Around the NFL for Week 14
AROUND THE LEAGUE
No money-back guarantee: If you're old enough to remember the 1980 season, you might recall the moment when then-commissioner Pete Rozelle was forced to present the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Oakland owner Al Davis, following the Raiders' victory over Philadelphia in Super Bowl XV.
Talk about awkward. Rozelle, who detested Davis and his litigious bent against the league, looked like he had just swallowed a mouthful of manure.
Flash forward to the present, well, sort of. OK, granted Roger Goodell won't have to hand James Harrison the defensive player of the year award if the Pittsburgh linebacker wins the honor. But the acknowledgment of Harrison, who has been fined $125,000 this season for what the NFL perceived as illegal hits, could be almost as uncomfortable for the league.
What it won't, do, though, is recoup Harrison's financial losses for the year. Because of the timing of Harrison's six-year, $52.175 million contract extension in April 2009, the linebacker was subject to the league's 30 percent rule. Under the rule, honors that Harrison had already won, like the defensive player of the year award for the 2008 season, were regarded as "likely to be earned" incentives.
Accepting such bonuses, agent Bill Parise explained to The Sports Xchange this week, would have reduced the total of Harrison's contract. By eliminating such awards, Parise could maximize the deal, among the richest ever awarded a linebacker.
Long story short: Harrison doesn't have a bonus in his deal that will reward him if he wins the defensive award — and given his 10 sacks and six forced fumbles, and all-around brilliant play, he has to be in the discussion — and allow him to recover some of the money donated to the league in fines. And it eliminates for this columnist a note of potentially sweet irony.
By winning the Super Bowl, though, Parise reminded, Harrison will pocket about $142,000, and that will cover the total of fines levied to date.
By the way, Parise on Wednesday officially filed the paperwork to appeal Harrison's latest fine, a $25,000 penalty for his client's Nov. 28 hit on Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and sent along a list of about 40 repeat offenders who have not been fined to the extent Harrison has. He's realistic, however, that the appeal won't do much good.
"But it's obvious as hell," Parise said, "that he's been penalized at a higher amount than some guys. It's been outside the (accustomed) parameters."
Parise said the league deducted $95,000 from Harrison's paycheck last week.
"I don't care how much you're making," Parise said, "that's a lot of money. But, like James told me, you just move on and you keep on playing."
Harrison received a $2.8 million reporting bonus for this season, and the seven-year veteran has a base salary of $755,000.
Rolling stone: Despite his paltry numbers with his last two teams — 27 catches, 375 yards, five touchdowns, including Thursday night's performance — wide receiver Randy Moss expects to have a fairly solid market for his services when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the spring. And don't expect Moss, 33, to swallow the kind of one-year deal Terrell Owens did for 2010 (although it's worked out pretty nicely for the Cincinnati wideout, who can hit all his bonuses, and collect $4 million for the year), unless he is forced to take it.
People close to Moss insisted to The Sports Xchange this week that the 13-year veteran, whose two teams have gone 1-8 since his trade from New England in October, fervently believes he is worthy of a multi-year contract.
Said one source: "There's no 'prove yourself' in Randy. No matter how things came down this year, he still feels he can play and this season was (an aberration). And he thinks teams will feel that way, too. He believes he can still be a factor."
Moss, who wasn't targeted a single time Thursday night according to the league play-by-play documents — only the second time in his career, and the first time since mid-season 2004 that Moss wasn't thrown a pass — could be playing for his fourth team in six seasons in 2011. He banked $6.5 million in 2010, and is on pace for 33 receptions, 462 yards and six touchdowns. The catches and yards would represent the worst production of Moss' career, and the touchdowns would be his fewest since he had just three for Oakland in 2006.
Thomas return: Saints coaches and officials, Loomis said, feel "fairly certain" that the aforementioned Pierre Thomas will play Sunday against St. Louis in what should be his first appearance since his Sept. 26 ankle injury. There were suggestions that Thomas might play last week, but that didn't happen.
Getting Thomas back at this juncture of the season, with New Orleans having won five of its past six games, and with quarterback Drew Brees seemingly back on track, could be a real boon to the Saints. Having his top three backs available again — Thomas would join Bush, who returned three weeks ago, and Ivory — would provide coach Sean Payton, who likes to mix and match the position, a lot of flexibility.
It will also provide Thomas, whose workload might be carefully monitored in his first action in more than two months, an opportunity to demonstrate he is fully recovered. That could be significant for Thomas, who wanted a long-term contract last spring, and ended up grudgingly signing the one-year restricted free-agent tender for $1.684 million.
Given the rotation-type arrangement Payton prefers, it's not certain New Orleans will ever invest big-time in the tailback position again. A four-year veteran, Thomas can be an unrestricted free agent in the spring, depending on the resolution of collective bargaining discussions, so the final month of the season will be critical for him.
Jags jacked: If Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio retains his job for 2011 courtesy of the Jaguars' current hot streak — and The Sports Xchange strongly suggested early this week that he will — part of the thanks should go to offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
The former Arizona State head coach was brought aboard in 2007 in part to implement an attack that challenged defenses vertically, and that, indeed, was his nature. But in his first NFL job, Koetter has evolved, and so has the Jacksonville offense, and the results have been self-evident during a stretch in which the young and surprising Jags have won four of five games and taken over first place in the AFC South, usually the domain of the Colts.
Koetter has played to the team's strength in the streak, seemingly simplifying things a bit for quarterback David Garrard and getting the ball in the hands of tailback Maurice Drew-Jones, the team's premier playmaker. As indicated by the run-pass ratio the past five games, Koetter has relied primarily on MJD, running behind an aggressive and power-based offensive line.
The Jags have had 185 rushing plays, an average of 37.0 per game, during the past five games, and have passed the ball an average of 28.2 times in the span. Maybe the best part of that Jones-Drew has touched the ball (126 rushes and 11 receptions) on 40.6 percent of Jacksonville's 340 snaps in five games. In last week's victory at Tennessee, Jones-Drew carried 31 times and he caught one pass, getting the ball on nearly 44 percent of the Jags' plays.
Follow-up: In case you missed it earlier this week, The Sports Xchange had a column detailing the NFL's conundrum in balancing actual in-stadium attendance with the increasingly attractive technology that prompts some fans that have already purchased tickets to stay home and watch the game on television.
"It's a challenge we (owners) all face," acknowledged Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, whose team has sold out every game at the Georgia Dome in 2010, but has averaged 7,687 no-shows, according to actual in-house figures obtained by The Sports Xchange. Information from NFL vice president Brian McCarthy arrived too late for the column, but it's interesting stuff, and so we present it now.
According to the league, ticket sales are down 5 percent in 2010, in large part due to the economy, but actual attendance has declined just one percent league-wide. There have been 19 blackouts so far and there were 17 through Week 14 last season. In the era 2000-09, the league had 31 percent of its game blacked out. The blackout levels were at 40 percent and 50 percent, respectively, for the periods 1980-89 and 1973-79.
Commissioner Goodell, while embracing much of the new technology, still feels the in-stadium experience is key.
"It might be more comfortable," Goodell says of viewing the game at home on television, "but it's not as exciting."
The league has made available to stadiums the RedZone package for display screens and there is use in some facilities of hand-held devices that permit in-house patrons to watch highlights from other games and monitor statistics on their fantasy teams. Still, the original premise of the column — that the league has to be concerned that it is for some fans a "studio game" remains a matter of concern.
No ordinary Joe: It wasn't all that long ago that critics were questioning the Cleveland Browns' selection of Joe Haden with the seventh overall selection in this year's draft, emphasizing the tardy 40-yard time of the former Florida corner, and wondering whether he was quick enough to play at the NFL level.
Haden will start his third straight game, and fourth overall, for the Browns on Sunday, and he seems to have earned a permanent spot in the secondary. After opening the year as the team's nickel cornerback, Haden has five interceptions, including pickoffs now in three straight games.
As ol' friend Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News pointed out earlier this week, Haden is the first Cleveland rookie to have steals in three straight games since Bernie Parrish in 1959. Only New England cornerback Devin McCourty has more interceptions than Haden among rookies, and just four players overall have more.
"There is straight-line speed, and there is quickness, and (Haden) is really quick," Browns' nine-year veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown told The Sports Xchange a few weeks ago. "He can really jump on a ball, make up space (with the ball) in the air, and he knows what to do with it once it's in his hands."
For his part, the ever-confident Haden attributes his hot streak to familiarity with the receivers against whom he is playing. The continued improvement of Haden all but guarantees that Eric Wright, a corner who has been disappointing in 2010 and who doesn't play up to his talents, won't be back with the Browns in 2011.
Super Mario: A Giants coach relates that, while wide receiver Mario Manningham still has "some maddening moments," he has unwittingly benefitted from the absence of fellow pass-catcher Steve Smith the past four games because of a pectoral injury. Quarterback Eli Manning, who had adopted Smith as a safety blanket, of sorts, said the coach, has developed increased confidence in the inconsistent Manningham during the past month. Manningham isn't a blazer, but has very good short-area quickness, and Manning has played to that strength. The former Michigan star has a modest 18 receptions and two touchdowns during Smith's absence, but his five scoring catches overall for the year equal last season's total, and he has grown in just about every phase of the game.
Quarterback count: Through the Thursday night game, there had been 53 different starting quarterbacks in the league. There is a chance that three more quarterbacks — John Skelton of Arizona, Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson and Brodie Croyle of Kansas City — could be added to the list of guys making their first 2010 starts this week. That would raise the number to 56, the same as there were for a full season in 2009.
The high for this decade is a remarkable 64 starters in 2007. The average for the previous 10 seasons was 56.0. By the way, the league has made 41 "switches" at quarterback this season — not accounting for the potential changes this weekend — and there have been at least three changes every week with the exception of Week 4, when there were none.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.