NFL Nation: Tedy Bruschi

And then there were two -- two teams that know most of what there is to know about each other, two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who add to their legacies with every pass, all with a Super Bowl trip on the line.

The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, who have faced each other in each of the past three seasons and in the divisional round of the 2011 season, took it to overtime Nov. 24. The Broncos let a 24-0 halftime lead get away, and the Patriots won 34-31 after a punt bounced off Broncos cornerback Tony Carter's leg in overtime on a frigid night in Foxborough, Mass. Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Legwold: Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick yet again. Do you think, in all your time around Belichick, that he tries to bring something new to the table every time he faces Manning? Or does he assume Manning has done the homework and put his efforts into getting people in the right position?

Reiss: I'd say there's always a new wrinkle or two, Jeff. Belichick has said in the past that Manning is too smart to just do the same thing over and over again -- both within a game and from matchup to matchup. Part of that discussion is also the state of the Patriots' personnel entering the matchup. A player like rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, for example, might give Belichick the flexibility to introduce something unique based on his breakthrough since the Nov. 24 meeting between the teams.

The weather forecast looks promising for Manning. No icy cold forecast. How do you think he approaches this game compared to the Nov. 24 contest? Do you think he will be less reluctant to hand the ball off?

Legwold: It will be a postcard day Sunday with the temperature expected to be 58 degrees with 0 percent chance of rain and light winds. So any decisions the two teams make on offense will have to do with what's in front of them on defense only. Manning will be inclined to hand the ball off if he sees the Patriots in some of those lighter personnel groupings deployed to handle Denver's three-wide-receiver look. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has a run option built into most things Manning can change into at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos certainly like how Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball are trending in the run game. They have split carries down the stretch, and both run with tackle-shedding power.

Gase, with coaching DNA that includes his time with Mike Martz, is an aggressive sort. With the next-generation numbers the Broncos' offense has put up this season, it's easy to forget they still averaged 28.8 carries per game and topped 30 carries per matchup nine times this season. If they get a look from the New England defense that calls for a run, the Broncos will be inclined to pound away.

Where is Tom Brady's game and the offense right now after some rough moments early in the season? Has Brady benefited from a run-heavy approach down the stretch and into the postseason?

Reiss: The biggest benefit for Brady with the run-heavy approach has been how it opens play-action opportunities. Danny Amendola's 53-yard catch in the divisional round is one of the best examples. Also, part of the reason the Patriots have gone so run-heavy is that it's the area where they have their most assets. They are limited when it comes to pass-catchers who create consistent separation at tight end and receiver. As for Brady's game, there have been no signs of decline in arm strength, accuracy or decision-making. The main reasons for the struggles early in the year, from my view, were more about the changes around him. That's not to say Brady didn't make his mistakes, but it's sort of interesting to look back on some of the media-based discussion around Weeks 6 to 8 about how maybe Father Time had caught up to him.

Now that we're a full season in, how would you sum up the Wes Welker signing? Just as the Broncos hoped for? Better? Worse?

Legwold: Welker finished the regular season with 73 catches for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. His presence in the slot, along with Julius Thomas at tight end, is part of the reason the offense had a historic season. With the Broncos lining up in a three-wide-receiver set the majority of the season -- and every snap of the divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers -- they force defenses into some difficult choices. Thomas is often in the slot on one side of the formation, and Welker is in the slot on the other side. When Thomas missed two games earlier this season with a knee injury, both the Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 1) elected to double-team Welker. He missed three games after suffering his second concussion in a four-week span Dec. 8 against the Tennessee Titans but played last week against the Chargers without issue.

Welker did have some spells this season when he had a cluster of dropped passes -- three against the Patriots on a frigid night to go with drops against Washington and San Diego in the regular season. Overall, though, he was exactly what the Broncos hoped he would be in their offense. He meshed with Manning quickly and was a big part of the plan right from his nine-catch performance against the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener.

The Patriots did not face Thomas in the Nov. 24 meeting. Do you think they will try to match up Collins on Thomas this time around?

Reiss: That seems like the natural matchup, especially after seeing Collins splitting out wide on Colts tight end Coby Fleener on Saturday night and playing very well. Collins is unique in that, at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he is fast enough to be competitive down the field in coverage (e.g., fourth-quarter interception versus the Colts) but powerful enough to play in the box and deliver a blow in the running game and as a pass-rusher. The Patriots' top draft pick in 2013, selected 52nd overall out of Southern Mississippi, he is an intriguing player whom Patriots fans really got their first extended look at Saturday as he played every snap against the Colts. He had been groomed behind the scenes up to that point, playing just 25 percent of the defensive snaps on the season in more of a reserve role.

Thomas may not have played in the first game between the teams, but Von Miller did. How does Miller's season-ending knee injury affect the Broncos' defense?

Legwold: Of all the players who were signed in the weeks after the initial leaguewide binge in free agency, the Broncos' signing of Shaun Phillips was easily one of the best. Denver signed Phillips to a one-year, $1 million deal during the draft weekend in April, well over a month after free agency had opened, a deal that didn't have a signing bonus but did have some incentives based on sack totals.

Phillips was initially how the Broncos planned to deal with the loss of Elvis Dumervil in free agency. When Miller was suspended for the first six games of the season, Phillips had 5.5 sacks in those games to lead the way. He finished the regular season with 10 sacks to lead the team. In Sunday's win, with Miller on injured reserve, Phillips had two sacks against the Chargers. He is the single-most important player in the Broncos' pass rush in Miller's absence. Denver may have to take more risks without Miller on the field, and that's always a tough choice against someone like Brady, who can easily find the holes in coverage. But if Phillips can consistently create pressure -- with both sacks on three-man rushes against San Diego -- it allows the Broncos to move things around a little more and cover more of the bases.

Did Belichick make a conscious effort to get big backs like LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley in the lineup when he knew he would get smaller defensive personnel against the team's passing attack?

Reiss: That's fair to say, as the Patriots pride themselves on creating those matchups during the game, with coordinator Josh McDaniels finding his groove in recent weeks. They refer to themselves as a "game plan" offense because they tailor their plan weekly based on what they perceive to be the weakness of the opposition. They'll shuttle in different personnel groupings early -- multiple receivers, two backs, two tight ends, etc. -- to get information on how the opponent is matching up and then focus on the one they like best. This week, what's fascinating to me is that I think they probably see vulnerability in the Broncos' secondary, but I wonder how they feel about their own personnel in being able to exploit it. So that could keep them grounded.

The Patriots have been running the ball very well. How is the Broncos' run defense?

Legwold: In a year when the Broncos have been forced, by injuries and Miller's suspension, to mix and match on defense, their run defense has likely been more consistent in comparison to some of the other issues they've had. When defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went to injured reserve Nov. 27 with a hip injury, they did wobble a bit, surrendering 159 yards rushing to the Chiefs and 177 yards rushing to the Chargers in two of the three games that immediately followed.

They have regained their balance a bit since, moving Paris Lenon into the middle linebacker spot in the base defense, and rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams has played better each week. Overall, the biggest issue for the Broncos will be how they defend the run if the Patriots get them in nickel or dime personnel on defense and then run the ball at the smaller looks. The Broncos' safeties will have to tackle and tackle well to make it work.

Belichick has always tried to make "other" people beat him and take away an offense's front-line players. How do you think he would rank the Broncos' threats in the passing game, and where do you think the one-on-one matchups will be?

Reiss: One insightful point that ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi made in his weekly chat was the idea of defending the Broncos from the inside-out. Manning is still an accurate marksman, one of the greatest of all time, but I'm guessing that even he would agree that some of the downfield and outside-the-numbers throws he used to make don't come as easily to him. So it makes sense that the Patriots would focus more resources on the inside part of the field, where it would seem we would most likely see Welker and Thomas. With this in mind, I could envision the Patriots matching up cornerback Aqib Talib with Demaryius Thomas on the outside and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard with Eric Decker and taking their chances that those one-on-one matchups will be competitive. Trusting those cornerbacks in those one-on-one matchups would allow the defense to focus extra attention/personnel to the inside part of the field.

Any X factors or special-teams contributors we should keep on the radar?

Legwold: The Broncos have usually been lockdown tight on special teams -- opening the season with two touchdown returns and two blocked punts, one of those returned for a score, in the first four weeks of the season. Those normally reliable units, however, have wobbled plenty down the stretch. The Chiefs' Knile Davis had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Titans' Leon Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return, and the Texans' Keshawn Martin had a 51-yard punt return. Toss in the first blocked punt of Britton Colquitt's career in Oakland to go with Trindon Holliday's occasional adventures catching the ball, and it's been an unpredictable stretch. But Holliday is always a threat to uncork a return because of his breathtaking speed. The Broncos used wide receiver Decker as the primary punt returner against the Chargers last week, and he had a 47-yarder. So the Broncos have the potential to pop one at any time, especially in Denver, where Holliday returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in last January's playoff loss to the Ravens.

One of the hot NFL topics in recent days centers on the blindside hit that Cincinnati Bengals punter Kevin Huber took from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Terence Garvin. Huber suffered a broken jaw and cracked vertebrae, injuries that ended his season. ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi has studied the play and considered what might be done to avoid similar situations in the future, and he offers his analysis:

"I do believe there was a foul on the play [even though it wasn’t called]. The crown of Garvin’s helmet made contact with the chin/neck area, so yes, I believe a penalty should have been called. If Garvin used his shoulder and lowered his target area, that would have been a legal block.

[+] EnlargeKevin Huber and Terence Garvin
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsTedy Bruschi agrees with the NFL's head of officials that punters are defenseless, and thinks there should be a rule exempting specialists from contact.
"What interested me was the explanation given by NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino on [the] NFL Network, when he said that punters are defenseless throughout the down. When you initially think about that – a player being defenseless throughout the down and not being subject to the same types of hits as others – some might consider it ridiculous. But I believe Blandino is correct. The majority of kickers and punters don’t have the same strength, speed and abilities as the other 21 players on the field. I would even stretch it to say, ‘All specialists are in that category – punters, kickers, holders, long-snappers.’ They provide a special skill that has to be executed for certain special-teams plays to be run. They train differently. They work out differently.

"A part of me believes that if you're on the field you should be subject to the same risks as every other player. However, I recognize how the game is progressing with player safety and how that is so important for the future of the NFL.

"Thus, what I think should happen is this: Specialists should be required to wear a different color jersey – a neutral color – and players will know that certain color jersey can’t be touched. Wearing that jersey, specialists then surrender their right to participate in the down once their act is executed. So, for example, after Huber punts the ball he has no right to make a tackle, he’s eliminated from the play.

"Blandino is right – these players are defenseless throughout the down. I played with kicker Adam Vinatieri and saw him run down Herschel Walker, but it’s rare for a kicker to have that type of toughness. Sure, you see some punters and kickers making tackles. Usually they are the last line of defense. It can be argued that even when they do make the tackle it looks awkward and they are still putting themselves at risk. The best way to protect them is to take them out of the equation completely and introduce the neutral jersey.

"All players know the neutral jersey because it’s used across the NFL in practices. You see it with quarterbacks or players coming back from an injury, they come out wearing a red jersey and there is a different tempo used for that player. On plays where there is potential for a high-impact collision, other players are trained to yield to that jersey. So it’s already in the psyche of players because it’s used around the league in practices. It now needs to be used in game situations, protecting specialists from violent collisions against linebackers, defensive ends, fullbacks and others who are trying to keep their own jobs by making crushing blocks that often injure or end seasons for specialists."
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Ahmad Brooks has said thanks-but-no-thanks to Ray Lewis and Tedy Bruschi.

The San Francisco 49ers linebacker has informed the two former star linebackers and current ESPN analysts that he will not accept their offer to help with his fine. Brooks was fined $15,750 by the NFL for a questionable hit on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees in the final minutes of the Saints’ victory on Sunday.

Before the fine was levied, Lewis and Bruschi had said they would pitch in because they thought the hit was clean. A source close to Brooks told me that Brooks appreciates the offers but wants to handle the fine himself. He is appealing it.

ESPN's Chris Mortensen tweeted that Brooks has asked Lewis and Bruschi to remain advocates for defensive players in a league where the offense, particularly quarterbacks, gets extra protection.

Brooks left the 49ers’ facility Wednesday without talking to the media. After the game Sunday he said he didn’t feel like he did anything wrong.

Ahmad Brooks' fine is excessive

November, 20, 2013

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- On Tuesday, I wrote about the NFL’s issue on whether to fine San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks for a controversial -- and game-changing -- hit on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.

On Wednesday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the NFL fined Brooks $15,750 for the hit.

During Sunday's game, the 49ers appeared to get the ball on a turnover with about three minutes to go, but Brooks was called for a personal foul for a hit to Brees' neck. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Brees' shoulder more than neck. The 15-yard penalty gave the Saints new life, as New Orleans finished the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go.

The fine was expected but nearly $16,000 seems excessive. That hit was anything out of the ordinary. The fine should have been less than half of what it is, in my opinion. I get the reason. There is a fine schedule. But the league could have cut the guy a break.

It seems to me the league levied the hefty fine to back itself. The message? See, the infraction was serious.

What did we expect? The league was going to fine Brooks. If it hadn't, it would have come off as admitting the ref made a mistake by calling a penalty in the first place. That wasn’t going to happen. The NFL has been saying all week it was the right call. And fines always accompany penalties where a quarterback gets hit.

So, the league was being consistent. That’s why I knew the fine was coming. But almost 16 grand? Come on.

Don’t expect this to go away quietly. ESPN analysts and former NFL linebackers Ray Lewis and Tedy Bruschi vowed on the air to help Brooks with the fine. I doubt they will let it go away.

The bottom line? The NFL made its decision and too much money will be paid by someone.

What next at wide receiver for Patriots?

September, 13, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Where do the New England Patriots go from here at wide receiver?

[+] EnlargeAaron Dobson
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaAaron Dobson was targeted 10 times Thursday night but finished with only three catches.
That has been a popular question after Thursday night's win over the Jets -- one of the more inept performances for the team’s passing game since Tom Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001.

Too many drops. Too much miscommunication and too many fundamental breakdowns. Too much frustration for Brady.

So now, many who panned veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd during the 2012 season are wondering if a comeback might be possible. Others are asking if Deion Branch might be an upgrade. Or Donte' Stallworth.

Maybe Bill Belichick ultimately decides that’s the way to go. Maybe he saw how uncomfortable Brady looked early on Thursday, considers that Danny Amendola is currently sidelined with a groin injury and determines there is value in bringing back a veteran with knowledge of the system, even if the initial intention was to move on from them.

Still, I’d be surprised if he does that at this point.

As ugly as it was on Thursday night, and no one is saying otherwise, the feeling here is that this is no time to abort the team’s "re-do" with youthful receivers. Instead, the smarter play is to invest further in youth and realize that almost all of the mistakes made Thursday are correctable – the numerous drops, the failure of Aaron Dobson to get his head around at the top of his route and Kenbrell Thompkins not getting enough depth on his routes among them.


What should the Patriots do about their struggling passing game?


Discuss (Total votes: 20,549)

No one said this would be seamless. We all knew there would be growing pains, even if the ones we’ve seen the first two games have been a bit more extreme than anticipated. Brady previously said he’s had to be more of a teacher this year, which requires more patience because this might be the greatest challenge of his career, breaking in the young guys.

As for the topic that lit up some parts of Boston sports radio on Friday -- whether the Patriots have done enough to surround a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback with potent weapons -- it seems fair to ask the question.

But here’s another thought: Perhaps those who are thinking along those lines have lost some perspective of how the Patriots used to win games in their championship days. Those days weren’t always filled with offensive fireworks, as former Patriot and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi brought up on “NFL Live” Friday.

“Tom Brady is holding them to a standard that they can’t maintain, and that’s Tom Brady’s standard. He expects them to be perfect because at times he rarely makes mistakes,” Bruschi said. “He has to lower his standards for these receivers right now. The defense is good and will buy him some time.

“I remember back in 2001, we had a quality defense and we had to pick up our weight a little bit more, pick up the slack, because we had a young quarterback by the name of Tom Brady. We had to wait for him. Now he has to wait for them.”

[+] EnlargeKenbrell Thompkins
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesKenbrell Thompkins couldn't hold on to a pass in the end zone just before halftime.
Belichick does, too.

Part of grooming and cultivating young talent is enduring some early struggles. It’s a different sport, but I often wonder how the course of Dustin Pedroia’s Boston Red Sox career might be different had manager Terry Francona not stuck with him in 2007 when Pedroia was batting .172 with no home runs and two RBIs after a month in his first full season in the big leagues. It’s laughable to think back now and remember that some were calling for Pedroia to be sent down to Pawtucket in favor of Alex Cora.

There is a fine line here, and as Patriots captain Logan Mankins said Thursday night, “This is the NFL, you can’t be too patient for too long. You have to produce. You can’t wait forever.”

Two games in five days isn’t forever.

If the 2-0 Patriots are in the same spot two weeks from now, a quarter of the way into the season, maybe then it’ll be time to start thinking about reinforcements at wide receiver.
The "Madden NFL 25" cover vote is now on in SportsNation.

This year, there is a new-school and old-school competition.

In the new-school vote, there are some tough assignments for some AFC West players.

San Diego’s Antonio Gates is a No. 16 seed. He goes against top seed Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco. Oakland’s Carson Palmer is a No. 15 seed and he is facing No. 2 seed, NFL MVP Adrian Peterson. Denver’s Von Miller is a No. 6 seed, but he faces the popular Victor Cruz of the Giants, a No. 11 seed. Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles is a No. 6 seed and he is facing Darrelle Revis of the Jets, a No. 11 seed.

In the old-school vote, this one will upset some folks. Marcus Allen is representing the Chiefs and not the Raiders. The Hall of Fame running back played 11 years for the Raiders and five years for the Chiefs. He is a No. 6 seed and faces No. 11 Tedy Bruschi of the Patriots.

Oakland's Tim Brown is a No. 6 seed and he faces Chad Johnson of the Bengals. Denver’s Terrell Davis is a No. 10 seed and faces Buffalo’s Jim Kelly, a No. 7 seed. San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson is a No. 10 seed and he faces Randall Cunningham of the Eagles.

Merril Hoge, Chris Mortensen, Mark Schlereth, Seth Wickersham and Keyshawn Johnson are picking the Green Bay Packers to defeat the San Francisco 49ers in the teams' divisional playoff game Saturday.

K.C. Joyner is calling the 49ers' offense overrated Insider while pointing to diminished run blocking, the absence of a downfield passing threat and questions on special teams in explaining why San Francisco is vulnerable.

What kind of respect is this for the team that stood No. 1 in ESPN's NFL Power Rankings three weeks ago?

ESPN's Tedy Bruschi and Herm Edwards made their Packers-49ers picks in the video above. One of them did pick the 49ers. I'll make my guesses Friday, as usual.
A day after the 2010 NFC Championship Game, as you might recall, we were still discussing the national reaction to Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's departure because of a knee injury. Both fans and NFL players immediately questioned Cutler's toughness and criticized him for disinterested body language on the sideline.

At the time, I wondered if the episode reflected Cutler's ill repute within the game more than anything else. "Substitute Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for Cutler and let the same situation play out," I wrote in one post. "Do players around the league hammer Rodgers the same way? Or does he get the benefit of the doubt?"

That juxtaposition came to mind again this week after Cutler screamed at and bumped left tackle J'Marcus Webb in Thursday night's 23-10 loss to the Packers. As close observers noted, Rodgers also angrily reproached a teammate in the game, admonishing receiver James Jones for apparently running the wrong route on a fourth-quarter interception.

Cutler, of course, has been criticized nationally for his actions. Rodgers has escaped any harsh words, as far as I'm aware.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Mike RoemerBears QB Jay Cutler, right, adds fraternizing with the enemy (Packers counterpart Aaron Rodgers) to his list after Thursday's game.
Is this an example of the more-popular personality getting a free pass? Or were there fundamental differences in what each quarterback did? I thought former NFL linebacker Tedy Bruschi, now an ESPN analyst, did a nice job of drawing a distinction Friday while speaking on ESPN radio.

Here's part of what Bruschi said:

"I don't even think it's a big thing that [Cutler] bumped him or he pushed him. The big thing was about when he chose to get on J'Marcus Webb, and the difference between when Aaron Rodgers chose to get on Jones, the wide receiver.

"Now J'Marcus Webb, all he did was get beat physically. He was in the right place. He did his best to block [Packers linebacker] Clay Matthews, and he got beat. Clay Matthews got the sack on Jay Cutler.

"Clay Matthews has beaten many offensive tackles who are a lot better than J'Marcus Webb. So when you get on somebody and embarrass somebody on national TV for getting beat physically, it's almost like you're kicking a man when he's down.

"OK, yes, you lost. He's just not better than Clay Matthews. Clay Matthews was better than him on that play. There's nothing you can do. There's no scheme or anything. It was one man against another, and you lose. You kick him when he's down, it's not the right thing to do.

"James Jones made a mental error. ... That's when you can get on players. That's when you can get in their grill because they made a poor decision. That justifies any type of criticism you can give them on national TV or not."

There is a little bit of a slippery slope in Bruschi's analysis. Webb might have been beaten physically, but was it because Matthews is simply better than him? Or did Webb not work hard enough on his technique in the offseason? Did he know his assignment well enough? The first explanation would justify criticism in Bruschi's analysis. The others would not.

Part of me wants to say that showing up teammates during games, whether it was for a physical defeat or a mental error, leads to nothing good. But Bruschi had a long NFL career and understands how players interpret these things. If he says that Rodgers' reaction was justified, and would be interpreted as such in the locker room, than so be it.

What do you think?
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Former New England Patriots linebacker and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi had a message for Tim Tebow: Just shut up.

But the New York Jets backup quarterback had a simple response to Bruschi Wednesday when meeting with the media: He follows instructions.

"To be honest, I just do what I'm told -- and this day to talk to (reporters), so I'm gonna talk to you," Tebow said to the New York media after Day 2 of minicamp. "And to be honest, I just go about it however the Jets set it up -- the rules that they want us to (follow), who they want us to talk to, who they don't want us to talk to."

We're siding with Tebow on this one.

Tebow is not asking for this media attention. It simply follows him because of who he is. The "Patriot Way" that Bruschi is accustomed to does not apply for every team. In fact, the Patriots are probably the most tight-lipped team in the NFL. They often say little when they lose and even less when they win.

Tebow plays for the Jets and follows their protocol. It's a much different culture then in New England. Ask Chad Ochocinco.

So far, Tebow has said and done all the right things. If people want to hear Tebow speak and he’s not hurting the team, there's no harm in it.

It's easy to gang up on Tebow for a lot of things. But responding to interview requests should not be one of them.
Somehow, and I’m still trying to figure exactly how, the New Orleans Saints have been dragged into yet another controversy.

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh was doing an interview with a local radio station Tuesday morning. Harbaugh was asked a question about the Saints’ bounty program and the general concept of cheating throughout the NFL.

Harbaugh didn’t say a thing about the Saints. Instead, he turned his answer toward the New England Patriots, who had their own controversy with Spygate several years ago.

“In the end, everything is brought before the light of day, when it’s all said and done,” Harbaugh said in the interview. “What happens, even the thing in New England, no matter whether those things had any impact on whether they won their championships or not, they got asterisks now. It’s been stained."

That set off a firestorm in New England, and the Ravens quickly moved into damage-control mode. The Ravens just sent out a statement from Harbaugh. Although the Saints didn’t get mentioned in his on-air words, they do get mentioned in Harabaugh’s latest statement.

“While on the 98 Rock show this morning to talk about the run to honor O.J. Brigance and raise funds for ALS research, I answered a question about playing within the rules and referred to the perception that the Super Bowl championships won by the Patriots and Saints have a stain,’’ Harbaugh said. “My reference was to the perception out there that came as the result of the league’s actions. I could have been more clear that I was referring to those viewpoints. I totally believe that the Patriot and Saint coaches and players earned those championships. Bill (Belichick) and Sean (Payton) both know that. There has been some distortion about what I said.

“The original tweet indicated I pointed the finger at Bill Belichick and mentioned Bill’s name. I did not. I have so much respect for Coach Belichick and the job he does and has accomplished in his Hall of Fame career. I called him to remind him of my respect for him. I also reached out to Tedy Bruschi, who rightfully defended those Patriot players and coaches on ESPN, to tell him that I agree with him that the Patriots earned every victory.”
ESPN's Tedy Bruschi brought up a good point during the NFL draft on Saturday.

Bruschi said we shouldn’t expect Peyton Manning to be a mentor to Brock Osweiler right away. Denver signed Manning in March and drafted Osweiler with the No. 57 pick.

One of the benefits of drafting Osweiler is that he can sit and learn from Manning for the next three years or so without having to play. But Bruschi said Manning shouldn’t play the mentor role to Osweiler because he has more pressing concerns. Manning's chief priority will be to learn the offense and win games in Denver. Mentoring a young quarterback will not and shouldn’t be high on Manning’s to-do list, Bruschi said.

I agree.

Manning is in Denver to win, not baby-sit.

However, I think the Manning-Osweiler relationship can grow and Osweiler can learn from Manning without Manning putting too much effort in it or making Osweiler’s development a priority.

Osweiler can learn from Manning from simply watching him. During an interview with ESPN on Saturday, Osweiler said he is planning on buying a huge notebook. He wants to jot down Manning’s every move. That’s perfect.

Just by being Peyton Manning, Manning can help Osweiler grow.

Darren Woodson and Tedy Bruschi recently discussed whether Gregg Williams' indefinite suspension from the NFL should become a lifetime ban.

Just about everyone should get a second chance, Woodson said, and Bruschi largely agreed.

Whether Williams deserves a second chance and whether he will get one are separate issues.

The NFL, faced with hundreds of player-safety lawsuits, has much invested in making an example out of Williams and the New Orleans Saints for their bounty-related violations. Fair or not, the league gains more legally and politically from a lifetime ban than from welcoming back the person most directly associated with bounties.

A recently released audio recording brought to life the allegations in a manner that further damaged Williams. After hearing the recording, I doubted whether Williams, now the St. Louis Rams' defensive coordinator, would ever coach again in the NFL.

But the backlash against Williams could fade over time. Woodson and Bruschi sounded amenable to the NFL clearing Williams following the 2012 season.
One common complaint we talk about often in these parts is how the NFC South sometimes gets lost in the shadows of divisions or teams with bigger markets and higher profiles.

Well, maybe we should be careful what we wish for. The NFC South is about to take center stage on a national platform, for all the wrong reasons.

The scandal involving the New Orleans Saints and what the NFL says was a “bounty program," designed to reward defensive players for intentionally injuring opponents, will be the topic of an hour-long NFL Live Special on ESPN at 4 p.m. ET Monday.

Trey Wingo is scheduled to host. He’ll be joined in studio by Tedy Bruschi, Darren Woodson, Mike Golic, Marcellus Wiley. Former NFL quarterback Steve Young and former NFL defensive back and head coach Herm Edwards will join them via satellite and there could be other special guests.

Patriots: Fit in or get out

February, 2, 2012
Albert Haynesworth, Deion BranchAP Photo/US PresswireFormer Patriot Albert Haynesworth, left, and starter Deion Branch exemplify the "Patriot Way."
INDIANAPOLIS -- As displayed in his video documentary "A Football Life," New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick enjoys fishing in his free time. It's fitting, because in football Belichick is not afraid to cut bait.

Many players have come and gone in New England. Some have worked out better than others. But the culture of winning remains the same.

There are only seven players remaining from the Patriots' last Super Bowl team in 2007. In four years, nearly the entire roster has been remade into a championship contender.

Big-name players like Randy Moss, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison all left New England for various reasons. Some were released, retired, or traded and wound up on television.

You also have recent malcontent situations this past season such as former Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather and former Pro Bowl defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth. Meriweather had off-the-field issues last season and surprisingly didn't make the 53-man roster. He landed with the Chicago Bears. Haynesworth was acquired in a big trade this summer and released about midway through the season.

Football is a cruel business. But it's particularly cruel in New England if you're underperforming and not buying into the program. You can multiply that by 10 if you're a malcontent.

"Most head coaches and GMs, they're never really willing to swallow their pride and admit that they made a mistake," former Patriots fullback and NFL Network analyst Heath Evans explained. "Bill just says 'Well, I thought we could fix [Haynesworth]. We couldn't. So bye-bye.' Most guys will sit there and hurt their team by allowing a cancer to infiltrate the system, the mindset, how you get something done. But Bill never hesitated.

"He saw enough. He gave [Haynesworth] enough chances and, boom, he's gone. That's an aspect of the structure and discipline. Bill doesn't care how it makes him look or what he's doing. He's going to do what's best for the team."

Haynesworth and Meriweather were cut because they no longer fit. Moss, Seymour and Vrabel were traded while the value was still high enough to get something for them. Belichick is always thinking about the next move.

Patriots starting receiver Deion Branch was fortunate.

The former Super Bowl MVP held out for more money during New England's training camp and the preseason in 2006, and was eventually traded to the Seattle Seahawks for a first-round pick. Branch got the money he wanted. Seattle signed him to a $39 million extension. But Branch never had the same success in Seattle and was traded back to New England for a fourth-round pick in 2010.

Branch was a good teammate, but the holdout with New England left a bad stench. The Patriots showed they were willing to forgive, and now Branch is one of the veteran leaders of this year's team.

"I was very honored," Branch said. "Not many have the opportunity to come back to the same team that drafted you. Guys don't get the opportunity to go through that phase. I was just very thankful."

New England receiver Chad Ochocinco is an interesting case. He's caused issues in the past with the Cincinnati Bengals. But he's quickly -- and wisely -- bought into the "Patriot way."

Ochocinco only has 15 receptions, but fellow Patriots have described him as the model teammate. He accepted his role in New England, no matter how small it is, for the greater goal of trying to win a championship. Moss also caused problems elsewhere and quickly changed his stripes when coming to New England. The talkative Ochocinco received advice from Moss this season on how to handle the transition.

"I learned to shut the [expletive] up," Ochocinco said this week.

Why doesn't this work everywhere? Why isn't every NFL team selfless and without internal issues?

"I think it doesn't work everywhere, because everyone has to buy in. I mean coaches, players, front office and owner," said former NFL executive Michael Lombardi, who once worked with Belichick. "With the Patriots, everybody buys in from the top all the way through. It's a way of life in New England. It's not just a daily job."

According to veteran guard Brian Waters, star quarterback Tom Brady plays a major role with team chemistry. Brady is an extension of Belichick in the locker room. No one is more competitive and works harder than the team's highest-paid player.

"Everybody's got egos, everybody's got their own way of doing things or what they think is the best way of doing things," Waters said. "But to have a coach set the tone and a player follow the tone as good as Tom, it's hard for any player on your team to even think about having a different thought process. If the best player on your football team is buying in 100 percent, then who are you to be any different? That’s something you have an appreciation for."

Evans, who played with the Patriots from 2005-08, went on to tell a great story involving future Hall of Famer Junior Seau. He was a 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker who joined the Patriots late in his career in 2006.

"Junior Seau, when he first got there, I don't think Junior had ever been yelled at a day in his life, or maybe even coached," Evans recalled. "Junior was over the center, trying to time the snap count, and he must have jumped offsides three times in our first practice. So Bill had it all teed up -- 'the lowlight film' is what he called it. Everyday we had a lowlight reel, and you do not want to be on that lowlight reel, because 52 other players are watching your bad mistake.

"So Junior is there jumping offsides and Bill just goes into his rant. Junior is like, 'Is he really doing this to me?' It was to the point where Junior stood up and said 'Buddy' ... He couldn't believe Bill was giving him the business like that."

No one player is bigger than the team in New England. The Patriots have done a great job of consistently sending that message and getting rid of players who don't understand. It's resulted in another Super Bowl appearance Sunday against the New York Giants.

The 2011-12 Patriots are particularly close-knit. Owner Robert Kraft says it's arguably his favorite group since owning the team, and they are one game away from capping a special season.

"One thing I've learned is that many games are lost and won in the locker room before the game starts," Kraft said this week. "Now, they have to go out and execute [against New York]."

How much longer for Tom Brady?

January, 21, 2012
Tom BradyElsa/Getty ImagesDoes Tom Brady have what it takes to be an NFL starting quarterback until he's 40?
Here is scary news for the rest of the NFL: Tom Brady wants to play quarterback for the New England Patriots until he's 40 years old.

That means, theoretically, Brady and coach Bill Belichick plan to dominate the AFC East and keep New England in title contention until 2017. Brady will turn 35 next August.

But five more years? That is an eternity in the NFL, where the average career span is approximately 3-4 seasons. Does Brady have enough in the tank to play 17 years at such a demanding position?

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only four quarterbacks in NFL history have started on opening day past the age of 40. Warren Moon (41) was the oldest, followed by Brett Favre (40), Vinny Testaverde (40) and Johnny Unitas (40). Brady wants to become the fifth player to accomplish that feat.

Former quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer played 14 seasons in the NFL and believes Brady will reach that goal. According to Dilfer, the key to quarterback durability is the lower body, not the upper body.

"What goes first with quarterbacks is their legs. Once you lose your legs, you kind of lose everything else," Dilfer explained. "I remember Kurt Warner talking about that late in his career, and obviously I experienced it. Every quarterback experiences it. I think Tom works hard enough to maintain the leg strength he needs to be as precise as he is, and I think he's a competitor that if he puts something in his mind that he's going to do something, he's a guy that goes out and does it.

"There's very few people in sports like that, talk about the Kobe Bryants and the greats in all sports. I think Tom is right up there. When he puts his mind to something, he's going to do it. So I fully expect him to be playing at 40 if he says he's going to."

It's hard to say when that window will close for Brady, who will lead the Patriots (14-3) in Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens (13-4). He's proved over the past dozen years that, as long as he's healthy, he's an elite player. Brady is an MVP candidate this season and, by far the best remaining quarterback in the playoffs.

A case can made that Brady's three best statistical seasons occurred after the age of 30 -- in 2007, 2010 and 2011. He also is coming off a record-tying, six-touchdown performance in a 45-10 playoff victory over the Denver Broncos. It was one of his top single-game performances.

Brady projects to be an elite player for at least the next two or three seasons. Injuries are probably the only thing that can derail him at this stage of his career.

Brady had reconstructive knee surgery and missed 15 games in 2008. Otherwise, he has had a clean bill of health. Outside of 2008, he has missed just one start since taking over the job in 2001.

"If anybody can pull it off, it's Brady, but like we saw with Peyton Manning, he could break down easier [with age] too," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "Manning may never be the same. He may never play at that same high level. Who knows? If Brady hits one stumbling block like Peyton did, all of a sudden 40 is a long way away for him. But nobody is playing better than Brady right now."

Brady has been fortunate with pass protection throughout his career. He has been sacked 26 times or fewer in six of the past seven seasons.

Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi was a longtime teammate of Brady's and knows firsthand the importance of protecting the veteran quarterback. Brady is a classic pocket passer who moves well in the pocket. But he doesn't have the ability to run away from defenders.

"As players progress up into the years, the more shots you take, the shorter the second half of your career will be," Bruschi said. "And I think Tom Brady will play as well as his offensive line, his protection, allows him. I think he's shown over the course of the last few years that there are the usual (ailments), they're becoming normal now. Late in the season where he had a rib or a shoulder or various injuries like that over the course of a season.

"You end up accumulating some damage, especially as a quarterback, because you're the most sought-after hit in terms of the defensive perspective. So if he can be protected, I think that goal is possible. He can play as long as he wants to."

Brady currently is playing with a left-shoulder (non-throwing) injury that has to be managed during the playoffs. This week Brady sat out of Wednesday's practice to rehab and watched extra film of Baltimore's defense.

An under-the-radar aspect of Brady's longevity could be the development of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both have been tremendous weapons and security blankets for Brady in their second season together.

Throwing in the middle of the field is the quickest and easiest completion for quarterbacks. It also keeps the pass rush at bay.

"They're obviously a huge part of what we do," Brady said of his tight ends this week. "They are on the field quite a bit and they’ve been healthy so it’s been good to have them both out there. ... They're pretty good with the ball in their hands and break a lot of tackles so that’s definitely a plus for us also. We have a lot of yards after catch this year, and those two guys certainly do a great job with the ball in their hands."

Patriots owner Robert Kraft still remembers when the late-round draft pick came to Foxborough as a long shot in 2000. Kraft shared a great story about his first encounter with Brady this week.

"I still have the image of Tom Brady coming down the old Foxboro Stadium steps with that pizza box under his arm, the skinny beanpole," Kraft said. "When he introduced himself to me and he said, ‘Hi, Mr. Kraft’ and he was about to say who he was and [I said] ‘I know who you are, you’re Tom Brady, you’re our sixth-round draft choice.’ He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.' It looks like he could be right, although hiring Bill Belichick, I think, also has been a pretty good decision."

Brady's Hall of Fame legacy is secure. If he retired today, Brady already would be among the top quarterbacks ever to play the position. He has three Super Bowl rings and could tie his childhood hero -- Joe Montana -- for the most playoff victories (16) with a win over Baltimore Sunday.

But the difference between being a top-five quarterback and the greatest ever could come down to these next five years. Brady can tie Montana (four) and Terry Bradshaw (four) for the most titles in these playoffs. But if Brady plays through age 40, he has a legitimate shot at being the winningest quarterback in NFL history.

"I'm really happy that we have him as our quarterback," Kraft said. "I hope we have the best quarterback and coach in the history of the game. I guess to prove that, we have a little more execution that we have to do over the next few years. I certainly hope we do it."