As mid-April arrives, and we start to really feel the drag of those two extra weeks added to draft season, here are five current stories in the NFL I just don't get ...
• What exactly is it about Jadeveon Clowney that seems to bring the extremes out of people? The gifted South Carolina defensive end and potential No. 1 overall pick is either "spoiled'' and "lazy'' in the damning estimation of an anonymous NFC personnel man according to NJ.com, or he elicits a mindless loop of over-the-top comparisons to Giants Hall of Fame outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor, quite possibly the greatest and most disruptive defender in the history of the pro game.
Why does it have to be such a love-hate dichotomy with this guy? Can we just throw out the high and low scores and focus on the bountiful in between? Spoiled and lazy are ridiculously loaded words and who really knows the ultimate motivation of the talent evaluator who uttered them? It's a routine draft-season gambit for scouts to talk a prospect down in the hopes that he stays on the board long enough for their team to have a shot at him. The height of subterfuge, it's not.
But really, how much time could one nameless NFC personnel man have really spent in close enough proximity to Clowney to render those kind of harsh judgments on his entire personhood and character? That's a heck of a thorough background search someone portends to have conducted. If those labels came from someone in Clowney's family, or his inner circle of friends or ex-teammates, they'd carry a lot more weight. At least those people would figure to know the real Clowney. But a club personnel guy who probably studied him on film, met the player at the scouting combine or at his pro day and digested all available research still isn't in position to know if spoiled and lazy remotely rings true.
Issuing those kind of characterizations could make someone look as foolish in time as the cart-before-the-horse LT nonsense. Clowney is obviously supremely talented and blessed with almost scary athleticism, but let's all channel our inner Bill Parcells and not "put him in Canton just yet.'' Taylor had freaky physical gifts, but he also had otherworldly drive and determination, and on that front, the verdict is very much still out on Clowney. The consistency and intensity of his play-to-play performance raised legitimate questions in the latter days of his collegiate career, but it's a quantum leap to arrive at spoiled and lazy as the verdict.
It's Clowney as the 2014 draft's Rorschach test. But with more than three weeks still to go before the draft, people at both extremes are reading too much into some of these ink blots.
• Maybe we should just call them Google's Team from now on. Sorry, America, that other label the Dallas Cowboys used to proudly wear, it's just so '70s. But who really cares how we refer to the Cowboys these days, because Dallas owner Jerry Jones identified the real measure of their stature on the NFL landscape last week. They're wildly popular, and popularity apparently equates to success, regardless of that perfectly .500 record and one lone playoff victory from 1997 on in Dallas.
The Cowboys' TV ratings are always an NFL pacesetter and their Google hits, we just learned, lead the league. Really puts all those maddening 8-8 finishes and Week 17 playoff near-misses into some much-needed perspective, doesn't it? No wonder head coach Jason Garrett always seems to have that sly little smile on his face. His team may never succeed, but it won't be ignored. And that's a victory all its own.
In a bid for the "laughing-all-the-way-to-the-bank'' Hall of Fame, Jones actually admitted the bottom line in Dallas is the bottom line. Not wins and losses. It's about Q scores, not red-zone scores. Fittingly Jones was in Las Vegas, epicenter of bright lights and dollar signs, when he formally announced his franchise's embrace of mediocrity.
"As you know, the Cowboys have not gone to the playoffs in several years,'' Jones said, surprising no one alive. "We have not gone, yet we're the most popular TV show there is on television. We lead all teams in TV ratings. We lead, 24 of the last top 25 shows were NFL games, and any time your Cowboys play they're up there at the top and leading.''
Not from a scoreboard perspective, mind you. But Jones made it pretty clear that Nielsen ratings trump passer ratings in Dallas, and that's like telling your fan base you're punking them with a handwritten note slipped into their season-ticket renewal letters. Can you imagine that message flying in any other NFL city but Dallas? What an imaginative turn on Vince Lombardi's old "Winning isn't everything'' line.
• I know he'll always have that glitzy 2,006 in 2009 on his resume, but you're not paying attention if you thought ex-Titans running back Chris Johnson would get quickly snapped up on the free-agent market. Johnson may well have some good football left in him, given he's still only 28. But he hasn't been a difference-maker in a long while, and did we mention he's a running back, a position the league is considering eliminating at some point, after it gets done doing away with kickoffs and the 19-yard PAT?
Johnson in 2009 averaged an eye-popping 5.6 yards per rush and 125.4 yards rushing per game. But in the past three seasons, when the league average has been 4.2, 4.3 and 4.3 yards per rush, Johnson has combined for a 4.1 yards average, with per game averages of 67.3 in 2013, 77.4 in '12 and 65.4 in '11. Those aren't the kind of stats that put you in line for an $8 million salary, the figure he was scheduled (but never had a shot) to earn in Tennessee this year. The reality is, Johnson has been an average rusher for about as long as he was a playmaking force in Tennessee, and we may be giving him the benefit of the doubt at that.
You're not putting Johnson remotely in the same league as Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy or Jamaal Charles these days, and in this age of the disposable running back, finding a lead rusher in the second or third round of the draft looks more appealing than ever. Johnson at this point probably represents a quality piece of the puzzle for some team, but far from a game-changer.
Johnson is visiting the Jets first and there's probably more need for his services in New York than anywhere else (Chris Ivory and who?). And while he's not quite in late-career LaDainian Tomlinson mode if he joins the Jets, there would be some parallels to LT and CJ in a sense. Tomlinson won the league's MVP award at age 27 in his career-year of 2006 (2,323 yards from scrimmage), then four years later found himself playing out the string with the Jets in 2010-11.
Johnson had his career-year at age 24 in Tennessee (2,509 yards from scrimmage), and five years later is at least considering the Jets for his next NFL stop. He turns 29 in late September, and it wouldn't be shocking if he's two years and done after his stay in New York. Even the fastest running backs can't outrun time in today's game.
• Not much has gone right for the 49ers in 2014 since they built that 10-point lead in the first half of the NFC Championship Game in Seattle, but the most recent Aldon Smith off-field headline is by far the most troublesome development of the offseason in San Francisco. Because it indicates the team's elite but troubled defensive player still hasn't gotten the message and learned how to keep himself clear of self-inflicted damage.
San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh said at last month's NFL annual meeting that he had heard nothing but good reports about Smith's progress since the end of the season, and that made it sound like the arrow was definitely pointing upward for Smith after he spent five weeks in alcohol rehabilitation last fall. But that's a much tougher case to make in light of Smith's arrest Sunday at Los Angeles International Airport for claiming he had a bomb while in the security line. Especially since police indicated Smith appeared to have been drinking prior to his arrest, which could be a telling detail in the grand scheme of things.
Now instead of his two DUI charges and a felony weapons charge continuing to fade into the background amid the storyline of Smith's recovery, increased maturity and better decision-making, his off-field issues are again topical. Even at best, if it was only a case of Smith letting his temper flare at the TSA's random request of further screening, how clueless does one have to be to let that minor irritation turn into a reference of possessing a bomb in an airport security line?
The 49ers face a May 3 deadline on picking up Smith's fifth-year option for 2015, and most observers seem to think they'll do so without much angst, issuing him his third or fourth or fifth chance of an NFL career that's just now entering its fourth season. But that by no means guarantees Smith of making it to next season in San Francisco without bringing about his own demise in the organization. As talented as he is, Smith just needlessly wasted whatever small amount of capital he had started to rebuild with the 49ers, and he's not going to get the benefit of the doubt forever.
The cumulative weight of Smith's legal troubles is steadily backing San Francisco into a corner. At some point, and maybe soon, it's going to become impossible for the 49ers to keep defending their best defender.
• Teddy Bridgewater is probably glad this year's NFL draft wasn't moved to June, otherwise he might be considered nothing more than a priority collegiate free agent by then. Somebody to snap up as soon as the seventh round ends on Saturday evening, May 10. The longer some teams and draft analysts seem to study Bridgewater's game, the lower his stock seems to drop. Wasn't it just the other day the Louisville quarterback got the nod as the consensus No. 1 pick in this year's draft, the most pro-ready arm of the bunch? It's hard to tell what's real and what's just perception at this point when it comes to his NFL prospects.
Did I miss some games that Bridgewater bombed in, in February and March, or are we merely in that stage of the draft season proceedings where the top picks get picked apart by a thousand minnow-sized piranha bites? Yes, that always happens, but it does seem like the deconstruction of Bridgewater's game is even worse than usual. First he got grilled for throwing only so-so while wearing a glove on his passing hand at his pro day, and then came an ESPN report last week that his private team workouts were underwhelming. Even though, according to his agent, he had submitted to just one private workout at that point.
Is there really that much room for opinions and judgments that differ that wildly from what Bridgewater's collegiate game film shows? If he was thought a cinch top-five pick last fall, could he really tumble all the way to the bottom of the first round or even out of it in early May? What changed that dramatically that the kid could really have done anything about, unless he was a complete zero off the field? And he's not.
It makes you wonder if maybe a good bit of all the difficulty that some NFL teams have in identifying a franchise quarterback is as much about the people charged with making that call, rather than the quarterbacks themselves. Maybe their personnel acumen and judgment is what's really lacking, but somehow the only one who gets called a bust when a first-round quarterback fails is the player himself. After all, when you have 32 of anything (as in the case of top NFL personnel decision-makers, one per club), you're going to have some elite ones, some averages ones and some who are just tap-dancing their way through the gig. We probably forget that and give them all too much credit for competency.
And another point about the long and arduous quarterback scouting process that puzzles me is why teams keep putting so much emphasis on the ultra-scripted and controlled pro day workouts that passers turn in. In an actual football game, rarely does anything go completely as planned. The best quarterbacks deal with that unpredictability, so why set up a pre-draft stage where the QB knows all his moves before the workout starts? You can't create a true game setting in the spring, but wouldn't it be better to have coaches just firing requests for certain throws and plays at the prospective quarterbacks?
I'm willing to bet this much: Things haven't gone as Bridgewater would have scripted them so far this spring.