NFL Nation: Stephen Burbank

There has been a lot of confusion -- and criticism -- over arbitrator Stephen Burbank's use of the "4-yard benchmark" when determining that Jimmy Graham was officially lined up as a tight end for the majority of his snaps last year with the New Orleans Saints.

Burbank's ruling was widely interpreted as though he suggested that Graham was a tight end when he was within 4 yards of the nearest lineman and a wide receiver when he was further out.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesArbitrator Stephen Burbank also took Jimmy Graham's size and how opposing teams defended him on order to determine his position.
The first interpretation is essentially true. The second one isn't: A league source confirmed Monday that Burbank did not actually rule that Graham -- or any player -- would be considered a wide receiver if he lined up more than 4 yards away.

Burbank specifically wrote that he didn't consider or make a ruling on any plays in which Graham was lined up further away because he didn't need to. The reason: Graham was lined up within 4 yards of an offensive lineman on the majority of his snaps -- 54.6 percent of them, to be exact.

"I need not decide whether Mr. Graham was a tight end for purposes of Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) when he was in a wide-out alignment," Burbank wrote. "Stipulated evidence establishes that, at the snap, Mr. Graham was aligned (in relationship to the nearest offensive lineman) in the slot for 51.7% of the plays ... and within four yards for 54.6% of the plays. ... I will confine my analysis to those plays."

Immediately in the wake of Burbank's decision, some analysts and players widely criticized the seemingly arbitrary use of the 4-yard benchmark. Former Saints receiver Lance Moore tweeted:

"Four yard split from tackle = a TE huh? Well I guess @MarquesColston and myself played a lot of TE last yr too! The nfl wins again. Smh!!!"

And on Sunday, Pro Football Talk reported that even the Saints themselves weren't thrilled with the way Burbank reached his decision.

PFT cited a source as saying that the Saints disagree with the notion that the question of tight end versus receiver boils down to whether the player lines up within 4 yards of an offensive tackle. The Saints instead feel that a tight end is a tight end no matter where he lines up, since they like to shift their players around to gain information about defensive alignments.

According to PFT, "The Saints see three key factors for determining tight end status: (1) the player's size; (2) the player's position group for practice and meeting purposes; and (3) the manner in which the opponent defends him in man coverage."

When reading Burbank's 12-page decision, though, it seems apparent that he actually agreed with the Saints' logic on all three of those points.

Burbank repeatedly referenced Graham's physical dimensions in how he was evaluated by the Saints before being drafted and how he is used by the team. And the evidence that appeared to weigh most heavily into Burbank's decision was that Graham was often defended as a tight end even when he lined up in the slot (i.e., by a linebacker or a strong safety).

Wrote Burbank: "The evidence also supports findings that, like tight ends, wide receivers and running backs often line up in the slot ... and that the defense employed against any player so aligned turns on the player's position, not his alignment, because of the physical attributes and skill sets of the players in those positions."

Burbank then cited testimony from Saints coach Payton, who said, "When our receivers are lined up widest in formations, they are never covered by safeties or linebackers ever. ... Never ever ever ever ever does a linebacker match up with a wide receiver ever."

Burbank immediately followed with his concluding paragraph, which led to all the confusion:

"In sum, I conclude that Mr. Graham was at the position of tight end for purposes of Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) when, at the snap, he was aligned adjacent to or ‘arm's-length' from the nearest offensive lineman and also when he was aligned in the slot, at least if such alignment brought him within four yards of such lineman. ..."

There is no indication yet of whether Graham and the NFL Players Association plan to appeal Burbank's ruling, which much be done within 10 days.

However, it will almost certainly be too late to affect the long-term contract negotiations between Graham and the Saints. Franchise-tagged players have until July 15 to work out long-term contracts with their teams. After that date, they can only sign one-year deals.
In just a few minutes, another chapter in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program will begin.

Special master Stephen Burbank is scheduled to hear a grievance filed by the NFL Players Association on behalf of four players that have drawn suspensions – New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith and former Saints Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove. Part of the reason the NFL suspended those players was because the league said they funded and received money as a part of the bounty program. The NFLPA is expected to argue that the financial aspect makes this a salary-cap issue and puts it under the jurisdiction of Burbank, instead of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

The NFLPA had a grievance heard by an arbitrator two weeks ago. In that grievance, the NFLPA argued that Goodell isn’t the proper authority to issue punishment for things that took place on the field. No ruling on that grievance has been announced.

Vilma also has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. Although the grievances and the lawsuit are separate matters, they have a common thread. The players are attempting to get the authority out of Goodell’s hands and, in the case of Vilma’s lawsuit, trying to force the league to show evidence of the bounty program.

All four players also are appealing their suspensions to Goodell. The commissioner has said he’ll hear the appeals after rulings are made on the grievances.
I don't know. Maybe this is for the best.

The effort by the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins to recover a combined $46 million in salary-cap penalties won't even get off the ground. Stephen Burbank, the NFL's independent arbitrator, granted the league's request to dismiss the complaint. And the teams released a joint statement saying they would respect the decision, so that's that. The Redskins lost a total of $36 million and the Cowboys $10 million in cap room over the next two seasons, and they're just going to have to deal with it because it's what the other NFL owners think is fair and the arbitrator found their argument that the complaint not be heard to be a persuasive one.

There's no way that any sensible, thinking person who's not an NFL owner can honestly feel that the league acted justly in penalizing the Cowboys and the Redskins for spending their money and structuring their contracts the way they did during the uncapped 2010 season. But it doesn't matter, because the NFL plays by its own rules and no one else's, and that's the lesson for today.

But in the end, maybe it's for the best. Maybe Burbank is doing everyone a favor. There's no one on any side of this dispute who can feel good about the way they've conducted themselves. It's a badge of shame for the league and the union, and it's not even really a badge of honor for the two aggrieved parties. So maybe, even though it's not fair, Burbank is being nice by telling everyone to just stop.

This all started because NFL owners agreed, in secret, to limit spending in 2010 even though there was no cap -- to continue to structure contracts as though there were a cap, because the lockout they were about to impose was basically a thinly veiled attempt at union-busting. They knew all along they'd ultimately have a new agreement with a new cap and they didn't want anyone to have gamed the system to their advantage in the meantime. In the real world, we call this collusion -- all of the business owners in a given industry agreeing among themselves to impose restrictions on wages. But in the NFL, it's OK, because the collective bargaining agreement the owners have with the players spells out which types of collusion are allowed and which aren't.

The Redskins and Cowboys got in trouble because they didn't go along with this game, instead using the lack of a salary cap in 2010 to structure contracts in such a way as to spare themselves from salary-cap trouble in future years. The sense is that many, if not all, teams did this, and that the Redskins and Cowboys just did it to such an egregious extent that some of the other owners insisted they be punished. They'd been warned, after all, that anyone who failed to honor the secret agreement discussed in the last paragraph would be punished. Giants owner John Mara, the chairman of the management council, said at the owners meetings in March that the Cowboys and Redskins got off easy -- that they were lucky they didn't lose draft picks.

Which is baloney, of course, because you can't break rules when there aren't any. But let's not go too far in letting our hearts break for Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder, who weren't exactly acting on charitable impulses here. They didn't break with the rest of the owners because they felt the policy was unfair to players. They did it because they thought it would give them an advantage, and that they could get away with it.

And then there's the NFLPA, for which this is anything but a shining moment. The players' union, which should be fighting such collusive behavior, instead capitulated and agreed to the sanctions against the Redskins and Cowboys because the owners threatened to reduce this year's salary cap if they did not. The union believes that was the right decision for its membership, and in the end it may well have been. But it is not a decision of which the union can be proud, and the fact the NFLPA allowed itself to be outmaneuvered by the league on this matter likely contributed to Burbank's decision to dismiss the complaint. The league's argument was based, largely, on the fact the sanctions were agreed upon by the league and the union. And jeez, if those two agree on something, how can it not be OK? Right?

It's all just plain ridiculous, the whole thing, and it's probably for the best that it all goes away. Everybody associated with it should be ashamed of themselves (though, sadly, no one seems to be). And while it's unfair that only the Cowboys and Redskins suffer for the arrogance of a group of people who continue to play its paying customers for willing patsies, the truly sad part is that anyone in this situation gets to walk away feeling as though he was in the right.
As you've probably heard by now, the NFL Players Association has taken its first steps toward appealing the bounty-related suspensions of Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and three other current and former New Orleans Saints players. As ESPN's Andrew Brandt points out, the crux of the NFLPA's efforts are to circumvent NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as the point man of the appeal and put it in the hands of independent arbitrators.

Instead of Goodell, the NFLPA wants longtime arbitrator Stephen Burbank to adjudicate the appeal.

Be sure to check out the news story linked above or Brandt's "SportsCenter" appearance in the video if you're interested in the details of the proceedings. But the bottom line is that Hargrove's eight-game suspension won't be final until the appeal process is complete, and that could take some time.

The question of what happens in the meantime isn't yet relevant for Hargrove. The terms of his punishment state that he can continue to participate in the Packers' offseason program, organized team activities (OTAs), minicamp, training camp and even preseason games. His suspension wouldn't begin until Week 1 of the regular season. So he has four months of flexibility before the timing of the appeals process becomes an issue.

Earlier: Hargrove said in a declaration to the NFL that he was instructed to lie about the Saints' bounty program during a 2010 investigation. That lie is the primary reason Hargrove received the second-longest suspension among the four players who were punished.

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