NFC North: Gene Upshaw

Posted by's Kevin Seifert

If Chicago officials are looking for a blue-chip quarterback, they weren't likely to find it at the Senior Bowl this week, reports Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Two of the top quarterback prospects, Georgia's Matt Stafford and USC's Mark Sanchez, didn't attend and thus couldn't be evaluated. Mulligan suggests the Bears remain most likely to seek a mid-level veteran quarterback this offseason to back up Kyle Orton rather than draft a high-caliber rookie.

Free agents Chris Simms and Byron Leftwich are two likely targets, with Simms the "clear leader," Mulligan reports. The Bears are certain to allow Rex Grossman to depart via free agency.

Continuing around the NFC North on a Friday morning:

  • Two ex-Bears, Jimbo Covert and Trace Armstrong, are among the finalists to replace the late Gene Upshaw as executive director of the NFL Players Association, notes Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Detroit seems unlikely to pry Brian Schottenheimer away from the New York Jets to be its offensive coordinator, reports John Niyo of the Detroit News. Might be a good thing. Lions coach Jim Schwartz said he is looking for someone to "execute his vision" of an offensive scheme rather than asking his next coordinator to implement his own.
  • Former Utah State defensive backs coach John Rushing is joining Green Bay as an offensive quality control coach, reports Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. The Packers also have an interview scheduled with former Oakland coach Keith Millard, likely for their defensive line position.
  • There has been no contact this offseason between Minnesota and the agent for center Matt Birk, whose contract expires next month. Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune updates the situation.

Upshaw, Birk 'agreed to disagree'

August, 21, 2008
Posted by's Kevin Seifert

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Matt Birk admits now it wasn't the best use of his Harvard education.

In the spring of 2006 -- at the height of negotiations of the NFL's most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement -- Birk publicly called out Gene Upshaw, the NFL Players Association's executive director. Birk, who graduated from Harvard in 1998 with a degree in economics, said Upshaw was not giving players all the facts and concluded by saying: "Gene Upshaw is a piece of [expletive]."

The story made national headlines and was heralded as a sign of a splintered union. Birk has a bit of an anti-authority streak in him, but isn't exactly considered a maverick. Here was a well-known player (six Pro Bowls) and a good citizen (the Minnesota Vikings' six-time Man of the Year) breaking rank at a crucial point in negotiations.

What few people know is that the next day, Birk called Upshaw and left a message apologizing for taking such a crude shot. Then, during a visit to the Vikings' practice facility last summer, Upshaw approached Birk to address his concerns.

Birk remains a critic of the players association, but speaking quietly about Upshaw's sudden death, Birk said Thursday the two had arrived at a personal -- if not professional -- common ground.

"He kind of laughed the whole thing off," Birk said. "It probably speaks to the kind of guy he was. We were able to talk seriously about some of the issues. What it came down to was that we agreed to disagree on the issues. But it wasn't like he just dismissed what I had to say, or vice versa. There was some respect there."

As a union boss, Birk said, Upshaw had to know he would be a regular target of criticism.

"I think Gene understood that and that's probably what made him so successful," Birk said. "He had his convictions and believed in what he believed in, and wasn't affected by other people's opinions."

Birk joined forces last year with Gridiron Greats and is passionate about improving benefits for retired players. That stance again put him at odds with the players association. Birk, however, said those issues shouldn't cloud Upshaw's tenure.

"You look at the life he led and all the things he accomplished, and it's pretty amazing," Birk said. "He certainly leaves a legacy and made an impact in a lot of ways on the NFL."

Gene Upshaw

Posted by's Kevin Seifert

Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, who clashed repeatedly with NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw in recent years, said Thursday morning that he never considered their feud to be personal.

Upshaw was a frequent target in Ditka's efforts to win more health benefits for retired NFL players. Upshaw died Wednesday night from pancreatic cancer.

Appearing Thursday morning on ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning," Ditka said: "I think he was a good guy."

Ditka added:

"Here's the problem: You don't have to agree with someone on everything. I don't agree with my wife on everything. There are things you disagree on. Let's face it. My whole contention was that the disability program was a flawed program. So sometimes those things, instead of talking about the system, it gets to be a personal thing. It never got personal with me. I'm too old for that stuff.

"I'm just saying that even sometimes adversaries ... I have great respect for Gene. I think he brought the players association to the point where it is recognized as probably as good a union in all of sports and all of life, probably."

Ditka, a member of the Gridiron Greats board of directors, said he hopes Upshaw's lifetime in the NFL isn't remembered solely for the angst caused by this relatively recent issue. But, Ditka said:

"That shadows life. That's exactly what life is: What have you done for me lately. They remember the latest thing. You can be the greatest person in the world. You make one mistake at the end, that's what they're basically going to remember. Not that they should. And I think that's a tragedy in a sense."

Listen to the Ditka interview here.