NFL Nation: Inside Slant

During the next nine days, NFL teams will lose 1,184 roster spots. About a quarter of those released will join a practice squad. A few more will head to injured reserve. But in all, some 800-plus players will be out of work by Labor Day.

For the first time in a while, members of that group have an option to continue working in a football environment. The Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL) is moving forward with plans to field a four-team, six-week developmental league, commissioner Brian Woods said this week. The FXFL will target young players who are within a few years of leaving college and would otherwise spend the fall working out at home after an NFL release.

Woods said his goal is to get 25 to 30 percent of FXFL players back onto NFL rosters by November. But the real value, as we discussed earlier this summer, is in giving players game experience to develop their skills in preparation for another run at the NFL next year.

[+] EnlargeTroy Vincent
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsTroy Vincent, the NFL executive vice president of football operations, noted earlier this year the need for a developmental league.
"We think there is a lot of value in what we'll offer," Woods said. "These undrafted rookie free agents that get cut in the coming weeks, a lot of them are talented and have the ability to play in the NFL. They need a year or two of playing at a lower level to develop, or maybe they just need to stay in football shape for when the NFL needs them. We think there is a real need for that."

Indeed, the FXFL season is scheduled to start Oct. 8 and conclude Nov. 12, one day after the NFL trade deadline -- a time when injuries begin having an impact on back-end roster depth. The plan is to play most games on Wednesday nights, avoiding conflicts with high school and college games.

At this point, the best way to view the FXFL is as the first entrant in a race that intensified when Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, publicly noted this spring the need for a developmental league. Other groups, including a rebranded USFL, are mobilizing more slowly amid a significant historical challenge: Every alternative outdoor football league has failed for economic reasons, even NFL-backed attempts in Europe.

Woods said the FXFL has enough financial backing to play in 2014 and beyond but has declined to provide details. The league will own franchises in Miami and Omaha, Nebraska, and has partnership agreements with teams in New York and Boston, according to Woods. In New York, the FXFL has aligned with the Brooklyn Cyclones -- a minor league baseball team affiliated with the New York Mets -- for marketing and other business operations. That team will play at the Cyclones' MCU Park near Coney Island.

In addition to MCU Park, home facilities will include Harvard Stadium (Boston), TD Ameritrade Park (Omaha) and FIU Stadium (Miami).

"The Brooklyn team is kind of how I envision us going forward long term," Woods said. "We partner with a minor league baseball team and utilize their existing marketing and infrastructure. They handle day-to-day business and we handle football operations."

Plans to field teams in Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, have been put on hold, Woods said. This season is in essence a "proof of concept" that will require a demonstration of both cost-containment and football sophistication to survive.

You're not going to become rich working in our league, but we're finding people who believe wholeheartedly in the developmental model.

-- FXFL commissioner Brian Woods
According to Woods, here is how it will work: In the first week of September, the FXFL will hold a territorial draft and allocate available players to its teams. Practices will begin about Sept. 23. Each team will have 40 players, with between six and eight coaches per franchise. As part of their eight-week contracts, coaches must agree to avoid exotic schemes and use a traditional approach to maximize players' NFL preparedness. (Woods said he has hired a number of coaches, including one former NFL head coach, but wasn't ready to make any announcements when we spoke this week.)

Officials will be culled from the college ranks and use the official NFL rule book to mirror league games as closely as possible. Players will earn between $1,000 and $1,250 per week. For perspective, consider that the NFL pays practice squad players roughly $6,300 weekly.

Regardless, this is an awfully large undertaking to complete in such a short time. It's a daunting process to contract out for hundreds of new workers -- players, coaches, medical staffs, etc. -- while acquiring equipment, buying insurance and booking large-scale travel.

And while the FXFL is under no obligation to reveal its financing, cynics smarting from failures of other minor leagues have understandable concerns. At the top of the list: The United Football League, which folded in 2012, still owes unpaid salaries to hundreds of people. I asked Woods how he will reassure agents and players that the FXFL has the financial wherewithal to pull off its inaugural season.

"The UFL pay structure was vastly different than ours," he said. "They overstaffed, but they also paid coaches and some players really hefty salaries. That's not our concept. The guys coming into this league, they will have to understand the pay scale is akin to a minor league baseball team.

"They can expect that everything about this league is developmental, even pay scales. To be honest, we've been very surprised at some of the coaches we've gotten at our price. You're not going to become rich working in our league, but we're finding people who believe wholeheartedly in the developmental model. We have financial backing to make it through the season and then some, and more importantly, we don't have the costs that some of these other leagues had."

Ultimately, however, the key to financial success might be an official endorsement and affiliation with the NFL. That's the ultimate carrot to chase. Will it be the FXFL? Someone else? The race is on.
Last weekend, the Detroit Lions provided a template for the way a longer extra point can impact an NFL game. They misfired on their first attempt during a preseason game at the Oakland Raiders -- and wound up losing the game by one point, 27-26.

[+] EnlargeShayne Graham
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsShayne Graham misses an extra point in the Saints' preseason game against the Rams on Aug. 8.
A similar fate befell the Carolina Panthers earlier this month after punter Jordan Gay, filling in for the injured Graham Gano, missed his first attempt. Coach Ron Rivera felt compelled to go for two points after the Panthers' next two touchdowns. Both attempts failed, and the Panthers lost 20-18 to the Buffalo Bills. Extra points after all three touchdowns, of course, would have added up to a 21-20 victory.

The NFL's now-concluded preseason experiment with 33-yard extra points undoubtedly produced visible results. In two weeks, kickers missed more attempts (eight) than they did during the entire 17 weeks of the 2013 regular season (five). Their preseason conversion rate of 94.3 (133-of-141) extrapolates to about 73 misses over a full regular season, based on the number of touchdowns scored in 2013. That's roughly one for every 3.5 games.

Those figures don't provide a full story, however, and it doesn't seem to me that the NFL has found a permanent solution to energizing the extra point. During a recent training camp tour, most kickers and coaches viewed the 33-yard experiment as a starting point in a larger discussion about the skyrocketing accuracy of place-kicking. If the league really wants to heighten the post-touchdown entertainment level, several of them said, it should focus on making the two-point conversion more inviting -- by moving it to the 1-yard line from the 2.

Before getting to those thoughts, let's first deconstruct what happened this summer. It's important to consider several factors that might not apply in the regular season.

First, as the chart shows, kickers with little to no NFL experience accounted for more than half of the misses. It's difficult to make a regular-season judgment when including the performance of roster candidates who might well be waived before Labor Day. When you more limit the conversation to "established" place-kickers, you're down to three misses in two weeks.

Second, it's worth noting that even the initial 94.3 percent figure is higher than the regular-season rate of 33-yard field goals over the past five seasons (91.8). It's reasonable to wonder if place-kicking is improving so rapidly (a story for another day) that a 33-yarder could soon progress into near-automatic range -- rendering moot the original intent of moving it back. (As we discussed this winter, it would probably require a 46-yard extra point to make a long-term impact on the game.)

"Generally speaking in the NFL, you should make that [33-yard] kick," Indianapolis Colts place-kicker Adam Vinatieri said. "My expectation for anyone is that they should make it. So I'm not sure if this is a steppingstone to move it again or what."

Finally, there seemed to some an unnatural and inorganic feel to a rule that calls for one point from a 33-yard kick but three (from a field goal attempt) as short as 19 yards.

"It was really interesting to hear the conversation around the topic and all the different ideas this spring," Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said before the preseason began. "It was the first time in my experience going to those meetings where I felt it was a little bit of a reach. We have to do something, but we're not really sure what the best option is. That's why trying this, the moving it back deal, is going to be interesting. It's the first time I've seen an unorthodox attempt to try to fix something that they feel is wrong. So to me, I think we're seeing the first version of what's ahead of us and they'll continue to get input. They obviously feel the extra point is just a wasted play."

In the end, however, is a play with a 94.3 percent success rate substantially more entertaining than one that is 99.8, as the NFL extra point was in 2013? You can't sell me on that, and for at least some fans it could prove more of an annoyance than anything else. That's why the idea of a shorter two-point conversion seems a more intriguing option.

You might not think there is much difference between a play from the 1- or the 2-yard line, but in NFL terms there is. Since the start of the 2001 season, which is as far back as ESPN Stats & Information records on it go, the conversion rate of two-point plays from the 1-yard line is 65.5 percent. From the 2, it's 46.9 percent. At that rate of success, more coaches probably would choose it over an extra point.

"I think if they go to the 1," McCarthy said, "the two-point conversion [attempts] will go up significantly. … The run opportunity and the pass opportunity are both in play from the 2 and the 1, but running from the 2 is different than running from the 1."

In this scenario, you've taken the post-touchdown success rate from 99.8 to 65.5. The ultimate entertainment goal for this experiment, as Colts punter and occasional place-kicker Pat McAfee said, should be to create a genuine "chance for failure." The NFL could achieve that -- as well as an infusion of more sophisticated and nuanced strategy -- with a shorter two-point conversion. Hopefully, the 33-yard extra point experiment will be the start of a journey to get us there.
I spent some time this summer in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room, and for a moment I wasn't sure what sport I was covering. A conversation with defensive tackle Domata Peko kept circling back to a foreign term: the strike zone.

"We do tackling drills every day," Peko said. "But now we have our little target areas on the dummies. These days, they tell you over and over: Above the knee and below the neck."

I'm sure Major League Baseball pitchers would love a strike zone so large, but in football, it represents a major truncation and a fundamental departure from traditional technique. The NFL's continuing crackdown on hits to the head, once considered an emphasis that would fade like many others, has forced noticeable changes in the way teams prepare for the season. It has taken a few years, but its germination throughout training camps suggests the game is slowly being rewired to benefit head safety.

[+] EnlargeRichard Sherman and Julius Thomas
Adam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsFor the past four years, the Seahawks have taught their defenders to be shoulder tacklers focused on hitting opponents within the strike zone.
"Drilling has changed in maybe the last three or four years," Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "When you talked to defensive players, you always talked about putting a target on the quarterback. Now you talk to them about where that target is and where you hit him. To me, it's noticeable when you watch games. They're not leading with the helmet as much. You get a penalty if you do, and we don't want that."

Indeed, I wouldn't assume these efforts represent pure altruism. No one wants to cause injuries, but just as important if not more, no one wants to lose games or money.

Working in concert with the league office, officials have provided suitable motivation for change.

It's easy to issue an edict that requires players to avoid the head when tackling, in addition to the lower leg for quarterbacks in the pocket. It's more difficult, and time consuming, to teach them to do it naturally. There are no quick answers, and coaches have responded in a familiar manner: Drills that are intended to create new habits over time.

You might have seen this 21-minute video produced by the Seattle Seahawks, documenting the way they have taught tackling over the past four years. It's a fascinating and completely logical video, all in one, instructing players to be "shoulder tacklers" modeled after rugby players. It explains six teaching points, including the "strike zone," and can be practiced with or without pads.

According to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the goal is to "maintain physical integrity of the game while developing safer tackling techniques." To varying degrees, these adjustments are underway in most NFL training camps.

Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Cory Redding, who is entering his 12th NFL season, has found himself in a new world. He nods his head when asked if he's now drilling the strike zone and said it's only the start.

"For us," he said, "it's below the chin and above the waist. But we're also working on putting our heads 'across the bow.' Get it out of the way. No hitting below the knees. When you get to the quarterback, come to balance before you hit him. All of that stuff."

It remains a foreign concept to many NFL players who are accustomed to a more unfettered release of aggression. In Cincinnati, Peko said the game has changed dramatically for defensive linemen after they beat their block.

"In prior days," he said, "you could take down the quarterback by his ankle, knee or whatever. You could go high or low. Now you have to be on-point with your target area."

In an ideal world, a generation of drilling will trickle down to lower levels of the game and make shoulder tackling -- along with its related techniques -- a natural technique.

"What I was always taught, I've got to rewire myself," Redding said. "It's not natural right now. I'm taught to go 1,000 miles an hour. I hit to and through the ground. Sometimes I can't control how fast I get to a guy. … But you've got to play the way the referees make the rules. That's what the game has evolved to."

It's difficult to take a quantitative measure of the current impact of this new approach. Penalties for hits to the head are classified broadly under personal fouls, unnecessary roughness or roughing the quarterback. But anecdotally, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said, a change is "significantly" noticeable when watching game film and added, "Players are starting to adapt to that, which I think is a great thing."

I realize it's easy to be cynical and conspiratorial on this issue. The NFL has a multihinged task here: It's just as important to tell the world about the work to make the game safer as it is to actually make it safer. The league needs parents of potential youth football players and insurance companies alike to believe in its course.

But based on the visual I got this summer, a genuine effort is underway. Whether the motivation is safety or self-sustenance or winning is irrelevant. The pace is slow to some, and the goal is maddening to others, but it's time to get used to it. The strike zone, and its many corollaries, is here to stay.
More than anything, the NFL preseason is a time for panic. Some of us worry about injuries in meaningless games. Others are prone to make sweeping generalizations about the season to come, and a few attempt to extrapolate leaguewide themes based on what we see in half-filled stadiums on steamy August nights.

And so it goes after the first full week of the 2014 preseason, a period that brought us the initial consequences -- fully expected but still jarring -- of this year's officiating points of emphasis. I'm sure you've seen the raw numbers floating about, but the chart below is an attempt to provide a better comparison to the 2013 preseason and regular season. (All figures include both accepted and declined penalties.)

As you can see, officials have opened the preseason by calling illegal contact or defensive holding at about five times the rate of last year (penalties per pass attempt). Put another way, officials called 28 more of those penalties in the first week of the 2014 preseason than they did in all four weeks of the 2013 preseason, according to my unofficial records. Meanwhile, they have called offensive pass interference about 2.5 times the 2013 rate, a notable increase but not necessarily enough to balance out the flow sheet.

If you're into projecting, those increased rates would lead to a surge from 285 illegal contact/defensive holding penalties in the 2013 regular season to 1,425 in 2014, based on a similar number of attempts. It would also mean a jump from 74 offensive pass interference penalties to 185.

It's at that point, I think, that we're getting ahead of ourselves and risking overreaction. Ever since these points of emphasis were released to coaches, the anticipation has been for a painful preseason designed to pull players away from undesired contact. (A refresher: Anything beyond 5 yards past the line of scrimmage for illegal contact, and minor or major grabbing of receivers for defensive holding.) Officials conducting rules seminars at training camp, whether to teams or media members, made clear to expect the strictest interpretation imaginable in the preseason.

It's worth noting that most coaches and players I encountered at a recent training camp tour were far less panicked about the situation than those of us outside the game. They expect more penalties in 2014 than 2013, but they predict the rate will taper as they align their techniques with the NFL's updated rule interpretation. Officials who conducted the Cincinnati Bengals' seminar, in fact, said players were most interested in discussing a planned crackdown on verbal abuse -- not the defensive or offensive points of emphasis.

In the big picture, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer views the summer of 2014 as a course correction for a plan that went astray after its original inception. In 2004, you might remember, the NFL introduced similar points of emphasis after complaints that the New England Patriots' defensive backs were too physical in a playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

"This is going to affect the way the players are playing, sure," Zimmer said. "But what happened the last time they did it is that the officials backed off a little bit, and that's why it got back to where it was. The coaches and players are going to have to, like anything else, react."

That is not an impossible task by any means. A big part is making sure defenders know where they are on the field. Here's how New York Giants cornerbacks coach Peter Giunta put it:

"You've just got to correct them in practice and get them to develop their habits in practice, keeping their hands off the receiver after 5 yards and just get a feel for what the 5 yards is," Giunta said. "It's hard. And you've got to get a feel for the officiating crew, too, because some of the guys will let you go 6 or 7 and other guys will give you a strict 5. They're trying to make it more of a strict 5 this year."

Meanwhile, Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk suggested defenders will have to make better use of the legal area for initiating contact with eligible receivers.

"Maybe defenses are going to have to find a way to get up there and jam everyone off the ball," Hawk said. "Just don't let anyone off the line."

So I wouldn't panic just yet. Even if illegal contact and defensive holding are called at five times the rate of 2013, it still means they won't be called on 92 out of every 100 passes you see. Relax. We'll get through this together.
MANKATO, Minn. -- It's fourth down and the clock is ticking toward the two-minute warning. The punt team jogs onto the field. The crowd is moved to hysterics. Half of it screams for a timeout. The other half shouts down the suggestion as the coach considers one of the game-management decisions that will shape public perception of his acumen more than anything other than wins or losses.

Game-management decisions in the NFL spark intense debate and second-guessing, but it's amazing to me how little time we spend discussing it on the front end. This is especially true for first-time coaches, so high atop my to-do list for the Minnesota Vikings' training camp this week was to develop an understanding of coach Mike Zimmer's planned approach.

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer and Rick Spielman
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltMike Zimmer, left, and Vikings GM Rick Spielman spend time each day analyzing game scenarios that Zimmer might face in his first season as head coach.
Will he take risks? Will he play it by the book? How much data and analytics will he incorporate into decisions?

What I found was fascinating. With the Vikings' preseason opener set for Friday, Zimmer's style remains under development. Having taken few "mental reps" in game management as an assistant coach, Zimmer has spent up to an hour per day drilling scenarios with general manager Rick Spielman. Together, they are working through a tape Spielman made of most points requiring a subjective decision, from milking the clock to challenging a close play to utilizing onside kicks. What are the options? What do the percentages say? And what does your gut tell you?

"I think I have a decent idea of how I'm going to do things," Zimmer said. "I just never looked at it this way before because I always tried to do my job [as an assistant] as best I could. I never worried about it. Obviously throughout the years, you talk about certain situations that come up. But you don't focus on it like I would focus on calling a defensive game or anything like that."

The exercise is Spielman's idea, and if you're a conspiracy theorist, you're probably wondering whether he is stepping beyond the scope of his job. Perhaps you view it as Spielman's first attempt to exert influence over his first-time coach. I understand those concerns, but having gotten to know Spielman a bit over the years, I think they're unfounded. More than anything, these sessions are a reflection of his obsessive accumulation of information.

This is a man whose draft ratings for players extend to a half-dozen decimal points, one who visited people "outside of football," he said, to compile a list of five characteristics in good leaders before embarking on the search that brought him to Zimmer. During games, he charts timeouts, challenges, fourth-down calls, scoring decisions and the like. Spielman said he mostly wants Zimmer to avoid surprises and isn't pushing a particular answer.

"I'm not trying to coach or make game decisions here," Spielman said. "What I've done in the past during games is always track game management. ... I do it just because it fascinates me, and coaches have to make split-second decisions in the emotion of the game. I've always taken the approach, just like anything else I try to do -- whether it's getting prepared for the draft or anything else -- the more scenarios you can put yourself through, or at least get your thought process going on, the better."

The situation is further complicated in Minnesota because Zimmer is giving strong consideration to calling defensive signals during the regular season. At least 10 other head coaches likely will call plays in 2014, but it still represents a heavy game-day load for a first-time head coach who has never faced a "live" decision on whether, say, to punt or go for it on fourth-and-3 from the 40-yard line late in the fourth quarter of a close game.

Zimmer wouldn't reveal specific answers to scenarios he has discussed with Spielman, but everything about his old-school background suggests he won't be looking to reinvent the game. Asked about his risk tolerance, Zimmer said: "Without giving away any secrets, I think there are situations going into the game where you say if something happens, we want to be aggressive here, we want to take this shot. Or maybe we can handle some things, so let's just be smart and play field position."

I also don't expect Zimmer to be heavily influenced by the recent infusion of analytics into game management. Data might suggest that NFL teams are far too conservative on fourth down and in utilizing the two-point conversion, but neither he nor Spielman seemed overly moved when speaking this week.

"We have all of those charts and looked at them," Spielman said. "But when [the game is] going, you still have to go off what your gut instinct is. How is your defense playing? How are you moving the ball or not moving the ball? So if in one game, your offense is moving the ball up and down the field but you're not scoring, maybe that's a different scenario in terms of your decisions. A lot of it is the ebb and flow of the game, who you're playing against. The right answer for this game might not be the right answer for the next game. But at least you're thinking."

And really, that's the primary point of this unusual exercise between Spielman and Zimmer. There are few universal truths in NFL game management. Avoiding surprises and having a plan seem most important. Spielman said "sometimes you have to maybe make a mistake to grow and learn," and to me it makes sense to stumble or waver during a camp film session rather than in the fourth quarter of Week 3. So it goes.
This is not the story I planned to tell.

I scheduled a Midwest training camp tour through Cincinnati and Indianapolis mostly because of the proximity of their facilities. The Bengals and the Colts are training about two hours away from one another, but as it turns out, they are connected in a way I hadn't anticipated.

Namely: They employ the only two African-American offensive playcallers in the NFL. Hue Jackson is entering his first season in that role for the Bengals, while Pep Hamilton is in his second year with the Colts.

[+] EnlargePep Hamilton
AP Photo/Michael ConroyIndianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton is one of only two African American offensive playcallers in the NFL.
We all yearn for the day when race is an afterthought in discussing hiring practices, and as we have noted, the NFL reached an important milestone in February. It's clear, however, that the league still has vital work to do in maintaining and increasing the pool of attractive head-coaching candidates.

If you're vested in the success of the Rooney Rule, which seeks to ensure that qualified aspirants are given genuine consideration for jobs, these figures should concern you. Arguably the quickest way to jump onto the NFL's annual list of hot head-coaching candidates is to be the playcaller of a top offense.

It has happened five times in the past two years alone, but in 2014, African-Americans represent only 6 percent of that pool. (Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin is African-American, but he doubles as the offensive line coach and does not call plays. Aside from Goodwin, Jackson and Hamilton, the NFL's 29 other offensive coordinators are white.)

Worse, the direct pipeline is bone dry. The traditional incubator for playcallers is the quarterbacks coach position. In 2014, all 32 of them are white.

Those are the facts. What's more difficult to determine, of course, is the explanation. And before you assume the worst, you might be interested to hear Jackson's thoughts on the matter. It's time, he said, for African-American assistant coaches to push harder for advancement.

"I think there are so many more very talented coaches in this league that deserve the opportunity," Jackson said. "But I'm just being very honest. I think some of them are afraid to step out and become coordinators, because where do you go from there if it doesn't work out?

"It's hard to go back to being a position coach or to have an opportunity to ascend to be a head coach [after an initial failure]. They're not willing to make that jump. It's frightening, because if it doesn't work, where do you go? Starting over is not easy. I was fortunate and blessed to be part of an organization that believed in me. That doesn't happen a lot."

Indeed, Jackson, 48, spent two years working as a Bengals assistant before climbing his way back into playcalling, a role he first reached in 2010 with the Oakland Raiders. (The Raiders promoted him to head coach in 2011 and fired him after that season.) I suppose you could read his comments as a "fear of failure" pep talk to contemporaries, and it's fair to wonder how much they can be blamed for decisions made by others. But overall, I find Jackson's point reasonable. It takes two ingredients for an organic promotion: Interest from the employer and ambition from the candidate, and it's too simple to blame only one or the other for a disparity.

The good news is that Hamilton, 39, has managed to jump unimpeded on the classic fast track. He was the Chicago Bears' quarterbacks coach from 2007 to '09, then spent three seasons as an assistant at Stanford -- including the final two as offensive coordinator -- before the Colts hired him in 2013 to reunite with quarterback Andrew Luck. Vanderbilt made him a candidate for its top job this winter, and with a few strong seasons alongside Luck on his resume, Hamilton could jump into the NFL's head-coaching discussion.

Speaking after a practice last week, Hamilton acknowledged what seems to him a race-less ascent.

"I feel like football is the greatest meritocracy in our society," he said. "I still feel like the game is color-blind. I haven't spent any time thinking about anything other than how to put our guys into position to be successful.

"I feel if you respect the game and you do the best job that you can of doing your job, that the opportunities to continue to coach in the NFL, which is a tremendous honor and privilege, will continue."

At the moment, however, Hamilton is the stark exception to the rule. It's difficult to project extended diversity when such an important pool -- young offensive minds -- is so numerically limited. There are plenty of ways to build a head-coaching resume in football, but 10 of the past 14 NFL hires have been from offensive backgrounds. It's what the league is looking for. Whether the fault lies with the candidates, the teams or (most likely) both, the next step in ensuring diversity is to raise the numbers in this field.
CINCINNATI -- Thanks to Marvin Lewis, a generation has passed since the Cincinnati Bengals were a joke. Kids today have never heard of the "Bungles" or David Klingler or Ki-Jana Carter or Akili Smith. They couldn't fathom an NFL team missing the playoffs in 20 of 22 seasons, as the Bengals did from 1983 through 2004.

These days, the Bengals are, well, a professional football franchise. They draft good players, employ skilled coaches to develop them and are a perennial playoff contender. In January, the league stamped them with an exclusive badge: Both coordinators were hired as head coaches elsewhere. Two other teams wanted some of that Bengals magic.

"The cup now overflows with confidence here," said retired linebacker Takeo Spikes, who fled Cincinnati in 2003 but now marvels at the subsequent transformation.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsMarvin Lewis has led Cincinnati to the postseason five times in 11 seasons, but the Bengals are 0-5 in playoff games under Lewis.
This is where Marvin Lewis has brought the Bengals, through 11 painstaking years of modernization and gently tugging owner Mike Brown away from football operations. And now, in 2014, the Bengals have reached perhaps the most complex crossroads in franchise history: Just how ambitious are they? Will they reach a point when a first-round playoff loss has consequences for the man who led them into their golden age? Or would they be too scared to risk their successful perch in search of the next level?

These issues coursed through training camp during a visit to Cincinnati this week. Under Lewis, the Bengals have reached the playoffs five times, accounting for nearly half of the franchise's 12 postseason trips. They have lost in the first round on all five occasions, however, giving Lewis the unique distinction of coaching more games (176) without a playoff victory than anyone in NFL history.

So what happens now? By all accounts, the Bengals are a talented group that, despite the coordinator transition, should vie for its fourth consecutive playoff berth. Is this the year Lewis leads them deep into the postseason? And if not, will Brown react any differently than he has in the past? Should he?

Lewis is signed through the 2015 season, courtesy of a one-year extension completed this spring. Speaking to reporters last week, Brown gave no indication of impatience. Instead, he sounded an appreciative tone for Lewis' accomplishments where so many others had failed.

"Marvin's a solid coach and a good guy," Brown said. "I've gotten to know him through thick and thin. He's brought us to a good level. We're a winning team. And when you have that coach that can do that for you, I think you'd be foolish to be unsatisfied with him."

After decades of debacles, I understand why Brown is happy to not be unsatisfied. It beats an alternative he is quite familiar with. But the next step is to raise expectations for what constitutes satisfaction in Cincinnati, and now is as good of a time as any. The only NFL coach in his job longer than Lewis is Bill Belichick, who has taken the New England Patriots to five Super Bowls in 14 years and won three.

Lewis' best work in Cincinnati has taken place on a different plane. During a visit to camp Thursday, Spikes recalled his desperation to escape the Bungles. Lewis had just been hired, but Spikes didn't think he could move Brown away from day-to-day operations.

"I give Marvin a lot of credit for that," Spikes said. "He came in and built that trust factor up with Mike, and ... starting back in [the early years], he gave a little control, more, more, and then more. When I look at the roster, the roster is built not with what Mel Kiper says, not with what Mike Mayock says. It's built with football players that I've seen on tape. That's what I like about this roster. It's a bunch of players [that show up] on the tape."

According to Spikes, Lewis also raised expectations for a coaching staff that wasn't always NFL-grade.

"It used to be that you would have a head coach here or one coach [on the staff] that would have credibility," he said. "Now it's damn near the entire staff that has credibility. Proven winners. Proven teachers. That's what I see."

Lewis has charmed the Brown family, which includes Mike's daughter and heir apparent Katie Blackburn, in a way his predecessors did not.

"They have let him mold his team to his image and his vision of it," said defensive line coach Jay Hayes, who arrived with Lewis in 2003 and is a lifelong friend. "He's worked well with them and they've worked well with him."

Is that enough? Does Marvin Lewis need to start winning playoff games? Eventually, it's fair to expect it. That's how professional teams operate. Lewis has pulled the Bengals to that level. Are they satisfied simply by their transformation? We'll soon find out.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There was a time -- oh, about two years ago -- when your arrival in this football town was not apparent until the "Lombardi Ave." sign materialized off Highway 41. These days, visitors to Green Bay are greeted by an NFL-made skyline and a vast tract that could soon host an entertainment and shopping district matched only by the nation's largest cities.

[+] EnlargeLambeau Field
AP Photo/Mike RoemerTailgaters to Packers games this season will begin to see big changes to the Lambeau Field landscape.
Now more than ever, the Packers really are Green Bay. Little known outside of this region, the franchise has bought up land, razed nearby houses and expanded its stadium more than 20 stories into the sky as part of what can only be described as massive physical growth. At a time when it's fair to wonder how the NFL could get any bigger, one of its oldest franchises will bring you the "Titletown District."

"I think it makes a lot of sense -- and especially for us," Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said. "It's all about making Green Bay and Lambeau Field even more of a destination than it already is."

The Packers' land acquisition has left them with 62 acres of local holdings, according to tax documents reviewed by the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Initial signs of a shopping district emerged last summer, when Cabela's opened one of its hunting/fishing/camping stores on Packers-owned land near the corner of Lombardi and Highway 41. The Packers, in fact, own or operate on more than a linear mile of land from Cabela's to the Don Hutson Center on the east side of the stadium. This spring, they razed 16 nearby houses to create a 400-spot parking lot, opened a 21,500-square foot pro shop -- more than double the size of its predecessor -- and have finalized plans to bulldoze a nearby Kmart for additional parking.

Murphy has made three visits to Patriot Place in Foxborough, Massachusetts, a 1.3 million square-foot multipurpose commercial district adjacent to Gillette Stadium and owned by the Kraft Group, which also owns the New England Patriots. Patriot Place includes a Renaissance hotel, 14 restaurants and dozens of shops; Murphy won't reveal specific plans for the Titletown District, but he said there is opportunity for similar development.

"We're studying it and looking at a lot of different options," he said. "I do think Cabela's was a very good step, in terms of bringing more people into the area. You look at the area between Cabela's and the stadium, and there is potential for things that could have a pretty significant long-term impact on the community."

Along the way, it could elevate the Packers' lofty economic stature within the industry. Last year, the Packers generated the ninth-highest total of local revenue ($136.4 million) in the NFL -- a notable achievement considering the size of their market, their lack of naming rights at Lambeau and their average-priced tickets (No. 17 in the NFL). Meanwhile, their reserve fund -- designed to operate the franchise for one year if all revenues were lost -- reached $284 million this spring.

The Packers, in short, already are one of the NFL's economic powerhouses. Their public ownership means they have no private owner to enrich, so revenues are thrust back into the franchise. Nowhere is that more physically evident than at Lambeau, which is wrapping up its third expansion in 11 years. It's now a monstrous 80,735-seat structure covering 2.1 million square feet.

The addition to the south end zone extends 232 feet into the air -- taller than a 21-story building. On a clear night, it can be seen for miles above the streets and rooftops of Green Bay. It's such an anomaly relative to its surroundings that the Federal Aviation Administration ordered warning lights installed at its zenith to alert aircraft approaching Austin Straubel Airport.

This summer, visitors will notice an expansion of the Packers' football facilities into the southeast parking lot, a project that gave players a new weight room, cafeteria and rehabilitation center. Players now park in an underground lot accessible via tunnel.

Meanwhile, Murphy has signaled a notable philosophical change. The Lambeau Atrium -- which now houses the pro shop, Curly's restaurant and eventually an expanded Packers Hall of Fame -- is now considered part of the commercial district rather than simply a corner of the stadium. All told, the Packers have initiated a massive juxtaposition of cityscape amid the sleepy neighborhood they have long inhabited.

This type of multiuse district won't work for every team in the NFL, especially those in landlocked downtown stadiums. But the league rules give teams every reason to explore it because the revenues don't have to be shared among the 31 other teams. How can the NFL get bigger? The seed is in embryo form here in Green Bay. The Packers helped build the golden age of football, and now they're cashing in.
By most statistical measures, 2013 was the best regular season for offenses in NFL history. Eventually, however, traditionalists exacted some balance. Teams with the top five defenses all reached the playoffs, and the best -- the Seattle Seahawks -- won Super Bowl XLVIII in a rout.

That disparate backdrop looms over the opening of training camp, where teams annually implement plans to best capitalize on the state of the league. As it turns out, they are due for an unexpected twist.

The NFL has instructed its officials to include two defensive penalties -- both of which restrict contact by pass defenders -- among their major points of emphasis for the 2014 season, I've confirmed. Historically, points of emphasis can lead to at least a temporary spike in penalties as players adjust. In this case, it would be reasonable to conclude that defenders will have even less margin for error in stopping offenses that already are operating at historic levels.

The league has not yet confirmed this development publicly, but officials will soon begin communicating it with coaches, players and media members during camp visits. Former NFL vice president officiating Mike Pereira, who now works for Fox Sports, first revealed the information after attending the league's annual officiating clinic last week.

I know it seems that officials are always calling these particular penalties (defensive holding and illegal contact), but in reality they occurred on 1.6 percent of passes in the 2013 regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information (285 calls in 18,136 attempts). The chart, meanwhile, shows the range of those penalties per team. The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs each were called for 16, while the New Orleans Saints had only two against them. (The Seahawks were among five teams with 12.)

In the process, NFL teams set these league records:
  • 46.8 combined points per game
  • 697 combined yards per game
  • 471.2 combined passing yards per game
  • 1,338 touchdowns
  • 86.0 average passer rating
  • 804 touchdown passes
  • 24 games with a 400-yard passer

We haven't yet heard from officials on how they will apply these points of emphasis, but typically the presumption is that they will be called more strictly than the previous season. Hopefully, consistency is also a part of their charge, but regardless, it appears pass defenders will face a choice of increased penalties or providing less resistance to receivers.

For those who need a refresher: Regarding illegal contact, defenders are not allowed to use their arms or hands to restrict receivers when they are 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, as long as the quarterback is in the pocket with the ball. Defenders also can't hit receivers in the back within that 5-yard zone. Violation of these mandates leads to a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down.

Defensive holding, meanwhile, refers to a defender grabbing an eligible receiver or his jersey with his hands, and also prohibits defenders from using their arms to cut off the receiver or guide him in another direction. Like illegal contact, it carries a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down. We can probably expect officials to apply special focus to grabbing jerseys, a move crafty cornerbacks have learned and refined in order to hide it from officials.

A third point of emphasis might serve as partial balance. Officials have been asked to pay attention to offensive pass interference (OPI), especially when receivers push off defenders at the top of the route. Last season, OPI was called only 74 times leaguewide and no more than six times against any one team. It was also one of the most inconsistently called penalties in the NFL; since-retired referee Scott Green's crew recorded almost twice (12) as many as the next-most frequent group.

It's easy to conclude that the NFL wants to maintain and perhaps enhance the advantages it has given offenses in recent years. All indications, after all, are that high-scoring throwing offenses are more entertaining to the masses than physical pass defenses. I hope it's not that simple.

It would be nice to think that at least part of this initiative is to secure consistency where it's available. There isn't as much judgment involved in illegal contact or defensive holding as, say, defensive pass interference. The rulebook allows for some incidental contact beyond 5 yards, but otherwise the stipulations are clear: Hands off after that 5-yard marker and don't grab receivers during the route.

What players and coaches want most from refs is clarity: What are you and aren't you going to call? In theory, teams will adjust accordingly. We'll see.
Tony Dungy has been quoted for two days this week about St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam, the first openly gay man to be drafted by an NFL team. His words have made little sense, and, worse, they have injected fresh bile into the conversation just as training camps open across the league.

I know the first reaction is to pile on Dungy, tear him to shreds and then look for the next social offender. Emotions are raw and intense. As cathartic as it might feel, however, it's not going to change anything. These days, few converts are won via criticism, pressure or otherwise compelling conformity. I suggest an alternative, albeit boring, approach.

[+] EnlargeTony Dungy
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsTony Dungy clarified his remarks on Tuesday, saying increased media attention is what makes Michael Sam a "distraction."
The only way that Sam will elevate the NFL workplace is to demonstrate, through the course of the 2014 season, that it really isn't a big deal for an openly gay man to play professional football. That can only come with time, and as much as we would like to drown out bigotry with well-intended vitriol, it is the only way.

The background: In response to a Tampa Tribune question about Sam, Dungy was quoted Sunday saying he wouldn't want to deal with "all of it" and predicted "things will happen." On Tuesday, he clarified that his concerns extended only to a media distraction and were unrelated to what Dungy called Sam's "sexual orientation."

Dungy, of course, has a long history of association with ideas that run counter to equal rights for gays and lesbians. Most notable was his support for a group that worked against efforts to achieve marriage equality in Indiana. So it's going to be difficult for Dungy to delineate between his personal views and football philosophy in this instance.

Regardless of the source of his concern, however, Dungy is quite clearly overstating the consequences of having Sam on a roster. Media attention is more distracting for fans and reporters than it is for coaches or players. In a way, however, it's a good thing to get his objection on the record -- so that it can later be debunked.

Dungy (and assuredly others) think there will be issues with a gay player in the NFL? Fine. Step aside and let someone else build the template.

Ultimately, Sam was drafted by a team with leaders -- coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead -- who have embraced that idea. By all accounts, the Rams are committed to providing Sam a fair and equitable platform simply to play football. If all goes well this season, those who share Dungy's concerns will be faced with an actual template -- real, undeniable proof -- that counters their assumptions and projections.

In the end, there is a difference between bullied and organic change. I don't think we'll get anywhere by shouting down those who are skeptical. Here is a novel concept: Simply show them how it's done. With any luck, Dungy will have no choice but to revise his views in the face of facts the Rams will prove with Michael Sam this season -- not because he was shouted down, but because he was shown the light.
FirstEnergy StadiumAP Photo/Tony DejakCleveland's FirstEnergy Stadium will have a new video board in the west end zone, nearly triple the size of the previous one.
The NFL ended its 2013 season -- and started the postseason -- with a pretty clear in-stadium challenge. Documenting empty seats at kickoff had became a side sport, and three franchises struggled to sell out their wild-card playoff games. So with the preseason opener just 24 days away, it's worth taking stock of several offseason measures designed to make game attendance more enticing to fans.

We've already noted that owners have quashed a controversial postseason ticket policy that required advance payment to secure a seat. In addition, nine stadium renovation projects of varying scope are underway at a projected total cost of more than $1 billion. They range from a $7 million concession update in Tampa Bay to a $350 million facility overhaul in Miami, but in each case, the bulk of the work is targeted toward amenities that improve the fan experience.

Viewed independently, the measures could be viewed as regular maintenance. It's true in most cases that project planning took place long before the 2013 season. But the common threads -- better food, more efficient lines, connectivity, massive HD scoreboards and more televisions -- all impact ways the NFL stadium experience has fallen behind alternative viewing options in recent years.

Let's take a closer look at each project. The list below doesn't include the construction of new stadiums for the San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons. Note the similarity of the explanatory quotes culled from press releases and news conferences.

Team: Buffalo Bills
Stadium: Ralph Wilson Stadium
Cost: $130 million
Highlights: An extended stadium perimeter will allow more room for game-day events, as well as six "SuperGates" that provide easier and quicker progression through turnstiles. The Bills will have a new team store, and they have overhauled their scoreboards to provide clearer and bigger images from more sightlines. One is 163 feet wide and the other is 60 feet wide. When construction is complete, the stadium also will boast 1,000 toilet fixtures open to the public (up 8.7 percent). Halftime should be more convenient with five new "snack stands" and 55 beer-only points of sale. New wiring for wireless connectivity is in place.
Quote: "This renovation is geared toward the fan. It significantly enhances the fans' game-day experience." -- Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon

[+] EnlargeBank of America Stadium
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonA new, larger video board is part of the renovations to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Team: Carolina Panthers
Stadium: Bank of America Stadium
Cost: $65 million
Highlights: This renovation phase includes a new audio system and two new HD/LED video boards, measuring 63 feet by 212 feet, above each end zone. They're more than twice the size of the previous scoreboards. Two new ribbon boards will feature statistics and scores from around the NFL, a presumed aid to fantasy players. Four new extra-wide escalators also have been added at the three entry gates to bring fans to the upper levels. Additional construction is envisioned for the next two offseasons. Quote: "The project has three directives: impact all fans in attendance, maintain the classic design of the stadium and improve the fan experience." -- Panthers press release

Team: Cleveland Browns
Stadium: FirstEnergy Stadium
Cost: $120 million
Highlights: Phase I of the project has installed new video scoreboards in each end zone that triple the size of the previous boards. LED screens featuring statistics, scores and information have been placed around the stadium. In conjunction, a new audio system will be ready for the season. A total of 12 escalators have been added to increase access, and seating will be reconfigured to increase the capacity of the lower bowl by a still-to-be-determined number. Phase II, ready for the 2015 season, will upgrade concession areas, modernize premium seats and improve connectivity.
Quote: "We have consistently communicated that two of the primary areas of focus for us are creating a winning team and creating the best fan experience in the NFL." -- Browns owner Jimmy Haslam

Team: Green Bay Packers
Stadium: Lambeau Field
Cost: $140.5 million
Highlights: The Packers recently completed a separate, $146 million renovation that added a new video board, sound system and 6,600 new seats in the south end zone in time for the 2013 season. Now, the team is working to double the size of its Pro Shop to 20,000 square feet. Curly's Pub and the Packers Hall of Fame are changing locations within an expanded Atrium to make them more convenient. The entrance gate on the east side of the stadium also is being expanded. During the past 11 years, the Packers have commissioned or completed about $582 million in improvements to Lambeau Field over three major projects.
Quote: "We're renovating to provide a better experience for all of our fans. The Pro Shop will have a much better design, and the new layout for the Atrium will benefit all our visitors." -- Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy

Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
Stadium: EverBank Field
Cost: $63 million
Highlights: The Jaguars struggled for years to fill their end zone and upper deck inventory. This offseason, they removed 9,500 seats in the north end zone and constructed a 42,000-square foot party deck with two pools and 16 cabanas. A total of eight new video boards have been added, including two primary boards that measure 60 by 362 feet. They're billed as the world's largest HD/LED video screens. All told, the stadium will house 55,000 square feet of video display. Previously, it had 7,200 square feet. Also, 182 prime field seats have been added.
Quote: "Our goal is to offer best-in-class amenities and the best in-stadium experience for our fans and for everyone who visits Jacksonville and EverBank Field." -- Jaguars owner Shahid Khan

Team: Miami Dolphins
Stadium: Sun Life Stadium
Cost: $350 million
Highlights: This project, recently approved and not expected to be completed until 2016, will include an open-air canopy to protect fans from the sun. Each seat will be replaced, all concessions and concourses will be renovated and four new HD video boards will be installed in each corner of the stadium.
Quote: "I'm just excited that we can break ground and get started on creating a world-class facility for a world-class community." -- Dolphins president/CEO Tom Garfinkel

Team: Philadelphia Eagles
Stadium: Lincoln Financial Field
Cost: $125 million
Highlights: The Eagles added a new pro shop and improved wireless connectivity in the first of a two-year project. This year, the stadium will feature two new LED scoreboards that nearly double the size of the previous ones. All told, the stadium will have four times the amount of display square footage when adding in marquees and ribbon boards. A total of 1,600 seats have been added, along with bridges to connect the sections of the upper concourse, and there are 1,185 new HD televisions throughout.
Quote: "Our main goal when we began this project was to dramatically enhance the game day experience for our fans." -- Eagles president Don Smolenski

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Stadium: Heinz Field
Cost: $38 million
Highlights: A second scoreboard, measuring about 2,500 square feet and located in the northwest corner of the stadium, will be ready in time for the season. It will help round out sightlines throughout the facility. The south plaza of the stadium has been approved for up to 3,000 club/reserve seats with backs, as opposed to bleachers. The new seats should be ready for 2015 and will help cut into the Steelers' wait list for season tickets.
Quote: "This will help a lot of people in the stadium to see the replays in a more convenient way." -- Steelers president Art Rooney II

Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Stadium: Raymond James Stadium
Cost: $7 million
Highlights: The Bucs and their food service partner are rebuilding 14 main concourse concessions and adding four new beverage stands. New and refreshed menus are part of the project.
Quote: "These concessions and new beverage locations will allow us to offer fresh, new food offerings as well as improve the overall fan experience." -- Bucs chief operating officer Brian Ford
Call me cynical. Maybe I'm na´ve. Perhaps there are some private facts I'm just not aware of. Regardless, I don't understand the current handwringing suggesting that Josh Gordon's NFL career could be over.

Let's be clear: Great players routinely get second and third chances to return to the field after major off-field problems. The Cleveland Browns' Gordon arguably was the league's best receiver in 2013, and assuming he can back away from the police blotter for a while -- and the money at stake usually provides ample motivation, either for the player or those around him -- there is every reason to believe he will resume his career at some point.

This might not be what you want to hear. You know that you're getting fired, and will have a hard time finding work, if you incur multiple arrests connected with your job. The NFL's star system works a bit differently.

[+] EnlargeJosh Gordon
AP Photo/Mark DuncanIf Josh Gordon recovers, history shows that he'll undoubtedly catch on in the NFL, whether in Cleveland or elsewhere.
It's true that Gordon has almost no hope for playing in 2014, given the latest in a series of incidents to have played out over the past few months. He was arrested Saturday for the second time in two months, this time for driving while impaired. He is also facing a year-long suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

While Gordon is undoubtedly in big trouble at the moment, sometimes we forget how many players have turned themselves around -- or, at least, been given multiple chances to do it -- in recent years.

Remember Plaxico Burress? He accidentally shot himself in the leg in 2008 while at a New York nightclub, triggering a two-year jail term. He signed with the New York Jets two months after his June 2010 release.

Donte' Stallworth served jail time for DUI manslaughter in 2009. The NFL reinstated him in time to play with the Baltimore Ravens in 2010. And let's not forget Michael Vick, who is entering his sixth season since a three-year prison sentence in connection with dogfighting charges.

At age 22, Gordon led the NFL in receiving yards last season (1,646) despite a two-game suspension at the start of the season. He did so for a 4-12 team that had no established quarterback and cleaned out its front office and coaching staff after the season. If Stallworth and Burress got back into the NFL, why do we think Gordon would somehow be denied?

I realize there are more pieces to this puzzle. This isn't a simple matter of the NFL reinstating him and a team signing him. History tells us that will happen. The biggest obstacle, and the only part that should cause genuine concern, is whether Gordon can get himself straightened out.

Scores of people with NFL connections are expressing concern about Gordon's path. Indianapolis Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, a teammate in Cleveland, told that "he needs help." ESPN analyst Cris Carter, who overcame drug addiction during his Hall of Fame career, suggested the Browns should release Gordon to give him the shock he needs to turn his behavior around.

[+] EnlargeCris Carter
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsCris Carter faced similar circumstances to Josh Gordon early in his career, and he made the Hall of Fame.
"We're dealing with addiction," Carter said on ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" . "If Josh had cancer, we'd put him in a treatment center, and right now that's what we need to do for him. But nobody wants to do the hard thing. Everyone wants to keep coddling him the same way they did in high school, the same way they did in Baylor, where he had problems. And eventually it's going to blow up, and now it's been blown up in front of the National Football League and his career is in jeopardy."

To be clear, Gordon's career is in jeopardy only in the sense that he will remain suspended if he keeps getting arrested. Again, I might be cynical, but it seems to me that Gordon's performance last season provides enormous incentive for the people around him -- and perhaps some newcomers as well -- to help in every way imaginable.

When in good negotiating position, the best NFL receivers get contracts that average anywhere from $12 million to $15 million per season. Gordon's agent is Drew Rosenhaus, who also represented Stallworth and Burress and is well-versed in navigating a troubled player's path back to NFL credibility.

We can be dramatic and call for the end of a superstar's career at age 23. We can pound our fists and hammer Gordon for his mistakes. Or we can be realistic and recognize that similar problems have arisen and been quelled often in recent history. Unless and until we learn something more sinister, what we have is a 23-year-old professional athlete with a substance abuse problem. That's hardly an unprecedented problem.

Gordon's troubles seem particularly galling mostly because they are happening right now. If you followed the NFL during Stallworth's arrest or Vick's troubles, you probably remember similarly dire warnings. This isn't to say there haven't been genuine washouts. The tragic story of Chris Henry comes to mind. But history tells us that Josh Gordon will get every chance, and then some, to resume his NFL career.
RG IIIAP Photo/Evan VucciQuarterback Robert Griffin III has a lot riding on his third season in the NFL.
In the spring of 2012, most of the NFL recognized Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck as the best player in the draft and a near-certain difference-maker from the moment he arrived. Baylor's Robert Griffin III was considered a close second in that analysis, and the Washington Redskins were convinced enough to bundle four high picks to ensure they could draft him at No. 2 overall.

Two years later, a massive ESPN Insider project Insider has revealed how much that notion has changed. Mike Sando polled 26 league officials -- general managers, head coaches, coordinators and other evaluators -- and found, among other things, a wide gap in views between Luck and Griffin. While Luck is now pushing into an elite tier of quarterbacks, Griffin was relegated to the third of four tiers and is, by definition, considered a below-average player with a No. 19 ranking.

Some of you might be weary of ubiquitous NFL quarterback rankings, but I thought Sando's access and process made this exercise unique. In the end, it can be viewed as a relatively accurate composite portrayal of the league's assessment on the position.

Luck's position at No. 5 spurs mild debate, but to me it was downright jarring to learn that the aggregate NFL decision-maker prefers more than half the league's starters to Griffin. If a bunch of general managers and coaches would take, say, Andy Dalton over Griffin, then, well, that's quite a fall in perception for a player who is one year removed from Pro Bowl and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

And why have opinions cooled so quickly? Largely, it seems, because of circumstances beyond Griffin's control and/or marginally related to his performance. Insiders who participated in the project savaged his personality, most notably for his apparent refusal to take blame for mistakes, and expressed concern about his ability to throw from the pocket.

Those reasons seem bogus to me and, more than anything, are a reminder that some NFL teams are too quick to judge players while others put too much emphasis on their most recent play. I understand why it happens -- the pressure to win immediately is enormous -- but in these views we can see the framework for how the NFL can crush a promising player before he has chance to set his feet.

Here are the facts as I see them: Griffin dropped into a dysfunctional situation, one that contributed to him being on the field for a career-changing knee injury at the end of his rookie year, and his biggest fault to date has been an inability to prevent the franchise's collapse.

How quickly the league seems to have forgotten about his 2012 performance, which was the single-biggest reason the Redskins qualified for the playoffs for the first time in five years. And look how fast the league has jumped on his 2013 campaign, viewing it as a step back rather than a predictable short-term consequence of his injury -- and the byproduct of a poisonous coaching arrangement that left him as a pawn in a nasty fight between coach Mike Shanahan and owner Dan Snyder.

One head coach in the story doubted Griffin's ability to throw from the pocket. A defensive coordinator also questioned how accurate Griffin can be from there. I wonder if that perception is based on a thorough analysis of his play, or if it's a lazy projection based on the usual assumption that talented runners can't (or don't want to be) accurate pocket passers.

In truth, data shows that Griffin has been one of the NFL's better-performing pocket passers over the past two seasons. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he ranks among the top 11 qualified passers in completion percentage (65.0), touchdown/interception ratio (2.13) and Total Quarterback Rating (65.5) on passes thrown from the pocket during the 2012 and 2013 seasons combined.

Context is important, of course, and I'm sure you can find reasons to qualify some of that success. These figures can't provide a thorough conclusion, but they do include plays that observers might have forgotten and certainly don't support a theory that questions his pocket presence.

I won't purport to have a scouting eye and always defer to those who do. But the NFL's current view of Griffin seems to me an overreaction. Along with the rest of the franchise, he seemed swallowed last season by dysfunction much bigger than him. And after he made the mistake of publicly explaining his thought process during an interception, rather than simply taking blame for the throw, he found himself branded as a diva. That might or might not be an accurate description, but if we're now downgrading players' value because of high-maintenance personalities, we're going to have to expand our search values a bit.

In the big picture, Griffin is an intelligent, strong-armed quarterback with good instincts in the running game and an example of high-level success in the NFL as recently as two seasons ago. I get that he wasn't as good in 2013 as he was in 2012, but to view him as below average seems to me the symptom of a larger problem among NFL decision-makers than a reflection of Griffin's true trajectory.
We in the sports world like to simplify complicated economic issues, and so goes a question I've heard from readers and admittedly wondered myself: Why would a capitalist such as Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder oppose changing his team's name when he could make a ton of money from merchandise sales adorned with the new brand?

The quick answer: Because he probably can't, at least not in the short term. A poke through the NFL's labyrinth of financial rules and interviews with experts revealed two important factors. First, a chunk of that revenue would be shared with 30 other teams. Second, the immediate costs connected with a rebrand could extend into "the millions," according to one analyst.

[+] EnlargeRedskins
AP Photo/Nick WassRebranding the Redskins would likely cost the team millions of dollars in the short term.
Let's consider each issue separately.

The NFL's revenue-sharing system is set up for all teams but the Dallas Cowboys to share national merchandise sales. (The Cowboys opted out of the consortium.) So when you buy a Robert Griffin III jersey at your local sporting goods store, the NFL's portion of the proceeds is split equally among the remaining teams. The Redskins would receive 1/31 of it.

Teams are incentivized to set up their own points of purchase, however, and they keep the profits from those sales. So if you buy an RG III jersey from the Redskins' website, or at FedEx Field or when you visit training camp, the Redskins don't have to share their take.

The breakdown of sales between national and team-specific points of purchase is a closely held secret, but given the international appeal of the Redskins, it's safe to say that a good chunk of their total sales must be shared with the other 30 teams. As a result, the Redskins would miss out on at least a significant portion of whatever uptick a new name would drive.

And in the bigger picture, the experts I spoke with weren't certain of our basic premise: that a name change would drive massive sales of merchandise.

"It really depends on how the change is perceived," said David Carter, the director of the Sports Business Institute at USC. "Remember, fans don't like name changes. They learn to live with them. If they perceive the team has handled it well, that it was proactive and collaborative, if the community viewed it as a good decision, and they had a great marketing game plan and messaging, if they went that route, it could be a success."

Mark Conrad, the director of the sports business specialization at Fordham's Gabelli School of Business, said the name change could be a "bonanza" if it is proactive and well executed. If it's forced, however, Redskins fans might not buy in -- literally.

"It could be a bonanza if you get the right name and process," Conrad said. "If you did it right, by yourself without a court saying it or the NFL saying it, it could bring you goodwill on a local and national level. But if the owner is smirking or growling about it, if you're effectively saying, 'I don't like this new brand but I'm forced to do it,' as opposed to saying, 'This is a creative new way to maintain the identity of the franchise,' then revenues will be impacted."

Meanwhile, Conrad said it would be difficult to provide a specific estimate on the second factor: the costs relating to a name change. The Redskins would presumably absorb all of them.

Four years ago, Michael Jordan estimated it would cost between $3 million and $10 million to revert his NBA franchise name in Charlotte back to the Hornets from the Bobcats, a change completed this summer. (The final number is likely to be $4 million, Hornets CEO Fred Whitfield said in May.) Generally speaking, NFL franchises are bigger businesses than those in the NBA, but using a multiplier in this case would just be a guess.

"There are just so many factors involved," Conrad said, from potential consulting fees to physical changes on owned property to legal costs. "It could be millions of dollars in the short term. That, I think, is a good estimate."

Given the unprecedented nature of an NFL name change, Carter said it is possible that the league could step in to cover some costs, reducing the drag on the Redskins' bottom line. The league would also have to decide what to do with the Redskins' existing inventory of merchandise. It's possible the team would be responsible for buying it, especially if the NFL mirrors its policy for when players change their numbers. (Players must buy out the inventory before new merchandise is produced.)

These are all issues of short-term finances, of course. Both Conrad and Carter said the long-term matter of brand impact could be far more valuable. In an immediate sense, however, it's difficult to envision the kind of net revenue bonanza that seems intuitively obvious to those of us in the world of amateur sports economics.
The top story of the New England Patriots' offseason -- other than Tom Brady's status as an elite quarterback Insider, of course -- has been the recovery and projected return of Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski from two torn ligaments in his right knee.

To which I ask: Are we obsessing over the right issue? Rather than trying to pinpoint Gronkowski's return to full strength, perhaps it would be more productive (and realistic) to gauge whether the Patriots are any better equipped to play without him than they were last season.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsThe Patriots made some subtle offseason moves that could keep the offense humming when tight end Rob Gronkowski isn't on the field.
The Patriots, as you probably know, had two offenses in 2013: A good one in the seven games Gronkowski played and an underwhelming one that struggled in the nine he missed. The chart, via ESPN Stats & Information, illustrates Gronkowski's impact in the red zone. It's also worth noting that Brady completed 64.1 percent of his passes in the Gronkowski games and 57.6 in the others. (Brady targeted Gronkowski 66 times during that period, 17 more than any other Patriot.)

Given that context, it's perfectly understandable to pine for Gronkowski's immediate return. Recent history, however, suggests the Patriots' 2014 success will depend in part on whether they can reduce their dependence on him.

Although he is just 25, Gronkowski has missed 14 regular-season games over the past two seasons with serious injuries to his knee and arm. His deliberate return from multiple arm surgeries last season -- he wanted to avoid exposure at less than 100 percent -- provides important context for his approach this summer. Even if it is only a worst-case scenario, the Patriots have had adequate time to plan for and anticipate playing at least some games without Gronkowski.

Importantly, their strategy won't include the security blanket whose departure blindsided them last season. As they monitored Gronkowski's arm problems in 2013, of course, the Patriots thought they would still have Aaron Hernandez to man their tight end position. Hernandez's arrest on murder charges, and his subsequent release in June 2013, forced an undesirable shift to Plan C in Gronkowski's absence.

So have the Patriots done enough over the past months to elevate a potential Gronkowski-less team? On the surface, they appear to be relying on many of the same faces who proved inconsistent at best in 2013 -- including injury-prone receiver Danny Amendola. A closer look, however, reveals a more promising outlook.

"They might lack a No. 1 receiver without Gronkowski," said Matt Williamson, who scouts the NFL for "But they have a very deep stable."

Indeed, the Patriots haven't done much to upgrade their tight end depth; their No. 2 is Michael Hoomanawanui (37 career catches in four seasons) at the moment. (They did host Jermichael Finley on a free-agent visit.) But an argument could be made that their receiving corps, backfield and interior line are all in better position to help compensate for Gronkowski's possible absence.

Amendola has missed 24 games in the past three seasons and isn't to be trusted, Williamson said. (From a roster-planning standpoint, I agree.) But the Patriots made sure to re-sign Julian Edelman after he caught a career-high 105 passes in the slot role, and free-agent acquisition Brandon LaFell is big enough (210 pounds) to be used in a quasi-tight end position. It also stands to reason that at least one of the Patriots' two young receivers from last season, Aaron Dobson (37 receptions) and Kenbrell Thompkins (32), will benefit from a full offseason of work to elevate his game.

"Edelman really had a great year last season and is a premier slot guy in my opinion," Williamson said. "And I think Dobson has a chance to really break out, especially as a downfield receiver. I also keep hearing that Thompkins is tearing it up this offseason."

To enhance their backfield, the Patriots used a fourth-round draft pick on running back James White. Among other things, White caught 39 passes for Wisconsin in his final season and could provide Brady with another Shane Vereen-like option in the passing game. Two other draft choices, Bryan Stork (center) and Jon Halapio (right guard), will raise the competition at positions that caused Brady problems last season.

We tend to look for big-ticket items to mark offseason improvement. It would be much easier to draw conclusions about the Patriots' Plan B if they had committed a major asset to acquire a No. 1 receiver or maneuvered to draft an instant-impact tight end. Generally speaking, I think we all know the Patriots don't operate in such dramatic fashion.

There are no easily identifiable signs that tell you they have put together a more balanced offense, and in truth, no team can expect an equal performance without one of its best players on the field. If you look close enough, however, you can see that the Patriots seem to have planted the seeds of nuanced possibility.




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