Tennessee has a lot riding on the improvement of Jake Locker

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I'll write labor when it seems important, and when I think you'll care. I get the feeling it alternately angers and bores you, from the feedback you send me. That said, on Sunday, Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com reported he's hearing "initial rumblings'' that if the league loses its appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and is forced to open its doors for business sometime this summer, the owners may completely shut down business operations until the players cave and agree to a labor deal. I reached out to a couple of ownership sources Sunday night; both said this was the first they'd heard of such a plan. We'll see if it grows legs as the month goes on. We're still weeks away from the June 3 St. Louis appeals court hearing that could end or extend the lockout.

For now, there's the residue of one of the most interesting drafts in years to discuss, an email from Mike McGuire, a sports connection to a California pulpit. Thought that might get your interest. I'll get to the Titans' plans to make Jake Locker more efficient, and to the 49th and final (maybe) interview of Book Week with Rex Ryan.

On with the show.


The Titans have a big job with Jake Locker.

If I were Jake Locker, I'd be ready for Accuracyball in training camp. (Assuming NFL teams will have camp this summer, of course.)

I'm thinking back to the three years Chris Palmer -- Tennessee's new offensive coordinator under coach Mike Munchak -- coached Eli Manning with the Giants, 2007 through 2009. When Palmer arrived, Manning had completed three seasons in the NFL. Three inaccurate seasons, with a completion percentage of just 54.0. In camp, Palmer set up flags at different distances and had Manning throw quickly to try to hit the flags. Maybe it was play-calling, maybe it was simple NFL maturations, and maybe a little bit was the flags, but in Palmer's three years with Manning, his completion rate rose from 56.1 in 2007 to 60.3 and 62.3 the following two years.

Locker may be seeing those different-colored flags in his sleep, assuming Palmer pulls them out this summer. Locker never completed more than 58.2 percent of his throws in four college seasons. That's probably the biggest reason so many teams graded him down on their boards. But as I said last week, this was a beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder draft. And Tennessee GM Mike Reinfeldt loved Locker.

"It became evident to us as we did our research that Locker was a special guy,'' Reinfeldt told me. "His production, leadership and football instincts were very high, and we felt he had a chance to be a special player.''

I asked Reinfeldt how a quarterback who was a 54-percent passer in college could be fixed in the NFL. The perception, of course, is that accuracy is usually difficult to improve, particularly when the pass-rush and secondary are better at the next level.

"I think there are things you can do to improve,'' he said. "That's one of the things we studied. Jay Cutler went from 57 in college to 61 [percent completion]. Brett Favre went from 53 to 63; Mark Brunell from 52 to 59. So we think we can improve Jake there.''

A lot of jobs will be riding on the care and NFL education of Locker in Nashville.


Rex Ryan will always feel a little chippy toward the Ravens.

Two good nuggets from my chat with the Jets coach on the release of his book, Play Like You Mean It: Passion, Laughs and Leadership in the World's Most Beautiful Game [Doubleday, with Don Yaeger]:

• In the book, Ryan says one of the reasons he thinks he didn't get the Ravens coaching job when Brian Billick was fired after the 2007 season is because Ryan told owner Steve Bisciotti that Billick had lost the team. Ryan says in the book he thought that was a disloyal act. He says many nice things about the Ravens in the book, and has said many of them to me over the years too. But he also said to me Friday: "Coaching in Baltimore 10 years and then not getting the job, that's a thing that drives me. As much as I respect the people in the Ravens' organization, they never thought I could do the job, and that's a major chip on my shoulder.''

• Ryan tells an interesting story in the book about pursuing a franchise quarterback once he got the Jets job. The choice came down to USC's Mark Sanchez and Kansas State's Josh Freeman. "We sent both of them a mini-playbook and asked them to learn what they could from it before they met with us,'' Ryan told me. "They both blew the doors off us when we got them in a room. We'd ask about out formations and bam-bam-bam, they knew it all quick. Both very, very sharp guys.''

But in telling the story in the book, Ryan says one of the factors that swayed the Jets was how Sanchez was regarded by his peers. He said 24 high school and college mates showed up to catch balls for Sanchez. When they'd been to Kansas State to work out Freeman, two of his receivers showed up. "Honestly,'' Ryan told me, "that might have been what separated them -- the immense respect we sensed from the people who played with Mark and knew him so well.''

The Jets traded up from 17 to five in the first round to take Sanchez. Imagine if they hadn't; who'd have taken Sanchez? Oakland, at seven? San Francisco, at 10? Buffalo, at 11 (saving the Aaron Maybin embarrassment)? Washington, at 13?


Baalke balks at the price of doing business.

I want to be sure that two front offices that rarely get much praise -- Cincinnati's and San Francisco's -- get their due in the wake of the draft. And I'm not sure either has been duly credited for not paying the ransom to move up for quarterbacks in the first two rounds.

The Bengals, as we've noted here, have traded up twice in their 44-year draft history. As the second round dawned and Cincinnati sat at pick 35, the Bengals longed for TCU quarterback Andy Dalton and figured he'd slide to them. Maybe it was dumb luck, but whatever it was, the Bengals paid nothing to move up, and Dalton came to them.

The 49ers had pick number 45 and wanted Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick. As I wrote in SI this week, San Francisco offered to give New England third-round picks this year and next to move from 45 to 33 to get Kaepernick; New England wanted a two and a three. Too rich for 49er GM Trent Baalke's blood. So Baalke let the pick pass, even though he knew it might cost him Kaepernick, because Oakland was trying to move up for him too. New England ended up making the pick (cornerback Ras-I Dowling), and the 49ers turned their attention to the pick following Cincinnati's --Denver, at 36. Baalke offered fourth- and fifth-round picks this year. Denver accepted. The 49ers got Kaepernick, and instead of paying a two and a three for him, they paid a four and a five.

Moral of the story? There are two. Don't panic for any player, particularly one you're not positive will turn into a cornerstone player for you. And sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make.



I believe we're going to look back on this draft in five years and think one of the most compelling stories was Ryan Mallett. Think of it. In a year when there's a major premium on rookies being NFL-ready (with the lockout obviously preventing rookies from training to play right away), the most NFL-ready quarterback in the draft was picked 74th -- 37 slots behind the last of six quarterbacks chosen in the first and second rounds. That isn't to say he's going to be a great pro. Who knows if he will be? But the value at 74 for a player of his stature is pretty hard to ignore.

A couple of my peers had excellent observations/stories about Mallett that I wanted to point out.

Aaron Schatz of FootballOutsiders.com made this point: With the increased emphasis on concussion awareness, imagine if Tom Brady gets one in the next two or three years and has to sit out a week. I'd feel better having a trained Ryan Mallett on my bench competing with Brian Hoyer to play rather than just Hoyer.

"The backup quarterback position becomes more important as the NFL enforces stronger concussion guidelines,'' Schatz says. "There's a much higher chance now that a team is going to have to start the backup quarterback for one or two games in the middle of the season, like what happened to Green Bay when they had to start Matt Flynn against New England last year. So Ryan Mallett doesn't just have value as a player the Patriots can develop and possibly spin off for a first-round draft pick three years from now. He also has value because he gives the Patriots a stronger backup quarterback in case Brady takes an unfortunate hard hit at midseason.''

Ian Rapoport of the Boston Herald went to Texas and Arkansas (Mallett is from Texarkana, Texas, and played collegiately at Arkansas) to look into Mallett and found a couple of interesting points.

One: His offense at Arkansas has much in common with what the Patriots will run in New England -- thanks to college coach Bobby Petrino. "I grew up in Jacksonville with Tom Coughlin," Petrino told Rapoport, "which ties back to [Bill] Parcells. Like, I heard [Tom] Brady call the play on TV: '136 Dual Y Choice.' That's the exact same way we would call that play. So, there's certain things that are going to be real easy carry-over, because of the system we use. And he had responsibilities in protections, which obviously in the NFL, you have to do. We did protections very similar to the way he'll do it there."

Two: He got coached hard by Petrino, and he'll get coached hard by the Patriots. "I don't think he'll be shocked at how he has to prepare,'' Petrino said.

Postscript to the Eagles-Patriots trade: Andy Reid and Bill Belichick had that weird trade on draft day, New England trading the 193rd overall choice to Philly for pick number 194. They did it, Reid said, to keep a long streak alive of consecutive years of trades between the two teams. Well, it's a good story, and it seemed the two teams were always trading ... but it's not true.

Since 2000 -- according to the Patriots -- the two teams have made two draft-day trades: the one this year, and one in 2009, when the Patriots shipped Ellis Hobbs to Philadelphia for two fifth-round picks. There have been two other trades involving picks: The Pats shipped a fifth-rounder to the Eagles for Greg Lewis and a seventh-rounder in 2009; and the Patriots sent a sixth-rounder to Philly for Tracy White and a seventh-rounder in 2010. That's it.


Godspeed, David White.

I met the veteran San Francisco Chronicle football beat writer, who covered the Niners and Raiders at different points, at the San Francisco draft last weekend. It was the last football assignment for White, who now is on a God assignment. He is leaving the Chronicle to become the senior pastor at the Porterville (Calif.) Church of God.

White wrote a poignant final column for the paper Sunday that I wanted to take note of, because it has so many good points for those he leaves behind, both on the field and in the press box. Whether you're an atheist or a believer in a higher being, take a minute to read his column, particularly these bullet points about religion and sports, starting with the coach he formerly covered for the 49ers, Mike Singletary:

• "Thou shalt not wear a cross around your neck if you're going to verbally wring the neck of third-string quarterbacks and local sports anchors in full public view. The Scripture says to take up your cross, not nail everyone else to one. Represent or tuck it in.

• "When thou tear an ACL, don't say it's because God lets everything happen for a reason. There is a reason. A 320-pound defensive tackle landed on the back of your knee.

• "Thou shalt not thank God when only you win, and never when you lose. What, is it his fault that fourth-and-inches call was a few yards off? Did he fumble away the game-winning interception? The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

• "Thou shalt absolutely not say your team won because it was God's plan. What does the Lord have against the other team? And why should God even care in a world of suffering how our games play out? Maybe you think He doubled down on your end of the Vegas line? He didn't.''


... And Mike McGuire checks in from Afghanistan, with some bin Laden meaning.

This email came to me from our favorite Army sergeant, with his thoughts about the demise of Osama bin Laden. It's one of the best emails he's even sent.


"My thoughts...

"Bin Laden dead brings closure to a situation that started it all. More than anything it makes me miss the Soldiers I have lost over the past three deployments: SGT Bevington, SPC Connelly, SGT McHale and others. That is not to exclude my guys that lost their legs, lost eyes, and to top it off all the mental issues they have now. These young soldiers will never be the same person again. They are changed. There is an attitude about them that most will not get, a sadness they carry every day, just like me.

"We take pride in what we do. Every soldier who puts on a uniform is my brother. I would not trade much of what has happened over the last six years except bring back my men. The war has changed me. I am short-tempered, I curse more now, I can eat dinner in under three minutes. More than anything, I am ashamed of the fact that I missed my kids growing up, my son getting commissioned in the Army, my daughter getting married, my other daughter graduating, and many other issues.

"But I am alive. I am going to make the best of it and make up for all this lost time. This is my last deployment. I am focusing on my men and women to give them all the tools to survive over here. But also I am counting the days until retirement.

"Just rambling. Sorry. Take care,


Ramble anytime, Mike.

I'd like to ask all of you who want to write to Sergeant McGuire to send them along to me, and this week I'll write a few of them in my column and forward the rest to him. I know he always appreciates your support.


Charities of the Week.

I've had a few requests to spread news about some very good works, and I am glad to do so.

• The Red Sox are doing a great thing for the military with their 2011 Run To Home Base 9K on May 22, a 9K (5.6 miles) race through Boston that ends inside Fenway Park and benefits the veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with combat stress or traumatic brain injuries. The second-annual race is limited to 2,500 runners, and because running requires a fundraising commitment, those who want to enter need to get cracking now. The Run to Home Base program has helped many veterans, including a 30-year-old Boston-area resident, Eric Emond, who, remarkably, served five tours in the Persian Gulf and was seriously wounded as a member of the U.S. Army's Special Forces in Afghanistan. It's an excellent cause, if you can get involved.

• Sports Illustrated and the American Red Cross are combining to run an online auction to benefit tornado victims through the South. There's a lunch with me (wow!), some great Neil Leifer photos and other fun stuff to be auctioned. Go here for information.

• The Matt Light Foundation has a one-of-a-kind item to auction off -- autographed Pro Bowl jerseys of three of the named plaintiffs in the suit against the NFL, along with the front page of the players' suit. (Hey lawyers: Just think about what a conversation-starter this would be in your conference rooms.) Even if you just wanted the three jerseys -- signed by Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning -- that'd be worth a good sum. The three jerseys and the document are framed together. For info, contact Margrette Mondillo at margrette@goodwinpr.com

"We're all in a tough boat right now. Me and all the rest of the undrafted guys, we have no contact with anybody. Our agents can't talk to anybody about us. Everything's up in the air. You don't know when you're going to get that phone call and be able to sign with a team.''-- Wisconsin running back John Clay, not chosen in the NFL draft despite a 5.5-yard rushing average in college and 41 touchdowns, to Don Banks of SI.com in this story about the frustration of undrafted free agents not being able to sign with NFL teams till the end of the labor dispute.

"It could have made me or broke me, and it broke me. It's one of the biggest blows I've taken in my life.''-- Vikings draftee DeMarcus Love, on his experience at the Senior Bowl, to Paul Allen of KFAN in Minneapolis, via sportsradiointerviews.com. Love, rated a second-round prospect entering the January Senior Bowl, was hurt while in Mobile, performed poorly, and fell down the draft board to the 168th overall pick, to Minnesota.

"There's two kinds of coaches' wives: great ones and ex ones.''-- Rex Ryan, to NPR's Bill Littlefield, on his national radio program, "Only a Game,'' Saturday morning.

"We don't spike the football.'' -- President Obama Sunday night on 60 Minutes, explaining why his administration did not want to release grisly photos of the late Osama bin Laden.


That's how many brains the Boston University doctors studying brain tissue donated for research for football-related damage have examined, the latest being former Bears great Dave Duerson. He became the 14th former player to test positive for the toxic protein tau, which chokes off cellular life in the brain.

That reminds me of something I was told by Dr. Ann McKee, the leading neuropathologist in the BU group, who I met last fall in her office at the New England Veteran Administration. "We need more brains to study,'' she said. "Lots more.'' And as dogged reporter Alan Schwarz suggested Sunday in the New York Times, 15 brains is simply not enough to do a detailed study to see how much damage is done by football -- high school, college and professional -- to a person's mental state.

That's why every team this fall, whenever the labor strife is finished, owes it to the future of the game to urge every player to agree today to allow his brain to be studied after death for a similar condition -- no matter what mental or physical condition the player is in at the time of death. And NFL alumni should hear the same plea from the Players Association and the league. Fifteen brains is a start. But the BU study needs current players, and players in their 40s, 50s and 60s, to sign up for the program now.

More Teams Should Do This Dept.:

You may know that most teams have ESPN and NFL Network on in their draft rooms during the draft, with the sound of one or the other on during the dead periods when the teams are not picking. Maybe they can find out a clue about what other teams are doing, maybe they can be entertained when they're bored.

When the Seahawks chose Alabama tackle James Carpenter in the first round of the draft -- an upset; many teams had second-round grades on him -- the chatter on both channels had analysts questioning the pick. Whether the analysts turn out to be right or wrong, that's not a popular thing to hear when you've just made a pick that's been 11 months of scouting in the making.

So the Seahawks muted both channels and put on Pandora, the personalized Internet radio thing, and soon had Reggae music filling the draft room.

If you listened very closely to "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart'' Wednesday (and who knew to do such a thing?), you'd have heard me and others cackling in the studio audience at the Osama bin Laden jokes. I hadn't been in a studio audience since seeing "Letterman'' 10 or 12 years ago, and got this chance by winning a silent auction in Jersey last year.

First there was a warmup comic, Paul Mecurio, who made the house roar (some of it at my expense; he's a bit of a football fan), and then Stewart came out to greet the house. Very quick, as you'd expect, and gifted at taking any line from the house and turning it his way. If you by chance DVR the show regularly, have a listen during the first two segments, which were largely about the bin Laden story. You'll hear my laugh fairly prominently on a few of his jokes.

His guest that night was David Barton, the conservative historian. Stewart and Barton had a spirited debate on the separation of church and state, and what was most interesting was that they gave us about 25 free minutes by continuing the back-and-forth after the show stuff was in the can. It was great to hear two smart people at absolute opposite ends of the political spectrum go at each other, but with respect for the other's opinion.

Fun night in the big city.

"Cam Newton will be the most scrutinized player in years. The experiment is on. If Newton is successful, the NFL will fundamentally change.''-- New tweeter @CollinsworthNBC, NBC's Cris Collinsworth, on ... well, you can figure it out. Good observation.

"Plane is delayed because they ran out of seat belt extensions. People we need to get healthy.''--@TonyGonzalez88, the Atlanta tight end, trying to travel somewhere Saturday morning.

1. I think, in response to the broadsides sent to Roger Goodell by players in recent weeks (Mike Silver wrote extensively on player frustration with Goodell on Yahoo!, and he is not alone), I was interested to read Andrew Brandt's take on player anger on National Football Post. And I remember similar anger directed at Pete Rozelle in 1987, the last time games were lost in NFL history due to a job action. There will be more, and when there's a solution, it'll go away. That's labor strife, anywhere, in any walk of life.

2. I think what's clear after Rashard Mendenhall and the bin Laden/Twitter dustup is that some things are not meant to be said in 140 characters. Mendenhall is not a dolt. But he can sound like one -- we all can -- in the 140-letter bursts that are the max on Twitter. What he said last week, in three tweets, is that he didn't like celebrating a man's death, he didn't think it was fair to judge bin Laden without knowing him, and he questioned whether aircraft alone were to blame for the downing of the Twin Towers.

His statement after the fact was fairly well-reasoned (other than, I thought, his apology to "anyone I unintentionally harmed'' with his tweets, after clearly enraging many of those forever affected by 9/11). But it left me thinking about how much words can hurt.

To think that people in this country -- those who lost loved ones, those who had family or friends sent overseas to fight al Queda -- wouldn't respond angrily to 140-character opinions, which, right or wrong, appeared almost cavalier in their presentation, is not very thoughtful.

3. I think before we consign Wade Phillips to coaching hell for even thinking of switching Mario Williams from defensive end to outside linebacker in his new Houston 3-4 defense, let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Williams had been very good, but not all-world, in his first five seasons as a 4-3 end, averaging 9.6 sacks a year. Phillips thinks Williams, playing the same spot DeMarcus Ware played in Dallas, can have the kind of impact Ware had.

Time will tell if he's right, because Ware's a 250-pound edge-rusher, and Williams, who weighs 282 right now and will try to slim down to 265-ish for his new role, hasn't played with his hand off the ground much in the NFL. But to think this is a revolutionary move ... as Jimmy Johnson would say, puh-leeze. And Williams wasn't exactly Bruce Smith as a defensive end. Sacks in the past five years, by the way: Ware 72, Williams 48.

4. I think when Toronto politician Doug Ford said New Orleans was a candidate to move to Toronto last week, it sounded downright stupid. Turns out it was. Way to be credible, Mr. Ford.

5. I think Bob Papa's got to say all the right things about being booted out of the NFL Network booth as Thursday night play-by-play man, and he has. But I wonder how he feels after auditioning for a job he already had by doing play-by-play on a videotaped game from 2010 with Mike Mayock, then seeing someone who didn't have to audition for the job, Brad Nessler, get the gig alongside Mayock? I know how I'd feel: set up. Like the fix was in, and I just got played for a fool.

6. I think former coach Jeff Fisher, former Patriot Tedy Bruschi and former Eagle Chad Lewis are ready to tackle Mount Kilimanjaro. They arrive Friday in Africa and will spend the next four or five days summiting the great mountain. As I wrote recently, they're doing it to help raise awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project. I'll have news of their trek in the column next Monday.

7. I think I'd watch the Bucs on Hard Knocks, and I'd be interested. But it won't be the must-see TV series the Jets made with HBO and NFL Films last year. No team would be.

8. I think Rex Grossman will take the first snap of the 2011 season for the Redskins.

9. I think Mark Herzlich, the Boston College linebacker spurned by the NFL in the draft, will wait for the chance to sign with a team in free agency, whenever the league and players do a deal. He direct-tweeted me Sunday (what a country) that he'd bypass the Omaha Nighthawks -- he was drafted by the United Football League team Monday -- and wait for his chance to make a team as one of the undrafteds.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Willie Mays, 80. Wow. Still looking good, Willie.

b. Take a look at a replay (if you can find one) of third-base ump Joe West interfering with Terry Francona's attempt to ask umpire Angel Hernandez why he called a balk on Tim Wakefield on Friday night in the Twins-Red Sox games. Francona knew he'd be ejected for even arguing a balk call, which happened immediately. And it may well have been a balk by Wakefield when he picked Denard Span off first base; the replay isn't crystal-clear because it happened so fast. But the nullified pickoff turned into a run scoring from third base and was a huge play at the time.

Why a manager can't have that explained to him is beyond me, and stupid. But West, who has always been a schoolyard bully of an umpire, ran to get between Francona and Hernandez, for no apparent reason. There was contact -- it's hard to say who pushed who first -- and it was totally unnecessary. West was the spark that lit the incident, and if baseball suspends Francona without suspending West too, it would be the height of blind-support-for-the-umps idiocy.

c. That comes from a Red Sox follower, of course.

d. A Red Sox follower who would rather fold laundry for six hours than watch Matsuzaka pitch for three.

e. Pulling for you, Nick Charles. Hold Giovanna close.

f. Re the aftermath of bin Laden: Agree with Maureen Dowd, who said eloquently Sunday in the New York Times that we don't need to apologize for killing bin Laden. Agreed. Put a cost on capture, detainment, security, trial, sentencing and whatever would follow. What is it -- $50 million? A hundred? And instead of carpet-bombing the place and killing innocent people as well as bin Laden, we took the risky road of isolating him and killing him. I fully support the decision, and I applaud the SEALs and U.S. Army Delta teams who did the heroic deed.

g. On one thing, though, I agree with Rashard Mendenhall: I am not taking to the streets to celebrate anyone's death. I support it, but I'm not hootin' and hollerin' over it. You're free to note the death however you wish; it's your personal choice, which I support.

h. Coffeenerdness: Down to one triple latte a day. What willpower.

i. Beernerdness: Gotta hand it to Fenway Park for improving the beer quality. Blue Moon on tap in the bleachers, Sam Adams summer ale and ShockTop Raspberry upstairs.

j. Ten years ago we never heard of oblique injuries. Now there must be 20 baseball players on the DL with them.

k. Will Ferrell's great. No matter what happens on The Office, I'll think he's great. But he's a bad fit on the show. His character is forced and unfunny.

l. Someone had to say it.

m. I'll say two things about my buddy Pete Thamel: He can investigate college athletics with the best of them, and he can pick horses. Heck of a pick with Animal Kingdom, Pete.

n. Uncle Mo's going to go down as one of the best horses that never was.

o. It's wedding week for publicist extraordinaire Karen Dmochowsky and SI's Gene Menez. Good luck to two people who deserve the best.