It's a fun time to be a football fan. Sort of. The draft is 24 days away, and we're going to talk quarterbacks this morning, with only one little side trip into the biggest court case in recent NFL history. The one little side trip is because all of you care a little bit, if only to find out how long this lockout can potentially last.
Case in point. I was in Arlington, Texas, Sunday to see the last game of the Red Sox getting swept, courtesy of the '27 Yankees (OK, it was really this year's Rangers). Before the game, Texas GM Jon Daniels gave me and my brother-in-law a tour of the ballpark. "What's going to happen with this lockout?'' Daniels asked just before we parted. Tell you in a few paragraphs, Jon.
But first, let's stop in Maryland, at the home of the well-coiffed one, Mel Kiper. When I reached the longest-running TV draft maven, he was frantically -- and do you know anything Mel doesn't do frantically? -- putting the finishing touches on his 33rd NFL Draft Report, due at the printers today. (Go to www.melkiper.com for your very own copy.) I had no intention of leading this column with a Kiperism, but I couldn't help it when he said in that quick cadence of his: "I've done this for 33 years, and I can tell you there has never been a crazier year for quarterbacks in the draft.''
Whoa. What about 1983, with Dan Marino crashing into the floor of the first round, below Todd Blackledge? Or 1999, with all the strange options (Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Cade McNown) up top? Or the score of Jim Druckenmiller-, Kyle Boller-type reaches?
"Start with the guy not in the draft,'' said Kiper. "Andrew Luck was the no-doubt first pick in the draft, and just think -- how many guys who would have gone number one and had their coach resign return to school? That's a big surprise.
"Now Jake Locker. He was the clear-cut number one guy back in August, and with Luck not coming out, you'd figure he should have been number one easy. Imagine if he came out last year. I think he would have gone number four overall to Washington, and the Redskins never would have traded for Donovan McNabb. But he comes back and struggles, and who knows where he's going.
"Cam Newton. Last summer he was a total unknown quantity, and he comes out and plays great and wins the Heisman and the national title. But there're all kinds of questions about him off the field, and he's only done it one year.''
You're on a roll, Mel! Where's Berman to intercede?
"Blaine Gabbert. Lotta people comparing him to Drew Bledsoe coming out, but I don't see it. I'm not buying into Gabbert. I know he runs a 4.65 at 6-5 and 235, and I give him credit for doing it with a poor receiving corps, but I think he's shaky. You realize he completed only 38 percent of his throws 15 yards [and farther] downfield? And he was only 44 percent on third down, with six touchdowns and five interceptions? You know what Andrew Luck was on third down last year? Seventy-one percent. [Gabbert will] go in the top five, but I've got him down past 10 -- not exactly sure where right now. Still finalizing that. But he and Newton will be around 12, 13 for me.
"The other guys ... Ryan Mallett, amazing size and a phenomenal arm, and I don't think his lack of speed is going to kill him. But he's got some issues off the field. Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder, both good prospects; lots of people think Dalton can be that prototype West Coast quarterback, and I like him.''
In other words, a weird year. And the story of Ryan Mallett could be the weirdest when it's all over.
Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett heads for Seattle today, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Seahawks consider him with the 25th pick in the first round. Seattle is still looking longingly at quarterbacks, with incumbent Matt Hasselbeck 35 and not certain to return, and Charlie Whitehurst still an unknown long-term quantity. GM John Schneider was at Mallett's Pro Day in Fayetteville. But is this serious interest or due diligence? It may be both, because in Mallett's case there's so much good and bad out there on the grapevine that you have to work hard to separate fact from fiction. And is Mallett, all 6-6 ¾ of him, the second coming of Dan McGwire -- drafted in the first round by Seattle 20 years ago this month -- or a mature pocket passer with the most pro-ready game of any quarterback in this draft?
As I wrote last week, I had one team's scouting report on Mallett read to me, and it questioned his leadership, football and non-football decision-making, a string of off-field problems, and made it clear Mallett should never come within 50 feet of that team's locker room. Former Rams personnel man Tony Softli said Mallett didn't declare for the 2010 NFL draft because of "heavy rumors of drug use and possible addiction.''
But I've spoken with two teams that have done significant homework on Mallett, and neither seemed scared off by him. They believe there's a line of demarcation between his one year at Michigan -- where he enrolled as an 18-year-old freshman in the middle of the academic year -- and his two successful seasons at Arkansas, and that most of his problems in Ann Arbor stemmed from immaturity, homesickness (he's from Texas), and learning that he wasn't the best quarterback in the world, all at the same time. He drank to excess there, including one time when he was arrested for public intoxication.
Someone I trust in the league told me there's something else you have to know about Mallett before you can judge him with finality and decide whether to pick him in the draft. He wouldn't say what it was. Without proof, I'm not going to speculate.
My attempts to contact Mallett through the weekend failed. Mallett knew I wanted to delve into the non-football side of his draft prospects, and he chose not to discuss it. He's been consistent that way since the Scouting Combine, saying he'd answer any questions about his past from teams, but he wouldn't answer them from reporters.
"If you listened to what everyone was saying about him, you wouldn't take him in the seventh round, never mind the first or second,'' one general manager whose opinion I trust implicitly said Sunday night. "Every team is going to have to figure him out for themselves, and you're going to have to trust the guys in your building you ask to look into players who might have a lot of baggage.''
At Michigan in 2007, Mallett was full of himself, maybe as a defense mechanism for his insecurity, and he wasn't well-liked. He started three games for the injured Chad Henne, including a 38-0 win over Notre Dame. But when Rich Rodriguez got the Michigan coaching job after the season, it was obvious Mallett was a poor fit for Rodriguez's spread scheme. He transferred to Arkansas soon after Bobby Petrino got there, and they were a good fit together. Petrino is a demanding coach, particularly with quarterbacks; he chews out offenses the way Nick Saban chews out defenses. When NFL people asked those they trust at Arkansas about how Mallett fit with Petrino, the answers came back positive. Clearly, Mallett can be coached, and coached hard.
That's one of the things that intrigue teams. Mallett is very good at reading defenses and making changes at the line, which he'll need to do early on in the NFL. He's a plodder, slower even than Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. But as another GM told me Sunday: "He can't run at all, but he can move in the pocket well. He's very confident back there, both throwing and moving around when he has to. That part doesn't worry me.''
His throws come out crisp and with accuracy. His arm is plenty strong to make the sideline throws he'll have to make in the NFL. People at Arkansas say he loves football. That's one of the differences between him and Matt Jones, the failed first-rounder for Jacksonville; Mallett loves it, Jones thought it was a job.
Where will he go? It'll have to be a team that can process his past foibles and see him as a maturing person and player. I don't know if that place is Miami or Carolina. It might be Cincinnati or Seattle. ("You better love football here,'' Hasselbeck told me about Pete Carroll's regime last season. Mallett does.) Or Tennessee, with the kind of strong offensive line and running game a slow-footed quarterback would need to survive.
We'll see. Expect a lot of sleepless nights for the teams interested in most of these quarterbacks, particularly the strong-armed one from Arkansas.
The NFL will oppose the players Wednesday in a Minnesota court room, with lawyers for the players attempting to get a judge to tell the league it cannot continue to lock out the players.
But when federal judge Susan Richard Nelson gets ready to hear the case Wednesday in St. Paul, there's a chance she might not hear the case at all. She might mediate it first, to see if the two sides can be nudged toward an agreement without going the injunction route. As Amy Shipley of the
But with due respect to the gay-teen settlement, this one's a little more complicated and the NFL is viewing it like a playoff game, slating new star attorney David Boies, one of the best appeal lawyers in the country, to make the league's oral argument in front of Nelson.. So I'll just assume the judge will make a ruling here. And if Vegas made a line on what Nelson will do, I'd say it's 3-2 she'll rule for the players, telling owners they have to open their doors and conduct business as usual. At that point, the NFL would appeal (whoever loses will appeal to a three-judge panel from the Eighth Circuit), and bring in its second big gun, the former solicitor general of the United States, Paul Clement, to go in and try to convince three judges that the league is within its rights to lock out the players since they haven't reached a labor agreement through collective bargaining. The odds there? Maybe 6-5, owners. If that happens, then the players will continue to be locked out.
Remember, for the new league year to begin, and for free agency and trades to be allowed, the players would have to win in front of the appeals court.
As for how long it will take, I hear about three weeks. It's still highly likely that a new league year could begin before the April 28 draft.
After that, the next interesting date on the legal calendar is May 12. That's when Judge David Doty will hear arguments on potential damages in the television case. That's the case he ruled on a month ago, saying the NFL was not within its rights to use any of the $4 billion in 2011 TV money from the networks while it locks out the players. Most legal observers think the players will get significant damages awarded by Doty, punishing the NFL for so brashly negotiating with its network partners and forcing them into contracts that would pay them in 2011 even without football.
For the NFL, Boies and Clement loom as important as Peyton Manning to the Colts if the league loses round one in the legal skirmish in Minnesota.
"Present-day players ... don't understand what the guys went through [in previous labor battles with owners]. Quite honestly, I don't think they really give a damn about the guys that laid the foundation for the game. I think it's a lot of verbiage, but I don't think they really care. These [former players] deserve something ... they deserve medical benefits, and they deserve treatment for all the issues that former players are now dealing with.''
"A lot of the criticism he's receiving is unfortunate and racially based. I thought we were all past this. I don't see other quarterbacks in the draft being criticized by the media or fans about their smile or called a phony. He's being held to different standards from white quarterbacks. I thought we were past all this stuff about African-American quarterbacks, but I guess we're not.
"Of course there is racism in every walk of society. We've made a lot of progress in this country. But racism is still there. I just thought in the sports arena we were beyond it. I think the way Cam is being treated shows we're not ... It's blatant racism, some of it.''
Before the draft, there are lots of critiques of players. Coverage of the draft has skyrocketed, of course. Newton is a tremendous football player and an engaging person ... with a lot of red flags. He was in possession of a stolen laptop at Florida; charges were dropped when he completed a program for first-time offenders. Foxsports.com reported he transferred out of Florida after being accused of cheating at school. His father has been accused of asking Mississippi State boosters for $185,000 for his son to enroll there. In February, Newton said he wanted to be not only a quarterback, but an entertainer and an icon. Now, I'm not saying Newton shouldn't, or won't, be chosen very high in the draft. But there's enough cause for concern with him that any responsible scout or general manager would work very hard to find out the truth with him.
I'm a white reporter. Moon was a black quarterback -- a great one. He's been there. So I'm not saying you should take my word over his. But I am saying that I have heard many of the same things the
"There's an unwritten rule that it's not a sin to tell a lie during pre-draft stuff. Everybody does it, it's accepted, so everything you read or hear or see, you need to keep in mind that about 10 percent of it is the truth."
If I hear one more agent or college coach crow about what a great job a quarterback did in a pro day, I'll ... well, I'll think it's malarkey -- and I don't mean Mike. The real test of a quarterback is how he plays in games, not how he does against no pass rush or coverage. In a pro day, that's what it is: just the quarterback throwing against air. Let's compare the career numbers of the top quarterbacks with their pro day production -- at least the ones who had unofficial stats kept:
My read: The quarterback with the biggest hill to climb in terms of proving himself to pro scouts is Locker, who played much of four Washington seasons but had an awful completion percentage. Even though he played much of 2010 with broken ribs, that doesn't account for how shaky he was throwing the ball over his Washington career.
Dan Lauria was a guest on our Sirius NFL Radio show the other day. He's Vince Lombardi in the critically acclaimed
The thing I find interesting about that is Aaron stuck around frigid Green Bay in the offseason to work out, two hours north of Milwaukee. Imagine a baseball player today practicing outside in Wisconsin in the fall and winter to stay in shape for the summer game. And imagine the dedication of Aaron to work during the fall and winter -- when many players reported to spring training to get in shape in those days.
Lauria said Washington coach Mike Shanahan came to the play last week and told him: "You ought to bring this play to Washington.''
Lombardi's last year in coaching, of course, was with the Redskins just before he died of cancer in 1970.
Two travels notes from the week, the first from my friend Pete Abraham of the
1. Reports Abraham: "I was leaving Fort Myers (SW Florida International Airport) on Wednesday, headed for Dallas. While at the gate waiting for my Delta flight, the 40-ish woman across the way was holding her little white dog. As the boarding time approached, she reached into her bag and took out what looked like a disposable diaper and laid it flat on the carpet. As people looked on in disbelief, she was encouraging the dog to do its business.
"The dog circled around, sniffed the diaper a few times but didn't go. The gate agents were looking askance but nobody stopped her. The woman put the diaper back in the bag then took a few photos of herself and the dog with her cell phone camera. Before we boarded, she gave the dog a few treats. It was amazing to watch, as much for the reaction of the other people. You see a lot of fun and/or weird things while traveling. That was right up there. The dog was a good little traveler, it hopped right it its case and never barked during the flight.''
2. I flew to Dallas the other day. On the way back to my seat, I passed a three-seat row in mid-coach. The aisle seat was empty. The window seat was occupied by a huge, bronze-colored cello case, which, I assumed, held a cello. It was seat-belted in, with a ticket taped to the outside of it.
In the middle seat was a man of about 60. I'm guessing, because he wore a black ski cap, with graying hair poking out of the bottom, and a black sleeping mask. Around both the back and front of his neck were those Brookstone half-circle airplane pillows, which, together, covered the circumference of his neck. He had an American Airlines blanket pulled up to his neck with his arms tucked underneath and the seatbelt buckled over the outside of the blanket. The man was asleep when I passed, but if ever body language said anything, this man's screamed the following: "LEAVE ME ALONE ON THIS FLIGHT OR I WILL HURT YOU. BADLY.''
"Is it possible that more people were rooting for the Red Army hockey team in 1980 than will be rooting for UConn tomorrow night?''
"Most disturbing sight: Clemson DT Miguel Chavis working out in white compression shorts, black cleats, that's it. Scouts know his religion.''
Just one reason, after blanching significantly, to wonder why teams don't have players run in what they're going to wear on the field instead of running in strange near-nakedness.
Have we been too judgmental on Cam Newton and Jimmy Smith (the Colorado cornerback with the pockmarked résumé) and others? Perhaps. I don't know many times I've said this in the past few years, especially when a player or agent gets angry about how the prospect is being portrayed in the media, but in the vast majority of cases we're reporting what teams think of these players. Most times those thoughts are accurate. Sometimes they're not. But we don't report them to assassinate players. We're trying to give as accurate a picture as we can into the process you're so interested in.
"I hope we can coach more and more people, both in high school and youth coaching, in all sports, to elevate the experience of kids in something that's such an important part of their lives,'' Carroll said. "Coaching techniques, and teaching how to get to kids, is something that can cross over to all sports.''
a. Did you ever think you'd see a crowd in Houston rooting 90-10 (my guess) for an Indianapolis team?
b. Butler, I mean. Over UConn tonight at Reliant Stadium.
c. My pick: Connecticut 62, Butler 57.
d. What can I say? I'm a Nutmegger, and I'm addicted to Kemba Walker. But if Walker is as physically and mentally shot as Jim Calhoun suggested late Saturday night, who knows if he's got one more marquee college night left in him?
e. My pick Tuesday night in Indianapolis: Notre Dame 62, Texas A&M 57.
f. Great to hear that Army First Sergeant Mike McGuire and his 200 men and women at their base in Afghanistan are putting the weight and recreation equipment you made possible through the USO (remember "Five For Fighting?'') to good use. In his latest e-mail, McGuire talked about the USO Tour of Afghanistan, and as a St. Louis-area native, he voiced his concern for the home team.
"Good to hear from you. Baseball season opens!!! Yes! So your SOX look very impressive on paper, should be a very solid team. I am very nervous on the PUJOLS thing, man, how can you not sign PUJOLS to whatever he wants? He is the greatest Cardinal (arguably). Stats do not lie. Definitely in my life he is the greatest. I know 'Stan the Man' and Ozzie Smith and many others have been great, but come on.
"I like where the Rams are going. Never lose faith. Hard times come and go. I will stick it out with them. I have attached our monthly newsletter that we started up since we have been here in Afghanistan. I hope you like it. It provides you with an in-depth look into what my soldiers do every day.
"Got to meet Matt Millen, a true BAD A** in his day with the Raiders. AWESOME experience. Also met Anthony Munoz, a Hall of Famer, and "The Factor Back," Merril Hoge. All three guys were great and spent a lot of time just talking and answering questions. Plus I got to try on all of Millen's Super Bowl rings. Take care and talk to you later.''
g. Thanks, Jon Daniels, for showing us around the ballpark in Arlington. What amazed me is the video sophistication. Behind the Rangers' dugout is a room with three video men and six stations where players can come in before, during and after games to see their at-bats, or to study the pitchers or hitters they're about to face. Six. I always knew baseball teams did this stuff, but we were shown how hitters, in a matter of seconds, can find any at-bat they've had against any pitcher -- from a variety of camera angles.
h. My favorite number -- after some interpretation -- from Friday's fine
i. I liked this one too: Peter Bourjos plays center field for the Angels. Vernon Wells plays left. Center, as you know, is a more important defensive position. After four games, Vernon Wells has made more money ($651,234) than Bourjos will make for the full season ($414,000).
j. Sox thoughts: I don't know how a batting order can be better than the Rangers' 1 through 9, unless it's the Yankees. The Nos. 1 and 6 batters, Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz, had six homers in Texas' first 20 offensive innings ... If I had a one-week do-over on my preseason AL MVP, I'd chose Kinsler ... Not going to win many games allowing 44 base runners and 26 runs in 24 innings ... Sure am glad I'm not signing John Lackey's paychecks. No pitcher since the start of the 2010 season has allowed more base runners, and he's making $16.5-million a year ... Carl Crawford will settle down and be fine, but lefty curveballers could continue to feast on him ... Maybe it's because Texas pitchers know him so well, but Jerrod Saltalamacchia looked brutal at the plate and is very easily fooled.
k. That was a good playoff streak, Devils, going back a decade and a half. Had to end sometime.
l. Coffeenerdness: Some weeks there's nothing to add about the coffee itself. This is one of those weeks. But I do have a quote from Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, which I wanted to pass along. He told Katie Couric on the
m. Beernerdness: Very pleased to find Leinenkugel Sunset Wheat at the ballpark in Arlington over the weekend. A few good ones there, but Sunset Wheat was the best. Light for a wheat, and slightly fruity.
n. Oh, and for the fourth time in my life I took the self-guided tour of the Texas School Book Depository over the weekend, and for the fourth time through there, I got goose bumps. You've got to take that tour, no matter how old you are, no matter whether John F. Kennedy is just another name in the history books to you. The tour itself has a tremendous you-are-there feel, because, of course, you are there.
You can stand six feet from where Lee Harvey Oswald leveled the rifle, and see the kind of book boxes he took aim from, and see the angle of the shots fired that you may have seen a hundred times, and you'll be forever impacted. Everyone always gets a different feel from standing there and looking at the same angle of fire Oswald saw.
My brother-in-law, Bob Whiteley, thought of something I never did. "Imagine how close JFK was to getting on the Freeway and getting away from there,'' he said. "A couple of seconds. And history would have been changed forever.'' Never thought of it that way, but he's right. Kennedy and his entourage were leaving the west side of downtown on their way to a luncheon event elsewhere in the city, at the Trade Mart, and Oswald got them after they'd been through the main part of the parade route and were a few hundred feet from speeding away safely.
And how about how the general public -- fans of the case, just about -- could just walk into the police staging area where Oswald was going to be transported on Sunday, with one of them, Jack Ruby, simply walking up to Oswald and shooting him. Imagine the security around such an event today. That was only 48 years ago, but it seems closer to the Wild West times than to today.
o. Time does not dull the idiocy of the State University of New Jersey paying Snooki of
p. Want to see/hear a grown man cry? Matt Light's not going to do that (I don't think), but you will hear him talk about the frustration of being an NFL free agent with nowhere to go and no team to play for when we gather for another of my harebrained schemes to help Light's charitable cause, the Matt Light Foundation.
I urge those local to the Boston area to come to our Lockout Breakfast and NFL Draft Preview on Tuesday, April 26, at the Liberty Hotel in Boston. Tickets are $250 (but I promise the food and company will be worth it). Info: www.mattlightfoundation.org, or contact Margrette Mondillo at email@example.com.
I asked Light the other day what it's been like being a free agent when you can't negotiate with any team, and you can't speak a word to any team. "Hello'' might be cause for a heavy league fine. Light said: "I thought being a free agent would be something fun, full of opportunity. Instead, it's been a nightmare.''
See? That's the kind of fun emoting you'll get at this event (with a big assist from local law firm Sullivan & Worcester LLP) on the morning of the 26th. Light will be there, with me (giving some sort of draft dish) and ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss, for a generous helping of Patriots news. We'd love to see you there.