And I thought after my annual four-week travelogue I could just ease back into the 15th season of Monday Morning Quarterback.
Nope. Gotta hit the ground running. No time to waste. A deal is certain to be announced after both sides agreed to terms to end the lockout early Monday pending the players' vote. The headlines of the morning:
Florio wrote that it's a staredown between the owners and players, and I agree. Preseason games are easy money for the NFL, and the owners wouldn't risk the players saying, "Oh, we'll let those two exhibition games go and reduce our take.''
"I do not,'' he said after leaving a long day of talks inside the association's headquarters. "The players have worked too hard for this moment, and they've managed to tune out the noise outside the process to focus on making a deal that would be fair to both sides.''
So that's the news of the morning. Let's get into a few of the details of the agreement that are most interesting to me, and I hope to you.
"Did anyone in the negotiations think how absolutely crazy this could be?'' one coach told me Saturday. "Suppose you're counting on a guy who's restricted to come back, and a week or so into free agency he gets blown out of the water with some offer, and we've already lost the chance to get anyone good to replace him -- and we're three weeks away from playing a game that counts. Whoever made some of these rules ... I mean, we could be recruiting free agents while we're trying to put together installation periods for the playbook in training camp.''
Under the plan being considered by the league last Thursday, the restricted signings could take place until Aug. 12. Signing at the last minute would give players less than a month before they played their first real game with a new team.
"Not sure this is a very big deal,'' Winston of the Texans said. "We had the leading rusher in the league last year [Arian Foster] and I bet we only had 17 padded practices all season.''
Look at the AFC North. Cleveland's rebuilt from the ground up. Cincinnati's installing a brand-new offense. Pittsburgh and Baltimore (though the Ravens have a new defensive coordinator, Chuck Pagano) are relatively unchanged. Just what this division needs: more to divide the haves from the have-nots.
One coach with an established program told me, "I just wish this went another week. We'll be ready, and maybe a few of the teams we play, especially early, won't be.''
I heard it all this weekend -- that the game will turn into the college spread offense, that lack of fundamental work will make the game sloppy, that new coaches who used tough training camps to toughen their teams won't be able to do that anymore. Maybe. But the smartest football coaches in the world -- all of whom will be playing by the same set of restrictive rules -- will learn to adapt.
But at the end of the day, the players demanded the opt-out because too many of them have zero trust for the owners. I mean, zero. It's been interesting to talk to a few of them over the weekend, off the record, in what should be a very happy time for them and realize how little they trust the men who employ them. Sad, really.
Overall, this is a good opportunity for a relatively new cadre of owners -- Clark Hunt, Dean Spanos, John Mara -- to build up trust with the players.
One more note on this: Several from the players' side singled out Patriots owner Bob Kraft for his role in getting momentum going when there was very little last spring. As one of the key members of the players' side told me: "He told us, 'I'm not going to hope either side makes a bad deal, because then our relationship suffers, and then the whole business suffers. And my family's going to own this team for years and years. We want to see it healthy for both sides.' That registered with us. He's a real deal-maker.''
There will be MMQB-ing on this deal for weeks, but this looks like a good deal for both sides. For years.
Barring some last-minute problems (like me forgetting to buy the Pop Tarts), it looks like we'll be taking off this weekend (time and place to be determined) to see about 22 to 25 camps and/or teams. Sweet ride. It has wifi, a big-screen TV and some of the other entertainment things (game systems) that 54-year-old men have no clue about. Hope to see you along the road. We'll be live-blogging on SI.com and tweeting along the way. Should be plenty to talk about. This is going to be one weird camp season.
When I last wrote this column, we'd made it to number 21 of the NFL's top 100 players. The 415 NFL players polled by NFL Network had their view, and I had mine. So here goes with their top 20, and mine ... but first, a few explanations on mine.
• On Tom Brady at No. 1 over Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning: Brady hasn't won a Super Bowl in seven years and hasn't won a playoff game in three, but his 36 touchdowns against only four interceptions last year keeps him at the top. Rodgers over Manning? A few reasons. Mobility and youth, yes. But I wouldn't have put the Packers' QB over Manning, even with latter at 35 and entering his 14th season, without the two neck surgeries in 18 months for Manning. That is starting to concern me.
• Players' 4-5-6: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu. They are 50, 54 and 60 on my list. My reasoning: Lewis is 36, Reed will be 33 opening day and he's missed 10 of his last 32 games due to injury, Polamalu's missed 13 of his last 32 -- and was too injured in the playoffs last year to be a factor. When right, Reed and Polamalu are the best safeties playing. I just can't trust them to play a full season anymore.
• I've tried to make up for the silliness of the players having two-time Super Bowl-winner Ben Roethlisberger 41 and Philip Rivers 26 on their list by putting them seventh and 10th, respectively, on mine.
• Six quarterbacks in my top 10 too much for you? Tell me: If there were a draft of all NFL players today, with 32 teams starting from ground zero, would Philip Rivers be picked in the top 10? Of course. That's why he's so high, despite his checkered postseason record.
• Yes, Tramon Williams is 16 on my list. He's young, big and clutch, and the only two corners better right now are Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha. That Williams didn't make the player list is, well, a horrible omission.
• Free agency will be interesting. How long has it been since a top-10 player in the game, which Asomugha is, has been unrestricted? Maybe Julius Peppers two years ago, but it certainly doesn't happen often.
"I think the best part of it is our fans are not going to have to hear about labor-management relations for the next 10 years.''
From your lips to De Smith's ears.
"As players, we have to ask ourselves, 'Why would the owners so desperately want the 10-year deal with no opt-out?' ''
"I realize it's a privilege, and I don't want to abuse the privilege.''
If you have paid attention to this labor strife and have the right cable package or dish, you've gotten to know Albert Breer of NFL Network over the last few months. Perhaps better than you'd have ever liked to.
This morning, like on 57 previous days in the past five months, Breer will take his place on a sidewalk, this time in northwest Washington -- on 20th Street -- and document who walks in, who walks out, and try to get a snippet of information. For the 58th and last day, barring a stunning downturn in the talks, Breer will stake out in front of a building for the final time in these negotiations.
Unfortunately, most times the negotiators involved in the NFL CBA talks don't want to talk to him or anyone else. Not only that, they want to avoid him, as De Smith did just after midnight Sunday, when he ducked out of the building and into his car and waved, wordlessly, to Breer as he drove home.
"In Washington, for the court-ordered mediation, Roger Goodell was Houdini,'' Breer said after 1 this morning. "We'd always see him walking in, and for days and days, we'd never see him leave. He'd just vanish. But that was OK. Sometimes, in our job, we go where people don't want us to be. It's been interesting to be in D.C. for a lot of these meetings and negotiations. The sound and camera people are used to the stakeouts. It's an art form for these guys. One of them said to me, 'This isn't so bad. We staked out Monica Lewinsky for a year.' ''
But it was bad in New York City for a couple of weeks, staking out in front of a law firm at the corner of 41st Street and 8th Avenue, across the street from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, breathing in bus fumes for 12 days, a few of those sniffs stifling. There was a 120-degree heat index one day. "The air quality over there is like Three Mile Island,'' said Breer, 31.
"At the end of the day,'' he said, "I just want to have earned the respect of both sides. I just want to be fair.''
I've seen maybe half of Breer's reports over the past five months, and I think he's managed to play it down the middle very well, despite the fact Roger Goodell's signing his paycheck. That's as impressive as standing/sitting/freezing/sweating on the sidewalks of America for the equivalent of a month of 24-hour days.
How his stakeouts break down, in chronological order, since February:
Washington, D.C., 17 days
"Oh my God,'' he said. "That's depressing.''
No it's not. It's career-building.
One of the great things about vacation is it lets you catch up with reading. This gem came from Andrew Goldman's interview with Judge Judy in the June 26
Judge Judy Factoid II: Her 24,000-square-foot home in Connecticut contains a snoring room -- an extra room for guests who snore.
In the top-notch Berra where-are-they-now story by Posnanski in our July 4 issue, I was amazed to read this: From 1950 to '56, Berra caught both ends of a doubleheader 117 times ... and seven times he caught both ends of a doubleheader on back-to-back days.
I don't remember the last time this happened, in part because of the rarity of doubleheaders and in part because teams split the catching on doubleheader days when it happens.
My friend Jack Bowers from Montclair gave me another Yogi nugget that I found amazing, and it sent me to baseballreference.com to dig into. Between 1950 and 1956, Berra won the MVP three times and finished in the top four of the voting in the other four seasons. Over the years, we've had so much fun making fun of Yogisms that we forget what a truly dominant player he was. Imagine finishing in the top four of the MVP voting seven straight years. So I looked up Barry Bonds. He never finished in the top four of the MVP voting seven years in a row. Same with Albert Pujols.
We should appreciate Berra the player more -- and I have to be sure to stop by the newly renovated Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in my old Jersey neighborhood to do just that. Good job by Posnanski to delve into Berra the great player.
Well, I have many. But one of the things traveling abroad teaches you is the lack of respect for lines and personal space in much of Europe (everywhere that I've traveled there, honestly).
The personal space thing is just weird. In Venice, we stood in line for a water ferry to take us from the train station to San Marco Square. The line moved slowly, and the 30ish woman behind me kept leaning on me, as if it would make the line go faster. After the third forearm/breast push into my back, I turned and held my palm out, moving it up and down, as if to say, "Relax.'' It was no use, at the first sign of space to my left, she and her friend squeezed to our left and got on the ferry a few people in front of us. I should say that we all got on the same ferry, which arrived at the same time, and we all got off within seconds of each other. This kind of mild pushing and line-cutting happened every day, somewhere, in Italy and Austria.
Lines, too, were just foreign. It's every man, woman and idiot for him/herself. In line at a Trieste bank to change some dollars into euros, I noticed a teller signaling he was ready to take me. An older lady came from the back of the line, saying something that sounded like "Scoozy, scoozy,'' and cut in front of me, and the teller took her.
In a queue for coffee at the Vienna airport, a man behind me, in German (the national language of Austria), shouted his order over the meeker me, and when I said something like, "Hey, my turn,'' the bilingual barista said, "I make his first.''
Also at the Vienna airport, my wife and I waited in line to check luggage, and our turn was next, and a woman scurried in from the side, right in front of us, to ask some questions of the baggage attendant. "There's a line,'' we said. No use. The woman got her 90 seconds of attention and we waited.
Italy's such a terrific place, with great people. Austria is an orderly country, from what I can tell, and everyone there was good to us. Why the terminal rudeness while co-waiting? I'd love to hear some plausible explanation from some of you who have lived, or who live, in Europe.
"I said I wouldn't jump in til they agreed. They've FINALLY agreed! Sources say 2 sides this hour agree to terms of new CBA.''
"Can't wait to knock somebody the hell out.''
"I would be honored to have Brett Farve as a backup. That will be amazing Learning how to toy with defenses the way he did.''
Sounds good, Mike. But you've got to learn to spell his last name.
"My neighbor looks exactly like Larry David.''
Weird Mozart fact: He lived to be 35 (only!) and never lived longer than two-and-a-half years at any address. Weird Austria fact: Adolf Hitler was born there. Never knew that.
I tweeted my ranking of the ballparks last week, now that I've been in every one except the Rogers Centre (nee SkyDome). And, lockout be damned, my feed got overwhelmed with people telling me -- surprise! -- I had no idea what I was talking about. Folks, it's just personal preference. Here goes again, with a quick comment on each:
Again, I didn't rate Rogers Centre because I haven't been. No particular reason; just never went out of my way to get there.
Media maestro Howard Eskin reported the possibility of this Saturday night; Jay Glazer solidly knocked it down Sunday. And so it goes. I'm not buying it. But Favre loves Andy Reid, his Green Bay quarterback coach in 1997 and '98. He loves Doug Pederson (who was in Favre's foursome in California when Favre got the news of his father's death the day before that game in Oakland in 2003), one of Favre's good friends and now the Eagle quarterback coach. And he has nothing much to do these days. Why not hold a clipboard for $4 million for five months? I believe it will not happen. But we shall see.
I'm not a TV programmer, but a note to NFLNet: Fans hate Brett Favre right now. Fans don't want to see the same highlights you ran 63 times when he retired two years ago and then 63 times again last winter. It makes them throw bricks through TVs, which is not good for ratings. Sometimes I honestly think TV does more damage to Favre than Favre does to Favre.
When last we left the lovely couple of Tom Condon (agent for Manning) and Bill Polian (president of Colts), Polian had made Condon an offer for Manning to be the highest-paid player in pro football history (by a lot), and Condon said no. So this ought to be an amiable, fun contract negotiation, with Condon already having turned down approximately a fifth of the Indy salary cap for one player.
As Rich Cimini astutely pointed out the other day on his Jets blog, they could restructure Mark Sanchez and Darrelle Revis (due to count a total of $27.8 million against the cap this year), and they could take linebacker David Harris' franchise number of $10.4 million this year and lower it by converting it into the first year of a long-term contract. Remember, Santonio Holmes is a priority to sign, so assume that would take about $7 million this year. The Jets would probably have to cut two or three vets and not re-sign Antonio Cromartie to have any chance of getting into Asomugha's financial league -- even if it means Asomugha would take significantly less to go to New Jersey than, say, to Dallas or Houston.
a. In what will certainly make Sirius XM NFL Radio boss Steve Cohen deliriously happy, a man approached me while in line for the breakfast buffet one morning at our hotel in Vienna. "I guess this means you won't be on Sirius this morning,'' he said.
b. Another fellow came up to me in Venice and said how much he liked that I took the Acela up and down the East Coast. "So do I,'' I said.
c. Thanks to my four pinch-hitters for this column while I was gone. Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, an NFLPA executive board member, was eloquent about
d. Only the
e. I really loved her voice.
f. I don't know if I'm going to be able to take it when
g. Really, Larry David: You're playing a nun in the
h. Read the other day it's been over 100 degrees in Wichita Falls, Texas, for 31 straight days. Not sure that did much for the Wichita Falls Chamber of Commerce, or the Wichita Falls Realtors Association.
i. But it's a dry heat.
j. At least 10 people who were at the Myra Kraft funeral service Friday said Jonathan Kraft -- son of Robert and Myra, president of the Patriots -- gave one of the most memorable eulogies they'd ever heard. How about this part of it.
On a trip to South Africa when apartheid still was the law of the land, Jonathan and his mom saw some blacks being arrested in Johannesburg for not having the proper documentation. Myra Kraft told a police officer: "I don't have the proper documentation. Arrest me too.'' She held out her hands to be handcuffed and demanded to be arrested. Jonathan, in college at the time, literally picked up his diminutive mother and took her away from the scene. "She was beating me on the back of the head,'' he said, wanting to be put down so she could go back.
k. We overstate the value and goodness of a lot of people -- famous and otherwise -- but it would be hard to overstate the generosity and humanity of Myra Kraft.
l. Coffeenerdness: I love the way they make and serve coffee in Vienna. We tried Café Sperl and ordered Melange -- essentially a latte, with frothed milk in a small cup -- with no sugar or flavoring. It came served with a roll and a glass of water. Everywhere in Vienna water is served with coffee; never asked why, but the dehydrating elements of espresso make it a smart idea. It was so good I had to have a second. And a third. We buzzed around the city for a very long walk after that.
m. Beernerdness: Lots of bitter beer in Vienna. We found one I really liked at a sidewalk café on a hot afternoon that reminded me of the white beers I've been trending toward lately, and it was a German brew: Schneider weisse hefe-weizenbier. A hefeweizen, of course. Citrusy. The server looked at me oddly when I asked for a lemon. Watching the world go by on a busy Vienna street with a hefeweizen. Not bad.
n. Very good to be back. Looking forward to one of the strangest years since I started covering pro football in 1984. Glad to have you along for the ride.