Are you ready? Super Bowl XLVII week is off and running
NEW ORLEANS -- Ready to get beaten over the head with the Harbaughs, Ray Lewis past and present and a whole lot of players saying a whole lot of nothing? Well, it's Super Bowl week, and the bad news for you is that the one thing I noticed in my few hours in town Sunday before writing this is there's more media than ever. TV especially. CBS has taken over Jackson Square, there's a typical ESPN encampment, NFL Network has its army (plus one new NFL public-relations-czar analyst), FOX will be out in force, and NBC, not even doing the game, has a compound with Beadlemania and other cable shows. I saw a Mardi Gras-style Dan Patrick/Artie Lange float in NBC-land. I mean, Super Bowl Week has become the United States of Programming.
So pace yourselves. Off we go on the news of the week.
What Alex Smith must really be thinking.
We've all seen it in the last two months: Alex Smith is the NFL's MVM ... Most Valuable Mensch. Look at his career path: First pick of the 2005 draft. Clearly over-drafted because the 49ers needed a quarterback so desperately. Played before he was ready. Middle name through his first six seasons: "Embattled." Career rescued by Jim Harbaugh, though he constantly looked over his shoulder in the Harbaugh Era with the arrival of Colin Kaepernick and the specter of Peyton Manning. NFL's top-rated passer (104.3) through 10 weeks. Completed 18 of 19 passes in his last full game, at Arizona. Took a week off due to a concussion suffered the next game against St. Louis. Lost his job in that one week off to Kaepernick, who never had started an NFL game. Kaepernick quarterbacked the Niners to the Super Bowl. Smith will watch. Smith will likely quarterback another team in 2013.
"It sucks, to put it frankly,'' Smith told me the other day. "Tough pill to swallow."
An honest admission from Smith. But that's it. That's all the negativity Smith has right now. Everything else is sunshine and light and "Go Niners!" He will be one of the go-to stories this week for the nation's sports media, and I don't expect him to bleed for them much more than he did for me. Because he understands football isn't always fair, and there's no use crying about it. The team's winning, and when you go to the Super Bowl, no one cares who gets left on the side of the road. Smith has stood on the sidelines in the last couple of months and parceled out advice to help Kaepernick. "It's got to be tough,'' Kaepernick said after his first start, "but Alex is so good to me." And still is.
"It's part of who I am,'' Smith said. "It's football. Guys get hurt all the time. Obviously, I feel like I earned the job, and I was doing better and better. But being able to be out there all the time is part of the deal. I knew very well when I went out that I was giving him [Kaepernick] a shot at the job. And now we've seen what Colin is capable of. He's a very unique talent, and he's made the most of his opportunity. At the same time, this is exactly how I got my start in college. And I think the biggest thing I can point to in how I've handled this is that I saw how some mature quarterbacks handled it. That started in college, with Brett Elliott.''
Smith explained that, at Utah in 2003, he battled incumbent Elliott for the starting job, lost, but won it when Elliott, in the second game of the season, broke his wrist. And there was no turning back when Smith beat Cal (and Aaron Rodgers), then Colorado State, and then, in a Thursday night TV game, Oregon. Now the job was his.
Elliott is now a grad-assistant coach at Mississippi State. I spoke with him, and he was flattered that Smith recalled being treated well nine seasons ago at Utah by a heartbroken teammate.
"There's no other way to look at it,'' said Elliott, "than you're totally bummed out. It sucked.''
"It's a unique situation,'' said Elliott, "and really tough for people to understand. It's the most unique place you can be. The most unique situation in life. You're so invested, being the leader and the guy everybody looks to, your life revolving around this. And then in one play, it's gone. You are absolutely heartbroken and depressed.
"I mean, if you play special teams, you can at least go back and play, because there's not just one special teams player. At quarterback, there's just one. It's your job or it isn't. I remember being so heartbroken. Those 5 a.m. workouts, you're so committed to the team. Maybe if I was a freshman, I'd have handled it poorly. But I was on the leadership committee of the team. I was a Ute. I was all-in.
"You watch practice and the games, and you see another guy out there, and you think, 'That's my center. This is my team. This is my offense.' All of a sudden, it's not. But you want the team to win, because you love the team and love the guys. And I really liked Alex. He was my friend. I helped him any way I could. But at the same time, you're pissed. Really pissed. You celebrate when the team wins, but you're not as into it as you would be. You try, but it only goes so far. I just don't quite know how to explain it all."
You just did.
Elliott hosted Smith on Smith's recruiting trip to Utah. Most days after breaking his wrist, Elliott had some advice for Smith in the quarterback room during meetings. And then, at the end of the season, Elliott transferred to Linfield (Ore.) College and played well enough to get a free agent deal with the Chargers out of college.
Since then, Smith said he's been helped by Tim Rattay, Trent Dilfer and Shaun Hill, and he's tried to help in return when he was the backup. When Harbaugh chose Kaepernick in November, Smith told him he wouldn't have to worry about any behind-the-back comments. He told Kaepernick when he got the job: "Trust what you see. Trust your eyes. Trust your feet. You're a good player; you've seen it before."
Smith hasn't lost confidence in his ability, saying he is "absolutely sure'' he can be a good quarterback in the league for years. But he says he won't think about the future now. Not this week. What will this week be like for Smith? "I am trying to stay in the moment, and I am excited about this,'' Smith said. "We have a great locker room. I love my teammates. How often do you have a chance, whether you're playing or not, to go to the Super Bowl? We have to get prepared to play and to win a big game, and that's fun. These opportunities don't come around very often.''
Stories of the Week on the HarBowl.
I don't hate the HarBowl aspect of this week. It's great. Will we all be sick of the hype in a few days? Yes. But the historical significance of two brothers meeting in the biggest single game on our sports calendar is great. You don't have to read about the story, but if you do, here are the best nuggets I saw on the relationship between San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh and his big brother, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, in the dead week:
Monday: From Judy Battista, New York Times.
The brothers said they had not fought since they were about 25, but they used to fight so vigorously that their mother cried as she begged them to stop. "He's an incredibly competitive person," John Harbaugh said of his brother. "He will fight you for anything. That's what made him a great player. What makes him the man he is. The gym teacher in fourth grade said he was too competitive, and he needs to ease off. My dad said 'No, he doesn't need to ease off.' "
Last year, John Harbaugh told an associate that the brothers had vacationed together recently. They were goofing off in the water and their horseplay -- as it has since they were schoolboys -- got a little heated. Jim Harbaugh held his brother under the water, the Ravens' public relations chief Kevin Byrne said, until bubbles started coming out of his nose. Then he finally let go of him.
Tuesday: From Steve Serby, New York Post.
John, 50, is 15 months older and several inches shorter than Jim. John is considered the more cerebral of the two, Jim considered the more maniacal and animated on the sideline. But they are clearly cut from the same cloth. They grew up in a modest three-bedroom home in Ann Arbor, Mich., and shared a room until John left for college. Jim didn't have many friends growing up, and he wondered why. "He was one of the world's greatest daydreamers," Jack Harbaugh, their father, once said of Jim. "He'd spend hours throwing a tennis ball against the back wall of the grocery store. When he got home we'd say, 'Where have you been?' and he'd say, 'Doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians. I pitched both ends. We won 'em both.' "
Wednesday: From Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports, on Jim and John helping their father recruit players at Western Kentucky.
In 1994, WKU suffered its fourth losing season in five years under Jack Harbaugh. No one ever doubted Jack's ability to coach. He clearly needed better players, though. Enter the Harbaugh brothers, both big-dreaming workaholics looking for a side project. The plan was simple: Jim owned a home in Orlando, the heart of one of the most talent-rich recruiting areas in the country. So he became an NCAA-certified volunteer assistant coach for WKU, which allowed him to recruit. John, meanwhile, leaned on the scouting services, deep contacts and endless high school game footage they had at Cincinnati, which as a Division I-A school had a far larger budget than Division I-AA Western Kentucky. After NFL seasons, John would supply a list of potential hidden gems along the Interstate-4 corridor in Central Florida that, while not right for Cincinnati, could be great for WKU. Jim would pay them a visit and use his stature as an active NFL star to talk up a little-known school in Bowling Green, Ky.
(The first project was a running quarterback from powerful Bradenton Manatee High named Willie Taggert. Jim Harbaugh, NFL quarterback, went to Manatee High to recruit Taggert.)
Jim Harbaugh, Taggart said, had a way of making an instant connection. "The moment you met him you felt like you knew him for years. After I met Jim, and then Jack, I was like, I want to be around these guys." The big-name schools were out and Western Kentucky had its quarterback of the future. Taggart would go on to become the starter as a freshman in 1995 and finish his career with 3,997 yards rushing (then an NCAA record for QBs) with 47 touchdowns on the ground and another 30 through the air. He also was the start of an onslaught of Florida talent headed to Western Kentucky, corralled by Harbaugh brother teamwork.
Thursday: From Joani Crean, wife of Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean and sister of John and Jim, on a national conference call, chafing at being a lesser character in a school play, "The Wizard of Oz,'' as a kid.
I was a munchkin in "The Wizard of Oz." I was highly, highly offended. I do remember that I was not Dorothy or Glinda, so I decided to memorize the entire play. In case anybody went down with the flu or something, they could put me in there. So I was just ready, ready to go ... The Harbaugh way. That's a great way to put it.
The brothers played one season together at Pioneer High in Ann Arbor. "They could have a love-hate thing going," teammate Greg Yarrington said. "There were days on the field when they hated each other. But after practice they would be brothers again." John was supposed to be the quarterback his senior year -- until the coaches got a good look at sophomore Jim. "John was so gracious about it," said Yarrington, now a health care company vice president. "I remember the rest of the team wasn't receptive because let's just say Jim had a heightened sense of self-confidence. But John rationalized it and made sure the rest of us were OK with it, too."
A history lesson on the drafting of Colin Kaepernick.
Come back with me to draft weekend 2011, when the 49ers had the 45th overall pick and began to understand late in the first round that they'd need to move up to get the man they wanted, Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
I covered the draft in San Francisco that weekend. GM Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh had targeted Kaepernick and TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, in that order, before the draft. Late in the first, Baalke tried to trade up with a package of picks starting with the Niners' pick at 45, but couldn't swing a deal. He started again a half hour before the beginning of Friday's second round, calling the Patriots, who held the first pick (No. 33) that evening.
The Raiders, who'd dealt their 2011 first-round choice to New England in September 2009 to get defensive tackle Richard Seymour, were also trying to get the Pats' pick. That gave the Patriots leverage. San Francisco offered two third-round picks (one from this draft, one from 2012) to move up, but New England wanted a third-rounder this year and a second-rounder next year. Baalke thought that was too much, even if it meant losing his quarterback of the future. The Patriots hung on and drafted Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Baalke knew the Bills weren't going to take Kaepernick or Dalton at 34, and he figured Cincy would take Dalton at 35. So he focused on the pick after Cincinnati's, held by the Broncos, and dealt fourth- and fifth-rounders this year to Denver. Baalke got his man, and for significantly less than he would have paid New England.
The Niners drafted Kaepernick with the fourth pick in the second round on Friday, at about 3:17 p.m. Pacific Time. Kaepernick was in his hometown of Turlock, Calif., about 90 minutes from Santa Clara, where the 49ers train. Kaepernick was in the 49ers building, grinning widely, by 6:30 p.m. Eager student. That weekend, Baalke said to me: "Colin has a unique ability to think himself to win. That's something we believe is very important for an NFL quarterback, and that's one of the things that attracted us to him.''
Twenty-one months later, he's in the Super Bowl.
The Revis story.
First, kudos to CBS' Jason La Canfora for breaking the story that the Jets may trade Revis instead of paying him an ungodly sum to stay and anchor their secondary. That's good work by La Canfora.
I am categorically, adamantly opposed to the Jets trading Revis. I believe Woody Johnson will rue the day he trades the best cornerback -- a slightly risky tag, obviously, given that he's coming off October knee surgery -- regardless of how uncomfortable the Jets' salary cap fit is right now. You don't trade great players at vital positions in their prime. You never recoup the value.
In today's game, quarterback is the most important position, followed in some order by pass rusher, cornerback and left tackle. Given that we've just seen the most passes thrown in any NFL season, I'd say corner or pass rusher is now the second-most important position to fill. How good is Revis? I'll let my friend Neil Hornsby of ProFootballFocus.com expound on that right after this section. But in short, he's damn good. And while any knee surgery is a worry, there's no credible indication that he'll be significantly worse for wear in 2013 coming off ACL surgery. Heck, linebacker Thomas Davis of the Panthers tore the same ACL three times in three seasons -- in 2009, 2010 and 2011 -- and still played well in 2012.
Revis will be 28 on opening day next year. Two of the league's best five corners in 2012 were Champ Bailey, 34, and Charles Tillman, 31. There is no reason to suggest age will be an issue with Revis.
A couple of pieces of history here.
One: In 2007, when the Jets drafted Revis, they traded their first-, second- and fifth-round picks, 25th, 59th and 164th overall, to Carolina for the 14th pick. Revis was picked 14th. Carolina picked linebacker Jon Beason 25th and center Ryan Kalil 59th. Beason made three Pro Bowls in his first four seasons but has struggled with injuries since; Kalil has started 68 games since, and also has made three Pro Bowl teams. So if you're going to trade Revis, understand you're trading a player who cost you first- and second-round picks to acquire -- and if the Jets had hung onto the second-rounder, they could have turned it into a player at a need position like guard-tackle Marshal Yanda or defensive tackle Brandon Mebane. So it would be folly for the Jets, if they did the deal, to crow about getting first- and second-round picks in return; that's what they traded to get him in the first place.
Two: If the Jets trade Revis, they'll be putting a dagger through coach Rex Ryan's heart. In effect, barring an upset, they'd be firing him nine or 10 months early. They'd be saying to him, We know the most important thing to your defense is the cornerback position, and everything you do on defense is predicated on your corners holding up, but we're trading Revis anyway. After the Jets lost to Peyton Manning in the 2009 AFC title game, Ryan told GM Mike Tannenbaum he had to have more corners, and so the Jets traded a second-round pick to San Diego for cornerback Antonio Cromartie, then drafted cornerback Kyle Wilson from Boise State in the first round. Ryan always said Revis was the best corner he'd been around, but he needed more. And Tannenbaum went out and got them. History has shown the Jets overvalued Wilson, who is just a guy. Cromartie is good. Without Revis, it's a pedestrian secondary.
Now, about the money. Revis has a year left on his contract, provided he doesn't hold out, and he will want to be the highest-paid defensive player in the game. Currently, Chicago defensive end Julius Peppers makes an average of $15.3 million a year; Buffalo pass rusher Mario Williams averages $16 million a year. There is no doubt Revis is better at his position than Peppers or Williams is at theirs -- of course, assuming Revis comes back whole from his surgery.
You see I keep glossing over the surgery aspect for Revis. That's because knee surgeries are so advanced now that it's assumed the player will be able to return to the form of his former self. Adrian Peterson might have been better this year after a more serious knee surgery than Revis had; Wes Welker, in three seasons of cutting and sprinting since tearing his ACL and MCL, has averaged a league-high 109 catches per year. So although it has to be a concern, I don't think it should concern the Jets enough to scare them off from paying him.
If I were the Jets, I'd tell Revis he needs to show he's back to Revis form in the first, say, half of the season. Then I'd lock him up for five years, at $17 million per, in a deal where the guaranteed money will counter-balance the fact that the Jets are in cap trouble right now.
If the Jets choose to shop him, I have a feeling Denver football operations czar John Elway will try hard to convince owner Pat Bowlen that Revis would be the missing piece to a championship team. The Broncos are $14.2 million under the cap this morning, but that doesn't include the estimated $10 million they'd need to budget for free agent tackle Ryan Clady, who's a must-keep. That could be lower, of course, with a long-term deal for Clady. And they could save money by reworking Peyton Manning's $20 million cap number this year.
Andy Reid could be tempted with $17 million of cap room in Kansas City, and GM Trent Baalke in San Francisco could be a player too; the Niners will have significant money available when -- I presume -- they dump Alex Smith before April 1. And there are other teams that might be willing to give a first-round pick plus other value (maybe a third-rounder and a journeyman cornerback as well) for Revis. But remember, the compensation isn't just two picks and a player, or whatever ... it's also wrecking your cap in a flat-cap era for Revis, instead of the significantly more manageable money the fixed-cost high-draft choices now provide.
The Jets also need to make the decision on Revis in 2013. Why? They gave away the ability to franchise Revis when they negotiated the current contract, and so if Revis plays out this year, there's not only the reality of getting nothing in return for him if he walks in free agency. There's also the risk of Revis signing with New England. What's the position that has made Bill Belichick look like a dunce on recent draft days? Cornerback. And if Revis went on to play in New England, and play superbly, the fans would be coming to the Meadowlands with pitchforks and torches looking for owner Woody Johnson.
But I don't care what they'd get in return, unless someone (other than New England, a team the Jets obviously should do no business with) does something stupid like offer three first-rounders and a decent player. It won't be worth it. In this league, at cornerback, if you've got the best, you grit your teeth and pay the man.
The Deep End
Each week, thanks to play-by-play game dissection by ProFootballFocus.com, I'm able to look at one important matchup or individual performance metric in pro football through the keen eyes of PFF czar Neil Hornsby. This week, he examines how good Revis is, with the news that the Jets are examining whether to keep Revis or trade him before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in March 2014. Hornsby's report:
"If Darrelle Revis is a player in decline, I don't see it. It doesn't wash from a statistical point of view or on tape. Since 2009, the only season that anyone could legitimately say he wasn't the best corner in football was 2010, where despite clearly being hampered by injury, he still held up incredibly well. Even in 2012, if you extrapolate the very small sample of data, he would have led the league in most categories.
"Simply put, if you throw the ball at him it doesn't get completed. Since 2009, his ranking in completion percentage of balls targeted at him is first, first, second and first (though he had but 93 snaps in 2012). Additionally he doesn't give up big plays -- Revis has allowed only six touchdowns in his last 1,607 coverage snaps -- and consequently quarterbacks have no success throwing at him. The QB rating into his coverage since 2008 has been 32.3, 78.8, 45.6 and 6.3 in those four seasons ... but don't forget that 78.8 came in 2010, when he was playing hurt.
"For those who want to point to the decline of Nnamdi Asomugha since his move to Philadelphia, this is a completely different scenario. Before going east, Asomugha almost always played man coverage on the right side of Oakland's defense. Being the best player in a suboptimal secondary that never changed position, he could be avoided with ease and this allowed him to build a hugely impressive statistical resume. When he was asked to play different positions and more zone, Asomugha's failings became obvious. What makes Revis' resume all the more remarkable is that he almost always tracks the opposition's No. 1 receiver (even into the slot) and far more often than not shuts them down. His track record is remarkable."
The Tagliabue postscript.
Two telling pucks slipped by the goalie this week when Paul Tagliabue, the appeals officer in the Saints' bounty case, had his say on the case with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and Sean Payton was reinstated by Roger Goodell as Saints coach.
Tagliabue explained to columnist Jeff Duncan that he issued his ruling vacating the four players' suspensions because, as he said: "We were going to be litigating into 2013 and right into 2014. Rather than keeping the focus on getting the 32 teams, the 5,000 players, to focus on player safety, you'd spend half a decade in litigation. That wasn't really going to help very much of anything. This thing became an impediment to progress.''
Tagliabue also made it clear that he believed the league's investigation was valid when it returned findings of guilt on a play-for-performance scheme and, to a lesser degree, a bounty system with the intent of paying to injure opposing players. "There was the evidence -- the slides and Power Points -- clearly showing coaches encouraging players to reward each other and incentivize them for injuring players,'' Tagliabue told Duncan. "There is no doubt that existed. Just look at the Power Point slides. Do we keep arguing about the facts? It was just the wrong culture being [fostered] by the coaches. It was clearly a violation of the league's policy."
So for those saying that Tagliabue's ruling invalidated Goodell's findings, that's not true. For those who say Tagliabue thought Goodell was too heavy-handed, that is true. But the former commissioner made it clear he agreed the Saints had a bounty system run by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
As for Payton's reinstatement, I found two things telling. One, his admission that, "I clearly recognize that mistakes were made, which led to league violations ... I have assured the commissioner a more diligent protocol will be followed." And his statement a day later to reporters at the Senior Bowl, when asked if he'd spoken to Williams, that, "I have no interest in talking to Gregg."
Since probably midway through Williams' tenure as defensive coordinator in New Orleans, Payton faulted Williams as a renegade coach run amuck. The league didn't buy that Payton didn't know about the reward program Williams was running with his defensive players and thus suspended him for the season. Sounds to me that in exchange for assuring Goodell that he'll ride herd on his new coordinator, Payton got Goodell to let him back last Monday, and to basically say publicly that all is forgiven.
Of course, all will never be forgiven. On either side. But at least the league and the Saints are saying the right thing on the eve of Goodell's trip to New Orleans for what's bound to be an uncomfortable few days at the Super Bowl. But you've got to credit Payton for urging local fans to be respectful to Goodell if they see him in New Orleans. That's a class thing to do by a guy who I'm sure is still smarting from his year-long suspension.
Putting the Tim Brown silliness to bed.
The former Raider receiver claimed on radio last week that, though he couldn't prove it, he suspected former coach Bill Callahan hated the Raiders so much that he sabotaged Oakland's chances to win the Super Bowl 10 years ago "so his friend [Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden could] win the Super Bowl." My take:
• It is utterly preposterous that a coaching lifer -- 2002 was Callahan's 22nd year as a professional coach -- would, in the biggest game of his life, coach to intentionally lose the Super Bowl.
• Brown complained that the coaches changed the game plan on Friday from a run-heavy scheme to pass-heavy. I asked an offensive player on the team if he remembers anything being said late in the week about a change in game plan. The player said it never happened. The player also said Callahan told them, "We gotta be able to pound the ball on these guys,'' but it's a statement he said many weeks. That season, Oakland was first in the league in passing yards, 18th in rushing yards, and had the NFL MVP, quarterback Rich Gannon. Plus, center Barret Robbins, an excellent run-blocker, went AWOL late in the week.
• Oakland ran the ball 11 times for 19 yards in the game. So it was a mistake not to run more?
• As for the claim that Tampa Bay knew what plays were coming because the Raiders didn't change their playcalls, and Gruden passed along the lingo to his Bucs' defensive players: Do you think Rich Gannon, a smart, cagey veteran quarterback, is going to shout out plays or signals if he gets a sense Tampa knows exactly what he's calling? I asked a source not on the Raiders but who knew the Raiders offense under Callahan and then-offensive coordinator Marc Trestman if it were possible the Bucs knew what plays were coming.
"No way,'' the source said. The Raiders, he said, most often would call two plays in the huddle, and Gannon, at the line of scrimmage, would indicate which play was the real play by using a code word for either the first or second play he'd called in the huddle. Say the code for the first play was "Fresno'' and the code for the second play was "Sadie." Gannon wouldn't be giving the play away by saying, "Fresno;'' the only people in the stadium who would know what play was coming would be the 11 men on the field for Oakland. Now, as for audibles beyond the two playcalls in the huddles, who knows? Could there have been four or five times in the game the Bucs knew the play? Could be. Was that the difference in a 48-21 loss? Stop it.
• Though Callahan did call some running plays that season, Trestman called the majority of the plays. I'm told it was Trestman who called the plays in the Super Bowl. So he'd have had to be in on the sabotage.
• The Raiders, despite reaching the championship game, were a typically careless and undisciplined Oakland team. The Raiders were whistled for 149 penalties in 2002 and another 31 in the playoffs. Nineteen games, 180 flags. I remember covering that Super Bowl and hearing after the game how many mental errors the Raiders made. Also, Callahan wasn't the one who threw three pick-6s that day.
Callahan lost the team in 2003, which wasn't surprising given the grumbling of an undisciplined group after the Super Bowl. He tried to suspend running back Charlie Garner for an unspecified violation during the 2003 season, but Al Davis wouldn't let him, and so you knew Callahan was a dead man walking then. I remember that year when Callahan got fired, hearing how detached and depressed he seemed during the season.
This sabotage fiction never passed the smell test to me. I think Brown and teammate Jerry Rice, who backed Brown, owe Callahan an apology.
The envelope, please, on the top underclassmen in the draft.
I asked former Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, who was in the midst of finalizing the club's preliminary draft board when fired early this month, to examine the record 73 underclass players who declared for the draft and pick the top 10, in his mind. His view of the junior board:
First of all, Jan. 28 is a dangerous time to commit to "top players" in any category, particularly underclassmen. There is still a lot of work to do before we know who and what these players are. Sometimes players look better with less information. NFL rules don't allow teams to officially scout underclassmen during fall campus visits, and scouts can't comment publicly on them either. When scouts go into school visits in the fall, they are not allowed to ask questions about underclassmen when speaking with coaches, trainers and any other support staff. Obviously, scouts and team officials with relationships with coaches or other school officials might glean some information regarding the players prematurely, but the understanding is clear on campuses: We're there to scout the fourth-year players, not anyone younger.
So you might ask, "Well, how do you have an idea about how the underclassmen will be rated so soon after they've declared?" I'll give you an example. I went to Tallahassee this year to scout Florida State prospects. Four other Chiefs' scouts were on campus as well during the year. We all watched tape, and we watched practice. When it comes to defensive end Bjoern Werner, for instance, we obviously saw him stand out on tape and in person. So it's not difficult to understand why he's so highly regarded by NFL teams: Watching Florida State, Werner's production jumps out at you.
This draft may have a record number of underclassmen, but it may not be the quality that people are expecting. How I see the top 10 juniors now, keeping in mind the fact-finding on them will be ongoing for the next three months before the draft:
1. Luke Joeckel, T, Texas A&M. Strong candidate for the first overall pick. Three-year starter at left tackle in the Big 12 and never red-shirted. A true height-weight-speed prospect who plays with good athleticism and body control. Will play early while he develops better hip and core strength. Good teammate too.
2. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama. One of the youngest players in the draft (20), but a very experienced corner from the best-coached DB group in the country. Milliner has the flexibility, intelligence and experience to play outside corner and also line up in the slot. Should contribute on special teams early in his career.
3. Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida. Also 20, Floyd is a strong, athletic defensive lineman who, at 6-foot-3 and 303 pounds, has position and scheme versatility. Good competitor and tough player against the run and pass. Not great sack numbers, but consistently disruptive in the pass rush, and the type of player who makes those around him better by making the offense concentrate so much on stopping him.
4. Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State. Born in Germany, Werner learned football while at a Connecticut prep school as an exchange student. Played just two prep years before signing with Florida State. Two-year starter at left end in FSU's base and sub packages who shows surprising natural instincts, good hand strength and athletic ability. Pretty impressive to see he had 13 sacks in the ACC in the 2012 season.
5. Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State. At 6-3 and 335, he still has the athleticism to line up at multiple positions on the line -- not just at the nose. Active and instinctive, and showed improvement from 2011. Very good player versus the run that needs to continue to improve his every-down consistency.
6. Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama. Low-mileage rusher (355 carries in three seasons with the Tide) who played behind two outstanding backs early in his career (Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson). Averaged 6.8 yards per rush in his college career behind an offensive line better than some NFL lines. Good receiving skills, and a willing blocker. He should be an every-down back in the NFL.
7. Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia. Began his college career at USC in 2009 and transferred closer to home after suffering a neck injury his true freshman year. Highly instinctive and productive college player, but at 6-3 and 241, could be a tough positional fit. Dominated certain games (Florida), disappeared in others (Alabama).
8. Keenan Allen, WR, Cal. Originally committed to Alabama out of HS, but decided to join his QB brother Zach to play together at Cal. Allen is a big (6-3, 210), savvy and highly competitive WR who has played the slot and outside. Lacks top speed, but is very natural and quick. In a WR class that appears to lack elite players, he may be the best.
9. Alec Ogletree, MLB, Georgia. Tremendously talented athlete at 6-3 and 232, and should be an every-down NFL inside 'backer or middle 'backer. Has the skill and ability to contribute immediately all defenses as well as special teams. Jumps off the tape and could have the most upside of any underclassman in the draft. But some off-the-field issues will need to be studied before giving him a final grade.
10. Gavin Escobar, TE, San Diego State. Three-year starter who was hampered this season by a knee injury that he played through. Good height-weight-speed prospect at 6-6 and 255 who right now is more receiver than blocker. I'm high on his ability to produce as an offensive tight end right now in the more wide-open NFL offenses. He's what we call an "F-type'' tight end, a receiver who can play off the line probably more productively than as a blocker right now.
Pioli will be doing some work for NBC Sports Network at the Super Bowl.
"Holy crap, it's Ray Lewis. I just blocked Ray Lewis.''
-- San Francisco tackle Joe Staley, recalling Sunday night what he felt the first time he laid a block on Lewis in an NFL game.
"I'll be playing next year. Next question."
-- Baltimore safety Ed Reed.
Okay, next question: Where?
"Typing with your fingers is so ... 2012."
-- Former Saints special teamer Steve Gleason, an ALS victim, who, like Baltimore executive and ALS victim O.J. Brigance, uses advanced sight-recognition software to type with his eyes.
"The job you've done there, and I say this when you're not on here, is one of the all-time great coaching jobs."
-- John Madden, to San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh on his KCBS radio show in San Francisco on Friday.
Which leads me to ...
The Madden statement got me to thinking: How does the Jim Harbaugh coaching job in his first two years in San Francisco rank with the top coaches ever? So I looked at the 10 winningest coaches of all-time and looked for men who took their team to the league championship game in their first or second year with that team. There have been three. This chart includes where the coach is on the all-time wins list (including playoff games), how the team did in the two years preceding his arrival, how the team did in the first two years he coached there, and what the team did in the Super Bowl.
Moral of the story (at least one of them): We probably don't appreciate the accomplishments of Don Shula enough, even though he's won more games than any head coach in NFL history. Look at the Miami team he inherited.
I don't know anything about Florida Gulf Coast University other than what I found on Wikipedia. It's a 22-year-old college just south of Fort Myers. It also has a basketball team, and by comparative scores, I have discovered FGCU is a much better team than Duke and Syracuse, which were the Nos. 1 and 3 men's college basketball teams in the country last week.
FGCU beat Miami by 12, and Miami beat Duke by 27. So if FGCU and Duke met, the Eagles would win by 39.
FGCU beat South Carolina-Upstate by one, South Carolina-Upstate beat Texas-San Antonio by 11, Texas-San Antonio beat Holy Cross by four, Holy Cross beat Columbia by nine, Columbia beat Villanova by 18, Villanova beat Syracuse by four. So if FGCU and Syracuse met, obviously the Eagles would beat the Orange by 47.
That's called nonsensical fun in the dead week between the championship games and the Super Bowl.
"Gotta give well wishes to Rondo. One of my fav players in the world. My prayers r with u lil bro. I'm here if u need me #respect"
-- @kobebryant, after Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo tore his ACL last Friday against the Hawks.
1. I think I should clarify one thing I learned this week about minority coaches, and it's important: One team in the NFL twice called Stanford coach David Shaw asking him to interview for its head-coaching job. Shaw, who is black, said he wasn't interested in leaving Stanford right now. So there's that.
2. I think Tony Dungy brought up an interesting point on NBC's Football Night in America show Sunday night about minority coaches. He said he spoke with Steelers chairman Dan Rooney -- author of the Rooney Rule, which mandates that every team with a head coaching opening interview at least one minority candidate -- and Rooney told him teams needed to slow down. Agreed. What's the hurry? Why the race? Pittsburgh had a deliberate process that resulted in the hiring of Mike Tomlin on Jan. 22, 2007, the day after the two conference title games. Look at the landscape now. The last of eight coaches hired this year, Bruce Arians, got the job three days before the championship games. That's an anecdotal story, obviously, but Rooney's point is that teams seem to be sprinting to get a coach named instead of making sure they've interviewed a wide spectrum of candidates.
3. I think if you get a chance, you'd be well-served to watch this public service announcement on ALS. Go to teamgleason.org, scroll down the front page, and click on the video. The PSA was ALS-stricken Steve Gleason's brainchild, and luckily for him, he had a good friend, Scott Fujita, who could carry out the arrangements to get some many big stars in the last month to be part of the one-minute rapid-fire message about what ALS does to the human body. Fujita did a terrific job getting Ray Lewis, Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Ronnie Lott, Drew Brees, Bill Romanowski, Mike McCarthy, Steven Jackson, Dick Vermeil, Herm Edwards -- and many others -- to participate, and Fujita got it done in two to three weeks.
"I didn't know in the early stages if we'd be able to pull it off,'' Fujita said. "To say I was floored with the amount of support we received would be an understatement. I really didn't expect to hear anything back until after Christmas, especially given the fact that I reached out to all these folks overnight on a game weekend. I heard back almost immediately from players or PR folks from the Giants, Broncos, Packers, Ravens, Texans, Browns, Bears, 49ers, Steelers and perhaps a few others. By and large, the response was generally something like: "Absolutely Scott, we'd love to help. We know all about Steve's story. What an inspiration. Just let us know what we can do." I feel like I have some really good relationships with a lot of players around the league, but, in my opinion, what seals the deal is that Steve is so charismatic and people are so drawn to his story.'' Gleason, Ravens executive O.J. Brigance and former NFL fullback Kevin Turner have become the faces of ALS throughout the NFL, and you can tell the fight is gaining momentum.
4. I think we're not going to get much memorable out of the mouths of Jim Harbaugh or Colin Kaepernick this week, judging by what we heard Sunday night. But that's OK. We judge coaches and players too much on who's the most colorful anyway.
5. I think a lot of parents feel like Barack Obama. "I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you, if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football," the president told The New Republic. "And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won't have to examine our consciences quite as much."
6. I think the Rachel Nichols-to-CNN story surprised me, and a lot of people in the business. But after speaking to her Saturday, I'm not so surprised. "Sometimes in life, you just want to take a new voyage,'' she said. "Don't you sometimes just want to do something different?'' At ESPN, Nichols was going to be a terrific reporter, both of short and long pieces (her story on Ray Lewis' reconnection with his father was typically illuminating), but at CNN and Turner she'll be able to anchor a sports interview show and become what CNN Sports has lacked -- a go-to sports person the way Wolf Blitzer is for news -- while being a sideline reporter for the basketball and baseball playoffs on Turner. As for the fear she'll be seen by fewer people, well, she will be. For now. But the force of Nichols' personality and her aggressive journalism will make us watch what she does. We'll find her. "I think people are looking for deeper, analytical sports pieces,'' she said, "and I want to do those for CNN."
7. I think NFL Network is taking a bit of a gamble by putting longtime Dallas PR czar Rich Dalrymple on TV here. Dalrymple will work Media Day on Tuesday on NFL Network and the coaches' press conference Friday, and the idea is for Dalrymple to decipher what spin coaches and players are using when speaking to the press ... and to tell some behind-the-curtain stories from his 22 years with America's Team. Dalrymple used to tell Cowboys players they could do themselves big favors by having a great Super Bowl week in front of the press, or they could have disastrous weeks; it was up to them. I just hope he's honest when he hears a coach or player say something really dumb. Knowing Dalrymple, I think he'll find a way to get his meaning out.
8. I think Eric Grubman, the NFL's vice president for business operations, has come up with a novel idea that may be the way of the future in the NFL. As Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times reported, the next wave of stadiums may be smaller, with standing-room-only clubs at the corners. When you go to stadiums now -- I'm thinking of Pittsburgh and Dallas especially -- you see lots of fans standing in the area beyond the end zones, with drinks, talking with friends, or walking around the stadium at open points where they can see the game from different vantage points.
Said Grubman, via Farmer: "What if a new stadium we built wasn't 70,000, but it was 40,000 seats with 20,000 standing room? But the standing room was in a bar-type environment with three sides of screens, and one side where you see the field. Completely connected. And in those three sides of screens, you not only got every piece of NFL content, including replays, Red Zone [Channel], and analysis, but you got every other piece of news and sports content that you would like to have if you were at home. Now you have the game, the bar and social setting, and you have the content. What's that ticket worth? What's that environment feel like to a young person? Where do you want to be? Do you want to be in that seat, or do you want to be in that pavilion?"
Good talking point, particularly for people chafing more and more at personal seat licenses and the highway robbery of parking.
9. I think if Ed Reed becomes a free agent, he ought to last about 48 hours on the street ... and as I said on NBC Sunday night, my money's on the Patriots and the president of the Ed Reed Fan Club, Massachusetts Chapter, Bill Belichick.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I missed The Debt in theaters a couple of years ago. Glad I caught it on DVR over the weekend. Heart-pounding.
b. What an idiotic softie I am. Got all teary the other night watching the last 30 minutes of Parenthood.
c. One of my former softball players from Montclair, N.J., Tess Quinlan, is a student at Marquette, writes for GoMarquette.com, and checked in Saturday during the Marquette-Providence men's basketball game. Game delayed three times because of a bat dive-bombing the court. Her report: "Originally, we thought a bird had flown out of the scoreboard with about 11 minutes left in the game, but after it soared over press row the second time it became clear that its wings were attached and it was a bat. Players on both teams immediately scattered, laughing at the situation. It was evident that everyone, from coaches to players to fans, were definitely scared of the bat, but found it amusing. As the 'Batman' theme song played, players started diving on the court like they were diving for loose balls, not trying to get away from a bat. It repeatedly flew right over the Marquette bench. Fans were attempting to knock it down by throwing coats up in the air. Once the bat disappeared for the first time, play resumed, but not for long. The second time the bat appeared, it almost collided with Providence player Sidiki Johhson, who dodged it impressively.
"At one point, the bat started to chase an official across the court. When the bat returned for a third time, arena and Marquette officials decided to turn off all the lights in the Bradley Center to see if maybe the bat would go away ... Soon, Bradley Center was dark and Whitney Houston's 'I Will Always Love You' was playing with the student section belting out the chorus. Fans had their phones out, and the crowed looked like they were taking in a concert, not a Big East game. The lights came back, but the bat did not. Marquette's Trent Lockett said, 'We felt like we had some momentum and then every time we got a play going our way, that dang bat came back.' ''
d. You go, Tess Quinlan!
e. So Terry Francona came to the Barnes and Noble in my Manhattan neighborhood the other day to sign copies of the book he and Dan Shaughnessy wrote. I stopped by. Naïve me. I'd never met Francona, and, being a Sox partisan, I wanted to stop by and just say thanks for the two World Series titles. Silly me. Seventy-five minute wait. In Manhattan, no less. Well, thanks in spirit, Terry. And I'm sure I'll enjoy the book.
f. My knowledge of the NBA could fit in a thimble. But I love watching Rajon Rondo. So a little of me died with the Rondo ACL tear Friday. Sad injury. And the Celtics still beat the Heat.
g. Way to start hot, Devils.
h. Coffeenerdness: The recyclable cup is a great idea, Starbucks. Used it three times already. Holds up well.
i. Beernerdness: Grew quite fond of the LA 31 Biere Pale Ale in New Orleans Sunday night. Dry and hoppy -- and brewed in Kiln, Miss., home of you-know-who.
j. Good to be in New Orleans and actually see a couple of the parades for Mardi Gras, which I'd never seen before. I just watched for a few minutes, but that was a first. And enjoyable.
The Niners arrive.
Saw Alex Smith at Drago's.
Hope Staley paid tab.