SALISBURY, N.C. -- I'm a little bit blown away this morning, as I have been since Dave Goren of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association called in January to say I'd been named sportswriter of the year. You sure you didn't get my number mixed up with Posnanski's or Reilly's or Verducci's? But hey, that's the power of
Tonight's the awards ceremony, in this small city an hour north of Charlotte. I'll have to take a deep breath when I look around and see those I've looked up to in the business, like Bob Ryan, Brent Musburger and Hal McCoy -- a guy who taught me so much on the Reds' beat 30 years ago -- and realize I'm standing with them now, and standing with peers like Mike Tirico and so many writers and broadcasters from across the country who I've shared press boxes with over the years. It's a great honor, something I'll never forget as long as I live.
Now what were we talking about?
Yes, pro football. If we go on an archaeological dig, I bet we can find some trace of that wonderful game -- the game we're all having a spat with right now.
I want to start today with a guy who can be a fair referee to both players and owners. He was a player, a very good one, and now he's close to lots of players, and to key people on both sides. He's part jock, part lawyer, part E.F. Hutton. And one great color man. And he has a thoughtful, plaintive wail for everyone in this labor mess:
"Is this really what we want -- judges determining so much about the future of the National Football League?'' Cris Collinsworth said over the weekend. "We've got the greatest game in the world here in a time of incredible wealth, and we're in a position where that very possibly can be changed forever here very soon. And I'm just asking: Why?''
The other day, I noticed Collinsworth had written on his website, footballpros.com, and tweeted that his best guess for the start of the NFL season was early November. Then there'd be a nine- or 10-game regular season, then the same number of playoff games. So I reached out to him to see what he meant.
This disclaimer right up front: I've known Collinsworth since 1984, when I covered him on the Bengals in Cincinnati. Now I work with Collinsworth and consider him a friend. We've beaten each other up on many topics over the years, but that's why I like him. I can tell him he's nuts, and usually he likes it; we did it a lot at HBO and then NBC before he left the studio and went into the play-by-play booth. But I understand if you're sitting there thinking I'm not going to be impartial or I'm going to paint Collinsworth in a good way. I am -- but that's because what he's saying makes a lot of sense.
Collinsworth's point is an interesting one. He thinks the appeals court will side with the owners and the current lockout will stay in place. If it does, neither side will be supremely motivated to move; the owners will figure they've already made a strong offer (the March 11 offer) and will wait for the players to budge. But the players, on a tremendous streak in the courts right now, will figure they've made sound arguments in front of a mediator in Washington and judges in Minneapolis, and even if the lockout stays legal, their antitrust case will have a good chance in the Eighth Circuit.
And the players won't blink until they start missing paychecks. Collinsworth saw it twice as a player, in 1982 and 1987. "The only thing I'm absolutely certain of,'' he told me, "is that there will be players broke by the middle of September. There will be pressure to make a deal. But there will be pressure by owners too. They've got payments to make too -- stadium mortgages.''
Collinsworth gives them three or four weeks to make a deal. Then a week of free agency, signing undrafted college players and unsigned veterans. Two weeks of camp. One preseason game. Then the season starts, either on Oct. 30 or Nov. 6.
But if that scenario doesn't happen, and if the two sides stay in a cold war, what happens if, say, a season is missed? Here's where it gets hairy, and where we have to start wondering which way the game will go. In
Say the TV contracts were abolished and teams could make their own deals. "If the Cowboys could sell their rights, maybe they'd get $500 million a year, and maybe the Bengals would get $50 [million],'' he said.
Say Peyton Manning could sign anywhere. Could some owners field super teams and some field Kansas City Royal-type teams?
Say there was no draft. It's every player for himself. Collinsworth isn't even sure that's the worst thing. Nor am I. But it'd certainly be revolutionary.
And say drug-testing was abolished.
How many doors do you want to open?
"It's possible the structure of the game could change forever,'' he said. "Now, game after game after game, week after week after week, goes down to the wire. The pro game could become like college football -- 55-14 most games, with four or five tremendous games of national interest every year. Now we have that many every week.''
There's no guarantee Collinsworth's right. I remember the late George Young, the Giants' longtime GM, railing against free agency for years as the '80s ended and a free market was inevitable. "We're not like baseball,'' he said. "You can't just plug in a guard the way you plug in a second baseman. Guards can have much different responsibilities depending on what team they're on.''
True. But it worked out fine. Free agency's been a boon. And not only hasn't it hurt the competitive balance of the game, but also it's given the league another hot-stove month of the offseason when football's in the headlines. Traditionally, the combine's big for the last two weeks of February, free agency big for March, the draft for April, offseason workouts for six weeks in May and June, and then training camps begin at the end of July.
So I'm not sure the death of the draft would be the death of competitive balance. Teams would figure it out the same way they figured out how to replenish the roster when losing unsigned vets.
But if players take this all the way in the courts, and win, and change the game forever, what would stop Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder from becoming the Steinbrenners and John Henry? (If baseball had a franchise player designation, Adrian Gonzalez would be a Padre for life, not tearing up the American League for Boston right now.) There'd be nothing to stop Jones, with a monster TV network, from having a $250-million payroll. Similar to baseball, the bottom-feeder NFL teams would struggle. Dallas might have five minimum-salary special-teamers. Cincinnati might have 20, and some might start.
The question is: Would that make the game better?
Collinsworth, at times in our conversation, sounded like he sounds when he gets strident -- like he's throttling the microphone and would do anything to make you see his point.
"God, I just wish I could get through to somebody,'' he said. "You know how when you're talking to your kids, and you know positively what the right thing to do is, and you also know they're going to do something else, and there's nothing you can do about it? That's how I feel now. And, God, is it painful to watch.
"The game's so good. The players are making money. The owners are making money. The commissioner's got some good safety initiatives going. The networks are thrilled. The fans are thrilled. The game's never been better. It's time to quit sugarcoating this thing and really start thinking about what the NFL really might look like at the end of the process.''
NFL Network is in the process of revealing a list of the Top 100 current players, as voted on by 413 current players. They were asked to rank their top 20 players, in order, and NFL Films and NFL Network compiled the results, scoring it on a 20-19-18-17-etc. basis. Adding the scores per player is how the Network came up with the top 100.
I've done such a list in the past and thought I would put my 2011 list alongside the players' list. Sunday night was the Network's third show -- with 10 players revealed each week-- so 30 players have been disclosed, 71 through 100. I'll give you my bottom 30 alongside the players' bottom 30 today, and in succeeding weeks I'll give you my weekly 10 compared to theirs.
Some brief thoughts on the 30 choices so far: The players, I believe, underrated a few guys -- Mario Williams (71), LaMarr Woodley (82) and Nick Collins (96) most notably. Terrell Owens (91) could have been on the list three years ago, but certainly not now.
The Network revealed that 12 quarterbacks are on the list, but there's no way Donovan McNabb, based on the 2010 season and his uncertain future, should be the 12th-best quarterback and 100th player here; it seems bizarre that multiple players would choose him as one of the top 20 players in football right now.
I rate players based on impact and ability, obviously, but also on where they are in their careers. You'll be disappointed at how low I have Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu in the coming weeks; not only are they getting up there (Reed turns 33 this year, and Polamalu's 30), but also they've missed too much time in the past couple of years. Polamalu just wasn't the same in the last two months of the 2010 season. So the résumé's big, but players won't be graded on the past alone. Here's the bottom 30 on both lists:
Washington owner Dan Snyder reportedly said on Sirius Radio last week that the 'Skins and Steelers had a deal in place for Washington to trade the 16th overall pick to Pittsburgh for the 31st pick plus other choices ... but the Steelers didn't do the deal when it came time to pull the trigger. Seems the player Pittsburgh wanted was gone by the time the 16th pick rolled around. Hmmm. Sounds like Mike Pouncey. Sounds like the Steelers wanted the Pouncey twins to play center and guard for them for the next decade. Let's do the figuring. Washington traded from 10 to 16 with Jacksonville, so the player Pittsburgh wanted could be only one of six guys -- the six taken from 10 to 15 in the first round. Blaine Gabbert? Nope, not with Ben Roethlisberger on the way to rehabbing his rep. J.J. Watt? Probably not; too much of a pool of good prospects at the position to spend so heavily for one. Christian Ponder? Quarterback. No. Nick Fairley ... now there's a possibility; at 6-4, 291 pounds and quick, he could have seen by Pittsburgh as a long-term bookend for Ziggy Hood in the 3-4 -- though Fairley is not a run-stuffer in the Steeler 3-4 mode. Robert Quinn? Probably not; he's not a 3-4 defensive end, and the need is not there at outside linebacker right now for Pittsburgh. That leaves the 15th pick in the draft -- Steeler center Maurkice Pouncey's identical twin, Mike, chosen by Miami. It would have been a perfect Pittsburgh-like thing to do, something that wouldn't have made a lot of sense to the rest of the league (paying a huge premium to move up in the draft to pick a guard). But the Steelers never mind paying a lot for a sure thing, which so many teams think Mike Pouncey is.
Right around 5 p.m. Eastern time today, 11 men will take the first steps of a long final day toward the summit of 19,314-foot Mount Kilimanjaro on the east coast of Africa. It'll be the fifth day of a climb for former Titans coach Jeff Fisher, former Eagles tight end Chad Lewis and ex-Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, along with some NFL personnel and four members of the Wounded Warriors.
They'll have about 4,000 feet to climb to get to the top. Now, they all might not make it; Kilimanjaro climbers historically have a 50-percent dropout rate at some point of the trip. But the three NFL folks were a determined lot Sunday as they set up camp for the evening.
I spoke to Bruschi and Lewis by satellite phone. They were walking with two soldiers who'd had legs amputated, one who'd lost an eye, and one with post-traumatic stress disorder. "It's an incredible challenge, obviously,'' said Bruschi. "But I'm watching Wounded Warriors go up this mountain in front of me, and I'm inspired. I've just got to do it.''
At 15,000 feet Sunday, the toughest thing was breathing. "You never think of breathing as being a physical challenge, of course,'' Bruschi said. "But up here it is. You have to focus on every breath, and remind yourself to breathe.'' The test to make it up Kilimanjaro, he said, is "very similar, very similar'' to a football game. "You need 11 guys to win on the goal line,'' he said, "and we need all 11 of us to win here too.''
On the night before the final climb, the team was expected to sleep only two or three hours. "But it's difficult to sleep at altitude, for physiological reasons,'' David Krichavsky of the NFL said in a text message to me this morning. "So our sleep has been restless.''
The three former NFLers are doing this to raise awareness and money for Wounded Warrior Project. You can see their path at www.believeinheroes.org.
Eric Winston, the starting right tackle and co-player rep for the Houston Texans, has been lifting on his own and running three days a week with teammates at Rice University. He'd like to clear one thing up about linemen, and the lockout. You know, the point about how lots of defensive and offensive linemen would gain 75 pounds in a long lockout and come to training camp -- whenever that is -- looking more like beached whales than professional football players.
"Yeah, that stuff about us not being able to police ourselves was a little bit insulting, in a way,'' Winston said. "That perception doesn't give us credit as professionals, and I've got to say it upset me and a few others I've spoken with.''
Point taken -- and Winston's probably right. But it'd take only two or three far-out-of-shape guys on a contender to tilt the scales of competitive balance. Not saying it'll happen if players don't have any organized activities until, say, August. But it could, and if it does, it could have a big impact on a strange 2011 season.
"If you are the general manager of an NFL football team, 99.9 percent of people can do what you do. I get emails, letters, phone calls from people telling me how they can do my job better than me. But it's the 5 percent that you do, that you bring to the table, that unique 5 percent -- that's what we're asking from you. That's your contribution. I believe there is someone sitting here today with the last 5 percent that can find a cure for cancer.''
"I don't know what you do with Dez Bryant. When Deion Sanders gives up on you, that speaks volumes to me. When Deion says, 'I can't work with you anymore,' that's the first time he has ever done that ... Hopefully Dez realizes this is not about finishing your rookie contract. If you don't bust your butt in the NFL, you won't be there very long.''
"I welcome him with open arms.''
Did Bush have his fingers crossed behind his back when he said that?
How important a stat should interceptions be? The Hall of Fame can't figure it out; the fifth-leading interceptor of all time, Bengal Ken Riley, can't get a sniff for the Hall. It could come into play someday if Darren Sharper plays another year -- and continues to climb the list. The top 10, and their Hall status:
Ed Reed (54) and Champ Bailey (48) are the only active defensive backs close to Sharper on the list. Sharper, 35, wants to play at least one more season, and hopes it's with the Saints after an injury-plagued 2010.
Great note by Tony Grossi of the
Celtics general manager Danny Ainge.
Checked baseballreference.com. Ainge went 0-for-2 that day, a groundout in the third and Baker's fifth of 11 strikeouts in the sixth. The famous Al Woods pinch-hit for Ainge in the ninth and was Barker's 11th strikeout.
Attendance at the old barn on Lake Erie: 7,290. Time of game: 2:09.
The King traveling party -- me, wife Ann, Donnie Banks, brother-in-law Lou from Monongahela -- took in the Hickory Crawdads game Sunday evening in nearby Hickory. Got a great kick out of Conrad the Crawdad. A crawdad's a small lobster, basically, a freshwater crustacean. And this one was, well, shall we say, a bit laconic. With blue shoes. The red foam crawdad with tourist shorts slunk from section to section, almost unnoticed.
"I've never seen a mascot with such low self-esteem,'' Donnie Brasco said in the bottom of the fifth, as Conrad walked slowly from section to section. "The Phillie Phanatic's job is safe.''
It was Bark in the Park Day with the Crawdads. We shared a row with a black Great Dane, Atticus, who won the dog contest. Not a complicated contest. The dog that got the biggest cheers from the crowd won the $25 gift certificate (to what, we're not sure), and our row made sure Atticus got the biggest hand. Good dog.
Nothing wrong with minor league baseball on a May Sunday in the North Carolina country.
"In #Detroit airport and never really sat back and saw how nice an airport it is! It was good to be back for a bit.''
"Can't wait for Posada v Girardi to reach the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.''
How interesting that when Posada took over the Yankee catching job in 1996, he succeeded Girardi.
1. I think I hope I'm in the room when Alan Faneca's name comes up for discussion for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
The longtime Steelers guard, who finished his career with two years in Arizona, was a six-time first-team All-Pro (don't weigh down the debate with Pro Bowl nods; they've been overwhelmingly cheapened with all those who drop out, in addition to the silly fan part of the voting) and a standard for guards of the future to model themselves after.
Tough, smart and versatile. Those are the traits you want in any player. At his peak, Faneca was a terrific run-blocker and good puller; I remember defensive coordinators (Rex Ryan for one) who talked openly about how tough it was to overpower Faneca or beat him through the gaps. A shame he didn't finish his career in Pittsburgh, but that's modern football.
2. I think I'm for a reunion of Pete Carroll and Matt Leinart in Seattle. For one reason: Why not?
3. I think there are minefields in place with the proposed Vikings stadium complex 12 miles northeast of downtown in Arden Hills, Minn., but the fact that there's significant traction now tells me there's very little chance the Vikings will follow in the footsteps of the Minneapolis Lakers and trek west to Los Angeles. Something's going to get done in greater Minneapolis for the Vikings -- as it should.
4. I think, for all of you wondering about the whereabouts of prize free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha for the 2011 season, stop putting him in Green Bay. Just not a smart fit. Super Bowl winners have to pay too many people already on the team, nevermind an $18-million-a-year (approximately) import. And with Charles Woodson recovering well from his Super Bowl broken collarbone and rising star Tramon Williams and free-agent revelation Sam Shields, young and already accomplished, Asomugha to Green Bay makes zero sense.
5. I think "Lombardi,'' the Broadway play about the Packer coach, needs to live longer than its scheduled close next Sunday. It needs to go to Washington for a few weeks, and in a perfect world, Dan Lauria and Judith Light and Co. should play Green Bay on the opening weekend of the season. Whenever that is.
6. I think it's incorrect to say Chad Ochocinco rode a bull Saturday night. His posterior made passing contact with a bull, from what I saw. Give him credit for trying, I guess.
7. I think, while you sharpen your emails and tweets and tell me how much I hate Ocho, a note of, well, something or other: I do not hate him. I like him. He's entertaining. And he works at being a good player; I saw him run routes after practice in camp last year against Pacman Jones, and Ochocinco was competing like it was a playoff game. That I like. But his look-at-me stuff, which never ends, is wearisome. That's all. For the many out there who believe you either love a guy or hate a guy and there's no in-between, that's not the world I live in. There's a way you can find someone interesting, likable and compelling, and at the same time be annoyed by his constant yearning for attention.
8. I think an emailer, Ken Finkelstein of Chicago, made me work a little bit this week with an interesting query about the Patriots turning down a deal with San Francisco. New England, for dropping down from the 33rd overall pick to San Francisco's at 45 overall, would have received the Niners' three this year and three next season. I'm told the Pats balked, wanting a two next year instead of a three.
I ran Finkelstein's letter in
I said there was no way he could have been assured of getting Dowling by moving down, which, of course, is true. But I asked four personnel people in the league this week about the likelihood of Dowling being there at 45, and three of the four were virtually certain Dowling would have been available. Surprising, to me, that Belichick, who usually is one of the league's most calculating risk-takers, didn't take a fairly safe risk here for a potentially huge reward.
9. I think Jarrett Bell, my friend from
Bell was a rookie at the late
A good man gone after a long illness.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Really feel for Harmon Killebrew, who has entered Hospice care with esophageal cancer Friday.
b. My Killebrew memory is a vivid one. I'm 10 years old, living and dying in my living room in Enfield, Conn., on the last weekend of the 1967 baseball season, as the Twins and Red Sox play the two games that will decide the American League pennant, pretty much. Four teams enter the weekend with a chance to win the flag (Boston, Minnesota, Chicago, Detroit), all within two wins of each other. Boston needs to sweep and needs help. It's the weekend of Killebrew, in the middle of the Twins' lineup, and Carl Yastrzemski, in the middle of Boston's. Saturday's game is on TV, Sunday's on the radio.
For the weekend (thanks, baseballreference.com, for refreshing my memory of something 43 years old), Killebrew goes walk, double, strikeout, strikeout, two-run homer, walk, single, walk, single. Yaz: single, strikeout, single, three-run homer, single, double, single, single. I'm screaming half the weekend for someone to get Killebrew out. (Probably every 10-year-old in the Twin Cities was doing the same with Yaz.) For the weekend, these two guys come to bat 17 times and reach 14. Incredible. But Killebrew was as respected a player as there was in baseball for his play (the 573 homers) and his unflagging class. He leaves nothing but good feeling in his wake. Here's hoping he goes peacefully.
c. Michael Farber: You've got the hockey world, and much of the sportswriting world, pulling for you. Get well soon, friend.
d Hey, Nick Charles: Thousands, and I mean thousands, of people are thinking of you this morning. Hope you're feeling some peace.
e. Dumbest idea of the NBA postseason, or any postseason: the white T-shirts on everyone. Like that makes the crowd intimidating? Dumb. Who thought of that? Irene Ryan?
f. How do you get Jose Bautista out? Lord: 70 homers in the last season plus six weeks.
g. How distracting would a golf-ball-sized chaw made of Bazooka and sunflower seeds be if you're trying to hit, with the sunflower shells floating out of the mouth willy-nilly? Maybe that's why Alex Rodriguez is slumping. That is one of the most grotesque things I've ever seen in a player's mouth. Looks like A-Rod's choking on it half the time.
h. What a weekend for Jorge Posada. Obviously, he shouldn't have asked out of the lineup Saturday after getting dropped to ninth in the batting order, and even more obviously, he shouldn't have created the excuse of having a sore back. But he's been such a credit to the game that he deserves a mulligan. Glad to see the crowd Sunday night gave him one.
i. Great stuff from Kevin Paul Dupont in Sunday's
j. Coffeenerdness: As we drove by a Starbucks on I-77 Sunday afternoon in North Carolina, Don Banks said: "Why hasn't Starbucks taken the mermaid's face out of the logo and replaced it with yours?''
k. Beernerdness: Very nice to see the Hickory Crawdads with Yuengling Amber in the ballpark Sunday. When it's Yuengling and the old standbys, it's not much of a contest, is it?
l. See what I told you about
m. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino reads MMQB. (I think. Either that or a staffer does.) At a season-opening Little League parade last week in our neighborhood, I had the pleasure of meeting our mayor, and he said, "We doing better with the litter in your neighborhood?'' Quickly I processed this. When my wife and I moved to Boston 27 months ago, I wrote (and remarked to many in the neighborhood) about how much litter there was, and why in the world was such a great city pockmarked -- on some days at least -- with so much litter? It has gotten better, mayor. Thank you. But there's still too much.