NEW ORLEANS -- Very interesting weekend. A multi-dateline weekend across the southeast. Started with some saber-rattling by player reps at their annual meeting in southwest Florida on Friday ... continued at Lee Roy Selmon's restaurant in Tampa that night with Michael Vick contemplating his first steps back into prison in 22 months ... then into south-central Florida at dawn Saturday with Vick and Tony Dungy leading a spiritual mission into a sprawling prison camp ... and finished at the kickoff of the NFL meetings in New Orleans on Sunday, with some good info on the quarterback market, a challenge to the players trade association and some controversy over the new kickoff rules to be voted on Tuesday.
Oh. And I have some news about a couple of guys riding to the rescue of Plaxico Burress.
And I think -- no, I know -- that Carson Palmer's serious about his intention to retire if the Bengals don't deal him.
And Andy Reid's got at least one team on the hook for Kevin Kolb.
What? You thought this was the offseason?
We'll start by me tailing The Michael Vick Experience as he tried to fire up inmates in Avon Park, Fla., on Saturday. That's by far the most interesting thing that happened in the NFL this weekend, and no one but about 700 cons were around to see it.
Can I put that on hold to tell you the most interesting two things I learned about Vick this weekend?
One: Did you know Vick, while imprisoned at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., had a "Longest Yard'' experience, quarterbacking one team of cons to a 42-14 win over another? The inmates kept badgering him to play, but he went more than a year without touching a football -- until September 2008, with eight months left on his sentence.
The inmates split into two seven-on-seven teams for a game of flag football. Vick offered to play quarterback for both teams, but that was turned down; a slew of guys wanted the chance to say they were on a team that beat Michael Vick. Alas, the Vick side won in a rout; he said he thought he threw maybe six or seven incompletions. "All my guys wanted to do was go deep,'' he said. I asked him if he was sacked at all. "Once,'' he said. To which Tony Dungy, listening in, said: "Sign that guy up.''
Two: Part of his prison sentence included a four-night, top-secret stay in solitary confinement in Atlanta about a month before his May 2009 release. In a weird crisscrossing of America, Vick had to be transported from Leavenworth to Richmond, Va., to bankruptcy court for a hearing. He was driven from prison in Kansas to the Oklahoma City airport, flown to an airport in Virginia. In two different prisons in Virginia, Vick spent a total of 11 days in solitary confinement, away from the general population.
And when the hearing was over, he said he was put on a prison transport bus, alone, shackled to the seat. The only other person on the bus was the driver. And for eight hours, he was driven in silence to a prison in Atlanta. Why? He needed to go somewhere with a nonstop flight to Oklahoma City, so marshals could deposit him on the plane and simply walk him off the plane in Oklahoma into a waiting vehicle for the drive back to Leavenworth. "It was pretty weird, being in Atlanta,'' he said. "We drove past a course where I used to golf, and past places I used to go all the time. And when I got there, they got me in and out without people seeing me or knowing I was there.''
Stunning. Matt Ryan's throwing balls to Falcon receivers a few miles up the road, and Vick's sitting in solitary, in the town he used to own. And no one knew.
Now to get started on my multi-dateline weekend ...
AVON PARK, Fla. -- I got a good view into Michael Vick's world over the weekend, visiting a Florida prison with Tony Dungy and another one of our NBC
The signs have been good. "I want to be an instrument of change,'' he told about 700 prisoners at the Avon Park Correctional Institute, 90 minutes south of Orlando. And he was terrific in his five hours here, signing autographs, talking to two large groups of prisoners and then talking to men in smaller groups informally. He also spoke to eight men in solitary confinement.
I can tell you from being in the solitary cellblock, with the tiny cells and the knowledge that these men will leave these cells for only three hours each week ... the depression was palpable. Vick, who had been in cells like these before, got right up to the bars, stuck his hand through them and tried to tell the men their lives aren't over.
So I saw him doing the right thing, and he's been doing the right thing in Philadelphia. Those who monitor Vick, including Dungy and commissioner Roger Goodell, think he's doing well.
I'll tell you what concerns me: the adulation and the nonstop attention. That contributed to Vick thinking before his conviction he could live by different rules than the rest of the planet, and the adulation hasn't stopped. He was swarmed in the morning by men desperately happy to see him. In the evening, when he went with Dungy and the former coach's wife, Lauren, to a fundraising banquet for the Abe Brown Ministries, one of Dungy's favorite causes, a constant procession of people to Vick's seat in the crowd made it hard for him to eat -- and he finally gave up trying to do that.
At the end of the night, Dungy and Vick had to disappoint scores of people by not signing or posing for photos with every last one. "This is not just today,'' Vick said. "It's every day.''
The people were nice, to be sure, and well-meaning. But we saw what happened to Vick when the daily treatment of him like Michael Jordan in the public was combined with having money. And if he keeps playing football like he played in his reborn 2010 season, he's going to have money again, even after he takes care of his debts from bankruptcy court. Lots of money.
He appears to be on his way to changing his life. But time will tell if the change can stick. I just know if I were being told every day how wonderful I am -- not once, but 300 times -- my wife telling me to take the recycling out might fall on deaf ears.
Driving back from dinner Friday night, Dungy, looking to make a slight adjustment, came to an intersection with a U-turn prohibition. He took a left into a parking lot, turned around, and got back on the street going the right way.
"That's the kind of thing I used to just say, 'I don't see a cop, I'm doing the U-turn,' '' Vick said. "That happens now, I'm wrong, I get picked up, and I'm on the front page. It's not a big deal, but if I do it, it is. I understand. That's OK. To alleviate any chance of a problem, I've always got to do the right thing now. But it's a good thing. I've got to hold myself accountable in everything I do.''
Back to Avon Park. Vick brought his message to about 700 prisoners, to loud applause. "I can tell them the theoretical,'' Dungy said on the ride to Avon Park. "Mike can tell them what it's really like, and how to use this time in their life to prepare for the world again.''
When Vick arrived, he looked at the gleaming wire and the sprawling white-bricked complex of cellblocks. "Don't look like Leavenworth,'' he said. "It's nicer.''
Most of the men wanted to talk to him about football, and he did a lot of that. But when Dungy got him on stage in the courtyard, following some rousing spiritual songs by the volunteers from Tampa, he was intent on delivering a message, with Vick's help. Dungy has been doing this for 15 years, going to prisons several times a year. It started by following the lead of the late Abe Brown, a high school football coach in Tampa who saw the crushing cycle of imprisonment badly affecting men from Tampa Bay.
In the crowd at Avon Park, Dungy was surprised -- but not shocked, because nothing shocks him about crime anymore -- to see one of his son Eric's classmates from Plant High in the crowd. "When I started to come to prisons [with Abe Brown],'' said Dungy, "I was so surprised. I thought it'd be all these older guys. But they're so young, most of them. They made one mistake, in many cases, and it can ruin their lives. We try to come here and just give them hope that their lives aren't over, that they can take control of their lives and rebound.''
Vick had been a little tight Friday night. "I'm nervous about going,'' he said, "but this time, I get to leave at the end of the day.'' When Vick strode into the courtyard to meet the men, he wore AVON PARK VISITORS BADGE 307; the inmates wore their prison IDs clipped to the front of their prison-issued blue uniforms. In the informal chatting and signing, much of the talk was football. "You gonna learn to slide now?'' one 25ish inmate asked.
"No. No,'' Vick said. "Not how I play. In 20 years, I'll look back at my career and say, 'I never learned to slide.' ''
"Need you on the Giants!'' another inmate shouted.
"Nope,'' he said. "Eli's team.''
When Dungy faced the prisoners Saturday morning, he used his guest from Philadelphia as a beacon.
"I have a lot of friends in the National Football League,'' Dungy said from a podium, with the flags of Florida and the United States bookending him. "And a lot of them have done great things. But I don't have a friend that I'm more proud of than Michael Vick.''
Vick liked the trip more than he thought he would. "It was therapeutic for me,'' he said. "I got so much out of it.''
Dungy's fond of saying you never know how many people you're going to influence on trips like this, and if it's only one, you've had a worthwhile day. You never know which one. One day, that would be a fan letter Vick would like to get.
(More of my trip with Dungy and Vick can be read in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated.)
MARCO ISLAND, Fla. -- I'm pretty sure I can explain why the players have responded to the owners' offer of 10 days ago with such contempt. (Although NFLPA executive director De Smith's claim on WFAN the other day of this being "the worst deal in the history of sports'' is laughable. That's the kind of statement he'll rue whenever the real deal comes down, because much of that offer is likely to be close to some of the next CBA's terms.)
The players, for some time, have been offering four capped seasons, beginning in 2011 at $151 million per team for players' pay plus benefits and ending in 2014 at $161 million per team, along with a percentage of the increased revenue if that revenue exceeds 5.5 percent in the first two years and 4 percent in the last two. The NFL, before the talks broke down 10 days ago, had an offer on the table of $131 million per team with profit-sharing after a certain increase in revenue, rising to $161 million in the fourth year. (The exact split of the excess revenue was under discussion; it would have likely been around 50-50.) In the owners' proposal 10 days ago, they said they'd raise the 2011 cap to $141 million, up $10 million from their previous offer, without including a backside to the deal; there'd be a chance to make incentives again in 2015, an ownership source said Sunday.
Players want a shot at a percentage of excessive profits in every year of the deal. Owners aren't offering it. Yet. Who's to say they won't? I said at the time and I repeat now: These talks should not have broken off. I've seen player after player bash the last offer ownership made, and as I said last week, I'm a firm believer that redacted financial statements should be given to an independent auditor and examined to see what goes into the NFL's profit numbers. But to criticize a proposal that all but dropped the 18-game regular-season as a proposal (players would have to agree for an expanded season to become reality), added a neutral arbitrator (not a league exec) to referee drug and steroid appeals, and appeared to significantly increase a vested player's health benefits for life. Trashing this proposal, to me, means more you're going to have to take back someday.
"That offer by us was not intended to be take-it-or-leave-it,'' negotiating committee member John Mara said in New Orleans Sunday. "We stood ready to talk about all parts of the offer, and I wish we had been able to. But they didn't come back to talk about it. There were some things in that offer that a lot of our [owners] might not have liked very much. We moved off 18 games. We'd only go to 18 if they approved it.''
Yet when the players responded Saturday to a Roger Goodell e-mail to all NFL players, the e-mail read in part: "You continued to ask for an 18-game season.''
If the owners say the only way to get an 18-game schedule is for the players to agree to it, and the players are adamant they will not, I don't call that insisting on an 18-game schedule.
What we have here, a wise man once said, is a failure to communicate.
On Friday here, I asked a couple of player reps, Eric Winston of Houston and Gary Brackett of the Colts, how they viewed player solidarity in the wake of that owners' proposal.
"The solidarity comes across when they see the [owners' proposed] deal,'' Winston said. "We keep our guys well-informed after every meeting or every development. Guys just want information. A while back, De told us, 'Guys, there's a good chance they'll lock you out. Be prepared for it.' So there's no panic, no blistering phone calls, from our guys.''
"I got into it with one guy on Twitter,'' Brackett said. "He was saying things like, 'This is BS, what you guys are doing.' I asked him what he did for a living. He said he's a car salesman. I asked him if he sold a car, did the buyer have a right to see the CARFAX report. Of course he did. That's what we want to see -- the financials. It's the same thing.''
OK. I'm not one of those who say the two sides should get back to the table right now. It would be fruitless, because the players are waiting to see if their request for an injunction is granted in federal court April 6. If it is, and if the owners lose the appeal in the case, the players would likely be able to walk back into work while their antitrust case is heard, and the league year would begin. Until we have a decision there, I wouldn't expect the players to be motivated to negotiate. But if the players don't go two-for-two in court next month, the two sides need to get back to work. There's a deal to be made here.
What I've heard about the veteran quarterback market, keeping in mind that there can be no trades of veteran quarterbacks (Kevin Kolb, Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb), or no signings of free-agent quarterbacks (Marc Bulger, Alex Smith) until the start of the new league year, and that could start either with a new collective bargaining agreement or with a judge imposing an injunction on the NFL lockout and forcing the league to reopen business:
Palmer's not Carl Pickens or Corey Dillon, a disaffected star who was divisive in the locker room. He's been a classy franchise quarterback since stepping on campus in 2003. He's the team's billboard, though he's had a couple of shaky years in a row. The Bengals don't have a history of responding well to threats. What makes this interesting, though, is that Cincinnati would be able to get something decent for Palmer in trade. He's 31. He's healthy. He'd love to play in California (you listening, Jim Harbaugh?) and I'm sure would settle for Arizona.
If both San Francisco and Arizona pass on a rookie high in the draft April 28, or pass on trading for Kevin Kolb of the Eagles, they'd be my leaders in the clubhouse -- joined by Minnesota -- in the race for Palmer. All of that could all be moot, of course, because of Bengals owner Mike Brown. He doesn't care much for, nor is affected by, a player holding him hostage, never mind a player Brown has grown to like a lot as a man.
My take: I'd trade a very high draft pick to acquire Kolb instead of drafting one of the quarterbacks available this year. I'd want to reduce the risk of making a mistake high in the draft by taking the safe guy with ability? Kolb's 26. He's a coach's son. He's had some struggles running the Eagles offense in his seven career starts, but I saw him ruin the soon-to-be Super Bowl champion Saints with a 391-yard strafing in 2009; he played well enough to rout the playoff-bound Falcons and throw for 326 yards last season.
We've seen him do it. All the rookies have question marks. I know I'd sleep better at night with Kolb on my team this summer.
The news is tough for the NFL Films czar. Five weeks after he got the soaring news that his dad, NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Sabol was told the reason for his seizure at a Kansas City banquet Feb. 5: He has a tumor in his brain, which doctors will try to shrink through chemotherapy and radiation.
Steve Sabol is at home in New Jersey now; I'm told he was his old self, making jokes about himself and anything else he could think of over the weekend. He's girding for the fight of his life, obviously. I've asked people on Twitter and in the column to e-mail Sabol their thoughts at Sabol.NFLFilms@NFL.com, and today I'll ask those who want to drop him a card to do so at:
He loves hearing from you. I know he does. And I know how much so many of you love what Sabol has done over the years. For so many, he's been a lifeline to a love of football. Well, that lifeline needs you now. Drop him a note if you can. Thanks.
"Are we going to have football this year, or am I going to send your bags somewhere else?''
"TONY! TONY! HEYYYY TONY!!!!!''
The Escalade was driven by Tampa resident and retired coach Tony Dungy. The only possible way a person could tell it was Dungy's car was by the "O'' window sticker for son Eric's University of Oregon Ducks.
Just another sign of how well-known Dungy is in Tampa.
"They talk about walk softly and carry a big stick. I love that. I agree with that 100 percent. But I guess I feel more like Babe Ruth. I'm going to walk softly. I'm going to carry that big stick, and then I'm going to point, and then I'm going to hit it over the fence.''
Last season in the NFL, 20.5 percent of kickoffs (418 of 2,033) went for touchbacks. That's twice the percentage of kickoffs that weren't returned as in 2004. If the new rule making kickers kick from the 35-yard-line instead of the 30 passes at the NFL meetings this week, what will the percentage be? I wouldn't be surprised if half the kickoffs in the NFL were not returned in 2011.
With Plaxico Burress due out of jail on a gun charge in June, he's looking for some mentoring. So sometime in the next two weeks, Tony Dungy plans to visit Burress at his upstate New York prison. "I hope I can pass on some of the same things I passed on to Michael,'' Dungy said Sunday night.
Michael, as in Vick, who also is hoping to coordinate a visit to see Burress.
• I've never seen New Orleans look better than it did Sunday. Sunny, 70s, palm trees swaying gently, obnoxious drunks sleeping one off from Saturday night. This town's coming back in a good way.
• I learned one valuable lesson in traversing Florida over the past three days. I drove from Orlando to Lakeland (busman's holiday -- Twins at Tigers on Thursday), from Lakeland to Marco Island (NFL players meeting), and from Marco Island to Tampa (to meet up with Tony Dungy, Michael Vick and Dan Patrick for a prison visit). FM radio is a disaster. In four hours in the car Thursday night, I heard "Magic Man'' by Heart twice, and certainly heard more Journey and Styx than the law should allow. It's like the state's stuck in a 1978 musical time warp.
• Interesting reaction from an 86ish-year-old lady I was walking behind at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland. Looking at the beer in my hand, she said sternly, "If you spill that beer on me, I'll have you arrested.'' Hmmmm. I see.
"This is an antitrust case in the truest sense -- neither side trusts the other.''
"Anyone with knowledege [sic] of the slave trade and the NFL could say that these two parallel eachother [sic].''
Gentlemen, the more you discuss this, the worse you look -- having chosen to enter the NFL, having worked hard out of college to be drafted as high as you could in the NFL, and being allowed to leave the NFL at any time of your choosing. Of course, if you'd like to add to this discussion with anything further justifying your remarks, I'd be happy to expand my comments next Monday.
1. I think this kickoff proposal will probably pass, but it's not a slam dunk. Dan Pompei of the
2. I think I'd love to know how this rule would change the value of difference-making special teams. Bill Cundiff, for instance. The Ravens kicker tied the NFL record with 40 touchbacks last season, and Baltimore rewarded him with a five-year, $15-million contract six weeks ago. The new rules, if passed, would make it easier to make touchbacks, obviously. And it would make return men less important. I see this as more than an automatic rubber-stamping of a Competition Committee proposal because of the way it could change the strategy of the game and the impact of special teams.
3. I think one of the most fun offenses I've see in my time covering football was Houston's run-and-shoot unit of the '80s, with receivers Heywood Jeffires, Drew Hill and Ernest Givens helping make Warren Moon a star -- and vice versa. Hill died Saturday after falling ill on a golf course. I'll remember him as a dignified hard-worker Moon could rely on when the game was on the line.
4. I think I'd be more sympathetic about scouts getting financial haircuts during the time of labor uncertainty than coaches. The average scout's salary is far less than that of a coach, and they're the ones with so much at stake in the next five weeks before the draft. Imagine telling a regional scout his salary's being cut 15 percent this week, while he's finalizing his reports on the most important part of this offseason -- the draft.
5. I think it's looking more and more like a new league year -- even with the issuance of an injunction and affirmation of that through appeal -- won't begin until at least early May. I don't see how the court could impose work rules that could start the week of the draft, for instance, or the league choosing to start the league year that week.
6. I think if Mike Vrabel wants the lawyers out of the negotiating room, the NFL would view that as a plus.
7. I think the hero of the week doesn't want to be the hero of the week. John Mara, I mean. Mara and co-owner Steve Tisch of the Giants agreed to let fans forego season-ticket payments until the lockout ends. "We were in a unique situation with what we've asked our season-ticket holders to do in the last two years,'' Mara said Sunday afternoon. "I cringe when I read, 'The Giants are doing it right, and everyone else is wrong.' That's not it. It was just a gesture we felt was right after all the financial obligations our tickets holders have faced with the building of the new stadium.''
8. I think, just as a reminder to those who still wonder why star rookie prospects might skip the NFL draft and honor what the NFL Players Association wants, I'm bringing back this quote from a prominent agent the other day. He told me: "What is the first round of the draft for the NFL? It's a TV show, a show that makes the league a lot of money. They're going to be asking young men to shake the hand of a commissioner who is trying to lock them out. They're going to be asking young men to help the league put on this big TV production. And I can tell you this: There's a few quarterbacks who could get picked high in this draft and the NFL will invite to New York. All those quarterbacks would do by attending the draft for the NFL is giving DeMarcus Ware more incentive to knock their blocks off the first time they line up across the line of scrimmage from him.''
Right or wrong, if I'm one of those quarterbacks, I'm not in Radio City the night of the draft.
9. I think one of Sirius Radio's faithful callers, Benny from the Bronx, got quite a surprise the other day. Goodell called him. Goodell sometimes calls avid fans who write or call the league office, and this was one of his calls last week. Benny got quite excited, as he is prone to do when discussing the NFL, and I asked him what Goodell's message was. "He told me, 'Don't take sides,' '' Benny said. In other words, there's going to be football when this thing is over, and you'll still want to love the game when the labor fight is done. So don't go demonizing one side or the other.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I don't know what I'd do without Jim Irsay's tweets. At 11:51 p.m. Sunday, this came from @jimirsay: "It's so noisy at the Fair, but all your friends r there... the candy floss u had..and your mother and your dad..Oh 2 live on, Sugar Mountain''
b. Neil Young, for those of you who don't know.
c. You are a better man than all of us, Anthony Robles of Arizona State. Robles, born without a right leg, won the NCAA wrestling championship in his weight class Saturday night, decisioning Matt McDonough of Iowa 7-1. That's as inspirational a story as I've seen in years, Robles hopping on and off of the mat and then dominating a series of foes.
d. Coffeenerdness: Woman in line at the Starbucks in the Tampa Airport Sunday morning ordered a 115-degree hot chocolate and asked for soy whipped cream. They didn't have it. Then she said she'd take it at 115 degrees with no whipped. The barista looked surprised. The woman said, "I've had places make me soy whipped cream.'' That's a new one on me.
e. Beernerdness: I have found a new go-to beer. Rapscallion Premier (Holyoke, Mass.), probably the best American blonde ale I have tasted. Had it before, but there was something ridiculously good about it this time, on draft -- maybe the slight touch of lemon zest, rare for this beer in those I've tasted. Who knows. But it's a keeper. Just wish I could find it in more places in the Boston area.
f. Speaking of the Boston area, not sure if the Hub can be feeling really good about the fourth starter (Josh Beckett) and closer (Jonathan Papelbon) combining for an ERA over 12.60 in spring training.
g. Mesmerized by the TV in midweek. I weep for Japan.
h. And then I just learned the other night we're at war with Libya. Sort of. How many wars can we be in at once? Is there a rule? If not, could we invent one?