NFL Nation: Inside Slant

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."
video

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.

SportsNation

Will Nike's decision to raise prices of NFL jerseys change your buying habits?

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    71%
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    25%
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    4%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,833)

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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Seven months ago, I would have been right there with Mark Cuban. I would have been ready to high-five the owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, who on Sunday night predicted the NFL "is 10 years away from implosion" thanks to its slow creep toward a daily game schedule.

The conclusion seemed reasonable in Week 2 of the 2013 season, specifically after a brutal Thursday night game between the New England Patriots and New York Jets. The contest featured four Jets turnovers, 40 incomplete passes and 20 punts. The season's first game on three days' rest was a total dud, and I set out to document what I figured would be a season-long discrepancy between quality of play on Thursday night -- as best as it could be measured -- and games on Sunday or Monday.

As it turned out, the numbers evened out over the course of the season. Our visual and anecdotal impressions might have told us one thing, but the job of documenting poor play on Thursday nights proved difficult. Ratings for those games set an NFL Network record, and the league sold a portion of its 2014 broadcast rights to CBS for about $275 million, according to the Sports Business Journal. The package includes 14 Thursday night games and a Saturday doubleheader in Week 16.

The study was by no means perfect, of course, but a different outcome probably would have pushed me to support Cuban's theory. Speaking to reporters in Dallas, Cuban suggested that the NFL was on its way to oversaturating the market. "They're trying to take over every night of TV," he said. "It's all football. At some point, the people get sick of it."

I'm not sure that's true. Ubiquitous football won't turn fans off on its own. There is an undeniable weekly rhythm to a football season, but as long as most games are played on Sunday, it's difficult to see a widespread revolt.

Here's what will send people looking elsewhere: Ubiquitous bad football. If the inconsistent and/or short rest involved in playing on days other than Sunday diminishes the standard NFL quality of play, then the league will in fact have overextended.

At the moment, there is no obvious data to suggest that Thursday night games are played more poorly than those on Sunday or Monday. Saturday games have a long and largely unchallenged history in the NFL as well. Cuban's comments seem driven more by industry competitiveness than a documented trend.

Cuban is right in a business sense. Greed can lead to overextension and failure, but if there is evidence that the NFL has overextended itself by adding its Thursday night schedule, I haven't seen it. Players, of course, don't like it. Via Twitter, Green Bay Packers guard Josh Sitton compared it to "getting in a car wreck Sunday then getting hit by a train Thursday" -- but once again the available data doesn't suggest any major deviation. According to a league study released in January, injury rates have actually been lower on Thursday nights compared to Sunday and Monday games in each of the past three seasons.

Cuban might well have a visionary window into a future result that we can't project based on current information. But for the moment, his suggestion that the NFL is on a path to implode seems more like wishful thinking than anything else.
The Oakland Raiders' pending acquisition of quarterback Matt Schaub makes perfect sense, at least in the context of their clear approach to the offseason: 2014 or bust.

As the chart indicates, Schaub is one of 10 players the Raiders have acquired this month -- via free agency, trade or re-signing -- who will be at least 29 years old during the regular season. After consecutive 4-12 finishes, general manager Reggie McKenzie is hoping for a quick spike in competitiveness to cover for what I can only assume is a longer-term plan to back-fill with younger players.

Schaub
Schaub
Conventional wisdom discourages NFL teams from collecting veterans to win now, but McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen don't have enough job security to rebuild in a more deliberate manner. The best news is McKenzie has not hamstrung the franchise's future -- or, if you're a cynic, the job of his successor -- with any of these deals. The Raiders can part ways with all 10 of these players after the 2014 season, Schaub included, without paying them another cent and with minimal impact on their future salary-cap structure.

So as long as the Raiders are going all-in on 2014, there is no reason to continue experimenting with Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin, their primary quarterbacks in 2013. This approach cries out for a veteran quarterback, one who presumably can bring a higher minimum standard than an unproven starter. (How is that for an endorsement?!) Schaub's age is actually a plus in this situation -- veterans on the roster are assured of the team's short-term commitment to winning -- and let's not forget that he was a productive NFL starter before an unexpected spiral in 2013.

During his previous six years with the Texans, Schaub was one of the league's most accurate and efficient passers. His completion percentage of 65.1 ranked No. 7 among qualified starters, and he threw almost twice as many touchdowns (114) as interceptions (64) over that period. That ratio (1.78) ranked No. 12 in the NFL.

Perhaps a fresh start will help Schaub move past last season's unquestionable disaster. Regardless, there is no reason to waste time discussing whether he could experience a career renaissance in Oakland or if he could be their starter for the next few years. All that matters is that he is a better option, given their current philosophy, than the players on their roster.

You might blanch at the $11 million salary Schaub's contract calls for, but don't forget the Raiders' unique position relative to the collective bargaining agreement: At the start of the week, they needed to commit another $30 million in cash to their 2014 payroll to remain on track for compliance with the league's four-year salary floor. I don't think the Raiders were looking for the most expensive quarterback option they could find, but in this case, his salary provides absolutely no obstacle.

In the end, the Raiders did what they had to do: Find a more credible option at quarterback to carry out their short-term approach. Memories are short, but it wasn't long ago that Matt Schaub was one of the league's more consistent starters. In context, his arrival in Oakland -- at least at this moment -- was an easy call.

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Buried deep within the NFL's 21 proposed rule changes were a series of suggestions that would provide what I think is much-needed roster flexibility, especially in an era that has made player safety a key emphasis and when time for player development has been squeezed.

Most would entail increased costs, minor on an industry scale but a factor nonetheless, so I would bet their chances for approval aren't high. Still, this is a positive discussion and a sign that -- one day -- teams might not be as constricted as they are now. Let's run through them individually while we have a moment:
  • Expanded game rosters: At the moment, teams must deactivate seven of their 53 players on game day. That 46-man limit created problems on a number of occasions last season, notably as it related to depth in games on short rest. So the Washington Redskins have proposed allowing 49 active players for games not scheduled on Sunday or Monday (i.e., Thursday). The purpose of game-day deactivations is to give opposing teams an equal number of available players -- typically each has a different number of moderate injuries that require a week off but not a trip to injured reserve -- but 46 cuts it pretty tight. I would love to see 49 for all games, as would most coaches, but making the adjustment for Thursday night games would be a good start.
  • Bigger practice squads: Last season, as we discussed at the time, the NFL seemed to be experiencing a crisis of depth as much as a rash of injuries. Young players have less time than ever to develop before they are thrust into signification situations -- an issue further sharpened by the record number of underclassmen who declared for the 2014 draft. Most teams populate their practice squads solely to ensure a fully-stocked scout team, but two additional spots could convince some teams to broaden that vision. I know what I would do: I'd always have two quarterbacks on the practice squad given how important the position is. If I get one decent backup out of a multi-year emphasis on the practice squad, I'd consider it a win.
  • Flexible injured reserve (IR): This proposal would expand on the recent change to allow one player per team to be activated from IR (after a six-week stay) each season. In essence, every player on IR could return after that six-week time period. In this scenario, teams would feel less compelled to carry a moderately injured player on their active roster and conceivably would have more healthy players available each week. Sounds good to me.
  • Roster cutdowns: This proposal is minor but still worth noting. There would be no cutdown to 75 players during the preseason. Instead, teams could take their full training camp roster through the entire summer before cutting to 53 players by the Saturday after the final preseason game. There is a player safety element here that would limit repetitions required for established veterans, but mostly the change would give teams maximum time to evaluate and develop their young players.

Again, I wouldn't be shocked if each of these proposals is rejected or at least tabled. As we discussed Wednesday, change comes slow in the NFL. But roster flexibility directly impacts player development, which is something everyone in the NFL should be interested in.
Effecting substantive change in the NFL is a massive, multiyear, mountain-moving project. (Or, as they might say at league headquarters, it's a "deliberate" process.) So rather than pine for immediate implementation of the nearly two dozen changes to be discussed at next week's owners meeting, we should instead consider them a glimpse into the league's on-field priorities in the near future.

Based on what we heard on a conference call Wednesday, a clear focus has emerged: the kicking game and officiating (via instant replay).

A total of 21 rule changes, bylaw proposals and resolutions are on the official agenda for next week. None of them relates to an expanded postseason, which likely won't be enacted before the 2015 season. And there will be no formal change to address use of the N-word or other profanities. Instead, referees will enforce existing sportsmanship rules as "a very significant point of emphasis," according to competition committee co-chairman Jeff Fisher.

There are, however, three separate proposals concerning kickoffs, extra points and field goals, along with a fourth that will be proposed if one of the first three fails. There are also four proposals to increase and/or correct the use of replay to supplement officials after a series of high-profile mistakes in 2013.

[+] EnlargeMatt Prater
AP Photo/Jack DempseyCo-chairman Rich McKay says the NFL competition committee has talked "a lot" about narrowing the goalposts to make field goals more difficult.
Commissioner Roger Goodell foreshadowed the league's interest in enhancing the kicking game over the winter, when he noted the near automatic conversions of extra points. (Five misses in 1,267 attempts in 2013.) Following that lead, the New England Patriots have submitted a proposal to move extra point tries to the 25-yard line -- requiring a kicker to convert the equivalent of a 43-yard field goal to get the point.

Fisher said the competition committee would recommend spotting the ball at the 20-yard line, the same as a 38-yard field goal, during one week of the 2014 preseason if the Patriots' proposal meets its likely demise. In either scenario, the scoring team would still have the opportunity to go for two from the traditional spot at the 2-yard line.

These proposals bring the likelihood of a 1-point conversion from 99 percent to about 85 percent, based on success rates from those distances last season. (Two-point conversions were successful nearly 48 percent of the time in 2013.) The idea of making an extra point more interesting and difficult figures to get plenty of discussion this spring and perhaps for several more years to come before the league determines its next move.

Abolishing extra points altogether is another possibility, and competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay said he waded through a wide variety of proposals that included kicking from whatever yard line the team scored from. (Good luck after that 99-yard touchdown run.)

Field goals have lost much of their drama as well -- a development that has also caught the attention of league officials. Although there is no formal proposal this year, McKay said the committee talked "a lot" about narrowing the goalposts to make field goals more difficult. In 2013, as we've discussed, conversion rates for field goals between 18 and 49 yards neared 90 percent.

"We've looked at it, and I think it will be something that will be talked about going forward," McKay said.

Two other kicking-related proposals confirm that the issue remains at the front of many minds in the league. The Washington Redskins proposed moving kickoffs to the 40-yard line, a step that would in essence eliminate them as a live play, and the Patriots want to see the uprights extended 5 yards further in the air to allow for more definitive rulings when the ball elevates above them.

Higher uprights would make life easier for officials, which appears to be another priority in the NFL landscape. McKay was careful to avoid a full assessment of officiating in 2013, but he did provide this telling prediction: "You're going to see a real emphasis on on-field officiating and trying to be the best that we can be, and trying to be sure there is the necessary [structure in place]."

[+] EnlargeInstant Replay
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsA proposal to allow the referee to communicate with a New York-based league official during replay reviews has a chance to be approved for 2014.
The most obvious example is a proposal to allow the referee to communicate with a New York-based league official, likely to be vice president of officiating Dean Blandino, during replay reviews. Implementing this addition, McKay said, would help ensure that "every single replay" gets reviewed accurately and hopefully faster as well.

I think this proposal has a good chance to be approved for 2014, at least much better than some of the other interesting but more far-fetched ideas hatched by the Patriots and Redskins. The Patriots, for example, want coaches to be able to challenge any type of call (still at a maximum of three per game) rather than continue with a rulebook that delineates what can and can't be replayed. The Redskins would like to continue with that list of distinctions but add personal fouls to the reviewable list, and the Patriots want the league to add six cameras to ensure a good angle for every replay.

I've long wondered why the NFL leaves it to television broadcasters to determine how many cameras are at a game, in essence leaving the success of replay in the hands of executives who assign equipment based on ratings. (Actually, I know why: It costs less.) How many times have you groaned when you realized there was no definitive angle to replay a call? Of all the proposals regarding instant replay this year, I think this one could have the most play-to-play impact.

Again, I would advise you to temper your excitement about these proposals. Most of them won't make it into the NFL rulebook after next week's debate. But many will return in subsequent years, probably in different forms. The kicking game and the tools of officiating figure to remain two of this game's most fluid components.

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