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NFL Madness, where offseason drama gets bigger and bigger


We are in the middle of the biggest offseason in NFL history. Even if you wanted to look away from the NFL for a while (and, as a consequence, get your citizenship revoked), you could not. You're stuck.

We have had controversy, scandals involving signature teams, and the Peyton Manning saga, which created the Tim Tebow saga, which created the Drew Stanton saga, which wasn't really a saga at all, but it was kind of funny that Stanton signed with the Jets as a backup, did absolutely nothing and still got embroiled in a national story. The Jets are like a 4-year-old who tries to wipe the mud off his left hand with the mud on his right hand, then giggles. God bless 'em. That wasn't a Tebow joke, I swear.

Let's break down the offseason, really crunch it into tiny little pieces. That will make the Saints happy. It will also give us a sense of why I say this is the NFL's biggest offseason, instead of the most important.

The Saints, of course, were found guilty of ... oh, come on, do you really need me to sum it up for you at this point? Sean Payton allowed Gregg Williams to award bounties for injuring other players, and of course that is terribly wrong and he is not allowed to do that. Williams should not pay players to injure other players. He is supposed to inspire them to injure other players. That is the American way, or at least the NFL way.

I can't defend the Saints and I won't try. But ask yourselves:

1. Is there evidence that the Saints injured more players than other NFL team? If not, what does that say about this league? Is it possible that NFL football is so violent that even if you give players a cash reward for injuring other players, they still won't injure them more than they already do?

2. How often have you heard an NFL coach or player say "we're going to punch them in the mouth" or "we want to hit him so hard he thinks twice about going across the middle" or "we laid him OUT"? Quite a few, right?

The difference between the Saints and many other teams in NFL history is a) the Saints got caught and b) the league cares about this stuff now. Roger Goodell is worried about lawsuits and concussion backlash. So Payton will miss the 2012 season, and Williams got the rarely seen "indefinite" suspension, which might only mean one year but sounds ominous, like he isn't even allowed to watch football on TV.

There are plenty of precedents for the Saints' transgressions. Heck, any day now Al Davis may rise from his grave just to pay the Saints' fines. What is new is the punishment.

We move from Payton to Peyton. Peyton Manning became a free agent, which was like Kate Upton putting an ad on Half the general managers in the league were interested, even if they appeared happily married to other quarterbacks. And that was fine with everybody. This is why Alex Smith will probably forgive the 49ers">49ers very quickly for flirting with Peyton. It's like when spouses give each other a short, impossible-dream list of people it's OK to cheat with if the opportunity arises -- one-in-a-billion shots. Some people have Natalie Portman or Bar Rafaeli on their list. Jim Harbaugh had Peyton Manning. Hard to blame him.

So Manning goes to the Broncos, thanks to John Elway's pitch. This would be huge news in any era. Manning is an all-time great, arguably one of the top three quarterbacks ever. But it wasn't really unprecedented. Nineteen years ago, the 49ers traded Joe Montana. Like Manning, Montana had missed a lot of games because of an injury. Like Manning, Montana looked like he might have to retire because of that injury. Like Manning, Montana had rescued and redefined a franchise. And like Manning, Montana had to go because his team found a young stud replacement. (In Montana's case, it was Steve Young.)

We don't look back on the Montana trade as league-rattling, for a simple reason: It wasn't. He played well for the Chiefs, but they didn't win the Super Bowl. We still remember Montana as a 49er and maybe the best quarterback ever. If Manning has two good years and retires without playing in another Super Bowl, this will be viewed the same way.

But the Manning signing did pave the way for ...

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BREAKING NEWS: The Broncos have traded Tim Tebow to the Jets!

BREAKING NEWS: No they haven't!

BREAKING NEWS: Yes they have again!

BREAKING NEWS: For real this time! We think.

I can't think of any story that sums up the popularity of the NFL more than this. The Broncos had a quarterback they didn't want. They traded him to the Jets, who missed the playoffs last year, and who already have a mediocre quarterback, but are adamant -- ADAMANT -- that their mediocre quarterback will start ahead of Tebow.

Naturally, the nation is obsessed with this.

This is partly because of Tebow's religious beliefs, partly because people feel it's OK to make jokes about Tebow's religious beliefs (it's like all of society has granted itself a good-taste exception) and partly because of his play on the field. Mostly, it is about the combination of the three. Tebow has become a pop-culture figure whose every move is news, even if all he did was ... move. He is like Justin Bieber or Lindsay Lohan (except: Not at all like Lindsay Lohan).

This says a lot, though: In a quarterback-dominated league, Tebow got traded to a team that considers him a backup. If just one team with a quarterback need thought he was a likely Pro Bowler, he would have been dealt somewhere else. His career path is looking a lot like Don Majkowski's. (Look him up, kids.)

Tebow might help the Jets get some first downs and make the back page of the tabloids more, which are of equal importance to the Jets. But if he were really a franchise quarterback, we would compare him to Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.

The last time we had a quarterback debate like Luck and Griffin at the top of the draft was 1998, when the Colts picked Manning over Ryan Leaf. This was controversial at the time, though nobody wants to admit it now -- there was a real feeling that Manning was "ready to play now" but Leaf had a "higher ceiling." This is precisely the debate we're having right now: Luck is NFL-ready, but in a few years, Griffin might fly through the air, score five touchdowns a game and play the national anthem on six instruments at once.

The Redskins gave up everything they could find for Griffin. And this just feels different, doesn't it? I mean, I know that Leaf was supposed to be a star. And so was Tim Couch, and Akili Smith and JaMarcus Russell. But there were at least some doubts about all those guys. Luck and Griffin seem like much surer bets.

It's a good thing the Redskins made that deal for Griffin, because otherwise their offseason would be defined by their salary-cap penalties. Evidently, the Redskins and Cowboys spent too much money in a year when they were allowed to spend whatever they want. Don't ask. I don't really get it either.

Add this all up, and you have ... well, as I said: the biggest NFL offseason ever.

The NFL has become so popular that any NFL offseason will be huge news, just because it is the NFL. We have become addicted to both pro football and gossip; this probably happened a long time ago, but modern media are the dealers feeding our addictions.

But do you know what could be bigger? Next year's offseason.