We interrupt the never-ending hype for NFL free agency (when, by the way, is the last time a great free agent class led a team deep into that season's playoffs?) to talk about 15 weeks that no one ever talks about. But people should.
Fifteen weeks. That's the time between the end of the 2012 regular season and the beginning of the offseason program for most of the NFL's 32 teams. It's an underrated part of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, but a valuable one we don't hear enough about, because it allows players to do what teams are constantly harping on them to do: think about life after football. For years, coaches took more of players' offseasons away to start training and classroom programs early. By 2010, players were expected to be at their facilities by early March to begin the process of working out and learning new stuff for the next season. Wisely, the NFL Players Association drew a line in the sand about the offseason programs, and won five additional weeks off and fewer mandatory offseason training activities. (During negotiations, NFLPA officials even referred to the extra time they were fighting for as the "spring semester.") The result: Players on non-playoff teams now have January, February, March and the first half of April free from any football activities other than ones they choose away from team facilities. Playoff teams are off until mid-April too, as soon as their season is finished.
Last year, I remember Cleveland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson telling me the 15-week gap between the end of one season and beginning of the next helped him return for progress on his degree at the University of Maryland. Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson is back at Georgia Tech, working toward his degree this term. And the NFL's reigning defensive rookie of the year, Luke Kuechly, spoke to me from the campus of Boston College, where he's taking five of the eight classes he has left to get his bachelor's degree in marketing.
"I probably wouldn't have been able to come back to school for this semester under the old schedule,'' Kuechly said. "I definitely think the change helps players go back to school by giving them the extra month or so to fit a semester of work in. It's really good for players."
For Kuechly, he'll return to Charlotte for the April 15 opening of the offseason program. He's arranging with his professors to do the last two weeks of work for his classes, plus finals, either before he leaves campus or after he leaves for North Carolina.
I remember back in the summer of 2011, when details of the CBA were leaking out, that this was one of the underrated parts of the deal for players. Before the new agreement, when, really, would players have a chance to devote real time to life outside of football, to thoughts of a career or finishing a degree, when they had to think about being back to work in early March? Kuechly knew when he left Boston College to prepare for his pro career he wanted to return, and he hoped the schedule would allow him to do it. One of his linebacker mates, Thomas Davis, urged him to do it now. And so he decided to enroll, arriving in Chestnut Hill in January and moving in with three friends still in school. With only his physical workouts in Boston to occupy his time outside of the classroom, Kuechly is able to devote time to classes in Marketing Research and Applied Marketing, and to study how supply chains work in an Operations Management Class.
"I see some old friends on campus and they say, 'What are you doing here? Visiting friends?' I tell them I'm back taking classes, finishing my degree, and they said, 'Why are you doing that?' '' Kuechly said. "Football ends. You've got to be able to fall back on something, and I'm glad to be able to come back to do something I always knew I wanted to do -- get my degree and be ready for life after football, whenever that is.''
Kuechly's given a pep talk to the BC hockey team, but mostly he's just fit in back on campus, living a student's life.
"I'm writing a lot,'' he said. "Some of these classes are really writing-intensive. I've got to work on making my writing flow."
Join the club, Luke.
You know why I wrote about this today? Because in the last couple of weeks, I've heard more than a few agents and players complain about the cap, and how the CBA is turning out to be too one-sided in favor of the owners. This 15-week period is a good example of something non-monetary that has the potential to help players when they need it the most -- in life after football.
The Kansas City Chiefs, in the span of one week, have distanced themselves about as far from the Scott Pioli regime as possible. It'll take a while to find out, but the race is on to see if the commitments coach Andy Reid and GM John Dorsey made to three players will pay off in the form of a more competitive Chiefs team.
The Chiefs have a deal in principle for San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith; that could have happened under Pioli as well, but it's thought he was going to spend a second-round pick on one of the rookie quarterbacks in the class of 2013. The team made an $11-million-a-year commitment to wide receiver Dwayne Bowe in the form of a new five-year contract Monday. Those close to the Chiefs think Pioli may have franchised Bowe, but never committed that kind of money to the occasionally unreliable receiver. Pioli might have franchised left tackle Brandon Albert, but it's also very possible he would have let Albert walk and drafted a left tackle like Luke Joeckel with the first pick in the draft.
Bowe has been an electrifying receiver, and he could be the deep threat Reid loved in DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia. But will Smith -- whose throwing arm is just average, and who will be used more as an intermediate thrower than deep -- be able to use Bowe's playmaking ability downfield? I've never been in the camp of those who think Smith can't throw a strong 35-yard go route; it's simply that the deep balls are not his strength.
But Smith in 2011 and '12 under Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman proved there's more than one way to play quarterback. His average yards per attempt was 8.0 in 2012, significantly higher than renowned deep-ball throwers like Ben Roethlisberger (7.3), Joe Flacco (7.2), Jay Cutler (7.0) and Matthew Stafford (6.8).
I think there's a good chance Pioli would have investigated Smith and quite possibly would have dealt for him. The personality profile, passing efficiency and age (28) would have appealed to Pioli.
But Smith, Bowe and Albert, in tandem, would probably not have happened under the old regime, and certainly not the big contract for Bowe. There will be an interesting chemistry experiment in Kansas City this season.
SI.COM'S OFFSEASON PREVIEWS
Now for your email:
NO BIG DEAL. "Peter, I'm not sure I understand what the hullabaloo is all about with Brady's contract. Maybe I need to spend time on the Twitterverse to understand the cynics, but so what if Kraft and the Patriots later decide to give Brady more money in 2014 or 2015 than the current terms dictate? Suppose New England wins the Super Bowl in 2014, Tom Brady is named NFL MVP and shows no signs of decline, and the cap rises by a few million more than currently projected -- why should we lambaste Kraft for upping Brady's paycheck in that scenario? Are we really going to look back at Winter 2013 and tsk tsk the Patriots for lying to us when Brady purportedly signed up to discount?''
-- Andrew, Herndon, Va.
Interesting question, and I've thought of it. As I said in my column, the reason why it would surprise me if Kraft re-does the deal in two years is because of history. In 2007, the third year of his six-year contract, Brady had what was quite probably the best season by a quarterback ever -- 50 touchdown passes in leading New England to a 16-0 record. And Kraft and the Patriots didn't add any money to his contract in year four. As I said, we'll see, but I doubt anything will happen in year three this time.
ON MANTI. "In MMQB you state: 'I think, still, that Manti Te'o will be a first-round pick. As one scout told me over the weekend, if you assume Te'o is likely to be a two-down player out of the lineup on most third downs, or passing downs, then the importance of his 40 time diminishes.' When I read your comments, I understand the argument and the logic for dismissing his 40 time. I've often seen similar comments regarding prospects and their limitations. I remember many people using similar logic during Reggie Bush's draft year. People would argue that while he was small and likely not an every down back, he would be able to provide 20-25 explosive plays a game. And all this is fine, I guess. But if you are a football team with so many needs, why would you draft a player in the first round of the draft (when you're hoping for a franchise player) and yet only expect him to be a part time player? Wouldn't logic dictate that you grab a three-down player?''
-- Don, Ottawa
Good question. The only logic I can provide is that lots of linebackers start their career not as full-time players, then morph into playing more snaps. There are some teams that would be interested in Te'o -- Cincinnati, Baltimore, for instance -- as a two-down player early, and maybe developing into a full-time player as he gets used to the NFL game. One NFC scout told me at the combine Te'o had the instincts to develop into a three-down linebacker after he got used to the feel of how much more developed NFL passing games are; he said Te'o had the kind of feel for football that could make up for 4.7 speed (which the scout thought he'd run in the 40-) and become a good cover man on tight ends and backs.
MANY PEOPLE HAVE RAISED THIS POINT. "My question concerning the Brady contract - if the deal were really so "team-friendly," why isn't the NFLPA raising more concern about it? I distinctly remember when Tony Gwynn took a major discount to remain with his hometown San Diego Padres for life, and the baseball union essentially blackballed him for many years, as the contract lowered the salary bar for so many other players at his position. Why would the players' union allow Brady and Kraft to lower that bar for NFL QBs, particularly considering the well-documented acrimony between the two sides? Brady does have to answer to the union just as much as he has to answer to the Kraft family. Thank you!''
-- Robert Majeska, Phoenix
It's simple, Robert: There's no real cap in baseball the way there is in football. If the Patriots spend to the cap in 2015, when Brady is due to make $7 million, the money they save on Brady will be spent on other players If a baseball player takes a big pay cut for some reason, there is no guarantee that money will be spent on other players. Now, if the Patriots don't spend to at least very near the cap in 2015, then Kraft has pulled the wool over a lot of eyes, including Brady's.
THAT'S LIFE. "I'm a little confused on why every new QB contract has to be (or seems to be) breaking the ceiling of the previous contract every single time. How can the negotiations justify that Flacco is worth more than Drew Brees? Drews Brees has broken numerous records and still has the Super Bowl ring that Flacco does and a Super Bowl MVP, so wouldn't Flacco be worth less, like around $18 million?''
-- James Williamson, Dallas
You make a good point. But there are two mitigating factors. One: Flacco turned down an extension last year worth -- I'm told -- about $16.6 million a year, figuring he would make significantly more if he went out and had a great year in 2012. He went out and had one of the best postseasons a quarterback ever had and won the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl MVP. So it's not very feasible to think that he'd then demand $18 million a year. He was going for the gold last year, and in his mind, he earned it. Two: Contracts in sports are continually hop-scotched. Flacco's 28, in his prime, coming off a tremendous season, and it doesn't make much sense to me that he'd accept less than, say, the deal Tom Brady signed three years ago ($19 million average).
I LIKE ERIC'S POINT. "When will fans of the NFL reach a breaking point with regard to their level of interest, especially in the offseason? I do understand the NFL's goal to make football front and center 365 days a year especially with these proposed offseason schedule changes. However, does keeping the NFL front and center all the time end up having a negative impact overall? Will all that anticipation that fans have in late summer prior to the season be dissipated because we never have a break from it in the first place?"
-- Eric, Pittsburgh
All I can say is, I hope someone in the NFL office reads your email. The hype we give to the combine, to free agency, to the draft, to offseason workouts ... it's overwhelming. I keep thinking fans need a breath. And yet I'm as guilty as anyone -- I write an average of, probably, 6,500 words each Monday, and other stuff year-round, about the NFL, because our readership surveys keep telling us you love the NFL. I'd love to hear from other fans about whether you ever get NFL-weary.
BURKE: Free agents who hurt their value in 2012