Leon Washington had every right to get emotional last April 24 when, on the second day of the NFL Draft and only months after Jets coach Rex Ryan planned a major expansion of Washington's role, New York dealt him and his healing leg across the country to Seattle, along with a seventh-round pick, for a mere fifth-rounder.
Instead, Washington's wife, Charity, did that for him on Twitter.
"Good luck paying the 20 people due contracts at the end of the season ... LOL ... Thank you Jesus for getting us out of here."
The new Seahawk appreciated his wife's sentiment. She has been most important to him through his battle back to the field, and he knew her heart was in the right place.
But he also knows that the NFL is a business, and while that business has stung him pretty good over the last 14 months -- putting a rod in his leg and a hold on the set-for-life contract every player dreams of -- this is one player you won't find wallowing in self-pity. And so as those around him, including some of the teammates he left behind, were jilted by the transaction, Washington pushed forward.
He has proven plenty of people wrong since. Washington is fifth in the NFL with a 27.2-yard average on kickoff returns, and he became the first player in league history to score on three kick returns in two different seasons. He also has loomed large on punt returns of late, averaging a robust 18.1 yards on 12 returns.
Again, no vengeance here from Washington, but with most of this season in the books and Seattle contending in the meek NFC West, it seems like the real business going on with this player is, indeed, business as usual.
"Honestly, I think I'm a better player now," he said. "When I sit back and evaluate myself as a complete player, I'm smarter on the field. I can diagnose the things we're doing on a kickoff return and, almost like a coach, pass them on to the other players on the field. I think (the time off) has actually made me better."
Two Octobers ago, you'd have had trouble convincing even Washington that'd be the case.
A gruesome compound fracture suffered during Week 7 last year in Oakland left the then-Jets dynamo fighting for his football life. It was a battle he always thought he'd win, but not to the degree he has, and certainly not with the brevity with which it was waged.
After all, for the first month, he couldn't so much as take a shower or participate in any physical activity without help. And even when he could move around, he had to do so while guarding against infection with the titanium rod still new in his right leg.
"I was in a hospital bed in our condo apartment; my wife had to bathe me," he said. "I was so independent before, and now I couldn't wash my own back. The first 2-4 weeks, I had to keep an eye out, so the stitches didn't get infected. I couldn't shower or even sweat."
It wasn't until mid-February that Washington started simulating football activity again, and just as he was getting to the point where he might legitimately entertain putting on pads, that business part of football reared its head.
"(The Jets) were honest," Washington said. "I went and talked to (general manager Mike Tannenbaum) and flat-out said, 'Are you gonna trade me?' He said that they'd entertain phone calls. I knew it was a business, and that's how business goes. They were straight-up, they had to entertain the idea.
"I did prepare myself, but when that call came, I was really surprised. Coach (Rex) Ryan told me that a bunch of other guys had to get paid -- Brick (Ferguson), (Nick) Mangold, (Darrelle) Revis -- and I was coming off a broken leg. That's the business part. I respect that."
Now, here's the part some folks don't get: Washington swears that he never regretted not holding out before the 2009 season. Despite a divide in contract talks and Ryan's repeated references to how big a role he had planned for Washington, the then 26-year-old reported for training camp on time, instead of trying to leverage a better deal.
The sides never got close to an extension. The Jets' final multi-year offer was worth less than $5 million annually, while Washington's camp was looking for about $6 million per. As Washington describes it now, "I didn't think (the offer) was fair, and that was that," and he went to work for a $535,000 salary that was part of his rookie deal.
In February, the Jets tendered Washington at the second-round level, and he inked the one-year, $1.759 million deal just before the trade. That's the contract he's playing under now, and if you look at it from a bottom-line perspective, you can conclude that the now-28-year-old watched millions fly out the window.
"At the time, I just didn't think the offer was fair to me," he said. "And if I was in that situation again and it was the same contract, I wouldn't change a thing. A person who lives regrets isn't going anywhere."
Washington hasn't quite come full circle yet. Yes, he's shining in the return game, but he's hardly making the offensive impact he did in New York.
He had more than 800 scrimmage yards there in 2008 and was heading in that direction in 2009 before he got hurt. This year, Washington has just 24 rushes and six catches, good for a total of 129 yards.
But his contract is up, again, after the season, and so he has some advice for those younger players who might ask him now. What's remarkable is that the emphasis, after all he has been through, is more about appreciating all that you have, rather than lamenting what might have been lost.
"The advice for the young guys I'd have is to have pride in what you do," Washington said. "When you get that opportunity to play, you want to be great. I look back, and I'd never want a coach or another player to say, 'That guy Leon didn't leave it all on the field, he was lazy, he missed assignments.' On the football side, have pride, make sure you're doing everything to make yourself great.
"And on the business side, remember that this is a business. These teams, it may be a close-knit atmosphere, but it's still a business. But more than that, you have to have fun with it and take advantage of your opportunities. You never know when they'll be taken away."
On offense, the team needs to keep Matthew Stafford healthy, but an impressive young group of skill players has developed. And another big reason for optimism is right up the gut of the defense. Safety Louis Delmas looks like a star in the making, and his 2009 draft classmate DeAndre Levy has entrenched himself in the heart of that front.
But there is no bigger piece to this puzzle -- maybe even than Stafford -- than rookie Ndamukong Suh.
His sack numbers are well-publicized. Getting 10 out of a defensive tackle is very uncommon to begin with, no matter how experienced he might be, and Suh has eight in his first 13 games as a pro. His game doesn't begin and end there, though. One AFC scout said he's "already one of the best defensive linemen in the league." And it's hard finding someone who thinks the runaway leader for Defensive Rookie of the Year is on anything but a track to greatness.
"The thing that's special about him is he plays the physical part, but he has this educated demeanor to him," said an NFC scout. "He's a smart player, and each week you can see him improving. You're seeing things, and he's doing things, that you don't normally see from guys who've been in the league for two or three years. And from the tape, you can see he conditions his body, which means he's approached it like a job, as he should."
Suh, it seems, also went to the right coach. Schwartz, as defensive coordinator, got plenty out of Albert Haynesworth in Tennessee (credit Jim Washburn for that, too), and he's using similar creativity with his new protégé.
"They're doing a great job of moving him around, using that talent, and he looks well-coached within that scheme," said the NFC scout. "Not many active players like that are that size and that physical, especially as a rookie. He's already good at reading blocking schemes, and when he makes missteps, he can recover, because he's so big and strong."
One AFC personnel director came up with a similar assessment, while throwing Pittsburgh's Maurkice Pouncey into the "thinking man's lineman" category.
"What I can tell you about (Suh) and also Pouncey is neither guy plays like a rookie; they play beyond their years," he explained. "Both have two-way ability, run and pass. Suh is stout against the run, but agile enough to be an elite pass rusher. He brings true three-down value, and he's a guy you have to be aware of, and game-plan for. He's dangerous."
The one knock on Suh coming out of college had to do with his temperament -- Was he nasty enough?
The NFC scout said it's really interesting how Schwartz, the curator of some rather aggressive defenses in Tennessee, has found a way to pull that out of him. He added that "Mean" Joe Greene and Reggie White come to mind watching Suh play.
"He's showing the earmarkings of that," said the NFC scout. "He's dominant. And above that, he shows up every game. Usually, rookies don't bring it every game like he has."
Of course, rookies like Suh don't come along so often.
I know this truth...
The 2007 New York Giants didn't exactly have everyone's attention at this time of year, yet there were sub-surface things building with Big Blue that most of us missed while they were happening.
One of those trips was an extended one in London, which had something to do with the team coming together before its scintillating run through the playoffs. And so I figured, with everything this year's Giants went through last weekend, whether another rallying moment could have arrived.
The Giants started the weekend bound for Minneapolis, but their flight wound up going to Kansas City, and the team eventually played the Vikings in Detroit on a Monday night. End-to-end, the guys were put in a position to spend nearly 72 hours together and, after all that, the 2007 comparison didn't seem out-of-whack at all. In fact, those guys thought it was a good one.
"Yeah, I think it is," said tailback Brandon Jacobs, one of several Giants who had a big night at Ford Field. "We spent a lot of time with each other over the weekend. We knew we had a tough game with Minnesota. We didn't beat them like we wanted to beat them. We wanted to put 50 on them, but we got down there a few times and didn't come away with points.
"I think this team is strong. I think we feel good about each other. I think guys are feeling good about the way one another played, so that's the main part. As long as you feel good about how your teammates play, and your teammates feel good about you play, you don't have issues, and that's what I think we have going on right now. We have a shot."
But here's the interesting thing: As a team that's building this supreme belief in its ability, New York is even seeing its ability to weather the self-inflicted wounds as a sign of resiliency and a way of wondering how great the group potential really is.
"We've dealt with adversity well," Manning told me on Wednesday. "Earlier in the season, when we were 1-2, all of the sudden, we got hot and won a bunch of games in a row. A couple weeks ago, we lost a couple in a row again, lost to Philly, lost to Dallas, and there were a lot of things going on, and we responded well by winning these last three games and got ourselves in a position where we want to be.
"So I think the fact that we can deal with the tough times is good. We're coming out stronger, and we don't lose our confidence or our faith in our ability."
It's worth noting that the Giants are also first in the NFL in takeaways (31), and that mitigates the problem somewhat.
Still, on Sunday New York has to deal with Philadelphia, which is second in the league in turnover differential and second only to the Giants in takeaways. So holding on to the ball is again paramount against a club to which they gave it away five times the last time they met.
But even if the Giants don't pull this one out, they've taken the long road before. And the kind of self-assuredness that their predecessors had seems to exist in this group.
...I don't know a thing
About how E.J. Henderson defied logic in coming back this year. But he has. And for as many good stories as there are out there -- Washington's, Wes Welker rebounding from ACL surgery -- there's still no way any of them stack up with what Henderson has accomplished.
Vikings team doctor Eric Sugarman told the Associated Press last week that, in his folks' research, they couldn't find a single case of a football player breaking his femur in a game, which is what Henderson did in Week 13 last year against the Cardinals. The injury, gruesome to watch, was bad enough to where the middle linebacker's career was believed to be very much in jeopardy.
Just over a year later, Henderson has started all 13 games for the Vikings at middle linebacker and has recorded 89 tackles, four passes defensed, three interceptions, and a forced fumble. On Tuesday, I asked Vikings coach Leslie Frazier to make the case for his guy for Comeback Player of the Year. He didn't hesitate to start stumping.
"It is remarkable, when you consider he had his injury last December," said the interim coach, who was Henderson's defensive coordinator before Brad Childress was fired. "They were telling us that this was a potentially career-ending injury, and if he did come back, it'd probably be right at this time of year, mid-December, late December. And there he was playing in our first game against New Orleans -- and playing well. And he's just gotten progressively better to the point where he's playing at a Pro Bowl level right now.
"It's an amazing story, and it's one that if you had asked any of our doctors if they thought he could do what he's doing now, or what he was doing three months ago, they'd have said, 'No way.' Not a doctor or a person said he would've played at the level he's played at this season."
As was the case with Washington, Henderson had to have the surgery immediately (he was in Arizona at the time) and is now playing with a titanium rod in his leg. The difference is that this operation was far more rare than Washington's, and the rehab program had to come almost from scratch.
Somehow, it all worked. Frazier said it's due not just to diligence, but that Henderson "has the heart and mind of a champion."
Not only did Henderson not miss a game this season, he didn't even miss a start. And while there have been a ton of disappointments in the Twin Cities this fall, none of them involve the middle linebacker.
"He is the leader of our defense, a captain voted by his teammates, but he's not a guy who's a rah-rah guy," Frazier said. "Guys respect him because of the way he practices, the way he prepares. He's a true leader. They trust him. And for me, he's been an extension of me as a coach on the field the entire time I've been working with him. He made my job a whole lot easier, I promise you. He's a great player, and a smart player."
Back in the spring, when Washington and Alan Faneca and Thomas Jones were being jettisoned from New York, some Jets veterans wondered what the makeup of the locker room would be like. Now, it seems, we get a real chance to find out.
New York is in the midst of its first losing streak of the season. It has the experience of last year -- when the team dug itself out of a 4-6 hole to get to 9-7 and set the stage for a stunning playoff charge to the AFC title game -- to fall back on. But some of the guys who bound that group together through its problems aren't around anymore.
In speaking to Jets folks in the offseason about bringing in veterans with baggage and perhaps their own agendas, I asked how the team would handle a potentially combustible roster. Most believed that Ryan's leadership, and players' desire to lay it on the line for him, would carry them through, with a group of young leaders there to back him up. And here comes their test.
Not only is the team struggling on the field, with trips to Pittsburgh and Chicago looming, there also is the off-field stuff (hello, Sal Alosi). It's a lot to deal with for a team that already feels like it's season has been about a month longer than everyone else's.
La Canfora: Makes you wonder
1) One of the reasons the Broncos thought the time had come to part ways with Mike Shanahan two years ago was his difficulty connecting with the younger set of players. The thinking back then went that Shanahan could act a certain way to young players 10 or 15 years ago that no longer worked with some young guys today, and it was getting harder and harder to find enough players that would conform to his methods. And while the easy thing now may be to look at the Broncos dismissively for their decision to trade out Shanahan for the since-fired Josh McDaniels, they may have been on to something in this regard. Communication has been a consistent issue with some of the clashes between the staff and the players again in Washington, and now that goes flying to the forefront with the benching of Donovan McNabb announced on Friday. Earlier in the week, when this was all rumor and not fact, McNabb said he "would have hoped" to hear from Shanahan before any move was made. "That's professionalism --communication." There's little question Shanahan is still a very good football coach, but whether he can find enough players who are both his type and sufficiently talented to fill out a championship roster bears watching. There's a lot of merit to the idea that McNabb's just not good enough anymore -- the Eagles felt in the spring that he was the third best quarterback on their roster -- but this whole fiasco should provide a litmus test for Shanahan's bull-in-a-China-shop methods in the new-era NFL. Whether or not he can reel that locker room back in (like, say, Bill Belichick did after axing Lawyer Milloy in 2003) likely will be the determining factor here.
2) Speaking of player makeup, Terrell Owens is again at the center of some controversy as his Cincinnati Bengals play out the string at 2-11. Hard to blame Owens? Maybe. With three games left, he's just 17 yards away from posting his 10th 1,000-yard season and just one trip to the end zone shy of his ninth season with double-digit touchdowns. But there is a flip side to this argument, and it pertains to who the Bengals were as a football team during their renaissance season of 2009. That year, Cincinnati ranked fourth in the NFL in total defense and ninth in rushing offense, and speaking to tailback Cedric Benson in midseason, it was clear that some players felt the identity of the team was slipping away. The Bengals used to control the pace of the game with that ground attack, to play into a strong defense's hands, and the shift in philosophy put that defensive group in more difficult situations. Therein, so often, lies the problem with receivers like Owens and Randy Moss, even if it is no fault of their own. To create an atmosphere conducive to those types, coaches often alter their style of offense and emphasize getting those players "touches" to keep them engaged. And while it can produce flashy numbers, the trickle-down effect on the parts of the team outside of the passing offense can be devastating.
3) Did Tashard Choice show some bad judgment in getting Vick's autograph for his nephew last Sunday night? Sure, he did. Dallas had lost the game, after all, and the Cowboys' third-year tailback had to know that the cameras would be all over the Eagles' quarterback coming off the field. So yes, there were better ways to do this, like maybe saying something to him on the way off the field and catching him by the Philly bus afterward. But folks, let's get a grip on how big a deal this really is. The fact is, if you've been on an NFL field after a game, players (and this means guys from every team I've observed) take time to socialize and wish other guys well before heading into the locker room. The bottom line is that as much as you, as a fan, might want these guys to go stomping off the field like some 12-year-old who just lost a Little League game, more often than not, players are pretty mature in handling defeat. And while Choice showed some lack of understanding of his surroundings in doing this, there's a reason why so many folks on the inside came to his defense. Coach Jason Garrett said, "I know how he prepares and how he feels about playing football and the passion with which he plays." I'll add that Choice's reputation, as a person, has been sterling in Dallas, so he deserves a pass here.
4) Back in October 2009, after the Saints staged a dramatic comeback win in Miami, Sean Payton told his players to take in all their surroundings -- the locker room, the tunnel, the field -- and visualize being back for the Super Bowl. Those guys didn't need prompting this year. A few weeks back, New Orleans players quietly went through the same exercise when they were in Dallas on Thanksgiving after posting a similarly scintillating victory, this time a 30-27 triumph over the Cowboys. The win was New Orleans' fourth straight. That streak now sits at six, and now the Saints really find out what they're made of with a trip to Baltimore coming this Sunday before Armageddon next Monday night in Atlanta. Drew Brees and the suddenly mistake-prone offense seem to have ironed their problems out, fighting through turnover troubles to rank third in the NFL in total offense. But what really makes the Saints dangerous now is how the defense is ascending in Year 2 under Gregg Williams. Last year, New Orleans was 25th in total defense and 20th in points allowed. This year, the Saints are sixth in total defense and fifth in points allowed. The Saints join the Chargers and Giants as the only NFL teams ranking Top 10 in both total offense and defense.
5) I wrote a couple weeks ago in this space about the arms race gearing up between stadium development groups in Los Angeles. Well, Majestic Realty exec John Semcken, part of Ed Roski's group that's planning to build in City of Industry, upped the rhetoric this week, calling AEG leader Tim Leiweke a "bad guy". Leiweke is, of course, a point man in the effort to build at the Staples Center site downtown, and a former Minnesota Timberwolves CEO who has fans in the Twin Cities getting a bit nervous about the Vikings after last weekend's stadium collapse. And as I noted in our item on all this, Chavez Ravine remains a wild card if the Dodgers and, more specifically, the McCourts can get their act together. But the truth lies in what commissioner Roger Goodell said this week in Dallas: Nothing's happening until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. Moving a team to L.A. will require a massive effort that the league can't undertake now, so all the posturing is more noise than anything else. It has served its purpose, though, for those not involved in Roski's group, rattling the AEG folks and any potential group looking to build near Dodger Stadium.
6) The new rules restricting player movement and contract creativity delayed some players' big paydays. And then, you have Steve Smith. The Giants receiver has had 155 catches in his 25 games over the last two seasons, but because of one of the quirks in the new CBA, he couldn't cash in for his efforts. The "30 Percent Rule," which actually went into play in 2008, dictates that players can't sign extensions off their existing rookie deals where base salaries escalate more than 30 percent from any one year to the next. Smith, as a 2007 second-round pick, had a $460,000 base salary in 2009, which basically hand cuffed his representatives and the team for doing a new long-term contract. Now, after a knee injury suffered on Monday, Smith is going to need microfracture surgery, so the contract he had to wait for may never come. Kevin Kolb was in a similar situation coming into the season, so the Eagles simply handed him a big bonus to extend a year. Similarly, Jets linebacker David Harris, Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley and Vikings receiver Sidney Rice had $460,000 salaries this year, which in effect forced them to settle for the $550,000 figures on the final season of their respective rookie deals. Rice, you might remember, had a significant hip injury earlier this year, while Harris and Woodley have gone relatively unscathed.
7) Speaking of the altered CBA rules, anyone notice how little trouble Logan Mankins and Vincent Jackson have had re-assimilating to their surroundings? Yes, Jackson got nicked in his first game back, but on Thursday night against the 49ers, close to full health for the first time, he exploded for five catches, 112 yards and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, all Mankins has done, since coming back six games ago, is quickly re-establish himself as the best lineman for an offense that has scored more than 30 points each week during New England's five-game winning streak. Many people wondered in September and October what Jackson and Mankins were gaining by sitting out. Now, it's hard to see if they'll lose anything at all. Both will get to free agency whenever a CBA is reached, and each figures to get every dollar they would have previously -- and then some. This is, of course, something to keep in mind the next time you wonder what players are thinking by taking a stand in order to get the money they think they deserve. It seems that, more often, players pay the price financially for being good soldiers than they do for taking a hard line in these things.
8) Eric Mangini made the right decision this week by handing the reins back to Colt McCoy, with the season winding down, which (health-permitting) will give the Texas product eight starts in his first year. That's a half-season, and if he can maintain the level of efficiency he achieved before he suffered his high ankle sprain (63.8 completion percentage, three interceptions in five starts) and up the playmaking a bit (just three touchdown passes thus far), he should be able to cement himself as the 2011 starter in Cleveland. Mangini said the coaches have opened the playbook a little more for each week that McCoy started. "The plan each week you have in place for each opponent, but the quarterback is very much involved in that, and what he can do dictates a lot of what we can do," Mangini said. "What he's comfortable with ultimately determines the way that we try to call the game, because it's so important that that partnership is strong and he's going to be running the show on the field. He needs to have a very high comfort level of what we're doing." One important advantage McCoy has had in his development that other teams looking for a QB of the future should note: A Cleveland strength is its offensive line. In most cases, it's vital to have that piece in place before throwing a young quarterback in the fire.
9) The playoff reseeding thing is rearing its head once again because of the fortunes (or misfortunes) of the quartet that makes up the NFC West. And in the vacuum of this season, the logic certainly makes sense. But I'm against it for a reason you might not be thinking as much about -- the balance of the schedule. Back in 2008, the teams of the AFC East (Patriots without Tom Brady, "Wildcat" Dolphins under first-year coach Tony Sparano, Jets with Brett Favre playing hurt down the stretch) rode schedules featuring the two West divisions, which led to inflated records. Miami and New England were both 11-5, and New York survived the circus to go 9-7. Meanwhile, the teams of the North division got the AFC South, with 13-3 Tennessee and 12-4 Indianapolis, and a loaded NFC East. It didn't have a huge effect seeding-wise that year, since both Baltimore and Pittsburgh fought through those schedules valiantly. But it is an example of how each division operates in a different environment every year, and that's why I still think it's smart to reward a team for bettering other teams operating in an environment most analogous to its own.
10) What you didn't expect in August: A crucial NFC North weekend featuring Vikings rookie Joe Webb and Packers backup Matt Flynn as protagonists. With Aaron Rodgers doubtful, It looks like it's going to be Flynn braving the snow in Foxborough for the Packers, and if Green Bay loses that one, the team's hopes of keeping pace with Chicago could well be pinned on Webb's ability to get it done against the Bears' defense. Oh, yeah, and that game will be played in frigid conditions at TCF Bank Stadium, and the cold could create another problem for the Vikings, who, unlike Chicago, are used to playing in a climate-controlled environment. I had Green Bay, by the way, as my NFC Super Bowl entrant before the season. And Indianapolis beating them. So I'm still alive. But barely.