The messiest breakup, more superlatives from the 2014 NFL offseason
With the vast majority of free agency completed and the 2014 draft having passed into history, the NFL's roster remaking season is largely a done deal. Time to review the last 100 days or so and hand out some offseason superlatives, for the good, the bad and all that ugly.
• Messiest breakup
The Eagles send DeSean Jackson on one last go route: It wasn't quite the NFL's version of "conscious uncoupling,'' but the separation of the year definitely took place in Philadelphia, when second-year head coach Chip Kelly decided he could live without Jackson, the team's star receiver. There were a lot of layers to the story, but on the surface it's not every day that a defending division champion releases a 27-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl selection just months after his career-year (82 receptions, 1,332 yards, nine touchdowns). And especially given that Jackson's skillset seemed a perfect match for Kelly's brand of fast-break football.
We may never know how much, if at all, the Eagles' move was influenced by an NJ.com report detailing Jackson's purported gang ties, a story that broke about an hour before he was cut, but it does seem clear that Kelly and the organization had tired of Jackson's act on some level. And it was also telling that there wasn't exactly a full-blown mutiny in the Eagles' locker room after Jackson was let go, an indication that his reputation for being self-absorbed might have ultimately done him in with the team. Whatever the reason for his departure, Jackson quickly landed on his feet in Washington, signing a three-year, $24 million deal, and now gets to seek his revenge twice a season on Kelly and the Birds.
• Worst Timing
Running out of relevance: The pass-happy NFL has never paid so little respect to the running backs of the world. In free agency, it took a good while for the likes of headline names Ben Tate (Cleveland), LeGarrette Blount (Pittsburgh), Chris Johnson (the Jets) and Maurice Jones-Drew (Oakland) to find new homes in a tepid market.
And then, the same back-of-the-hand treatment was at work in the draft. Washington's Bishop Sankey went 54th overall to Tennessee, making him the first running back selected. It was by far the longest wait for a running back in the draft's modern era, topping 2013, when Cincinnati took Giovanni Bernard at No. 37.
As career moves go, lining up at running back in the NFL is a step toward the unemployment line.
• Most one-sided fight
Incognito is hell on wheels: Notorious locker room bully Richie Incognito has been known to pick on someone his own size, but of all the defenseless targets subjected to his scorn, what did his $300,000 black Ferrari ever do to deserve the can of whup-ass the ex-Dolphins offensive lineman opened on it one day this spring in Scottsdale, Ariz.? Incognito took a baseball bat to his own pricey ride, putting numerous dents in it and breaking off the handle of the bat after it jammed in the car's grille. He quickly copped to the attack once police questioned him about the damage, and thereby added another bizarre chapter to the storyline that he's really just a misunderstood team leader and merry prankster. If his Ferrari could talk, it might beg to differ.
• Most original faux pas in free agency
Rodger Saffold is a Raider, until he's not: What is it about that wacky AFC West? We had Elvis Dumervil and the Denver fax machine last year, and that was followed by the Saffold error in Oakland in March. The Raiders signed the Rams offensive lineman to a surprisingly huge five-year, $42.5 million deal ($21 million guaranteed) on the first day of free agency, then failed him on his team physical roughly 24 hours later, claiming they discovered a shoulder injury that required surgery. Saffold's camp insisted that the shoulder wasn't a problem and wasn't the real issue. Instead, Raiders owner Mark Davis was believed to have developed an old-fashioned case of buyer's remorse when the size of Saffold's deal raised eyebrows around the league, and presto, an injury issue suddenly materialized.
Curiously, the Rams didn't seem to share Oakland's concerns and quickly re-signed the jilted Saffold to a less-lucrative but still impressive contract averaging more than $6 million over five years ($19.5 million guaranteed). And he probably got a free dinner out of the Raiders somewhere along the way.
• Most telegraphed move
Darrelle Revis jumps ship in Tampa Bay to fall in line in New England: With apologies to Branden Albert's highly anticipated free-agent signing in Miami, Revis seemed destined to join the Belichick-men in New England the very second news of his potential release by the Bucs surfaced. The Patriots had just lost cornerback Aqib Talib to Denver in free agency, had the big-budget resources to spend on Revis, and had the added motivation of sticking the dagger a little deeper in the backs of the hated Jets. Revis accepted what is in essence a one-year, $12 million deal from New England, after being in line for $16 million from Tampa Bay in 2014. But some pay cuts hurt a lot less than others.
• Worst news tip
CBS' Jim Nantz morphs into Jimmy the Greek as a forecaster: OK, so Nantz was only passing on a rumor that he had heard "for a month,'' but when the smooth-talking broadcaster dropped the tidbit that "The Cowboys will figure out a way to get [Johnny] Manziel,'' it set off alarm bells that refused to stop ringing no matter how many times Jerry Jones assured everyone that drafting a quarterback was not Dallas' first-round objective. And when NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock doubled down, giving the Cowboys Manziel in his one and only mock draft, the night before the actual picking started, the Johnny Football to Dallas buzz intensified.
Alas, the Cowboys didn't have to figure out a way whatsoever. They had their shot at a sliding Manziel at No. 16 in the first round, and instead turned in a card for Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin. How positively un-Dallas-like, opting for substance over style. Don't let it happen again, Jerry.
• Best non-trade trade
Mark Sanchez and Michael Vick swap shades of green: Sanchez's time in New York had mercifully come to an end. So too for Vick in Philadelphia. So both former-starters-turned-backup quarterbacks sought new NFL homes, and wound up replacing each other on the Eagles' and Jets' depth charts. They seemingly have a lot in common: They're a pair of former top-five picks trying to relaunch their careers and replace young starters who feature nine-letter names (Nick Foles in Philadelphia and Geno Smith in New York). Vick's task of supplanting Smith, a second-round pick in 2013, will probably come easier than Sanchez outplaying Foles, a third-rounder in 2012. But for now, they're just a veteran insurance policy in case mayhem strikes.
• Best use of win-now mentality
Denver goes all in and every other poker analogy that can be made: So this is what happens when you lose the Super Bowl by 35 points. You decide to go a little crazy with the defensive upgrades. DeMarcus Ware gets added to the defensive line. Cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward are new pieces for the secondary, as is first-round cornerback Bradley Roby. That'll work.
It had better. Because as everyone knows ... altogether now ... the clock is ticking on the Peyton Manning era in Denver. Or is his window closing? I forget. Either way, there's no time to waste. That's why even the Broncos' vaunted passing game was supplemented, with the departed Eric Decker being offset by the additions of ex-Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders and second-round pick Cody Latimer. This is a Manning-led team hoping the third time is the charm in its quest for a ring, and Super Bowl victory or bust is undeniably the backdrop this season in Denver.
• Most complete makeover
Tampa Bay changes everything but its name: In order, the Bucs this offseason went out and found a new head coach (Lovie Smith), a new general manager (Jason Licht), debuted new uniforms and cobbled together a roster that's dotted with new names. No wonder fresh hope is on sale as one of the leading commodities in Tampa Bay. The Bucs aren't taking too many half-measures on the turnaround front. Nor should they in an NFC South that has featured three recent playoff qualifiers, and then Tampa Bay, which last went to the postseason in 2007.
The Bucs had a nice plan in free agency, picking up solid players like cornerback Alterraun Verner, defensive end Michael Johnson, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, tight end Brandon Myers, offensive tackle Anthony Collins and quarterback Josh McCown -- all without breaking the bank. For the most part, they got younger and less top-heavy salary-wise with the release of Darrelle Revis, Davin Joseph and Donald Penn, and the trade of Mike Williams to Buffalo. And the six-man all-offensive draft class was another plus, bringing to town at least two more quality pass-receiving options in Texas A&M's Mike Evans and Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
The Bucs, across the board, have been the busiest team in the NFL this offseason, and we'll see if their work pays off in relevance come the fall.
• Strangest draft preparation
San Diego State running back Adam Muema takes himself out of the running: Muema was invited to the NFL Scouting Combine and was thought to be a draftable prospect after rushing for 1,244 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior last season. But he sparked widespread concern when he vanished from the combine in February, turning up several days later at the Indianapolis airport, where he said he had spent two nights. Muema said God had instructed him to leave the combine before working out, and that Seattle would draft him if he did so.
Not surprisingly, he went undrafted and unsigned last weekend and said this week that he's quitting football to try boxing or ultimate fighting.
• Worst new innovation
The NFL's first all-May draft: The TV ratings killed, but it was hard to find anyone who had anything nice to say about the league moving the draft back two weeks from its traditional late-April slot. Coaches and personnel evaluators complained of paralysis by analysis and another two weeks worth of busy work. We in the media ran out of angles to hype, and extra time meant the draft prospects themselves got picked apart with an intensity level seldom seen before. But did we mention the TV ratings killed? So we had best all get used to a May draft.
• Failing to get the message award
Those tweet-happy Dolphins: After all the attention Miami has given its work-place environment and locker room culture, you'd think Dolphins players would be very wary of what they say on social media and how they say it. Maybe even showing over-sensitivity when it comes to any sign of insensitivity. Not so much.
Maybe it was intended to be harmless for center Mike Pouncey on draft night to joke on Twitter that he "can't wait'' for the "gifts'' Miami's first-round pick, offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James, will be getting his fellow offensive linemen, but it went over like a lead balloon in light of last year's bullying scandal. And then, after Missouri defensive end Michael Sam was drafted by St. Louis as the NFL's first openly gay player on Saturday, Dolphins cornerback Don Jones felt the need to tweet "OMG'' and "horrible'' in response to Sam's post-draft display of affection with his boyfriend.
The Dolphins felt the need to remind Pouncey to be careful with his social media messages, and they went much further than that with Jones, fining him an undisclosed amount and excusing him from the team until he undergoes "educational training."
• Clearest echo of history
The Texans take a defensive end at No. 1 again: After months of speculation centering around their need at starting quarterback, the Houston Texans wound up selecting South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney first overall in last Thursday night's first round. The team didn't take a quarterback at all until picking Pitt's Tom Savage in the fourth round.
It was all rather familiar. In 2006, the last time Houston held the draft's top pick, the Texans bypassed a local Texas quarterbacking legend (Texas's Vince Young) and took a defensive end from the Carolinas in N.C. State's Mario Williams. That worked pretty well in the long run, so I suppose Houston saw no need to mess with the formula. This year the Texans bypassed a local Texas quarterbacking legend (Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel) and took another defensive end from the Carolinas in Clowney.
Who said the draft has to be a science?
• You've got to be Joshing me award
Two different paths for NFC North Joshes at quarterback: Entering the 2013 season, Josh Freeman looked like he was poised to earn a big payday in his contract season in Tampa Bay. Meanwhile Josh McCown looked like the career journeyman he was, as Jay Cutler's backup quarterback in Chicago. But then things got strange and interesting. Freeman played poorly and got cut by the Bucs after clashing with head coach Greg Schiano. He wound up signing with the Vikings in October, starting once with disastrous results on Monday Night Football, before moving on to the Giants this offseason in a last-chance, bargain basement deal.
McCown did considerably better. He went 3-2 in starting five games in place of Cutler and played in eight overall, compiling the NFL's third-best passer rating at 109.0, and the highest in Bears franchise history. His 13 touchdowns and one interception, team-record three consecutive 300-yard passing games and 66.5 completion percentage made him a coveted commodity in free agency, and the Bucs awarded him with a two-year, $10 million contract and named him their starter.
• Biggest mystery
The Raiders go on a (very) veteran spending spree: Oakland should be better than last year's 4-12 debacle, but investing in older free agents is a recipe for short-termed success in the N(ot) F(or) L(ong). While the Raiders failed to retain younger building block starters like offensive tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive lineman Lamarr Houston in free agency, refusing to franchise either player, the team instead went big for aging talents. Defensive end Justin Tuck, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, defensive end Antonio Smith, cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, receiver James Jones, offensive tackle Donald Penn and quarterback Matt Schaub are all entering at least their eighth season in the league, with the vast majority of those players age 30 and beyond.
So the mystery is: What in the world were the Raiders thinking? Of course, we know what they were thinking: We had better win right now or someone besides head coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie will have to deal with whatever aftermath is to come in 2015.
• Most vivid imagery
Mark Cuban uses barnyard language to warn the NFL: The always quotable Dallas Mavericks owner called the NFL "greedy'' and tried to offer up a cautionary tale to the league when he heard about its plans to expand its Thursday-night schedule to CBS, putting the NFL on national television three nights a week during the season.
"Just watch,'' Cuban said. "I'm just telling you: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they're getting hoggy. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. They're trying to take over every night of TV.'' Cuban went on to predict the league was "10 years away from implosion'' due to the danger of product over-saturation.'
The TV ratings for the NFL draft didn't seem to back up Cuban's point but that doesn't mean he doesn't have one. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, however, does not seem concerned. "I'm not sure I agree with his conclusion,'' Kraft said of Cuban. "If we have a problem, I hope it continues.''