The first few days of NFL free agency are a jumble of names, rumors, and fan delusion (mostly the fan delusion). No matter how many times we see a team win a Super Bowl on the back of solid drafting and player development, early March always becomes a time when the next big name is going to put that offseason champion over the top. After a week or so, the big prizes are gone, and attention turns to the next set of saviors — that year’s crop of first-round picks.
Moves that go down in May never come with the same fanfare, but especially with the current salary-cap landscape in the NFL (with player salaries outpacing the cap), there are still bargains to be had. There are still more than a handful of players out there who can make a difference for a team, this year and beyond, and to help sift through them, we put together what we hope is a helpful primer.
2012 team: Kansas City Chiefs
Winston was the most notable casualty during the regime change in Kansas City (aside from Matt Cassel, I guess, but c’mon). He signed a four-year, $22 million deal with the Chiefs last offseason after being cut by the Texans, but with John Dorsey and Andy Reid coming to town and two franchise left tackles sitting there with the no. 1 pick, Winston was shown the door. Kansas City seems to have a better plan in place than Houston did a year ago. The right side of the Texans’ offensive line was a shuffling mess last season without their former right tackle, but now that the Branden Albert trade with Miami has fallen through, Kansas City will likely have no. 1 pick Eric Fisher on the left side and the franchised Albert on the right.
In case you were busy recording your sophomore album, It's Hard Out There (On the Road), here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
The Chicago Bulls used their strength and rebounding advantage to beat Miami, 101-97, snapping the Heat's 27-game winning streak. After the game, LeBron James complained about the Bulls' physicality and hard fouls: "I believe and I know that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays." Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau responded, saying, "I'm soooooo sorry. Reeeeeeallly. I would never tell my guys to be physical in a big game. Especially a brute like Kirk Hinrich. My deeeeeepest apologies."
Despite the absence of Metta World Peace, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves for the 22nd straight time, 120-117. The game was not without controversy, however, as Ricky Rubio appeared to be fouled by Kobe Bryant on a game-tying 3-point attempt. After the game, Bryant was defiant when asked about the non-call, saying nothing as he pulled down a large map of the world from above his locker and blacked out Spain with a magic marker.
Attention, shoppers: The bargains have finally started to make their way into the NFL free-agency marketplace. After two days of average players getting premium contracts, Thursday was really the first day when teams were able to sign players on significant discounts from both the reported expectations of those players and the actual value of their performance. It's a trend that should continue into and through the weekend before becoming even more obvious next week. The flooded-market model is really beginning to take hold.
The best deal of the day came out of Seattle, where general manager John Schneider is having a pretty wonderful offseason. Faced with the possibility of having a limited Chris Clemons for most (or all) of the 2013 campaign after Clemons tore his ACL on the substance-resembling-a-field in Washington during the playoffs, Schneider has made two bold moves to restore his front four. On Wednesday, he gave a very credible deal to Lions defensive end Cliff Avril, who signed for $15 million over two years. Yesterday, he topped that contract with a one-year, $5 million deal for Buccaneers end Michael Bennett, who had nine sacks last year despite serving as the only viable edge rusher in Tampa Bay for most of the season. Combined with 2012 first-round pick Bruce Irvin, who was a terrifying pass rusher in a situational role last year, the Seahawks should be able to rotate at least two above-average and fresh pass rushers in on every play. They can even move one of these guys to the interior on obvious passing downs and try to create pressure against a slow guard up the gut. Schneider has turned a weakness into a strength while spending just $20 million over two years, which is just a little more than what the Chiefs gave tight end Anthony Fasano. It's impressive work from a general manager who's quickly gaining recognition as one of the best in the league.
In case you were busy dealing with your body shutting down all systems unrelated to the production of mucus, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Dwight Howard scored 39 points as he led the Los Angeles Lakers to a 106-96 win over the Magic in Orlando, where he played the first eight seasons of his career. Howard was met with a chorus of boos, or as he calls them, "Laughs, right? Cause that's the typical reaction to my hilarious antics. That and guffaws. Kobe's a big guffawer. Let me show you what I mean." Howard then stared at the assembled press and did a throat slash gesture, before adding, "Oh, man, that guy can't get enough of me."
Valparaiso beat Wright State, 62-54, to win the Horizon League championship and qualify for the NCAA tournament. "Bryce Drew isn't walking through that door, so it's time to write your own destiny," said Valparaiso legend and current head coach Bryce Drew after the game, before adding, "Well, he is. He did. I mean, I is — I did. I meant, as a player, you're gonna have to create your own legend. But he will be attending the game. I mean, I will. You don't have to worry about that."
With the rest of this off week between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl, I'll be taking a look back at the playoffs (today) and the season at large (Thursday and Friday) before diving back into Super Bowl coverage next Monday. Today, I want to take a step back and look at how the reputation and perception of playoff participants have changed over the course of these past three weeks. That's right: It's time for a Playoff Stock Watch. Let's start with the players who have seen their stock skyrocket during January and work our way down to the players who've crashed and burned.
This week's Fourth-and-Short has four more thoughts on the four conference championship teams. In the cases of the 49ers and Ravens, it's time to begin the arduous process of breaking down the Harbaugh Bowl. With the Falcons and Patriots, now is a good time to reflect and anticipate how the runners-up might look and act differently in 2013.
In case you were busy spending your day off either volunteering with a local charity or watching Magnum, P.I. on Netflix, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
The Chicago Bulls heaped more misery on the struggling Los Angeles Lakers, beating them at the United Center, 95-83. "The in-fighting and name-calling has got to stop," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said after the game, "because no one is going to top Dwight Coward, which I just came up with."
The Indiana Pacers earned a hard-fought 82-81 win at Memphis after George Hill knocked down the game-winning free throw following a questionable foul call. "There were bad calls all night long. All night, all night. All night long. All night. All night long, all night. All night long, oh yeah," said R&B legend Lionel Richie. "But why are you at my house asking me about basketball?" Meanwhile, Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins, left alone at his postgame conference, asked, "Hello? Is it me you're looking for?" to an unmanned television camera and a security guard named Clint.
On any given Sunday (or Monday or Thursday), your NFL Run & Shootaround crew will be gathered around multiple televisions, making inappropriate jokes and generally regressing to the mean. Catch up on all the NFL action right here.
Anquan Boldin: Hall of Famer?
Anquan Boldin has not made a Pro Bowl since leaving the Arizona Cardinals at the end of the 2009 season. He has not had a 1,000-yard season in Baltimore, and the beast who caught 11 touchdowns in 2008 has been limited to a total of seven touchdowns in his past two seasons. Up until these playoffs, Boldin had mostly fallen off the casual fan's radar — if your interactions with the NFL come mostly from highlights, fantasy, and Red Zone, you might have even forgotten that Anquan Boldin was still in the league.
In case you were busy writing the first part of a gritty 3-D trilogy reimagining the story of Humpty Dumpty called "HD Volume One: Sitting on a Wall," here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
The Baltimore Ravens topped the Patriots, 28-13, behind three touchdown passes from quarterback Joe Flacco. After the game, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs reportedly said, "Tell (the Patriots) to have fun at the Pro Bowl." When told this, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady grinned ear to ear, saying, "Terrell said that? Really? I thought that guy didn't like me, what with the all the hitting and screaming today. I guess I learned a valuable lesson in judging. Tell Terrell congratulations on his hard-fought victory, and that we will have a great time at the Pro Bowl because nothing is better than chilling with friends in Hawaii. And then tell him aloha, because, hello, what a great competitor; goodbye, I'll miss his sweet face; and I just love that guy's attitude!"
Is it possible that there are only three NFL games left? (Shut it — I’m not counting the Pro Bowl and you shouldn’t, either.) I’m starting to get depressed. In a matter of two weeks, all television will have to offer us is Z List celebrity diving, one-armed Bachelorettes, and ad nauseam coverage of how Manti Te’o’s (really — two apostrophes?) imaginary girlfriend caught cancer from a car crash.
But let’s focus on the little we have and how we can turn a profit. Big score for me last week. I picked the Ravens to upset the Broncos. Easy. Never a doubt. That wager raised my year-to-date jermajesty* total to 140,000. Our quest for a million jermajesties continues this conference championship week.
Last Friday, two days before the NFC divisional playoff game, I gave highly scientific, feelings-based reasons for why the Atlanta Falcons would defeat the Seattle Seahawks. These reasons included trusting the blind confidence of Mark Wahlberg and Big Boi, predicting that Nate "Sterling" Silver's luck had finally run out, and the fact that Seahawks fans were spending less time getting hyped up and more time discussing which franchise's bird was more ferocious.
And I was completely right.
Last week, the Falcons were favored, barely, but no one expected them to actually win. This week, these same Falcons, again playing at home, are not only expected to lose, but are actually underdogs.
In football, it's usually true that everything you see has happened before and will happen again. Sure, you might only get an Immaculate Reception once every 200 years or so, but when it comes to team-building and paths to success, the league's 32 organizations roughly follow a few similar story lines and situations. In thinking about the four teams left in this year's playoffs, certain Super Bowl winners from the recent past come to mind. They're not perfect matches, mind you, but they're teams that have either been constructed in a similar way and/or have undergone the same trials and tribulations to get where they are today. By understanding how they finished their trip to and through the Super Bowl, we can get an idea of what 2012's playoff teams need to do to win this year's Lombardi Trophy.