If there were ever a 21st century football player to whom the term Born to be a Raider applied, Richard Dominick Incognito would seem to be that guy.
Known for his nasty and sometimes over-the-line work in the trenches -- and cast as an outlaw in the wake of a workplace harassment scandal that prematurely ended his tenure with the Miami Dolphins -- Incognito, better known as Richie, is a 30-year-old free agent in search of a home.
And while he faces possible league discipline for his treatment of former Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin and is battling personal issues that precipitated a recently completed stay in an Arizona mental-health facility, Incognito is highly intrigued by the notion of coming back in silver and black.
"I'm 100 percent into that," Incognito said Tuesday night. "I think that would fit my personality the best. It makes so much sense. I know (offensive coordinator Greg) Olson and (offensive line coach Tony) Sparano, and I'm a loyal guy, and I'd love to play for them again. And, of course, the Raiders have that aura."
Olson, who worked with Incognito as the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2007, and Sparano, who was the Dolphins' head coach from 2008 to 2011, are indeed fans of the 6-foot-3, 319-pound guard, who made the Pro Bowl following the 2012 season. However, convincing ultra-cautious Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie and owner Mark Davis to sign him might be a somewhat difficult endeavor.
Though the Raiders have a long, storied history of extending second, third and fourth chances to troubled and polarizing players -- often with excellent results -- Incognito might be considered too much of a distraction. In addition to the discipline that might still be coming in the wake of the Ted Wells report, he's obviously battling the personal demons that led him to visit three separate treatment facilities (for substance abuse and mental-health issues) in the past several weeks.
While the Raiders remain flush with salary-cap space, they've already added a pair of offensive linemen via free agency, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle Donald Penn and former New York Giants guard Kevin Boothe. And, as one Raiders player pointed out, matters could be further complicated by another recent free-agent signee: Former Houston Texans defensive lineman Antonio Smith, who served a three-game suspension last summer after ripping off Incognito's helmet and swinging at him during a preseason game against the Dolphins. In 2012, Smith was fined $11,000 after kicking Incognito in the season opener.
"We don't have a great history," Incognito said of Smith, "but I'll go up there and play with him and try to win a Super Bowl. I used to go work out with him and (Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle) Darnell Dockett at the old (Athletes Performance Institute), so I know him very well. I'm too rambunctious when I play my friends."
Incognito said he still considers Martin a friend and was excited when he learned of last week's trade that sent the former Dolphins tackle to the San Francisco 49ers. And despite all of the tumult he experienced last season, Incognito remains attached to the idea of playing for the Dolphins, saying, "I want to stay in Miami. I would play for free to go back there, because I love it. It's about redemption."
Now, for some other thoughts on the nine-day-old 2014 league year:
Does anyone handle success more clumsily than the Carolina Panthers?
In 1996, the Panthers shocked the football world by reaching the NFC Championship Game in their second year of existence. They proceeded to reel off six consecutive non-winning seasons.
In 2003, Carolina played in its first and (thus far) only Super Bowl, suffering a narrow defeat to the New England Patriots. The Panthers went 7-9 in '04.
After making it to the 2005 NFC Championship Game, John Fox's team went 8-8 and 7-9 over the following two seasons. And following a 12-4 campaign in 2008, the Panthers (who suffered a brutal home playoff upset that year at the hands of the Cardinals) endured another streak of four non-winning seasons.
So now, in the wake of an unlikely NFC South title in 2013, are the Panthers poised for another fall? It's only March, but the early signs are not promising.
Most glaringly, general manager Dave Gettleman jettisoned the Panthers' only big-time playmaker on offense (besides quarterback Cam Newton): wide receiver Steve Smith, the most accomplished player in franchise history. Though Smith was somewhat expensive for a player closing in on his 35th birthday, this wasn't simply about money: Gettleman never approached him about the prospect of taking a pay cut, and the Panthers actually coughed up $3 million for the privilege of not having him on their team in 2014.
It would be one thing if the Panthers had some young studs on the roster looming as viable replacements -- or if they were in the process of acquiring some intriguing skill-position players via free agency. Instead, Carolina essentially cleared out its entire depth chart at the wideout spot, leaving an incumbent tandem of Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt (combined career reception total: zero), at least initially.
Sometimes you feel like McNutt; sometimes you don't. And sometimes, as a first-time general manager eager to put your stamp on a team -- and now saddled with a newly extended coach in Ron Rivera who you might not have wanted in the first place -- you decide to make your presence felt by clearing out the most forceful and influential player in the locker room. That sure seems to be what happened here.
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I'm not sure whether Newton, who on Wednesday underwent ankle surgery that will sideline him for four months, is privately grumbling about this, if he's down with the plan or if he's somewhere in between. For what it's worth, while some in the organization have indicated to me that they're mystified by the move, I talked to one veteran Panthers player who did his best to quell the sky is falling storyline.
Said the player: "The mood in the locker room is this: Guys are happy with what the GM did last year, in terms of the players he drafted and free agents he brought in for positions of serious concern. So it's hard to be quick to jump on the 'Panthers have no receivers, they are screwed' (bandwagon). He's done a good job thus far, so we're not gonna question him. That said, talk to me in August."
Besides, Gettleman already has a plan: Jerricho Cotchery, who has 437 career catches, signed with the Panthers on Thursday, while Falcons backup receiver Kevin Cone (one career catch), a free agent, is reportedly set to work out for the team on Friday.
The Ravens gain some 'tude
During the Ray Lewis era, which culminated in an epic Super Bowl XLVII victory over the 49ers, Baltimore consistently took the field with an inordinate share of key players who were just a tad fiercer, edgier and crazier (in a good way, usually) than their peers.
After 2012, however, the Ravens said goodbye to Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin, among others, and they lost more than talent -- and a ton of attitude, too. In retrospect, I wonder if general manager Ozzie Newsome, who has a stellar track record, believes he goofed by cutting Boldin loose rather than paying the ferocious wideout the $6 million salary he was due in 2013.
I suspect Newsome might, because he smartly went out and snagged Smith once the Panthers put the preternaturally peeved receiver on the open market, something which should not only open up the Ravens' passing game but also infuse their huddle with some of that old Lewis/Reed/Boldin maniacal competitiveness. I expect Smith to use the Panthers' slight to his advantage and tear it up, much in the same way that Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott did after the Niners exposed him to Plan B free agency and he jumped to the Los Angeles Raiders in '91.
It's getting chilly in Philly
When reports surfaced that the Eagles might be open to trading receiver DeSean Jackson, it would have been very easy for second-year coach Chip Kelly to snuff the speculation by publicly rejecting the possibility, and/or by assuring Jackson he was in the team's plans. Kelly has done neither, and I get the sense that, though Jackson's $10.5 million base salary for 2014 is relatively high (even for a 27-year-old coming off an 82-catch, 1,332-yard season), this isn't simply about dollars.
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"It's probably more about (not) being a team guy," one source familiar with Kelly's mindset says.
I also believe that Kelly, on the heels of a successful transition from college football that produced a division title in his first year, has faith that most receivers can thrive in his system, rendering ultra-talented but high-maintenance players like Jackson an unnecessary boutique item. Still, how crazy is it that recently re-signed Riley (I'll Fight Every One Of You ...) Cooper, whose racially charged comments last summer were so over the line, they prompted a rebuke from country star Kenny Chesney, is now considered to be less of a locker-room liability (at least by his head coach) than Jackson?
At his current contract numbers, Jackson may not yield a ton of action on the trade market. If the Eagles give up and release him, however, a receiver-deficient team like the Niners could swoop in and juice up their attack in a big way.
So much for standing Pat
As the Denver Broncosbungee-jumped into free agency, scoring potential impact players like pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward, I spent a decent amount of time on NFL Network imploring their chief rivals for AFC supremacy, the New England Patriots, to enter the arms race.
My reasoning: While loading up on splashy, high-priced free agents isn't always the best play -- and, in fact, is often a disastrous one (Dream Team, cough cough) -- it makes sense for teams like the Broncos and Pats, who have once-in-a-lifetime quarterbacks at the tail end of their respective Hall of Fame careers.
Whereas the Broncos are approaching Peyton Manning's final years with a pronounced sense of urgency, the Pats were slow to do the same for Tom Brady, even after the three-time Super Bowl winner restructured his contract (translation: took less money, out of the goodness of his heart) last year, a move which theoretically enhanced the team's ability to surround him with talent.
It had to be especially galling to Brady when, a year after the Broncos pried away his BFF and favorite target, Wes Welker, via free agency, Denver (which defeated the Pats in last January's AFC Championship Game, with Welker taking out Talib on a block that Belichick claimed was dirty) pulled an encore by signing Talib, New England's top cornerback in 2013.
After Talib finalized his deal, and Ware, fresh off his release from the Dallas Cowboys, ended up on the same flight to Denver, I got kind of loud on television. And when it was announced last Wednesday night that the Pats had shelled out $12 million -- in what was essentially a player-friendly, one-year deal -- to land a cornerback even better than Talib, Darrelle Revis, my colleague Amber Theoharis suggested on the air that I had shamed Pats coach Bill Belichick into making the move.
Obviously, she was joking. I have about as much impact on Belichick's decision-making as a fly did on Secretariat's stride. That said, there are some fans -- and general managers, coaches and front-office executives -- who have suggested that Belichick's surprising decision to sign Tim Tebow last June was motivated by a desire to make me look bad in public.
So sure, Pats fans, you can thank me for Revis. That's my embellished story, and I'm sticking to it.
Does Idzik have a plan?
Earlier this week on the Rich Eisen Podcast, I was asked to assess the sublime host's beloved New York Jets and their perplexing approach to free agency thus far. As with McKenzie -- who, to his credit, has rebounded from the Rodger Saffold debacle with some reasonably deft signings (I especially like Justin Tuck and James Jones) over the past week -- there seems to be an adjustment curve for first-time general manager John Idzik, who may or may not be enthused by the continued presence of head coach Rex Ryan, with whom he is stuck for at least another season.
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Here's one significant difference: Whenever someone criticizes McKenzie, his legions of supporters -- mostly fans, media members and people who worked with him in Green Bay's front office -- try to shout down the critic, claiming that anything bad in the Raiders' universe is a result of late owner Al Davis' overspending and that the GM, to borrow from Bill Maher, is essentially the hotel maid cleaning up after Led Zeppelin checks out.
Idzik works in the Big Apple and thus experiences big-boy criticism. I, however, an equal-opportunity annoyer, and I'll be keeping an eye on both of these newbie GMs as the offseason plays out and beyond.
The Texans are on the clock
It's still relatively early, but I believe that if the Houston Texans take a quarterback with the first overall pick in May's draft, it'll be Central Florida's Blake Bortles, who had an impressive pro day Wednesday and seems to be the passer with whom new coach Bill O'Brien feels most comfortable. However, I also think there's a very viable scenario in which the Texans decide to use the first pick on defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and find their quarterback of the future at the top of the second round.
If Clowney is still there, the St. Louis Rams would almost certainly target him with the second overall pick -- unless another team were to blow them away with a trade offer, which would make the draft even more interesting.
Who'll fill the black hole in the Oakland offense?
Of all of the Raiders' roster deficiencies, the one that dwarfs the others is the team's need for a legitimate quarterback. Whiff on that, and McKenzie and his handpicked coach, Dennis Allen, almost certainly won't get a fourth season in Oakland.
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The Raiders want Matt Schaub, who's likely to be released by the Texans if they can't get a team to trade for him. If Oakland ends up with the pre-2013 Schaub, that'll be a huge upgrade. If the Raiders get last year's Schaub, who seemed to lose his confidence and his fastball in equal measure, it'll be a disaster. And it's also quite possible that another team seeking a quarterback, such as the Browns or Jets, will successfully keep Schaub out of a silver-and-black uniform.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Schaub was traded to the Raiders on Friday for a sixth-round draft pick, NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported.)
If so, other than drafting a player and rolling with a rookie starter, what other options would the Raiders have? One could be Josh Freeman, who had his best years in Tampa Bay with Olson as his offensive coordinator but who made Schaub look like Dan Marino in 2013. Another could be Michael Vick, who'll turn 34 in June and has become increasingly injury prone.
At least one Raiders player has been lobbying Vick to come to Oakland, but it's unclear whether McKenzie is similarly enthralled. Meanwhile, the Jets are hosting Vick for a free-agent visit on Friday and could preemptively take him off the market.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Hours after the Raiders traded for Schaub, the Jets signed Vick to a one-year, $5 million contract.)
In other words, this could be a race between Idzik and McKenzie. Which deliberate, embattled and inexperienced general manager can close first?
Pull up a chair -- this might take awhile.