BOSTON -- The NFL held its final event of the 2013 offseason this week, as the league's power brokers descended upon the Hyatt Harborside to hand out Super Bowl hosting privileges and discuss league business. The future of the Pro Bowl was a fun topic, as was the likely move of the draft back a few weeks in 2014.
But before Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners headed out of town, many stopped to chat about several of the other pertinent topics relating to their franchise.
Here are five hot topics that will take the league into the summer:
1) Sanchez is in for a fight
Mark Sanchez isn't going anywhere in the 2013 season. That was clear back when the New York Jets guaranteed him more than $8 million in salary, and it was even clearer when last-shot veteran David Garrard's gimpy knee prevented him from playing on and diving into the team's quarterback competition. That, by the way, wasn't a surprise to Gang Green; owner Woody Johnson told me the team knew shutting Garrard down was possible. "There was speculation," Johnson told me this week. "David's had some injuries, and we allowed for that. We were hoping he would make it through. His history is, he's had these things." And that was the case again.
So my thought was that this development would solidify Sanchez as the front-runner to be the starter. Yes, the Jets selected West Virginia's Geno Smith in the second round of the draft. His talent is real, and he impressed in rookie camp. But members of the Jets brass also laugh off the over-reaction to any evaluations based on non-padded practices. Which is to say, wouldn't Garrard's retirement give Sanchez a leg-up?
Nope. I mentioned that thought to Johnson, and he responded that "it's the same" as it has been. "I think the competition is still alive and well," Johnson said. That's right; the Jets' starter for the past four seasons didn't even get a nod from management. My read is, if Sanchez wins the job by Opening Day, it won't have anything to do with his past showings. It won't be because of what the Jets have invested in him -- in terms of the draft or his contract. It'll be based on an objective assessment of his performance. As it should be.
2) Taking the long-term view on Gronk
The first reaction to the fourth forearm surgery for New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was a positive one. Doctors replaced the plate in his arm, which meant the infection had likely cleared. Thus, no need for a fifth surgery. It also meant that the focus could rightly shift to his back. In three or four weeks, Gronk is slated to get checked out by an expert who is not employed by the Patriots, with the hope that he could relieve the "chronic" pain that has bothered him for a year.
When I asked owner Robert Kraft about it this week, his response was, "I wish I knew as much as you'd like me to know." It seems that nobody really knows. Medical opinions haven't been formed. Kraft later told reporters that Gronkowski "still should be great. We'll see."
Clearly, there is uncertainty. The team does not know how bad Gronk's back is. And with his forearm healing for another two months at least, it might be time to start moving back his timeline. Ready for training camp? Seems like a long shot, in my opinion.
Think about it. Gronkowski hasn't been able to work out and lift like he's wanted. And with back surgery possibly looming, he likely won't for a while. Maybe it's time to turn the focus to a possible stint on the physically unable to perform list and a midseason return. Thinking of this situation in those terms might help for all parties.
3) A new day in Jacksonville
A little less than a year ago, Jacksonville Jaguars star running back Maurice Jones-Drew was beginning a contract holdout, attempting to force the Jags into handing him a new deal with two years left on his old one. Alas, the team did not yield; Jones-Drew reported without landing such a deal, and proceeded to play just six games in an injury-marred season. This year, however, much has changed.
When Jones-Drew told the Jags he wanted to rehab his Lisfranc injury away from the team, he first heeded their request that he be present during the installation of the offense at organized team activities. That show of good faith (and team-oriented thinking) was not lost on key members of the Jaguars organization. Jones-Drew has stopped calling for a new deal, hoping his play justifies it. So much is new in Jacksonville, and having the team's best player completely buy in is a win for new coach Gus Bradley.
Earlier this week, I asked owner Shad Khan what had changed since 2012. "Everything," Khan told me. "We have a new general manager (David Caldwell), a new coach with Gus; obviously we have a whole different team of coaches. Leadership. Everything is different. I think the whole environment, the spirit, the buzz. And obviously, I'm delighted with Maurice, along with all the other players; I feel very good about our prospects."
4) Bringing dignity to a tough process
One of the more fascinating topics discussed during the spring meeting was disclosed when Goodell was asked if strong player-engagement activities need to be reemphasized following former receiver Titus Young's recent troubles. As part of his response, Goodell noted that he addressed with owners the possibility of making the cut-down process "more dignified." He stressed that players should be released "in a humane way that will make sure they understand the perspective we have for them and the pride we have in what they have accomplished."
This is a good thought. Too often, the players who are unceremoniously sent packing believed they would make the team and have no idea where to go next. The responses I receive from players whose careers end before they expect them to are often heart-breaking. The theme is, "What do I do now?" Perhaps Goodell is wise to raise this topic.
Are there services that can be made available to players after their fates have been sealed? Maybe something as simple as career counseling, to help a player address his skills and begin to think about another occupation. Or a post-cut-down day symposium, to allow players to hear their career options. Losing a job is a difficult reality. Being told you can no longer be a football player in the NFL is just another punch in the stomach. It's smart to treat cut-down day like the traumatic event it is. And doing so will help the players, in the long run.
5) Urlacher goes out the right way
For months, the rumors swirled about Brian Urlacher. First, there was a thought that the veteran linebacker could return to the Chicago Bears for the 2013 season. Then, maybe he was headed for the Minnesota Vikings -- until they made it clear that they were going forward with who they had at middle linebacker. (Quick tangent: The question of how that baseless "Urlacher-to-the-Vikings" rumor started will perplex me forever.)
In the end, the more time Urlacher spent away from the game, the more he grew at peace with his decision. And the more at peace he was, the less likely he was to want to wear a different jersey after 13 years in Chicago. Don't forget, either, that he played in a ton of pain last year, and he didn't play well. There was no hope of that changing in 2013. And so, he quietly walked away, sending a tweet, doing some interviews, then disappearing.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is how it's done. There was no mad scramble to remain relevant. No failed training camp tryout. No disheartening visuals of a veteran flailing to hang on. Even in his final year, Urlacher forced two fumbles and recorded an interception, going out as a playmaker. Sure, he might have returned if he had received an unbelievable opportunity (like perhaps an offer from the Dallas Cowboys). But he didn't force it. He stepped outside himself, saw the reality of his situation and made the call. It's the ideal ending, just like the one Ronde Barber had. All players should be so lucky.
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