Welcome to the NFL 'offseason'
New Orleans Saints are in no hurry to put Super Bowl win behind them
Conrad Dobler is making sure retired players aren't forgotten in labor talks
More on Brett Favre, car rental counter trouble and 10 things I think I think
LOS ANGELES -- Yes, Los Angeles. Out here for a little R&R and hockey; I saw the Kings and the new Brodeur manhandle Colorado 3-0 Saturday night. (OK, maybe I'm jumping the gun 400 wins early for Jonathan Quick, the NHL wins leader at the Olympic break, but he is impressive.) Anyway, this morning I'll try to be the methadone for your withdrawal from the NFL season. The week after always comes with a real thud, doesn't it?
Much on my mind this morning: The Saints still celebrating as they march into a headachy offseason, Peyton Manning ruining his life, the NFL's strange looming offseason, Conrad Dobler trying to make the NFL and the union do the right thing, and why you need to let major decisions percolate for a while before making them at an unemotional time on the NFL calendar.
First, some scheduling notes: A lot of you have Tweeted or e-mailed about the MMQB offseason schedule. Well, I'll be doing the column from various sites through late June (including South Africa at the World Cup), and resuming in late July on the eve of training camps opening. Between now and then, I'll be live from the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis (March 1 column), from the increasingly important NFL owners meeting in Orlando (March 22, and as events that week warrant), from some team's headquarters on NFL Draft Weekend (April 26), from a mini-camp site or two in May, and then from South Africa (June 14 and 21), writing some about the other futbol.
As of this morning, we're 580 days away from Opening Day 2011 -- the first day there will be no football if the owners lock out the players. There are going to be 580 twists and turns of the story between now and then. Still, I believe there will be a work stoppage in 2011. The fact is, owners want players to bear some burden for the costs of all the stadiums that have been built in recent years, and players don't want to pay for something they've never paid for before. That's the elephant in the negotiating room right now, and no one's budging.
I think the NFL would budge significantly from its goal of getting the players to exempt $1 billion a year from the money the two sides currently share. But if the players don't conceptually accept that they should share in the cost of building a bigger revenue base for the first time in NFL labor history, we're about to be subjected to a long and frustrating period of vein-bulging rhetoric.
I'm interested in knowing if you want to read about the weekly tug-of-war between the two sides. E-mail me your thoughts either way, and if there's a landslide wanting more info about labor and how it's ebbing and flowing, I'll try to provide it. Otherwise, we'll see how the story plays out.
For now, onto the news of the week:
The Saints will have the toughest road to repeat that we've ever seen in the NFL -- and they wouldn't trade it for the world.
Saints GM Mickey Loomis was resting up Sunday afternoon, but not for another game or a series of meetings to set priorities for the 2010 season. Try another parade. Saturday night it was the Mardi Gras Endymion Parade that had owner Tom Benson atop the big float. And Sunday night it was Drew Brees' turn to be the King of Bacchus, the first time in that parade's 43-year history a sports figure was king.
The logical question for the Saints: Is all this celebrating and spate of parades -- the Saints' Super Bowl parade was so big that it was shown live on CNN with Wolf Blitzer throwing to reporters in the middle of his "Situation Room'' show -- going to go on so long that they effect the Saints' ability to repeat in 2010? Teams in the Super Bowl are so far behind the preparation 8-ball already, finishing the season five weeks after the 22 non-playoff teams.
Brees has gone from Disney Parade to Saints' parade to the Ellen DeGeneres Show to Oprah -- all the while giving America a reason to say "Awwwwwwww,'' after seeing the touching cover of SI with Brees lifting his 1-year-old son into the sky after the Super Bowl win. He's the most beloved man in Louisiana as the big man in the Mardi Gras parade. He's the leader of the team. America can't get enough of him. Will he ever be allowed to come down to earth?
"I've heard that, about all the celebrating and how it will affect us,'' Loomis said. "Good question. I don't know. But this is the first time for this city, and it's special, obviously. So special. We want these moments to last as long as they can. The celebration is so intense right now, and we wouldn't have it any other way, because this city and this franchise deserve it. We're going to celebrate hard. And when we get back to work, the one thing we've shown the ability to focus on is the task at hand. If you try to put it behind you too soon, you'll always look back and think, 'I should have enjoyed it more.' ''
Good for Loomis and the Saints. Players and coaches in this business say endlessly, like a mantra, that they're in this business to win a Super Bowl, and all our energy is focused on that. If five days after winning they say, OK, we've drawn a line in the sand, and we won't have any more talking about winning the Super Bowl. I mean, only an android would do that. Saints coach Sean Payton always had the tempo of the team in his hands, and the ability of Brees to see what was important (and when it was important, as in minimizing how poorly the team played in stretches near the end of the regular season) was a good leadership tool for the team. Until I see Payton with the lampshade on his head during a May minicamp, I say laissez les bons temps rouler. Let the good times roll.
Loomis has spent the last few days trying to process the amazing things he's seen. "At the parade Tuesday, there were stretches where people were 100 deep, on both sides of the street, packed in, screaming, just so happy. My ears felt like I was in the 'Dome after we scored a touchdown -- for like five straight hours. The trophy, to people here, is like the Holy Grail. Last night, [team PR chief] Greg Bensel and I took the Lombardi Trophy into the security office at the Dome, just to let people see it and touch it, and we must have been in there 30 minutes, with all the officers taking pictures with it and holding it. What it means to them, to everyone, is unbelievable.
"One of the officers had a great idea I'm going to be bringing up to Mr. Benson. There are 64 parishes in Louisiana. Since this is the state's team -- the Superdome was built by the state originally, not by the city -- this officer suggested we take it to all 64 parishes in the state. I thought it was a great idea. Seems to me this trophy needs to be touched by so many people.''
Sort of like the Stanley Cup. It's a terrific idea -- let every parish in the state have a day with the trophy. And Payton told me last Sunday night he'd consider doing something like the NHL does with the Stanley Cup, and allow his players to take it for a day. Now, who knows if this ever gets done, but it's always been a part of hockey tradition that is warm and human. Why can't the NFL do the same thing?
Loomis knows there's one bit of business he needs to monitor, and that's the business of keeping a winner together. The Saints have 29 restricted or unrestricted free agents, but that figure is misleading; only seven of the 29 are starters, and some (like tight end Tory Humphrey) have no bearing on the Saints' future. Looking at the significant free agents:
Unrestricted free-agents (2): FS Darren Sharper, LB Scott Fujita.
Restricted free-agents (5): T Jammal Brown (an asterisk there because the starting Pro Bowl left tackle was hurt and gave way to an oft-shaky Jermon Bushrod), T Jermon Bushrod, G Jahri Evans, RB Pierre Thomas, SS Roman Harper.
There are some interesting other names on the restricted list -- like Super Bowl onside kick hero Chris Reis, valuable second tight end David Thomas, and depth-providing defensive tackles Anthony Hargrove and Remi Ayodele (who spotted the 12 men in the Vikings huddle on that vital NFC Championship Game play and screamed to the officials about it). There's also versatile motion tackle Zach Strief (remember that mountainous guy you saw in motion 50 times in the playoffs for the Saints?), receiver Lance Moore and special teams ace Courtney Roby, who is valuable if only because the Saints don't have strong special-teams play.
"We've got a good plan, I think,'' said Loomis. "We've talked it through. We knew we'd have a lot of guys out there, so it isn't a surprise. I think we'll be OK.''
Unless, as has happened on several occasions in the 17-year history of free agency, a Super Bowl champ gets picked clean by teams trying to buy some championship magic.
The Saints may have to make a tough decision on the 34-year-old Sharper. If a leadership-seeking team wants to entice him with an $8-million signing bonus and decent annual salaries in a two-year deal, New Orleans might have to let him go. I expect they'll put the maximum tender offers on stalwart players like Brown, Harper and Evans, so if some teams blows any of those players out of the water with a strong offer, Loomis can match it or get a high draft pick or picks in return.
The other question is whether they'll allow Reggie Bush to walk in trade. No question there will be some interest out there, particularly by Seattle, with former USC coach Pete Carroll there, but my hunch is that Payton, who likes Bush more than most football people do because of the change-of-pace he provides for the offense, will figure Bush, at 24, will continue to make enough plays to justify his $8 million salary in 2010. I think the Saints will keep him.
"See you at the Combine,'' Loomis said at the end of our conversation. "I can't believe it's only 10 days away.''
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