Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 22, 2012

In It’s Quiet Time, NFL Sure Made A Lot Of Noise

Both the men’s and women’s NCAA Division I basketball tournaments are well under way.  Spring training is in full swing, with the first regular season game less than a week away.  Both the NBA and NHL are heading into the latter stages of their respective regular seasons, with teams starting to think seriously about their playoff positioning.  But this week’s headlines have been all about the NFL.

First came the news that on Monday morning quarterback Peyton Manning placed a phone call to John Elway, the Denver Broncos Hall of Fame former quarterback and now head of football operations for his old team. “I want to play for the Denver Broncos,” said Manning. With those eight words Manning ended nearly two weeks of fevered speculation about where he would land after being released by the Indianapolis Colts. There was elation in Colorado, matched by concomitant disappointment in Tennessee, Arizona, south Florida and northern California, where the Titans, Cardinals, Dolphins and 49ers had all harbored hopes of signing Manning.

At one level the move made sense. Manning and Elway are at least casual friends and occasional golf buddies; and if it is possible to imagine the great Manning looking up to another quarterback, that person might well be Elway. He took the Broncos to five Super Bowls, winning his first the year that Manning decided to remain at the University of Tennessee for his senior year rather than enter the NFL Draft, and his second when as a rookie in Indianapolis Manning was suffering through a 3-13 campaign. Elway also played his entire career with just one team, which Manning had certainly expected to do until his neck injury and multiple surgeries cost him the entire 2011 season and set Indianapolis on a path to the eventual drafting of Stanford’s Andrew Luck. It’s also become clear that the Broncos took a low-key approach to recruiting Manning, giving him time to process the fact that he was a free agent for the first time in his career. This was in particular contrast to Titans’ owner Bud Adams, who issued regular pronouncements about how hard he was working to sign Manning, at one point even claiming to have offered a “lifetime” contract.

On the other hand, Denver plays in an open-air stadium in a part of the country where winter can be fierce. That will be a marked change for a quarterback whose entire home career has been played in the climate controlled comfort of a dome. While the Broncos’ defense is solid and their offensive line relatively stout, they will have to seriously upgrade their receiving corps before Manning will have multiple targets worthy of his passes. Though they are the defending AFC West champions, they won that absurdly weak division with a mere 8-8 record; hardly the mark of a team just one player short of a championship. For a player like Manning who must know his career clock is ticking down in its final quarter, Denver was not an obvious choice.

For John Elway though, signing Manning was a no-brainer. It was perhaps the only move he could make that would allow him to trade Tim Tebow without incurring the wrath of his team’s fans. As a classic pocket passer, Elway never appeared comfortable with Tebow, whose utter inability to perform as a traditional NFL quarterback was ignored by fans who quickly came to adore his running ability in what amounted to a college-type option offense as well as his penchant for last quarter heroics.

The pundits scarcely had time to get themselves worked up about Tebow’s fate before the matter was decided. Just two days after the Manning signing Denver traded Tebow and their seventh round pick in this year’s draft for a fourth and sixth round pick. The move made headlines in part because of the paltry value placed on a player who had started a nationwide craze. Given the essential exchange of the sixth and seventh round picks, the source of Tebowmania was traded for rights to a college player who will be picked in the fourth round on the final day of the upcoming draft. But the bold-faced headline in extra-large font was all about Tebow’s destination, which wasn’t Miami or Jacksonville as many had expected. Instead Tim Tebow is now a member of the New York Jets.

Like the Manning signing, at one level the move makes some sense. Tony Sparano, the new offensive coordinator for New York, was a big proponent of the Wildcat offense while he led the Miami Dolphins. In theory Tebow could be used six or eight times a game to run that free-wheeling, option style offense. In theory. But these are the Jets, who play in the city with the brightest media spotlight, who have a head coach who might better be described as a circus ringmaster, and who have a starting quarterback in Mark Sanchez about whom many of the team’s fans are deeply ambivalent. The first time Sanchez throws two interceptions in a game next fall, the fans and the tabloids will be screaming for Tebow to become the starter. So soon after having their last season collapse in a wave of dysfunction, New York’s three ring circus of a football team has greatly increased the possibility of even more chaos in the season to come.

Yet as much as Manning and Tebow, the Broncos and the Jets, made news this week, in the end the biggest NFL story came from the office of Commissioner Roger Goodell. Finally passing judgment on the recent revelation that the New Orleans Saints had run an organized bounty program that paid players money if they injured opponents and knocked them out of games, the NFL suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton for a year without pay. The league also suspended New Orleans GM Mickey Loomis for eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six, while fining the team $500,000 and taking away their second-round picks in the next two drafts. Finally, the NFL suspended the man who ran the bounty program, former New Orleans and current St. Louis defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, indefinitely. Punishments for as many as 27 players involved in the bounty program are still being reviewed with the players’ union and will be announced later.

To some the severity of the sanctions came as a shock. But to many, including this writer, the announcement seemed like one of Roger Goodell’s finest moments as NFL Commissioner. With more and more information available almost daily about the long-term impacts of concussions and other injuries, the NFL has been on a campaign preaching the importance of player safety. That entire effort would have been rendered little more than a bad joke with anything less than what Goodell did. Gregg Williams may never hold an NFL job again. If so, he can look in the mirror every morning and see who is to blame. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said it best, “I think it’s good that every mother in American knows that the NFL is more concerned about the health and welfare and safety of our players. You can’t get around that it’s a physical, tough game, but there is a way to play.” Other leagues would do well to pay attention; and yes, that means you, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Meanwhile, for a league in the depths of its off-season, the NFL had a pretty eventful week.

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