Uncertainty rules the day at the NFL's annual combine
INDIANAPOLIS -- There will be plenty of time in the next few weeks to discuss labor. (Sigh.) You'll be overwhelmed with it this week. For now, in the wake of a long, uncertain weekend at the scouting combine, I'm going mostly football. It might be the last time I can do this for a long time.
I wanted to find a team over the weekend to examine, to see how this weird offseason would be navigated. But as I asked coaches and GMs to talk frankly about what's ahead, I got some variation of what Andy Reid told me walking out of the NFL's meeting with coaches and general managers explaining the rules of Lockoutball Thursday evening. He zipped his thump and index finger from one side of his mouth to another while saying, in his best Sergeant Schultz from the
Two examples of how restricted teams are in dealing with their players right now:
• The Rams hoped to have new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels sit down in a classroom often in February to discuss the tweaks he plans to make in the offense after the departure of 2010 offensive boss Pat Shurmur to the Browns. No dice. The league told the Rams they couldn't do anything they wouldn't do under normal circumstances, and ruled that normal circumstances would have coaches and players not meeting 'til at least March. So McDaniels will have to keep his tweaks to himself until there's a new CBA. That can't be very comforting -- except for the fact that division rivals Arizona and San Francisco will be in worse situations with quarterback and/or coaching transitions of their own.
• One team I can't identify wanted to send out DVDs to players with how-to reminders about offseason weight training. The DVDs wouldn't have any "you've got to work out hard, and you better come back in shape'' commands, but simple explanations of the correct way to do each exercise and lift. The DVDs were prepared. The league said, in essence, that it wasn't going to allow it. Too much of a chance for something like that to end up in a court case, if one ever were filed by the union, with the NFLPA saying players were being pressured by the team to work out during the lockout.
"We're in the ultimate uncharted territory,'' one GM told me Sunday.
So when I met with Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik Saturday, I got a lot of uncertainty and caution. In fact, I got about 75 percent "no comments,'' on or off the record.
But the Bucs are a good example of why fans should be worried about their team this offseason if there's a prolonged work stoppage. They have one of the youngest teams in football and one of the most intriguing after a highly unexpected 10-win season; they're the first team since 1990 to start 10 rookies in a game, which they did in a 2010 game. Dominik has had an excellent past two months inside his own building, locking up every assistant coach contractually through the 2013 season while the head man, Raheem Morris, is signed through 2012, and the Bucs will surely try to remedy that soon. Dominik has his scouting staff, led by underrated director of college scouting Dennis Hickey, signed for multiple years too.
"Honestly, with the coaches, instead of worrying about their next deal, I want them worrying about the next down,'' said Dominik. "With the scouts, I want them to feel like we have faith in them. Look at the two Super Bowl teams this year, and what do you see? Stability. Green Bay and Pittsburgh are two of the teams in the league I think we all admire for their long-term approach. That's what we want to build.''
This is the kind of team that needs a good offseason program, with players on a schedule and needing regularity. You don't want young players, particularly young players with off-field issues in their past like wideout Mike Williams, being on their own for months at a time. I heard some teams fret over the weekend about offensive linemen possibly not working out much, and coming back woefully out of shape. There are all kinds of worries. But Dominik is a realist. If he's worried, he's not saying. And he's not saying much.
"You ever lie in bed worried about what your players will be doing over the next few weeks, with such a young team and so much temptation out there?'' I asked.
"I don't,'' he said. "I worry about the 20th pick, and getting a player with the 20th pick in the draft who, hopefully, can contribute right away. I'm worried about building a team.''
In that case, he should be worried about this offseason.
Dining with a business-side front-office guy one night here, I asked how he thought the top of the draft would fall. Give me a guess, I said.
"You could ask 10 personnel guys their 1-2-3 in the draft right now," he said, "and I'd put money on them all giving you a different top three.''
It's not only because no top player has emerged, but also because the men running drafts for the past 18 years haven't solved some team needs via free agency. Barring a major surprise, there won't be a labor deal by the time the draft kicks off April 28. Teams can't make player trades either. So let's say you're the 49ers and you want a veteran quarterback to run new coach Jim Harbaugh's West Coast offense. You can't go after Kevin Kolb or Carson Palmer -- at least not yet. So do you draft one of the kids, knowing you might not get the veteran you want, and knowing you still might not have much time to get that quarterback ready to play at any time in 2011? Strange times. "The one thing is,'' Harbaugh said, "there're lots of teams in the same boat as we are.''
This is a topic for another week, but few teams are as wounded by this weird year as the ones with new coaches looking for long-term quarterbacks. For now, I'm going to give you what I consider a realistic top of the draft -- realistic because I'm not only going to consider what makes sense for the teams, but also in many cases I'm assigning players to teams based on who can play early, and who can play well early.
Newton, 6-5 and 248 pounds, looked to be in perfect shape for his on- and off-field job interviews here. One NFC GM, watching him being weighed and measured, said, "I was hoping Carolina wasn't in the room. I want that guy in the AFC.''
He ran a speedy (for a quarterback) 4.58 40-yard dash but was off-target while adjusting to some newness, like taking snaps from center and dropping back and throwing. In his passing session, he completed 11 of 21 throws. To be clear on this, that's not good. But he'll have another chance to show his pro-style game next Tuesday at Auburn (March 8). And I've never heard any GM on draft day say, "Yeah, we downgraded that quarterback because he threw poorly at the combine.'' Teams interested in Newton will dissect his game and work him out before the draft.
As Newton told me last week, before the combine: "Coming from under center has been the focus of working with George. I know it's going to be hard, and we're working hard. I throw first thing in the morning, and then we watch film, and maybe do some chalk talk. For me, transitioning to playing under center is like driving a car, changing from an automatic to a manual-shift car. I can move the car now, but this is about learning to drive it well. But what's helped is my relationship with George. It's superb.''
The knock on Newton is that, like Tim Tebow, he often looked to be a one-read quarterback who would take off running if his first man were covered, and because he's so athletically gifted, when he'd take off, good things would happen. He knows when he takes off in the NFL he might get his block knocked off eventually.
I heard positive reports over the weekend about his quick reactions in meeting rooms when he was put on the board and asked to dissect why he made a certain read or throw. He threw for 30 touchdowns and ran for 20 last fall at Auburn, but NFL teams will want to curtail his running. Last fall, he threw 280 passes and ran 264 times. That's 19 runs a game, on average. The NFL doesn't want to staple him to the pocket, but I can't imagine a team that's going to draft Newton will instruct him to run eight or 10 times a game. Try four to six, on average. It's just too dangerous for a quarterback to leave the pocket as often as Newton did in college.
It's too early to tell, eight weeks before the draft, how the quarterbacks will come off the board. Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert are fighting to be the top passer picked, and both should go in the top 10 to 12. Ryan Mallett of Arkansas had a great day throwing Sunday. Jake Locker of Washington had a great day running. Christian Ponder of Florida State, despite some chronic right arm problems, had the best overall day of any quarterback at the combine Sunday. It'll be interesting to see if a team with a major quarterback need --Tennessee, for instance -- passes on one of the top two or three and hopes Ponder's still there near the top of round two.
A publicist for Under Armour, the outfitter that signed Newton to an endorsement contract, called me to say the company had Newton available to speak to four members of the media for 15 minutes each. Since I was going to write about Newton at the combine (I didn't know what exactly, and I didn't know if it would be for the magazine or for this column), I said yes. And so I spent 15 minutes on the phone with Newton Tuesday.
I was first in the batting order; I assume three others followed me for 15 minutes each. Newton talked about his work with quarterback coach Whitfield and his combine preparation, some of which I detailed above. After about 12 or 13 minutes, I asked him about his deal with Under Armour; I don't remember my exact question, but it was something about what he expected the deal to do for him. And he said one of the things he wanted to stress was that he saw himself not only as a football player, but also an entertainer and icon.
I had thought all along that I wouldn't use anything from our conversation until this week, after I had seen him at the combine and, hopefully, got to spend a little more time with him. When we got off the phone, I began to think about what he'd said. I knew it would be something that would raise eyebrows among NFL teams, who like their prospects to be single-minded, not entering the league thinking about anything except being the best player they can be. I thought if anyone else in the lineup asked him about the Under Armour deal, he'd probably say the same "entertainer and icon'' thing. I didn't want to make a news story out of it, but I did want to get it out that he'd told me this, so I sent it out to my 510,000 followers on Twitter.
Reaction was swift, and negative. One of his representatives called the next day to tell me, basically, that I'd sabotaged Newton just before the combine, and it was going to damage him, and if I'd written this as part of a larger story with context, no one would have seen the quote as very troublesome. I told him you're kidding yourself; if this were in a long story about combine prep and the deal with Under Armour, the media at large would have plucked out the quote and run with it the exact same way. And teams would have wondered about Newton's commitment to the game. How does the context of the quote change the impact? To me, not at all.
Did any of Newton's reps -- agent Bus Cook or his marketing people or father -- say to him, "That's a bad thing to say at any point of a young career, never mind just before the combine?'' I certainly hope so, or they don't have his best interests at heart. I found Newton to be an amiable enough person, though how much can you really tell by a 15-minute phone conversation? And I was encouraged by a couple of things at the combine.
One: He never said the quote wasn't accurate; I've heard enough players, with me and other reporters, backtrack out of a bad situation by saying they were victimized by an invented quote. Two: Combine godfather Gil Brandt of the NFL told me he spent time with Newton in Indianapolis and the player said he'd put his foot in his mouth and planned to apologize for it to the press and to teams. He pretty much did that to the assembled press, though he said several times he felt he was misunderstood.
On NFL Network Sunday, Newton said of our conversation: "My response was, I view myself as that due to the fact that I'm not only going to just be selling football cleats, I'm going to be selling lifestyle apparel -- everything else ... I could have picked way more [different] words to express what I really wanted to say. I want to personally apologize to everybody who was offended about it."
As I wrote higher in this column, I definitely wouldn't eliminate Newton as a possible high pick because of one sentence. He's had a checkered past, obviously, and this doesn't help. As I write in
Bad news for the Vikings, if and when free agency happens -- and assuming unsigned players will be unrestricted free-agents after four or five years. Rice has four seasons of accredited service with the Vikings, and it's very likely that when a new CBA happens, unrestricted free agency will revert to the original rules -- if you're not franchise- or transition-tagged when unsigned after four or five years, you're free. When Adam Schefter reported Sunday Rice would definitely test the open market before he signs with anyone, it meant the Vikings would very likely be playing without Rice this year. If there is a this year, of course.
Minnesota chose to franchise linebacker Chad Greenway and do nothing with Rice, meaning Rice, who turns 25 Sept. 1, will enter a crowded wide-receiver free-agent market led by Santonio Holmes (Jets), Steve Smith (Giants), James Jones (Packers) and Braylon Edwards (Jets). Rice would be the lead guy in the field because of his age, assuming there's no negative carry-over from the 2010 hip surgery that ruined his season.
I don't like what this portends for the Vikings. A rebuilding offense needs receivers who can help a developing quarterback, and losing a 6-4 emerging star (again, provided he's healthy) would be a big blow. There will be plenty of young, interested teams with cap room -- Tampa Bay and Kansas City at the head of the pack -- if there's a cap, as most people assume there will be in a new labor landscape. He'd be a perfect young catch for the Patriots too. It doesn't make sense for Rice to go back to an uncertain future if he can go somewhere with a solid quarterback on a team that's not rebuilding.
I've had lots of questions in the past few days about the insane franchise-tagging going in the last few days. And while I can't defend the Miami Dolphins committing $12.48 million to a nose tackle, Paul Soliai, or the Panthers giving a center, Ryan Kalil, $10.1 million for one season, it's clear why they did it. It's the only way they knew to keep players they value as line centerpieces in a very uncertain NFL environment.
1. "I hope it's dissolved.''
I wasn't there to hear one of the cutest Yogi Berra-type malapropisms of recent combines. Later, the word was changed to "resolved'' on the combine transcript, but two earwitnesses said it was "dissolved.''
2. "Is that a trick question?''
3. "What do you think of Cam Newton?''
4. "I like the comparison -- he's a shutdown corner -- but I think I have better ball skills.''
I like the comparison of me to Rick Reilly -- we're both sports writers-- but I think I have better adjectives. I believe that's about the same nonsense as the sound track of "Mr. Smith Goes to Indianapolis.''
And just so you understand, Rick Reilly's adjectives kick mine all the way around the block.
Jake Locker is one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft, and he continued to prove it Sunday by running one of the fastest times ever by a high-round quarterback (4.52 seconds in the 40) in years. But there's one thing that's going to be very hard for him to outrun: his accuracy. Or lack thereof. In 40 career games at the University of Washington, Locker completed 65 percent or better of his throws five times.
In his last 40 games in the NFL, Drew Brees has completed 65 percent or better 25 times.
The sisters of Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara, who will be a first-round draft choice in April: 1. Princess. 2. Precious. 3. Promise. 4. Peace. 5. Passionate.
According to the
In 1944, the graduating class of Compton (Calif.) High included Pete Rozelle and Duke Snider, Hall of Famers in two different sports.
Snider, the great former Brooklyn Dodger, died Sunday.
According to longtime NFL PR man Joe Browne, Rozelle got his first job in the media business phoning in the scores of the Compton High baseball team to the
"Duke died today at 84,'' Browne said. "Pete would have been 85 this Tuesday.''
The combine is always a good time. You see and hear some interesting things in Indianapolis. Observations/stories from four days in the Indiana state capital:
• Spotted at a table at St. Elmo's Steakhouse Thursday night: The Andy Reid coaching tree -- Reid joined by Steve Spagnuolo, Leslie Frazier, Pat Shurmur and Ron Rivera, the men who once coached on the Eagle staff under Reid and who now have NFL head jobs.
• Media credentials issued by the NFL: 715. Or approximately 690 more media than attended the combine 10 years ago.
• Still the Hotel of the City: The Conrad. The giant TVs in the rooms, comfy lobby, free rides around town in bad weather, with a wine bar on one side of the lobby and a Capitol Grille on the other, central to everything.
• Underrated Airport of America: the new one on the western outskirts of town. The locals say it's the only new major airport built since 9/11. A couple of nice places to eat and drink in the circular waiting area/preboarding wing, with wide concourses everywhere. Unlike the old one, the security lines aren't 50-minute jobs.
• In the lobby of Conseco Fieldhouse, the Starbucks is out and Dunkin' Donuts in. What were you thinking, Seattle?
• "Think we're going to get this Super Bowl in next year?'' the cabbie asked me Wednesday night on the way into town from the airport. Yes, I said, but the process will be painful and angst-filled. I must have been asked a dozen times about the work stoppage and what it might mean to the city hosting the Super Bowl in 49 weeks. People here are freaked that labor situation might get this season, and the Super Bowl, canceled. Relax -- for now.
And for those dreading a Super Bowl here? Don't. It's one of the most convenient cities in America. You'll be able to walk everywhere outside on a decent day, and inside on the skywalks on a bad day. Good restaurants. Maybe not enough of them, but you'll find some good meals here.
• Nothing's more than a 15-minute walk away here.
• Never seen a Marriott complex like the new one down the street from the state capitol building, adjacent to the Indianapolis Indians' Victory Field. Five Marriotts, led by the largest JW Marriott in the world. Want to know how this city got the Super Bowl? Not just because of the new Lucas Oil Stadium. But because of this small city of hotels, with 2,248 rooms and the largest hotel ballroom in the Midwest -- 40,500 square feet. I told a few people over the weekend that when I worked in Cincinnati 30 years ago, Indianapolis was the stepchild of Cincinnati. No more, that's for sure.
"The NFL combine is 1 of the most overrated events n sports. When they get a drill that measures heart, I'll pay attention.''
"Just looked back last year and saw former #Tennessee back Arian Foster ran a 4.73 40 at his pro day. #NofutureintheNFLright?''
That's exactly why postseason physical performances and tests should be 10 percent maximum of a player's final grade. In many cases it should be much, much less, meaning I wouldn't put a lot of stock in Cam Newton air-mailing a few passes over the heads of receivers Sunday.
One league owner recently criticized Jones in a league meeting for the horrible delays and game-day mismanagement. And what was the deal with the league and Jones never being able to say in the days before the game what the stadium capacity was going to be, almost like there was an attempt to say, Let's figure out ways right up to the end to keep selling tickets and making as much money as we can here.
Jones issued a
Herzlich said his mentality as a football player didn't change because of the time he spent in treatment and away from football. "Off the field,'' he said, "I changed a little bit. I'm a different person. You don't change your core values or anything but you became a little more patient. Sitting in a hospital for six hours a day you've got to become patient. I think my film study improved because that's all I did for a year.''
Said Garrett: "We had an interview. He came into my office and he had on a coat and tie and his hair was nicely combed. He looked good. He looked good. But we started talking football and about three minutes into our conversation I'd never seen a guy who wanted to get out of a coat and tie more than this guy and so I said, 'Rob just take the thing off,' so literally he went, 'Boom' and got rid of the tie, grabbed a pen and started going on the board. And it didn't take long. I was impressed by the effort. I was impressed by the coat and tie and I was equally as impressed of him getting rid of it and getting going and really being who he is.''
Just remember one thing it you're underwhelmed by the Ryan hiring (which I decidedly am not): Rob Ryan is certain he can be a head coach in the NFL, and a head coach just as good as his brother. So he's motivated to lead the league in sacks and have a top-five defense and for the Cowboys to win. All of that, he knows, will lead to interviews for head-coaching jobs. So his motivation falls right in line with the motivation of every Cowboys fan.
a. Someday soon we're going to see Denver FOX affiliate sports reporter
b. Love what Vin Scully said about the death of Duke Snider: "Although it's ironic to say it, we have lost a giant.''
c. Thank you, Chris Pika and Pete Moris of the NFL staff at the combine, for finding and returning my lost iPad. I owe both of you a Boulevard Wheat.
d. And I can't thank you enough, Scotty's Brewhouse, and you too, Twitter followers and Indianapolis football fans, for turning out and packing a room at Scotty's in downtown Indianapolis Friday night for the Second Annual Peter King Tweetup. (That means, yes, we'll be doing it again next year, and I'm going to impose on Scotty's to find us a bigger room.)
Thanks to so many people -- Will Carroll for arranging it; George Atallah, Domonique Foxworth and Chester Pitts of the NFLPA for providing some perspective and news on the labor talks; Albert Breer, Doug Farrar, Aaron Schatz and many other media folk for giving perspective on the players at the combine and lots of other NFL stories; Patty, the fan of so many of us writers who drove from St. Louis; the Six family of Fishers, Ind., who are becoming regulars at these things; and Scotty Wise himself, for introducing me to a few of his fine beers and giving me a nice T-shirt with his Three Wise Men logo.
We spent three-and-a-half hours there and it felt like 35 minutes. I felt the love, and appreciate all of your support and camaraderie. We're a strange but fun extended family. Thanks for being part of it.
e. Can the Devils (winners of 15 of 18 since mid-January) leapfrog five teams and make up nine points in the last 18 games of the NHL to make the playoffs? I doubt it, but you never know. What a run.
f. From reading the dispatches from Florida, sounds like the Red Sox already won 105 games and are a cinch for the World Series. Two things to keep in mind. One: Last time Boston won 100 games was 65 years ago. Two: Last time we saw two supposed stalwarts in the rotation, Josh Beckett was 6-6 and John Lackey led all of baseball in base runners allowed. They may well have an other-worldly lineup, but let's all settle down about what an incredible team this is.
g. Coffeenerdness: You've got to really want the triple grande hazelnut latte at the Starbucks in the lobby of the Westin Indianapolis. It costs $6.01.
h. Beernerdness: One more bit of thanks to Scott Wise: Appreciate the Three Wise Men growler, and I'm glad my guest and I had a chance to empty it before leaving the event Friday night. A growler. What a concept!
i. Good luck, Matt Mosley, in your new media venture. I'll miss your blog.
j. Oscar thoughts: How interesting, the catty pre-Oscar coverage. E live ripped Scarlett Johansson for her messy hair ... You deserved the Oscar, Melissa Leo, but America would have cheered louder for Hailee Steinfeld ... As I tweeted last night: The Triple-A All-Star game in Pawtucket would be more riveting than the first two hours of that broadcast ... Good for Jeff Lurie and wife Christina Weiss Lurie, the executive producers of