On Friday night of Super Bowl weekend, I met Steve Gleason, the former Saint now suffering with Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS), at a restaurant in downtown Indianapolis. There was a big group at the table. Gleason, as part of his foundation to help ALS patients live meaningful lives, brought a fellow patient from Louisiana with him, and I brought along a couple of guests, including a friend, Field Yates, once an intern with Bill Belichick's Patriots. Yates told a story of a Patriots game against the Saints during Gleason's career, and how Belichick had told him to watch Gleason on the field, because he was one of the best special-teamers in the NFL. "Just watch,'' Belichick told him. Sure enough, Gleason creamed a Patriot, legally, on a kicking-team play during the game.
Someone brought up the crushing hits by James Harrison of the Steelers, and Gleason turned wistful. "I used to love those hits,'' Gleason said. "Now I don't love them so much anymore.''
Gleason is 34. His brother, Kyle, fed him that night because ALS has robbed Steve of the ability to completely control his muscle movements. No one knows for sure if a life in football caused the ALS that ravages Gleason now, but at least one study has made a direct link between ALS and the hard hits of football, and Gleason has his suspicions. As do I.
I found myself thinking about this scene over the weekend, with the news that the Saints of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, two years after Gleason left the team, began paying defensive players bounties to knock opponents out of games, and for making difference-making plays.
Steve Gleason is around this team a lot these days. He has talked to the players. The Saints have rallied around this warrior who, very possibly, is now paying the price of his future for hitting people so hard when he played. And I thought of Gleason because the game of football is vicious enough with the legal hits Gleason made sprinting downfield on special teams. Imagine players tempted by a cash bonus to be even more vicious, to knock important foes like Kurt Warner and Brett Favre out of games.
This does such a shameful disservice to Steve Gleason that I almost puke thinking about it.
I keep coming back, over and over, to something I first reported Friday evening, something I saw in a confidential four-page memo sent to the 32 teams (and obtained from one of those teams) late Friday, detailing the abuses.
"At times, players both pledged significant amounts and targeted particular players,'' the memo said. "For example, prior to a Saints playoff game in January 2010, defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked Favre out of the game.''
Anyone who thinks the Saints defense didn't go over the line to try to do just that wasn't watching the game -- and didn't see the three plays I reviewed over the weekend. Early in the game, Favre handed off to Percy Harvin, and after the handoff -- a handoff, mind you, a running play -- defensive lineman Bobby McCray ran at Favre and hit him flush in the chin. That brought a 15-yard unnecessary roughness flag from referee Pete Morelli and a fine from the league five days later.
In the third quarter, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove got 15 yards for pile-driving Favre into the ground after a pass. Four plays later, Morelli missed an egregious high-low hit from McCray and tackle Remi Ayodele; maybe Morelli figured he'd just flagged Hargrove and he couldn't throw a flag every time Favre got mugged. "I thought my ankle was broken after that play,'' Favre told me after the game. "I felt a lot of crunching in there.''
That week, McCray got fined a total of $20,000 for two hits -- the hit on Favre's chin and the hit below his knees after he'd released the pass. Hargrove got $5,000 for slamming Favre to the ground.
There are many reasons Roger Goodell has to act decisively here, but I keep coming back to leader-of-the-pack Vilma speaking up in a team meeting, with, I'm assuming, his teammates already at a fever pitch for the biggest game of their lives, and Vilma throwing $10,000 out there if one of them would knock Favre out. By a concussion from nailing him in the chin after a handoff? Fine. From a bruised kidney after pile-driving him into the ground? Fine. With a torn ACL from diving at his exposed knee and lower leg? Fine. Whatever. Just get him out of the game.
No one's naïve enough to suggest the Saints are alone here, or that Gregg Williams-led teams are the only ones to practice this act. I don't doubt other teams in full desperado mode have had and still have bounty systems in place. But it's like doing 72 in a 60-mph zone and seeing other cars zip past you, and having the cop pull you over. Officer, what about the cars passing me! They're speeding faster than I was! True. But you're guilty. And you're the one that got pulled over.
There's a reason why one prominent football official I spoke with over the weekend said to me, "The league finally got one. This is one of those stories you always hear about -- teams giving bonuses to knock players out of the game and, really, to circumvent the salary cap with these bounties. Now there's no way any coach with half a brain will allow this to go on in his building ... assuming Roger will be tough enough here.''
I've heard the nutty the-league-has-it-out-for-the-Saints theories over the weekend -- Goodell wants to put cocky Sean Payton in his place, the league wants to corral a team playing by its own rules. Nonsense. Goodell brought the hammer down on one of his closest league allies, Bob Kraft of the Patriots, four years ago in Spygate. Goodell, on many occasions, has brought the hammer down on his single closest league ally, Dan Rooney of the Steelers, by a steady stream of fines for excessive hits by Steeler players.
Fair or unfair, whether everyone does it or not, the Saints got caught urging their players to hurt players on other teams -- and paying them through a players' slush fund to try to do it. It's beyond reprehensible. If Goodell doesn't come down very hard, just what will he come down hard on?
Goodell has a few reasons to issue a string of suspensions the likes of which the league has never seen. (Don't think Spygate sanctions here, folks. Think Alex Karras-Paul Hornung sanctions. The Patriots got fines and lost a first-round pick for illegal videotaping. In 1962, Karras and Hornung got a year for gambling.) He has to worry about the message he sends to other teams and make sure they scurry to stop all such off-the-books payment and bounty systems. He has to defend the league against head-trauma-related lawsuits and show that the NFL is aggressively trying to make the game safe. And there's the specter (idiotic, in my opinion) of the 18-game schedule, which only has a chance if somehow the league can prove through safer equipment and maniacal attention to erasing things like bounty programs that more games won't be an overt safety risk to players.
Regarding the penalties: I'm not saying Williams will get a year. He might; I don't know that. But Williams, now the Rams defensive coordinator, is due back in the league office today to address accusations he ran the same kind of bounty programs in Buffalo and Washington. He's in the biggest trouble and will likely get a significant suspension, at least half the season. Coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis will be banned for a time too, for not exercising the kind of institutional control they should have.
Vilma is going down, and I suspect other player leaders could be banned for games too. Not that they're all still Saints, but I have to wonder how the league will manage the suspension if, say, six Saints are banned for a game or more. Will Goodell stagger them? Or will the Saints be missing half their defense for Week 1?
If you're a Saints fan today and you're worried about Goodell's discipline, you should be. Recall this Dick Ebersol story from the end of my Goodell profile 13 months ago in
With Favre, the reaction is rarely three words long. "I'm not pissed,'' he said. "It's football. I don't think anything less of those guys. I would have loved to play with Vilma. Hell of a player. I've got a lot of respect for Gregg Williams. He's a great coach. I'm not going to make a big deal about it. In all honesty, there's a bounty of some kind on you on every play. Now, in that game there were some plays that, I don't want to say were odd, but I'd throw the ball and whack, on every play. Hand it off, whack. Over and over. Some were so blatant. I hand the ball to Percy Harvin early and got drilled right in the chin. They flagged that one at least.
"I've always been friends with Darren Sharper, and he came in a couple times and popped me hard. I remember saying, 'What THE hell you doing, Sharp?' I felt there should have been more calls against the Saints. I thought some of their guys should have been fined more.''
As for the story finally seeing the light of day, Favre said: "Now the truth comes out. That's good. But that's football. The only thing that really pisses me off about the whole thing is we lost the game. That's the thing about that day that still bothers me. And that's the way it goes. If they wanted me to testify in court about this, they'd be calling the wrong guy.''
Specifically on Benson: "While it is clear that ownership was unaware of the bounty program, and strongly disapproved of it and directed that it be discontinued once it was disclosed, the club nonetheless is guilty of conduct detrimental by virtue of the actions of its employees, which continued over a period of years, and the failure of its senior executives to address the matter in a responsible way. The Commissioner has repeatedly held that clubs bear a responsibility for the conduct of their employees, and that misconduct by employees -- particularly by employees in responsible and leadership positions -- will be attributed to the club for purposes of discipline.''
Afterward, as I wrote last fall in this column, Dungy told me: "Earlier in the game, I'm outraged that there was a flag for roughing-the-passer on Dwight Freeney for just grazing the quarterback's helmet. So I'm yelling at the ref [Scott Green], 'Where's the flag! Where's the flag!' And I don't yell much, but I did then. So I didn't notice Peyton calling timeout and being shaken up. Peyton came to the sideline and said to [backup] Jim Sorgi, 'Jim, start warming up.' As the timeout went on, he said to us, 'I can stay in, but we need to run the ball here.' '' Which the Colts did, settling for a field goal deep in Washington territory.
"Then we sort of forgot about it at halftime, and Peyton seemed fine," said Dungy. "He lit it up in the second half. He was on fire [throwing for 244 yards and three touchdowns]. But that's the year we started cutting back on his throws at practice. I'm not putting two plus two together. I just figure he's getting older and he needs some time off, he's made enough throws. But now, as I look back on it, there's no doubt in my mind that this was the start of his neck problems.'' There's no evidence that Washington's defenders had a bounty out on Manning that night. But it's a question, surely, that begs to be asked. And if I were one of the league investigators interviewing Williams today, it's certainly something I'd explore.
Early this morning, John McClain of the
The signing of Marshawn Lynch to a four-year deal last night -- actually, Seattle GM John Schneider had the deal all but done after a negotiating session at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis that ended at 3:15 a.m. nine days ago -- is a boost for a team on the rise. Lynch is a young player still; he doesn't turn 26 until next month, so when he finishes this contract he'll be 29 years old. In his five NFL seasons, he hasn't been beaten up; he's averaged 227 carries a season. The Seahawks went on a strong run with him late in the season, going 5-4 (with all four losses by 10 points or less) and beating Philadelphia and Baltimore in the process. In those nine games, Lynch, who revels in being called "BeastMode'' for his style of running, gained 104 rushing yards a game, on average, and changed Seattle's identity. A fun-loving, Skittles-chomping player, Lynch even got the sedate billionaire owner of the Seahawks, Paul Allen, excited early this morning on Twitter. "BeastMode will be back!! Great news for this young, exciting team & 12th Man."
Newsiest thing about this deal, from the standpoint of how it influences the running back market: On one hand, it provides very little benefit to Ray Rice and Matt Forte, on the surface. Lynch got a deal averaging $7.75 million a year. The franchise tags Rice and Forte will play under -- unless they sign long-term deals -- is for $7.7 million a year. On the other hand, Rice, for instance, has outgained Lynch by 1,532 yards over the past three years. So shouldn't he say he's worth significantly more than Lynch in a four-year deal?
The reality for Rice is he's probably not going to get a deal in the Adrian Peterson neighborhood, which he'd like to do. He may be forced to play this one-year deal out or take a deal he doesn't love to get anywhere close to the guaranteed money any running back would want in a profession where backs flame out young.
You'll be hearing a lot of Will Wilson in the next few weeks. He's Andrew Luck's agent. Luck is Wilson's first client. Luck is also Wilson's nephew. Wilson, 44, joined the Wasserman Media Group of California as the executive vice president of football when Luck signed on with him. Luck is Wasserman's first client. Wilson, a veteran executive of several sports ventures (World League of American Football, Arena League, Major League Soccer, CART auto racing) got his agent certification within the last year and suggested to Oliver Luck, Andrew's father and the former NFL backup quarterback, that he be considered Andrew's agent. "I never had a discussion with them until after the Fiesta Bowl [in January],'' Wilson said. "I suppose there's a lot of trust in my abilities. It's pretty compelling he'll be our only football client, and I'll be able to devote all my time on his representation.'' Wilson said he "hasn't even thought about'' building a client list. Wilson's easiest job likely will be the contract he negotiates with the Colts, if Indianapolis makes Luck the No. 1 overall pick as expected. The rookie deals under the new CBA will have some incentive wiggle room, but are nearly locked in; Luck will make about $23 million over four seasons as the top pick. It's off-field apparel, merchandise and endorsement deals that will be Wilson's concentration -- and making sure the demands of being the first pick in the draft don't interfere with Luck's football.
One of my favorite video events of the year is the hour-long Super Bowl winners' DVD, which goes on sale tonight at midnight and will debut in Times Square in New York this evening. We've already seen some of the good moments previewed on shows like "Inside the NFL'' on Showtime, and on NFL Network programming, the best of which was Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl imploring his defense -- right before Eli Manning rainbowed the greatest throw of his life into Mario Manningham's arms down the left sideline -- to watch out for Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, and let the Giants throw it to Manningham or Bear Pascoe.
The other points I enjoyed about Vivendi Entertainment's
• Good NFL Films slo-mo angles of stopping Vernon Davis in the NFC Championship Game. Tight, compelling shots. And a perfect angle on the ball grazing Kyle Williams' knee on the poor returner's muffed punt.
• Victor Cruz on the field before the Super Bowl, speaking to himself incredulously, sounding like a perfectly programmed Tom Coughlin football player. This Cruz talking to Victor Cruz: "I used to think it was all about me. It's about this team. THIS TEAM.''
• The mechanics of officiating on the early-game safety in the Super Bowl. After Tom Brady, standing in the pocket in the end zone, sails a pass way over any intended receiver, umpire Carl Paganelli rushes in to speak with ref John Parry in the end zone. "Nobody down there!'' Paganelli said. And Parry looked downfield and said, "He's [Brady] in the pocket.'' Good scene of how officials work together.
• Telling camera shot: After Chase Blackburn intercepted Brady, Brady sat glumly on the field. For three or four seconds, a teammate offered a hand to help Brady get up. Brady didn't.
• Cruz, again, watching the replay board after the incredible catch by Manningham down the sideline, during the replay review, seeing if Manningham did indeed make a legal catch: "Catch ... right ... left ... YEAH!!!!''
• New England linebacker Jerod Mayo in the huddle with a minute to play, telling his defense to play dead: "Huddle up! Huddle up! Gotta let 'em score! Gotta let 'em score!'' And they did.
• Finally, Tom Brady, with urgency, just before his Hail Mary on the final play of the game, to Aaron Hernandez: "Run to the goal post and catch it!'' That's exactly what Hernandez tried to do. And failed.
Good stuff, though I'm guessing it won't sell so well in the 617 area code.
Fifty-one days 'til Christmas -- actually, the first round of the April 26 draft -- and here are my odds of who gets the big prize, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, via a trade with the Rams for the second pick in the draft:
"In a sick way, I guess it's flattering. If you had a bounty on you, you were a good player and they wanted to get rid of you.''
"Part of what makes sports great, part of what makes March Madness great, the NFL playoffs great, is every once in a while, something happens during the playoffs that shows the character of a team. Look at the Giants this year. Nobody would have picked them. They wouldn't have been crowned as champions if you had a coaches' poll at the end of the year. But they made the plays when it counted.''
Is it my imagination, or is no politician in the history of the world in favor of the college football season ending the way it does right now?
"I had nine great years. It just sucks that it has to end this way.''
Watching not only Dielman speak, but also his teammates speak and look on at the retirement ceremony, I found it to be a great example of the love teammates have for each other. Philip Rivers got emotional about it. Dielman's line coach, Hal Hunter, got emotional too. Dielman was voted one of the best 50 Chargers of all-time three years ago, and it's not only the talent he had in keeping Rivers clean and blocking for LaDainian Tomlinson. It's the dedication and toughness he showed for nine seasons. He'll be missed -- and he'll miss the game.
"Peyton has probably, over the last couple of years, seen four of the top neurosurgeons in America. As a father that's what I feel good about. He's been involved with the right people. One of them did the surgery. Now they cleared him to play. His neck is no different from any player out there. It's a danger to anyone. That's football. As a parent we feel good where he's at."
Sad to see the Steelers divest themselves of Hines Ward as a cap casualty. While we wait to see if he plays somewhere else in 2012, it's interesting to compare Ward to his two Pittsburgh predecessors who made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Each was a better deep threat than Ward. Ward blocked downfield better than either. And though they played in different eras (mostly) -- Stallworth retired in 1987, 11 years before Ward was a rookie -- it's notable that Ward caught more passes than Swann and Stallworth combined. The odd comparison:
Call it the Month of Living Dangerously for the Pittsburgh Steelers. A month ago, on Super Bowl Sunday, they were $25 million over the projected 2012 salary cap. This morning, they are approximately $12 million under.
How they got there: They shaved $25.86 million by restructuring contracts of five veterans -- Ben Roethlisberger ($8.03m savings), LaMarr Woodley ($6.56m), Lawrence Timmons ($5.14m), Ike Taylor ($3.28m) and Willie Colon ($2.85m). The Steelers then saved $14.26 million by cutting five players -- Hines Ward ($3.39m), James Farrior ($2.83m), Bryant McFadden ($2.50m), Chris Kemoeatu ($2.39m) and Aaron Smith ($2.11m).
Total cap savings in one month: $40.12 million.
But you say, If the Steelers were $25 million over the cap and they cut $40 million, why are they only $12 million under and not $15 million under? Do the math, King!
Because to replace the five players that were cut, the Steelers have to put five players in their place. The cap is based on the top 51-salaried players on your roster. So let's assume that the five new players on the cap --and I'm being generous here -- have second-year NFL minimum salaries of $540,000. (Some probably would have first-year numbers.) Those five players, combined, would make about $2.7 million total, meaning that you'd subtract that number from the cap savings of $40 million and come up with a number close to $37 million. That means they're about $12 million to the good, assuming there are no more re-signings or restructurings.
That doesn't mean the Steelers will be able to sign a lot of players, or any players, to improve their team. It does means the Steelers will have the money to sign their restricted and unrestricted free agents to the tender numbers they'll need to use. For instance, the first-round receiver tender on invaluable restricted free agent Mike Wallace is $2.75 million, meaning if a team signs him to a contract, the Steelers have the right to match the offer, and if they don't, the signing team would forfeit its first-round pick to Pittsburgh.
Could it happen? Theoretically yes. If the 49ers signed Wallace to a front-loaded five-year, $40 million contract, and the Steelers didn't match, the Steelers would either agree to pay Wallace an onerous contract that would force more cap restructuring, or get the Niners' first-round pick in this year's draft, the 30th overall.
In other words, the Steeler worries aren't over. Wallace is a 25-year-old speed demon with good hands who runs good routes and has been productive, averaging 57 catches and 18.7 yards per catch in his first three years as a Steeler.
"I got a very big statement to make tomorrow at 1 o'clock.''
--@ChrisJohnson28, the Tennessee running back, who had an off-year in 2011, at 2:13 a.m. Eastern Time Saturday.
"Statement is I'm gonna lead the league n rushing this year save this''
--@ChrisJohnson28, at 1:15 p.m. Saturday.
Stop the presses.
"Dolphins' Joe Philbin, in the row behind me on flight home, spent hours reading Pat Riley's
"Tek is the epitome of hard work and dedication... he will be missed in our clubhouse. It's been an honor to be his teammate. #captain
"People who tell me they're tired of reading about Peyton are same ones who said they got tired of OJ coverage -- and watched every minute''
Now, if the Browns are talking about a one this year, a one next year, a two this year and something else, that's a good starting point. Just remember -- in 1998, the Chargers moved up one spot, from three to two, in the first round by dealing two ones, a two, a three and a Pro Bowl running back. Ryan Leaf was talented with baggage. Griffin is talented with no baggage.
a. Our neighbors in the Midwest and south are reeling from the tornadoes of the past few days, and if you can find it in your heart to donate $10 or more, here's the
b. Toured the expanded Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair (N.J.) State the other day. What a treat. The place is a treasure trove of baseball history -- with Berra's jersey from the Don Larson perfect World Series game, rings from throughout his career, used bats and gloves from the '50s. And the love letters from Yogi to his future wife are so charming. The place is used for coaching clinics, educational seminars, speeches, book signings and readings, but it's worth it to just drop by and spend two hours soaking in baseball history up close.
c. Dick Ebersol has urged me not to mention anything about politics in this presidential-election year. And so I won't. But as a college grad and father of two college graduates and a husband of a college graduate, boy, am I dying to.
d. Rotisserie time looms. I've swapped Jacoby Ellsbury and Ryan Howard for Adrian Gonzalez and Buster Posey, which leaves the Montclair Pedroias with Posey, Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia as keepers heading into my draft later this month. As usual, I've done no homework on the draft, and the only non-Sox thing I've read about baseball in the last couple of weeks is that Mike Stanton is now calling himself Giancarlo Stanton. I'd better get on with the serious business of draft prep.
e. I can't believe you didn't know who Adrian Gonzalez was, Adam Schefter.
f. RIP, Davy Jones. Third and fourth grade, Enfield, Conn., saving allowance to buy 45s of
g. I've seen a couple of ads for the Masters, which starts a month from today. After going last year and crossing it off my bucket list, I strongly, strongly urge any of you who've thought twice about doing it to act on it, if you can afford it. One of the things I recall is being impressed with the course not being overcrowded, and being able to get pretty close to most any tee box and certainly having room to stand in the fairways right next to players hitting shots.
h. The Hank Haney book gives me the creeps.
i. Trading Rondo, Danny Ainge? Linsane.
j. Go get him, Rachel Maddow.
k. I am either old or out of touch with modern sports or both, because these first two paragraphs of a
What is "Strikeforce?'' And the third graph tells me this is MMA (mixed martial arts). But I still have no idea what the first sentence in this story means. I guess I must be lower than the lowest common denominator the paper is trying to reach. I don't get it.
l. Coffeenerdness: Terrific PJ's latte in Baton Rouge, just off the LSU campus, the other day. Now that's some good, rich, eye-opening espresso.
m. Beernerdness: Don't know how good you've had it until you walk into a restaurant in Manhattan, far from Portland, Maine, and they have Allagash White on the beer menu. Heavenly.