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Sunday, May 25, 2014
Updated: May 26, 5:37 PM ET
Off-field issues in spotlight

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Normally, the days before the Memorial Day weekend are somewhat quiet in the NFL.

That wasn't the case this year. Friday, for example, was flat-out bizarre. San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh sparred with Bay Area reporters after they pressed him for the organization's stance on linebacker Aldon Smith. Smith pleaded no-contest Wednesday to three felony weapons charges and could face a league suspension this fall.

Also on Friday, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice held a news conference with his wife to apologize and address an altercation in which he was caught on camera dragging her, apparently unconscious, out of an elevator. Rice entered a diversionary program and could have the assault case removed from his record, but the chances of an NFL suspension remain.

Earlier in the week, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was charged with two misdemeanor offenses for the incident in which he was arrested for allegedly driving under the influence and having a controlled substance in his car. Then on Friday, Denver Broncos player personnel director Matt Russell was sentenced to seven months in jail after his guilty plea for a DUI.

That all came after it was announced a week earlier that Colts linebacker Robert Mathis had been suspended four games because of a positive test for a fertility drug that is on the league's banned substance list.

Going back to Tuesday, during his post-owners meeting news conference, commissioner Roger Goodell dropped a juicy little item. Basically, Goodell said that if the players' union would agree to a proposed HGH policy that he would oversee, penalties for some other drug violations would be reduced. He cited 104 drug-related cases since 2011 that were handled by his office.

"Had we implemented the HGH program and the other elements of our drug program from the 2011 agreement, 104 of those players would have actually gone to third-party arbitration," Goodell said. "Twenty-one of those would have been referred into the drug program rather than being suspended. Two other players would have faced a two-game suspension rather than a four-game suspension."

The implication is that somebody in Mathis' situation might have avoided suspension, or possibly faced a shorter ban, if the players had accepted the league's HGH proposal. The union stands against the proposal because it wants a third-party arbiter, not Goodell, to have the final say in HGH testing disputes.

When the season begins in September, we will see the effects from what occurred in the days leading up to Memorial Day. The Colts will be challenged the first four weeks without Mathis's pass-rushing ability. They open against the Broncos and Peyton Manning. The Ravens could be without Rice for two or more games. Smith could be suspended four to six games for his infractions. By September, league actions could be in place against Irsay and Russell. We will see if the NFLPA has reached a final agreement on HGH testing.

From the inbox

Q: I just got finished reading about how Geno Smith has basically one more season to prove that he is the guy for the Jets or else he is gone, and that got me wondering: Why do so many teams draft these young inexperienced QBs and expect them to be able to excel at the NFL level? It's not like they can all be Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson, so why do they expect them to be? What happened to properly developing a QB?

Timber in Boston

A: They do that because of the importance of the quarterback position. Franchises can't sustain success without top quarterbacks. Financially, gambling on a first-round quarterback isn't that bad. The new rookie salary pool gives a franchise two or three years to determine whether the young quarterback can make it. What hurts is losing that first-round pick and not getting a long-term starter. It's a crapshoot. Thanks to spread offenses in college, quarterbacks are coming into the NFL feeling comfortable throwing the ball. They just have to adjust to taking snaps from under center. But it is hard to predict which quarterbacks are going to make it. The alternative is to start a journeyman backup and maybe getting to 8-8 if the team has a good defense and enough talent on offense. That is not a sustainable strategy. If the schedule gets tough, the 8-8 could turn into 6-10.

Q: Why the hypocrisy from the commissioner's office? We have often seen players suspended prior to any legal outcomes/decisions, but with Jim Irsay we have seen no action whatsoever. I think as the employee of the owners, it's clear there are two systems of justice, one for the players and none for the owners. I have a feeling that this will be a bone of contention when the CBA comes due, and I'm surprised the players union agreed to something that at times seems very arbitrary. How do you see this playing out?

Sam in Waterloo, Ontario

A: If Irsay is found guilty of the two misdemeanor driving offenses or if he makes a plea bargain, I'm sure there is going to be a suspension of some sort. If a player is found guilty of a DUI, he usually gets a one-game suspension. Owners don't play, so the length of time away from the team needs to be longer. The confusion lies with the offense. The commissioner can act quickly on a player if there are multiple offenses. He can do that under the player conduct policy. This isn't the case with a DUI for a player or one for an owner, coach or front-office executive. Goodell has to let Irsay's case be decided in court and then make a ruling.

Q: Why are the Cleveland owner and GM going out of their way to put down Johnny Manziel? They traded up to get him, so they clearly thought he would be good for the team, even if Brian Hoyer would be their starting QB for a while.

Mack in Houston

A: They are trying to lower the expectations, knowing it's unlikely Manziel will be the opening-day starter. Fans are excited about Manziel. They are starved for a franchise quarterback and want him to immediately get behind center and save the franchise. Practices aren't open to the public until training camp, so fans can't gauge the development of Johnny Football. He is going to need time to adjust to the NFL. Minus Josh Gordon, who may be suspended, and Greg Little, who was released, the receiver position is in transition. If the Browns get off to a bad start with Manziel at quarterback, the move to draft him could lose its luster. My read on it is that Browns management and ownership are bracing the fans for the fact that Hoyer will be the Week 1 starter. They aren't bashing the quarterback who will be the future face of the franchise.

Q: Why the obsession with total yards? For example, all the Steelers writers are praising Le'Veon Bell for breaking Franco Harris' rookie yardage record. But, Bell averaged 3.5 per carry and Franco averaged a whopping 5.6. Franco was way more efficient.

Boris in Yigo, Guam

A: Of course Harris was more efficient. He's a Hall of Fame running back. I covered the Steelers and know all the writers. None would be hinting Bell is better than Harris, but yardage is one of the few stats available for comparing players. If you ask people in the organization, they believe Bell could be a Matt Forte type of back, one who can run the ball and catch it out of the backfield. Forte isn't going to be confused with Harris either, but he is one of the best backs in the league. The writers wouldn't be doing their jobs if they don't point out historical facts, but those facts aren't saying Bell is better than Harris.

Q: I read that you think the NFC West and the NFC North are the two best divisions in football. I disagree, and my evidence is history. The NFC South is the most competitive division in football. No champion has repeated in back-to-back years. Every NFC South team has been to the conference championship game since the league realigned the divisions in 2002. Carolina made it to a Super Bowl and almost won it. Tampa and New Orleans each have won one. Atlanta did play in a Super Bowl before the realignment. That was the history. Now it's the present. Tampa has the "Dunkaneers." Atlanta has some questions but still has Matt Ryan and Julio Jones plus a stiff defense. Carolina is the defending champ with Cam Newton, and that defense is ridiculous. New Orleans is in contention almost every year with Drew Brees and Sean Payton.

Darrin in Long Beach, Mississippi

A: You make great points. In fact, I would almost label the NFC North and NFC South Nos. 2 and 2A in the current ranking of divisions. Still, you would have to agree that the NFC West has the advantage at the moment. The Seahawks have beaten the Saints twice in the playoffs. They have beaten the Panthers in Carolina twice over the past two years. The 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl by beating the Falcons in an NFC Championship Game. If the Bucs bounce back under Lovie Smith, I would agree that the NFC South is slightly better than the North.

Q: Are we seeing a new trend with the amount of guaranteed money in contract extensions? Recently, Brandon Marshall signed an extension worth $30 million with $23 million guaranteed. Earl Thomas received a $40 million extension with about $27 million guaranteed earlier in the offseason. Richard Sherman received a $57 million extension with about $40 million guaranteed. DeMarcus Ware signed a contract worth about $30 million with about $20 million guaranteed. What seems common in these situations is that the amount of guaranteed money is the majority of the value of the contract instead of a fraction of the total value. Just a few years ago, the majority of the guaranteed money was in the signing bonus. Now teams seem to be providing more guaranteed base salaries and/or roster bonuses. What are your thoughts on this? Do you see a new trend?

Kevin in Arlington, Virginia

A: Great question. Because the averages and numbers are bigger than in the past, teams have to make adjustments. If you study it closely, the guarantees are for either two or three years. Sherman is making $14 million a year and gets $40 million guaranteed. That's roughly three years. When you start to talk about contracts of roughly $10 million a year or more, figure that the player is going to get three times the average guaranteed. A quarterback getting $18 million a year will get roughly $54 million. The trend is to reduce the size of the signing bonus because that amount is prorated over the length of the contract and causes big cap hits in the final two years if the player is cut.