Now for a few other nods:
Pleasant surprise: Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder. "Too many turnovers last year,'' Ponder told me. "I had to do something about that.'' Ponder threw 13 interceptions in 10 starts as a rookie in 2011. Through four games this year, he's thrown none. And this is no simpleton offense just dinking and dunking -- Ponder's averaged 31 passes a game in Minnesota's surprising 3-1 start. Against San Francisco and one of the best pressure defenses in the league in Week 3, Ponder threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns -- but what he couldn't stop talking about from that game was how intelligent a game plan the Vikings had, and how smart they played. "That's what I like about this team -- we play smart. We had one penalty the whole game [against the Niners]. I think some of my best decisions are when I change the play to a run. I always know we're going to have time and the chance to make some big plays.''
Unpleasant shock: The fall of the Saints. It took them 22 days to surpass their 2011 loss total (13-3 last year, 0-4 this morning), and there's no secret why. The defensive coordinator brought in to replace Gregg Williams, Steve Spagnuolo, doesn't have enough players to play his coverage-centric unit; Spagnuolo likes to get pressure with four, which worked with the front-four-rich Giants but not with the Saints. New Orleans has allowed an eye-popping 463 yards per game. And Drew Brees is just getting hit too much. He's been sacked only nine times, but his line has gotten him abused far more than that. Someday, someone will write a book about the impact of the NFL sanctions on this Saints season (Are you taking notes, Jeff Duncan?), but as one NFL source said about the absence of Sean Payton: "Sean was as good as I've seen at putting his foot on the throat of the team when they needed it. This team has no one to put a foot on the throat.'' I've said this all along, but with the Super Bowl in New Orleans this year, Roger Goodell will be spending a lot of time in his suite. If I were him, I'd hire a food-tester for the week.
There's a lot of lousy defense being played -- and lousy special teams too. Check out the teams surrendering more than four touchdowns a game, and check out their records: The Saints (32.5 points allowed per game) are 0-4. Detroit (28.5) is 1-3, as is Tennessee (37.8), Kansas City (34.0) and Oakland (31.2). Washington (30.8), Buffalo and its megabucks defensive line (32.8) are 2-2.
The five upshots of the end of the ref crisis:
1. You won't have to hear about any more NFL negotiations -- at least ones that impact the field or your viewing -- until March 2020. And isn't that the greatest factoid of the end of the officials lockout? The league has a CBA with the officials through the end of the 2019 season (February 2020), a CBA with the players until March 2021, and contracts with the television networks until February 2022.
2. The league can now do something about calls like the one that almost cost the Packers Sunday. A league source told me Sunday night the official who trails the kick returner out of the end zone until he gets to about the 40-yard line is the head linesman. Which means head linesman Phil McKinnely, a 10-year vet, is the one who blew the call and didn't see the Darren Sproles fumble. Officials who botch calls like that one are routinely graded down, and the NFL beginning in 2013 will have the right to bench underachieving officials and replace them with some of the 21 development officials on the taxi squad of sorts the NFL will form next offseason. "We'll be able to have some full-time officials, and we'll be able to build a bench to improve our officiating,'' said Patriots owner Robert Kraft. "We believe this will make officiating better in the long term."
3. Officials' contract are now guaranteed. Say the league benches an official after three games for poor performance and inserts a sub from its taxi squad of 21 developmental officials. As with veteran players on the roster for opening day, that veteran official has his salary guaranteed for the remainder of the season; the 121 officials who start the season are guaranteed 15 game checks for the season, whether they work or not. The guarantee is for the season; no official has more than a one-year contract, so the league can dismiss officials after the season with no charge for any future year.
4. Suddenly, time of game is down. Wonder why. Average time of game, first three weeks: 3:14. Average time of game, Week 4: 3:08.
5. Tony Corrente is back. I'll write more about Corrente at the top of Tuesday's column, but suffice it to say Corrente's career as an NFL referee, and his life, were on the line when he went into M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston last January to get a cancerous mass at the base of his tongue and throat zapped with radiation and treated with chemotherapy. So when he stood on the field at the Meadowlands Sunday and the National Anthem played, Corrente counted his blessings and said a prayer. A long one. "A prayer of thanks,'' he said Sunday night after he and his crew worked the 34-0 Niners win over the Jets. "I feel elated and fantastic. I have a new lease on life. I just, I just can't tell how great I feel right now. It's a new life."
Scott Green should get a backslap from every official in the league.
A month ago today, the league thought it had a deal with its officials union. The deal would have given the officials $1 million a year on top of the latest offer, about $8,200 per season additional per official, and commissioner Roger Goodell made it clear to negotiator and referee Jeff Triplette that this was it -- it was time to make a deal so the officials could be on the field for Week 1 and not lose any paychecks.
Triplette called the rest of the negotiating committee to New York to meet and, he hoped, to finalize a deal. Goodell thought the cavalry was being called in to approve the numbers he'd worked out with Triplette; the officials said there was more to negotiate. League negotiators simmered, but the officials didn't take the deal. There were two things the officials hated: the refs' lucrative pension plan would disappear and be replaced by one worth about a third of the current one, and the officials wouldn't be guaranteed a certain number of games -- they could be replaced by a cadre of developmental officials the NFL would hire.
Turns out the deal they ended up with was well worth the three weeks of lost game checks. A month ago, the league's offer was to reduce the annual average pension contribution to each official from $38,250 to about $13,000. As for the developmental officials, the league wanted the ability to hire a reserve squad of 21 zebras -- three per position on the field -- and retain the right to put under-performing officials on the bench during the season in favor of these prospects on the reserve list.
The way Green saw this made sense to his officiating brethren. The NFL, in a time of unprecedented profits, was asking the officials for two monstrous givebacks. Why, Green told his peers in stripes, should we accept a dismantling of the current pension system, and have no guarantees that we'd work a full season?
The NFL eventually offered officials two more years of the lucrative pension system. The officials still balked. Finally, after the national outrage over the end of the Green Bay-Seattle game last Monday, the two sides horse-traded two major pieces: The officials got five years of the additional pension (through 2016), and agreed to extend the collective bargaining agreement from five years (which had been on the table) to eight. When the league agreed to guarantee for the season the salaries of any officials replaced during the season for performance reasons, the two sides had a deal.
Green had nothing, personally, to gain from staying out of work. Because he has been an official since 1991 and officials are fully vested in the pension system after 20 years, Green didn't make a dime from the three weeks of work lost. He actually lost seven weeks of paychecks -- four preseason and three regular season -- so that the pension system could stay afloat for five more years. The final deals means 41 of the league's 121 officials will max out in the NFL pension, assuming all stay employed that long, because of Green's persistence, and get the maximum pension of $70,000 per year in retirement at age 65.
Don't get me wrong -- the league got something it wanted very badly, the ability of the league office to have several full-time officials and the right to form a taxi squad of young developmental officials. That's going to help the game. And for those who say the owners are angry with the commissioner for tarnishing the shield with the embarrassment of last Monday's ending, there is this from Kraft: "Roger took the heat and took the pressure, and he did it for the good of the league. Sometimes you have to do things in the short term that are hard, but to the owners, and to Roger, the long-term best interests of the league are served by making the quality of the game the best it can be. Roger knew that to have some full-time officials, and to build a bench of good young officials, was going to make the game better, and that's what we have.''
At the cost of some significant mayhem, to be sure.
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