When referees go under the hood for challenges next season, they might get to consult officiating czar Dean Blandino in the league office ... plus, more agenda items for next week’s league meetings (playoff expansion by 2015!) and how free agency has transformed the NFL’s middle class
Time to take a breath. We’ll eventually get to the rise of the NFL’s middle class in the league's 22nd year of free agency, spurred by $665 million guaranteed to players in the first six days of the open market, and the $1.52 billion in paper contracts for 128 players.
But you’ve been pounded over the head with that for a week. So let’s take a quick detour and look at the hot-button issues the Competition Committee has pored over in advance of the annual league meetings. There are four issues that will draw significant attention when owners, club executives and coaches begin meeting six days from now in Orlando:
The point-after. No change for this year, and I doubt anything will change for several years, because there’s no momentum to make a change despite the fact that just one PAT is missed every 43 games. During one preseason weekend, however, the owners may consider moving the PAT line of scrimmage to the 25-yard line, or employing what I’d call the Goodell Proposal: eliminating the PAT and giving seven points for a touchdown, while allowing teams to go for two but getting only six points if the conversion fails.
Playoff expansion. I’m hearing it’s probably a matter of when, not if. More likely than not, the league will add two playoff teams in time for the 2015 season, meaning 14 playoff teams (instead of the current 12) out of 32. I’m also hearing the league would be inclined toward one team in each conference getting a first-week bye in the postseason. That would mean matchups of two versus seven seeds, three versus six, and four versus five in the wild-card round. This, of course, would mean six wild-card games instead of four, with at least one of them likely moving to Monday night.
Unfair to have teams play Monday night? I don’t see it, though I’m not a fan of playoff expansion because I think it devalues the 17 weeks of the regular season. Currently, the four teams playing on the Saturday of wild-card weekend have a short week going into the game. Often, teams that play on wild-card Sunday have to play on the following Saturday. I’m certain the NFL would arrange the schedule so that a Monday winner wouldn’t play its divisional game until the following Sunday.
Officiating changes. No movement is expected on creating centralized replay at the league’s officiating control center, but I’m hearing that owners will discuss and consider—and that’s the word I keep hearing, consider—allowing league officiating czar Dean Blandino to consult on replays while the referee is determining whether to uphold or overturn the call. This wouldn’t be a cure-all for bad replay decisions, but it would be a safety valve to help prevent horrible calls like the one Jeff Triplette mauled in Cincinnati last season, when he awarded Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis a touchdown even though he appeared to be down shy of the goal line in the replay.
Using the N-word on the field. There won’t be a rule change mandating a flag if an official hears the N-word. But officials will have the right to penalize verbal abuse, whether it be a player using a racist term or directing other foul language at either opponents or officials. There’s a feeling that the league wants to promote more respect on the field, but outlawing one word is too slippery a slope.
Now on to the other news of the week.
The NFL’s new middle class
After three years of a stalled market, free agency finally works. When I see free agency this year, I see it working the way it was meant to work when the league implemented it before the 1993 season. If a player is stuck behind a good player somewhere, he can move and start somewhere else. And if a player thinks he’s undervalued and his contract is up, well, he can move too.
Wesley Woodyard got replaced in Denver at middle linebacker by Danny Trevathan; Tennessee signed Woodyard to start in the middle for four years and $16 million. Geoff Schwartz was a backup tackle and guard in Kansas City; the Giants got him for $4.2 million a year, probably to start at guard. Cincinnati started Anthony Collins at left tackle for eight games last year and he performed well; Tampa Bay signed him for five years and $30 million. Josh McCown would have been only an insurance policy in Chicago, but he has a shot to be the starting quarterback in Tampa—and he’ll make between $5 million and $7.5 million a year, depending how much and how well he plays.
The cap went up $10 million per team this year, and the new CBA mandates that each team must spend at least 89% of its cap between 2013 and 2016, meaning if teams don’t spend close to the max, then the union will spend it for them in penalties come 2017.
“The extra cap money this year is allowing teams like Tampa to spend for players like me and Anthony Collins,’’ McCown told me. “Now, with the minimum spending rules, owners have to spend and it looks like the money is flowing back to the middle class.”
As one club executive told me over the weekend, the real win for the players in the 2011 CBA won’t be the increase in the cap over the next few years—it should expand by at least another $10 million next season—but rather the minimum spending rules. In past years, owners had a salary cap, but many didn’t spend anywhere near it. Now they have to.
Raiders of the Lost Tackles
The Raiders would like to build like the Packers, but they can’t. When Oakland hired Reggie McKenzie to be its general manager in 2012, he wanted to build the team in the image he knew best after spending 18 years in the Midwest—the Green Bay Way. Draft and develop, spend money on your own players.
In the last 13 months, the Raiders have lost three of their top draftees from recent years: defensive tackle Desmond Bryant, pass rusher Lamarr Houston, and left tackle Jared Veldheer. Oakland lost Bryant last year because of the cap crunch. The Raiders lost Houston and Veldheer this year because McKenzie didn’t want to pay market value for them.
In the case of Veldheer, it could turn into a terrible mistake, because the Raiders are without a left tackle after the Rodger Saffold debacle. If they choose to draft a very good one with the fifth overall pick this year, then that means one less potential franchise player because they erred so badly in free agency.
You’ve heard the story by now: Oakland thought Veldheer wanted too much money to be the left tackle and saw him more as a right tackle. And so the Raiders let him go and signed Saffold, a player St. Louis was demoting from tackle to guard (though the Rams liked Saffold a lot at guard.) You won’t find many personnel people in the league who value Saffold over Veldheer. But the Raiders agreed to pay Saffold an average of $8.5 million a year during the pre-free agency negotiating period. Veldheer ended up getting $7 million a year to play left tackle for the Cardinals.
When Saffold flew to Oakland for the required physical last Wednesday—accompanied by his parents and two agents—it seemed to be the same formality as any other pre-signing physical. “Rodger said the doctor told him he was OK, fine, no problem,’’ one of the agents, Alan Herman, said on Sunday. “That afternoon, the Raiders told us he failed the physical, [that he] had a tear in his labrum and needed immediate surgery.’’
Saffold injured his shoulder last August, sat a week, and then played the season with the injury. After the season, the Rams told him they didn’t think he needed surgery—and keeping Saffold was one of St. Louis’ top priorities in free agency.
Herman consulted with Dr. Frank Cordasco, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, and had him examine Saffold. Says Herman, “He told me, ‘He doesn’t need surgery. There is no problem with Rodger Saffold.’ ”
The Raiders wouldn’t make McKenzie available to me, so I couldn’t ask him about the prevailing view around the league: that Oakland got cold feet when the team saw the intense criticism of Saffold’s contract. “Buyer’s remorse?’’ says Herman. “Who knows? All I know is his shoulder is fine. He told us he just benched 400 pounds working out.’’
The Rams took Saffold back, happily, at a reduced price. And the Raiders had to settle for Jets right tackle Austin Howard, plus a mélange of vets on defense (Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Tarell Brown) who were seeking homes after being dissed or cut by their teams.
Not the way Oakland wanted free agency to go. Not at all.
I still don’t get the Revis thing
The Patriots fell out of a tree and landed on their feet by getting cornerback Darrelle Revis, a transcendent talent at one of the most important positions in football. Lucky that the Bucs cut him, the Patriots pounced and signed Revis for a year and $12 million—though the deal was dressed up as two years and $32 million.
The Buccaneers cut Revis because he isn’t a great scheme-fit for the Tampa 2 defense, in which corners must be more physical than if they were left on islands to simply cover receivers short and deep. I get that. But last year, according to Pro Football Focus, defenses played three or more corners on 58% of the NFL’s defensive snaps. Revis is the best cover man in football. The cap rose by $10 million, and Tampa Bay could have afforded to do most or all of what it did in free agency and keep Revis, who already cost the team first- and fourth-round picks in addition to the contract that paid him $16 million a year.
I get new coach Lovie Smith wanting a clean slate and not wanting the onerous Revis contract. But if you told me the league’s best cover corner could be had in this era of pass-happy football, in a division with quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, for 12% of my salary cap, I’d say, “Where do I sign up for that?”
Five Things I Think You Should Know
1. Denver has exercised its 2014 option on Wes Welker, who will make $8 million (including bonuses) at age 33 this fall, and then become a free agent for what might be one final (minor) payday in 2015.
2. How the Broncos likely will line their receivers up in 2014: Julius Thomas tight to the formation, either left or right; Demaryius Thomas split wide, either left or right; Welker most often in the slot; and Emmanuel Sanders mostly opposite Demaryius Thomas. But here’s the changeup: Sanders started in the slot 11 times for Pittsburgh in 2012 before moving mostly outside in 2013. One of the things offensive coordinator Adam Gase likes to do is move Welker around so he doesn’t get beat up too much in the slot, so don’t be surprised to see Sanders learning all the spots. Get your head in the playbook now, Mr. Sanders. Your quarterback is pretty demanding.
3. The Panthers do not currently employ a wide receiver who caught a pass for them in 2013.
4. Pro Football Focus had Packers wideout James Jones down for two dropped passes in 88 balls thrown to him last season, so for those who say Jones hasn’t signed anywhere because of butterfingers, there’s that. Roddy White had eight drops in 94 targets.
5. If a once-proud player’s stock has plummeted more precipitously than Josh Freeman’s, I’d like to know who that player is. A year ago, Freeman was set to play out the final year of his rookie contract as Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback, at $8.43 million, and then enter the 2014 free-agent market or sign a long-term deal with the Bucs, who could have franchised him. Then he got supplanted by Mike Glennon, cut, signed by Minnesota, and benched after one start for the Vikings. Now, at 26, he’ll have to sign a bargain deal in a place like Oakland and compete just to make the roster. There’s a book in there somewhere.
Quotes of the Week
“That entire situation is a business ordeal that some people will turn into a personal matter. Situations like that happen all the time over the National Football League. There was no handshake. There was no kind of agreement in terms of—we were close to a deal, but it wasn’t anything official just yet. In terms of shopping around, we didn’t shop around. Teams were still calling. Teams were still trying to get involved. That’s what happened. Steve Weinberg, he did an exceptional job in terms of the whole free agency process.’’
— Former Steelers wideout Emmanuel Sanders, after signing with Denver on Sunday. According to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Chiefs accused Weinberg, Sanders’ agent, with making a verbal agreement to sign in Kansas City and then taking that deal and shopping it to Denver. Weinberg hasn’t been heard from, and the Broncos denied knowing anything about a verbal agreement between Kansas City and Sanders’ camp.
What, really, can the Chiefs do? If a contract wasn’t signed, I don’t see that there’s any recourse other than to say they’ll never deal with a Weinberg client again. (Later in the day, the Chiefs said it’s a dead issue.) This is the Wild West, and if they feel wronged, well, they’re not the first ones to feel that way in the history of NFL negotiations. If it’s true that Weinberg had a verbal deal and went to Denver instead, that’s not right. But there’s a reason the league honors only signed contracts and not verbal agreements.
“To play with Peyton Manning is like wide receiver heaven.”
“Will I miss Cam? Sure I’ll miss Cam. But you’ve got to remember: I was with Cam for three years only. I was with other guys, Jordan Gross for example, for years. I was with people in the organization for years and years. There are in people in the organization who had kids in elementary school when I got there and they’re now in college. This is not easy, believe me.”
— Steve Smith, who was drafted by the Panthers three months into George W. Bush’s first term, on leaving Carolina for a new start in Baltimore.
“The teams that have the good quarterbacks are the teams that win. I’m looking forward to playing with Aaron. As much as I disliked chasing him, I’m excited to join him.”
— New Packers pass rusher Julius Peppers, to Vic Ketchman of Packers.com, referring to new teammate Aaron Rodgers after signing a three-year contract with Green Bay on Saturday.
Stat of the Week
Let’s not let the moment pass, Panther fans, without remembering how much Steve Smith (now a Raven) did for your franchise over the past 13 seasons. Here’s the numerical legacy of No. 89:
· On the first play of his NFL career, with Cris Carter and Randy Moss watching from the Vikings’ sideline in September 2001, Smith took a Mitch Berger kickoff at the 7-yard line at the Metrodome and ran it back 93 yards for a touchdown.
· He ranks 25th on the alltime receiving list with 836 catches. In the long, illustrious histories of the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears, no receiver has caught more for either team.
· Smith has caught 17 more balls than Steve Largent; 72 more than James Lofton; and 86 more than Charlie Joiner and Michael Irvin—who are all in the Hall of Fame.
· With three returns for touchdowns as a rookie (two kickoffs, one punt), Smith was the NFL’s first-team All-Pro return man in 2001.
· He was better when the games were bigger, averaging 16.8 yards per catch in nine playoff games, with individual receiving games of 135, 163 and 218 yards.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
From The NFL Owns The Sporting Calendar Dept.:
On the third day of free agency last Thursday, except for three minutes that were spent discussing the bathroom habits of Mike Greenberg, the first 66 minutes of ESPN’s popular “Mike and Mike” morning-drive radio show were devoted to NFL free agency.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
A vote for Virgin Atlantic: After visiting my brother and his family in England, I flew back home a week ago on Virgin Atlantic, and the flight staff was beyond pleasant. Water and smiles from the flight attendants were plentiful; there were very few announcements, so as not to disrupt sleep; and there wasn’t a single bump on the seven-hour flight. Usually a flight that long is a grinder, but all in all, I must say it was probably the lowest-stress flying experience that I’ve ever had. If I’m going to complain about silly travel problems, I should praise an airline for getting it right, and this one did.
Tweets of the Week
“Rob Ryan’s already turnt up for St. Patrick’s Day...”
— @NFLtalkRT, with an impressive photo of the New Orleans defensive coordinator at a parade celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Saintsland.
Rob Ryan's already turnt up for St.Patrick's Day... pic.twitter.com/MAXDMuyuzS
— NFLTALKRT (@NFLTalkRT) March 15, 2014
“Yes, March Madness, there is a Virginia.”
— @NYPost_Serby, the ever-clever Steve Serby, after Virginia beat Duke for its first ACC Tournament title in a thousand years on Sunday.
“BREAKING NEWS: Martha’s Vineyard to be renamed ‘Revis Island’ for the next 365 days.”
— @MeganCassidy, ESPN associate producer, after the Patriots signed Darrelle Revis to a two-year contract that will very likely be broken after one year.
“I’m now starting to think CNN took the plane.”
— @AlbertBrooks, evidently not a fan of the nonstop missing plane coverage on Sunday.
“Dude in a bulkhead seat took his shoes off and is actually rubbing his feet on the touchscreen on the wall. How can anybody think this is OK”
— @billbarnwell of Grantland, on a Sunday flight.
Ain’t that America.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think I’d love to hear some good reasons why James Jones, he of the 17 touchdown receptions over the last two seasons, is sitting on the sidelines of free agency, offer-less. He’s a very good deep threat whom Aaron Rodgers would like to have back. I don’t get that one. Jones and Cam Newton would make beautiful music in Carolina.
2. I think I like what the Broncos are doing in free agency; I appreciate the fact they’re growing some teeth on defense. On the other side of the ball, I realize Ryan Clady will return from his Lisfranc foot sprain (he was hurt in the Broncos’ second game last season) to nail down the left tackle spot in 2014. But Denver has lost effective guard Zane Beadles to Jacksonville and done nothing to improve the line in free agency. In the Super Bowl, Peyton Manning scrambled for his life much of the time. I counted eight “quiet” pockets when I re-watched the game, meaning only on eight pass attempts did Manning have all the time he needed to make a comfortable throw. I’m sure John Elway is concerned about the line, particularly right tackle Orlando Franklin’s ability to hold off quick outside rushers, but we haven’t seen him act on it yet.
3. I think it’s amazing to see the decline in impact and market presence for B.J. Raji, who re-signed with Green Bay for one year and $4 million. This is a man who looked like a five-year, $40-million player a year or so ago. But you are what your tape says you are, and Raji’s tape stunk last season.
4. I think if I were Miami, I’d follow up with Devin Hester. He’s a “U” guy and wants to play for the Dolphins … Miami has $25 million free under the cap … The Dolphins have a pedestrian return man in Marcus Thigpen … What’s the delay? The fit is perfect.
5. I think this is how I view the first week of free agency for Seattle: totally understandable and justifiable. You think the Seahawks should have kept wideout Golden Tate, at $6 million a year, instead of letting him go to Detroit? You think Seattle should have kept proficient right tackle Breno Giacomini at $4.5 million a year, instead of letting him go to the Jets? There are two factors at play here. When you win the Super Bowl, teams come after your unrestricted free agents, and you’ve got to figure out which ones you should keep and which ones you can replace in the draft. Factor two: Seattle has to find a way to re-sign Russell Wilson, who will be in the last year of his rookie contract next season and eligible to renegotiate, and keep Legion of Boom members Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman. The front office has to make all 2014 decisions with 2015 in mind. That’s why, to me, there was one must-sign for Seattle in this year’s free agency class: defensive lineman Michael Bennett. And the Seahawks locked him up for four years and $28.5 million a day before the market opened. When they made that signing, Seattle’s free agency business of consequence was finished, and rightfully so.
6. I think I like the Browns taking a run at Cincinnati restricted free agent Andrew Hawkins, committing $10.8 million in the first two years of an offer sheet so the Bengals won’t match. And Cincinnati almost certainly won’t. Though smurfy, the 5-foot-7 wideout is surprisingly physical and competitive in the air. Hawkins is a good player taken from a division rival who—most likely—will be the slot receiver for your team that Davone Bess wasn’t. Good move by GM Ray Farmer and Cleveland, who’ve got scads of cap room.
7. I think if I’m a Cowboys fan, and I’ve seen defensive ends DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher fly out the door, with Anthony Spencer soon to follow, I’m thinking: General manager Jerry Jones had better have an impact-player defensive draft, or owner Jerry Jones should fire the GM.
8. I think every year Julian Edelman is healthy for 16 games and has Tom Brady throwing to him, he’ll catch at least 100 balls.
9. I think it’s been a bad week for Cam Newton’s pass catchers: Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell signed elsewhere, and neither Hakeem Nicks nor Emmanuel Sanders became a Panther. But let’s judge the makeup of Carolina’s receiving corps in August, when training camp is in full swing, and not on St. Patrick’s Day. There are no games today.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Best story I read this week: Andrew Solomon in the New Yorker, on how Newtown killer Adam Lanza’s father is coping with life after the inexplicable.
b. Imagine thinking your son would have killed you, your other son, Ryan, and your ex-wife, Nancy, if you’d all been together when Adam Lanza went on his rampage. That’s what Peter Lanza told Solomon would have happened: “With hindsight, I know Adam would have killed me in a heartbeat, if he’d had the chance. I don’t question that for a minute. The reason he shot Nancy four times was one for each of us: one for Nancy; one for him; one for Ryan; one for me.”
c. Hard to live with that, I’d say.
d. Second-best story: Jayson Jenks of the Seattle Times, on a name you might remember if you’re a football fan of a certain age, former Seahawks center Grant Feasel, who died in July 2012 of acute alcoholism—and apparently from the effects of CTE.
e. How incredible a story, a jumbo jet disappearing. It’s amazing in this day and age there isn’t a fail-safe system that can account for an airplane vanishing.
f. Good week for my new rotisserie baseball team. When you draft Patrick Corbin, Brandon Beachy and Oscar Taveras, and they all start falling apart days after the draft, well, maybe it’s a sign that it’s going to be a long year. Or that you don’t know what you’re doing.
g. Jon Stewart is never not funny.
h. Coffeenerdness: Big fan of the reusable Starbucks cup that saves you 10 cents every time it’s used. Paid for itself in about a day and a half.
i. Beernerdness: Not that I have a go-to beer (well, I might if I lived in Seattle), but having Brooklyn Lager on tap at most of the places in my neighborhood is a very good thing.
j. Some journalism people to point out: ESPN’s Adam Schefter just had as good a week as I can remember in this business, breaking story after story of who was signing where. This is a rivalry business, naturally, but you’ve got to tip your hat to a man who is so on top of his game, and Schefter certainly is.
k. Good luck to Rick Reilly as he moves away from writing. It’s become fashionable to rap Reilly for some of his recent work, and he’s not without his faults. (Nor am I, as you all know very well.) But I’ve always viewed his prose as I-am-not-worthy stuff, so much of it brilliant. He raised the bar for sportswriters everywhere. I’ll miss reading him.
l. Hey, Jay Glazer! Feel better. The man’s got double pneumonia, and that cannot be fun. He had a tough time in the hospital last week.
m. Saturday was Sid Hartman’s 94th birthday. The Minnesota media legend (there is a bronze statue of him outside Target Field) still works six days a week, writing three or four columns for the Star Tribune and doing daily radio spots. He also does a radio show on WCCO on Sunday mornings, and then hosts a sports TV show on Sunday nights. Can I have that energy, please, for four more decades?
n. Louisville, fourth-seeded? So there are 12 teams in America that are either better overall than Louisville or playing better right now? I don’t think so. I’m a basketball doofus and even I know that stinks.
The Adieu Haiku
Do not grade teams now.
Free agency just one piece
of a big puzzle.