Analyzing Tomlinson's career, Saints' appeal, Banks' comeback
Much news for what's normally a sleepy Monday in June -- bounty appeals today in New York, for instance -- but let's start the last Monday column before I take my summer break with some numbers from the amazing career of LaDainian Tomlinson, who will announce his retirement today in San Diego.
Who do we consider the best all-purpose backs of the last 30 years? Well, three players prominent in the conversation are Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk and Tomlinson. I'll take Tomlinson in history over Allen and argue that Tomlinson and Faulk should be 1 and 1a as the most versatile modern backs.
• Tomlinson vs. Allen. Allen started 15 games or more seven times in his career. In those seven seasons, he totaled 10,049 rushing-receiving yards and 78 touchdowns. In the first seven seasons of Tomlinson's career, he totaled 14,025 rushing-receiving yards ... with 51 more touchdowns. But the more impressive comparison, I believe, is with Faulk, the 2011 first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.
• Tomlinson vs. Faulk. I picked out the best seven years of Faulk's illustrious career in Indianapolis and St. Louis, and lined up the numbers against the first seven years of Tomlinson's football life, when he was at his peak. (The Faulk numbers don't include a sub-par third season in Indianapolis. I wanted to take the prime of Tomlinson's career and compare it to the best of a first-ballot Canton performer.
Tomlinson, by the way, will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.
Top five versatile runners of the last 30 years? (Walter Payton not included, because seven of his 13 seasons came before 1982.) My list:
1. Faulk. Super Bowl win helps -- plus the Super Bowl that New England based its entire game plan on stopping him.
2. Tomlinson. But it's very, very close.
3. Thurman Thomas. His prime wasn't quite as productive as Tomlinson's, but great anyway.
4. Darren Sproles. State of the art today, and perfect in Saints offense.
5. Marcus Allen. Strange to put him behind Sproles, but Allen wasn't as explosive.
It's clear the suspended players and their representatives are not going to agree with the NFL's version of what happened over the last three years in the Saints' defensive team meetings. The NFL claims it has clear evidence that there was a bounty system in place, with players being offered money for performance-related accomplishments and for trying to knock foes out of games.
Remember: The NFL doesn't have to have proof of bounty money being paid to a defensive player for intentionally injuring an opponent, or for knocking an opponent out of a game, whether intentional or not. The NFL has to show that a bounty was offered. That's it.
But until the NFL shows that proof, there will be significant skepticism that it has enough evidence to throw Jonathan Vilma out of the game for a full season, and to suspend three Saints from the 2009 season for lesser periods. I question whether the league will show evidence today, in the face of increasing pressure to do so.
Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsburg, claimed Friday that the evidence he received was specious and didn't prove the NFL's claim that Vilma either offered or paid $10,000 during the '09 playoffs to knock out Kurt Warner or Brett Favre from playoff games. We'll see what emerges today.
But the fact that the NFL didn't produce the clear evidence Friday in advance of today's grievance hearing in the league office gave the players the ammo they needed in the court of public opinion. It's all well and good for Roger Goodell, league counsel Jeff Pash and the former high-profile prosecutor the NFL retained, Mary Jo White, to believe in the strength of the league's case against the players. If it's so strong, the league will have to show its cards at some point, or the public will simply believe the league oversold the story and overcharged the players.
Last week in Montana, I asked Goodell what he thinks the legacy of this bounty scandal will be. I didn't run his answer in my column because it didn't break new ground. But this is what he said: "I think what the bounty legacy will be is that it's not part of football. There's a rule that prohibits it. We obviously had a violation of it. We found it, dealt with it aggressively, and I don't think it will happen again. I think it will help in that continuing effort to create the culture of safety that we want. I hope by the actions that have been taken here that the fact that we discovered it, and the fact that we penalized it with unprecedented discipline, and by the focus that it's gotten, that people understand not to engage in that.''
I think whether the NFL names names or not, witness corroboration of the bounty program is going to have to come out at some point. The NFL surely wants to protect the whistleblowers, but there's a way to do that. And there's a way for insiders like suspended former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- who has been public in saying he was wrong to engage in a pay-for-performance system with the Saints -- to buttress the NFL's case. Williams says he'll do what the league asks in order to get back in the game and to repair the damage from this. If so, he should tell what he knows.
The NFL can't just say, "Trust us on this.'' Too many lives, too many reputations, are on the line here for that.
On Friday, I spent an hour on the phone with Brian Banks, who, as one of the best high school football prospects in the country in 2002, at age 16, was convicted of raping a girl in a stairwell at their high school in Long Beach, Calif. Though there was never any physical DNA evidence connecting Banks to the crime, his attorney convinced him he could go to jail for decades, not years, if he pleaded not guilty and went to trial. Banks took a plea deal and went to prison for five years and two months, then served almost five more years under a form of near-house arrest before the girl recanted her story. On May 24, a judge set Banks free.
Today, Banks is in Santa Clara, Calif., trying out for the San Francisco 49ers in a three-day rookie minicamp as an inside linebacker and special teams player. This comes on the heels of tryouts with the Chiefs and Chargers, and a two-day minicamp trial with the Seahawks last week. It's truly an amazing story, and will be even more amazing if one of the teams offers him an invitation to training camp as a member of the 90-man roster. Making a team, or even a practice squad? Hollywood stuff. Beyond Hollywood.
"I went from going to sleep with a GPS tracking device on my ankle one day, to flying around to NFL facilities just days later,'' he said. "It's a lot to take in. Amazing. Huge. HUGE. It's like winning the Super Bowl and going to Disney World -- times 10. That's what's happened to my life.''
What impressed me so much about Banks is how bright and engaging he is despite spending 10 formative years of his life away from formal education, and how he's not bitter. How can someone who spent five years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and then five more as a registered sex offender with a GPS ankle bracelet that he couldn't take off, not be bitter?
"I like to tell the story of a little kid who has a dirty room,'' Banks told me. "His mother tells him to clean the room. He says no, and he throws a tantrum. When he stops screaming, the room's still dirty, and he's still got to clean it. When I got to prison, of course I was mad. I didn't understand why the police didn't do a better job investigating the case, and why someone who clearly was not guilty could be put away like that. But I realized the more I thought that way, it kept me stagnant. I was becoming the label they tried to put on me. I made a vow to myself: No matter what happened, no matter what label they put on me, I knew who I was, and I wasn't going to let them turn me into something I wasn't.''
A teacher at one of his juvenile centers before prison, Jerome Johnson, stood in front of a class of kids in trouble and challenged them to funnel their anger into positive energy. "Maybe I was the only one who listened,'' Banks said. "I don't know. But I developed a thirst for understanding life and culture and the wider world. I wanted to improve myself. Mr. Johnson helped me challenge my brain and ask myself: 'What is my purpose?' ''
I asked Banks: "Isn't prison tough on sex offenders? How'd you survive?''
"I am a very honest person,'' he said. "Ask those who know me. But I lied about why I was in there. That's the way I survived. Three things that there's zero tolerance for in prison -- child molesters, rapists, thieves. So I just told everybody I was in prison for a home invasion. I took the rap for a guy because I wouldn't snitch on him, and through the grace of God, I never got found out.''
Though Banks played a season of junior college football in Long Beach in 2007 when he got out of jail, provisions of his parole soon changed. He had to stay closer to his home in Los Angeles, and he had to wear the ankle bracelet. He stopped thinking about playing football. And then, three days after he was declared innocent in May, his cell phone rang. The phone had been ringing steadily, and Banks didn't answer. A minute later, the same 213 area code number came up on his caller ID. Banks answered it.
"I'm looking for a linebacker,'' said a voice he didn't recognize. "Know where I can find one?''
"Who is this?'' Banks said.
"Coach Carroll,'' Pete Carroll, who'd once recruited Banks to go to USC, said.
Banks almost melted. Couldn't believe it. Carroll said he remembered him well, offered him a tryout in Seattle, and said he'd get no special favors. Within days, the Chiefs called. And San Diego. And San Francisco, and Minnesota and Washington.
"I know how long I've been away,'' Banks said. "I know the odds. I'm going to give this 150 percent, and if it doesn't happen, I will walk away with a huge smile on my face. The way I look at it, I've already won by securing my freedom.''
At Seahawks camp last week, linebackers coach Ken Norton got all over Banks a couple of times. "Which I so appreciated,'' said Banks, laughing. "I appreciate not being carried. I don't want to be a special case. Practicing with the Seahawks is something I'll cherish for the rest of my life.''
For Banks to have a chance, he has to learn to turn and run and cover better; when he was in high school, his size and athleticism made up for any technical deficiencies. But there are a lot of good 6-2 ½, 239-pound inside 'backers who can cover tight ends and running backs. Carroll is giving Banks a month -- and another team or two may do the same -- to get in better shape to see if he might be able to be better than one of the inside linebacker candidates Seattle already has. That is, unless San Francisco beats Seattle to the punch and signs him this week. It's more likely Banks will work tirelessly over the next month to give his best shot in a final pre-training-camp trial to earn one of 90 roster spots on some team.
"Football is a passion for me, and I love it dearly,'' he said. "But it does not define me. If I don't make it, I'm still free. I'm free. I've got my freedom back.''
During practices leading up to Super Bowl XX in New Orleans 26 years ago, Jim McMahon once mooned a news helicopter. Once angry with commissioner Pete Rozelle for fining him $5,000 for wearing a headband with the "adidas'' logo on it, McMahon got a plain white headband, wrote "ROZELLE'' in block letters, and wore it in a game. Now he's one of the estimated 2,500 former players or spouses of late former players suing the league for not doing enough to protect players from head trauma and concussions.
McMahon's 52 now. He's been outspoken that the league needs to take better care of former players, and he worries that years of pounding from being a football player are beginning to show up in him every day. "I'll have little lapses,'' he said from his Arizona home Saturday. "I'll walk into a room and forget why I went in there. That's becoming more frequent. I forget to call people back, and they'll ask, 'Why didn't you call me?' I don't know. I forgot they called. The brain is not meant to take the kind of pounding it has to take in football.''
He thinks he has a "little lapse'' once a day. "Once in a while, I get a severe pain in my head,'' he said. "Like someone stuck an ice pick in my head. The head was never discussed when I played, and a lot of guys are worse off than I am. Friends of mine in the game, some of them don't even know me anymore. They deserve a better quality of life. That's what this is about.''
Count McMahon among those who thinks the NFL should consider having players play without facemasks. "The helmets are so good now, and guys think they can just hit so hard without hurting themselves,'' he said. "What is the solution? I don't know. But the guys in Australian Rules Football are pretty rugged, and they don't wear facemasks. They know they have to protect themselves.''
As with two other players I've reached who have attached their names to the various suits, McMahon feels the most important thing about this case is having medical care available -- and covered by the NFL -- when or if the time comes that players need medical or mental health care. Spitballing these complex cases, if the NFL can't get them dismissed, the settlement may come when long-retired players are assured that their families won't be left to take care of them without sufficient insurance.
"There are a lot of role models. There just aren't a lot of good ones."
"I think Sean [Payton] would be very, very proud with this coaching staff. I think Sean would be very, very proud of the job the support staff has done, from the trainers to equipment men to the cinematographers. When Sean left here there was one mandate: Do your job. And these guys have definitely done their job ... We're really, really looking forward to going to training camp. This might be the most talented football team that we have had since we've been here.''
"Yes, we thought that he would clear. It's rare but it's not the first time something like that has happened. It's disappointing for us that we didn't get him back. He did a tremendous job for us and we hope he gets well soon and that he can finish his career, whether it's with New England or whatever team he ends up with. It was disappointing, but that does happen, every blue moon ... I could explain it, but I don't want to explain it because it's really irrelevant at this point ... It's really pointless for me at this point to try explain it to people ... It's rare that somebody takes a guy under these conditions off the waiver wire, but it happened and we wish Jake all the best.''
1. I've never heard of the so-called "unwritten rule'' that claims if you're trying to sneak an injured player through waivers that the other 31 teams should leave him alone. All's fair in love and waivers. It's patently absurd to suggest the Patriots, for whatever reason, shouldn't have picked up Ballard. If there's a rule in place that says a player exposed to waivers can be claimed by another team -- and there certainly is -- then it's folly to think the Patriots somehow screwed the Giants. New England did the smart thing in picking up a potential 2013 contributor for very little.
2. Reese should have owned up to the mistake. He blew it. He was sure no one would invest $540,000 in a player almost sure not to play this year. All it would have cost the Giants to keep Ballard would have been to keep him on the 90-man roster into August. Rosters have been at 80 men until this year, when they were expanded to 90. You cannot tell me it's worth it to the Giants to expose Ballard to waivers to save, for instance, the 22 undrafted college free agents from 2011 and 2012 that the Giants have -- by my count -- on their current training camp roster. They should have sacrificed one of those, if need be, to keep Ballard.
3. A few of you have asked why the Patriots would even want Ballard, seeing that they already have two excellent tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Well, the Patriots play two tight ends on nearly every offensive snap; last year, Gronkowski and Hernandez each played more than 1,000 offensive plays. You can't count on them to stay healthy, and New England needs a solid third tight end (and maybe a fourth) to play all the schemes in its playbook. And if New England signs Ballard for the third-year tender price of $640,000, that means it will have paid $1.17 million, total, for 2012 and 2013 to employ a good tight end in the hope he can help next season. Maybe he can't. But the gamble seems worth it for a guy who made so many big catches for the Giants in the last two months of the season last year.
4. For those who say, "It doesn't matter, because the Giants will find a tight end,'' I say: You're probably right. It's an exceedingly smart scouting staff, and Reese is an excellent GM. Point is, they didn't want to lose Ballard, and good teams and smart front offices shouldn't make mistakes like that.
When the Chiefs worked out Brian Banks this month, they put him through a scouting combine type of workout, designed to see exactly what kind of athlete he was and potential he had. Banks measured at 6-2 ½ and 239 pounds. He ran a 4.77-second 40-yard dash.
There were 33 linebackers at the Scouting Combine in February; 29 ran the 40-yard dash. Banks, who hadn't worked out seriously before being exonerated May 24 because he never thought he'd ever have a chance to play pro football after 10 years away from the game, ran a faster 40 than eight of the 29 prospects, including running faster than five of the inside linebackers running for their NFL lives in Indianapolis.
So I waited for Banks to call Friday. He was supposed to call early in the afternoon, but he didn't, and I wondered if he'd forgotten. Finally, at 6:40 p.m. Eastern time, 3:40 in southern California, where he lives, Banks rang from his car. He sounded a little out of breath.
Turns out he'd been working out with Jay Glazer, the FOX analyst and mixed martial arts trainer, trying to make up for lost time in strength, speed and conditioning work.
It's a sign of the respect so many players have for Glazer that, with this being the best long-shot chance he'd have at a football career, Banks turned to Glazer to get him ready as quickly as possible for his tryout this week with the 49ers.
Did you hear the one about the man in South Dakota who murdered a high-school classmate 55 years after the classmate pulled a jockstrap over his head as a practical joke? Carl Ericsson, of Watertown, S.D., walked to the front door of the ex-classmate, Norman Johnson, and shot him twice. According to the Associated Press, Ericsson told the judge in the case in May that he guesses he shot him "because of something that happened over 50 years ago. It was apparently in my subconscious.''
It's hard to fathom, unless you're there, the level of enmity the fine people of Seattle have for the departed Sonics-turned-Thunder. Walking around the city last Monday and Tuesday, I saw maybe a dozen people wearing T-shirts with the old Sonics logo -- the skyline of Seattle, with the Space Needle -- in green and gold Sonics colors, with the word "Robbed" underneath the logo. Seattle, in fact, might be rooting harder in this series for the Heat than the denizens of Miami. Amazing to hear the anger the city still feels over losing the basketball team to Oklahoma City.
"Ever sit through a bad movie or read 200 pages of complete garbage & feel like you've just wasted a few hours of your life?''
"Why baseball doesn't have instant replay for plays at the plate is beyond me. It's a scoring play. It takes two minutes. Just use it."
I don't even like that, but I certainly wouldn't be in favor of any schedule in which players were asked to play more than 16 regular season games, even if the preseason schedule were reduced from four to two per team. It's a different level of football in the preseason; you just can't equate the intensity or the number of snaps regulars play in the preseason with the regular season.
a. That's one of the cutest things I've seen all year -- Eli Manning, with daughter Ava in his left arm, throwing out the first pitch to David Wright at the Mets-Reds game Sunday. Manning, in a Mets No. 10 jersey ... Ava in a lovely white dress. Now that's a golden Father's Day moment.
b. If you hung with Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals until the end, and followed the postgame to NBC Sports Network, you saw a fairly poignant scene -- Al Michaels in the stands at the Staples Center hugging and kissing his family after the Kings won the Cup. Now that's not something you see very often: veteran play-by-play guy getting all mushy when his team in another sport wins. Cool sight.
c. Well-deserved, Kings ... 16 wins, 4 losses as the eighth seed, with one road loss in four playoff series. A fantastic job by the team that's always been an afterthought in L.A.
d. Good story from Michaels, about being careful when you drink from the Stanley Cup, about former Avalanche and current Rams owner Stan Kroenke: "Stan is a man who keeps himself in tip-top shape and never gets sick. When his Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 2001, he got sick as a dog a few days later and was bedridden for two weeks. He told me he traced it to drinking out of the Cup after the game. So celebrants beware.''
e. Hope you don't go, Zach Parise; I really hope you stay a Devil in New Jersey. But if you leave in free agency, thanks for so many great nights of all-out hockey. You're a winner.
f. I find myself pulling for the Thunder in the NBA series, and so being down 2-1 with the next two in Miami is troubling. But there's part of me that hopes LeBron James wins, just to kill this LeBron-can't-play-big-in-big-games thing. Ridiculous.
g. LeBron in his last 13 games: 32.6 points per game, 10.9 rebounds. Heat 9-4.
h. I mean, it's fine to hate a guy, and to boo him. But to not acknowledge James' greatness is downright foolish.
i. Wish I had a guy who played that great for my team every night.
j. If you want to see my star turn on the USA Network's "Necessary Roughness" show (Wednesday, 10-11 p.m.), don't blink. I'll be on as a know-it-all TV football analyst -- wow, life imitates art -- and then again later in the season. I expect skyrocketing ratings Wednesday, readers.
k. Someone hire exiled San Diego columnist Tim Sullivan, please. You'll be ecstatic you did.
l. I'm a fan of fellow Ohio U. Bobcat Thom Brennaman, and I have great fondness for his dad, Marty, one of the best baseball play-by-play men on the radio ever. (I listened to Marty for five years while living in Cincinnati, and he's one of the great ones -- most of you just don't know him.)
I was watching the Mets and Reds Saturday night when Thom uttered these words about red-hot Joey Votto: "Over the last month, he has been virtually impossible to get out.''
Very hard, maybe. But virtually impossible? In the previous month, between May 15 and June 15, Votto reached base 62 times. He made 60 outs. That's scorching hot for a baseball player. But he was retired half the time, and reached base half the time. Virtually impossible to retire Votto would have meant reaching base, say, 110 times and making 12 outs. That's never going to happen, obviously. I just felt Thom could have chosen his words better.
m. As I should on many occasions. I am Mr. Exaggerated Metaphor more often than not.
n. This Aroldis Chapman -- if he stays healthy -- is going to be a joy to watch over the next few years.
o. Bizarre Stat of the Baseball Season: Cliff Lee has been active for 48 games, started 11 of them, and won none -- despite having a 10-strikeout game and a 12-strikeout game. He had a 10-inning, no-run performance, too, and didn't get the win there.
p. Gregor Blanco, Matt Cain says you are The Man. And after that catch with a perfecto on the line, I believe.
q. Is it just me, or was this U.S. Open all about players who missed shots and not about players who made them?
r. A shame I didn't read
s. So happy so many of you wrote and tweeted that you'd be picking up
t. Coffeenerdness: Come to New York, Peet's. Come on. You know you'll kick tail here.
u. Beernerdness: In my short time in Seattle last week, I really was quite smitten with Georgetown Brewing Company products. I know everyone loves Manny's Pale Ale, and it is well worth loving, but the Lucille India Pale Ale is the best thing they have on tap.
v. So sorry about the death of your lab, Ashley Fox. Remember the good times -- I know you and your family will.
See you back in this space in the wee hours of Monday, July 23. I'll write my Tuesday column this week, but the Tuesday mailbag column will then vanish until July 24. For the next four Mondays, as I've done the last few summers, you'll have my pinch-hitters. Next week, I've got a good idea who the writer will be, but I need to nail it down today. For the three weeks after that the MMQB guest columnists will be, in order, Indianapolis rookie tight end Coby Fleener, writing just after he attends the NFL Rookie Symposium, on July 2; Washington general manager and football history nerd Bruce Allen on July 9; and Tampa Bay Buccaneers free agent defensive tackle Eric LeGrand on July 16. I hope you're looking forward to reading them as much as I'm anticipating what they write.