NFL Nation: Inside Slant

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 (according to Mike Pereira, the NFL's former vice president of officiating who now works for Fox Sports). 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. Pereira 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
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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 ESPN.com 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 ESPN.com. "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.
You know by now that retired NFL players won an important concession this week to their landmark concussion settlement. The league agreed to remove its $675 million limit on awards and leave it uncapped moving forward, allaying fears that a rash of claims could deplete the fund before the end of its 65-year lifetime.

"Payments from this fund will be guaranteed now," said Christopher Seeger, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

The concession was necessary to win approval from U.S. District Judge Anita Brody, who had previously expressed concern about the $675 million limit.

As with any negotiation, the retired players had to give something to remove the cap. Their primary concession, as confirmed by Seeger during a Wednesday conference call: The NFL greatly expanded its authority to appeal claim awards.

The original agreement, reached in August, allowed the NFL to appeal 10 claim awards per year. This week's revised settlement grants it the ability to appeal an unlimited total.

In simple terms, the NFL can object to any and all claim awards and pursue reversal via a binding and final appeals process run by Brody's court and advised by an independent appeals advisory panel. (Each claim can be appealed only once.)

That change conjures images of the NFL challenging and tying up dozens of awards annually to limit payouts. Retired players who have told horror stories of dealing with the NFL's disability program would be excused for being suspicious of this arrangement, but it's important to note that the doctors involved with the appeals process will be independent of the NFL.

Seeger retained a degree of oversight as well. The agreement requires the NFL to appeal "in good faith," and Seeger can petition Brody's court if he believes the NFL is "submitting vexatious, frivolous or bad faith appeals," according to wording in the legal document (PDF).

"We're going to be watching this very closely," Seeger said.

Seeger remains convinced the original $675 million will cover all the claims to come. It seemed clear, however, that Brody wasn't going to approve that figure and his clients weren't going to receive any relief until the arrangement was renegotiated. The necessary concession has the potential to be significant, and time will tell if that's the case.
A particularly ghoulish list has circulated around social media in recent years. Maybe you've seen it: The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, as recorded by a palliative nurse. No. 2 -- "I wish I hadn't worked so hard" -- seems most applicable to the NFL, where coaches and staff members work unimaginable hours for all but a brief window of summer.

Wrote the nurse: "All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."

[+] EnlargeSidelined
Zondervan PublishingWhile recovering from leukemia, Chuck Pagano vowed that neither he nor his staff would sleep in the office once he returned.
Keeping that thought in mind, I spoke Monday morning with Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano as part of a series of interviews to promote his book "Sidelined." Did Pagano consider jumping off that treadmill after his September 2012 leukemia diagnosis? Even for a moment, did he contemplate a quieter life in remission with his wife, three daughters and three granddaughters?

"That never crossed my mind," Pagano said. If anything, his time watching the Colts from an Indianapolis hospital reaffirmed the place work has in his life. But for a minor concession, which we'll reveal in a moment, Pagano charged back into his job without a second thought.

"Besides my family, really for me, it's football," he said. "It's my only love and passion besides my family, and it helped get me out of that hospital. There was never a moment where I said, 'I want to do this or that if I get my health back.' The best medicine I got was watching that 2012 season unfold. That was enough for me."

I suppose it's easy to render judgment on another person's worldview, but I found Pagano's to be reflective of his industry. Ascending to a head-coaching job requires a singular focus, one accepted and supported by family members, and isn't conducive to drifting professional thoughts. NFL head coaches define themselves by long hours, pursuit of goals, and competition. They fight off adversity and avoid changing directions as a result.

Pagano was 52 at the time of his diagnosis, in his first year as a head coach after 27 years as an assistant. All of his time on the proverbial treadmill had built to that point -- and, he believed, brought him into a role that helped him navigate his illness. It was a time for a football coach to attack rather than run.

In the quiet moments of his hospitalization, Pagano made but one largely symbolic pledge that, for him, struck a balance between work ethic and life perspective: No more sleeping at the practice facility, for himself or his staff.

"I know that there are coaches who do end up sleeping on the sofa in their office," he said, "and that can be part of the business. But the one thing I told myself is that if I was fortunate to get out of the hospital and get back to the facility, that one thing I was going to demand of our guys was to go home at night. Working hard and working smart are two different things, and I wanted our guys to work smart enough so they could do that one little thing each night.

"If we're having to stay here and sleep at night, we're probably overcooking this thing too much. You've got to rest, even in this business. If you don't have your health, you don't have anything."

This seemingly minor demand is actually a big deal, and I hope it catches on around the league. Staying at the office all night is as much a show of disorganization, competitiveness and misguided face time as it is of strong work ethic. Some ambitious assistants feel uneasy leaving for the night if there are still cars in the parking lot, so Pagano makes it easy on his guys.

"If we have time and guys need to get out," he said, "I'll go 'Paul Revere' up and down the halls and kick them out of the building. If you're running on fumes, you get to a point of diminishing results. Get some rest."

That's about as much life-work balance as you're going to get from an NFL head coach, and it has served Pagano well since he returned to the field 18 months ago. He has been taking a drug known as ATRA (all trans retinoic acid) every three months for a two-week stretch, and his last dose is due in the fall. At that point, he will undergo testing every six months for three years to confirm his continued remission.

In the meantime, proceeds from Pagano's book will fund additional research to spur more success stories like his.

"Really, what this whole process has done is put everything in perspective," he said. "We all understand the expectations and pressure of this job. But in reality, we're blessed to coach and play a kid's game. We know what we signed up for, but this is what I do. Wouldn't want it any other way."
On average, veteran wide receivers remain productive through their late 20s.
It is in early summer, as coaches and players are working toward the rapidly approaching season, when NFL roster-builders shift their gaze a bit further. Preliminary work on the 2015 draft is underway, as is large-scale planning for a class of veteran free agents that carries some major names at the receiver position.

Colleagues Mike Sando and Bill Williamson evaluated the class this week, especially as it relates to the San Francisco 49ers' dilemma with Michael Crabtree. My role in this little project is to be a Debbie Downer of sorts and question how many of these playmakers -- if any -- will reach the free-agent market next spring. At the moment, there are more reasons to suspect a majority will remain with their current franchises.

As we discussed in March, the NFL marketplace rarely prompts top players in their prime to change teams. They are lured by big offers in the months, or sometimes years, before the expiration of their contracts, and exceptions -- such as Peyton Manning's shift to the Denver Broncos in 2012 -- are usually dictated by unique circumstances. While the 2014 uptick in salary-cap space provides more room for free-agent maneuvering, it also offers the same flexibility to re-sign players before the market opens.

Meanwhile, second contracts are typically sound investments for a receiver. The bar graph at the top of this post shows that they maintain close to peak production between the ages of 27 to 31. (The data is based on production for all receivers who have played at least four NFL seasons since 2001, with a minimum average of 50 receptions per year.) That pattern differs notably from, say, running backs, whose production declines after the age of about 27.

As the chart to your right illustrates, eight of arguably the 10 best pending free-agent receivers will fall into that age slot -- or younger -- during the 2015 offseason. Their future will depend in part on factors we can't project, including injuries and the potential for front-office change, but it's difficult to look at this list and pick out an obvious instance where a player seems set to move on.

The Green Bay Packers have allowed two 30ish receivers, Greg Jennings and James Jones, to sign elsewhere in successive years. But Jordy Nelson, who will be 30 when the 2015 season begins, has spoken adamantly in recent days about remaining with the Packers -- and does not appear concerned about losing leverage in saying so.

For the most part, this list is stocked with young receivers in their prime. Why would the Dallas Cowboys feel compelled to part ways with Dez Bryant? (Wait, don't answer that.) The Packers couldn't possibly be thinking of letting Randall Cobb go, could they? Torrey Smith seems a natural fit for the Baltimore Ravens as long as deep-throwing Joe Flacco is the quarterback.

The biggest question among this subgroup could be Crabtree, who has produced only one 1,000-yard season in his five-year career. The 49ers have a talented roster and a relatively tight salary-cap situation, and Crabtree might push toward the open market while assuming most of his classmates re-sign with their current teams.

Otherwise, the guess is that this potentially star-studded class will be whittled down considerably before the 2015 market opens. It makes too much sense.
With the exception of a few unsigned draft choices, the business of the 2014 NFL offseason is largely complete. Now, then, is a good time to assess where teams are heading into the season, how much flexibility they will have for fall additions/contract extensions and what -- if anything -- might be holding them back.

The big chart at the bottom of this post, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, is organized by current salary-cap space. The Jacksonville Jaguars have the most ($28.5 million) and the Detroit Lions -- who are trying to sign defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a cap-friendly extension -- have the least ($1.1 million).

The chart also carries two other relevant pieces of information: The amount of dead money each team has absorbed for 2014, and the amount of committed cash as of this week. Dead money is the total amount of cap space devoted to players no longer on the roster; committed cash is the amount of money each team will pay its players this season. The latter is important, in part, because the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) requires each team to spend 89 percent of its cap space in cash over a four-year period.

The other chart lists the 10 players whose terminated contracts are most impacting their former teams via dead money. In no particular order, let's run through some highlights and other observations of this material:
  • To varying levels of accuracy, dead money can be used to illustrate the efficiency of a team's roster-building plan. A high figure often means important decisions went wrong or that impatience and/or leadership change forced a course correction. The Dallas Cowboys have an NFL-high $23.2 million in dead money in part because they released linebacker DeMarcus Ware ($8.6 million) to get under the 2014 salary cap and parted ways with defensive tackle Jay Ratliff ($6.9 million) because of injuries.
  • The Buffalo Bills, meanwhile, are still dealing with their decision to extend quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2011. His contract, terminated in 2013, counts $7 million against their 2014 cap. The decision to trade receiver Stevie Johnson funneled $10.2 million in dead money to this season. The Bills, of course, have shifted to a short-term, win-now mode during an ownership transition, making dead money less of an organizational priority.
  • How expensive was the first round of the 2012 draft for the Cleveland Browns? Their two selections, running back Trent Richardson (traded) and quarterback Brandon Weeden (released), will combine for $10.9 million in dead money this year. Consider it an extreme example of leadership turnover; the Browns are on their third coach and third general manager since that draft.
  • Contract mistakes happen to even the most stable and best-run organizations. Tight end Aaron Hernandez, released last summer after being arrested on murder charges, accounts for $7 million in dead money for the New England Patriots.
  • On the other hand, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik left a mostly clean ledger for the team's new leadership duo of Jason Licht (general manager) and Lovie Smith (coach). The Bucs have an NFL-low $901,763 in dead money, largely due to Dominik's pay-as-you-go approach to significant deals. Cornerback Darrelle Revis, released in March about a year after signing a six-year, $96-million contract, does not count against the Bucs' 2014 cap at all.
  • Many of you might wonder what the Jaguars will do with $28.5 million in cap space at this time of year, or how the Browns could use $25.9 million or the Bengals their $24.6 million. Some of that space could be used for summer or in-season contract extensions; the Bengals' discussions with quarterback Andy Dalton come to mind. If not, each team has the option of pushing all or part of their surplus into 2015, a decision that must be filed by the end of the season. It's technically referred to as "carryover."
  • I would caution against making value judgments on the amount of committed cash. The expenditures of all teams should roughly even out over time, per the CBA, and an individual year's numbers can reflect one or two unique contract structures rather than a philosophy. The Chicago Bears, for instance, are set to pay the NFL's fourth-highest payroll ($150 million), but it's largely because front-loaded new contracts for quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall call for a combined $37.5 million in salary and bonuses this year. In 2015, their compensation lowers to $23.2 million combined.
  • If anything, committed cash can reflect the cost of maintaining deep rosters. The Baltimore Ravens are set to pay out nearly $160 million in cash this year, most in the NFL. Why? Quarterback Joe Flacco's $22.5 million salary plays a part, of course, but so do the lucrative first years of deals signed by tight end Dennis Pitta ($12 million), left tackle Eugene Monroe ($12 million) and linebacker Terrell Suggs ($12 million). The Cowboys, conversely, have the NFL's lowest payroll at the moment ($106 million) after an offseason dominated mostly by subtraction.
  • Why aren't the Jaguars paying a higher payroll after an active offseason? They followed a midrange focus, and none of their seven veteran free-agent signings will receive more than $7.5 million this season. The top three: Offensive lineman Zane Beadles ($7.5 million), defensive lineman Red Bryant ($5.25 million) and defensive end Chris Clemons ($5 million).
  • Historically it's been difficult to find a connection between spending and winning, and that will be especially true as long as teams are required to hit the four-year spending floor. The quickest way to a high payroll is to have an elite/highly paid quarterback, as the Ravens, Atlanta Falcons, Bears, San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos can demonstrate. (They have five of the top 10 team payrolls.) But if you believe a team must spend to win this season, keep in mind that the New England Patriots have the sixth-lowest payroll, the Bengals currently have the third-lowest payroll and the Indianapolis Colts are at No. 22.
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Colin KaepernickAP Photo/Tony AvelarIf Colin Kaepernick develops into an elite quarterback, the San Francisco 49ers will likely be paying him below market value.
I mostly abhor the compulsion to announce winners and losers in professional sports contract negotiations. Who cares whether Player A makes more than Player B, with the likely exceptions of A, B and their agents?

My interest lies in whatever consequence, ramification and/or domino effect a deal can have. And that's what drew me to the six-year contract extension San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick signed last week. To me, the deal -- which could be worth as little as $12.974 million and as much as $126 million -- carried two big takeaways:

  • It reinforced a trend we discussed earlier this offseason. Teams are implementing a powerful hedge against the 2014 salary cap spike, and the CBA-mandated spending floor, by "guaranteeing" money that can be taken back by a predetermined deadline.
  • It carries with it the uncomfortable prospect, at least for Kaepernick, of being locked into below-market salaries for the prime of his career.

Let's consider these issues one at a time.

As we noted in March, this offseason teams have frequently tagged some guarantees in major deals as "injury only." A player will be paid his total guarantee if he suffers an injury that prevents him from playing. Otherwise, the team can terminate the contract for "skill" reasons -- if the player doesn't perform well enough in the team's estimation -- and not owe the remaining guarantees. This maneuver allows teams to commit big cash totals to meet requirements in the collective bargaining agreement, but allows them to take it back and apply it to someone else in future years.

One of the most noteworthy cases was free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib, whose deal with the Denver Broncos technically has $26 million in guarantees. But $14 million of it is guaranteed for injury only beginning in 2015, making the Broncos' true commitment a one-year, $12 million deal.

The only money the 49ers are obligated to pay Kaepernick is his signing bonus ($12.329 million) and his 2014 base salary ($645,000). The rest of his $48 million in guarantees is tied up in a complicated matrix of injury-only designations and de-escalator clauses that could all be wiped out if the 49ers release him prior to April 1, 2015. In turn, the 49ers could eliminate $36 million of the guarantees if he plays the 2014 and 2015 seasons and is then released between April 2, 2015, and April 1, 2016.

In reality, Kaepernick's deal is seven one-year contracts that the 49ers can roll over or terminate at their pleasure. (ESPN's John Clayton analyzed the terms in his Sunday mailbag.) This structure compares with other major contracts this offseason, but it has now penetrated the previously insulated world of quarterback deals -- which brings us to our second point.

If Kaepernick develops into an elite quarterback, as the 49ers hope, this contract gives them full capacity to pay him below market value for the prime of his career. The deal calls for him to earn between $12.8 million and $17.4 million annually between 2015 and 2018 at a position where the best players currently are averaging more than $20 million.

Early projections for Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson, who will be due new contracts next offseason, suggest a jump to $25 million annually. As early as 2015, then, Kaepernick's deal could be paying him half of what Luck and Wilson might be receiving.

The Colts and Seahawks could qualify the guarantees for Luck and Wilson, respectively, but it seems less likely they would agree to similar average salaries. At that point, a presumably elite Kaepernick would be in a position that has routinely caused strife in NFL contract history.

How would Kaepernick react if he is deeply underpaid less than halfway through his contract? NFL teams rarely renegotiate long-term deals even at the midway point, unless it leads to more favorable terms for them.

ESPN's Jim Trotter reported that Kaepernick was fully aware of the consequences of this structure and hoped it would leave enough cash and cap space for other 49ers veterans to re-sign. Indeed, Kaepernick has shown nothing if not a fierce independent streak during his NFL career.

On the other hand, we have also witnessed the destruction that a one-sided multiyear contract can wreak. In 2003, the Minnesota Vikings signed quarterback Daunte Culpepper to a 10-year contract worth up to $102 million. The deal was really worth about $15 million over three years, and Culpepper's MVP-like season in 2003 immediately dated it.

Culpepper began pushing for a new deal after the 2004 season, going so far as to stage a one-day holdout from training camp in the summer of 2005. He won a modest concession but was never able to convince the Vikings to rework the contract in a substantive way before they traded him in March 2006.

The contract was great from the Vikings' perspective, giving them full leverage over their franchise quarterback for the meat of his career. It was so one-sided, however, that it hastened the end of his tenure. (A major knee injury in 2005 also contributed.) The Vikings won that fight but lost the match. Almost 10 years later, they are still seeking his replacement.

Kaepernick might prove to be the rare employee who disregards his salary relative to peers. That's what it will take for this work.
(Another in an Inside Slant series that will appear regularly during the 2014 offseason.)

Most of you know the raw numbers. A record 102 underclassmen declared for the 2014 NFL draft. Of that group, nearly 61 percent were selected on the third day (Rounds 4-7) or not drafted at all.

I think we can agree those numbers aren't healthy -- not for college football, the NFL nor many of the players involved. How to address the problem? One idea: A dose of realism to contextualize the perceived economic incentive that drives many players to declare early.

A bit of background: The NFL's current salary structure, established in 2011, has lowered the financial ceiling for rookies. As a result, those who are certain to be high draft choices are better off entering the league early and starting the clock toward a more lucrative second contract. The problem, of course, is separating the genuine top prospects from those who merely think they are.

Former NFL general manager Phil Savage, whom I spoke to for Wednesday's Hot Read, circulates heavily in these circles as executive director of the Senior Bowl. His idea is simple and smart: Push back the declaration date, a shift that would open a window for NFL teams to evaluate and provide feedback to underclassmen before they make a binding decision.

"The bottom line," Savage said, "is we have to figure out a way to make it more attractive to stay in school for one more year for some of these guys [and] give them a chance to go from being a sixth-round pick to a third-round pick."

The NFL's college advisory committee provides a midwinter draft prediction to prospects who seek one, but it hasn't proved to be a coercive tool. An enhanced process could begin by pushing the Jan. 15 declaration date back two weeks or even a month to Feb. 15, which would open a window to evaluate underclassmen and disseminate better information.

Savage suggests a mini-combine during that time for as many as 150 juniors/redshirt sophomores. Players would go through physical assessments, from the 40-yard dash to the bench press to the vertical leap. As much as anything, the idea would be to give players a deeper and more updated understanding of how NFL teams regard their draft stock.

"Some of these kids are going to come out regardless," Savage said. "They weren't going to be going back to school or they have families to support or something else. But a lot of them think they run a 4.5, and then get to the combine and they run a 4.75 and they're surprised and disappointed with what happens. That kind of information, maybe that helps reduce the numbers. Maybe we can give them a window where they're really assessed, then understand it and then they say, 'I really need to go back to school.'"

To be sure, some underclassmen might ignore the evaluation of a mini-combine. They might believe they could improve their numbers before April. Perhaps they're convinced that they can buck substantial odds, make a roster and forge a long career no matter where or if they're drafted.

Of course, you wonder how many of these players realize the odds they face. I can bring you a partial but revealing answer.

Of the 790 players drafted in the fourth round or later between 2009 and 2013, only 311 (39 percent) remain with their original teams, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Some have jumped to other rosters, but on average, the shelf life of a low-round draft pick is short. Here is the yearly breakdown:

2009: 11 of 155 still with drafted team
2010: 17 of 157
2011: 63 of 158
2012: 86 of 158
2013: 132 of 162

In other words, a player drafted between the fourth and seventh rounds has about a 50-50 shot of still being in his team's plans after two years.

These figures will drop further this summer when teams trim from their current 90-man limit to 53. Members of the 2014 draft class will get the greatest benefit of the doubt, meaning more from 2009-2013 will find themselves out of a job.

The message here? If you want to beat the odds, make sure you're as ready as you can be. The NFL and NCAA must come together to find a better way to make sure players understand that. Adjustments to the declaration date, and a mini-combine for underclassman, is an idea that could help.

I like a philosophical debate as much as the next pseudo-wannabe intellectual. So I was ready to dive headfirst into the Jermichael Finley dilemma, the one that asks us to choose between two fraught options: Finley's $10 million disability insurance policy or his fervent desire to continue playing.

Should he take the payday, retire at age 27 and preserve his current health? Or should he tempt fate by feeding his love for the game, perhaps earning a more conventional financial reward in the future?

Alas, it's fair to wonder if Finley -- the free-agent tight end who suffered a severe neck injury last season -- truly faces a choice here. I reached out to a few experts in this field, and as best as I can navigate the insurance labyrinth, it appears Finley would need to retire before receiving an offer to make a good argument for a disability claim. Even then, however, he could face a fight with his insurer.

"The answers always lie in the specific language of the policy, which we haven't seen," Atlanta insurance attorney Jeffrey D. Diamond said. "But I've been in this business for 35 years, and in my experience, there are usually conditions in these policies that prevent any kind of end around."

For me, this issue falls back on a basic and intuitive question: How could an employee claim disability if he turns down an offer to work, which in this case would come in conjunction with an employer's medical clearance? An insurance company hoping to avoid a $10 million payout almost certainly would use an NFL contract offer as proof of work competency, wouldn't it?

Finley has put himself in position to seek offers, having visited in March with the Seattle Seahawks, checked in with the incumbent Green Bay Packers last week and most recently met with New England Patriots officials. His personal doctor has cleared him for full contact, and his agent appeared to be open for business during an appearance last week on "PFT Live."

Finley doesn't have much leverage in negotiations, given the risk and potential liability involved with signing a player who suffered a bruised spinal cord and required fusion of the C-3 and C-4 vertebras. Thus the philosophical conundrum: If offered, say, a one-year contract for the veteran's minimum of $730,000, should he take it for the "love of the game" or fall back on the promise of a $10 million tax-free claim?

[+] EnlargeJermichael Finley
Brian Kersey/Getty ImagesJermichael Finley sustained a bruised spinal cord after taking a hit last season against Cleveland.
Jeffrey Joy, a vocational rehabilitation consultant based in Connecticut, said disability claims are often won by employees who have been offered a job. Typically in those cases, Joy said, the offer is not comparable to the previous employment -- a former manager offered assembly-line work after a mental illness, for example. That circumstance wouldn't seem to apply for Finley, whose only offer would be for the same job -- an NFL tight end -- that he previously held.

In his PFT interview last week, agent Blake Baratz said Finley has a "very sound argument to collect on his disability claim" if "he shuts it down permanently right now" -- ostensibly after trying and failing to secure a contract. Presumably pointing to the possibility of a future offer, Baratz also said: "Three weeks from now, or six weeks from now, or nine weeks from now or if he plays in 'X' number of games, it's a completely different story."

In other words, according to Diamond, it's likely one or the other but not an either-or situation.

"I haven't seen his policy, but it's hard for me to believe he will have that choice," said Diamond, who also teaches law at Georgia State University and Atlanta's John Marshall Law School. "I have to believe it's not that simple, that there are some conditions or exclusions. That's how these things usually work."

(I reached out to Baratz but have not yet heard back.)

According to Joy, the typical practice in such cases is to conclude that a person is not legally disabled if two or more medical sources conclude he or she has the capacity to work at his previous level. In this case, the implicit conclusion would come from two contract offers.

Even if Finley retires without an offer, Diamond said, he faces a fight to collect.

"This is a whole world that most people really don't know about," he said. "Insurance companies use the claims process to make money. They try to pay lower claims, deny claims, accuse people of insurance fraud. There are all sorts of things that go on that the public doesn't really know about.

"It's ignorant, or in good faith I'll say na´ve, to think you can simply cash in a disability claim if he doesn't make a team. His reasons will be subject to scrutiny, and they'll look for any reason other than the fact that he has an injury.

"My experience in this business is that insurance companies don't say, 'Oh, you didn't get an offer from the Seahawks, we're sorry, we'll pay your $10 million today.' That doesn't happen. With something of this size, they'll fight tooth and nail."

The point here is not to burst Finley's bubble or discredit his smart decision to seek out disability insurance while playing such a violent game. Rather, it's to inject a dose of reality into what is a difficult matter. Life, as they say, takes place not in the black or white but in the gray area. At the moment, Jermichael Finley is smack in the middle of it.
Clemens & Mallett & WhitehurstAP PhotosKellen Clemens (L to R), Ryan Mallett and Charlie Whitehurst give their teams a veteran option at the backup quarterback position.
The heavy lifting done, we've reached that point in the NFL offseason when it's acceptable to obsess about backup quarterbacks. And so here we are.

At the moment, two franchises -- the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings -- are refusing to trade backups to teams where they might have a better chance to play. Their approach, while different in the details, has in a larger sense helped illuminate the smartest approach to the position, one that bucks conventional wisdom but aligns with supply and demand.

The career backup, a veteran who has played enough to prove he isn't a starter but is still valued as a fill-in, should be a quaint notion in 2014. Smart teams are using the spot as a developmental rather than caretaker position, understanding how rare it is to find a veteran backup who can maintain a team's performance when the starter is injured.

Recent history suggests success is far more connected to a starter's durability than the experience level of the backup. Over the past three years, 31 of the NFL's 36 playoff teams have had a 15- or 16-game starter at quarterback. Only three of the remaining five got winning performances from their backups, and all of them -- Tim Tebow (2011), Colin Kaepernick (2012) and Nick Foles (2013) -- were decidedly inexperienced at the time of their ascension.

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Which would you rather have as your team's backup quarterback?

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Not everyone will accept conclusions based on a three-year sample size, but if nothing else, these figures help support an intuitive inference: There aren't enough good quarterbacks to go around and you're fortunate to have one. If he gets hurt, your path to the playoffs will be difficult no matter how experienced your backup is. That's the nature of the talent drop-off at this point in league history. Faced with a choice, why not choose the upside of a promising youngster over the low ceiling of a veteran?

Some teams seem to understand the consequence of those facts better than others. The Patriots often are hailed as a model franchise, much to the chagrin of those who wonder what would have become of them if Tom Brady had been drafted No. 198 overall instead of No. 199, but they have been ahead of the curve on this issue for a while. It has been eight years since the Patriots have employed a veteran backup (Vinny Testaverde, a mid-year acquisition in 2006) and they have since backed Brady up with inexperienced youngsters from Matt Cassel to Brian Hoyer to Ryan Mallett.

A traditionalist would argue that the Patriots, a perennial title contender, are better off with a veteran who could presumably navigate them to the playoffs. A realist would wonder if such a player exists. Is there really a net difference between Mallett's experience in the Patriots' system and, say, the experience of Ryan Fitzpatrick -- who has started 77 NFL games but lost 49 of them?

This is not to say a team should make a haphazard, hands-in-the-air decision at such an important position. A young backup must at least demonstrate proficiency in the offense during practice, and it's fair to assume Mallett has convinced the Patriots he could run their plays in a game setting if Brady were injured. Second-round draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo hasn't had time to do that yet, which to me explains coach Bill Belichick's reluctance to trade Mallett this spring.

That's a big reason the Vikings haven't parted ways with Christian Ponder, who seems unlikely to start ahead of Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater. Their stance might change as Bridgewater moves through the offseason, but for now Ponder -- like Mallett -- represents a more comfortable option to back up their starter than someone signed off the street. As with other positions, smart teams prefer to develop their own backup quarterbacks.

That's what the Green Bay Packers tried to do earlier this decade with Graham Harrell, and the folly of their shift to veteran Seneca Wallace in 2013 was exposed when starter Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone after a 5-2 start. Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn won only two of the eight games Rodgers missed a part of, and the Packers won the NFC North at 8-7-1 only after Rodgers returned for Week 17.

So what does this mean for the league overall? If you've committed to a starter, as roughly 26 of the 32 teams already have for 2014, it makes sense to prioritize development behind him rather than fool yourself into thinking you can prepare more reliably for his absence.

A Baltimore Ravens fan might be nervous with Tyrod Taylor behind starter Joe Flacco. I wouldn't be any more optimistic with, say, Charlie Whitehurst or Jason Campbell in that role. If Flacco is injured, chances are the Ravens are going to have a much more difficult time making the playoffs. Backups such as Taylor have an upside that might be revealed if and when he replaces Flacco. On the other hand, we have a pretty good idea of the lower bar a veteran would bring in that role.

The same could be said elsewhere. Do you really feel better about the San Diego Chargers' playoff chances with Kellen Clemens than you would if they had drafted, say, Zach Mettenberger? And if it doesn't work out for Jake Locker this season with the Tennessee Titans, why not play Mettenberger instead of hoping that Whitehurst can work magic he hasn't demonstrated in eight previous seasons?

Many coaches like the idea of having a "veteran in the room." If it's important enough to them, they should keep three or even four quarterbacks on their roster to accomplish that mission. But if you're committed to your starter, a veteran backup brings false confidence more than anything else. For the most part, Plan B in the NFL means missing the playoffs. You're better off hoping a young player will blossom in that role instead.

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