It's time to meet and get to know a whole new group of NFL prospects. Starting Thursday in Indianapolis, 326 players, 750 media members and 900 agents or so will collide at the stadium the Manning brothers made famous, Lucas Oil, for the rites of passage from college to pro football known as the NFL Scouting Combine.
Every combine has a story, just as every draft has one. Often it's about the quarterback. Fourteen years ago, with a significantly smaller media crowd (maybe 10 or 12 reporters) on hand, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf competed to be No. 1, and Leaf came in overweight and botched his interview with the first-picking Colts, and the rest is history. Five years ago, it was the duel (yikes!) between JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn, two guys who clearly did not like each other, for the top spot in the draft. This year, there's about as much drama accompanying the top pick as 2007. Al Davis wanted the big arm of Russell then. I believe Jim Irsay wants the risk-averse Andrew Luck of Stanford to lead the Colts now. We shall see. But prepare this week for an onslaught of news about Luck and the quarterback sure to be taken very soon after him (likely second if St. Louis trades the pick, or third or fourth if the Rams don't deal), Baylor's Robert Griffin III.
I spoke to their two coaches late last week, Art Briles of Baylor and David Shaw of Stanford, just to get a flavor of the two top prospects in the draft, and what impressed me was how similar the two quarterbacks are in many ways.
Both are 22 (born exactly five months apart). Both were recruited by Stanford. (Didn't know that, did you? Shaw, then Stanford's offensive coordinator, went hard after Griffin, even with Luck already in house; Griffin preferred Baylor, where he knew he'd have a chance to play early and often after starring at Briles' football camp.) Both were high school stars in Texas. (Luck at Houston Stratford, Griffin at Copperas Cove.) Both declared for the draft with a year of college eligibility left. Both starred academically; Griffin graduated with a 3.67 grade-point average in political science, and Luck was an academic All-America in architectural design and engineering. Both are athletic, though Griffin's more of an athlete. He had a Cam Newton-type career, with 2,199 rushing yards and 32 rushing touchdowns at Baylor.
But what's most interesting aside from the football is what both coaches stressed about their players. I asked both coaches to tell me about the life each man is about to dive into. In college, there was pressure on the shoulders of both Luck and Griffin, obviously. College football is a pressure-packed sport at the level each was playing in. But, I told Shaw and Briles, both players are about to enter a different world. There will be pressure to succeed from a city, a region and the national and local media, and to succeed right away. They will be playing for teams, in all likelihood, that were not very good in 2011. They'll be looked at as saviors.
"How will they respond?'' I asked.
Shaw, on Luck: "You saw the USC game this year. Andrew threw an interception in the fourth quarter that they returned for a touchdown to put them up, and then we had to respond. He went to everybody on the offense on the sideline. His message was the same up and down the sideline: 'We have no choice here. We're going to take the ball downfield and score, and we're gonna win.' He drove them to the tying touchdown, and we won in overtime. That's who he is. He will not accept failure, in anything. Wherever he goes, he will have a drive to succeed. And when he gets picked, all the extraneous stuff, he'll do what he has to do.
"But all the stuff he can't control, I guarantee you he won't worry about it. He's a guy who will have faith in his coaches. I can't tell you how smart he is. I used to tell him, 'OK, take the stuff you don't want out of this game plan. Kill the plays you don't like.' He hated that. HATED it. The way he knows football, the coach coaches, and he plays. So wherever he goes, he's going to master what is in his control, and he's going to forget everything else. It's not his job.
"One other thing: I remember early on at Stanford, I told him one time, 'Andrew, this is your huddle, take charge of the huddle.' He looked at me and said, 'Coach, before that can be my huddle, I have to earn it. I don't want it handed to me.' That is how he will approach the NFL -- like whatever he gets, he'll earn. The position is about finding completions, about moving the offense. You watch how he played, how he checked down, how he always found the open receiver. He will have no ego about throwing the ball deep or throwing it short. He'll be throwing for completions.''
Briles, on Griffin: "The thing about Robert is he's a football player. Some of his happiest times are not when he's done something great himself, but when he's done something for a teammate. You ask him about our bowl game against Washington this year, and he'll tell you the play he loved was making a block downfield to spring our ballcarrier. That's what his new team will realize about him. It's not about the stats, or the fame. It's about elevating the team any way he can.
"I believe with Robert that going to a team that isn't very good will be inspiring to him. Because he'll realize he has to elevate that team any way possible. If you allow people responsibility, you'll soon find out if they have the capacity to handle it. Robert always could handle as much as you gave him. And I don't mean to keep coming back to this but a leader on a team is one who cares for everyone else before he cares for himself. And the excitement and gratitude he has for others on his team ... it's something I saw every game he ever played. That's going to translate to the NFL. This is a great team player.''
More about Griffin and Luck from Indy later in the week.
It's all good now. The news always is in February. But the sense you get from the scouts and GMs who are studying both players is you won't find many holes in either one -- and certainly not on the personal side.
Four thoughts about the upcoming free-agent market:
Some teams with monstrous cap room (Tampa Bay, with $67 million under the cap) are going to have to spend to justify to their fans that they're trying to win. In Tampa, it won't be good enough for GM Mark Dominik to sign quarterback Josh Freeman to a rich extension. He's got to go out and spend big on a free agent or two -- even though player development, not player purchasing, will be the hallmark of the Greg Schiano regime -- to spur fans to come back and buy season tickets in a depressed NFL market.
I predict a few guys will make a fortune. Mario Williams, if he's not franchised by the Texans, should lead the way. Five or six others should follow. But too many GMs have been burned too many times to spend crazy money in the market. I expect more teams to wait out the initial frenzy and try to do smarter deals 10 days down the road.
The Packers have $14.42 million available to spend. The franchise number for Flynn would be $14.41 million. Easy! (Kidding. Just kidding.) The Packers have to worry about tight end Jermichael Finley ($5.5 million in a franchise tag), and Thompson has to be concerned about this: What if he franchises Flynn and then can't find a taker for him, a trade partner that would give him a second-round pick or something valuable in exchange for Flynn?
"Flynn's the most dangerous player in free-agency,'' said one rival GM. "The Packers need two teams to compete for him. If not, he's not going to get anything close to real value for him. I think it's too risky to franchise him. His resume's just not that strong.'' Maybe -- but the way he played on the road in New England last year, and the way he riddled the Lions this year has to be extremely tempting for the Dolphins and Seahawks.
But is Flynn truly ready to
Shadid died Thursday at 43 of an apparent asthma attack while in the process of stealthily covering the deadly uprising in Syria. I'm writing about him not because he was a huge Packer fan, though he was. I'm writing about him because he was a heroic foreign correspondent, a two-time Pulitzer winner, the kind of man journalism schools should name buildings after. He's the kind of reporter we in the business all aspire to be: fearless, curious, dedicated, prolific and able to go to the very roots of a story to find out the truth. Reading Shadid several times over the years, I always thought how impressive it was that he was able to get to a story by going to the regular people to find it. I'll give you an example from a 2010 story about the casualties of war in Iraq, in the enormous city of Baghdad, when Shadid went to a morgue to find out exactly who the faceless casualties were:
It is no wonder that colleagues and ordinary citizens were so profoundly affected when Shadid died the other day. He was one of the giants in our business, going where so many were afraid to go, telling the stories that have to be told. I only wish I'd known him.
When the Packers made the Super Bowl a year ago, this University of Wisconsin grad, born in Oklahoma City, wrote about his love of the Packers in the
Now there's a man even a Bears fan could love.
Good to see such an outpouring of fellowship for former Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris after the death of his wife, Ashley, to either a stroke or brain aneurysm on Feb. 12. She was 29. A cadre of Bears, including coach Lovie Smith, attended Friday's funeral in New Orleans, along with players from other teams. I was blown away to see that Larry Fitzgerald, who has never been a teammate of Harris and never even been in the same division to develop any sort of rivalry, flew from South America (where he was vacationing) to go to the service.
I went on a USO trip with Harris to Afghanistan in 2008, so I know why so many people are drawn to him. In a tough, football-player sort of way, he's a magnetic figure who has no patience for fools. As tough as it must be for him right now to imagine life raising two children without their mother and without his wife, it has to be fulfilling for him to know so many people he's played with and against wanted to be there for him when Ashley Harris died.
"I appreciate the enthusiasm for it and I hear it from the fans consistently. People want more football. I think they want less preseason and more regular season and that's the concept we are talking about here. We wouldn't add an extra two games without reducing the preseason and we are not going to do it without the players' support, so we did that in the collective bargaining agreement instead of having the unilateral right, which we had. We determined that we were going to do this together. We are going to make changes in the offseason and during the preseason and during the regular season to make the game safer. If we can accomplish that we'll look at the idea of restructuring the season and taking two preseason games away and the potential of adding regular season games, but I don't think that will happen until at least 2013 or 14."
Unless there have been some double-secret-probation meetings between the commissioner and leadership of the NFLPA, I am missing something here. Just who exactly is the commissioner hearing from "constantly?'' And if you're out there, I'd love to hear from you.
There is no good reason to subject NFL players to two more games that count. The only reason is greed. The idea of an equal exchange -- two regular season games in, two preseason games out -- between games that don't count and those that do is folly. On average, veteran players play between four and six quarters in the preseason, and some not that much. On average, veteran players play all of a regular season game. So to say the four series a veteran would play in the preseason (at less intensity, for the most part) is equivalent in any way to a regular season game is misleading at best. I've asked fans, by Twitter poll, if they'd like to see 18 regular season games, and the overwhelming answer was no.
I am heartened that Goodell prefaced his answer here with "if we can accomplish'' making the game safer, then he'll look at the 18-game regular season. But my proposal would be that if the NFL can somehow make the game safer, then keep the game safer -- and don't add two more legitimate opportunities for a slew of players to get hurt.
"I had a handful of friends coming to me at our [wedding] reception say, 'Who's that guy?' I was, like, 'Oh, that's my super-agent. That's the biggest agent in the sports world.' And they're, like, 'Wow, he's the drunkest guy at the party.' ''
"It's a dream come true. I can tell a quick story. I grew up in a small town in Alabama. I used to skip school back when the draft was held on a Monday and I would ... watch the draft. So personally to go from -- let's call it, seventh or eighth grade skipping school to watch the draft -- to be sitting in this chair, to be a steward of this organization ... that's a personal goal that is I guess one of 32.''
"I wouldn't change anything about it. You put yourself in a position of power and you put yourself out there and you want to go out there and want to be great and we had the opportunity and almost pulled it off ... The year that we went 10-6, people say you're too young, but we just went out and won. This year , we didn't have some of that same fortune. Some of those games [in 2010] we won by three, some of those games Josh pulled off fourth-quarter comebacks, they didn't play in our favor this year. For whatever reason, it just didn't work out that way.''
Sometimes, I understand when former coaches are interviewed about their former place of business and they don't want to say much of anything controversial, or of substance. That sounded like Morris on WDAE when I saw the transcript of this interview. But to suggest that "for whatever reason'' these narrow wins just didn't quite happen, and only the football fates know why, is patently absurd.
The Bucs collapsed because Morris' defense collapsed horribly, and because the team lacked discipline. Period.
Points allowed by Bucs, final eight games of 2010: 16, 0, 17, 28, 16, 23, 15, 13.
Points allowed by Bucs, final eight games of 2011: 37, 35, 23, 38, 41, 31, 48, 45.
Point differential, final eight games, 2010: plus-56.
Point differential, final eight games, 2011: minus-158.
It'd be refreshing, and accurate, if Morris is going to speak publicly about what happened last year that he take the blame for a promising team hitting the skids. "I wouldn't change anything about it?'' Sheesh. I'd think long and hard if I were an owner about ever giving Morris a second chance to be a head coach.
Six teams have more than $40 million in cap room available entering the start of the league year three weeks from now. The richest squads are listed to the right.
What's the one position five of those teams -- all but Cincinnati -- have in common? A need at receiver (considering Dwayne Bowe, if the Chiefs lose him, will leave a hole at wideout for Kansas City). Which is good for a restricted free agent like Mike Wallace, who could get an offer the Steelers won't be able to match because of their cap problems this winter, and for unrestricted free agents like Vincent Jackson, Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and maybe an under-the-radar guy like Robert Meachem of the Saints. I don't expect Wes Welker to leave New England, but if he does, that'll add to the free-agent mayhem.
Having said that about Welker, if I'm Bucs GM Mark Dominik, Welker agent David Dunn is my first phone call out of the box on March 13. Welker's just what Josh Freeman needs.
But I wouldn't be surprised if the Bucs and Chiefs each steer clear of Welker. Something Bill Parcells passed down to Bill Belichick about steering clear of each other's free agents; Parcells needed a kicker in Dallas when Adam Vinatieri was free, but he wouldn't touch him. I'm not sure about it, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Scott Pioli and Belichick disciple Greg Schiano take a hands-off approach with Welker.
Four teams -- the Giants, Raiders, Steelers and Panthers -- were over the league's projected $120.4 million salary cap at the close of league business Thursday. They have until 4 p.m. March 13 to get under, and all of them certainly will. Oakland and Carolina, though? Not exactly coming from a position of strength, having to cut away with definite needs. Reggie McKenzie and Marty Hurney, the pressure's on.
Found myself on a Delta flight from Newark to Atlanta Saturday, and the bouncy, incredibly happy flight attendant greeted everyone with a huge hello or welcome as we boarded the full flight. Turns out it was her 50th birthday, and everyone cheered for her midway through the flight. She had a way about her of telling the idiots who don't obey the rule on planes to wise up, as in what she said when the door was closed and the plane taxiing to the runway. "All you with those iPads still working now, you know, I have three grandbabies who would just love an iPad, and if those are still on when I come back down the aisle, well, they're going to be very nice gifts for the kiddies!''
I assume she's been a flight attendant for years; she had all the PA speeches and the galley stuff down pat. I'm always so impressed with people who do their jobs for a long time and still seem to love them.
"No words. Absolutely no words. This is my school. This is Penn State. RT @DailyCollegian THE #THON12 TOTAL IS $10,686,924.83.''
Incredible job by a student base, raising more money than ever after the child-abuse scandal that roiled the campus in the fall.
a. Was that Spike Lee with a Jeremy Lin Harvard replica jersey Sunday at Madison Square Garden? Wow! That guy has some serious friends in high places to be able to pull that one off.
b. I repeat: I know nothing about the NBA. But this Lin story is so terrific, and that win Sunday over the defending champ Mavericks was so terrific, and Lin's game so complete (28 points, 14 assists, three 3-pointers) that it's settled. I've just got to start watching the New York Knickerbockers.
c. Lin appeals to so many factions in our society. The underdog faction ... because he went to Harvard, was cut by two teams, was in the minor leagues and, when he exploded in New York, was apparently on the verge of getting cut again. The minority faction ... because so few Chinese and Taiwanese kids have become very good NBA players, obviously. The team faction ... and I honestly think this is the biggest reason. Every time Lin opens his mouth, he talks about "team.'' When he was asked about playing the D-League, he said he hated it because it wasn't about trying to put the best team on the floor to win games; it was about guys getting the best stats they could get. Lin just wants to win. This is why coaches in all sports, all over America, can hold up Lin to their players and say, "See? It's not just about making top plays on 'SportsCenter.' It's about winning, and doing whatever you can to win, first and foremost.''
d. Great job with your
e. Kudos, St. John's women, for ending the UConn home winning streak at 99 games. Great achievement.
g. Resistance is Futile Dept.: Jack in the Box, the West Coast fast-food chain, is still selling the bacon milkshake.
h. Coffeenerdness: The winner of the King family espresso machine competition is Breville. We broke down and bought one in the city the other day, and after experimenting this week, I'll let you know whether I'm going to become an at-home latte guy most of the time. (Be still, journalistic hearts.)
i. Beernerdness: I don't know how I missed this in the last three years, but I had my first Berkshire Brewing Steel Rail Pale Ale the other day, and it won't be my last. Classic bronze color, malty, not overwhelming in bitterness but just the right hoppy flavor for an ale.
j. This political season is going to be so depressing. It's all I can do to not make a fool of myself commenting on it. I wish you'd let me.
k. Not a big fan of the Pekingese winning Best in Show at Westminster. The Dalmatian or German Shepherd would have been my choice.
l. So Josh Beckett on Sunday talked about "lapses in judgment'' in his clubhouse behavior in 2011. Why, oh why, oh why, can't he come clean and say, "I was wrong to drink beer in the clubhouse during games.'' If that's what happened -- and with no one ever denying it, it's hard to imagine it didn't happen -- a full apology to the fans is what's needed from the Red Sox and the offending players. Based on what I've heard in the last few months, and over the weekend, that apology is never coming. Sad. Just sad.
m. Thanks, Tim Wakefield.