Few things betray Roger Goodell’s unquenchable thirst for power like the NFL’s efforts to be a constant fixture in the sports calendar. It’s not enough that football dominates Sundays (and Mondays, and now Thursdays) between September and February. Now it wants March (free agency) and April (a four-day, prime-time broadcast NFL draft), too. For all of the league’s efforts, though, May is still a lull in the churn of NFL news. Post-draft headlines are reserved for rookie contract signings and mandatory minicamps — not exactly Darrelle Revis trade chatter.
Last week, tossed in with talk of outdated NCAA rules and Nick Fairley’s craziness was a seemingly simple news bit about Sean Lee and Dez Bryant being "ready to go" for the Cowboys in 2013. The headline was a reminder (not about Bryant, really, who had his best season as a pro and played in all 16 games) that even though most of the official transactions are done for the offseason, there’s one area left where some teams are set to quietly improve — the back-from-injury, de facto free agent.
Every now and then, our boss, Bill Simmons, will forward some of his reader mail to me and fellow Triangle editor Chris Ryan. Most of the time, it’s to troll us about our favorite teams (Brian Urlacher’s pre-draft ascension was entirely legitimate, and I won’t hear otherwise), but occasionally, one of the notes has an idea so insane that it actually makes a lot of sense.
Following the NFL draft, Jonathan from Suitland, Maryland, sent an explanation of why it often sucks to root for the Eagles around draft time. His reasoning for this was a series of draft trades made during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. It started with a trade in April 2009, when the Bears traded Kyle Orton, the 18th pick in 2009, a third-rounder in 2009, and their first-round pick in 2010 to the Broncos in exchange for Jay Cutler and Denver’s 2009 fifth-round pick. Now, watch carefully. This gets confusing fast.
The NFL draft is here, and Ephraim Salaam and I decided to celebrate the occasion with a special edition of the Trenches. We started off with some talk about the Darrelle Revis and Percy Harvin trades, but from there it was all draft all the time. We discussed some of the top tackles available, how their draft spots might affect the rest of the first round, when teams would start talking themselves into this year's group of quarterbacks, and what sort of dynamic offensive players have become coveted throughout the league. And as a bonus, there's video!
With free agency and the draft process revving up, there are plenty of questions for every NFL team. But for most, there's one issue that trumps the rest. This is the latest in a team-by-team look at the offseason tasks that just can't get botched.
When the Texans’ season ended in New England, where Houston got its second beatdown in as many trips to Foxborough, most of the panic was directed at Matt Schaub. Yes, Schaub threw for 343 yards — one less than Tom Brady — but it required 51 attempts to get there. In today’s NFL, teams just don’t win Super Bowls without their best player residing under center, and although Schaub has put together his share of solid years in Houston, he isn’t the type of quarterback who wins in January. Or at least that’s how the thinking seemed to go.
That opinion of Schaub may be true, but in evaluating how far apart the Patriots and Texans actually were, the more telling difference was among those getting the throws, rather than those making them. New England spent almost the entire game shorthanded (as the Pats had been for the most of the year) after Rob Gronkowski reinjured his forearm. The typical Patriots still had their impact — Wes Welker had eight catches for 131 yards, and Aaron Hernandez added six for 85 — but it was the output of a lesser name that said everything anyone needs to know about the New England offense. For the entire regular season, Shane Vereen had eight catches for 179 yards. He totaled about half that against Houston, hauling in five passes for 83 yards, two of them for touchdowns. Vereen lined up all over the formation, and New England used the reserve running back to constantly exploit the coverage deficiencies of Houston’s inside linebackers. It was the exact type of opponent-specific game planning that has made the Patriots a problem for the past decade.
You're probably familiar with the "hometown discount," the millions of dollars that a player entering free agency is supposed to leave on the table so he can exhibit loyalty to the piece of laundry that acquired his rights (often with little or no input from the player in question). You might not be quite as familiar, though, with the "hometown premium." In one sense, the hometown premium could be the extra money a team that's subpar or in an undesirable location has to pay to retain a star player or prevent him from hitting free agency, like the Panthers did with Charles Johnson before the 2011 season. I'm thinking of a different hometown premium. It's the premium that the Ravens and Bears weren't willing to pay to retain Ed Reed and Brian Urlacher, respectively. The one that led to Reed reportedly signing with the Texans on Wednesday, only hours after the Bears announced that Urlacher wouldn't be returning to the only professional team he's ever known. It's a hometown premium that involves money, but it's truly built around respect and desire.
This isn't true in the case of every longtime veteran who has spent the bulk or entirety of his career with one team, but it certainly appears to be true with the cases of Reed and Urlacher: Their teams had to give them more money and show them more appreciation than the free-agent market was likely to offer. All money isn't equal. A two-year, $8 million offer from the Ravens didn't mean the same to Reed as an identical offer from the Texans, because of the context surrounding each opportunity. If the Ravens ever even made Reed that offer, it would have been as part of a noticeable pay cut from his previous salary. It would have been a slap in the face to a player who has given so much to his organization during the past 11 years. That exact same deal from the Texans — the only team that appeared to be looking at Reed in free agency — would have been seen as a token of investment (both financially and emotionally) from the only team smart enough to make a bid for him. You can imagine similar feelings of distrust and then vindication coming from Anquan Boldin's camp, as he produced one of the best postseasons in league history and promptly found his front office threatening to release him if he didn't take a pay cut. Who would you think valued you more — the Ravens or the 49ers?
In case you were too busy lamenting the fate of your already busted NIT bracket, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
LeBron James had a triple double as the Miami Heat extended their winning streak to 24 games, overcoming a 27-point deficit to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 98-95. "We are legends," James said after the game, in which the reigning NBA champions beat a Cleveland team missing its two best players by three points. "This is a game for the history books, a true shining moment for Heat basketball," he said about a game in which he was dunked on repeatedly by Alonzo Gee. James concluded his postgame remarks by suggesting that a game in which the third-worst team in the Eastern Conference outscored his team by 21 points in the first half would cement his legacy as one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
Future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed has left the Baltimore Ravens after 11 seasons, signing a three-year deal with the Houston Texans. Although Reed has yet to comment publicly on the move, confirmation has come from former teammate Ray Lewis, who was seen doing a flamboyant bird-like dance toward the east, before turning and performing a trio of bull-like dance moves toward the south.
The Chicago Bears have parted ways with star linebacker Brian Urlacher after the team failed to come to contractual terms with the former NFL defensive player of the year. While Urlacher has publicly stated that he's prepared to join another team, he's privately known to have spent much of the past 24 hours listening to Semisonic's "Closing Time" while looking wistfully at old pictures of former Bears quarterback Rex Grossman. Urlacher was later spotted alone in a bar mouthing "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" to himself, as a single tear rolled down his cheek.
James Madison defeated the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds, 68-55, in the preliminary round of the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, history, as it always does, found a way of repeating itself, as James Madison moves on to face the red jerseys of Indiana, who've already made clear that, win or lose, they intend to burn down the White House. "But I picked Indiana to win it all," complained President Barack Obama, as the first lady began packing their most valuable artwork into an old Dodge Caravan.
Thanks to Marc Gasol's game-winning tip-in with 0.8 seconds left, the Memphis Grizzlies beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in overtime, 90-89. Watching at home on TV, L.A. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak shouted "Tradebacks!" as Gasol's shot fell in. When told by assistant GM Glenn Carraro that "tradebacks" aren't a real thing, Kupchak protested, "But me want best center. Lakers get best center, yes? Lakers get best center always. Me want, me want, me want!"
Veteran winger Teemu Selanne scored the winning goal as the Anaheim Ducks came from behind to beat the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-2, in a battle of Western Conference powers. "I don't feel a day over 55," joked the 612-year-old Selanne, before asking teammate Corey Perry if he could "just borrow some blood for a while, you know, because that's a cool thing that friends do for other friends."
The San Jose Sharks staged a third-period rally before downing the Edmonton Oilers in a shootout, 4-3. Sharks center Logan Couture, who had two goals in regulation before scoring again in the shootout, dedicated his effort to "all the real sharks out there who keep losing their teeth. We don't talk about this problem enough, but it sucks. I feel your pain, great whites and tigers. You, too, nurses and whales. Stay hungry, my brothers."
Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Clint Dempsey was named the U.S. Men's National Team captain for its upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico. In unrelated news, Dempsey's erstwhile teammate Landon Donovan was named captain of his bowling league team, "The U.S. Men's Trashed-onal Team," where he's known as "Lane One" Donovan.
Robinson Cano 2B
Some Red Sox Guy 3B
Bernie Williams CF
Uh, can we also put Bernie Williams in left? LF
If we're cloning Bernie Williams once, we might as well put another Bernie Williams in right RF
A prospect who's overrated because he plays for the Yankees SS
Yogi Berrnie Williams C
A copy of a copy of Bernie Williams DH
Dan Johnson 1B
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.
J.J. Watt just completed one of the more impressive seasons by a defensive football player in NFL history. You don't need us to tell you what he did. You can just read Mays's LiveJournal for a refresher course. We're here to talk about the future. When asked to look ahead to his forthcoming third season in the league, Watt said, "My second year is not going to be my best year in the NFL. I can promise you that." Which begs the question: WORD?! Above is an artist's (or, really, Mark Lisanti's) rendering of what J.J. Watt will look like in the 2013-14 NFL campaign. Don't worry, people of Earth. When the Kaiju rise from the crevices of the ocean to destroy us, J.J. Watt will be there to cancel the apocalypse.
In case you were busy trying to concoct a homemade flu vaccine out of common household spices, here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
The San Francisco 49ers, led by second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick beat the Green Bay Packers, 45-31, in San Francisco to advance to the NFC Championship game. Kaepernick and running back Frank Gore combined for 300 yards rushing against an overwhelmed Packers defense. When told this stat after the game, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said, "That's what it was! Run defense! I knew I was forgetting something. It was on my to-do list. I swear." McCarthy then pulled out a Palm Pilot, poked at it with a stylus for a couple of minutes, and then showed it to the gathered reporters. "Look, right here: 'Go over run defense.' It's always one thing you forget to do, am I right?"
The Seattle Seahawks rallied from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to dramatically cover the spread against the Atlanta Falcons, 28-30. Russell Wilson threw for 385 yards and ran for 60 more, accounting for three touchdowns in the cover. After the game, when asked about his team's success, Wilson fought back tears, saying, "We fought so hard; we left it all there. I'm just so proud of my whole team. It's hard to put into words what happened tonight. But I still aim to come out even stronger next time we play." The Seahawks will again go for the cover next September against an opponent yet to be determined.
My sister finds an apartment and a roommate and moves out of my house the morning of the last Bengals game of the season. It takes maybe 30 minutes to ferry her boxes out of my office and up the driveway to a U-Haul and then another 45 to rebuild the box-fort against the wall of the living room in her new place. L.A. treats us to T-shirt weather for the occasion, and we get it all done in cheerful silence.
It's one more chance for me to pretend to be more selfless and heroic than I actually am. Piotr Nikolaievitch Rasputin, rescuing my sister by lifting heavy things. Spasiba, little snowflake. I think the pose is starting to wear out, though. I think we both feel it. This whole living situation was born of necessity and duress and now that the pressure's off, I think she and I need to not hang out for a while. Extended proximity isn't something my family's historically great at. We're cave-dwellers, hoarders of personal space, boundary aficionados, closers of bedroom doors. Or maybe that's just me, and I want to think everyone else in my family is that way so I can feel OK about being a misanthrope.
In case you were busy coming up with a fun portmanteau to describe your post-holiday diet, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
The Seattle Seahawks came back from an early 14-0 deficit with 24 unanswered points to eliminate the Washington Redskins, 24-14, at FedEx Field. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was his typical subdued self in the postgame press conference, shouting, "YEEEEEEHAWWWWWW WOOOO WOOO WOOO PETE CARROLL PETE CARROLL PETE CARROLL!" before running around the room until he tired himself out and took a nap under the podium.
In what could have been Ray Lewis's last game, the Baltimore Ravens used a strong second half to beat the Indianapolis Colts, 24-9. The turning point came at halftime when Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh decided to stop "sucking for Luck" when he learned that strategy had been a tactic teams used to jockey for draft position last season, and not a way to exploit Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck's tendency to feel bad and take it easy on inferior opponents.
The Houston Texans topped the Cincinnati Bengals, 19-13, and will advance to face the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional round. Tom Brady appeared to provide some bulletin board material for the Texans, saying he was pleased with the matchup, but went on to explain he was only happy to avoid a matchup with the Bengals, who bring with them the smell of Cincinnati, a mix of bad chili and stagnant river water, that clings to his puffier garments for weeks.
In part 1 of 2, Cousin Sal and Chad Millman join Bill to review the Week 17 action and look forward to the matchups on wild-card weekend. In part 2, Mike Lombardi offers his analysis of the NFL playoff matchups, and Joe House celebrates the Redskins' big win over the Cowboys.
To listen to this podcast, you can download it on iTunes here or go to the ESPN.com PodCenter for part 1 and part 2.
The modern NFL is a game of matchups. Since the salary cap and the spread of strategic concepts throughout the league prevent a team from dominating the way that the 1980s Niners or the early-'90s Cowboys did, just about every team in football has one or two weaknesses that can be exploited by a well-timed opponent. That doesn't necessarily mean that the team in question will lose to that otherwise-inferior opposition because the matchup is poor, just as a team with a weakness being exploited by the opponent can still win by pressing its advantage in other areas. But a team that's a bad fit for a specific superior opposition can have a higher chance of causing an upset if they find some weakness ready to be manipulated and attacked.
That is precisely where it pays to look at this year's upcoming playoffs. With three teams assured of at least one home playoff game in the AFC, and three teams guaranteed a playoff berth (with two guaranteed a likely home playoff game) in the NFC, it's useful to look ahead and identify the possible bad matchups for those teams. Obviously, a great team is always going to be the toughest matchup for another dominant squad, but I'm thinking more about the still-competing playoff contenders and whether there's a team that each member of the league's royalty would prefer were sitting out this January.
This week's podcast started with mixed emotions. For as much joy as I had for Ephraim attending his good friend Chester Pitts's wedding, it just wasn't the same without him in the studio. Colors just seemed less bright, ya know?
We powered through though, and after asking what the vibe was like in Houston following Monday's loss, we talked some J.J. Watt, Vince Wilfork, the uniquely developed games of the league's young pass rushers, and the dearly departed Cam Cameron. But mostly, we talked about the Dirty Bird. Inspired by this week's great touchdown celebrations, I asked Ephraim about his all-time favorites, totally forgetting his time with the famed 1998 Falcons. You'll hear the heartbreak in my voice when I learn he never Dirty Bird–ed — mostly because that means there's no video.