't made a decision yet. Even for a flatliner like Bill Belichick, who lives by the what-are-you-going-to-do-for-me-this-year mantra and never lives in the past, it's going to be a daunting task, getting his team ready without so many stalwarts in his front office, coaching offices and locker room. What a now business this is.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Did I see it right the other day? The Wall Street Journal now is $2? That shouldn't tell you Rupert Murdoch is a money-grubber. It should you tell what desperate trouble newspapers are in.

b. Thanks, Ann Coulter, for reveling in the decline of the liberal newspapers. Nice of you to be making the great money you obviously make while hard-working reporters and editors and photographers -- from liberal and conservative papers alike -- are being put on the street every day. This is a crisis without ideological fault lines, sister. And the New York Times isn't going anywhere.

c. I'm really going to like reading Dan Shaughnessy every day. I like how he revels in high school sports.

d. Coffeenerdness: Memo to Starbucks: Have one of your Boston-area muckety-mucks make it over to The South End Buttery, the coffee shop, restaurant and espresso bar on Shawmut Avenue in the South End. Ask him or her to order a medium latte with an extra shot. Watch the care the barista uses with the shots and the foaming of the milk. No rush. No mass production. But lots of care. I thought I was going to miss Starbucks on this move, because the nearest Starbucks is six or eight blocks away, but the chance to support a local company has been enhanced by the fact that it's as good a latte as I've had in the United States.

e. Tim Layden, welcome to the ranks of parents of former high-school athletes. We're a sad lot. But proud, very proud. Simsbury (Conn.) center-iceman Kevin Layden got cut from the team as a junior, then tried out as a senior, made the team, and progressed from fourth- to third- to second-line center. Kevin's last high school hockey game ended with a good save on a Simsbury penalty shot with 17 seconds left, enabling West Haven (Conn.) to beat Simsbury 4-3 in the state playoffs. "But that's sports,'' his old man, the top-notch SI writer, said. "Without the lows, there would be no highs.'' You'll miss it like nothing you ever missed before, Tim.

f. Factoid answer: Guard Billy Shaw, who played for the Bills from 1961 to '69, his career ending with the Bills' final game ever in the American Football League.

g. Don't scare us like that, Pedroia.

h. My Rotisserie draft is Tuesday night, which worries me for two reasons: With the move, I haven't studied, and I'm in a smart league; and it's St. Patrick's Day, a day I'm never at my best at 8 or 9 at night. Uh-oh. Looks like a long year for the Montclair Pedroias.

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