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Welcome to the NFL 'offseason'

LOS ANGELES -- Yes, Los Angeles. Out here for a little R&R and hockey; I saw the Kings and the new Brodeur manhandle Colorado 3-0 Saturday night. (OK, maybe I'm jumping the gun 400 wins early for Jonathan Quick, the NHL wins leader at the Olympic break, but he is impressive.) Anyway, this morning I'll try to be the methadone for your withdrawal from the NFL season. The week after always comes with a real thud, doesn't it?

Much on my mind this morning: The Saints still celebrating as they march into a headachy offseason, Peyton Manning ruining his life, the NFL's strange looming offseason, Conrad Dobler trying to make the NFL and the union do the right thing, and why you need to let major decisions percolate for a while before making them at an unemotional time on the NFL calendar.

First, some scheduling notes: A lot of you have Tweeted or e-mailed about the MMQB offseason schedule. Well, I'll be doing the column from various sites through late June (including South Africa at the World Cup), and resuming in late July on the eve of training camps opening. Between now and then, I'll be live from the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis (March 1 column), from the increasingly important NFL owners meeting in Orlando (March 22, and as events that week warrant), from some team's headquarters on NFL Draft Weekend (April 26), from a mini-camp site or two in May, and then from South Africa (June 14 and 21), writing some about the other futbol.

As of this morning, we're 580 days away from Opening Day 2011 -- the first day there will be no football if the owners lock out the players. There are going to be 580 twists and turns of the story between now and then. Still, I believe there will be a work stoppage in 2011. The fact is, owners want players to bear some burden for the costs of all the stadiums that have been built in recent years, and players don't want to pay for something they've never paid for before. That's the elephant in the negotiating room right now, and no one's budging.

I think the NFL would budge significantly from its goal of getting the players to exempt $1 billion a year from the money the two sides currently share. But if the players don't conceptually accept that they should share in the cost of building a bigger revenue base for the first time in NFL labor history, we're about to be subjected to a long and frustrating period of vein-bulging rhetoric.

I'm interested in knowing if you want to read about the weekly tug-of-war between the two sides. E-mail me your thoughts either way, and if there's a landslide wanting more info about labor and how it's ebbing and flowing, I'll try to provide it. Otherwise, we'll see how the story plays out.

For now, onto the news of the week:

The Saints will have the toughest road to repeat that we've ever seen in the NFL -- and they wouldn't trade it for the world.

Saints GM Mickey Loomis was resting up Sunday afternoon, but not for another game or a series of meetings to set priorities for the 2010 season. Try another parade. Saturday night it was the Mardi Gras Endymion Parade that had owner Tom Benson atop the big float. And Sunday night it was Drew Brees' turn to be the King of Bacchus, the first time in that parade's 43-year history a sports figure was king.

The logical question for the Saints: Is all this celebrating and spate of parades -- the Saints' Super Bowl parade was so big that it was shown live on CNN with Wolf Blitzer throwing to reporters in the middle of his "Situation Room'' show -- going to go on so long that they effect the Saints' ability to repeat in 2010? Teams in the Super Bowl are so far behind the preparation 8-ball already, finishing the season five weeks after the 22 non-playoff teams.

Brees has gone from Disney Parade to Saints' parade to the Ellen DeGeneres Show to Oprah -- all the while giving America a reason to say "Awwwwwwww,'' after seeing the touching cover of SI with Brees lifting his 1-year-old son into the sky after the Super Bowl win. He's the most beloved man in Louisiana as the big man in the Mardi Gras parade. He's the leader of the team. America can't get enough of him. Will he ever be allowed to come down to earth?

"I've heard that, about all the celebrating and how it will affect us,'' Loomis said. "Good question. I don't know. But this is the first time for this city, and it's special, obviously. So special. We want these moments to last as long as they can. The celebration is so intense right now, and we wouldn't have it any other way, because this city and this franchise deserve it. We're going to celebrate hard. And when we get back to work, the one thing we've shown the ability to focus on is the task at hand. If you try to put it behind you too soon, you'll always look back and think, 'I should have enjoyed it more.' ''

Good for Loomis and the Saints. Players and coaches in this business say endlessly, like a mantra, that they're in this business to win a Super Bowl, and all our energy is focused on that. If five days after winning they say, OK, we've drawn a line in the sand, and we won't have any more talking about winning the Super Bowl. I mean, only an android would do that. Saints coach Sean Payton always had the tempo of the team in his hands, and the ability of Brees to see what was important (and when it was important, as in minimizing how poorly the team played in stretches near the end of the regular season) was a good leadership tool for the team. Until I see Payton with the lampshade on his head during a May minicamp, I say laissez les bons temps rouler. Let the good times roll.

Loomis has spent the last few days trying to process the amazing things he's seen. "At the parade Tuesday, there were stretches where people were 100 deep, on both sides of the street, packed in, screaming, just so happy. My ears felt like I was in the 'Dome after we scored a touchdown -- for like five straight hours. The trophy, to people here, is like the Holy Grail. Last night, [team PR chief] Greg Bensel and I took the Lombardi Trophy into the security office at the Dome, just to let people see it and touch it, and we must have been in there 30 minutes, with all the officers taking pictures with it and holding it. What it means to them, to everyone, is unbelievable.

"One of the officers had a great idea I'm going to be bringing up to Mr. Benson. There are 64 parishes in Louisiana. Since this is the state's team -- the Superdome was built by the state originally, not by the city -- this officer suggested we take it to all 64 parishes in the state. I thought it was a great idea. Seems to me this trophy needs to be touched by so many people.''

Sort of like the Stanley Cup. It's a terrific idea -- let every parish in the state have a day with the trophy. And Payton told me last Sunday night he'd consider doing something like the NHL does with the Stanley Cup, and allow his players to take it for a day. Now, who knows if this ever gets done, but it's always been a part of hockey tradition that is warm and human. Why can't the NFL do the same thing?

Loomis knows there's one bit of business he needs to monitor, and that's the business of keeping a winner together. The Saints have 29 restricted or unrestricted free agents, but that figure is misleading; only seven of the 29 are starters, and some (like tight end Tory Humphrey) have no bearing on the Saints' future. Looking at the significant free agents:

Unrestricted free-agents (2): FS Darren Sharper, LB Scott Fujita.

Restricted free-agents (5): T Jammal Brown (an asterisk there because the starting Pro Bowl left tackle was hurt and gave way to an oft-shaky Jermon Bushrod), T Jermon Bushrod, G Jahri Evans, RB Pierre Thomas, SS Roman Harper.

There are some interesting other names on the restricted list -- like Super Bowl onside kick hero Chris Reis, valuable second tight end David Thomas, and depth-providing defensive tackles Anthony Hargrove and Remi Ayodele (who spotted the 12 men in the Vikings huddle on that vital NFC Championship Game play and screamed to the officials about it). There's also versatile motion tackle Zach Strief (remember that mountainous guy you saw in motion 50 times in the playoffs for the Saints?), receiver Lance Moore and special teams ace Courtney Roby, who is valuable if only because the Saints don't have strong special-teams play.

"We've got a good plan, I think,'' said Loomis. "We've talked it through. We knew we'd have a lot of guys out there, so it isn't a surprise. I think we'll be OK.''

Unless, as has happened on several occasions in the 17-year history of free agency, a Super Bowl champ gets picked clean by teams trying to buy some championship magic.

The Saints may have to make a tough decision on the 34-year-old Sharper. If a leadership-seeking team wants to entice him with an $8-million signing bonus and decent annual salaries in a two-year deal, New Orleans might have to let him go. I expect they'll put the maximum tender offers on stalwart players like Brown, Harper and Evans, so if some teams blows any of those players out of the water with a strong offer, Loomis can match it or get a high draft pick or picks in return.

The other question is whether they'll allow Reggie Bush to walk in trade. No question there will be some interest out there, particularly by Seattle, with former USC coach Pete Carroll there, but my hunch is that Payton, who likes Bush more than most football people do because of the change-of-pace he provides for the offense, will figure Bush, at 24, will continue to make enough plays to justify his $8 million salary in 2010. I think the Saints will keep him.

"See you at the Combine,'' Loomis said at the end of our conversation. "I can't believe it's only 10 days away.''

***

Enough is enough. If I hear one more word about how Peyton Manning ruined his "legacy'' by throwing that interception in the Super Bowl, I'm going to puke.

The same way it was absurd to suggest Manning would be the greatest quarterback ever if he had won this year's Super Bowl (which would have given Manning two titles in 12 years, with none of the all-time records his), it's just as absurd to call him some tragically flawed player because he threw a bad interception going in for the tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Now, if you want to say you see a pattern forming -- from his can't-beat-Florida days in college, to some of the playoff losses he's had in the pros, to the fourth-quarter pick by Tracy Porter -- that's fine. But it's silly to say a guy's career epitaph has been written when he has four, five or six possible prime years left. Let his career play out, then let's put him where he deserves to be put in history.

I'm annoyed enough as it is that most people who analyze football make playoff football the only thing that counts when considering the greatness of players. I loved the Tweet of Aaron Schatz of FootballOutsiders.com Sunday: "How come no one ever mentions Jim Brown was 1-3 in the playoffs and averaged 3.7 YPC (yards per carry) when they talk about his legacy?''

Quarterbacks surely are the most important players on a football field. So that means they're the most important players in postseason play. But to minimize the significance of regular-season dominance drives me nuts. Manning is 70 games over .500 in 12 seasons, which is better than Dan Marino, John Elway, Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach were in their careers. But Manning's 9-9 playoff record overshadows all of that. I'm not saying the 9-9 shouldn't be considered. I just think it shouldn't overshadow everything.

By the way, on places of players in history, I don't want to make another list of the top quarterbacks ever ... yet. I've shouted from the rooftops in the past month that the NFL is 90, not 19, and we need to remember Otto Graham won seven championships in 10 pro seasons, and we need to remember the greatness of Unitas and the great versatility of Sammy Baugh. And I'm amazed to see how quickly the shine has worn off Joe Montana. A generation ago, Montana was Tiger Woods. Four Super Bowl wins in the '80s, 16 playoff wins in all ... the ultimate winner. And now he's yesterday's news. Not in my history book.

Just for fun, let's look at the championship game and playoff records of the great quarterbacks of the last half-century, great as being defined by those quarterbacks either in the Hall of Fame or clearly destined for it:

I guess we could argue about the merits of lots of these players long-term. But if you think I'd ever have a top-10 all-time quarterback list without Manning or Marino on it because they've been .500-ish playoff quarterbacks, you're crazy. How high will Manning go in that top 10? We'll see -- in about 2017.

***

Conrad Dobler can teach us much about where the league and players should be going in the CBA talks.

I'm glad that both sides of the table are intent, seemingly, on giving retired players a bigger piece of the pie than they now get of the $8-billion-a-year NFL business. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was adamant with me in a long interview last spring that the old-timers need to be provided for better. And Roger Goodell, at his annual Super Bowl press conference, said: "We all have to do more for our retired players. There's just no two ways about it ... These are the men who helped us build this great game and we need to make sure we are doing the right thing for them.''

I would suggest that they start by looking at the knees of Dobler, a guard for the Cardinals, Saints and Bills, who made three Pro Bowls and earned $450,000 in 10 seasons, ending in 1981. His knees are more road maps than functioning joints, part of the 34-surgery nightmare he endured to be a football player.

Dobler showed up at the Super Bowl, and he will not be silenced, because there are scores of Conrad Doblers out there, former players who earned what was good money a generation or two ago and helped build the NFL to the sporting monster it is today. He showed up in shorts, just so people could see how ravaged his knees are, and he saw former Cowboy Nate Newton, who told him to please put pants on. "I can't look at that,'' Newton told him. "Those will be my knees someday.'' And when Dobler opened his mouth to whoever would listen, he made more than a little sense.

"The players of today may look at us as whiners, as people who blew their fortunes,'' Dobler said. "But all I can say to players who say that is: You will be us. Study history. You will us someday.''

Dobler has not been able to be declared permanently disabled. "WalMart's probably got more greeters on permanent disability than the NFL has,'' he told me. Nine knee replacements he's had, and his wife is a quadriplegic after a 2007 accident, and he's had one home foreclosure, and, as he says, "If you don't think about walking in front of a bus after what I've been through, you're not human.''

My over-simplistic suggestion has always been to start the reparations with older players, whose pensions are shameful (Hall of Famer running back Leroy Kelly's is $176 a month), with players and owners giving one-half of 1 percent of their gross take every year to a fund for retired players. That's a start. After that I'd suggest giving Dobler a seat at the table of the discussions about how the retired players should be treated. Look at his knees first, then listen to his words.

***

Want to know the fate of Favre? Wait a while.

A year ago, Brett Favre retired from the New York Jets. The night he retired, I spoke with him, and he said he wouldn't change his mind because of how tough that would be on Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum, who went out on a limb to acquire him and didn't do it with only one year in mind.

I asked Favre what he planned to do.

"I have no idea,'' he said. "I know I'm not going to replace throwing touchdown passes by cutting down three trees tomorrow. I do know this: I've gotten bored with everything in my life at some time. I love to hunt, but I get tired of that. I love to work on my property, but I get tired of that. We'll see. I foresee getting the impulse to play. But as good as Mike Tannenbaum has been to me, I could never bring myself to do it. I know I won't do it. If I did, I'd be putting the Jets in a tough spot, because I know they can't release me.''

I write this now only because I noticed Viking fans have rented a billboard in Favre's place of residence, Hattiesburg, Miss., urging him to come back and play. And there's little use in asking Favre how he feels about playing right now. He told Ed Werder the night of the playoff loss to the Saints he almost certainly wouldn't play, and now I'm hearing it's highly likely he will. But until Brad Childress sets a drop-dead date for Favre to tell him if he's playing -- and means it -- all of this is meaningless. I can tell you from bitter experience that Favre is going to change his mind a lot between now and whenever that date is.

"We will operate as if we have a salary cap. We don't know if there is a new labor deal what the rules are going to be. We're doing a lot of guesswork here.''-- Pittsburgh director of football operations Kevin Colbert, who said the Steelers will calculate what the approximate salary cap would have been in what will be a capless 2010 (approximately $132 million is the guess) and form his roster accordingly. That should be plenty, because a lot of teams clearly will use 2010 to save a few bucks in the event of a work stoppage in 2011.

"There is no hangover, there is no carryover, it's a brand new season. We are well on our way to dealing with 2010.''-- Indianapolis president Bill Polian on Friday, five days after the nightmare Super Bowl loss that he refused to discuss with local reporters.

"I got myself a tight end here!''-- Dallas owner Jerry Jones, posing with LeBron James at NBA All-Star festivities in Dallas Saturday night.

Well, $19 million should buy a collective bargaining, shouldn't it? That's the total 2008 earnings of the three-member NFL braintrust -- commissioner Roger Goodell, legal counsel Jeff Pash and executive vice president/business ventures Eric Grubman --as divulged in the league's 2008 tax return. Pash is the league's chief negotiator with the players, and Grubman a valued business brain for the league. For the year, Goodell made $9.759 million, Pash $4.845 million and Grubman $4.453 million.

When Drew Brees ruled over his Mardi Gras parade Sunday night, as part of the tradition he was toasted by a valued local figure. The local man, Sean Payton, decided that instead of lifting a glass and proposing something hokey, he'd turn the crowd on this way: by quickly putting on a visor, his Motorola headset, and giving Brees one final play for the 2009 season. The crowd, of course, roared.

Sometimes you see a scene that is so car-wreckish you wish you could intercede, but you don't because it's none of your business.

Hertz car rental counter, 12:15 a.m. Saturday, Los Angeles International Airport. There must be 75 people here, in line, waiting for cars both at the Gold counter and the regular counter, and in a situation like this, as tired as you are, there's nothing you can do. Get in line, hold it together, hope it's not an hour before you get your car, like it appears it will be, and just deal.

Except one woman just couldn't. Her husband was near the front of the line, and obviously he'd been in line for a while, and the wife waited outside with two young children. About every five minutes, she'd come in, glare at her husband and say something like:

"No car yet? What is taking you so long!''

"I knew we should have taken a cab! Why didn't we take a cab!''

And my personal favorite, with the two kids in tow: "I am soooooo tired! Can't you see how tired I am? Do something! Say something to them!''

I caught the eye of a guy behind me in line, and our looks said: "Thank God we won't be in that rental car tonight.''

This was actually two Tweets, which I've combined.

"Hey Pete. Was just reading the MMQB bible and came across Jimmy Johnson's FB America Article u have in it. Funny or prophetic ... that his favorite band back then was Big Dick and the Extenders, now that he is a spokesman for Extenze ... Wow.''

--linemater, with an observant Tweet about the former Dallas and Miami coach who has signed on to do male-enhancement ads for a company called Extenze. It's true: I once saw Big Dick and the Extenders in the Florida Keys with Johnson and his then-girlfriend, Rhonda Rookmaaker.

1. I think I saw the attendance at the NBA All-Star Game last night -- Mark Cuban announced it as 108,713 -- and couldn't believe what I heard. I've got to think Jerry Jones, standing near Cuban as he made the announcement, had to be thinking: We'll get 125,000, somehow, for that Super Bowl next year. It's not only that Jones actually has smaller seats he can slide into the rows of the stadium (which were in place at the NBA game), but also he has the ability to pack a few more people in the open end of the end zone, where lots of people stand now. He's got to be thinking of a way to set the American football attendance mark so it doesn't get challenged for a long time.

2. I think I'm still waiting for the league to fine Bryant McKinnie for going on strike during Pro Bowl week and simply not showing up to practice. Where is the spine of the league? Fine the man. Heavily.

3. I think the four GM-types I talked to last week had no answer to how anyone will structure a contract that gets free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers signed. There's not only the part about paying him what he thinks he's worth -- in excess of $15-million a year, which won't happen -- but also the part about giving a 30-year-old player lots of guaranteed money and then having the 2011 season disrupted or ruined with a job action.

4. I think Bill Polian is right. He needs to make Gary Brackett a happy man and get him signed. The one thing NFL teams learned watching the Colts defense in January is that Brackett plays bigger than he is, and he has a Ray Lewis-like nose for the ball. I think that, plus what a great leader Brackett is, could get him signed somewhere for a little bit of money.

5. I think Chester Taylor's the hidden skill-position gem of the unrestricted free-agent crop. He's 30, but a lightly used 30-year-old back who could be a solid co-number one for a team like San Diego, Washington or Detroit.

6. I think these are the five unrestricted free agents who could get the most play when the market opens for business March 5:

a. Linebacker Karlos Dansby, Arizona. Just 28 and with ranginess and the ability to play the run well, he's the best all-around linebacker out there.

b. Defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, San Francisco. The Niners will have to franchise him to keep him out of the paws of a 3-4 team needing a noseman.

c. Wide receiver Kevin Walter, Houston. With so many teams needing a veteran receiver (Baltimore especially), Walter will have choices.

d. Defensive end/OLB Aaron Kampman, Green Bay. A misfit in Green Bay ... could be happy elsewhere. A proven pass-rusher. Could the Pats bite?

e. Cornerback Leigh Bodden, New England. Saved his career with a respectable '09 season, and the corner market is absolutely bare.

7. I think I'd have put Green Bay defensive tackle Ryan Pickett on that list, and he may get a lot of traffic on the market, except that too many people remember his Ram days. That'll keep the money he's offered down.

8. I think I'm just like everyone else who follows this game: I wonder who will employ LaDainian Tomlinson in 2010. I have a strong feeling Mike Shanahan will look at some San Diego tape, but my guess is L.T. will be too old for the 'Skins.

9. I think it's 66 days 'til the first round of the draft, and my money's on Ndamukong Suh wearing Ram blue and gold with the first pick.

10. I think before I get to my non-football thoughts of the week, here's a link to SI.com's gallery of memorable moments from the 2009 season:

a. I forgot to mention I rented a Prius out here over the weekend. What a nice car. Exceedingly quiet, and I don't notice the slow acceleration. Neat dashboard too.

b. Had a Remdawg at Jerry Remy's Sports Grill at Logan Airport the other night before leaving. And Jerry, one piece of advice: I'm a big man, as you may know, and I would have had to be three of me to finish that monster dog. But thanks for all the beer choices. Excellent tap diversity, from Green Monstah Ale to Sam Adams Noble Pils.

c. On the other coast, we had a great meal at Corkbar downtown. A winebar with all California wines and California microbrews. It helps that the chef, Albert, read my book. And I'll return the props: The man makes one great burger.

d. And one other L.A. food note: I've been introduced to Body Factory smoothies, and I'll be back. Often.

e. Coffeenerdness: If you're asked if you want cream for coffee, shouldn't it be at least half-and-half? Too many places say, "Cream for your coffee?'' and then hand you a little thing with skim milk or 2-percent milk in it.

f. Where would "The Office'' be without the Nard Dog? What an acquisition.

g. Every time I hear about the decline of newspapers, I read an incredible piece, like this one about the drug problem along the Mexico-U.S. border, and I think there's no way papers can die. Check out the great story by Dan Barry of the New York Times.

h. Very impressed with the Kings Saturday night. Competitive, feisty, blue-collar team with an excellent goalie. The U.S. is making a mistake if Jonathan Quick doesn't get real playing time in Vancouver. Good crowd too. Kings sold out every game in February. Enjoyable night at Staples Center.

i. Belated condolences to the family of Baltimore Sun sportswriter Cameron Snyder, a true one-of-a-kind character who covered the 1958 Championship Game and 1969 Super Bowl ... and stayed around to cover, of all things, minor-league hockey. Went to his first game and got up after the second period and the friend who accompanied him, Ernie Accorsi, said to him, hold on, there're three periods in a hockey game. "Two halftimes!'' Snyder exclaimed. A football man, through and through. He'll be missed.

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