The NFL could well be coming to a standstill in a matter of three weeks, but in the background there is a heated battle between two competing groups to join its ranks.
The 2011 season, in whatever form it exists, will be 17th since Los Angeles lost its football teams when the Raiders went back to Oakland and the Rams headed to St. Louis in 1994. And if those in the nation's second-largest market have their way, this season will be the final one before a team re-enters the LA metropolitan area. This much is certain, but little else is.
Two big budget projects sit in waiting for the league to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. One is in downtown LA and the other is 20 miles east in City of Industry, but when all is said and done, only one will have the stadium they're planning. As a result, the two sides are engaged in a high stakes battle to curry favor with the NFL so that their project will be picked.
The downtown group is headed by AEG's Phil Anschutz and the Industry project is run by Majestic Realty's Ed Roski. The goal is the same -- to get a team back in LA -- and each group thinks it has the perfect place.
"If you look at the NFL and LA, every attempt to bring it back, almost all of them have been focused on downtown, the Dodger Stadium area or the Coliseum," AEG CEO Tim Leiweke said. "This is not new. This is where everyone else was trying to build, with the exception (Michael) Ovitz in Carson, and [now] Industry, every other conversation was about the downtown area."
The efforts of Anschutz and Leiweke are in their infancy compared to those of Majestic, which has been working to bring LA a football team since 1996, but Leiweke says it started with the encouragement of NFL owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell a year ago.
"Most guys in the NFL," Leiweke explains, "have dealt with us on the music side or the sports side. They know what we do, they know how capable we are, and they know Phil Anschutz can pull this off."
On the table is a downtown stadium with a retractable roof that will cost more than $1 billion. To help mitigate that, Leiweke said the proper parameters within a new CBA is vital, as is the naming-rights deal. As for the latter, they already secured rights in January with Farmers Insurance for 30 years and $700 million.
Farmers Field is already depicted in drawings of the LA Live development on the AEG Web site, and the vision is to be capable of hosting Final Fours, major concerts and serve as an extension of an overhauled, adjacent convention center. One key here: Anschutz, worth $10 billion, pledges it'll be privately financed, which is why having the right conditions within a new CBA is so vital.
The group is in the process of filing an Environmental Impact Report (a major part of the process), and expects to have it taken care of by the end of the year based on the experience of building the Staples Center just steps away from the Farmers Field site. AEG also plans on picking an architect from three finalists in the next few weeks, and having drawings done by the end of 2011.
The goal is to be ready to go in January 2012, which really is the next time the chance of courting a team for these groups will be real. Leiweke responds to concerns that his site is too congested by mentioning that the LA Live district -- encompassing the convention center and Staples Center -- has upwards of 80,000 folks in it a half-dozen times a year, when a larger convention and basketball or hockey game is going on simultaneously. As for executing all this, Leiweke's waiting.
"I trust Roger," said Leiweke. "We will be patient and quiet. It's not our place to have an opinion on the CBA. But what I know is nothing will be done until we have a system that's economically fair for both sides and we're preparing to own a piece of a team in LA, so we'll be sharing in the vision and risk of owning a team. First, you gotta have a system that works for that team. I'm following the lead of Roger Goodell."
Meanwhile, under the headlines of the downtown momentum lies the Industry deal, which has stood the test of time and was, in the developers' words, "shovel-ready" over a year ago. In the time since, Majestic has tweaked its project to include more game-day elements, trying to create what vice president John Semcken calls a "Super Bowl experience every Sunday."
On top of that, they've changed the stadium design to meet FIFA requirements to host world class soccer by making the seating bowl steeper which managed to improve it for football as well, according to Semcken.
The rest has been in place for some time, and their contention is that a downtown facility is something that they explored in their decade-plus effort to get a team back in LA, and something they decided against pursuing. The issues they faced there, he says, remain, and pushed his group to the suburbs.
"We're looking at creating the ultimate fan experience," said Semcken. "You know where the Super Bowl was played. Every person there would say Dallas, and no one got it right. It was in Arlington, 15 miles from Dallas. Well, our stadium is 20 minutes from downtown LA, and 14 miles from Anaheim. We stole some ideas from Jerry Jones, and just like he's taken Fort Worth and Dallas, we're going to take the LA market and the Anaheim market, and the Inland Empire market.
"We have 15.5 million people living within an hour drive of our site, one in every 19 people in the U.S. live in that area. Dallas has 6.3 million that close to its stadium."
Industry might lack the naming-rights deal -- something Semcken says is by design -- but it does have advantages in its readiness. The project has been environmentally cleared (no small deal in California) and the design is ready. There are still hoops to jump through, but it's certainly further along.
Although this could be a mute point since the downtown group will have plenty of time to catch up.
Both sides have also used that downtime to start discussions with teams that could potentially relocate to Los Angeles.
"I'll tell you this -- more than one team can relocate right now if they want to," said Semcken. "And we can break ground the day after they commit. We're ready to go."
It might not be as simple as that but following the resolution of the CBA issue, it seems inevitable that the league will turn its eyes to Los Angeles after almost two decades without a team.
"I'm convinced a team's coming," said Leiweke. "We know how to sell, we know how to market. And part of being successful here for us is asking, 'Who's the right partner that understands and has the organization it can market to the fan base?' This isn't going to be easy. But we've shown we can have a good facility and marketing plan. We don't underestimate the job at hand. There's a reawakening of a fan base that has to occur. But we're willing to commit $1 billion to it."
Semcken concurred, going so far to say that, "I think we'll have a team playing in LA for the 2012 season."
But the bigger questions remain. First, it's "Who?" Then, it's "Where?"
For a short time, that club would be in the Coliseum or Rose Bowl.
The race is on to figure out where said team would go from there.
Pittsburgh's contention all week was that the Packers' spread wouldn't faze its defense, but the way the players were deployed indicates something else entirely. The Steelers went to more single-safety looks with three and four corners on the field to contend with Green Bay's receivers, at times taking Ryan Clark off the field and having Polamalu take on some of his "center fielder" responsibilities.
The Steelers generally stay true to who they are defensively, so to switch it up in the Super Bowl was a little unusual. It obviously worked to a certain degree, in that the Steelers only allowed one touchdown that wasn't the result of a turnover. And the defense forced three three-and-outs and allowed just one first down in the third quarter, which put Pittsburgh back in the game.
But in the aftermath, some blame was pushed Polamalu's way for a three-tackle effort that didn't pop. Some figured his Achilles injury had caught up with him, but those around Polamalu swear that isn't the case.
"People love to say it's a problem if Troy doesn't do something superhuman," texted one of his teammates. "They should give him a break."
If there was a problem, it seemed to be that the gameplan and the opponent kept Polamalu from being all over the field in his normal role.
No matter where the truth lies, there's little question that this loss devastated the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. He'll get some rest now, which is what his Achilles injury needs to heal, and, like everyone else, will wait and see what's ahead in an uncertain NFL landscape.
I know this truth ...
He was right.
And here's what's really amazing: It seems Rodgers did it on the biggest stage with less help than Manning or Brady had in winning their championships. In Brady's three Super Bowl wins, the Patriots rushed for 133, 127 and 112 yards. In Manning's Super Bowl victory, the Colts went for 191 yards on the ground.
"Look at the way he handled the setbacks," said Gannon, who calls the team's games in the preseason. "You think about that team, and what happened to it, and it speaks volumes about Aaron. You lose Ryan Grant, a 1,200-yard rusher in back-to-back years. You lose this tight end (Jermichael Finley) who I thought was going to be outstanding. Then, you throw in the losses on defense, and how that should affect him from a team standpoint.
And if you look at the body of work for Rodgers, through three years, it's impressive. I always thought it was unfair to say "first three years starting" in comparison, because some guys (Manning) start earlier than others (Rodgers). What's amazing, though, is if you take Rodgers' first three, first-string seasons from 2008-10, and compare them to years four through six for Manning (who started from day one) and Brady (who took over in Week 2 of year two), the Packers' slinger stacks up well. Take a look:
Manning (2001-04): 1,114-1,704, 12,598 yards, 82 TD, 52 INT, 90.7 rating
Brady (2003-05): 939-1,531, 11,422 yards, 77 TD, 40 INT, 90.2 rating
Rodgers (2008-10): 1,003-1,552, 12,394 yards, 86 TD, 31 INT, 99.4 rating
Not bad, but what I really wanted to know from Gannon is how he saw all this coming.
"In talking to Mike McCarthy about his development, watching him in minicamp and training camp, watching how he throws the ball, combined with the development of Finley and the way Mike calls the plays, I thought Aaron would have a good year," Gannon explained. "But it wasn't just all that. It was also that he had the experience. Playing in year three, the game would slow down for him and Mike was telling me he was putting more on him, as far as responsibility at the line, which every quarterback wants; the ability to get in and out of plays, and change protections.
"Then you have his athleticism, great feet combined with that quickness, his arm strength, his accuracy, and I just got a sense this guy was special. I always felt strongly about him, but this has been ridiculous."
I don't know a thing ...
About where Donovan McNabb will land ultimately, but I do know that wherever it is, he'll likely have to earn his job like he hasn't before.
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So what's next? Well, perception around the league is that wherever he goes, he'll likely be paired with a young quarterback.
"He'd be a short-term starter," said one AFC personnel executive. "You'd do it for 1-2 years until you find a long-term solution at the position."
McNabb turns 35 in November and as an older player, has struggled to adjust as his athleticism has deteriorated. And that's the concern; if his athleticism does fade further, will he have enough to survive?
It's certainly worth asking. McNabb completed just 58.3 percent of his passes last year, with a shaky 14-15 TD-INT ratio and, as our personnel man pointed out, failed to make it through a season without missing a meaningful start for the fifth time in six years. Then, there's the fact that he might not translate to every team's program.
"He's been a systematic player in his career," said our exec. "He's been in that West Coast offense for years, and that matters with his timing and rhythm. Fit is very important with this player. He has not been as consistent as he had been in the past.
"His mechanics and ball placement were not ideal this year either -- the sacks, interceptions and fumbles have all gone up the last few seasons. His TD-INT ratio was negative for the first time ever in 2010. ... But he can still be a starter, you just have to know he's not the guy he was five years ago. You need to know what you're getting, and know what system you're running with him for it to be an ideal fit."
The teams that seem to pop up most in connection with McNabb continue to be Minnesota and Miami, and both clubs have a crying need. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was in Philadelphia for McNabb's first four NFL seasons, but more important might be the assessment of those clubs' new offensive coordinators (Brian Daboll in Miami and Bill Musgrave in Minnesota) and whether or not this quarterback fits their offensive visions.
A good fit is vital, which is something everyone agrees on.
"He's not winning games for you throwing the football," said another high-ranking, veteran personnel executive. "He could work in Minnesota, San Francisco, maybe Miami, but not Arizona. You need a very good running game, good skill guys and be a contender to make it work. It's not a fit in Arizona, because they need their quarterback to be an A-plus passer.
"He is just not a passer. But teams believe he could help them win, and those teams don't have anyone to believe in now."
So maybe McNabb's their guy. But the fact that he couldn't make it happen with Mike Shanahan in Washington should serve as at least a sign of caution in moving forward and pursuing him.
And here's why: That stadium. Anyone who was inside for the game (and this is notwithstanding the seating fiasco) understands what I'm talking about. The atmosphere seemed and felt "bigger," if that's possible, than other Super Bowls, and the stadium provided a stage that was equal to the moment.
Now, my feeling is you didn't need all those temporary seats. In the end zones, they blocked one of Cowboys Stadium's best features -- its enormous windows -- and for about 400 fans, those extra seats ruined the experience altogether. And it's not like 80,000 seats simply isn't enough, anyway.
Plus, you'd have a hard time telling me, as someone who lived in The Metroplex for a time, that Dallas isn't a good place for an event like that. The city hosts bowl games, the State Fair of Texas, the Texas-Oklahoma game and has considered Olympic bids.
If you were brave enough to make it out at night, you could see Dallas' ability to put on a show. I went to the annual Leather & Laces and Maxim parties. Each had an excellent venue -- the Hotel Zaza for L&L and a large hall on the Fairgrounds for Maxim's "State Fair" theme -- and each felt like a Dallas event, which is important for a city hosting a Super Bowl.
What's important to remember here is that what happened last week isn't normal. I live in the Northeast, and an old Dallas colleague of mine posed this to me when we were talking about the conditions: "What happens when it's 120 degrees where you're from?" My answer: "People drop dead. Literally." His point was that no place is fully equipped to handle the kind of weather event that happens once a decade in that area, and that's what hit Dallas last week.
Again, I'm not just sticking up for the people there. The seating thing was inexcusable, and it certainly would have helped if using salt on the roads was legal (it isn't, because it corrodes roads), but the truth is that much of the weather grousing was happening before the masses started arriving on Friday and the stadium itself was beyond excellent for this event.
... and 10
- Things could change logistically in a new CBA (namely, safeguards could be put in so teams don't use the tag as casually as they have), but for now, the franchise designation is part of this offseason's landscape, with teams and the camps of affected players going on the framework of the old rules. And for a couple players, one of which I touched on earlier in the week, there could be some complications within those guidelines. Both Steelers OLB LaMarr Woodley and Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali will likely have a case that they shouldn't be held to the linebacker franchise number, which computes out to just above $10 million. Each is a hybrid end-type, like Terrell Suggs when he was franchised two years ago, with the premium skill of being able to pressure the quarterback off the edge. Suggs was able to work out a deal where he got a "hybrid" number, which was midway between the 2009 end and linebacker numbers. The difference this time is the gap between the tag figures at those two positions is much bigger. In 2009, it was $814,000; in 2011, it figures to be around $3 million. So it'll be interesting, with the end tag north of $13 million, to see how this thing plays out, or if it even matters post-CBA.
- You don't need me to tell you that the Titans have gone through plenty of tumult over the last month-plus, starting with that fateful Houston summit called by owner Bud Adams in early January. Back then, Tennessee had Vince Young and Jeff Fisher, knew it couldn't have both, and now has wound up with neither. But if you push those higher profile moves to the side for a second, and look deeper into the upheaval, you see where the Titans might truly be fighting for the soul of what they've been over their 13 years in Nashville. A team built on its physicality, the Titans' biggest constants over that time, aside from Fisher, were line coaches Jim Washburn and Mike Munchak. Coordinators changed. Other position coaches changed. Those guys remained. Now, with Washburn gone to Philly and Munchak the head coach, new offensive line coach Bruce Matthews and whomever takes Washburn's spot have awfully big shoes to fill.
- The Bills will change their uniforms in 2011, and that has to be considered a positive development as the team looks to repurpose its image under its new regime. Buffalo had one winning season in those strange navy blue/royal blue combo duds, and that was back in 2004. The next step for Buffalo is, of course, improving the roster, and GM Buddy Nix -- a descendent in the personnel tree of ex-Bills GM Bill Polian -- is committed to doing that through the draft. Is a uniform change irrelevant to that? Yeah, mostly. But remember, sad-sack clubs in New England and Tampa Bay changed their look in the '90s as part of an image makeover and later won Super Bowls. Let's all hope the Bills go a little more traditional with their look this time around.
- If the Bills are going to make real waves, they'll have to go through the Jets and Patriots to do so. And New England, in particular, looks set up to really reload this offseason, coming off a 14-2 regular season. Patriots owner Robert Kraft pointed out last week that half of the team's snaps in 2010 were played by first- and second-year players, a remarkable number for a team that had the league's best record, and the roster only figures to get infused with more youth. The Patriots have three of the first 33 picks in April's draft, and five selections among the top 75. This is a team with needs, to be sure. The Patriots need to regain some toughness in the trenches, and could use a premier edge rusher and maybe a bellcow back. But if they can draft like they did last year, when they really bounced back off some lackluster drafts from 2006-08, the team could be set up for a pretty good run going forward.
- I'm always interested to talk with the guys and girls who populate that Pro Football Hall of Fame voting room to get the tenor of things afterward. And the main theme you got from those folks after this year's session was that it was the longest one ever. The reason? From what I understand, it wasn't just the number of very legitimate candidates, but the fact that many of those candidates played the same position as others, leading to head-to-head arguments that, 1) can work to eliminate everyone, and 2) inspire spirited debate. At running back, you had Curtis Martin, Jerome Bettis and Marshall Faulk. At receiver, you had Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed. And as edge rushers go, you had Richard Dent, Chris Doleman and Charles Haley. Just two of those players made the cut -- the long-time candidate Dent and the first-ballot dynamo Faulk.
- Was Carson Palmer putting his house in a tiny Cincinnati suburb on the market a passive-aggressive move aimed at forcing a trade? Maybe. For now, though, it's early and the Bengals -- who swung and missed twice on first-round quarterbacks (David Klingler, Akili Smith) in the decade prior to getting Palmer -- aren't exactly ready to bend over backward to move him. But, if somehow Palmer does hit the block (a shaky idea to go on, at this point), whoever wants him will either want him really bad or force Palmer to show how much he wants out. Why? Well, the nine-year extension he signed in 2005 was worth $118.75 million, and four years and $53 million (approximately 45 percent of the total value) remain on that contract. Palmer has base salaries of $11.5 million, $11.5 million, $13 million and $14 million over the next four years, with $1 million roster bonuses in each of the final three years of his contract. Bottom line: It'll take some bending, and not just by the Bengals, if Palmer's ever going to be moved.
- There was a lot of hubbub this week out of the Bay Area, as Jim Harbaugh took the step of talking shop with quarterback Alex Smith. The former No. 1 overall pick has had a whopping six offensive coordinators (Mike McCarthy, Norv Turner, Jim Hostler, Mike Martz, Jimmy Raye and Mike Johnson) in his six years, and at this point would likely be a spare part in any sort of plan moving forward under Harbaugh. In one way, re-signing Smith could be intriguing to Harbaugh, since the quarterback is a cerebral type who'd come at a low-risk cost. But in another, it might be just too difficult a place for Smith to return to. Many folks who've been through that organization feel like Smith needs to go somewhere where he isn't thought of as a failed draft pick to try and resurrect his career. But to Smith, the idea of working with Harbaugh has to be enticing.
- The success of Cameron Wake has prompted the NFL to go scouring in Canada, where the wide-open game is tailored to develop edge rushers. Last year, the name was Ricky Foley, who drew the interest of a handful of NFL teams (and was one of five players NFL.com followed as part of its On The Fringe series in the preseason), and landed with the Seahawks. He was cut out of camp, had a cup of coffee with the Jets, then wound up back in Canada for most of the CFL season. This year, it seems like Phillip Hunt is the guy. The Patriots, Eagles, Browns, Vikings and Texans have already worked him out, and the University of Houston product is a good bet to get into an NFL camp, if those are held, this summer. He camped with the Browns after signing as an undrafted free agent in Cleveland in 2009.
- If the work stoppage does trickle into the summer, one upshot could be that some players will have additional time to heal their wounds, and truly get themselves right. That dynamic could be particularly welcoming for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who is coming off shoulder surgery. Coach Jim Schwartz told the Detroit media this week that his franchise signal-caller should be 100 percent by the time training camp opens, or at the time it's supposed to open in late July. It would be big for the Lions to have the problem truly taken care of this time around, with Detroit looking like a team that could take a leap in 2011.
- Finally, with the 2010 season now in the books, and so much uncertainty ahead, I wanted to thank everyone for taking the time to read these exhaustive sets of NFL notes every week. I put a lot into them, and I appreciate you putting the time into reading them. As you can tell above, the length of the notes might be cut a little bit now that it's the offseason, but we'll do our best to keep churning them out, no matter what lies ahead. And as always, I'm open to any suggestions for tweaking this thing -- and we will be doing some tweaking. So feel free to hit me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter (@albertbreer), and here's hoping we can, somehow, make 2011 better than 2010 was.