If I were an NFL team drafting high, I'd be very careful evaluating Eric Berry.
The Tennessee safety, obviously, is a rare prospect. But the history of safeties in terms of longevity and greatness at the top of the draft is very shaky.
The nature of the position is smallish people throwing themselves around like linebackers, and that doesn't lend itself to long careers. The three best safeties to be drafted in the past decade -- Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu and Bob Sanders -- have missed 78 games due to injury in their 21 combined NFL seasons.
Berry looks like a top-10 pick, but the team that takes him is going to be picking against history. Of the five top-10 safeties this decade, none has had franchise-player impact: Roy Williams (Dallas, eighth overall, 2002), Sean Taylor (Washington, fifth overall, 2004), Michael Huff (Oakland, seventh, 2006), Donte Whitner (Buffalo, eighth, 2006), LaRon Landry (Washington, sixth, 2007). Taylor might have had franchise-player impact if he had not been gunned down three-and-a-half years into his career. But overall, the position justifies the caution lots of teams are taking with it.
Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff calls the safety-at-the-top-of-the-draft debate a conundrum. "It's been on my mind a lot lately," he said, "and I realize I'm speaking out of both sides of my mouth here, but Berry's a really good player. It's been on my mind quite a bit recently. You want the good hitter with hip movement, able to turn and run, but then reality sets in. I was talking to [Kansas City GM] Scott Pioli about Berry, and I said, 'Scott, this guy's your pick.' And he said, 'You know how I feel about safeties that early.' And I understand.''
I'm not saying Berry won't be a great player. Maybe he'll be Ed Reed. Maybe he'll know when to dish out the big hit and when to steer a player instead of seek and destroy. But the odds of him being great for a long time -- as opposed to the physical longevity of a tackle or defensive lineman or quarterback not subject to as many high-speed collisions -- are pretty long, based on history.
Carl Johnson speaks.
Mike Pereira's successor as the NFL vice president of officiating, Carl Johnson, is sometimes so overwhelmed by the subway in Manhattan that he just walks 20 minutes to work. Johnson's lived in Thibodaux, La., (pop.: 14,000) all his life; actually he lived in a suburb of Thibodaux growing up, then moved to the big city and stayed, even after becoming an NFL official nine years ago. So the move to New York for Johnson and his family (they may eventually settle in New Jersey) will be as daunting as the high-pressure job he's about to take over. Johnson hopes his former full-time job -- he managed teams of people in the field for a soft-drink company in Louisiana -- has prepared him for some of the heat he'll feel from coaches angry at bad calls when they call to complain Monday mornings.
"I've had years of customers calling and screaming if their product is not there on time,'' Johnson, a fit, eager former line judge, said in an interview at the league meetings Sunday afternoon. "If we kick a call and get one wrong, we've got to admit we're wrong, move on and do better the next time. This is a fast game, and we have to understand every call isn't going to be perfect. But if you're open and honest and upfront with the kind of transparency that Commissioner Goodell wants, I think that's what's important in the job. I just want to build on the job Mike did for the last 10 years and just strive to make it better.''
Pereira was so good at the media part of his job -- he was affable and easily understood on his regular segment on NFL Network explaining the tough calls of the week -- that I wouldn't be surprised to see him transition to ESPN as an officiating czar or stay at the Network to be a full-time rulesmeister there. That's probably not the role Johnson's going to serve at first. The public won't see as much of him on the air explaining calls until he gets comfortable in the media eye.
I asked him how he'd feel critiquing his peers -- whether on his former crew with referee Mike Carey, or with men who have officiated the game longer and at a higher level as referees than he reached on the field. Of course, that's exactly the transition Pereira had to make when he went from side judge to the NFL office. But the transition from peer to boss isn't easy in any job.
"We're all professionals,'' Johnson said. "We all expect excellence. If you don't get it right, you've got to get better. I'm going to hold the men accountable, just like I'll be held accountable.''
Johnson's an impressive, earnest guy. But Goodell won't know how good he is until he takes his first few Monday blisterings from Sean Payton or Andy Reid or Mike Shanahan.
Speaking of Pereira, he's interested in coaching, believe it or not.
Not the traditional kind of coaching job that we'd think of. He said Sunday he's interested in a job "that would redefine what your idea of an assistant coach is.'' Pereira, who turns 60 in April, hopes to find a team interested in taking him on when he leaves office in May. He believes he could train the team year-round in penalty prevention, working with the coaching staff on what makes officials reach for the flag on touchy calls like pass-interference, and then be in the coaches booth on Sunday upstairs telling the head coach when to throw the challenge flag.
"Say the average team gets 10 penalties for 75 yards,'' he said on a couch at the meetings here. "That doesn't count the calls that weren't accepted. I believe penalties have a bigger impact on the game than anyone realizes. I'm fascinated by the coaching aspect of it, of trying to cut down the penalties. Obviously it's never been done before, and I realize not every team would be interested in something like this. I think it's a matter of who's progressive enough to think about it. Who would take the chance?''
At first glance, I wonder if there'd be enough for an officiating assistant to do. But as Pereira said, a hallmark of so many good teams are those that minimize mistakes. Would it be more valuable for a team to have an assistant special teams coach, or to have a coach who could eliminate 300-400 negative yards from penalties in the course of 16 games?
There's on X-factor for Pereira. Part of the reason he left his job in New York was to be more of a caretaker for his ailing parents in central California. So he'd probably limit himself geographically, needing to be near his folks. Strikes me as something Denver or Seattle or San Diego might consider.
The Players Association is not happy with the TV Networks.
In conversations with NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith and president Kevin Mawae over the past few days, I got the strong feeling the cushy relationship between the TV networks that enrich this league and the players could be headed for the rocks. This is because the union leadership believes that the networks, in guaranteeing regular payments to the league in the event of a job action next year, are siding with the owners.
"Management has aligned with the networks,'' said Mawae, the longtime NFL center, "and that concerns the players. It's upsetting. If FOX and CBS and NBC, for instance, are going to finance the lockout, why should we give them free access to our players? We don't get paid to do interviews for the networks. We don't get paid to do production meetings. We are taking a hard look at our players' availability for the networks that choose to pay the league in the event of a lockout.''
Two counters to that from a source with knowledge of the network TV contracts: There is boilerplate language in the deals struck between the league and Big TV that allows the NFL to call for regular payments in the event of regular-season games being cancelled. But that money has to be paid back over the term of the contract, or has to be deducted from future payments during the life of the contract. In essence, it's a loan. But it still does allow NFL teams to go forward with business as usual if games aren't being played -- and while players would have no income coming in, teams would be getting regular network checks; network money accounts for about $100-million per team annually.
Secondly, the exposure provided by appearances on pregame shows and in productions meetings -- where players meet with that week's TV announcing crew a day or two before the game -- help raise the profile of players as well as educate the play-by-play and color men. Would center Jeff Saturday have gotten a shot at co-starring in a credit-card commercial with Peyton Manning without the exposure to TV people and his willingness to be a smart voice for national TV feature pieces?
But the players are seeing red over this. Could player leaders like assistant player rep Tom Brady of the Patriots and NFLPA Executive Board member Drew Brees not do the production meetings or cooperate with the pregame shows? "Is it possible that a number of players will not [do business as usual with the networks]?'' said Smith. "Absolutely.''
If some players balk at things like the production meetings, it could set up a challenge from the league -- and possibly warning letters or fines. The league could say players minimum media requirements, for instance, could include the four or five key players meeting with the networks for the production meetings. It's doubtful the league could mandate players doing individual on-camera interviews (Donovan McNabb, for one, eschewed all one-on-one interviews for TV in 2009, doing only at-podium news conferences), but they may see TV production meetings differently. Just one more way the buddy-buddy relationships in the NFL could cool in the next year.
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