Saints: Taking advantage of the market.
Lots of buzz around the Saints. Last week, they went to Oxnard, Calif., to get away from the 110-degree heat index of Louisiana (it was a lovely, cloudless 74 the day I saw them on practice fields next to the Residence Inn-Oxnard), and Who Dat Nation has followed them. I'm guessing 2,000 fans, most decked out in black and gold, arrived on very short notice to watch the Saints practice for two and a half hours on a summer afternoon.
"Pre-Katrina, this never would have happened,'' said beat man Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times Picayune. "But empathy with New Orleans, plus how well they played, and the scheduling by the NFL, helped make them a national phenomenon. Look at this.''
(Side note: Imagine if Los Angeles gets a team in a year or two. Or two teams. Whatever. And the L.A. team trains up here, 53 miles north of the Staples Center. There's no question there's a football populace out here interested in the game ... just so long as the team has a chance to win.)
The Saints have been fortified with some interesting imports. Darren Sproles signed a four-year contract to replace Reggie Bush, who departed to Miami. The three other key acquisitions -- defensive tackles Shaun Roger s and Aubrayo Franklin, and center Olin Kreutz -- all signed one-year deals. Those three stalwarts signed for a total of $10 million.
In a normal year, either with a bigger cap than the stagnant $120.4 million per team, or in a capless year, the Saints would have had to pay big money for one or more of those accomplished vets. Not this year. Weird but very significant trend: Of the free agent contracts signed this offseason, 271 have been for one year, and 190 for two years or more. Normally, about two-thirds of the free agent contracts are multi-year deals. This year, 58.5 percent have been for one year.
That won't change much, most likely, in the next two years. Look for the cap, by mandate of the new CBA, to stay relatively flat through 2013. The next big bump (and I wouldn't be surprised to see it go up $20 million or more per team) will come when the new TV deals kick in before the 2014 season.
"This was unexpected for everybody,'' said Franklin, the best nose tackle on the market, by far. He got one year and $4 million from the Saints. "I think most guys thought there would be money there in free agency.''
Nope. Lucky for the Saints' run defense there wasn't.
Cowboys: If you build it, they will come. They will most definitely come, Ray.
It's sunny and 104 degrees outside Dallas Cowboys Stadium, and there's a line of some senior citizens and -- from the looks of it -- Red Sox fans, who are in town for the series against Texas down the street. They are waiting to enter the stadium for a tour of the facility, which Jerry Jones' sales force sold 700,000 tickets to see last year, and the owner is not stopping there.
"Our goal is two million visitors in a year,'' Jones says of his new all-sports facility in Arlington, which sits between Dallas and Fort Worth. "This year we've got a good chance to have more people tour the stadium than actually attend our games. I think we'll hit 800,000 visitors.''
No one is twisting anyone's arm to come in and walk through the Cowboys' locker room, and to see America's largest collection of modern art filling the concourses, and to get mesmerized by the 180-foot video screen (with stadium highlights on a loop, including a women's bowling tournament from earlier this year), and, if you're lucky, to see the team practicing on the field, as is the case today.
Although there's only one stadium like this one in the league, with its high-def TV of a scoreboard, the Cowboys have turned it into a destination spot, and playing big college football games (Oregon-LSU this weekend) and international soccer games and big prize fights and, yes, women's bowling (which drew 8,100).
Jones loves that the revenue split among players and owners in the new CBA, which calls for players to get 55 percent of the TV revenue, allows owners to keep 60 percent of all locally generated revenue. This is a good example of what a team can do when it tries to generate local revenue. Jones has two sales teams working for the Cowboys now. One sells tickets. One sells stadium tours from between $20 and $27 a pop, depending on when you want to be guided.
Let's do the math. At an average of $23.50 a tour (my estimate), 800,000 tourists yields $18.8 million. Let's say you have a sales force of 20 working to bring them in, at an average salary of $60,000 per sales person. That's $17.6 million after the sales people's cut. There are other costs, of course, like security and electricity and advertising. But whatever the number is, it supports his argument -- the one he's made for years -- that if teams try to make revenue locally, and really work at it, most of them can do better than they are.
We're sitting in the coaches' dining room on the ground floor of the stadium, where the Cowboys are having training camp indoors because of the intense heat. Occasionally a tour group stops at the door, sees Jones and snaps a photo. Jones smiles, waves, says the occasional, "How y'all doing?'' Or "Where y'all from?'' In a few minutes, touring me around the inside of the place to see all the modern art on the walls (Gene and Jerry Jones commissioned some of the world's greatest contemporary artists to make murals and artwork for the huge spaces in here), he'd meet more people touring. He introduced me to some folks, and when we walked away, he said, "See? That's added value! They got to meet Peter King of Sports Illustrated!''
"Seven percent of all NFL fans have been inside a stadium,'' Jones says. "This gives them the chance to see what they've been watching on TV. One of the reasons I built this stadium is so Al Michaels would talk about it on TV. And so people would want to come to see it. They want to see the big screen; the screen is the star of the show, and the content on the screen. Today, they get to see us practice. They get to see where we come out, and get to see all the art.''
I forgot to mention that the concourses in the bowels of the stadium were built wide enough to accommodate two huge buses side-by-side. Right about when Jones was giving his tour, a tour bus filled with visitors rolled by. Jones waved and smiled.
For some, this would be work. For Jones, it may be work too. But in 75 minutes, the smile leaves his face, oh, for maybe five minutes. This is his baby, and he loves it.
Cardinals: Kevin Kolb has a lot on his shoulders, but he's used to that.
Lots of interesting things about this team, and about the pursuit of a quarterback. I'm convinced Larry Fitzgerald wouldn't have signed long-term with the Cardinals had they not made a move to get Kevin Kolb, or a quarterback at least as good. I'm also convinced that it was Arizona, not Miami, that was closest to acquiring Kyle Orton before the deal got done for Kolb. And, as often happens in this transient league, sometimes player movement creates strange scenes.
Last Friday morning, after the Cards' short practice in Tempe, Kolb was dressing at his locker when he looked up at a TV and saw a replay of the Browns-Eagles game from the previous night on NFL Network. And just then, playing exactly when Kolb would have been playing had the trade from Philadelphia to Arizona never have gone down, Vince Young scrambled with the ball out of bounds.
"Weird. Just weird,'' said Kolb, shaking his head.
The next night, Kolb threw an 80-yard touchdown bomb to Fitzgerald in an uneven performance, and the local populace, enticed but never convinced that Max Hall or Derek Anderson were anything but poor bridges from Kurt Warner to the next real quarterback, started to think of Kolb as the guy who could lead them back to the playoffs.
"I'm very impressed how easily he's come in and blended right in on this team,'' said GM Rod Graves.
"It's like he's been here for a while,'' said Fitzgerald.
In this strangest of NFL offseasons, that sort of instant adjustment is going to be important, and I've got a story to tell you about why Kolb is a good man to make that adjustment. When he was in junior high in Texas, he was the quarterback on the football team, and his dad was one of the coaches. Even though the team was undefeated, several of the parents of players thought Kolb's dad was showing favoritism to young Kevin. His father, Roy, tired of the politics, interviewed for a job in another town but decided not to take it, that is until the pressure from parents began to eat at him at the end of Kevin's eighth-grade school year. "Dad, let's just go,'' said Kevin.
There aren't many kids about to enter high school in a community they've become comfortable in who would volunteer to move. But Kevin saw what this was doing to his father. And so they moved to a town called Stephenville, where no one knew them, where freshman Kevin Kolb would have to walk on to a football team and prove himself all over again, and where his dad wouldn't be his coach.
"It drove me to become a really good player,'' said Kolb, sitting in a meeting room at the Cards' facility here. "It made me grow up too.''
Kolb went on to earn a scholarship to the University of Houston, and he went on to catch the eye of Eagles coach Andy Reid, who selected him in the second round of the 2007 draft. And, of course, Kolb went through the whole promotion and demotion thing with Reid, who made the most famous quarterback change of the 2010 season, benching Kolb for Michael Vick, this after trading Donovan McNabb as a show of faith that Kolb was his guy.
"Of course I was shocked,'' said Kolb. "Who wouldn't be? But the day it happened, I was in Andy's office for three hours. We talked about everything. And after I ... after I settled down, I tried to look at it from Andy's point of view. When your dad is a coach, you understand coaches a little better. It didn't mean I liked it, but I understood why he did it.
"Then I kept thinking about what kind of effect this was going to have on my career. I admit I was sulking a little bit. But then I just figured, 'You better quit sulking. If Mike goes down, you're going to have to play, and everybody's going to be looking at you to see how you handle it.''
Vick, of course, did go down, and Kolb went in and throttled the Atlanta Falcons and, well, he ended up getting his wish in the offseason and coming to the Cardinals. "He is nonstop,'' Fitzgerald said. "He calls me, he texts me, he sees me and is always talking about different routes, different decisions. Football is not a hobby to him.''
In the winnable NFC West, a quarterback gives any team a chance. St. Louis knows it has one. San Francisco and Seattle don't know if they do. Arizona feels good that it does. If Kolb's pedigree is any indication, they should feel good about it.
A few of the performances that caught my eye last week.
|Denver rookie outside linebacker Von Miller vs. Seattle|
Thought: The best game by a defensive player this weekend gives the Broncos reason to think they struck gold with their first draft choice. He and Elvis Dumervil should make beautiful music together.
|Miami RB Reggie Bush vs. Tampa Bay|
Thought: Tampa's hardly the best run defense in football. Not a good sign for a guy who wants to be an every-down back.
|Pittsburgh WR Antonio Brown vs. Atlanta|
Thought: Brown, the 2010 sixth-rounder from Central Michigan, made two playoff-saving catches last year. He and Mike Wallace as speed bookends? Ben Roethlisberger is thrilled.
|Carolina QB Cam Newton vs. Cincinnati|
Thought: Silly time to panic, seeing that Newton has been practicing with an NFL team for one month. But what I found alarming watching 12 of his 19 throws was how often he threw to covered receivers. Not receivers with a little window, but receivers who were blanketed.
|Atlanta QB Matt Ryan vs. Pittsburgh (first half)|
Thought: Weird. The Falcons obviously wanted to see how the Roddy White-Julio Jones-Tony Gonzalez-Harry Douglas receiver group worked in tandem against a good pressure defense like Pittsburgh's. The answer: plenty of work left to do.
|Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril vs. New England|
Thought: Brian Urlacher said in camp this summer he thought Avril was the best guy on the Lions' front, and Avril continues to show he's ready to break through.
|Buffalo QB Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Jacksonville|
Thought: On his first three drives, Fitzpatrick, against one of the best defenses Jack Del Rio has fielded in Jacksonville, drove the Bills 74, 82 and 52 yards to a field goal, touchdown and touchdown. Keep thinking of him as roster marginalia. Go ahead. He's not.
|The continuing frailty of the San Francisco offense|
|First-half team stats from the Texans-49ers game|
Contest time: The Sports Illustrated NFL Preview Issue hits the stands Wednesday (and your mailboxes Wednesday or Thursday), and in it will be my predictions for the 2011 season. Standings, playoff teams, MVP, etc., and, of course, the Super Bowl prediction.
So the contest is going to be to predict my Super Bowl pick. Today, before 11 p.m. Eastern Time, you need to make your pick and send it to my Twitter account, @SI_PeterKing, or to my email account, SI.firstname.lastname@example.org. No entry will be accepted after 11 p.m. Eastern time today.
Here's what I need from you:
1. The score of Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. Like, Wichita 36, Topeka 16, only with the NFL teams.
2. Tiebreaker: Pick the player I predict will be the NFL's MVP in the 2011 season.
If an additional tiebreaker is needed, the winner will be the person who picks the score that is closest in total points to the score I chose.
The winner is going to get a prize. I just haven't figured out what it will be. You'll be informed of the winner -- assuming we're not bombarded with entries -- in my Tuesday column. If we get too many to go through by early Tuesday, we'll let you know as soon as we can.