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NFC West an emerging powerhouse after first week of free agency

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Jake Long is St. Louis-bound, where he'll try to keep Sam Bradford upright in the competitive NFC West.

PHOENIX -- Lord, the NFC West is going to be a bear of a division in 2013.

That was my first thought as Sunday night turned into Monday morning here at the NFL Meetings, after Jake Long -- 27 years old, beat up the last two years, but two years removed from being the game's premier left tackle -- agreed to a four-year contract to be the Rams' left tackle.

It's a signing fraught with uncertainty. We -- most of us in the media, and fans, and teams -- overrate free agency as a tool to improve teams. How many times (including recently, in 2009) has Washington won free agency, then stunk the joint up when real football began? We yell at the Giants, Steelers and Packers for doing nothing in the free market except bleed players -- more about that in my Tuesday column, with some startlingly honest admissions from Packers GM Ted Thompson -- but tell me: How can you be critical of Thompson or Jerry Reese of the Giants or Kevin Colbert of the Steelers right now? They've combined to win four of the last six Super Bowls. Green Bay is 36 games over .500 in the last six regular seasons, Pittsburgh 30 over, and the Giants 20 over. But more about The Week of the GM tomorrow.

Back to the (sometimes false) hope of free agency. For a franchise that had been trying to compete with one competent tackle, Rodger Saffold, and a Ringling Brothers arrangement on the other side, the Rams getting Long is a big add. Very big. (And I'm told he passed his physical on Wednesday with ease after two battered seasons in Miami.)

Miami was in on Long aggressively, and one Dolphins official Sunday seemed confident Long would return for a sixth year. But no. And the Rams Sunday night were giving the credit for the migration to coach Jeff Fisher. "One of our players texted Jake and told him he'd retire if he had to play for any other coach besides Jeff,'' Rams GM Les Snead texted me late Sunday night. "Jeff gets veterans to Sunday ready to play ... Gets them to December ready to play ... So yes, he knows how to keep vets fresh physically, mentally and spiritually as good as anyone in the NFL."

BANKS: Which non-playoff teams helped themselves most in free agency?

There's an arms race in this division, with the Cardinals the only team looking spartan right now. Check out what each team has done since season's end:

Arizona: Hired a new coach, Bruce Arians, who will implement a deep passing game, and a GM, Steve Keim, unafraid of cutting ties with the past (Adrian Wilson, Kevin Kolb, Kerry Rhodes). Josh Cribbs, the Cleveland special-teams ace, was in town Sunday night, hoping to be the 10th middle-class free agent signed by the team this offseason. It'll be tough, though, putting quarterback marginalia (Drew Stanton, maybe Brian Hoyer or Ryan Lindley or John Skelton) up against the arms and strong pass rushes of the NFC West.

St. Louis: Lost three valuable offensive pieces (Steven Jackson, Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson) who won't be easily replaced. They'll ask Saffold to move to the right side, which he hasn't played. But the Rams desperately needed a top tackle, and signing Long is the best decision they could make, risky though it is. The Rams are the only team with three picks in the top 50 of the draft (16, 22, 46), and they'll need a receiver upgrade after losing two in the first five days of free agency. Tight end signee Jared Cook is an expensive question mark, though Fisher had him in Tennessee and loves him.

San Francisco: Still haven't fixed the secondary, losing hard-hitting safety Dashon Goldson and not adding any corners. That's an absolute must. But they'll have more draft choices in 2013 than any other team -- 14 -- and GM Trent Baalke, despite what the Niners say publicly, has to be thinking about what it would take to acquire Darrelle Revis, with extra picks in the second, third and fourth rounds as chips. Whatever, San Francisco has to be markedly better in the back of the defense to have a chance to win the Super Bowl in 2014. Clutch physical receiver Anquan Boldin will help Colin Kaepernick make plays downfield.

Seattle: "There is no way I thought, a week and a half ago, that we'd have Percy Harvin, Cliff Avril or Michael Bennett on our team this year,'' GM John Schneider told me here Saturday. "Any of them. Things just fell right for us." At midseason last year, Harvin was on pace for a 120-catch season, then hurt his ankle. Avril, on the outside, and Bennett, inside, should give the Seattle defense high-quality depth. Avril and Bennett came for a combined three years and $20 million, a pittance compared to what the market looked like it would yield early last week. The addition of Harvin will give Russell Wilson two receivers, Sidney Rice and Harvin, who can beat defenders deep.

I've mentioned this before, but don't go handing the division to the Niners or Seahawks yet. St. Louis was 4-1-1 in the division last year. What if the Rams can keep Sam Bradford (sacked 71 times in his last 26 games) significantly cleaner? And what if Arians can invent a quarterback? That's a huge what-if, and it's doubtful, but this is March. We major in what-ifs in March.

BURKE: Best, worst contracts from free agency's start | How signings impact the draft

***

Well, at least the hotel is nice.

No huge items on the agenda this week, as the NFL holds its annual spring meetings at the Arizona Biltmore. The three issues that ought to garner some attention:

The death of the tuck rule. This playing rule, expected to pass, will change the tuck rule -- 12 years late for Raiders fans -- so that a fumble will be ruled if the passer loses possession as he attempts to bring the ball back to his body. The officials will rule a fumble on such a play, and it will be eligible for replay review. "We are going to change this to clean this up and eliminate the tuck rule, so to speak,'' said Competition Committee co-chair Jeff Fisher.

More steps to take helmet hits out of the game. In his Super Bowl press conference, Roger Goodell said the top safety issue in the NFL was to "take the head out of the game." A rules proposal passed through the Competition Committee in its winter meetings that will try to continue that trend.

The proposal states: "It is a foul if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top crown of his helmet against an opponent when both players are clearly outside of the tackle box. Incidental contact by the helmet of a runner or tackler against an opponent shall not be a foul.'' A running back, for instance, running in the open field or outside the scrum of the line, wouldn't be able to lower his head and use his helmet to hit an on-rushing defender. But a defender wouldn't be able to use his helmet to lower into the head or helmet of the ballcarrier, either.

Emmitt Smith told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas if he didn't lower his head when a linebacker came his way, the linebacker could bust him in the head and he -- the runner -- would be defenseless. "It [the rule] sounds like it's been made up by people who have never played the game of football,'' Smith said. Well, the Competition Committee doesn't have active players, but it does have a Hall of Fame tight end, Ozzie Newsome, and two former NFL defensive backs, Mark Murphy and Fisher.

In Smith's example, where the linebacker, in his words, "can take my chin off,'' it'd be a 15-yard penalty if the linebacker specifically lowered his helmet and bashed Smith in the chin with it. After a couple of those, don't you think the defender would learn -- and the coaches would emphasize it in practice, so penalties wouldn't be forthcoming?

Said McKay: "We really think the time has come that we need to address the situation in space when a runner or a tackler has a choice as to how they are going to approach the opponent. You can't make that choice ducking your head and delivering a blow, a forcible blow, with the top crown of your helmet. We are trying to protect the runner or the tackler from himself in that instance. We realize this is a major change for players and coaches, so we want the obvious foul."

Fisher said he and fellow committee member and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, "don't feel like it is going to be difficult to explain it and to coach it.'' I canvassed five teams Sunday and found support for this proposal, but it will probably be close; 24 votes are needed for passage.

Mandatory thigh and knee pads. The NFL passed a rule last year ordering these to be used beginning in 2013, and the time is now. Players will see videos in minicamps this year showing them the kinds of pads that will conform to the rule. "Beginning with the 2013 preseason's first game,'' NFL VP Ray Anderson said, "enforcement will begin.'' Uniform inspectors will do random checks in pregame, and the inspectors will have access to the sidelines during games.

Said Anderson: "If a player is caught not wearing the thigh and knee pads or is not wearing appropriate thigh and knee pads, he will be given an opportunity to comply. He will not be permitted in the game until he does comply. If there is a continual refusal to comply, he simply will not be allowed in the game.''

The NFL, through its equipment suppliers, has shown how uniform pants and even underwear can be fitted with the thin pads, which the NFL believes will cut down on knee injuries and thigh contusions. Players don't like the pads, generally, because they think they cut down on speed. But now it's not going to matter. It'll be mandatory for all.

Ten Good Ones

The best signings in the first six days of NFL free agency:

1. Denver: WR Wes Welker, two years, $12 million. I've heard all the stories about Welker, and the anger and bitterness about his departure from New England. That will fade in time. But the Broncos are getting a man who, while missing three regular season games in the last six years, averaged 112 catches a season for New England over that time. That's tremendous. And he'll be used by a quarterback, Peyton Manning, who absolutely loves the slot receiver. If Welker breaks down, which he's shown no sign of doing, the grade will have to be revised here. But if Welker plays 16 games and doesn't catch 100 balls, my name's Joe Don Looney.

Grade | Banks: What does it mean? | King: Brady can't be happy

2. Philadelphia: TE James Casey, three years, $14.6 million. "With coach [Chip] Kelly coming in here, I thought it was a great fit for me,'' Casey said upon signing. Truest words of the week. Recruited to Rice as a quarterback, Casey became an all-purpose back and tight end, and played numerous special teams for Houston. The way Kelly will use Casey (52 catches, 11.3 yards per catch in 969 snaps in Houston over the past two years) is the way the Patriots use their tight ends, and the way San Francisco used Delanie Walker last year: everywhere.

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3. New England: CB Aqib Talib, one year, $5 million. Patriots fans would want it to be a longer deal, because Talib could play himself into a bigger money deal elsewhere if he plays the way he can this year. But the Patriots weren't going to overpay for a player who could blow up in their faces. The best overall cornerback on the market was a must-keep for New England.

4. New Orleans: CB Keenan Lewis, five years, $26 million. The worst defense in history (by yardage, anyway) was desperate for a cover corner, and I'd say any corner who allows 52.7 percent completions with a league-high 16 passes defensed (according to Pro Football Focus) is a marked upgrade for the Saints. I hated the Saints losing their left tackle, but if you ask me if I'd have lost an adequate left tackle (and Jermon Bushrod is that, or just a little better) for the Steelers' best corner in 2012, I'd say sure.

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5. Kansas City: CB Sean Smith, three years, $18 million. At 6-foot-3, Smith is one of the biggest corners in league history -- and six inches taller than the two Chief starters last year. In a division (and league) with receivers getting taller every season, it looks like a smart deal. "[Defensive coordinator] Bob Sutton's scheme is about 85-percent press man, and we think Sean's the type of physical corner who fits the defense perfectly,'' said GM John Dorsey.

Grade

6. Kansas City: DL Mike DeVito, three years, $12.6 million. One of the best run defenders on the line last season will never be a three-down player, but he wasn't signed to be one. Three other teams wanted DeVito badly.

7. Chicago: TE Martellus Bennett, four years, $21 million. An offensive tight end who can block. What's not to like?

Grade

8. San Diego: RB/returner Danny Woodhead: two years, undisclosed. OK, I don't know the dough, so I can't pass judgment on the wisdom. But I'm sure it's not a huge deal, and Woodhead, in the running, receiving and return game, didn't lose a fumble over the past two seasons in 233 New England touches. Great insurance for the disappointing Ryan Mathews.

9. Atlanta: RB Steven Jackson, three years, $12 million. A steal. Just go watch what he did last year as the Rams tied San Francisco, in the running and blocking game. A superb effort with vital results: a season-high 29 carries for 101 yards. Atlanta needed a back who could punish defenders, break tackles and make a defender or two per week miss. Michael Turner couldn't do it. Jackson can.

Grade

10. Seattle: DL Michael Bennett, one year, $5 million. Just beats out Miami TE Dustin Keller (one year, $4.25 million) for this spot. Nine sacks and 62 pressures last season in Tampa, and you get him for $5 million, knowing he has to perform big to get a big deal in 2014? Great signing.

Grade |More free agent signing grades

***

Class Guy of the Week.

Brandon Stokley, slot receiver, Denver.

Think of those last three words -- "slot receiver, Denver'' -- and what do you think of? Wes Welker, obviously. But think of Stokley for a moment. A year ago tomorrow, Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos. During his brief free-agent fling, Manning used the home of one of his best friends, Stokley, as a refuge. Stokley lives in the Denver suburb of Castle Pines. A year ago, he was unsigned. Maybe he'd be signed by the Broncos, maybe he wouldn't. But he helped his buddy, Manning, hide out -- and decide what to do.

Manning slept at his good pal Stokley's house the day he got to Denver. The next day, Manning and Stokley got up early because Manning wanted to get a good throwing session in. In secrecy. Off to the park they went -- but there was an early-morning lacrosse game in progress. So Manning and Stokley moved to a community park with a 40-yard-square field. When a jogger would approach, Stokley would yell, "Jogger!'' And he or Manning would hide the football and wait until the jogger, or maybe bicyclist, passed.

Stokley knew the routes Manning wanted to throw, and he ran them. And when Manning signed, Stokley, 36, eventually got signed too -- with no promises about whether he'd make the team. He made the team and played 60 percent of the snaps in the slot, catching 45 passes. The last pass of Manning's season, in fact, was to Stokley, and Baltimore's Corey Graham picked it off.

So when it came time to sign Welker to a two-year, $12 million deal last week, a decision that took the Broncos about 10 seconds to make because Welker's the most productive slot man in football, coach John Fox picked up the phone to inform Stokley. "Heartbreaking,'' Fox said here Sunday, "because Stokley'd been such a great guy and important player for us.''

And Stokley said to Fox, basically, that if he was running the team, he'd go after Welker too.

That's why Brandon Stokley, who may have had his career ended by the acquisition of Welker, is the Class Guy of the Week.

Quote of the Week I

"[It is] what I call a travesty of fairness."

-- Washington general manager Bruce Allen, on the NFL's refusal to back down from its salary-cap-violation sanctions of $36 million to the team over the past two seasons -- $18 million last year, $18 million this year.

Quote of the Week II

"He is ahead of schedule according to [Head Athletic Trainer] Larry [Hess]. That means the muscles are stronger than they anticipated and he is doing everything he can to be ready for this season. Is he going to be ready? I have no idea. I'm sure keeping my fingers crossed, and if work has anything to do with it, he probably will.''

-- Washington coach Mike Shanahan, on the rehab of quarterback Robert Griffin III, who underwent knee reconstruction surgery in January. Griffin said he thinks he'll be ready to play opening day, which, for Washington, is 25 weeks away.

Quote of the Week III

"It's not Cruz."

-- Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay, on Sunday, in response to questions about his Twitter exuberance over the Colts' pursuit of a receiver in free agency. Victor Cruz is a restricted free agent for the Giants, and the fact that he and the Giants have been discussing a contract for more than a year without reaching a deal has become the source of great consternation for many New York fans.

Stat of the Week

If the Players Association or league ever wants to drive home the point about why the NFL truly should stand for "Not For Long,'' go back to the 2008 draft for vivid proof.

Jake Long's departure from Miami to St. Louis in free agency Sunday night means 42 of the top 64 players in the 2008 draft -- not quite five years ago -- are no longer on the teams that drafted them.

That's 66 percent of the drafted players gone from their original teams ... 19 of the first 32, 23 of the next 32.

I would say "first round'' and "second round'' in the above sentence, but the 2008 draft had an asterisk. The league took New England's 2008 first-round pick away because of the Spygate case, and so the 32nd overall pick, Phillip Merling of Miami, was actually the first pick of the second round.

Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me

Before the football, there was a little baseball in Kinglandia over the weekend.

On Friday afternoon, I went to Rangers-Giants in Scottsdale, at San Francisco's home field. Sat on a metal bench seat a little bit past the first-base bag, high in the grandstand. Price for the seat: $56.

On Saturday afternoon, I went to Reds-Brewers in Maryvale, at Milwaukee's home field. Sat on precisely the same kind of metal bench seat just past the first-base bag, high in the grandstand. Price for the seat: $16.

The Brewers experience was better. Better beer, less packed, kids getting Racing Sausage autographs, more of a spring training feel. But I kept thinking: The stadium in Scottsdale was teeming with people, all seeming to have fun. To pay $56 for a spring training game seems the height of insanity, but then again, I did it. So check me into the asylum.

One more point: You can buy four season tickets for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers right now in the upper deck, on the 45-yard line, for a package price of $2,254. That's 40 tickets -- four tickets per game to 10 games (eight regular season, two preseason). Do the math. The per-ticket cost: $56.35.

Thus, it costs the same to sit high in the stands at a San Francisco Giants exhibition game as it does to sit high in the stands at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers regular season game.

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week

So Mr. Pro Football Talk, Mike Florio of Bridgeport, W. Va., had gone 15 1/2 years without flying until Sunday. For him, it wasn't a fear of flying so much as a loss of control. When he drove, or was being driven, he could see the road and the other drivers if he wasn't the one driving, and he felt secure knowing that whatever the statistics about the relative safety of flying versus driving said, to him, driving just felt safer.

Florio's usual mode of transportation is a van to and from the Baltimore-Washington International Airport train station, then a train to New York or Stamford, Conn., for his NBC appearances. But nothing in the air since he began to do the smash-hit web stuff on PFT. If a league meeting was too far away, he just wouldn't go. If the Super Bowl was within 20 hours or so in a vehicle, he'd go by van. All the while, his bosses at NBC were working on Florio to join the human, non-Madden race. "[NBC Sports executive producer] Sam Flood kept working on me,'' said Florio. "He kept sending me links to stories about how safe it was to fly. The one that really got me was the New York Times story that said you'd have to fly every day for something like 112,000 years to be in a fatal plane incident."

Florio wanted to go to this week's league meetings, and Phoenix was going to be too far to drive. So he finally decided to get back on a plane, flying here nonstop Sunday afternoon from Pittsburgh with his wife, Jill.

"It was uneventful,'' he said once in the Valley of the Sun. "I wish I could tell you some great story about getting all claustrophobic once they closed the door, or something like that. But I can't. I was hoping for a better story. The only thing I can tell you is when we were turning the corner to get out on the runway, my wife said to me, 'Does someone know where our wills are?' And I said, 'I really don't want to think about that right now.' ''

What has changed since he last flew: the fact that visitors can't go to the gate with flyers. "The whole security thing is so different,'' he said. "First, you practically disrobe going through security -- your shoes, your belt, your jacket, and then all your electronics in different bins. Then you get through security, and it's like a ghost town in there.''

Maybe on a March Sunday in an airport with increasingly declining traffic, like Pittsburgh's. But I don't go through many ghost towns when I travel.

Welcome back to the aerial race, Florio.

Tweet of the Week I

"NFC West now has three Pro Bowl left tackles. Russell Okung and Joe Staley can welcome Jake Long."

-- @espn_nfcwest, longtime NFL scribe Mike Sando, after Jake Long signed with the Rams Sunday night.

Tweet of the Week II

"I care as much about your bracket as I do about your fantasy football team."

-- @bylindsayhjones, the USA Today football writer.

Tweet of the Week III

"Idzik: 'I expect Darrelle Revis to be a Jet.' Translation: 'No one's giving us the picks we want or giving him the money he wants.' ''

-- @adbrandt, ESPN NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt.

Tweet of the Week IV

"Elvis Dumervil's ex-agent just faxed me to wish me Happy Valentine's Day..."

-- @EricStangel, executive producer and writer for The Late Show With David Letterman, on Sunday, after the Dumervil-Broncos-faxing fiasco of Friday afternoon.

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think this is the coldest name of them all here at the NFL Meetings: James Harrison. Cannot find anyone admitting to being interested in the former Steeler. It seems if he wants to play this year, he'll have to do it for less than half of what he was supposed to make for the Steelers. He should have taken the cut the Steelers were offering.

2.I think this is what free agency has taught Jake Long: Three very good years to start the career and two injury-plagued ones with average play are enough to erase the chance for a lucrative second contract. But given that Miami, St. Louis and at least one other team were aggressively trying to sign Long tells you that NFL teams think of him, still, as a starting left tackle with two or three solid years left if he can stay out of injury trouble.

3.I think, speaking of free agency, the tackle market sure has some good leftovers: Super Bowl left tackle Bryant McKinnie, Sebastian Vollmer, Eric Winston, Andre Smith (likely to stay in Cincinnati), and, if some team wants to trade for him, Kansas City's Branden Albert. The Chiefs will listen to offers for him.

4. I think when the 2013 compensatory picks are announced today, the two most notable will be the Texans adding a third-round pick for the loss of Mario Williams to Buffalo, and the Ravens adding (from what I'm hearing) fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks for the losses of Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson, Cory Redding and Tom Zbikowski. The rich get richer. Oh, and the 49ers">49ers are likely a fourth- and two seventh-rounders richer as well.

5.I think the cutest thing I saw on the weekend before the NFL Meetings began here at the Arizona Biltmore hotel is the Harbaugh brothers, and families, playing with kids in the hotel pool. Number two: The Harbaugh brothers, out for a 6 a.m. walk together on the jogging path outside the hotel.

6.I think I can't get too excited about the Elvis Dumervil fax fiasco. There are rules, and the rules say the Broncos had to make a decision whether to keep Dumervil or release him by 4 p.m. Eastern on Friday. The contract agreement had to be in Denver's hands by 4, and the Broncos say it wasn't received by then, and so Dumervil was cut. The contract actually was faxed in after the deadline. There's been much hue and cry about it, but if Dumervil was going to take the deal to the deadline the way he did and risk not getting the paper back to the team in time, I blame him. Rules are rules.

7. I think there's a cool football event in South Carolina this weekend, and if you're a fan of football past and present, you'll enjoy it all. The charter members of the South Carolina Football Hall of Fame (including, among others, Harry Carson, Donnie Shell, George Rogers and Sam Wyche) will be inducted at the Cherokee Valley Country Club outside of Greenville Friday night. And on Saturday at 3 p.m. at North Greenvlle University, 100 college players with no additional college eligibility -- some hoping for pro careers -- will face off in the South Carolina College All-Star Bowl. Go here for more information.

8.I think when I see headlines about the Jets keeping an open mind on whether or not to trade Darrell Revis, I am heartened that they have not lost their minds. Then I think: They're just saying that. There's far too much smoke out there, and far too little whispering to sources off the record that Revis is going nowhere, for me to believe they aren't desperate to move him. Mistakenly, of course.

9.I think it was nice to speak to you again Sunday night, Sean Payton.

10.I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Strangest postseason college basketball matchup I have ever heard: Kentucky at Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

b. Ohio at Denver in the NIT Tuesday night. Bobcat fever, baby.

c. Caught pieces of the ESPN Jim Valvano movie Sunday night, and it brought back some incredible memories. I covered Final Fours for the Cincinnati Enquirer in the early '80s, and I was in The Pit in Albuquerque for the North Carolina State win over Phi Slamma Jamma (the University of Houston) in the 1983 finals. N.C. State stunned the world to even get to the finals. I remember arriving in Albuquerque and going to the early press conferences, and thinking N.C. State was a distant fourth behind Houston, Louisville and Georgia. Valvano's team had won games by 2, 1 and 1 points in the regional, and no one was taking him, or his team, very seriously.

I knew Valvano a little bit; at the time I covered Xavier's basketball team, and Bob Staak, the coach, was one of Valvano's best friends, and Valvano walked into Staak's office one day, carrying a travel bag with his suits over his shoulder, fresh off a recruiting trip to see a player in Cincinnati. They talked like they'd been friends for years, which they had. So Staak was out there in Albuquerque for the Final Four. I was in the second row of press row, even with the basket, when Lorenzo Charles threw down the winning basket at the buzzer, and I recall Valvano running around maniacally -- you've seen all the pictures -- looking for someone to hug. After the game, I tagged along with Staak for the postgame Wolfpack party, and by the time I saw Valvano back at the hotel, he'd just about lost his voice. "What a night! What a night!'' he rasped, and at the hotel he hugged everyone he saw. To think that night's become the night of legend is pretty cool.

d. And what about the year before, 1982, as freshman Michael Jordan hits the 14 foot jumper to beat Georgetown, then seeing Jordan carrying the film and the film projector on the team plane the next morning, because in Dean Smith's program the freshman carried the film and the projector. Man, that was a fun time to cover college basketball.

e. And, though I have absolutely no idea who is any good in college basketball, I will be watching Thursday and Friday, two of the great days in American sports.

f. My bracket philosophy? Simple -- since the days when I followed the game. I pick the favorite in every game, put my $20 in the mail to my good buddy Ron Fisch in Montclair, N.J., and hope for the best. I never have won a dime in Ron's pool, so he loves to see my $20 arrive in the mail.

g. Great to meet you the other day, Cara McDonough. Your old man would be proud of you.

h. Hey Pope Francis: The more you talk, the more I love hearing you talk about the poor. Keep it up.

i. The pope, of course, reads MMQB voraciously.

j. Coffeenerdness: Yes, the Arizona Biltmore is fabulously overpriced. But it has the best hotel coffee I've had in forever.

k. Beernerdness: Hey Dan Patrick! Had your Redhook Audible Ale the other day at the Giants' game. Really good stuff -- hoppy and rich. Is the next one on you?

l. If I did the 4.2-mile Pat's Run back here in Arizona in a month, could we figure out a fun way to raise money for the Tillman Military Scholar Program? The Tillman Foundation has given scholarships to 230 military service members, or their spouses, for college educations. What better way to pay tribute to the late Tillman than to raise money to educate veterans and their spouses, seeing that education was such a cornerstone to Tillman's life?

m. Maybe we can have an event in Phoenix the night before the race, a Tweetup with a Cardinal or two, with the proceeds going to the Tillman Foundation. I'm open to doing what you think would be best. Send me your best ideas about how we can raise the money, and I'll print them next week, and we'll figure something out.

The Adieu Haiku

Belichick. Smart coach. That doesn't mean he can't err. Wes Welker: E-Bill.

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