I don't see the elephant in the room bugging Drew Brees much.
Brees, after one of the best games of his career in Minnesota (32 of 40, 412 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions, on the bench for the final 12 minutes) is 305 yards shy of Dan Marino's single-season passing yards record with two games left.
"I didn't know how close I was,'' he said from the team bus after New Orleans' rout of the Vikings. "Thanks for clarifying that. It's sort of the elephant in the room, obviously, because it's a record people talk about a lot. But I will not let it influence how we prepare, or how I make decisions in games. When all is said and done, if I have a chance to break it, I'll be happy about it, but it's not going to be the focus of this team.''
New Orleans has won six straight. The Saints might be the toughest playoff obstacle for Green Bay, because they can win in many ways. They've got four running backs who can run in any weather, in the potential January muck of San Francisco or the ice rink of Green Bay. And they have an incredibly accurate passer who's threatening to break the accuracy record he set in 2009.
It might be too late, because Aaron Rodgers has been so good for 14 games, and so consistently good until Sunday in Kansas City. But let's look at the holy trinity of MVP candidates:
|The Big 3|
I'd still give it to Rodgers this morning. The MVP should be his to lose at this point. But let's see how it plays out the next two weeks. If Brees sets records for accuracy and passing yards this year, and the Saints finish the year on an eight-game winning streak, it should be a contest.
Speaking of quarterbacks playing well, and good numbers, I bring you Tony Romo at the 75-game mark of his career.
Saturday night's 31-15 snoozer over the Bucs was the 75th regular season start of Tony Romo's Dallas career. It seems a good time to measure Romo against the great Cowboy quarterbacks of the past -- specifically the two Hall of Famers who preceded him in Dallas, Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. The first 75 starts of the Cowboy Three's careers, along with the productivity in those 75 regular season games:
|Dallas Cowboys Quarterbacks|
|How Tony Romo stacks up|
In his last seven games, Romo has six interception-free games. In that span, he's thrown 18 touchdowns with two picks, and Jerry Jones said after the game -- and he's right -- that he wants to make the playoffs so badly this year in part because when you've got a hot quarterback, you want to get into the postseason because you think all things are possible when your most important player is playing his best.
Mind if I get waaaaaay ahead of myself?
Let's say the NFL draft were tomorrow (Quick -- get the combine going this afternoon!), and let's say the two juniors who haven't announced their intentions (Matt Barkley, Landry Jones) both enter. I could see the following play out, despite Jones' draft stock slipping because of a poor end of the season:
|NFL Draft 2012|
|Possible QB Picks|
Do I think this is how the draft is going to play out? Who knows? And I definitely would rather see Cleveland keep Colt McCoy and draft multiple players to put around him for the future. But I do not share an office with Tom Heckert; nor does Mike Holmgren seek my counsel. I'm just projecting one way the draft might go.
Keep in mind that Seattle, one of seven 7-7 teams right now, also will likely draft a quarterback high in April, and the Seahawks have an aggressive GM, John Schneider, and coach, Pete Carroll. Don't be surprised to see the Seahawks love one of the four prospects and try to move up to get him.
What the NFL's new TV deals mean.
On Nov. 12, NBC executives and talent and production crew hosted NFL Broadcast Committee chairman Robert Kraft, his son, Jonathan and Jonathan's wife, for dinner at ritzy Park Avenue Autumn. Robert Kraft was in his element, telling stories, reveling in the company of NBC execs Steve Burke and Mark Lazarus, and anticipating the Sunday night game in the Meadowlands between the Patriots and their good friends the Jets.
Afterward, Kraft and NBC Universal CEO Burke went back to Kraft's apartment at the Plaza, near Central Park, to transact some business. Or, Kraft hoped, to start to transact some business. It was that night when Burke heard what the NFL wanted NBC -- paying $600 million in 2012 and 2013 for rights to the NFL Sunday night package of games -- to pay going forward. Kraft told Burke the league would want $950 million a year, on average, for nine years of rights, beginning in 2014.
"Everyone gulped when we told them what we wanted,'' Kraft said last week. "I think [FOX's] Chase Carey and Rupert Murdoch had to pick themselves off the floor. And it was tough for Steve Burke and Mark Lazarus and Brian Roberts, but they understood the value of the package, and they showed great leadership to figure a way to get it done.''
Actually, there was another factor in the negotiations, and that factor surfaced five months ago. With the NFL and its players on the verge of doing a 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement, at the 11th hour, the players asked for an opt-out clause after the sixth year of the deal. This came after the owners and players had agreed to a strict 10-year deal with no opt-outs, and some player reps not involved in the negotiations thought the union had given away too much by agreeing to a deal for a decade with no ability to get out if the owners' deal was seen as too sweet midway through it.
On the day before the deal was announced in late July, one player source told me he was sure the deal would have an opt-out, and perhaps for both sides. But it was then, on the night of July 24, that some owners, and commissioner Roger Goodell, were adamant that there be no opt-out. Kraft said it. Goodell said it. And the chairman of the labor committee, Carolina's Jerry Richardson, said it.
"It was a huge sticking point with me,'' Richardson told me over the weekend. "I would have voted against the deal if there was an opt-out. To go from having business certainty for 10 years to possibly having the deal interrupted in the middle -- that's obviously a huge difference. I think it's allowed us to begin making some smart long-term business deals.''
The 10 years of uninterrupted football (through 2020) allowed the league to be aggressive in tying up the TV deals while the economy is still a huge question mark. Richardson is right -- had the opt-out been in effect (unless it was such an onerous one and so out of reach that it would never come into play), it's highly unlikely the NFL would have been able to get $6 billion per year, on average, from TV partners CBS, ESPN, FOX, NBC and DirecTV. Think of that. In 2004, the NFL's total gross revenue was $6 billion. A decade later, they'll get that in one year, in stormy economic times, from TV alone. And they'll get it on free TV. "We're proud that we could keep every game on local free TV through 2022,'' Kraft said. "No other sport does that.''
(NFL Network and ESPN aren't free, obviously. But games shown in local markets on those cable outlets are made available to over-the-air channels so local viewers without cable or access to NFL Network can see their home teams.)
The league was going to do an eight-year deal, but that would have left one of the major carriers without a third Super Bowl. The ninth year, 2022, means CBS, FOX and NBC all get three Super Bowls in the deal -- and that's a $250 million to $300 million-per-game boost. "There were a few moments where I doubted we'd find the economic path,'' Lazarus told me. But that's where some of the adjustments to the NBC deal came in.
NBC got the Thanksgiving night game, beginning in 2012, taking it from NFL Network. NBC got one of its Wild Card games changed to a divisional game, beginning in the 2014 postseason. NBC got the ability to add a two-hour pregame show on its new NBC Sports Network in 2014. And this under-the-radar add-on, which could come in handy. In the new contract, NBC will not only have the ability to flex-schedule games in Weeks 10 through 15. In Weeks 5 through 9, NBC will be able to flex out of a bad game; this won't be an unlimited opportunity, I'm told, and it won't be like the regular flex scheduling, when a good game can be flexed for a great one. Call this the Peyton Manning Injury Clause. In Week 7 this year, NBC was stuck with the Saints against the 0-6 Colts, and no one cared. In the future, the league will erase a game like that one and sub something more palatable.
"It's a big risk,'' said Lazarus of the $950 milion per-year tag. "But we got value for it. We improved our package. Our first reaction was, 'That's a lot of money, and we have to have increased value to make that work.' ''
They got it. Now it'll be interesting to see in the coming decade who was smarter: Kraft and the league for getting economic certainty for the next 11 years, or the networks, for locking in programming none of them can live without.
Jerry Richardson goes to a funeral.
Last week, after the Panthers lost at home to Atlanta, longtime season-ticket holder R. Bruce Rognon, 71, of Pinehurst, N.C., was walking from the stadium to his car. Rognon collapsed. He died of a heart attack. His memorial service was Saturday in Pinehurst, and Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who did not know Rognon, got in his car and drove the 80 miles to the service. "He [Rognon] never missed a game,'' said Richardson. "The least I could do was go to the service and pay my respects. These fans are amazing. They do more than invest their money. They invest their time and emotion, and they buy into your team. It is such a sad thing for the family.''
I love that he got it in his car and drove to the funeral of a man he didn't know.
Red Wings shut out Blackhawks, take 3-1 series lead
Rangers keep season alive with OT win over Bruins