Messiest breakup, revamped division, more NFL off-season superlatives
The "off" really no longer applies to the NFL off-season, because I’m convinced there’s more going on at this time of year than there is when the games are actually being played. Time to review the last 100-plus days and hand out some off-season superlatives, encapsulating another eventful and news-filled start to the new NFL year:
Most revamped division
Trying to chase down the champs: The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, the longest drought in the league. The Dolphins haven’t appeared in the postseason since 2008, and the Jets last made the 12-team playoffs in '10, the franchise’s longest span of mediocrity since 1992–97. So no wonder the AFC East’s three wanna-bes went to such great lengths this offseason to try and close the gap with defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.
Buffalo was the splashiest movers and shakers, hiring Rex Ryan as head coach, acquiring LeSean McCoy and Percy Harvin as skill-position threats, and trading for Matt Cassel as a starting quarterback option. Miami went big for Ndamukong Suh and totally reworked their pass-catching contingent (DeVante Parker, Greg Jennings, Kenny Stills and tight end Jordan Cameron). And the Jets have a new head coach and general manager tandem (Todd Bowles and Mike Maccagnan) a new cornerback depth chart in Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine, and a new No. 1 receiver in Brandon Marshall. Throw in quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, running back Stevan Ridley and first-round pick Leonard Williams and New York has been in full-blown make-over mode.
Have the Patriots come back to the pack in the AFC East? Reports of New England’s demise are always greatly exaggerated, but this much is clear: the Bills, Jets and Dolphins all got better. Perhaps substantially so if their quarterback play some how improves as a byproduct of all the changes.
Robert and Roger no longer go to the same dinner parties: For the longest time this offseason, I presumed I would award this one for the second year in a row to Eagles coach Chip Kelly and another of his team’s offensive stars that he shockingly and summarily jettisoned (DeSean Jackson in 2014, LeSean McCoy in '15). The Kelly-McCoy divorce got ugly enough that the ex-Eagles running back has interjected race as a possible motive behind his trade to Buffalo. Not that the charge stood up to much inspection.
But how can you overlook the chasm that currently exists between Patriots owner Robert Kraft and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the former buds who are currently not on friendly terms in the wake of the Deflategate investigation and league-issued punishment? Regardless of reports of behind the scenes talks and man-hugs with Goodell, Kraft hasn’t taken possible litigation against the league off the table as an option, and that’s a power move we really haven’t seen since the heyday of Al Davis and his Raiders. The Kelly-McCoy split will fade in importance, but Kraft versus Goodell could linger and add intrigue and impact for years to come.
Best immediate grasp of the situation
No one’s irreplaceable. Especially you: Like most of us, Rams running back Zac Stacy settled in on the night of April 30 to watch the first round of the NFL draft, in Chicago. But when St. Louis surprisingly used its No. 10 pick to select Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Stacy quickly deduced it was not good news for his depth chart standing, tweeting out his wonderfully descriptive one-word reaction: “Yikes."
Yikes, indeed. Gurley’s arrival spelled Stacy’s departure, and after he requested a trade, the Rams quickly obliged that wish, two days later sending Stacy to the Jets in exchange for a seventh-round pick. That’s why the draft is must-see TV. You just never know who’s going to wind up going where. Even if you’re not selected.
Worst roll-out of a new face of the franchise
Words escape me, but very rarely: If you saw it, you know Jim Tomsula had nowhere to go but up from there. On the day he was introduced as the 49ers new coach, Tomsula went on the local Comcast network in the bay area for what can ostensibly be called an interview. The first 40 seconds or so are pure television gold, with Tomsula mumbling almost wordlessly through answers, doing more grunting and deflecting than enlightening. Tomsula obviously didn’t want to give away any information at that nascent point in his tenure, and you’d have to declare mission accomplished.
Best display of win-now mentality
The Colts decide to make every game day a Throwback Sunday: Having climbed one step further up the AFC postseason ladder in each of quarterback Andrew Luck’s first three seasons, Indianapolis put the focus on proven veterans in free agency, and landed a bunch of them. Running back Frank Gore just turned 32. Receiver Andre Johnson will be 34 in July. Pass rusher Trent Cole is going to be 33 in October, and his fellow ex-Eagle, guard Todd Herremans, reaches the same age eight days later.
The Colts’ approach is certainly not conventional in a league that worships at the altar of youth, and the track record of post-30 skill-position players doesn’t make Gore and Johnson great bets. But who knows? The Colts’ grand plan might turn out to be the exception to the rule, with all four of those veterans having something to prove to the rest of the league. Indianapolis just went all-in on an effort to compete with the AFC superpower in New England, and it’s clear the Colts see their time as now.
The longest good-bye
Steelers to Polamalu—How can we miss you if you won’t go away?: Months before he actually decided to step away from the game after 12 stellar seasons in early April, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu clearly was being coaxed in that direction by Pittsburgh, which saw slippage in his game at age 33. The Steelers lavished Polamalu with praise as one of the franchise’s all-time greats once he called it quits, and deservedly so. They just didn’t want to lavish him with any more salary for a 13th season, but couldn’t afford to make it look like they were pushing the wildly popular Polamalu out the door. It was a delicate little dance with a player of his stature, but in the end, the Steelers and Polamalu both successfully executed their steps.
Best cameo appearances
Thanks for stopping by: You can’t say the Patriots didn’t capitalize on their 2014 headline acquisitions of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. The veteran tandem arrived in Foxboro last year with the goal of shoring up New England’s long-standing secondary issues, and winning themselves a ring. Check, and check. Not long after the victory parade through Boston, just like that they were gone, with Revis re-joining the rival Jets and Browner moving on to New Orleans. As one-and-dones go, it was as good as it can possibly get.
The why won’t anyone believe us award?
Turns out, the Tennessee Titans were the truth-tellers: I sat and listened to Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt for the entire hour at the AFC head coaches/media breakfast at the NFL annual meeting in Phoenix in March, and he had nothing but rave reviews for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. He also said that if it’s even close, a QB-needy team drafting No. 2 overall almost has to take a passer if there’s a worthy one available. Despite all that, many refused to believe Tennessee was really interested in Mariota and saw Whisenhunt’s comments as vintage draft-season smokescreen and subterfuge.
Guess what? The Titans took Mariota second overall and said they never really came close to striking a deal to move out of that spot. The lesson should be that sometimes face value is still worth something, even during the long pre-draft build-up.
Most unlikeliest marriage
Didn’t see that pairing coming: The Seahawks and Saints swung one of the stunner deals of the NFL offseason when New Orleans shipped its star tight end and a draft pick to Seattle in exchange for center Max Unger and a first-round selection. Graham is an undeniable pass-catching talent, but his fan club clearly did not extend to the Seahawks locker room. He and Seattle linebacker Bruce Irvin got into a heated pre-game scrap before the Saints-Seahawks playoff game after the 2013 season, and Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett later called Graham “overrated’’ and pointed out his non-existent blocking skills. But Graham is a Seahawk now, and with Marshawn Lynch leading that offense, he’ll be forced to throw a shoulder or two into his blocking assignments.
Been there, done that award
Where have I seen you before?: Mark Sanchez probably thought the strangest thing about the New York-to-Philly quarterback shuttle came last year, when in essence he and former Eagles starter Michael Vick traded places, with Sanchez going from the Jets to Philadelphia and Vick bouncing from the Eagles to the Jets. But then came this year. Long after Sanchez re-signed with Philadelphia, the Eagles went out and signed Tim Tebow, who spent that one ill-fated season in New York, seeing just 77 snaps of offensive action as a reserve quarterback behind Sanchez in 2012. For now at least, Sanchez and Tebow are together again, in a difference shade of green, vying for playing time behind new Eagles starter Sam Bradford.
Most costly war of attrition
Will the last 49ers defender to leave please hit the lights?: Nobody has endured quite as many departures this offseason as San Francisco’s defense. First it lost its coordinator when the well-respected Vic Fangio left for the same position in Chicago. Then linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland both retired earlier than expected due to health issues, and this week, defensive lineman Justin Smith called it a career after 14 standout seasons. Smith’s body simply was no longer able to stand up under the wear and tear of the NFL grind, he said. So much will be new about the 49ers in 2015, and the nowhere was that pace of change ever more relentless than on defense in San Francisco.
Most effective strategy in a stand-off
Vikings call Adrian Peterson’s bluff on that trade demand: Disgruntled players can sometimes talk their way out of town, but huffing and puffing didn’t work for the Vikings’ franchise running back, at least via his agent, Ben Dogra. Minnesota didn’t go all wobbly and think it had to move Peterson at some point by the draft, caving to a player whose child abuse scandal last year was entirely a self-created problem. The Vikings held firm, reminded Peterson that if he wanted to play in 2015 it would be in Minnesota, and waited for reality to sink in. It did, the trade talk ceased, and now Dogra is making noise about the Vikings showing Peterson a new financial “commitment’’ in order to ensure he retires with the franchise. Good luck with that one. Reverse-field running is apparently Peterson’s latest approach.
Teams on the move (maybe)
When it comes to NFL real estate, it’s all about relocation, relocation, relocation: The NFL has gone 20 years without a team in Los Angeles, with hardly anyone noticing. But in a span of about 12 minutes this spring, three teams announced their intentions to stake a claim to the L.A. market. First came the St. Louis Rams and owner Stan “I’ll build it myself" Kronke, who has designs on a new stadium in Inglewood. Then, in a bizarre and unprecedented twist, longtime AFC West rivals San Diego and Oakland joined forces and announced plans to pursue a jointly-occupied stadium in Carson. The goal is for someone to be moved and ready to kick off in SoCal by the 2016, so you can understand time is of the essence. Ready or not, L.A., the NFL might be on the way.