NFL Nation: Inside Slant

Manning & Rivers & Roethlisberger AP PhotosThe 2004 draft produced three QBs -- Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger -- who may be Hall of Famers some day.
History remembers the 2004 draft for the forced smile of one Eli Manning, the No. 1 overall pick who prodded a trade from the San Diego Chargers to the New York Giants. The circumstances of that deal were so dramatic -- the Giants drafted Philip Rivers and shipped him to the Chargers -- that you almost forget that another winner of multiple Super Bowls, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, was drafted just 10 spots later.

What else stood out about that draft? On its 10-year anniversary, here are 10 notable nuggets:

1. Hall of Fame group: In addition to Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger, the first round of the 2004 draft included one other player who should be in the Hall of Fame discussion five years after he retires. Receiver Larry Fitzgerald has averaged 85 receptions for 1,137 yards and 8.7 touchdowns per season since the Arizona Cardinals made him the No. 3 overall pick. He turns 31 in August. Safety Sean Taylor, chosen No. 5 overall by the Washington Redskins, was an elite player when he was murdered in 2007. That list, however, forgets a certain fourth-round pick …

[+] EnlargeJared Allen
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelThe Chiefs got one of the most durable and productive pass-rushers of the past 10 years when they took Jared Allen in the fourth round.
2. Jared Allen: With just seven picks remaining before the start of the fifth round, the Kansas City Chiefs drafted a defensive end from Idaho State whom they projected mostly as a long-snapper. Allen worked his way into the Chiefs' starting lineup, recorded nine sacks as a rookie and has collected 128.5 while playing in 157 of a possible 160 games. His career will continue this season with the Chicago Bears after six years with the Minnesota Vikings.

3. Better with age: The Cardinals' 2004 brain trust of general manager Rod Graves and coach Dennis Green deserves some retroactive praise for one of the best overall performances in that draft. In addition to Fitzgerald, the Cardinals also grabbed linebacker Karlos Dansby in the second round and defensive lineman Darnell Dockett in the third round. Defensive end Antonio Smith was a fifth-round selection. Three members of the Cardinals' 2004 draft have been named to at least one Pro Bowl, the second-highest total of this draft. Players the Cardinals drafted that year have started 638 games, also the second-highest total in the draft. (Data compiled by ESPN Insider columnist Mike Sando.)

4. On the other hand: The Baltimore Ravens' usually-sterling draft performance took a temporary dive in 2004, thanks in part to a 2003 decision to trade back into the first round to draft quarterback Kyle Boller. That move cost the Ravens their 2004 first-round pick, and left them sitting out until the No. 51 overall pick. Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards made it through five seasons, mostly as a backup, and third-round receiver Devard Darling barely made it on the field in his first three seasons. Players drafted by the Ravens in 2004 have made an NFL-low 89 starts.

5. All told: Players drafted in 2004 have been named to the Pro Bowl 76 times, about average among the past 47 drafts, according to Sando's numbers. That's about half the total of what many consider one of the best drafts in NFL history. Players drafted in 1983 have been named to the Pro Bowl 143 times.

6. Worst picks: How inexact of a science is the NFL draft? Two teams with top-nine picks drafted players who flopped. (And they were not alone in thinking otherwise.) The Oakland Raiders could have drafted anyone other than Manning at No. 2 overall, but their pick of offensive lineman Robert Gallery yielded not a single Pro Bowl in seven seasons. Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Jaguars reached for receiver Reggie Williams, who averaged 2.4 receptions per game played over the next five seasons. Finally, the Buffalo Bills hitched themselves to quarterback J.P. Losman at No. 21 overall, passing up Matt Schaub (No. 90) in the process.

7. Upside-down: In 2004, Mike Sherman doubled as the Green Bay Packers' general manager and coach. His selection of 5-foot-10 cornerback Ahmad Carroll at No. 25 overall was a major mistake, as was the decision to use a third-round pick on punter B.J. Sander. Sherman did make some headway in the second half of the draft, grabbing defensive tackle Corey Williams in the sixth round and center Scott Wells in the seventh. But that would be his final year running the Packers' draft; Ted Thompson was hired as general manger in 2005.

8. Best value: Only four players were selected after Wells, who has been his team's primary center for most of the past nine years even after being selected No. 251 overall. But let's not forget about running back Michael Turner, whom the Chargers drafted in the fifth round at No. 154 overall. Turner served as a productive backup to LaDainian Tomlinson for four seasons before taking over as the Atlanta Falcons' primary runner. He rushed for at least 1,300 yards in three of his first four seasons with the team and finished his career with 7,338 yards and 66 touchdowns. Not bad for a fifth-round pick.

9. Limited impact: The first four players the Chicago Bears drafted in 2004 played key roles in reaching the Super Bowl three seasons later. Their impact, however, was short-lived. Tommie Harris (No. 14 overall) and Tank Johnson (No. 47) comprised a strong interior of the Bears defensive line, making plays and keeping middle linebacker Brian Urlacher free from blocks. Receiver Bernard Berrian (No. 78) caught 51 passes, including six touchdowns, in the Bears' run-oriented scheme and cornerback Nate Vasher (No. 110) intercepted 16 passes in his first three seasons. Vasher, however, was never a full-time starter again. Berrian departed via free agency after 2007, Harris had one more good season in 2007 before his knees caused a steep decline, and Johnson was waived in 2007 after multiple off-field issues.

10. Career cut short: One of the top 2004 pass-rushing prospects was USC's Kenechi Udeze, whom the Minnesota Vikings selected No. 20 overall. He played four seasons before being diagnosed with leukemia in February 2008. A bone-marrow transplant helped spur him into remission but complications forced his retirement in 2009. He has since spent time coaching at the college and NFL levels.
So we have an answer to the question we've been discussing on Twitter and here on ESPN.com during the past couple days. Yes, the NFL without question took care to boost the Thursday night package it sold to CBS this past winter.

All but one of the 16 games feature intra-division matchups, one of three criteria we established in determining the quality of a prime-time schedule. As the charts below show, that's 40 percent more than the number of divisional games played during the 2013 Thursday night schedule.

In fact, if you study the numbers, you see that the CBS portion of the schedule -- half of the 14 Thursday night games and two games to be played on Saturday in Week 16 -- is on par with ESPN's "Monday Night Football" on a pro-rated basis. The second half of the schedule, to be aired only on the NFL Network, drops off a bit from there.

Remember, we're judging these schedules based on three criteria:
  • Divisional matchups
  • Games between 2013 playoff teams
  • How many of the NFL's 10 most popular teams, as determined by the 2013 Harris Interactive poll, will make appearances.

As we've discussed, the NFL has substantial incentive to upgrade the quality of its Thursday product. CBS reportedly paid between $250 million and $275 million for a one-year deal. The agreement requires it to allow a simulcast on the NFL Network, and even when the games shift exclusively to the NFL Network, CBS must still produce them.

Given those terms, it's fair to imagine how many multiples of $250 million the league could fetch for a full and exclusive Thursday schedule. (For context, recall that ESPN is paying the NFL $1.9 billion annually for "Monday Night Football" and other considerations.)

Before putting the full Thursday night package up for bidding, of course, the NFL would be well served to raise the profile of what is usually an also-ran schedule of games. Pitting divisional teams against each other, given the natural rivalries that exist, is a good start. It also is the most logical workaround to a league stipulation that all 32 teams play on Thursday at least once during the season.

The numbers in the chart suggest that, at first glance, the elevated Thursday night schedule didn't come at the expense of either the Sunday night or Monday night schedules. NBC actually got eight more appearances by "popular teams" in its schedule and ESPN got six. Changes elsewhere were negligible, and NBC got a big gift that allows it to flex two additional games between Weeks 5-10. (Weekly flex rules pick up beginning in Week 11.)

What is the long-term future of the Thursday night package? I'm not sure we can answer that. But its 2014 schedule suggests the NFL is bullish on it, and if nothing else, fans seeking a midweek slate of football should get some better options this season.

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A potential twist has the attention of broadcast and league insiders as the NFL prepares to announce its 2014 schedule. The league's work to elevate its new Thursday night package -- and eventually sell it for billions of dollars -- could have some intriguing ripple effects.

Namely: Will it steer better games to Thursday nights? And if so, at whose expense will that shift occur?

Since 2006, NBC's "Sunday Night Football" has been the NFL's premium prime-time event. It traditionally gets the best collection of games and is the only package that can "flex" uncompetitive late-season matchups for more interesting ones. ESPN broadcasts "Monday Night Football" and, until this year, the NFL Network has handled Thursday nights.

In February, however, CBS reportedly paid the league between $250 million and $275 million for the right to simulcast eight Thursday night games along with the NFL Network. (The rest of the 16-game package will air only on the NFL Network, although CBS will continue producing it.) The Thursday night deal is for one year, although the league has an option for 2015. Its short tenure suggests that 2014 is a product trial that could fetch a much more lucrative annual fee in future years. (For context, consider that ESPN pays the NFL $1.9 billion annually for "Monday Night Football" and other considerations.)

How best to generate more Thursday night interest? One place to start would be sliding more prominent games into that slot, a possibility that John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal reported on this month. According to Ourand, media executives believe the Thursday night schedule will be closer in quality to the traditional Sunday night slate and could well supersede what is assigned to Monday night.

There is no standard formula for determining the quality of a schedule from a broadcast perspective. So in the chart, I measured the three 2013 prime-time schedules by three strength-based criteria:
When you look at the 2013 prime-time schedule from that perspective, you see how skewed it was toward "Sunday Night Football" -- even before it flexed three games and moved its Week 17 matchup from TBA to Eagles-Cowboys. "Sunday Night Football" also received a number of "storyline games," from the NFL's 2013 Kickoff Game to the heated 49ers-Seattle Seahawks rivalry to Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis.

If the league in fact seeks to strengthen its Thursday night schedule, you could see movement in those numbers. You also wonder if Thursday night will get one of receiver DeSean Jackson's games against the Eagles, who released him this offseason. Or perhaps it will broadcast receiver Steve Smith's reunion with the Carolina Panthers, or one of cornerback Darrelle Revis' games against the New York Jets.

There are some complicating factors, of course. Most notably, the NFL schedule formula remains the same, so there can be no increase in the inventory of "good games." Also, league parity makes it vulnerable to unexpected competitive slips. (Hello, last season's "Monday Night Football" matchup of the Vikings and Giants.) The NFL must also comply with a requirement to schedule all 32 teams to play at least one Thursday game, and it also must respect the Sunday afternoon games aired on CBS and Fox.

There is little doubt that Howard Katz, the NFL's schedule czar, can pull it all off if so instructed. Wednesday's news that the NFL had exercised an option to move a wild-card playoff game to ESPN added an additional level of anticipation. Was it a coincidence of timing a concession? In either event, I'll focus on this angle when the announcement comes at 8 p.m. ET, and I'll follow up in an Inside Slant post no later than Friday morning. Until then, enjoy our newest national holiday.

(Another in an Inside Slant series that will appear regularly during the 2014 offseason.)

For decades, most NFL players have worn helmets that were developed before brain trauma was well-understood. The primary purpose of standard football headgear was not to prevent concussions -- deemed minor injuries at the time -- but to provide a protective barrier against skull fractures.

So it's not surprising that one of the most substantive innovations in this realm came from a man who experienced none of the preceding context. Bill Simpson spent most of his professional life around race cars, first as a driver and later as a safety advocate who famously popularized fire-resistant race suits. He didn't attend his first NFL game until 2010, when he was 70 years old, and was stunned to see an Indianapolis Colts player carted off with a head injury.

"I asked a friend of mine who was a coach and was told, 'That's part of football,'" Simpson said recently. "He said, 'It happens all the time.' I said, 'How can that just be accepted?'"

[+] EnlargeSG Helmet
Photo/Courtesy of SG HelmetsThe SG helmet is lighter than a standard helmet.
Simpson set out to design, build and market a helmet in which technology zeroed in on concussions as much as previous models had focused on skull fractures. The result is a helmet so fundamentally different -- most notably, it is half the weight of a traditional helmet -- that it has struggled to gain traction in the NFL. About 20 NFL players have tried the helmet over the past two seasons, according to national sales manager Ashlee Quintero, and for now, Simpson's SG Helmets are focused on youth football, where the politics of branding is less intense and familiarity with equipment less of an issue.

"We encountered big resistance to change," Quintero said, "which we understand. You've worn the same kind of helmet for 15 years. Why change now?"

Simpson consulted with researchers who contended that football concussions occur more frequently from rotational acceleration -- the brain hitting the side of the skull as the head moves -- than blunt force. He eschewed the hard plastic that football helmets have traditionally been built with and instead used a blend of carbon Kevlar, which is flexible and intended to absorb the force of a hit.

The photo shows that an SG helmet appears similar to standard models. But carbon Kevlar is by definition a lighter material, and the weight of an SG helmet is between 2.4 and 2.6 pounds for adults and 1.8 pounds for youth. A standard football helmet weighs between 4 and 6 pounds.

"It's raw physics," Simpson said. "You remember force equals mass times acceleration? If you have less mass, the force of the blow to the head from the collision is going to be lower."

Simpson's helmet is certified by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), and it received a four-star rating (out of five) from an evaluation system developed by two universities. It's one of 18 helmets featured on a poster that looks like this and will hang in NFL locker rooms this season.

NFL equipment chart
NFLThe NFL has released a chart used to evaluate the effectiveness of 18 helmets (Click for PDF).
A Purdue University graduate student conducted tests that concluded that SG helmets disperse force before it reaches the head at least 50 percent better than traditional models. According to Quintero, there were 19 reported concussions among the 1,500 helmets used last season at all levels of football.

"It's not perfect," Quintero said. "Nothing is. But you look at that and say, 'Even if those numbers are under-reported, and even if it's three times as many, you're still at less than 5 percent of players sustaining concussions."

(For context, consider that the NFL's report of 228 concussions last season worked out to about 10 percent of its players.)

These numbers point SG in the right direction, and its innovation has entered the market at a time when the politics of brain equipment are changing in the NFL. Players have always been allowed to wear any helmet approved by the NOCSAE, but an exclusive contract between the league and Riddell made its helmets the default selection of many. If a player used another brand, that company's logo could not be visible.

The league terminated that deal in the fall, disassociating itself with the idea of endorsing a helmet of any kind. It's worth noting that SG's most notable NFL client, former Colts center Jeff Saturday, was the president of the NFL Players Association and thus unlikely to be influenced by corporate branding pressure. Saturday retired after the 2012 season.

To this point, however, persuading more than a few NFL players to change to a lightweight helmet has been a challenge. The youth market might be the most fertile ground for (eventually) impacting the NFL.

SG's 1.8-pound youth helmet is a more appropriate weight for children, according to Simpson. It's easier to keep their heads up, an important emphasis of the NFL's USA Football, and Simpson also believes its lightweight nature will dissuade players at all levels from hitting with their heads.

"I tell that to coaches every time I talk to them," he said. "They're not putting a weapon on their head and ours doesn't feel like one."

If nothing else, the dissolution of the Riddell contract will raise awareness of the diversity of choice available. In this case, knowledge begets competition, which begets further innovation, which -- one would hope -- takes football to a safer place.

You might have noticed this story last week about Riddell's new SpeedFlex helmet. Its defining characteristic? A flexible panel on the crown designed to disperse the force of impact. Flexible? Disperse? Sounds familiar.
Another in an Inside Slant series that will appear regularly during the 2014 offseason.

You might be aware of an unusual coaching decision Thursday night at the Pepsi Center, where Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy pulled his goalie with three minutes, one second remaining in a playoff game the Avs trailed by one. They tied the game with 14 seconds remaining and won in overtime.

As a football writer and hockey novice, my reaction moved quickly to the gridiron. Namely: You would never see an NFL coach depart from conventional wisdom to that degree, especially in a playoff game.

We can get some context for Roy's decision from a study performed through Canada's Simon Fraser University. (H/T to Adam Gretz of SBNation.com for providing a path to finding it.)

The study found that when NHL goalies were pulled in the 2007-08 season, there was about one minute remaining in regulation. By examining the various possibilities, the study found NHL coaches were missing opportunities by not pulling their goalies -- and adding an extra potential scorer -- earlier in games they trailed in.

A strategy of pulling the goalie when trailing with three minutes or less remaining would account for an additional point over the course of a season, according to the study. A more aggressive approach could push that outcome to 1.5 additional points.

Yes, Roy's decision Thursday night would have failed if not for a spectacular empty-net save by a defenseman. But as we've discussed in this blog series, strategies must be evaluated over time and not by a singular outcome.

My hockey friends tell me that Roy pulls his goalies regularly, and thus what is out of the box for most isn't even unusual for him. I also don't know if his decision-making is based on the data or his own experience as a goalie. Regardless, it would be rare to find an NFL coach either confident or crazy enough to embrace such a counterculture strategy.

What would the NFL equivalent be? I asked Twitter followers to give me their best suggestions. A representative sample is in the module below.

To me, it's as if Roy went for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter of a tie game. Or maybe he called for a running play on a two-point conversion when trailing by one. (NFL teams pass more often than run in those situations, but the data shows running plays are more successful.)

With a Hall of Fame playing career on his resume, perhaps Roy enjoys a level of security that most NFL coaches do not. But I look forward to the day when an NFL coach has the guts to pull his goalie with three minutes left in regulation -- and survives to tell about it.

 
Kevin CostnerDale Robinette/Summit EntertainmentIn portraying the Cleveland Browns' general manager, Kevin Costner's Sonny Weaver Jr. is obsessed with pleasing the fans above all.
Fair warning: Spoiler alert.

The most cutting reviews of "Draft Day" suggested it was nothing more than a big-screen NFL infomercial, a modern-day NFL Films-like effort to glorify and dramatize what is now a $10 billion industry. That interpretation piqued my interest in ways that a movie about draft trades and team building did not.

So as I plunked down my $5.50 this week -- no free screenings for this hack -- I wanted to know: How does the NFL see itself? Or at least, what would the NFL look like if it could leverage its own portrayal?

After all, the NFL received a rights fee and a percentage of revenues for allowing its logos and team names to be used in the film, according to ESPN's Darren Rovell. It also exerted editorial control in at least one instance: Star Kevin Costner told reporters that the league nixed a scene in which angry fans hung a team official in effigy.

The league didn't write, direct or produce the film. In fact, director Ivan Reitman is the same guy who brought us "Animal House." Still, the NFL's cooperation and tacit approval was vital to the extent of the realism that its logos, access and cameos provided. The chief defender of the NFL shield, commissioner Roger Goodell, appears frequently.

Now then: What does an NFL-endorsed movie show us? Basically, a general manager who wants to please fans and players who aren't the character risks they might otherwise seem.

Costner’s Sonny Weaver Jr., the Browns’ fictitious general manager, wants nothing more than for the team to have a great draft because, as we hear a radio host intone, sports are all Cleveland has. Weaver’s goal is to lift up the city and its people with draft excitement. Any and all distractions must be set aside. Making good with his secret pregnant girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) must wait. Sorry. Spreading his father’s ashes must go on without him.

There is nothing subtle about the intent and motivation of high-ranking team officials in this movie. The fictitious Seattle Seahawks general manager, Tom Michaels (played by Patrick St. Esprit), is shaken when he sees fans protesting a trade outside his office window. Weaver leverages the presumed fear of fan rejection -- and the glory of their appreciation -- in several negotiations. Browns owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) is driven mostly by the adoration received in making a draft splash; ensuing profits are presumed but go unmentioned.

The rousing final scene of the movie, in fact, is set at the Browns' draft party. Molina, Weaver and the Browns' coach (Denis Leary's coach Penn) appear on stage with the team's top two draft picks. There is no greater reward, we sense, than making your fans happy.

None of the players in "Draft Day" are angels, of course, but the two selected by the Browns are overtly exonerated by circumstances. The malfeasance, we're shown, was not their fault.

One player's reputation as a hothead is debunked upon further review of game tape. At first glance, he appears to have thrown a ball into the stands, was subsequently penalized, and then ejected for bumping an official during a protest. We soon learn he had, in fact, simply handed the ball to his dying sister, excusing his subsequent tantrum, in Weaver's eyes. We then understand why this player spends draft morning driving his nephews to gymnastics practice.

The second player -- a running back portrayed by the Houston Texans' Arian Foster -- blurts in one of his first lines that he is not a gang member. He acknowledges he was involved in a violent fight, but we are strongly led to believe he didn't start it and that his hospitalized antagonist was an adult who should have known what he was getting into.

Meanwhile, the Browns pass on drafting a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback largely because he is too slick and his teammates don't appear to like him. Instead, they stick with an incumbent who has worked hard to improve his strength during the offseason and who is so passionate about winning that he trashes Weaver's office upon hearing rumors he might be replaced.

And that, we're told, is what the draft and playing football are all about. It's about team and sacrifice and heart and the whole being more important than the parts. It's why one of the great evils of "Draft Day" is trading away future draft choices. One player can't be better than three. (It's odd to hear this addressed most frequently by Leary's character, given how rarely NFL coaches worry about the state of the team two or three years hence.)

I can only presume this underlying theme explains why the impropriety of Weaver impregnating his salary-cap manager (Garner) is never addressed. They're both on the same team, right? They worked together to have a great draft, didn't they? What's the problem? (Fortunately, she tells Weaver repeatedly that she is not upset with his inattention.)

I'm no film critic, so this post isn't meant to tell you whether "Draft Day" was good or bad, or whether you should see it or not. I watched the movie through the lens of product portrayal. The movie tells us that the NFL draft is all about making fans happy, with players who aren't as bad as they're being made out to be and with a team concept that emphasizes the whole over the parts. (What it's not about: Medical issues of any kind. No injury histories and not a single doctor was invoked in this film.)

"Draft Day" comes at a time of great paradox in the industry. Its business has never been more prosperous, yet debate on its future remains fierce. How does that look when you can buy Hollywood influence? I can think of no better way to express the answer than through the lyrics of "Born to Rise," a little ditty featured in the closing credits that puts the best of "Rocky" training montages to shame:

What you know about standing up when the odds get stacked?
Time stands still, ain't no turning back
When everything you're worth is under attack
What you know about heart? What you know about that?
Write it off as criminal, a place to cast a stone
On and on we carry on when one is not enough.

History, prior association and a semi-sensational quote tell us one thing. The mock drafts Insider are telling us another Insider. Whom to believe when it comes to projecting the likelihood the Minnesota Vikings would select Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel if he is available at No. 8 next month?

There is no telling what is truly going on inside the heads of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, two of the three most important people involved in the decision. (The third, general manager Rick Spielman, has pledged to draft players who match the sensibilities of his coaching staff.) We can, however, say this with confidence: Manziel would represent a stylistic departure from the offense played on the teams Zimmer and Turner have coached throughout their combined 49 NFL seasons.

As the chart shows, Zimmer and Turner almost exclusively have played with tall, traditional pocket passers. Only one of them, Quincy Carter on Zimmer's 2003 Dallas Cowboys, has rushed for as much as 200 yards in a 16-game season.

As assistant coaches on many of those teams, Zimmer and Turner had limited influence on the personnel decisions that brought those quarterbacks. But the list represents a near-linear thread of similar players who have informed a lifetime of values, experience and familiarity -- one Manziel would at minimum upend if he were the Vikings' selection.

The closest match from either coach's history is Doug Flutie, a 5-foot-10 scrambler who started for the San Diego Chargers in 2001 when Turner was their offensive coordinator. Yet even that comparison is limited. Flutie was 39 at the time, and although he was still nimble enough to scramble for 192 yards, Turner nevertheless had him throw a career-high 521 passes as part of his well-defined downfield passing scheme.

Another mobile quarterback, Jay Fiedler, had his per-game rushing totals with the Miami Dolphins in 2002-03 drop by 58 percent under Turner compared to the two seasons before Turner's arrival.

Manziel, of course, was at his best in college when scrambling outside the pocket. It's true that he has a strong arm -- stronger than Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater or Central Florida's Blake Bortles, according to ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay -- and there is near-unanimous agreement he won't stay healthy if he runs as often in the NFL.

But if you're going to run a three-digit pocket offense like Turner's, one modeled after the "Air Coryell" system the Chargers ran with Dan Fouts, are you going to be naturally drawn to Manziel? What is Manziel going to look like if you've seen your offense run mostly by Troy Aikman (6.2 yards rushing per career game), Philip Rivers (3.1), Jim Everett (3.8) and Gus Frerotte (2.1)?

That's a question only Turner can answer. But if you're among those who think he'll endorse Manziel, then you must believe he sees him in the same light as those traditional pocket throwers -- or that he is planning a sharp left turn in his scheme and play-calling ideas as he approaches his 62nd birthday next month. Tweaking schemes to fit players is a popular NFL mantra, but is it reasonable to expect it from Turner?

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel, the former Texas A&M quarterback who rushed for 1,410 yards in 2012, could see less action outside of the pocket in the NFL.
As for Zimmer, it's true he has spent his career on the defensive side of the ball. He has had little role in choosing quarterbacks and no hand in coaching them. We can't know the details of his personal philosophy on offense, but the three quarterbacks he has seen most frequently start for his teams are Aikman, Andy Dalton (9.5 yards rushing per game) and Carson Palmer (2.7). At the very least, he has almost no personal experience with a quarterback of Manziel's skill set.

To this point, his most important public statement about offense has been the hiring of Turner -- whom he coached with on the Cowboys staff in the early 1990s and who is well-equipped to implement and run a scheme while Zimmer directs his attention elsewhere. When you combine his alliance with Turner with his recent comments about Manziel, you get a sturdy encapsulation of his set of personal and professional values.

In media interviews, Zimmer derisively referred to Manziel's pro day -- which was set to blaring music and included a visit by former President George H.W. Bush -- as a sideshow. Elaborating, Zimmer said it was important to know if Manziel is "going to conform to typically what the NFL is or what everyone else has done before him, including what the great players in the game have done before him? Or is he going to try to be the celebrity man guy that he was maybe a year and a half ago?"

Many have assumed Zimmer was pulling the old Jedi mind trick, attempting to cast public doubt about his interest in a player he secretly hopes to draft. I wonder if that's a case of overthinking about a man who grinded for nearly four decades to get his first head-coaching gig at age 57. After working so long to get this job, will he hinge its success on a player who appears out of his comfort zone?

In total, then, here is a franchise with a coach whose no-nonsense values already have flared. His offensive coordinator has made a successful career out of running the same offense, with a certain type of quarterback, and his general manager doesn't seem likely to impose an unpopular choice. I can't say for sure the Vikings will pass on Manziel at No. 8, but this is one instance where it isn't difficult to come up with a long and relatively formidable list of reasons why they might be inclined to look elsewhere.
video (Another in an Inside Slant series that will appear regularly during the 2014 offseason.)

The accolades pop off the page. In many ways, Georgia's Aaron Murray is the most prolific passer in the history of the SEC. No quarterback has completed more passes for more yards or touchdowns, and Murray is the only quarterback in conference history to throw for at least 3,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.

As the NFL draft approaches, however, Murray is not viewed as a top prospect. His success in the conference best linked to NFL-level play has been trumped by concerns about his size and, temporarily, his recovery from a torn ACL. ESPN's Scouts Inc. rates him a fifth-round prospect , citing his measurements at the February scouting combine -- just over 6 feet, 207 pounds and with 9[-inch hands -- as impediments to throwing from an NFL pocket.

Murray represents the 2014 embodiment of an annual draft debate. What is more predictive of NFL success: college production or projected athletic ability, as manifested in combine measurements?

There are countless anecdotal illustrations of this argument, ranging from the infamous Mike Mamula -- a 1995 combine star whose football skills were more limited -- to Clay Matthews, who produced twice as many sacks as an NFL rookie in 2009 than he did in four seasons at USC. Recently, a group of college professors worked to inject some hard numbers into the discussion via a study of 640 drafted prospects over a three-year period from 2002-04.

Their results were instructive. College production, averaged per game and scaled based on competition level, was at least twice and in some cases three times more indicative of NFL success than athletic ability. In fact, said Georgia professor Brian J. Hoffman, combine numbers added nothing to the accuracy of projections that college production hadn't already accounted for.

"If it were up to me," Hoffman said, "I would certainly [tell general managers] to ignore the combine. Completely ignore the combine. My concern is that, if anything, it leads you astray more often than helps bring you a good player. There are some exceptions, particularly with a player like [New Orleans Saints tight end] Jimmy Graham, who played only one season and so you have less data. But focusing on college performance seems a much more reliable approach. In general, college performance will tell you what you need to know."

This should be no surprise in the business world, where past performance and experience are far more valued than aptitude tests and measurements. In professions requiring physical skills, of course, hiring managers feel compelled to project aptitude. The combine is the primary NFL vehicle for that task, but this study suggests its results are at best redundant.

At the same time, it's important to acknowledge the limitations of this data, which can be viewed in detail here. It doesn't ensure a player will be successful if he put up big numbers at a BCS school, nor does it mean he will flop if he didn't.

Matthews, who managed 5.5 sacks in his college career, is the perfect example. The Green Bay Packers put faith in their physical evaluation of Matthews, as well as their analysis of his play even when he didn't record sacks or tackles, and were rewarded with a pass-rusher who is on a Hall of Fame track (50 sacks in 69 games).

In sum, the study showed that the statistical correlation between college production and NFL success is 0.3, which is about the same as the correlation between high school grade-point averages and college grade-point averages. In other words, NFL teams have plenty of additional analysis to complete beyond college production.

In any event, there are some important thoughts to be gleaned here. First, if the data compiled via the combine's athletic measurements has proved statistically worthless, it seems time to reconsider the nature and substance of the drills. The results, as Hoffman said, are more likely to cause a draft mistake than contribute to a successful choice.

Second, it is another reminder to look closer at players like Murray. Hoffman noted the inherent bias of working at the school Murray played for, but the study suggests Murray's production merits more weight than NFL teams typically assign.

"I don't think this tells us absolutely that a player will do it in the NFL if he's done it in college," Hoffman said. "But it also doesn't make a lot of sense to say they probably can't do it in the league consistently based on these physical measurements. There are always going to be exceptions, but when you look at a guy like Aaron Murray or Drew Brees, so-called undersized guys who were shattering records in college while playing in a pro-style offense, you look at the data and suspect he would have a better chance to succeed than NFL teams might think."
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News: Nike raises prices on two of its three replica NFL jersey styles. The most expensive version now costs $295.

Reaction A: Greedy pigs!

Reaction B: Good. An adult who wears a sports jersey deserves to be gouged.

Reaction C: Basic economics. Supply and demand. Nike knows people will buy them.

Reaction D: Has anyone heard the term "replica"?

That sums up the views I heard during an impromptu Twitter chat Wednesday morning, a sample of which is included at the bottom of this post.

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Some blamed a corporate behemoth for further distancing its pricing from the presumably average consumer. Others suggested Nike, which doesn't care who buys its jerseys as long as they are bought, must feel confident in its market projections. A few wondered why grown men and women feel compelled to wear game-style jerseys, and many pointed toward the robust counterfeit -- er, "replica" -- market as an increasingly attractive alternative.

I'm no economic genius, but this story seems to reinforce that Nike isn't producing these jerseys for you, the average American consumer. They are for the highest levels of our economic stratosphere -- the people who were already happily spending $100, $135 or $250 on official NFL jerseys and won't care or notice an increase of $15 for the middle version or $45 on the premium one.

The rest of us -- I mean, you -- already know how to find much less expensive options. They are of different aesthetic appeal, and probably lower quality, but quench the interest of most people who want to wear them. I can't quantify how many of you share that view, but I laughed when the first autosuggestion on my "NFL jersey" Google search was "NFL Jersey China," from where alternative jerseys might or might not be available.

What can we say about a league that partners with a company that prices key memorabilia beyond the range of so many customers?

Among other things, we are reminded the NFL isn't necessarily targeting you for many of its products, including memorabilia and on game day. As with jerseys, the prices for tickets, parking and food have outgrown the reasonable reach of the majority of NFL fans. According to Team Marketing Report, it cost an average of $459.65 to buy four tickets, two small draft beers, four small soft drinks, four programs and two adult adjustable caps at an NFL game last season.

Those prices are responsibly reserved for the financially elite. For the rest of us, the NFL is a television product, free on Sundays but requiring a cable subscription on Monday and some Thursday nights.

Think of it in terms of the airline industry. Nike and the NFL have created a first-class level of customer, based largely on what coach used to be. When you think of it that way, when you realize that you are no longer the market target for the traditional NFL experience, a $295 jersey makes more sense. It's the rubber chicken you used to get in coach, only at the price of filet mignon. Bon appétit!

NFL general managers gather their smartest people each winter to analyze rosters, assess options and formulate a plan for the offseason marketplace. In 2014, at least, they made quick work of the running back position.

By now it's no surprise to hear or read about the plummeting value of running backs. No one wants to pay them premium salaries or even spend a first-round draft pick on one. To this conversation, I'd like to add an obvious and clear representation for why.

The information in the fancy line graph, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, is similar to the type of analysis NFL teams use. It shows, in pretty stark terms, how running back production drops off after the age of 27. (Hat tip to ESPN.com editor Brett Longdin for generating the graph.)

 
The red line represents all running backs who have played at least four NFL seasons since 2001, with a minimum average of 75 carries per season. Overall, we see their careers peak at age 27. Afterward, their rushing totals drop by 15 percent in one year, 25 percent in two and almost 40 by the time they are 30.

Most decision-makers -- whether their background was in scouting, accounting or anything in between -- saw that trend as a bad investment. As with any business, they reserve premium contracts for projected growth in production, not a decline.

For comparison's sake, the graph also includes the receiver position (in blue, minimum average of 50 receptions over the same time period). You'll see some fluctuations, but even at age 31, the composite receiver produced a near-identical yardage total as he did at age 27. In other words, it's reasonable to expect a high-level performance into a receiver's early 30s.

Peterson
Peterson
Running backs get no such benefit of the doubt, nor should they from a strict business sense. Even Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson, one of the league's best players at any position, contributed to the curve at age 28 last season. It's true that he had the fifth-most rushing yards (1,266) in the NFL, but he also missed two games and overall fell 40 percent from his 2,097-yard effort in 2012.

That line graph, along with a season that produced its fewest total league-wide rushing yards (57,795) in six seasons, led us to the eye-opening 2014 offseason. Keep in mind that age 27 is the essential point where most players, under the current collective bargaining agreement, become free agents for the first time. At their first opportunity for a payday, the league already views them to be beyond their prime.

As of this week, teams have 177 running backs under contract. Of that group, 128 (72 percent) are 26 or younger. I counted only eight runners over the age of 29. Meanwhile, there was an obvious link between the handful of mid-20s running backs who did receive multiyear contracts this spring: None have been four-year feature backs.

The Detroit Lions will pay Joique Bell (27) the eighth-highest salary for a running back in 2014 ($4.3 million). He has 248 career carries, an average of 62 per season.

Toby Gerhart (27) will receive $4 million from the Jacksonville Jaguars. He has averaged 69 carries per season. Donald Brown (26) also will get $4 million from the San Diego Chargers after totaling 551 carries in five seasons, while Ben Tate (25) will get $3.25 million from the Cleveland Browns after totaling 421 carries in four seasons.

And that's pretty much the list. What about Knowshon Moreno, who is 26 but has 845 career rushes? He got a one-year deal from the Miami Dolphins. Maurice Jones-Drew? He's 29 and has 1,804 career carries. His contract with the Oakland Raiders guarantees him $1.2 million for 2014. He'll earn $2.5 million, assuming he makes the team.

It's fair to expect the trend to continue expanding to the draft. NFL teams didn't draft a single running back in the first round in 2013, and at the moment, ESPN's Scouts Inc. doesn't project one to be selected in the first round this year, either. (Their highest-rated runner, Ohio State's Carlos Hyde, has a mid-second round grade Insider.)

The message is clear: Running backs of this generation picked, well, the wrong generation to be running backs. Teams want them young, cheap and fresh -- and the data makes it difficult to argue their point.
(Another in an Inside Slant series that will appear regularly during the 2014 offseason.)

By now you're aware that the NFL has taken the dramatic -- for this league, anyway -- step of initiating a two-week preseason experiment with extra points. During the first two weeks of the 2014 preseason, teams will line up at the 20-yard line for extra points -- turning what had been a near-automatic play into something slightly more difficult.

The experiment is meant to identify any unintended consequences of adding at least some drama and strategy to what is otherwise time for viewers to check their fantasy results. Even if all goes well, it probably will take years of discussion before 24 of the NFL's 32 owners approve a permanent change. But for now I think it's worth evaluating just how much a 38-yard extra point -- or thereabouts -- would change the game.

[+] EnlargeRyan Succop
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesThe NFL will be testing the unintended consequences of kicking extra points from 38 yards during the first two weeks of the preseason.
Namely: Might we reach a day when it makes more sense to go for two points (at the orignal spot on the 2-yard line) than an extra point?

I enlisted the services of Alok Pattani, a senior ESPN analytics specialist, to walk me through the scenarios. My conclusion based on Alok's advice: During the part of games when maximizing points is the prime objective -- basically the first three quarters -- a credible argument could be made to choose a two-point conversion over a 38-yard extra point. The fourth quarter, however, requires a shift into maximizing the chance of winning -- which in some cases means an extra point would be the best option.

Here's how we looked at it, using statistics from the past two seasons given the recent and sharp rise of kicking accuracy:

During the past two seasons, the average conversion rate of a 38-yard kick is 89 percent. In that same span, teams have been successful on 49 percent of their two-point attempts.

Traditional thinking -- and I admit it is hard to get away from this approach -- suggests teams should take the one point they would get on nearly nine out of every 10 tries rather than the two points they would get on less half of those attempts.

But basic analytics requires us to consider the tradeoff in a different way: expected value over time, which equalizes the comparison. Getting one point on 89 percent of attempts gives us an expected value of 0.89. Two points on 49 percent of attempts is an expected value of 0.98.

In other words, you would score more points over a given time period by going for two every time -- even accounting for the higher degree of difficulty and likely failure -- than if you only kicked PATs.

That's a difficult point to absorb for traditionalists -- be it coaches, fans or media members -- especially if a failed isolated instance proves the difference in a defeat. The key to this kind of thinking, as cutting edge Pulaski (Ark.) Academy coach Kevin Kelley said at last month's MIT/Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, is understanding that even the better bet doesn't work every time.

Ultimately, I doubt that the difference in expected value -- about five points on 50 touchdowns scored -- would be enough to convince many coaches to change their fundamental philosophy. Based on current success rates, at least, I imagine the NFL would have to set extra points at around the 46-yard line -- where the success rate the past two years drops to 75 percent -- to prompt serious consideration for an emphasis on two-point conversions.

There are some other factors to consider, of course. Bad weather might push some coaches away from kicking a 38-yard extra point. And in the fourth quarter, everything shifts into maximizing point differential. It makes no sense to go for two, for instance, if an extra point would give you a two-score lead with five minutes remaining or if the score is tied with one minute remaining.

I think the NFL is on the right track in providing a new template for strategy decisions, at least for those coaches who would appreciate it. My guess is that a 38-yard extra point will still be too attractive for most coaches to diverge from, but it's a start.

Two competing thoughts emerged in the moments after the Philadelphia Eagles released receiver DeSean Jackson:
  1. Is this the new NFL, one so chastened by last summer's situation with New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez that its teams can't stomach the mere perception that trouble could be brewing?
  2. Or is Jackson simply a bad character, an outlier even in an industry that takes plenty of character-based risks when the potential reward could be so substantial?

We are unlikely to receive a full accounting of the Eagles' motives, but make no mistake: Their decision Friday was extraordinary in the context of player valuation and projection. This is an elite 27-year-old playmaker, one who just finished the best season of his career, was locked into his contract for three more years and seemed a perfect fit for coach Chip Kelly's scheme. And yet the Eagles' desire to part ways with him was so obvious in recent weeks that they couldn't find a trade partner, leaving them with no compensation for one of the league's most dangerous receivers. (Remember, just a year ago, the Minnesota Vikings acquired three draft choices in exchange for another presumed malcontent, Percy Harvin.)

So what happened between Jackson and the Eagles? You might feel compelled to blame Kelly for arrogance bordering on hubris. You might think he is so enamored of his system that he doesn't think he needs a DeSean Jackson to make it work. That's a tough sell for me.

Kelly's offense worked at Oregon largely because his players, some of whom had poor character backgrounds as well, were faster than everyone else. If he truly believes that scheme is the key to winning in the NFL -- and not the talent of his players -- then he won't be with the Eagles much longer.

And while there is no doubt that it takes work and substantial patience to nurture a player like Jackson, there really isn't enough public evidence to suggest he is beyond the stratosphere of similarly high-maintenance stars in the NFL.

A NJ.com story posted Friday indicated the Eagles were concerned that he kept company with gang members and had flashed gang symbols during games, bringing a connection to the backstory discovered after Hernandez's arrest last summer on a murder charge. Jackson denied in a statement that he is a gang member, and I'm guessing no one keeps paperwork records of such things. Regardless, let's put it this way: If an association with suspected shady characters were universal grounds for firing a player, well, many more professional athletes would be out of a job today.

To me, the big question is whether Jackson would still be with the Eagles if Hernandez had not been arrested last summer.

Like Jackson, Hernandez entered the NFL amid character questions but joined a rock-solid organization that promised to nurture him into a productive player and member of the community. Within the NFL, the most unnerving part of the Hernandez arrest was that the alleged activity took place under the nose of the Patriots' presumably watchful eye. You can bet the other 31 teams took notice and redoubled their efforts to know and understand what their players were up to when away from the practice facility.

In short, no one wants to be the next team caught off guard by serious criminal activities of a prominent player. To be clear, there have been no reports suggesting Jackson has done anything illegal -- aside from a 2009 arrest that was plea bargained to disturbing the peace -- but the mere perception of gang association brought a level of gravitas that the Eagles decided they could not ignore. If reporters learned of Jackson's connections, you can bet the Eagles were aware of them as well.

Remember, this is a league whose greatest minds gathered last week to determine that there is no place in their game for dunking over the crossbar after touchdowns. Sportsmanship, respect and the perception regarding both are all key buzzwords in 2014. Initial reports suggested interest from six teams shortly after Jackson's release, and there is no doubt he will play somewhere this season. There are varying degrees of tolerance in any industry, and we can only conclude the Eagles didn't have much in the case of one of their best players.
The fate of four veteran, Hall of Fame-caliber pass-rushers provide a succinct snapshot of the differences between the 2013 and 2014 free-agent markets.

It was only a year ago that Dwight Freeney needed more than two months to find a team for 2013. His two-year contract with the San Diego Chargers guaranteed him a modest $4.75 million and came only after rookie Melvin Ingram tore his ACL during a spring practice. The salary cap had remained flat for three consecutive offseasons, and it was clear that no one was able (or willing) to bid strongly for a 34-year-old pass-rusher despite his 107.5 career sacks.

That reticence seemed justified when Freeney managed a half-sack in four games before suffering a season-ending quadriceps injury. But the market shifted notably this year for players of a similar profile after a $320 million infusion of unexpected salary-cap space.

We've noted already the overall impact of that cap influx: Some big numbers were floated but teams hedged their investments considerably. At the same time, there were some individual pockets of activity that simply wouldn't have happened last season, most notably with pass-rushers DeMarcus Ware, Julius Peppers and Jared Allen.

From a production and age standpoint, as the chart shows, I think it's fair to put Freeney in the same sentence with Ware, Peppers and Allen. But the latter trio combined to get $36 million in full guarantees this month -- or about nine times what Freeney waited until mid-May in 2013 to see. Allen's deal is especially notable because it is a true two-year contract. The Bears gave him a fully guaranteed 2015 roster bonus of $11.5 million, which they will have to pay even if they cut him prior to the season.

You could argue that the relative health over the years of Allen and Peppers, especially, made them more reliable recipients than Freeney of a major contract. But it's difficult to imagine any of the 2014 trio getting similar deals in last year's market. The money simply wasn't there.

Their paydays are notable, but more intriguing is how the additional cap space might have changed their final destinations. Would Ware have chosen to renegotiate with the Dallas Cowboys rather than hit the market? Would the Bears have been able to outbid the Seattle Seahawks for Allen? Would Peppers have taken a pay cut to stay with the Bears? That's the difference $320 million can make.
videoWhen sports teams encounter disaster, the most predictable solution is a 180-degree turn. Players' coaches are replaced by disciplinarians. Defensive gurus give way to offensive geniuses. Unassuming players are replaced by fiery personalities.

That's how I view the Chicago Bears' decision to pursue and acquire veteran defensive end Jared Allen, who essentially replaces Julius Peppers as their designated pass-rusher. Both are Hall of Fame candidates, and I'm not sure we could credibly settle a debate comparing their effectiveness, but there is no doubt about their polar personalities. Peppers is as quiet as Allen is boisterous, and because Peppers was part of the worst defense in Bears history last season, it's not surprising to see Allen now standing in his place.

[+] EnlargeJared Allen
Michael Steele/Getty ImagesThe Bears are hoping defensive end Jared Allen adds a spark to their pass rush and locker room.
The Bears allowed a franchise-record 478 points last season, and general manager Phil Emery has responded with a personnel shake-up that promises a different look if nothing else in 2014. Based on a contract that guarantees $15.5 million over the next two seasons, Allen -- who turns 32 next month -- is the centerpiece of Emery's plan.

It has been awhile since the Bears had a player with Allen's brand of energy, one who will play to, and interact with, the home crowd while playing "through the whistle" in a way that gives him an edge that Peppers didn't have. Allen is a natural leader and locker-room pillar, and I imagine he will be more effective filling the gaps left behind by Brian Urlacher -- and Olin Kreutz before that -- than anyone who tried to do it last season.

As with Peppers, Allen's best days as a pass-rusher are behind him. Bears fans might remember him as the player whose blindside block in 2012 ended the tenure of guard Lance Louis. But there are many ways for a free agent to impact his new team, and more than anything, Allen's arrival in Chicago serves as a wake-up call for those who remain.

Last season's debacle ended the tenures of two Pro Bowl players, Peppers and Henry Melton. Thus far, it has prevented the return of free-agent safety Major Wright, who has presumably been replaced by newcomer Ryan Mundy. The Bears declined to elevate young linebacker Jon Bostic to a starting role, instead re-signing veteran D.J. Williams, and 2012 first-round draft pick Shea McClellin is headed toward a new position after the signings of Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young.

If the sight of a former division rival in a Bears uniform isn't enough to shake things up, I'm not sure what is. If he maintains his career path, Allen will be a rock in the Bears' lineup -- he started 96 consecutive games for the Vikings while playing 93 percent of their defensive snaps over six years -- and thus bring inherent accountability to a group that has reached a point of reckoning.

To be clear, signing Allen is a transition move in a larger task the Bears are still very much struggling to complete. They have been unable to backfill behind an aging core of defensive players, forcing Chicago into free agency at a time when it should have been promoting young players into more prominent roles.

At the moment, the defense projects as many as six starters who are at least 30 years old. That statistic leaves the long-term future a work in progress. In the short term, however, the Bears have done their best to shake out the malaise of 2013. If it works, Jared Allen will have provided the spark.
We spent some time in January suggesting explanations for the struggles of three NFL teams to sell out their wild-card playoff games. And now it appears, on the first day of the annual owners meeting, that the league has moved to strike one of those contributing factors.

According to Daniel Kaplan of the Sports Business Journal, owners voted to ban policies that required fans to purchase playoff tickets long before the games were scheduled -- and in some cases prior to teams clinching a playoff spot. If the team either missed the postseason or didn't have a home game, the money would be applied toward the following year's season tickets or refunded at some point in the spring.

At the very least, the net effect was teams holding the money of its best customers -- interest-free, of course -- for at least a few months in exchange for a product that ultimately might not be available. Similar policies generated considerable consternation among fans of the Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, all of whom had seats available late in wild-card week.

Moving forward, teams will be allowed and/or encouraged to follow a policy the Seattle Seahawks used known as "pay as we play." Teams can still secure payment information from fans before playoff games are scheduled, but credit cards can't be charged until the game is confirmed.

This was a pretty easy fix and one that I bet most teams would have made on their own, given the struggles we saw in January. Like any big business, the NFL will happily gouge its customers as long as the market supports it. In January, the market put down a limit. That's how you hope it would work.

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