As we do every week, let's take a swing around the NFL, looking at a bunch of stories that caught my attention. Of course, this week's edition comes on the heels of a week spent in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII. And away we geaux!
So, what's been up?
So many of us joked about how this storyline -- San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh facing off against Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh -- would dominate the week. Before Super Bowl coverage even began, the snarky tweets -- "I wonder if anyone will write a story about the Harbaughs being brothers?" -- were everywhere. Instead of engaging in the snark, however, I spent a week reading and talking about this story, listening to parents Jack and Jackie Harbaugh, wondering what Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean (the Harbaugh boys' brother-in-law) was thinking, and generally soaking it in.
This was a bit of a shocker, honestly, but I didn't get tired of the storyline at all. Because I have a brother. The odds of me coaching against "Jake the Steak" in the Super Bowl are so astronomically low, it's almost unfathomable. And these dudes, Jim and John, did it. It's something every brother dreams up. And when you consider the emotion involved with getting to the pinnacle of your profession and having to beat your brother -- they make movies out of this stuff.
Just hearing the parents tell stories all week -- finishing each other's sentences -- was incredibly heart-warming. That Friday joint news conference featuring the suited-up John and the sweatsuited Jim was more of the same awesomeness. They were openly joking with each other, injecting some unnatural levity into a tense week. Jim even brought his "A" game to interactions with the media, so as not to be out-shone by his brother. All in all, I didn't get tired of it one bit. I wanted more. Then came the reality, though, which explained why we were so obsessed with this drama. It made the Harbaughs so human.
John talked about catching his brother's eye across the field during the Super Bowl. John also said after the game, "The toughest part of all was walking across the field. And if you can imagine, there was a great amount of elation and a great amount of devastation and those two feelings went hand-in-hand at that moment." He called beating his brother, "a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be. ... Anybody out there who has a brother can understand what that is all about." That's why it never got old. Because it pulled us all in. Best storyline of the Super Bowl, by far, and I hope we get it again.
Ugliness begets a glimmer of hope
We all learned a little bit from the Chris Culliver debacle, but it might not be what you think. See, the San Francisco 49ers cornerback revealed himself with some anti-gay comments in a radio interview with noted yahoo Artie Lange, saying, "I don't do the gays, man," and adding, "Can't be with that sweet stuff." Charming. Culliver later walked it back, saying he's not really like that, and that it took seeing his comments in print to realize how hurtful they were. Then, of course, he played a terrible game, getting torched by Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones among others. Fitting.
But here's where I was left hopeful. The reactions of his teammates and others around the NFL were remarkable. People wonder if the NFL could handle a gay teammate, and the brushback sparked by Culliver's ignorance makes me think the answer is yes. Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs immediately chimed in, saying, "We wouldn't have a problem with (a gay teammate). We don't care. Our biggest thing in the locker room is to just have fun and stay loose. We don't really care too much about that." Old sage Randy Moss, the Niners receiver who is never shy about expressing his feelings, said, "We need to be able to move on and accept it." And Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo estimated that just 50 percent of players feel like Culliver ... which is progress.
I mean, it really helps the situation that Culliver was ridiculed for his remarks. And it's fantastic that the 49ers organization -- which is an activist in this arena -- distanced itself from Culliver, too. That gives you an idea of the changing climate. In another era, maybe the blowback wouldn't have been so strong. I also think, as Suggs insinuated, that what players really care about is whether someone can play football or not. Anyway, believe it or not, this Culliver situation made me feel we're not as far from having an openly gay football player as many might think.
Was the Eagles' next DC in New Orleans?
We spent so much time talking about Ray Lewis this week -- and rightfully so, what with his retirement and all. But he wasn't among the Ravens linebackers who shined on the field Sunday. In fact, Lewis played poorly, especially in coverage. Instead, youngsters like Courtney Upshaw (on the edge) and Dannell Ellerbe (next to Lewis) were the ones who stood out. One scout told me that Ellerbe, who had a team-high nine tackles Sunday, was playing better than anyone on that defense.
The development of Upshaw and Ellerbe is a credit to Ravens linebackers coach Ted Monachino, whose name has been linked to the defensive coordinator opening with the Philadelphia Eagles. It's easy to see why. Despite all of the injuries he's dealt with, Monachino's unit was still stellar. Before the game, I asked Monachino about the rumors. "It's flattering, for sure," he said, before making it clear that his focus was on the Super Bowl. He said he had no sense of whether the Ravens would release him from his contract, though I get the feeling that they would. As for what a team would be getting if they hired him, Monachino said, "You'd see an attacking style. Simple and sound."
Another name possibly linked to the Eagles is that of 49ers secondary coach Ed Donatell, whose unit did not look so hot on Sunday. (Of course, teams know not to make broad judgments off of one game.) The former Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator said he "absolutely" aspires to be a coordinator again. "I'm far better than I ever was," Donatell told me. What kind of coach would a team be getting if it hired him? "I always think players and plays, so I'd have to examine the roster. I'm a 3-4 coach, but that doesn't mean you can't have 4-3 principles. I'd say I'm a melting pot of (49ers defensive coordinator) Vic Fangio and (Falcons defensive coordinator) Mike Nolan." Look for one or both of these position coaches to be discussed plenty this week.
Patriots must think about life after Brady
It's a topic nobody wants to discuss in New England. And why would they? However, Tom Brady's future does involve him not being the New England Patriots' quarterback -- eventually. It might happen when he retires. Of course, it also might happen before he's ready to stop playing. Either way, at some point, Brady will no longer be with the Pats. It's a reality that he knows, considering how he came into his own job: knocking off former sure-to-be long-time starter Drew Bledsoe. And Brady has always said he'll play for the Patriots as long as they want him.
Well, Comcast SportsNet New England's Tom Curran posed this question to Patriots owner Robert Kraft on radio row last week: Is Kraft concerned that Brady will be 36 during the 2013 season and is only signed through 2014? Kraft's answer: "I'd love him to be here as long as he's productive and feels he wants to play." OK ... Kraft then said he'd never want Brady to wear another jersey before adding, "Everything is a dual decision." I feel like these comments got a bit lost during a wild Super Bowl week, but they represented an eye-opening admission by Kraft that Brady might not retire as a Patriot. This was also, by the way, the perfect way for Kraft to play it -- or, if he wasn't playing, the perfect way to think. Brady is fallible. At some point, he will be replaced.
It happens to every player, and Brady is well-aware of this reality. Someone younger, cheaper and nearly as good -- if not better -- comes along, and you get moved aside. For the Patriots to maintain their decade-long cruise atop the AFC East standings, they'll have to successfully transition from Brady to whoever is next, in the same way that coach Bill Belichick will eventually have to hand the reins over to someone. (Maybe that's why offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is there.) You can't be emotionally tied to anyone, even someone like Brady. Just as Kraft said, if he's no longer productive, someone else will have to play. All of this underscores one big-time mission for the Patriots: Figuring out whether Ryan Mallett is Brady's future replacement or if they must keep searching. I figure we'll know the answer by the time the 2013 preseason ends, if not sooner.
Working hard ... or hardly working?
A lot of work goes into covering a Super Bowl -- even if it rarely feels like work. I mean, we are talking about football for a living, then watching it live -- it's tough to find anything better than that. Then again, there were obvious times during the week in New Orleans when it definitely wasn't work. Like ... when it was time to eat. Thanks to Emeril's, Root, Cochon Butcher, GW Fins and Jacques-Imo's (among others) for welcoming my stomach to your city. Oh, and then there were the parties. Man, New Orleans does it right, even if so many of the stops my wife (The Banktress) and I made had to be cut short because of impending early wakeup calls.
On Wednesday, we went to the Moves magazine party, hosted by ... Jay Glazer! Good times, with Glazer bringing the big names -- too many to list, in fact. One of the best names, though, was clearly Jennifer Capriati. Who knew the former tennis star had come out of hiding? On Thursday, it was on to EA Sports' annual "Madden Bowl" at the Bud Light Hotel. We got there too late to see athletes playing Madden against regular people, though I heard it was quite entertaining. Capriati, of course, was there, too. So was Big Boi, who performed, although it wasn't quite the same as when he was still running with Andre 3000 as Outkast. On Friday, it was on to the Playboy Party, which allowed me to try Crown Royal's new maple flavor. Unreal. (Good sponsor, guys!)
Most obvious celebrity sighting? Former NFL tight end Jeremy Shockey. You knew he'd be there. And you know it's Super Bowl week when you're leaving a party and see Adrian Peterson walking in. Also on Friday night: "Leather and Laces," which is always one of the best for pure fun. And yes, Hank Baskett and Kendra were on the scene, again. Finally, Saturday night came and we showed up at Patron's Maxim Party ... for just a bit. Man, that 5 a.m. Sunday wakeup call loomed large. But we did stay long enough to see the gaggle of attractive ladies Maxim brought in to hang out at the party. Nice touch, guys. Nice touch. Alas, we were never able to make it to DirecTV's party, so we missed the Justin Timberlake appearance (with a Jay-Z cameo). Next year, maybe. Anyway, the whole week was great, dominated by the food and the ambiance. Where else can you settle in at a restaurant like Jacques-Imo's and see Jeremy Piven sitting at the table across from you?
Saints eyeing more than supporting role
While New Orleans was a fantastic host city, it was a little odd to see so many New Orleans Saints players when none of them were playing in the game. That had to sting a bit. I must say, though, that I thought the Saints players got over their hurt quickly. Several were all over the place this week, appearing on the NFL Network set and doing various media things. Quarterback Drew Brees was around selling stuff. Tight end Jimmy Graham made an appearance on "NFL Total Access," as did defensive end Cameron Jordan. As Saints owner Tom Benson told me, "You look around and see these guys, golly, you gotta be excited."
Benson, by the way, lauded his city's performance as the game's host, and I had to second his favorable opinion. I asked Benson if he thought seeing the Super Bowl in his hometown added to the hunger felt by his players. With a smile, Benson said, "I think it got them excited. I was talking to Jimmy Graham up there, saying, 'Hey, we gotta be on the right stage next time.' " With coach Sean Payton back, a possibly improved defense and significantly fewer outside issues, hopes are high in New Orleans. I asked Benson what most excites him going forward. "Well, you're going to see it," he told me, nodding for emphasis. "You're going to see it. It's going to be good."
Bigger and better things ahead in San Francisco
The 49ers might have lost on Sunday, but I don't think any sort of window is closing. If anything, it's wide open, as my colleague Albert Breer pointed out in a Monday piece looking at the team's future. He highlighted the fact that 17 of the 22 players who started for San Francisco on Sunday are still in their 20s. My thought is, with a second-year quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, the Niners are set for a nice, long run. It's actually about more than that, considering the youth all around.
I spoke with 49ers COO Paraag Marathe about this during the week, asking him what he liked about how the Niners were created. "I give all the props to (owner) Jed (York), (general manager) Trent (Baalke) and Jim Harbaugh," Marathe told me before the game. "They put such a really good plan in place, and with a lot of good foundational pieces. It was about ID'ing the coach and knowing exactly the kind of players (Harbaugh) needs to win -- and then Trent finds those players. The most important thing we've done is trying to build this team for the long run, not just Florida (now Miami) Marlins-style. Not, 'Win a World Series, then break it up.' Hopefully, this is the first of a nice run that we'll have."
Marathe said it is nice to have that second-year quarterback. But he added, "We were successful with (former starter) Alex (Smith) and Colin. That's a testament to the system that coach and Trent have built." I wondered if, looking back, Marathe felt like hiring Harbaugh was a risk, considering he'd come from the college ranks and all. Marathe said, "Everything in this business is a risk. But Trent just ID'ed the coach, decided that was who he wanted and went after it hard." Now San Francisco is in position to keep moving forward with that.
S.W.A.T.S. story made for a surreal sideshow
No doubt, the strangest story of Super Bowl week centered on deer antler spray. By now, you know exactly what I'm talking about: Sports Illustrated posted an article that introduced us to a snake-oil salesman named Mitch Ross, who alleged that Ray Lewis ordered deer antler extract from his company, S.W.A.T.S., to heal his injured triceps. Then, when it all got crazy, Ross flew down to New Orleans to stage a bizarre and surreal sidewalk news conference, backing himself into a corner and allowing himself to be grilled by reporters for an hour. It was awkward.
Ross did admit that he had no proof Lewis actually used the spray. He also took issue with Sports Illustrated's article, saying he was "catfished" into doing it, which makes me think he doesn't quite understand what that term means. He strangely refused to answer questions that needed answering, including when he last talked to Lewis. Ross, who showed up wearing no sleeves, lost even more credibility with his lame excuse for getting successfully sued by former St. Louis Rams linebacker David Vobora.
What did I learn at the end of all of this? That Ross won. Sorry, but he did. He got what he wanted: publicity. And while my inclination is to agree with the many who tweeted at me wondering why we were giving publicity to this publicity hound, I have to ask: What can we do? You can't ignore an accusation that one of the most famous participants in the Super Bowl might have used a performance-enhancing drug. You can't even think about it. You get responses from everyone, you dig, you find out what can be proved, then you dig some more. But it all includes talking, writing and reporting about it. And every time, you mention S.W.A.T.S., Ross and deer antler spray.
As Vobora told me, "He'll take any press, even bad press, to push his name." So, that's what we know. That Ross beat us all. His reputation might have been destroyed, but his product is now likely more famous than Pez. Hey, maybe Ross will even make enough to pay Vobora the $5.4 million he owes him. One can hope.
Alex Smith moving forward with class
Eventually this offseason, Alex Smith will cease to be a member of the 49ers. The former starting quarterback has treated his situation respectfully and with class, which is no surprise. That's why, if the 49ers can't trade him, they'll cut him early and let him pick his team.
It's a credit to Smith's behavior that they'll do that, and that's something teams around the NFL have noticed, by the way. Quarterback-hungry squads like the Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs -- and maybe the Philadelphia Eagles -- could be interested.
I was struck this week by how much Smith's teammates are rooting for him. "I know he wants to be the man," Niners running back Frank Gore said. "And for me, I want him to be the man. If he can't be the man here, I want him to go somewhere else and have a successful career. Last year, he had a good year. This year, he was starting off good, then he got hurt. It's been tough for him. But I want him to be successful."
Smith is a guy who has the respect of the locker room.
Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.