If you want to do something in the NFL, and you don't want anyone to notice you doing it, do it on the Thursday after the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl stories are filed on Sunday night after the big game. Follow-up reports about power outages, whiny coaches (Jim Harbaugh is destined to be an "angry letter to the newspaper" guy in 30 years, assuming there are newspapers or letters in 30 years) and parades fill up Monday and Tuesday. Then, every football writer on Earth hops on a plane and/or burns a personal day or two.
The week after the Super Bowl is the time for someone else to pick up the ball and run, for basketball writers to turn a Knicks point guard on a hot streak into a prefab phenomenon, for Tim Lincecum to command the national spotlight when a haircut transforms him from Mitch in "Dazed and Confused" to Arthur in "Inception." File a press release on the Thursday after the Super Bowl, and you are likely to catch the entire NFL world doing its laundry.
So it's telling that the NFL chose Thursday to not only reinstate Gregg Williams, but to shuttle him off to Tennessee. It was the football equivalent of hiding controversial paperwork in the middle of a big pile and hoping that the boss signs the whole pile without reading.
So ended the bounty scandal, with no bang or whimper, none of the kettle drums that accompany most utterances from the commissioner's office, not even a rimshot or wah-wah-wah from a trumpet mute. Sean Payton was reinstated quietly in late January, another great time to catch half of the NFL media at Senior Bowl week, a quarter at the Pro Bowl and the rest checking Harbaugh brother birth certificates. Roger Goodell could have reinstated both Payton and Williams during Super Bowl week. He could have held a separate press conference to debrief the nation on a scandal that absorbed a year of our lives and posed more questions than it answered. But the NFL did not want a tidy resolution. It wanted to dispose of the diaper bag via the garage door. So the reinstatements were timed so that when Goodell spoke ex cathedra in New Orleans, Payton's return was old news, and Williams' was not yet news.
Williams' reinstatement was essentially simultaneous with his hiring by the Titans as a "senior assistant/defense." That is no accident. According to The Tennessean, Titans coach Mike Munchak spoke with Goodell soon after the season ended. A vague assistantship with the Titans is the NFL equivalent of a desk job for a controversial cop: far from the limelight in an easy-to-forget role. Had the Jets made those January phone calls instead of the Titans, Bountygate might not be coming to such a tidy, quiet conclusion.
But Tennessee is an outpost, media-wise, and Williams has good relationships with the local press from a previous, successful tenure with the Titans. Williams faced the press sporting a new Tony Stark goatee, looking slimmer and healthier than when we last saw him, and spouting the proper rhetoric about "rebirth" and learning his lessons. He faced about as many hardball questions as any senior assistant for a small-market team fields at his first (and likely only) press conference of the year. No one from the Titans will address the national press on this matter until the scouting combine late next week. Munchak will probably be on Podium C at the same time Manti Te'o is on Podium A and Rex Ryan speaks on Podium B, perhaps with some fresh shrimp cocktail on the buffet and a few jugglers to keep us distracted.
Let's take a moment to acknowledge just how staggeringly huge a story the bounty scandal was and just what it was supposed to mean to the NFL. Goodell's handling of the scandal should have been the capstone that bridged the arch of his safety and discipline initiatives. That is why the league handled the early stages of it as loudly and publicly as possible, with suspensions thundering down like lightning bolts from Olympus and Goodell repeatedly condemning not only those involved in bounties but those who allegedly covered them up. "I don't think you can be too hard on people that put at risk our players' health and safety," Goodell said in an NFL Network interview last April, and that was clearly the lasting message that he hoped to project. If a few other sweeping powers consolidated around the commissioner's office, so much the merrier.
Williams, meanwhile, was the face and voice of the bounty scandal, as well as its guiltiest apparent party. He is the one person we have on tape telling players to target opponents with ACL injuries and concussion histories. His reinstatement should be news the way Pete Rose's reinstatement would be news. Instead, it's a local assistant coaching hire, accompanied by a memo.
The NFL's bounty scandal spool started unraveling just before the regular season started, when an appeals panel vacated the suspensions against Jonathan Vilma and the other implicated Saints players. The NFL blithely re-applied the suspensions, but it has been fighting a rearguard action against both public opinion and the quality of its own case ever since. The bounty scandal became a comedy of bureaucracy, though of course it was no laughing matter for Williams, Vilma, Goodell or anyone else involved.
When Paul Tagliabue vacated the player suspensions once and for all in December, the bounty scandal became a retelling of the old fable of the king who was smothered by his own bodyguards. Goodell's huge message about player safety and discipline became a cautionary tale about the abuse of power. The crowning achievement became a turning point, and Goodell's credibility has taken a substantial hit. The bounty scandal is something that the NFL wants to disappear. And the worst thing of all is that we will now never be entirely sure what happened, and the bungled NFL investigation provides no good precedents or practices for when something similar happens again, except for everyone to lawyer up and head to the mattresses.
So Williams is back, all of the Saints players and coaches are back and the bounty scandal file is stored in the same warehouse as the Ark of the Covenant. Did any good come from this 11-month parade of lawsuits, appeals, arbitrations, accusations and courthouse stakeouts? Two significant positives leap to mind:
First, the absolute power of the commissioner has been resoundingly checked, which should have repercussions around the sports world. If any executive on Earth appeared immune to the appeals process or the basics of American jurisprudence, Goodell was the guy. The NFL's ability to act unilaterally started taking a beating late in the 2011 lockout, but the result of the bounty scandal marks the end of the reign of Goodellus Maximus. If you don't see that as a good thing, then you were not paying attention as the bounty investigation started to sound like a medieval witchcraft trial. As player safety issues continue to define this era of football, the system of checks and balances to administrative power becomes even more important.
Second, despite Williams' return, his "kill the head" rhetoric was utterly and publicly condemned, which will have a beneficial effect at lower levels of competition. High school and Pop Warner coaches now have a better idea of where "be aggressive" speeches end and something vile begins. One of the best ways the NFL can get a handle on concussion and safety issues is by setting the tone that trickles down to the college, prep and youth levels, where players often start to sustain the injuries that only become newsworthy when they reach the NFL. To be blunt, I have heard the "we never had this silly concussion talk in the good ol' days" from low-competition level coaches, just as I heard plenty of "water breaks during summer two-a-days will make them weaklings" before Korey Stringer's death in 2001. A few months of non-stop outrage about Williams' speeches certainly changed some old-school minds.
Of course, that second message would be much stronger if the NFL did not turn the bounty scandal into one long slow-motion fumble. Perhaps the best message to take from all of this is to take everything you hear with a grain of salt. And to always pay attention when someone tries to slip something past you when you are distracted.
Life on the Mississippi
Speaking of Saints defensive coordinators, Rob Ryan is the new man. Like Williams, Ryan likes to blitz from all angles, uses a base 3-4 defense that is really very multiple (Ryan's defense often looks more like a 5-2) and has a way with words. Unlike Williams, Ryan does not have a reputation for telling his players to target specific injuries. Ryan has a habit of taking over terrible defenses, coaching them up into the vicinity of league average and then declaring mission accomplished, making him the Norv Turner of defense. Skepticism aside, Ryan has some scheme-appropriate personnel to work with, and if he can get the Saints from last in the NFL defense (according to Football Outsiders' DVOA and many other measures) to around 20th, the offense can propel them into the Super Bowl picture.
Ryan was fired by the Cowboys after the season ended, spent a week or so in a quasi-hired limbo with the Rams, then suddenly found himself back in the pool when the Rams, after several organizational meetings, discovered to their shock that he was Rob Ryan. Williams, of course, went from the Saints to the Rams before the bounty scandal forced the Rams to scramble, with Jeff Fisher, Dave McGinnis and Williams' son Blake sharing coordinator duties in 2012. So this marks the second year in a row that the Rams had an abortive hire of a defensive coordinator going to or from New Orleans.
The Rams, meanwhile, have been in no hurry to replace Ryan, just as they never bothered to replace Williams. The team interviewed Mike Singletary on Saturday and Dick Jauron last week. Singletary has been stashed on the Vikings staff for two seasons as an assistant head coach and linebackers coach. It's a dual role that suits him. No one knows the linebacker position like Singletary, and as for the figurehead "assistant" title, there is certainly some value of having someone in an organization who can walk around and be Mike Singletary. His strategic acumen, however, has proven to be lacking. Jauron is the kind of defensive coordinator a team interviews when it does not know what kind of defensive coordinator it wants to interview.
Meanwhile, the Rams also parted ways with Blake Williams, the child who promised to bring balance back to the Force last season. Blake was touted as a rising star in the coaching ranks at the same time his father was getting blamed for the yellow fever outbreak of 1793. One point that emerged from the Gregg Williams press conferences was that he had no contact with the Rams before the Titans hired him; the Rams may be seeking as clean a break as possible, or perhaps the Williams-Titans union was completely buttoned up by higher powers. At any rate, the number of coordinator candidates within the Rams organization has dwindled to Fisher and McGinnis, and Fisher has both head coaching and personnel duties. Maybe James Laurinatis can call the plays.
One experienced defensive coach who won't interview with the Rams is Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams' head coach for three forgettable seasons. Spagnuolo replaced Williams in New Orleans last season and replaced Williams' too-complex scheme with a too-simple one which did not really suit the personnel. Spagnuolo, like Singletary, maxes out as a position coach; his accomplishments as the Giants defensive coordinator in 2007 boiled down to turning loose the best defensive line in the NFL and letting them be themselves, and he has failed to match even a fraction of that success in two stops. Spagnuolo is still in the employment pool, and he is still talked about by Giants and Eagles fans (he was a Jim Johnson protégé), but it is far too soon for him to return to St. Louis.
To summarize, one former Rams defensive coordinator (who was suspended before he ever coached a game) is now in Tennessee, another former Rams defensive coordinator (who was released before he got his parking space assignment) is now in New Orleans, a former Rams head coach is now unemployed and the scouting combine starts next week, so Fisher would like to have someone in place before he has to answer unsettling questions like, "Say, who the heck is the defensive coordinator?"
Most miraculously of all, that was five paragraphs about coaching confusion, and the Jets were not mentioned once.
The week after the Super Bowl is also one of the few periods on the calendar when players have the time to stop and text their loved ones how they really feel.
Jay Cutler reportedly proposed to longtime girlfriend Kristin Cavallari via text message, an action so in keeping with Cutler's personality that no one thought to doubt the veracity of the claim, especially since the claim originated with Cavallari herself. You can almost picture the magical exchange:
CUTLER: Im bord. Wanna get hitched?
Cavallari has since renounced the text message story in the most satisfying way possible: a series of tweets. "Stop bashing jay. He proposed in Cabo. Stop believing headlines...u have no clue. They take 1 piece of an interview to get ppl talking," Yes, it's true: The media will take one piece of an interview in which a reality television star states that her boyfriend proposed to her via text message and leap to the conclusion that her boyfriend proposed to her via text message.
Keep in mind that the Cabo story does not necessarily contradict the text message story. It is possible to send and receive text messages in Cabo. That's precisely how Van Halen fired Sammy Hagar.
Anyway, here's what Cavallari said in the original interview: "It was so silly. I was in the airport, leaving Chicago. We had just spent however many days together and we were texting and somehow it came up, like, 'Oh, shall we get married?' We're like, 'Yeah, OK.' And then he sent my ring in the mail. So I actually had my ring sitting at home for a couple of weeks before I put it on."
There's a lot to unpack there, starting with the word shall, which I am 99.9 percent certain neither Cavallari nor Cutler has ever used in casual conversation. But then again, maybe they both go Elizabethan when they text:
CUTLER: Shall we get married?
Then, there is the "Yeah, OK" acceptance of a proposal that somehow came up, which does not quite match "I do" on the solemn lifelong commitment scale. Finally, there's the matter of the ring. Cutler sent an engagement ring in the mail. Cavallari was so moved that she left it lying around. This sounds at least three times as callous as texting a marriage proposal. About the only thing worse would be telling her to pick out her own ring, then mailing her a check.
But then again, we cannot expect these busy people to do such things together, can we? Although Cutler has had plenty of time in the past month or so. And Cavallari's last screen credits on IMDB.com are all single-episode appearances from 2012. And the couple has a child together. Remember Camden Jack? Who is watching Camden Jack?
CUTLER: Did u remember to pick up cj from peanut tillman's house?
CAVALLARI: OMG. At airport. Forgot. So silly.
Cutler and Cavallari were engaged once before, back in 2011. Most men would try a little harder when rekindling a romance, but then most men are not Jay Cutler. And of course, Cavallari may really have misquoted herself. "Oh people. Jay purposed in Cabo and it was very romantic. You'll have to watch my E! special to hear," Cavallari recently announced. "My E! special will be airing March 10th. All of these dumb rumors will be answered then."
Gasp. You mean this whole goofy story could simply be an attempt to stoke interest in a reality television show? If we cannot trust reality television personalities to provide accurate, non-sensationalized accounts of their own lives, what can we trust them for? Poor Jay Cutler may be destined to play the Kroy Biermann-Hank Baskett role of doofus football player love interest on someone sad little publicity stunt of a television program. Cutler is far better than that. He deserves to be the STAR of a publicity stunt of a television program. Think My Big Fat Jay Wedding, held in front of a Cook County Justice of the Peace, with a reception at Steak 'n Shake, Brandon Marshall as the best man who doesn't lose the ring because the postal service took care of that for him.
"And sports 'news' is no better than tabloids," Cavallari also tweeted. "That's where they get their info." She is right: There was nothing about the Cutler-Cavallari nuptials in Smithsonian or The Economist. Were it not for E! News and other sites, I would have no idea who she is, which speaks poorly of all of us. Far be it from me to suggest that someone whose baby shower was televised on "Cupcake Wars" might be begging for this sort of scrutiny. If the goal was to alert football fans that they can watch Cutler act like a cake top on a reality show by telling the kind of Cutler tale with sizzle potential during a slow news week, the objective has been met.
This is all silly, gossipy nonsense, and I hope that at the core of it all are a loving couple who are doting parents. The whole text proposal tale story makes Cutler look like an self-centered cad and Cavallari like a dizzy attention craver, but maybe that is just the image they are trying to project, Lucy and Ricky for the "Duck Dynasty" generation. If that is the case, bravo, but I don't think I will be tuning in to hear all the dumb rumors (you started) dispelled, because March 10th is during free agency, and there will be football to talk about.