IN THE USO-MOBILE, ON I-81 IN CENTRAL VIRGINIA -- Camps are open. Football's back. I'm on the road, writing Monday Morning Quarterback in the cab of a big rig near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Intrigue's happening. Life is good.
First, the headlines of the morning:
• Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, chair of the NFL's labor committee, told me Sunday night at Panthers camp that if the players hadn't backed down on their last-minute demand for an opt-out provision in the 10-year CBA, "That would have blown the agreement up. It would have been a deal-breaker.''
• Just after 1 this morning, the Jets kissed and made up with Antonio Cromartie, signing him to a four-year, $32-million deal. That comes on the heels of the Jets surprising some close to Plaxico Burress -- many thought he'd do a deal to play with Mike Vick in Philadelphia -- by getting him to commit to a one-year contract worth about $3 million. That means the top three corners in the Weird Free-Agency Class of 2011 are signed to deals averaging ...
$12 million: Nnamdi Asomugha. Eagles
• The Eagles wouldn't have signed Nnamdi Asomugha without a simultaneous middle-of-the-night exchange of text messages between GM Howie Roseman and the agent for Asomugha, Ben Dogra, 15 hours before he agreed to terms with Philadelphia.
• Players are euphoric about the new work rules that eliminate two-a-days in training camp, give them a day off after working six in a row, require them to wear helmets on the field only once a day, and, during the season, restrict padded practices to only 14 in the regular season.
John Abraham of the Falcons started giggling with glee when I asked him about it; he's 33 and said he's thinking it will add a year to his career. His teammate Dunta Robinson added, "I'm sure guys will play longer. Guys who normally played 10 years, now they'll play 12.''
• Peyton Manning on Sunday found three different ways to say he'll never play outside of Indiana.
• Stat men and former quarterbacks at ESPN want to overthrow the passer rating stat and replace it with ... The Dilfer Dimension? Just kidding. "I told them, 'Do not associate my name with this, or nobody will ever pay any attention to it,' '' Trent Dilfer said.
• If the New Star of the Week in the crazy landscape of the NFL was Albert Breer last week, it's agent Ben Dogra this week. As of 3 a.m. Eastern, he'd signed 14 clients to deals with $137.8 million in guarantees and $303.8 million in total dollars. This was after getting corners Antonio Cromartie (Jets) and Kelly Jennings (Seahawks) signed to new deals after midnight.
Driving home from his St. Louis office at 3:29 a.m., he said: "When you condense the biggest free-agent class in history into such a short time, you're not going to have much time to sleep.''
I got to eavesdrop (with permission) on Dogra's negotiation jousting with the Falcons over guard Justin Blalock Friday night/Saturday morning, and I'd call Dogra's method more of a friendly filibuster. Whatever, it's working.
"I got another big fish in play for a big deal,'' he said before dropping off to sleep not long before dawn today, and he somehow mustered through a hoarse voice lots of enthusiasm for it.
So, yes, the NFL got what it wanted in This Offseason in a Very Small Box. Wall-to-wall action.
How'd we all miss Nnamdi to the Eagles? Because Dogra shut up; he wasn't talking to anyone in the media. And Roseman, Andy Reid and Joe Banner can keep a secret with the best of them (Vick signing, McNabb trade). On Sunday, Roseman told me the Eagles were sure they were out of the Asomugha sweepstakes after dealing for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the Kevin Kolb trade Thursday. He even told Dogra Thursday night they were out of it, and he was sorry it didn't work out.
Then, at precisely 12:38 a.m. Friday, Dogra pressed the button on a text message to Roseman that said: "Are u sure ..... be bold. Best deal in history.''
At almost the split second that Dogra sent the message, one time-stamped 12:38 a.m. popped into his phone from Roseman, sent obviously before Roseman had read Dogra's text. "Thanks for taking the time today. I appreciate the process. We need more of ur guys here.''
Dogra thought it was eerie that their texts passed in the ether. And he wanted Roseman to not think it was over, because he knew how much Asomugha wanted to play in Philadelphia. It was true Asomugha liked the Jets too, but he thought the Eagles gave him the best chance to win a Super Bowl in the next three or four years.
Dogra picked up the phone. No sooner did Roseman say hello than Dogra's cell phone beeped in his ear. Call-waiting. Asomugha.
Dogra let it ring to voicemail because he had a message to deliver to Roseman first. "Don't you think it's strange we haven't communicated in five or six hours, and all of sudden we send each other texts at exactly the same time? Are you sure we don't want to explore this one last time?''
And they did explore it, even though Roseman knew he already had two Pro Bowl-caliber corners on the roster. He said Sunday that he and Dogra negotiated until 3 in the morning. And it got done the next afternoon.
Dogra's no mystic, but he'll always believe there was something eerie going on when two texts were sent simultaneously, and two phone calls made within 10 seconds of each other, all by the three people involved in making a deal happen.
This I knew: Jerry Richardson had his heart transplant on Super Bowl Sunday between the Steelers and Cardinals. He got the phone call to hustle into the hospital in Charlotte for the surgery late that afternoon. This I didn't know: It was an NBC game that day, and when Richardson was being prepped for surgery, he had one request before being put under. "I wanted to hear that Faith Hill song,'' he said. The NBC theme song for the football game was the last thing, other than some personal words from his wife, he heard before the transplant.
"One of the things that drove me to get better is I wanted to get back and help get a new labor deal done,'' he said Sunday night while watching the Panthers practice for the second day under new coach Ron Rivera in South Carolina. "Since April 2008 [when the owners opted out of the 2006 labor deal], except when I was in the hospital almost dying, that's been on my mind every day.''
Four things about the deal he loves: it's for 10 years, no regular-season games were missed, teams can make stadium-construction and other long-range decisions knowing they've got labor pace until 2021, and the TV networks will be able to make a better deal knowing there's game certainty for 10 more years. In fact, the current TV deal expires in 2013, so the league actually may choose to negotiate a new TV contract twice over the course of the next 10 years.
Richardson is sure the inclusion of an opt-out clause would have been destructive. A week ago this morning, there was drama in the talks. Player reps, who hadn't been in on the talks between the NFLPA Executive Board and the 10-man labors committee surprised some of the player leadership with their vehemence about being able to opt out of the 10-year deal after five or six years.
Richardson told me Goodell "delivered the message'' that such a demand would be damaging to the deal. Another source told me ownership said if players wanted an opt-out, the owners would have to have one too. I'm told that it wasn't until very late morning or early afternoon that the players gave up on the opt-out provision.
On the players' side there was universal praise for executive director De Smith's ability to keep disparate views from the membership. Board members Domonique Foxworth, with his hard but intelligent edge, and Jeff Saturday, with his hard and conciliatory ways, kept pushing for players' rights while accepting the owners' view that they needed to be motivated to grow the game. "They understood clearly that we had to invest in the gameday experience,'' said Richardson. And so they accepted the concept of the owners getting 60 percent of the revenue from local investments like stadium improvements.
Sean Morey was insistent on less contact in practice, and several people I spoke with said he was vital in the institution of work rules that have made the players much happier with the deal. Morey had to retire because of post-concussion syndrome in 2010, and his push for players to wear helmets only once a day in training camp was lauded. Drew Brees didn't back down and was on the front line of those who told Smith if he had to miss a paycheck or three from his $10-million annual salary, he was willing.
For the owners, Richardson built a bond with Foxworth early in the summer during a private, one-hour visit to a park near the hotel where the talks were taking place in Illinois. Richardson refused to divulge what was said, but explained, "After that, I understood his views a lot better, and I hope he understood mine.''
On the labor committee, Goodell credited Giants owner John Mara for conciliatory and forceful work on the new work rules, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt for creativity on the economic structure of the deal, including stadium credits for owners spending their own money on stadiums, and Pittsburgh's Art Rooney II for working on internal league revenue sharing.
Jerry Jones, he said, "had the most incredible energy when the other guys were frustrated that the process was slow. He'd say, 'Guys, until we get this point solved, we can't get to the next point. So let's keep working on the first point.' '' New England's Robert Kraft built a bridge with the players by convincing them he wouldn't let them make a bad deal, or else they'd be back in the same boat they were when the 2006 deal broke down.
I rarely heard of Cincinnati's Mike Brown or Denver's Pat Bowlen in the process; Goodell said Bowlen kept driving home how the players had to understand owners would stay united and fix the economic structure of the game, and Brown was insistent when the talks broke down in March that this was a historic occasion, and the league would be better for it. "I needed to hear that,'' Goodell said.
San Diego's Dean Spanos provided a moment of clarity, when, after hearing several times during the talks what the players couldn't give in on or couldn't do, he said, "What can you do?'' Green Bay's Mark Murphy, a labor leader during his playing days, ruffled feathers according to one player source by "forgetting where he came from;'' but his knowledge of labor history, from both sides, was used when the sides were at loggerheads.
One last point: Richardson, for the first time, refuted at length that he was condescending with players in a February labor meeting, or belittled their knowledge of business, as YAHOOSports reported. YAHOO reported one of Richardson's targets was Peyton Manning. "I was shocked when I heard that,'' he said. "I was not disrespectful toward him in any way. When I heard about it, I immediately called Archie [Manning, Peyton's father], who I know, and told him, 'If I offended your son, I apologize.' Archie told me Peyton was not mad at me, and he said it was some other [player] in the meeting [who made the accusation about what Richardson said]. As I recall, there was talk in that meeting about how you arrive at favorable cash flow, and I spoke to Peyton, but I certainly was not disrespectful.''
So that become part of the lore of the deal now.
Last December, Richardson told me if Goodell was in office for 25 years, this would be the most important decision (or series of them) he ever made. I asked him last night how he felt Goodell did.
"He was by far the driving force to getting this deal done,'' Richardson said. "when we picked this man five years ago, what a decision we made. He's 52 years old now, and he's demonstrated clearly his ability to take complex situations and make the best of them for our league. He got a 10-year deal in this climate in the sports business? Amazing.
"I played the game when Bert Bell was commissioner. Pete Rozelle was a major help to us when we tried to get the franchise for the Carolinas, and, of course, I owned the team when Paul Tagliabue was commissioner. Now Roger. I think he will stand up when it's all done to be the equal of all of them -- and, with his vision for the game, he could exceed them.''
• I understand everything about why the league and players have to wait for the ratification of the CBA by the players before allowing veterans to practice. I guess I do, even though I find it ridiculous to consider that half of the players in the league, as of this morning, haven't voted to approve the deal. But the one group that I feel for the most is the exclusive-rights free-agents group, the men who have only two years of experience and are unsigned.
The other day, I watched the Falcons practice and saw backup quarterback John Parker Wilson in shorts and T-shirt and ballcap, missing his second day of practice with the possibility of five more missed practices before the labor deal's approval, allowing him to practice. Why does this stink? Wilson has a chance to unseat Chris Redman as the backup to Matt Ryan. He can't do it standing on the field instead of throwing. "I need to be out there,'' he said Saturday. "It's frustrating.'' Madness is a better word.
• Watching Cam Newton Sunday night in Spartanburg, S.C., three things were evident: He's a confident kid, even though he doesn't know half of what he needs to know yet. He's very well-liked by the fans, and that's helped by signing as many autographs as any Panther in camp so far. And though his accuracy is very much a work in progress (he missed six or eight open receivers Sunday), he does throw a beautiful deep ball -- as he did to wideout David Gettis late in practice, a 45-yard throw that landed in Gettis' arms perfectly.
• If Kelly Gregg is healthy, the Chiefs have themselves a heck of a run-stuffing defensive tackle.
• I don't recall seeing the Jets lose a player they really wanted. That's why Asomugha to the Eagles was so stunning. I asked Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum just after 7:30 this morning how it felt to take such a hit. "Nobody bats a thousand in this league," he said. "When something like this happens, I try to learn from it and get better as a general manager. And I think I will. Nnamdi made a decision and then we were able to go out and re-sign Antonio Cromartie. We really like Antonio. We will be fine. I'm happy with where we are."
• One more reason why all teams should go to small college campuses, the way the Panthers do at Wofford College: They eat in the student union, and hang out there after lunch, with the real people -- students who might be on campus, media, fans. On Sunday, one of the Panther players went to the piano in the corner and began playing a Mozart sonata. There's nothing wrong with that.
We're not likely to see many of these for a while -- Ocho sounds like he's going to be either cloistered up there in Foxboro or shutting up so as not to rub the Hoodie the wrong way, or both -- but I liked these four Chadisms from his interview session Saturday:
On going from Cincinnati to Foxboro: "It's good to be in heaven.''
On leaving his Cincinnati insanity behind: "There's no need to do some of the stuff I did before.''
On his approach with New England: "I've always been a chameleon, so I'm going to blend in and do it the Patriot way.''
On ... well ... on what he said before leaving the gaggle of reporters: "Before we go ... I don't know you guys. Can I get a group hug? Like really quickly? Please? ... Thank you.''
"It is official that I will be an Indianapolis Colts for my entire career. I will not play for another team. My last down of football will be with the Colts.''
"Somebody wrote, 'The Eagles are all in,' and that's how we look at it. We're doing anything and everything. We're being aggressive about it, and the expectations are high.''
"Hi, Matt. I'm Mike Mularkey, the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. Nice to meet you.''
"I think to make it the most competitive for our team, Tarvaris needs to be our starter right now. Tarvaris brings so much continuity to us.''
"Continuity.'' Interesting word choice when discussing a quarterback who agreed to a contract five days earlier. Of course, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell coached Jackson in Minnesota through the end of last season, so clearly Jackson has more experience with the Bevell offense than second-year Seattle quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. But it does sound funny to have "Seattle quarterback,'' "Tarvaris Jackson'' and "continuity'' in the same thought bubble.
ESPN will release this week a proposal for a new passer rating, called the Total QBR, or Total Quarterback Rating. It has been developed by several quarterbackmeisters at the network -- most notably Trent Dilfer -- and by some stat heads in the network's production analytics department. The point: Passer rating, developed in 1973 to measure a passer's efficiency, does that, but it doesn't necessarily measure what makes a quarterback great.
So the analysts at ESPN have taken every game played in the NFL since 2008 and measured the quarterback's contribution to the result on every play except handoffs. They say they've divined a system to rate quarterback performance in every game, and for full seasons, on a scale of 1 to 100 (no more 158.3 rating).
"This is a game-changer,'' Dilfer said. "Mark my words: This is the number scouts and coaches and the media will use to quantitatively discuss and judge the ability of quarterbacks going forward.''
If it sticks, of course. You know how the sporting public (and the larger American public) is with new ideas. But judge for yourself. ESPN will explain the proposed Total QBR in a special Friday night show at 8 Eastern with Dilfer and the Monday night crew -- Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden.
Passer rating has probably declined in significance, with some of the smarter analysts all but ignoring it. But it still has juice. The problem, of course, is that in passer rating, so much is ignored. A series of short completions with big yards after the catch mean the same thing as a series of harder-to-complete long passes. The ESPN formula weighs out the yards after the catch, and weighs in things like lost fumbles in the pocket and sacks taken. And timing. A 17-yard completion in a tie game with two minutes left gets a quarterback more credit than the same completion in the middle of the first quarter -- as it should.
"We've included every play that a quarterback has direct control over,'' said Jeff Bennett, the senior director of production analytics at ESPN. "We think a rating system should evaluate all the quarterback's contributions in the context of the game.''
It's be interesting to see if the Total QBR gets traction and usurps passer rating. I think we're ready for a system that scores on a scale of 1 to 100, takes more factors into account than passer rating, and involves the measurement of so-called clutch play. Like OPS (on-base plus slugging) and WAR (wins above replacement value) in baseball, it's time for a more thoughtful number to judge how quarterbacks play. Is this the one? I don't know. But I like rethinking passer rating.
Nnamdi Asomugha got his first NFL interception in his 50th professional game.
So I'm on the road in the Mobile USO, a 40-foot truck/RV the troop-serving agency uses to get to troops who have no USO facility near or on their bases. There are four in our little traveling troupe -- drivers Leigh Edmunds (from Greensboro) and Lou Resendez (from Pueblo, Colo.), SI.com videographer John DePetro (from Staten Island) and me.
I started the camp trip Friday in Flowery Branch, Ga., working on a story that will run in the magazine this week, and the crew joined me Saturday at Falcons camp. I ride in the big rig with the drivers, who alternate driving while I write in a captain's chair on the passenger side; only two guests can ride in the big vehicle at once. And the other two ride in a trailing minivan. The USO provides the Mobile USO; SI is paying all expenses.
On Sunday night at Panther camp, some troops from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina and some North Carolina Marines came to watch practice and take in the fun of the Mobile USO. They watched practice from the sidelines. Owner Jerry Richardson talked to them, as did quite a few players and coach Ron Rivera.
Then Lou climbed into the driver's seat and we started buzzing up I-85 toward Redskins camp in Northern Virginia, 490 miles of bumpy bliss while writing this column. Let's just say I would have written longer overnight if the interstate highway system in this country weren't as much of a roller coaster.
For those who have asked about my schedule ...
(News or other events may force a change or two along the way):
This gem happened between Arizona kicker Jay Feely (@jayfeely) and Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio (@ProFootballTalk) on Wednesday, shortly after Olindo Mare agreed to a four-year, $12-million contract with Carolina. Florio, a lawyer, streams his site on NBCSports.com.
Can't we all just get along?
"Welcome to #Arizona, Kevin Kolb. Our enchiladas are better than those cheesesteaks! Go Cards!''
"In my 7 yr NFL career Olin Kreutz is the toughest football player I have EVER played with #PERIOD''
Gotta love Twitter.
I expect the network TV increases from 2013 (the last year of the current deals with ESPN, NBC, CBS and FOX) to 2014 to be anywhere from 55 to 70 percent overall. If I'm Manning and agent Tom Condon, although Peyton is not one to grouse or insist about opening a contract early, I'm thinking about getting one last contract bump when the Colts can afford it better in 2014.
a. The Phillies must have the greatest minor league system of all time. It's brought them Hunter Pence, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt in the last two years.
b. Ubaldo Jimenez looked too risky to trade major prospects for.
c. On the other hand, I kind of like the Erik Bedard deal for the Red Sox, because they didn't have to give up anybody good, and Bedard's been good in four of his last five starts.
d. Like what Texas did in getting Mike Adams from the Pads. Really underrated eighth-inning guy.
e. Finally saw the
f. Coffeenerdness: You do not want to get the coffee I tried at the CITGO in some small town off I-85 in South Carolina around 10 last night. Trust me. When you walked in the place, you smelled the burners. I think my coffee was brewed last April.
g. Beernerdness: Not many to discuss, honestly. Did have a nice Paulaner Hefeweizen Saturday at my hotel in South Carolina. The nice waitress even put a lemon on the rim of the glass for me. That's the hotel where the USO crew and I discussed first names with the waitress, who changed hers from "Lindsay'' to "Linzy'' at age 13. We didn't ask many questions. Nodded and said, "That's nice.''
h. I don't know what Jim Irsay was doing this morning at 1:09 Eastern time, but the Indy owner did manage to tweet these words: "Lenny Bruce is not afraid.''
i. I'm having a great time visiting America. Hope to see you. Feel free to say hello if our paths cross.