PHOENIX -- Lord, the NFC West is going to be a bear of a division in 2013.
That was my first thought as Sunday night turned into Monday morning here at the NFL Meetings, after Jake Long -- 27 years old, beat up the last two years, but two years removed from being the game's premier left tackle -- agreed to a four-year contract to be the Rams' left tackle.
It's a signing fraught with uncertainty. We -- most of us in the media, and fans, and teams -- overrate free agency as a tool to improve teams. How many times (including recently, in 2009) has Washington won free agency, then stunk the joint up when real football began? We yell at the Giants, Steelers and Packers for doing nothing in the free market except bleed players -- more about that in my Tuesday column, with some startlingly honest admissions from Packers GM Ted Thompson -- but tell me: How can you be critical of Thompson or Jerry Reese of the Giants or Kevin Colbert of the Steelers right now? They've combined to win four of the last six Super Bowls. Green Bay is 36 games over .500 in the last six regular seasons, Pittsburgh 30 over, and the Giants 20 over. But more about The Week of the GM tomorrow.
Back to the (sometimes false) hope of free agency. For a franchise that had been trying to compete with one competent tackle, Rodger Saffold, and a Ringling Brothers arrangement on the other side, the Rams getting Long is a big add. Very big. (And I'm told he passed his physical on Wednesday with ease after two battered seasons in Miami.)
Miami was in on Long aggressively, and one Dolphins official Sunday seemed confident Long would return for a sixth year. But no. And the Rams Sunday night were giving the credit for the migration to coach Jeff Fisher. "One of our players texted Jake and told him he'd retire if he had to play for any other coach besides Jeff,'' Rams GM Les Snead texted me late Sunday night. "Jeff gets veterans to Sunday ready to play ... Gets them to December ready to play ... So yes, he knows how to keep vets fresh physically, mentally and spiritually as good as anyone in the NFL."
There's an arms race in this division, with the Cardinals the only team looking spartan right now. Check out what each team has done since season's end:
I've mentioned this before, but don't go handing the division to the Niners or Seahawks yet. St. Louis was 4-1-1 in the division last year. What if the Rams can keep Sam Bradford (sacked 71 times in his last 26 games) significantly cleaner? And what if Arians can invent a quarterback? That's a huge what-if, and it's doubtful, but this is March. We major in what-ifs in March.
No huge items on the agenda this week, as the NFL holds its annual spring meetings at the Arizona Biltmore. The three issues that ought to garner some attention:
The proposal states: "It is a foul if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top crown of his helmet against an opponent when both players are clearly outside of the tackle box. Incidental contact by the helmet of a runner or tackler against an opponent shall not be a foul.'' A running back, for instance, running in the open field or outside the scrum of the line, wouldn't be able to lower his head and use his helmet to hit an on-rushing defender. But a defender wouldn't be able to use his helmet to lower into the head or helmet of the ballcarrier, either.
Emmitt Smith told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas if he didn't lower his head when a linebacker came his way, the linebacker could bust him in the head and he -- the runner -- would be defenseless. "It [the rule] sounds like it's been made up by people who have never played the game of football,'' Smith said. Well, the Competition Committee doesn't have active players, but it does have a Hall of Fame tight end, Ozzie Newsome, and two former NFL defensive backs, Mark Murphy and Fisher.
In Smith's example, where the linebacker, in his words, "can take my chin off,'' it'd be a 15-yard penalty if the linebacker specifically lowered his helmet and bashed Smith in the chin with it. After a couple of those, don't you think the defender would learn -- and the coaches would emphasize it in practice, so penalties wouldn't be forthcoming?
Said McKay: "We really think the time has come that we need to address the situation in space when a runner or a tackler has a choice as to how they are going to approach the opponent. You can't make that choice ducking your head and delivering a blow, a forcible blow, with the top crown of your helmet. We are trying to protect the runner or the tackler from himself in that instance. We realize this is a major change for players and coaches, so we want the obvious foul."
Fisher said he and fellow committee member and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, "don't feel like it is going to be difficult to explain it and to coach it.'' I canvassed five teams Sunday and found support for this proposal, but it will probably be close; 24 votes are needed for passage.
Said Anderson: "If a player is caught not wearing the thigh and knee pads or is not wearing appropriate thigh and knee pads, he will be given an opportunity to comply. He will not be permitted in the game until he does comply. If there is a continual refusal to comply, he simply will not be allowed in the game.''
The NFL, through its equipment suppliers, has shown how uniform pants and even underwear can be fitted with the thin pads, which the NFL believes will cut down on knee injuries and thigh contusions. Players don't like the pads, generally, because they think they cut down on speed. But now it's not going to matter. It'll be mandatory for all.
The best signings in the first six days of NFL free agency:
Brandon Stokley, slot receiver, Denver.
Think of those last three words -- "slot receiver, Denver'' -- and what do you think of? Wes Welker, obviously. But think of Stokley for a moment. A year ago tomorrow, Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos. During his brief free-agent fling, Manning used the home of one of his best friends, Stokley, as a refuge. Stokley lives in the Denver suburb of Castle Pines. A year ago, he was unsigned. Maybe he'd be signed by the Broncos, maybe he wouldn't. But he helped his buddy, Manning, hide out -- and decide what to do.
Manning slept at his good pal Stokley's house the day he got to Denver. The next day, Manning and Stokley got up early because Manning wanted to get a good throwing session in. In secrecy. Off to the park they went -- but there was an early-morning lacrosse game in progress. So Manning and Stokley moved to a community park with a 40-yard-square field. When a jogger would approach, Stokley would yell, "Jogger!'' And he or Manning would hide the football and wait until the jogger, or maybe bicyclist, passed.
Stokley knew the routes Manning wanted to throw, and he ran them. And when Manning signed, Stokley, 36, eventually got signed too -- with no promises about whether he'd make the team. He made the team and played 60 percent of the snaps in the slot, catching 45 passes. The last pass of Manning's season, in fact, was to Stokley, and Baltimore's Corey Graham picked it off.
So when it came time to sign Welker to a two-year, $12 million deal last week, a decision that took the Broncos about 10 seconds to make because Welker's the most productive slot man in football, coach John Fox picked up the phone to inform Stokley. "Heartbreaking,'' Fox said here Sunday, "because Stokley'd been such a great guy and important player for us.''
And Stokley said to Fox, basically, that if he was running the team, he'd go after Welker too.
That's why Brandon Stokley, who may have had his career ended by the acquisition of Welker, is the Class Guy of the Week.
Quote of the Week I
"[It is] what I call a travesty of fairness."
Quote of the Week II
"He is ahead of schedule according to [Head Athletic Trainer] Larry [Hess]. That means the muscles are stronger than they anticipated and he is doing everything he can to be ready for this season. Is he going to be ready? I have no idea. I'm sure keeping my fingers crossed, and if work has anything to do with it, he probably will.''
Quote of the Week III
"It's not Cruz."
Stat of the Week
If the Players Association or league ever wants to drive home the point about why the NFL truly should stand for "Not For Long,'' go back to the 2008 draft for vivid proof.
Jake Long's departure from Miami to St. Louis in free agency Sunday night means 42 of the top 64 players in the 2008 draft -- not quite five years ago -- are no longer on the teams that drafted them.
That's 66 percent of the drafted players gone from their original teams ... 19 of the first 32, 23 of the next 32.
I would say "first round'' and "second round'' in the above sentence, but the 2008 draft had an asterisk. The league took New England's 2008 first-round pick away because of the Spygate case, and so the 32nd overall pick, Phillip Merling of Miami, was actually the first pick of the second round.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Before the football, there was a little baseball in Kinglandia over the weekend.
On Friday afternoon, I went to Rangers-Giants in Scottsdale, at San Francisco's home field. Sat on a metal bench seat a little bit past the first-base bag, high in the grandstand. Price for the seat: $56.
On Saturday afternoon, I went to Reds-Brewers in Maryvale, at Milwaukee's home field. Sat on precisely the same kind of metal bench seat just past the first-base bag, high in the grandstand. Price for the seat: $16.
The Brewers experience was better. Better beer, less packed, kids getting Racing Sausage autographs, more of a spring training feel. But I kept thinking: The stadium in Scottsdale was teeming with people, all seeming to have fun. To pay $56 for a spring training game seems the height of insanity, but then again, I did it. So check me into the asylum.
One more point: You can buy four season tickets for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers right now in the upper deck, on the 45-yard line, for a package price of $2,254. That's 40 tickets -- four tickets per game to 10 games (eight regular season, two preseason). Do the math. The per-ticket cost: $56.35.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
So Mr. Pro Football Talk, Mike Florio of Bridgeport, W. Va., had gone 15 1/2 years without flying until Sunday. For him, it wasn't a fear of flying so much as a loss of control. When he drove, or was being driven, he could see the road and the other drivers if he wasn't the one driving, and he felt secure knowing that whatever the statistics about the relative safety of flying versus driving said, to him, driving just felt safer.
Florio's usual mode of transportation is a van to and from the Baltimore-Washington International Airport train station, then a train to New York or Stamford, Conn., for his NBC appearances. But nothing in the air since he began to do the smash-hit web stuff on PFT. If a league meeting was too far away, he just wouldn't go. If the Super Bowl was within 20 hours or so in a vehicle, he'd go by van. All the while, his bosses at NBC were working on Florio to join the human, non-Madden race. "[NBC Sports executive producer] Sam Flood kept working on me,'' said Florio. "He kept sending me links to stories about how safe it was to fly. The one that really got me was the
Florio wanted to go to this week's league meetings, and Phoenix was going to be too far to drive. So he finally decided to get back on a plane, flying here nonstop Sunday afternoon from Pittsburgh with his wife, Jill.
"It was uneventful,'' he said once in the Valley of the Sun. "I wish I could tell you some great story about getting all claustrophobic once they closed the door, or something like that. But I can't. I was hoping for a better story. The only thing I can tell you is when we were turning the corner to get out on the runway, my wife said to me, 'Does someone know where our wills are?' And I said, 'I really don't want to think about that right now.' ''
What has changed since he last flew: the fact that visitors can't go to the gate with flyers. "The whole security thing is so different,'' he said. "First, you practically disrobe going through security -- your shoes, your belt, your jacket, and then all your electronics in different bins. Then you get through security, and it's like a ghost town in there.''
Maybe on a March Sunday in an airport with increasingly declining traffic, like Pittsburgh's. But I don't go through many ghost towns when I travel.
Welcome back to the aerial race, Florio.
Tweet of the Week I
Tweet of the Week II
"I care as much about your bracket as I do about your fantasy football team."
Tweet of the Week III
"Idzik: 'I expect Darrelle Revis to be a Jet.' Translation: 'No one's giving us the picks we want or giving him the money he wants.' ''
Tweet of the Week IV
"Elvis Dumervil's ex-agent just faxed me to wish me Happy Valentine's Day..."
Ten Things I Think I Think
a. Strangest postseason college basketball matchup I have ever heard: Kentucky at Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.
b. Ohio at Denver in the NIT Tuesday night. Bobcat fever, baby.
c. Caught pieces of the ESPN Jim Valvano movie Sunday night, and it brought back some incredible memories. I covered Final Fours for the
I knew Valvano a little bit; at the time I covered Xavier's basketball team, and Bob Staak, the coach, was one of Valvano's best friends, and Valvano walked into Staak's office one day, carrying a travel bag with his suits over his shoulder, fresh off a recruiting trip to see a player in Cincinnati. They talked like they'd been friends for years, which they had. So Staak was out there in Albuquerque for the Final Four. I was in the second row of press row, even with the basket, when Lorenzo Charles threw down the winning basket at the buzzer, and I recall Valvano running around maniacally -- you've seen all the pictures -- looking for someone to hug. After the game, I tagged along with Staak for the postgame Wolfpack party, and by the time I saw Valvano back at the hotel, he'd just about lost his voice. "What a night! What a night!'' he rasped, and at the hotel he hugged everyone he saw. To think that night's become the night of legend is pretty cool.
d. And what about the year before, 1982, as freshman Michael Jordan hits the 14 foot jumper to beat Georgetown, then seeing Jordan carrying the film and the film projector on the team plane the next morning, because in Dean Smith's program the freshman carried the film and the projector. Man, that was a fun time to cover college basketball.
e. And, though I have absolutely no idea who is any good in college basketball, I will be watching Thursday and Friday, two of the great days in American sports.
f. My bracket philosophy? Simple -- since the days when I followed the game. I pick the favorite in every game, put my $20 in the mail to my good buddy Ron Fisch in Montclair, N.J., and hope for the best. I never have won a dime in Ron's pool, so he loves to see my $20 arrive in the mail.
g. Great to meet you the other day, Cara McDonough. Your old man would be proud of you.
h. Hey Pope Francis: The more you talk, the more I love hearing you talk about the poor. Keep it up.
i. The pope, of course, reads MMQB voraciously.
j. Coffeenerdness: Yes, the Arizona Biltmore is fabulously overpriced. But it has the best hotel coffee I've had in forever.
k. Beernerdness: Hey Dan Patrick! Had your Redhook Audible Ale the other day at the Giants' game. Really good stuff -- hoppy and rich. Is the next one on you?
l. If I did the 4.2-mile Pat's Run back here in Arizona in a month, could we figure out a fun way to raise money for the Tillman Military Scholar Program? The Tillman Foundation has given scholarships to 230 military service members, or their spouses, for college educations. What better way to pay tribute to the late Tillman than to raise money to educate veterans and their spouses, seeing that education was such a cornerstone to Tillman's life?
m. Maybe we can have an event in Phoenix the night before the race, a Tweetup with a Cardinal or two, with the proceeds going to the Tillman Foundation. I'm open to doing what you think would be best. Send me your best ideas about how we can raise the money, and I'll print them next week, and we'll figure something out.
The Adieu Haiku
Belichick. Smart coach. That doesn't mean he can't err. Wes Welker: E-Bill.