I'm told Smith was approaching Washington at that time, on a red-eye flight back to D.C. after spending Monday with the San Francisco 49ers, filling in the players on the upcoming negotiations with owners. A union spokesman told me the fire was started from a candle in the bathroom, and that far more damage was done by water from the sprinkler system in the office than by the actual fire. The office and bathroom were drenched by the sprinklers, and apparently the computer system and files in the office are safe, but some of the memorabilia from Gene Upshaw's era -- which Smith kept intact in the office -- might be damaged.
But after the weirdness of that wears off, Smith has a more important matter on his plate: the opening of negotiations with the NFL for a new labor agreement Wednesday in New York. The point man for the NFL will be low-key but uber-smart league attorney Jeff Pash. Don't expect to hear daily updates. News will come out in dribs and drabs, but probably not for a while.
I believe the early stages of the negotiations will be civil but firm on both sides. The union is going to push to see every team's complete financial ledger. The NFL will balk, claiming the NFLPA already knows enough about the audited financial information of the 32 teams to negotiate a fair contract. And that will be the first chasm.
Regardless, there will be football in 2010, likely without a salary cap. So the next two years will go on, with shots being fired across bows, but with football. The way I see it, Smith's intention to take better care of retired players, and his insistence on more transparency from the league will be major problems from the players' side. And the owners, wanting to turn the clock back on some of the concessions given in the 2006 negotiations, will be intolerable from the players' side.
It's going to get ugly. There's better than a 50-percent chance, I believe, of some work stoppage in 2011, as incredibly golden-goose-killing as that sounds.
A couple of points from yesterday's column that I screwed up.
One: Jack Donlan is not dead. That's a pretty big mistake, and I've apologized to Donlan, the longtime management council czar with the league, for killing him in the column.
"That's OK,'' said Donlan, semi-retired and living in Florida, with a chuckle. "I got about 10 calls yesterday about it. A couple of friends said, 'When's the wake?' My kids thought they could do 'Waking Ned Devine' in reverse. It's OK, really. The funny thing is, today's my 74th birthday.''
I have no excuses for the screwup; it's just one of those things that happens when you don't check all your facts, and it's a good warning to me.
"Not long ago,'' Donlan said, "Sam Kaegel, a well-known arbitrator who worked on some of our cases with the league, died. And the New York Times ran an obituary, and for some reason, they used a picture of me. Now this. It's my second time dying in a short period. Other than a summer cold, I'm in pretty good health. I hope there's no message there.''
Two: Dave Goldberg of the Associated Press, along with Will McDonough, had Paul Tagliabue being a candidate to replace Pete Rozelle at the March 1989 NFL meetings. I reported yesterday that it was McDonough's scoop, but Goldberg, who was on top of all things NFL then and now, had the same thing.
• AGENTS MATTER. From Jac, of Islamorada, Fla.: "I have to completely disagree with you on Ten Things I Think I Think 1b: I believe an agent makes a huge difference in a player's financial situation. For example, check out SeanJones' pay compared to GibrilWilson's. Wilson signs two big contracts while Jones has better numbers and can't get more than a one-year deal. What's up with that?''
Gibril Wilson hit the ultimate player's jackpot. He got Al Davis interested in him after the Giants won the Super Bowl, and Davis gave him $16 million guaranteed, and then Al fell out of love with Wilson last season, and then he got the kind of contract that probably is more in line with his skills: five years, $8-million guaranteed in Miami. You ask about Jones in Philly, earning a one-year, $3-million deal. I agree with you -- Jones is better than that. But he got buried in the Cleveland morass. It's not the agent's fault; it's the situation.
• HE WILL NOT WATCH MATT MILLEN, AND HE DOESN'T LIKE MATT MILLEN. From Steve Jebson, of Northville, Mich.: "Is it possible for a game to earn a negative Nielsen rating? Because that's what the NFL Network will get out of the Detroit market if Matt Millen is the color analyst for any of its games. I'm not one of those who blames Millen for taking the NBC gig last year [or any future gig.] It's hard to blame someone for accepting a job offer. I blame the company that offers it to him in the first place. I know we are a little biased here in Detroit, but does this man have any credibility left in the eyes of fans and/or colleagues?''
My feeling about Millen is simple: He was one of the top three analysts on TV when he left Fox to run the Lions. He was a tireless tape-watcher, and very good at putting complicated information in layman's terms over the air. Yes, he presided over the worst era of football in Lions' history. His reign was an embarrassment. But does that mean he won't be as good on TV now as he was 10 years ago? I don't think so. If Phil Simms took a GM job with the Texans tomorrow and they went 14-50 in the next four years and he resigned in disgrace, do you think he wouldn't be good on TV in 2013, when he went looking for a network job? I'm not saying you should watch and respect Millen; I'm just saying I think he'll be a good color man on TV.
• I SEE BRADY PLAYING IN THE PRESEASON. From Eric Batchelor, of Acton, Mass.: "Hope you are still enjoying Boston! Last season Tom Brady didn't even play in the preseason; considering he's coming off knee surgery, do you expect him to play in a few games this year or do you think the Pats will sideline him until Game 1 of the regular season and have him only participate in practice?''
I can tell you what Brady told me: He wants to play in the preseason, and he wants to play in the preseason badly. I'm sure he'll communicate that to Bill Belichick, and I don't know what Belichick will do about it. My gut feeling is Brady will play 10 or so series in the preseason. I think he should.
• IS VINCE YOUNG CRAZY? From JohnWilson, of Nashville: "Is VYoung actually trying to force the Titans to trade him? Would anyone really want this guy after all this?''
Great question. Wasn't this the offseason of Vince Young's solitude, where he was shutting up, putting his nose to the grindstone and just working hard to try to win the job from Kerry Collins? When he opened up in his TV interview Monday and said, in essence, that if the Titans don't want me, someone else will, I had two thoughts: This guy has a split personality (that's putting it nicely) and who would want to stake their quarterback position on Vince Young right now, anyway? Young can't win this game. He should shut up, do his job and beat out Collins, or do everything he can to try to do so.
• RICH EISEN, YOU MIGHT BE OUT OF YOUR MIND. From Rich Eisen, of Culver City, Calif., (and the NFL Network): "Rumor has it SI will celebrate PKing's 20-year anny by making him the cover model on swimsuit issue.''
No comment. But my agent has been in negotiations with the Omar The Tentmaker Swimwear Group. That's the only statement I am free to make at this time.
• BECAUSE I THINK LEFTWICH IS PRETTY GOOD. From Matt, of Shibukawa, Japan: "Why do you always support Byron Leftwich? I admit I loved him out of Marshall and he seems to be a good, intuitive guy, but he has a slow release and is not mobile. That's a bad combination to have in a league built on speed and pressure.''
You make very good points, Matt. I'm just looking at the Tampa Bay quarterback situation, and I look at Leftwich, and I look at the second half he played at Washington last year for the Steelers, and I think: He's better than anything the Bucs have right now. He's experienced, he's smart and he'd be playing behind a good offensive line that would give him time.
• AUSTIN WOOD'S HIS HERO TOO. From Michael K., of Jacksonville: "Great write-up on Austin Wood. In an age when pitch counts have major-league managers pulling pitchers out of games when they are cruising and mowing down opposing hitters, this kid's performance is a rare thing. Are any MLB teams giving him a look?''
He hasn't been drafted because his fastball tops out at 91. But he said he hopes to get drafted in the MLB draft this month. I'm hoping the same thing for the kid.
• AUSTIN WOOD GOT ABUSED BY HIS COACH. From Chris Bode, of Phoenix: "The story of the Texas pitcher is why good pitching prospects sign with professional teams out of high school. The kid may not want to come out of the game, but it is abusive to leave him in for that number of pitches. Such a move only would be made by a coach with no long-term interest in the kid.''
• IT'S EASY TO HAVE FUN WHEN THE JOB IS FUN. From John Trent, of Reno: "After reading your column today marking your 20 years with SI, it got me thinking about you and your writing career. What has always struck me about your writing is how you've never lost your sense of wonder, and your enjoyment of what you do [rarely, if ever, have you penned columns bemoaning the difficult travel, the 24/7 nature of reporting in the electronic age, or dealing with millionaire athletes who can be, as Al Michaels would say, 'truculent' from time to time.] If anything, you seem to be enjoying what you're doing more than ever before. How have you been able to do this? I enjoy your writing because you never speak down to those of us in your audience, and you always seem to remain respectful of the people you write about -- even when you're being critical. I was a sportswriter myself for about 10 years here in Reno, and it was hard to always maintain that really fine sense of equilibrium [never too breathless, rock-solid reporting and writing] that has been the hallmark of your work over the years. Any secrets on how you've managed to maintain your love of what you do for so long?''
Wow. Thanks, John. I guess it's this: When I was a kid, I thought the most wonderful job in the world would be the left fielder for the Boston Red Sox. Second-best: being a sportswriter writing about the left fielder for the Boston Red Sox, or whatever in the world of sports. And now I'm doing it. I never traveled as a kid, and I think if I had, the wonder of going to new places -- Korea, Afghanistan, Oahu, Green Bay -- wouldn't be quite so great.
For example, I really like my training-camp trip. I like going to Bourbonnais, Ill., and Mankato, Minn., and Latrobe, Pa., and seeing football up close and the real towns of America up close. Last year, I was at a minor-league baseball game in Kannapolis, N.C., and sitting there on a hot summer night, I thought how great it was that my job allows me to go to places I'd almost certainly never go to, even places most people think, "Why'd you want to go there?'' Because it's there.