OK, so I know what you’re thinking: If you’re going to start a countdown this far in advance (which is admittedly crazy), why not just wait to start on a round number? I’ll tell you why — because Simmons is the boss, and he wasn’t going to go another day without a reason to get excited about football season:
I want the countdown to the NFL season. EVERY DAY.
That was an e-mail from earlier this week. It was not a request.
Before making his fourth move in five years, Dana Holgorsen needed a little convincing. West Virginia had contacted the Oklahoma State offensive coordinator and expressed interest in grooming him to be its next head coach. But prior to any commitments, Holgorsen wanted to see what it was his new home had to offer. So in late fall of 2010, he boarded a plane for Pittsburgh, where he was met by WVU athletic director Oliver Luck. And on they went, the 75 miles south to Morgantown.
Holgorsen’s first request was to see WVU’s indoor practice area, an amenity Oklahoma State had yet to add. The tour moved through the football facilities, and it was there, walking past photos of that year’s team, that Oliver Luck first mentioned Tavon Austin. “One of the first things Oliver did when he walked me through the building was point to a picture of Tavon Austin and say, ‘You need to get that guy the ball as much as you possibly can,’” Holgorsen recalls. “[Tavon] certainly was not shy about wanting the ball, and we certainly weren’t shy about giving it to him.”
During two seasons in Holgorsen’s offense, Austin got the ball plenty — 303 times, an average of more than 11.5 touches per game. As a senior, he caught 114 passes for 1,289 yards. He added another 643 yards rushing, on 8.9 yards per carry. Including kick returns, Austin hit the end zone 17 times. He was, along with USC’s Marqise Lee, one of the two most electric players in college football.
What do smart NFL teams do in and around draft day that naive, stupid teams don't do? They draft better players, of course, but it's not that simple. They don't "want it more" and will themselves into picking better players. The dregs of the league don't just forget what winning football teams look like and come away from the draft with three punters and a kicking tee. Matt Millen drafted Calvin Johnson. The Browns took Joe Thomas at the top of the first round. Dumb teams do brilliant things sometimes. And likewise, the teams we perceive to be among the league's smartest make plenty of mistakes on draft day. The Ravens traded up to grab Kyle Boller. The 49ers took Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers. Bill Belichick has drafted dozens of useless defensive backs over the past few years. This stuff happens.
Because they occasionally screw up, we know that it's not that the league's wise teams are privy to some super-secret scouting technique that the dumb ones can't pick up on. They don't see some tiny hitch on tape or have some perfect interview question that reveals everything about a player's future. And players don't come fully developed out of the college womb, either; they continue the growth and maturation process at the professional level, and it would be naive to pretend that the organization they end up in doesn't have a huge say in that. It's no accident that linebackers for the Steelers and defensive linemen on the Giants seem to develop more reliably than if those same players lined up for the Chargers or the Jaguars.
There's one enormous misconception that keeps cropping up this NFL offseason in the reaction to surprising personnel decisions. In terms of evaluating how much a particular player is worth (to his team or another), one little tidbit matters more than anything else: Past performance, future performance, personality, and name value all fall by the wayside to this most essential bargaining chip. It explains both the Tony Romo deal from this past weekend and Carson Palmer's desperate attempt to flee the East Bay. In the NFL, leverage is everything.
Consider Dallas's predicament with regard to its occasionally brilliant, frequently embattled quarterback this offseason. With a team of expensive veterans surrounded by a relative paucity of players on cheap, team-friendly rookie contracts, the Cowboys normally would be up against the salary cap. It didn't help when the Cowboys failed to come to terms with Anthony Spencer on a long-term deal and were forced to franchise him for the second consecutive year. Throw in the cap penalty they're eating after the NFL took away $10 million over two years for their handiwork during the uncapped year, and the Cowboys were really struggling to create space under the cap. Cap figures aren't released publicly, but by some accounts, the Cowboys couldn't have fit a Crown Victoria into their cap space this offseason, let alone Victor Butler.
Anyone in my life can tell you that I have a serious problem when it comes to Fear of Missing Out. I could be off having a good time — a great time — but the moment I hear that something else is happening somewhere else, the fear begins to creep in. Uh-oh, is that more fun than this? Nah. Wait is it? It’s exhausting. This crippling dread manifests most fully in three areas: two or more of my friends attending a live music event, second-Thursday-of-the-month night at Wrightwood Tap in Chicago, and NFL free agency.
For the most part, I, as a Bears fan, should be happy with what’s gone down this week. Tight end Martellus Bennett was the best player available at a position of dire need, and although opinions are split about the money given to left tackle Jermon Bushrod (not really — most people think he got way too much money), two things about the signing are undeniable — the Bears now have another starting-caliber tackle in the fold, and GM Phil Emery now has infinitely more flexibility in the draft’s first round.
With both deals getting done in the first few hours of free agency, I should’ve been able to take the rest of the week off — give the refresh button on my browser a break and let other teams and fans open their new toys. Sadly, because I suffer from sports anhedonia, that just wasn’t an option. I watched with bitter jealousy as other teams cheaply picked off players I wanted or enjoy watching, and by this morning, that feeling had mostly enveloped any joy I’d taken earlier in the week. So I figured I might as well share my pain and lay out the fan bases that have garnered most of my jealousy.
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.
Lost amid all of yesterday’s free-agent chatter was the news that after 12 seasons, Steve Hutchinson’s NFL career is over. Ray Lewis and Tony Gonzalez were the names oft-mentioned this offseason when discussing all-time greats walking away from the game, but Hutchinson belongs in any conversation about the best players of the past 10 years. A seven-time All-Pro and a member of the NFL’s ’00s All-Decade Team, Hutchinson isn’t just one of the best guards of his era — he’s one of the best guards of all-time.
The timing of the announcement is fitting, mostly because of how Hutchinson fits into the thought process about how teams should be built. From his time in Seattle and Minnesota, Hutchinson represents a way of valuing interior line play that often goes overlooked but is rarely regretted. Likely filling Hutchinson’s role in Tennessee will be free-agent prize Andy Levitre, who owes at least part of his six-year, $46.8 million contract to Hutchinson.
On Monday afternoon, two notable wide receivers were dealt away in trades that seemed to make little sense for the organizations who were giving away their best wideouts. The Vikings, a playoff team one year ago, dealt Percy Harvin to the Seahawks for a package built around Seattle's first-round pick despite the deal leaving Minnesota's cupboard bare at wide receiver and inspiring their best player to actually describe the trade as like getting " kicked in the stomach. Several times!!!" Then, the Ravens continued their tear-down of a Super Bowl–winning roster by astonishingly dealing wideout Anquan Boldin, who led all playoff participants in virtually every receiving category, to the 49ers for a sixth-round pick. That only led former teammate Torrey Smith to tweet "WHAT!!!" like he was an '80s video-game villain whose lair had been unexpectedly broached. One thing to take away from these deals: Star players will almost always respond to deals involving beloved teammates by invoking the triple exclamation point.
So why did these deals happen? And were they good deals for each of these teams to take? If you understand the former, you'll get a very good idea of the latter.
In case you were busy drinking all of the soda in New York, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Top-ranked Gonzaga completed its perfect run through West Coast Conference play, winning the WCC tournament final, 65-51, over St. Mary's. In a particularly touching postgame moment, Gonzaga alum John Stockton handed down to his son, current Gonzaga reserve guard David Stockton, a pair of his trademark shorts. "Look at the waistband," the elder Stockton said to his son with a wink, as he had written, "now, you are a man," inside them. When asked if he would wear the shorts in the upcoming NCAA tournament, David Stockton responded, "yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaah."
In a showdown of Western Conference titans, the San Antonio Spurs topped the Oklahoma City Thunder, 105-93, at home to maintain a two-game advantage in the race for the top seed. The win was the Spurs sixth straight win over the Thunder in San Antonio. "I know I should keep a tighter leash on my guys when we get down here," Thunder coach Scott Brooks explained after the game. "But I also know that K.D. went to school in the area, and he loves SeaWorld San Antonio. No more, though; we have important non-Orca-related business to attend to here. Next time, I promise you, we won't be all hopped up on elephant ears and the thrill of watching Shamu." Brooks then looked over his shoulder at a disappointed Durant, before adding, "well, probably."
In case you were busy breaking the last of your New Year's resolutions, here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
Novak Djokovic became the first man to win three consecutive Australian Open titles in the Open era, topping Andy Murray 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-2. The match turned during the second-set tiebreaker when a feather fell slowly to the court, distracting Murray. Murray snatched the feather from the air, called time, went to his bag, pulled out his lucky copy of Curious George, and tucked the feather between its pages. He then took out a box of chocolates, and approached a random woman in the crowd. "Hello," Murray said. "My name's Andy, Andy Murray; you want a chocolate?" The woman shook her head at him. Murray shrugged and said, "I could eat about a million and a half of these. My mama always said, 'Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.' Those must be comfortable shoes. I wish I had shoes like that." Murray then ate a chocolate himself, before returning to the court, double-faulting, and dropping the set on the way to losing the match, while complaining of terrible foot blisters.
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.
In case you were busy justifying your documentary short's omission from this year's Sundance Film Festival, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Miami scored the final nine points of the game in a 99-90 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. LeBron James dominated the game on both ends of the court scoring 39 points to go along with seven rebounds and three steals. "We've been bad on the road this year by our standards, so I came out mad," LeBron explained after the game, before Kobe Bryant appeared behind him cloaked in a cloud of smoke. "Oh, you think darkness is your ally? You merely adopted the dark. I was born in it," Bryant said to James with a menacing laugh. A terrified James responded, "Why didn't you just beat us then?" Bryant grinned broadly at James and hissed, "your punishment must be more severe."
It was Sunday, January 17, 1999. I was in Augusta, Georgia, for the first big junior tennis tournament of the season, the Mayor's Cup. Two days earlier, I walked onto the court, unseeded, for my first-round match with the 9-seed. The end result: a three-set loss. Ever the type to get down on myself, I was bummed, a feeling that continued through my first-round consolation match the following day. I lost that too. I had traveled all the way to Augusta, during my long MLK weekend, to go 0-2. I was devastated.
Then, to make matters worse, I couldn't leave. I had made the trek with a couple other players, and they were still in the tournament. So on Sunday, the penultimate day of the tournament, I showed up to the tennis center in street clothes, my racket back at the hotel. Coming empty-handed meant both spectators and participants alike were reminded that you're a loser. I was 11, and at that point in my life it got no worse than this.
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.