Some things to expect as free agency gets set to open
All's quiet on the free-agency front, one day from the opening of the market, Tuesday at 4 p.m. Some of the front office guys I speak to regularly were on lockdown over the weekend, not allowed to spill anything for risk of alienating a player or agent, or to imply that they have a deal done, which would be in violation of an edict Roger Goodell issued the other day, prior to a weekend in which legal tampering was allowed.
Even though no deals can be agreed to before Tuesday at 4, I'm sure some are on the verge of completion. The difference between the past few years, when agents and teams weren't supposed to talk before free agency began but always did, and this year, according to one influential agent Sunday night, is, "zero, zero, zero.''
Ten things I did hear as Sunday night turned into this morning:
? Miami didn't have much, if any, competition for a big-money deal ($11 million or more a year) for wide receiver Mike Wallace.
? Anquan Boldin will stand firm about not taking less money than the $6 million he's due to play for Baltimore in 2013.
? Arizona wants a running back, one NFC West source told me. It's probably too rich for their blood, and I think he'll end up with Detroit, but Reggie Bush is the perfect back for that offense.
? Left tackle Jermon Bushrod, the one free agent the Saints really want to keep, is 50-50 to go back to cap-strapped New Orleans, and his fate could be tied to whether the Saints can make restructured deals with defenders Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith.
? Tennessee, with an estimated $19 million available to spend, is targeting Buffalo guard and all-purpose lineman Andy Levitre. One source told me Tennessee would go out hard for Levitre in the opening hours of the market, which echoes what beat man Jim Wyatt wrote in the
? The Browns, flush with money and a new owner, will be as aggressive as we've all heard. Another source said he thinks the Browns will have one of the top two young pass rushers on the market, Paul Kruger of the Ravens or Cliff Avril of Detroit, signed by Tuesday night. My money's on Avril.
? If tight end Tony Gonzalez is headed back to the Falcons -- which Mike Silver reported is likely -- one person close to the Falcons told me it's at least in part because a golden network job hasn't opened for Gonzalez.
? I'm still not sure if the legal tampering window is helpful to the players. Seems more helpful to teams. Some teams were talking to agents over the weekend and implying that if your guy doesn't take what we're going to offer, we've got two or three others we can get for less money. One of the spots that could be happening is slot receiver, where Wes Welker (widely believed to be staying in New England), Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and lesser others clog the market. Another is tackle, with a plethora of candidates who could push prices down.
? Teams sure to strike early: Cleveland, Miami, Detroit, Indianapolis.
Cash due to Anquan Boldin in 2013: $6 million.
News came down over the weekend that the Ravens want Boldin to take less money to stay -- $2 million less, according to the
The Ravens' Super Bowl highlight DVD came in the mail the other day (more about it lower in the column), and it's going to be an odd scene later today in Baltimore when the DVD is debuted in advance of it going on sale across the country Tuesday. Odd, and awkward.
Ravens officials and players will be on hand to watch highlights of the season and mostly of the playoffs, and if they see what I saw, they'll say,
In NFL Films' poetry-in-motion footage, the exclamation point on Boldin's great postseason was added. Game 1 win over Indy: Boldin leapt in the corner of the end zone with Colts corner Darius Butler in clinging coverage, an arm pressed against Boldin's chest. Boldin caught the ball, and took Butler's arm along with it. Game 3 win over New England: two touchdown catches, including one with safety Devin McCourty all over him. "Way to go up and get it,'' quarterback Joe Flacco said to him back on the bench. "That was awesome." Game 4 win over San Francisco, in the Super Bowl: the key 3rd-and-inches, 15-yard conversion catch, fighting off Carlos Rogers to come down with a very tough catch that led to the eventual clinching field goal. A crucial play.
Whom did Flacco go to with the game on the line? Boldin.
If the Ravens hold the line, they have to have immense confidence in tight end Dennis Pitta to become almost a Dallas Clark-type presence in their offense. Peyton Manning came to rely on Clark as his slot receiver and go-to guy on third-down conversions, and Pitta may have to morph into that reliable guy if Boldin is gone. And, to my surprise, the Ravens, who could lose two valuable front-seven players (Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe) in free agency, may have to look at a receiver or tight end in the first round of the draft. I just don't think it's worth saving $2 million to try to win without a supremely valuable weapon.
Get used to hearing from Dean Blandino. He's the NFL's new vice president of officiating. A 15-year veteran of the officiating department, Blandino becomes the first person to run the officiating department without having been an NFL official himself. He's confident and well-spoken. In one conversation, he said more notable things than I heard from three years of Carl Johnson in the office. Nothing against Johnson, but you get the feeling the league is going to trust Blandino, a longtime behind-the-scenes operative trained by Art McNally, Jerry Seeman and Mike Pereira, to be more of a Pereira type -- an out-front spokesman for the league on all officiating matters -- than Johnson was allowed to be.
Blandino and I spoke Friday because I'm interested in the officiating orientation clinic (the Tom Beard Officials Academy) next weekend in Baltimore, organized through NFL VP Troy Vincent's life-after-football programs. A current player (Bengals safety Chris Crocker) and 11 former players, including former Giants and Chiefs corner Mark Collins, will attend the Football Officiating Academy. "They're all interested in learning about officiating,'' Blandino said. "They have a unique perspective, having played the game at the highest level. When we look at a prospect, part of the evaluation is will he step up and make a big call? Will he be intimidated? They have a real leg up. Several of them have expressed they want to pursue it as a career. If they're serious, it's not going to happen overnight, but we are going to give them the tools and the resources.''
It'd be great to have players who morph into officials, but as Blandino said, we're a long way off from recently retired ones taking an NFL field.
That's one bit of officiating news. Other pieces:
The league is likely to have top prospects officiate during live preseason games this summer, working multiple series while regular officials move to the sidelines. Blandino said that since the demise of NFL Europe, in 2007, the NFL has been unable to watch the next wave of NFL officials work anything but their college games. In NFL Europe, evaluators could train new officials in crew meetings, on the field working with new partners, and could judge how they adapted to the different NFL rules. Blandino said he hopes the top 21 college officials on the league's short list of new officials will get the real treatment in the preseason, accompanying the crew to meetings, being on the sidelines during games and subbing in. "We're looking at them actually working on the field, probably not in Week 3, but in other weeks, to give them the experience of what the NFL game is like,'' Blandino said. "Then they will go back to work college football. That is very important to their continued development."
Sounds like a good idea. The majority of new officials in the league over the last 10 or so years came through NFL Europe, so this is the next-best way to train them -- unless the established officials view it as a threat to their jobs at a time when the league is trying to make peace with the officials.
That brings us to ...
Blandino will extend an olive branch to officials still bruised over the three-week lockout last year. He is investigating having focus groups with current officials to discuss topics to improve officiating. Conditioning and training, for one, which was a point of emphasis by many league officials last year that didn't get put in the new labor agreement with officials. "I want all officials to have a voice,'' Blandino said. "If I have input to a system, I am more likely to buy into it. I want to improve the lines of communication. I hope we can have some brainstorming sessions.''
There's a female official on the horizon. Blandino said one of the 21 officials in training for the NFL this summer is likely to be a woman. He wouldn't divulge the name, but I've heard it's Sarah Thomas, a 39-year-old official who has worked in Conference USA and other college conferences.
Blandino is in the midst of interviewing candidates for the NFL's full-time officials. The first will be Johnson, who leaves the office job to return to the field. The NFL could hire one per crew (there are 17 crews) or one per each officiating position group (there are seven of those).
It's too early to say how Blandino will be received by the league's officials, some of whom still are peeved at the league establishment of the replacement officials. Nothing Blandino can do about that now.
"Having worked for Carl Johnson, and worked for Mike [Pereira], and worked for Jerry Seeman, I see the different ways they've done things,'' Blandino said. "I want to be up front, I want to communicate, I want to have a balance. I am not going to come out and comment on every judgment call. I am certainly looking to educate the public, looking to clarify rules, and looking to be transparent. If there is a mistake, we are going to admit the mistake.'' That's a start.
So Jeff Saturday leaves with his body and brain intact. He retired last week after re-signing with the Colts for a day, a part-holder of a record that will be tough to break. He and Peyton Manning played 170 games together, the most (by a full season) of any quarterback-center combination in pro football history.
Manning on Saturday:
"Jeff was the ultimate teammate. Our lockers were right next to each other in the locker room. We sat by each other on plane rides to games, watching last-minute film or discussing the game plan. At our lockers, we'd talk before and after practice about protections, blitzes, et cetera. Every time I audibled, he had to basically audible as well with a different line call, so he was as busy as I was at the line of scrimmage. I'm very proud of the QB-center record we hold for most starts as a tandem. He always answered the bell every Sunday. Tough, smart, accountable, took a lot of pride in keeping me protected. It's a privilege to have played with him for so many years.''
Saturday on Manning:
"We used to call him 'Coach Manning' and always bust him up about how hard he worked. He showed up early. He left late. He led by example. He never expected you to give anything that he wasn't going to give himself. The relationship between a center and a quarterback is special. We loved each other but we could fight each other as well. We could bump heads and there was always a mutual respect. It never got any further than that. It was always on the field. The record that he and I set as center and quarterback, it's probably my most favorite [record] just because as you look at it, it's a combination of how many things we had to go through, how many things we had to stay healthy or battle through injuries to keep going. It is a tremendous honor to hold that distinction with him.''
This also occurred to me Sunday: What parallel careers two of the best centers of this era, Saturday and Matt Birk, had. On draft day 1998, Birk was a sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings. Eight days later, the Ravens signed Saturday as an undrafted college free agent; they cut him in June, and he didn't get picked up until the Colts signed him in January 1999.
Since then, Birk played 210 regular season games for two teams over 15 seasons. Saturday played 211 regular season games for two teams over 14 seasons. Birk made six Pro Bowls. Saturday made six Pro Bowls. Birk was on one Super Bowl winner. Saturday was on one Super Bowl winner. Birk won the NFL Man of the Year award in 2011. Saturday was a key negotiator and olive-branch guy in the contentious talks to get a labor deal in 2011.
They retired 13 days apart in 2013.
The Ravens were miked by NFL Films, with more sound footage from NFL Films, more than any team in NFL history in 2012. So there are a few nuggets in the Ravens season highlights and Super Bowl DVD from NFL Films/Gaiam Vivendi Entertainment that haven't shown up everywhere yet -- though quite a few did on various shows in the days after the Super Bowl win over San Francisco.
The best one: On the sideline at Denver in overtime of the divisional playoff game, safety Ed Reed and cornerback Corey Graham were talking strategy about the next series. Graham thought he had a read on Peyton Manning.
"I know what he's gonna do,'' Graham said.
"What he doing?'' Reed said.
"He's gonna throw the seam,'' Graham said. "I'm gonna get it."
"OK,'' Reed said.
Well, you remember this from watching the game: Manning didn't throw a seam route on the play in question. Late in the Broncos' last series, Manning, with a minute left in overtime, rolled right, trying to find Brandon Stokley, and he threw a weaker pass than he wanted to across his body into the slot area, not far beyond the line of scrimmage.
Manning threw the ball toward Stokley, who was trying to break free to give his quarterback an open target, and Graham wrestled it from him.
The Ravens won the game minutes later on a field goal in the second overtime. It wasn't exactly what Graham portended, but, as Graham predicted, he did get it. And it sure looked good on the DVD.
The DVD, which comes out Tuesday, also yielded these nuggets:
? Just before Ray Rice got 29 yards to covert a 4th-and-29 at San Diego Nov. 25, Ray Lewis was captured on the sidelines saying, "Gotta isolate Ray. Isolate Ray!'' Joe Flacco checked down to Rice, isolated.
? In the AFC Championship Game, Tom Brady slid cleats-up and nailed Reed near the groin. "Sorry about that,'' Brady said to him during an ensuing TV timeout.
? John Harbaugh, to himself, on the sidelines before the final futile Colin Kaepernick incompletion late in the fourth quarter: "Crabtree.
Moss." The incompletion was, as he thought, to Michael Crabtree.
? Flacco on the podium on the floor of the Superdome, told he was getting a car for being MVP: "Do I get a car? Really. I get a car!"
Some pretty good stuff, as usual, from the 30 cameras and well-placed microphones in Baltimore's postseason run.
Quote of the Week I
"Fifteen million for a corner? Not me."
Quote of the Week II
"We face major challenges. March in particular is going to be full of tough decisions. But I want to assure you, I have my top advisers working around the clock. After all, my March Madness bracket isn't going to fill itself out.''
Apparently, he has heard that some Americans think he's taking too much time off for leisure activities.
Quote of the Week III
"Without him, we don't win the Super Bowl. He's a huge part of this team and someone I want to see back.''
Stat of the Week
Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril is going to be one of the hot guys when the free-agency market opens for business Tuesday, and rightfully so. But what, exactly, will his new team (Cleveland? Denver? Tampa Bay?) be buying? Using total snaps played over the last three seasons, and sacks, quarterback hits and quarterback pressures over the same period, I compared Avril to the aging John Abraham, just cut by the Falcons in their salary purge. I judged each player over the past three seasons, capped by a statistic totaling the numbers that I call Pass Rush Impact. That's the combined sacks, hits and pressures by each man, along with the percentage of PRI -- meaning how often per 100 snaps each man got to the quarterback.
Regarding the sack number, Pro Football Focus counts a shared sack as a full sack. Abraham had 30.5 sacks over the past three years, for instance, but 33 times he had either a solo or shared sack, so Pro Football Focus credits him with 33.
Cam Wake's three-year PRI numbers: 2,733 plays, 233 impact plays and 8.4 percent. Trent Cole's: 2,396 plays, 190 impact plays and 7.9 percent. Those are two of the best guys in football at getting to the passer in the last three years.
I raise this issue not to criticize Avril, who would have value in any free market. He's a soon-to-be 27-year-old end with pass-rush ability, and those don't come free very often. But as is the case so often in free agency, the very best players (Wake and DeMarcus Ware, for instance) rarely get there ... and what you're left with are good young players like Cliff Avril and Mike Wallace, the best players in a market with a few cash-rich suitors. They get paid for what their new employers hope they will accomplish more than what they've accomplished to date.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
In 1996, the San Francisco 49ers signed a 34-year-old pass rusher set free by the Atlanta Falcons, a former first-round pick Atlanta believed was in decline after he'd had 16 sacks in his previous two seasons.
In 2013, the San Francisco 49ers may sign a 34-year-old pass-rusher set free by the Atlanta Falcons, a former first-round pick Atlanta believed was in decline after he'd had 19.5 sacks in his previous two seasons.
Chris Doleman played three seasons with San Francisco. He had 15 sacks in 1998, at 37.
John Abraham, your move.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Spent part of the weekend visiting family in Pittsburgh, and my nephew Vince set us up on one of the great field trips I've made in a long time. We visited the Roberto Clemente Museum about two miles north of downtown, set in an old firehouse, of all places, which was reclaimed and refurbished by professional photographer Duane Rieder, a Clemente fan who has become the curator of the museum. Rieder gives private tours, and we were fortunate to get one Friday afternoon.
It's such a different museum. It has Clemente's Gold Gloves and World Series rings (Rieder has a close relationship with Vera Clemente, Roberto's widow) and so many bats and gloves. But I loved the quirky things. The movie contract for a $2,000 cameo in the 1968 film
The photos are terrific, including the angelic one of Clemente reaching to catch a ball in spring training. We asked about the photos. Rieder said when the
There's a wine cellar in the museum. Rieder buys wine grapes from different parts of the world and makes his own wine right there, aging it in oak barrels the same as you'd see in Napa. There's Clemente Cabernet, and a Chianti with a Franco Harris label, and others. We sampled the zinfandel. Good stuff.
Rieder's an incredible storyteller. On the top floor of the place, he tells about a Yankees trip to Pittsburgh during the 1927 World Series. Lou Gehrig wanted to get away from the crush of Babe Ruth fans at the downtown hotel, and he had a friend who just happened to be a Pittsburgh firefighter. So here, right on this floor, where the firefighters of Engine Company 25 bunked, is where Gehrig slept during his down time in a Series in which the Yankees swept the Pirates.
He told of Jorge Posada and Jose Molina visiting between batting practice and game time in June 2008; Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran taking in a museum visit and wine-tasting after a game last year. The entire Brewers team having an off-day banquet and tour in the place last year. Jim Leyland, who lives in Pittsburgh, loving the place. Leyland and Beltran buying barrels of wine to help the museum defray some of its costs.
I couldn't recommend a living-history museum any more enthusiastically. If you go, you have to arrange a private tour, because it's not open regular hours. But if you want to spend 90 great minutes one day in Pittsburgh, stop by. Contact info:
Tweet of the Week I
"@CullenJenkins welcome to the gold young brother. We got a lot of work to do"
Tweet of the Week II
"Ten years ago, I wonder what the odds would've been that Tom Coughlin would appear on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.''
Tweet of the Week III
"It's been a great run but all good things must come to an end. Thank you Steelers Nation I will miss you all!''
Tweet of the Week IV
"If the papal election is coming up, why aren't there any campaign visits or TV ads in Ohio?''
Tweet of the Week V
"It's really going to suck to not have the big homie @adrian_wilson24 around anymore. But thank yu for all yu have done for the game & me. P2"
Ten Things I Think I Think
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Want to see how some good reporters do their jobs? Watch the
Thought-provoking and well-researched.
b. Best of luck in retirement, Ryan Westmoreland. He's the Red Sox prospect who had to retire from baseball after two delicate brain surgeries.
c. I did watch Canada-USA baseball Sunday, against my better judgment after the brawl Saturday in Canada-Mexico. How, possibly, does that Pier 6-er in the ninth inning of the Canada-Mexico game generate zero suspensions? Ridiculous.
d. Big shock, Alfredo Aceves being that unstable. Red Sox followers are stunned.
e. The right calls would have been to have Canada have a couple of brawlers banned from Sunday's game, and Mexico's fighters banned the first game in their next tournament, if they play in another one.
f. I know Joe Torre wants to play everyone, but Giancarlo Stanton benched in an elimination game?
g. Vagaries of NHL Life Dept.: Last year, Minnesota was 14-7-3 after 24 games and went on to miss the playoffs. This year, Minnesota signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to contracts totaling $196 million. The team is 13-9-2 after 24 games.
h. The last season of
j. "Ned? Ned Ryerson?!"
k. Coffeenerdness: For a bustling breakfast spot with a line out the door and plates of massive mounds of food, DeLuca's in the Strip District of Pittsburgh's has decent coffee. You'll need it to wash down a tasty cholesterol bomb that's so filling you won't need to eat for three days.
l. Beernerdness: Nothing new this week. I'll have to make it up next weekend in Phoenix for the NFL Meetings.
m. If you're out to see the new Selena Gomez/James Franco movie
The (Free-Agency) Adieu Haiku
George Young always said, "They don't play better for more dough." Buyers beware.