6. Tim Tebow. This email came to me Saturday night around 10, from a 20-year-old university student named Adam Bond, who covers the Colchester United soccer team, a team two levels below the Manchester Uniteds of the country. Bond wrote:
I love my job and I love the game I wrote about. But I've been a massive NFL fan ever since I once stumbled upon the game flicking through TV channels in the middle of the night nearly 10 years ago. So anyway, today Colchester have a big game against MK Dons, a team quite high in the league. I'm outside the stadium talking to fans to get some quotes when from behind me I hear someone say, "I don't care if his team is winning, he just can't play quarterback." This obviously takes me by surprise, and I listen in on the conversation. The other guy says, "Look, there are only so many Mannings and Bradys and Rodgers in the world, so if you can win with him then why does it matter if he can't throw a perfect spiral every time?" The conversation goes back and forth for a while, and they discuss the cultural aura around Tim Tebow before I turn around and talk to them. Both guys are English, in their late thirties, neither have ever been to America and both discovered the game in the past few years thanks to the NFL coming to Wembley Stadium in London for a game once a year. Both read stuff online, listen to podcasts and watch the few games televised each week in the UK religiously, much like myself.
Whilst the game is growing in the UK, it's still odd to hear a conversation about the sport, particularly at a football game. I love the fact that more and more people are discovering American football. Still, it's astonishing that you can't go anywhere without hearing about Tebowmania -- even thousands of miles away from where the game was played.
7. Ray Lewis. Lewis missed his first game in 47 months Sunday with a toe injury that threatens to keep him out of the lineup Thursday night too. As I said on NBC last night, John Harbaugh told me there's "a realistic chance,'' though probably not a 50-50 shot, that Lewis will play Thursday against the Niners. He said there's no chance the bum toe will keep Lewis out for the year. The Ravens need to start finding a long-term replacement for Lewis, who is 36, but they'd rather not do it down the stretch of a season that could hold Super Bowl promise.
8. The muddled AFC. Take out 0-10 Indy, and the other 15 AFC teams are all between 3-7 and 7-3. The nose-diving Jets are a game out of the Wild Card at 5-5. Ditto for the Bills, with one win in the last 42 days. Same for the Titans and Broncos. Don't laugh: Miami's three games out of playoff contention and would have to leapfrog half the western world to get in, but no team in the conference has been as good in the last three weeks. It's a strange year, which leads me to ...
9. The toll of the lockout. As one club executive said to me this week: "The lockout has certainly had an impact on this season, but no one can describe what it is. It's just added more confusion than ever. Why is San Francisco good, with a new coaching staff? Why is Cincinnati good, with a new offense and a rookie quarterback playing? Why is there no consistency? The lockout's just made the league more confusing than ever.''
10. I hate the inconsistency of touchdowns called in the end zone. Just hate it. Go back and watch the Jermaine Gresham catch ruled not a touchdown for the Bengals late in the loss at Baltimore. Gresham gets control of the ball as he takes two steps and passes the goal line. When he falls to the ground, the ball is dislodged. But he has already pierced the goal line. The touchdown should have counted. It was ruled that Gresham didn't complete the act of catching the ball. But he did complete the act of piercing the goal line with the ball in control. Watch the play. Tell me what you think. Tell me I'm nuts -- please. I cannot fathom the play not being a touchdown. Gresham got control, took steps, went through the plane of the goal line, then lost it on the ground. No touchdown. Crazy.
11. The Bengals are not dead. Andy Dalton threw three interceptions and took a bad intentional grounding penalty in his first game ever at the Crabcake. But he also put up 24 points (should have been 28 but for the aforementioned touchdown-turned-field goal) and accounted for 405 yards of total offense and threw two long completions, one for a touchdown, to put a major scare into the Ravens. The more I watch Dalton and the Bengals (and Cam Newton and the Panthers, for that matter), the more I'm convinced the moving parts are in place for Cincinnati to contend, and not just this year. "The AFC North is unbelievable,'' John Harbaugh said afterward. "Look at Cincinnati -- and they've got those high draft picks coming in the next couple years.'' If the playoffs started today, Pittsburgh would be the fifth seed and Cincinnati six.
Can Manning and Luck live happily ever after, together?
The cogent points you need to know about Peyton Manning's contract, and how it impacts the 2012 draft plans of the Indianapolis Colts:
1. Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, together, would count $21.2 million against the 2012 salary cap, which is not prohibitive. The 2012 cap number for each team will be approximately $121 million.
You can substitute any player for Luck if you choose, because since the new CBA came out, the first-round picks are paid sanely. Manning's number will be $17 million if the Colts exercise his contract option after the season. The first pick in the draft will have a cap number of about $4.2 million (Cam Newton's in 2011 was $4 million) in a total deal of four years and about $23 million.
This means the Colts, who have to make hard decisions on veteran producers who will be unrestricted free agents next March -- like Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis and Jeff Saturday (combined 2011 cap number: $17.94 million) -- will certainly be able to clear the money to keep Manning and draft his heir. In case you doubt the Colts' willingness to clear the decks, keep this in mind: In 2006, then-GM Bill Polian ignored the fan howlings and let Edgerrin James walk in free agency; he drafted Joseph Addai in the first round the next year, and the Colts won their only Super Bowl of the Manning Era that season.
Maybe the Colts try to get Saturday back for a year to smooth the transition, but they won't blink about losing very good veterans, such as the 33-year-old Wayne, if history is a judge.
2. The Colts can't trade Manning before his huge $28 million option bonus is due. The bonus is payable several days before the start of the 2012 league year, traditionally around March 1. Trades can't be made until the league year begins. So if Manning and his agent, Tom Condon, don't agree to extend the deadline for payment of the option, the Colts will have to let him go for nothing or exercise the option and pay him huge money ... and perhaps not know for sure if he's going to be whole with his neck injury for 2012.
3. There is some logical financial pressure on the Colts to make the Manning decision before the option is due. In terms of cash paid to Manning in 2012, if the Colts hold onto him for the 2012 season, the number is $35.4 million (the $28 million bonus and $7.4 million salary). For a franchise like Indianapolis, which is not among the leaders in revenue production, a $35.4 million cash outlay for a guy who may not last a full season is a pretty big risk.
4. It's complicated, and I won't bore you, but the Colts would save $6.6 million on the cap next year by jettisoning Manning before the option bonus is due. Cap number in 2012 if they keep Manning is $17 million. Cap number if they sever ties before the league year begins: $10.4 million.
5. Luck's a ridiculous bargain, whoever gets him. Just think: Manning will make $28 million in late February if the Colts exercise his option, with no guarantee that he'll play one play for them. Luck will make $23 million for the next four years, max. And Manning, if kept and active in 2012, will make $12 million more in 2012 than Luck makes in four years.
6. If the Colts draft Luck and cut Manning, it would be cheaper on the cap than if they keep Manning. Combined cap hit for cutting Manning and first-year cap number for Luck: $14.6 million, some $2.4 million less than keeping Manning and trading the first overall pick. Of course, that depends how far down in the draft Indianapolis goes -- and what the cap hits are of the picks they get if they make a deal.
Bottom line: The cap hit for keeping Manning and drafting Luck would be quite tolerable, but there's significant motivation for the Colts to have hard proof that Manning can play by February. It's almost inconceivable to think if he were still struggling physically come early February that the Colts would shell out $35 million to keep a 36-year-old player whose health they aren't sure about.