CORTLAND, NY -- Training camp is open. Finally: hitting, passing, gassers, sleds, 7-on-7's and full-squad scrimmages. Sweaty, satisfying football action!
[Eric] Fisher will receive a signing bonus of $14.518 million, with $10 million of that coming in five days, according to Ian Rapoport. The cash-flow issue (having up-front money) was what was negotiated in exchange for having offset language in the deal. -- Gregg Rosenthal, NFL.com.
Yes, yes, cash flow and offset language. But what about quarterback battles and new systems, scuffles between rookie defenders and veteran tackles that the coach tsk-tsks with a gleam in his eye? Unheralded nobodies moving up the depth chart and one-handed catches along the sideline and …
Matt Ryan just took a giant leap up the quarterback pay scale, striking a five-year, $103.75 million extension with the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday that makes him the NFL's second-highest paid player … His new deal -- with a $63 million three-year payout that is the most in league history -- contains an average salary of $20.75 million that ranks second to the $22 million average garnered by Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers in April. It leapfrogs the $20.1 million average that Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco received with his six-year, $120.6 million deal in March, at the time the biggest deal in NFL history.
Sheesh, what's with all the math? Better focus on Cowboys camp: there won't be any mamby-pamby, geeky-weeky number crunching …
If you're running straight from the line of scrimmage, six yards deep, that's a certain depth, right? It takes you a certain amount of time. But if you're doing it from 10 yards inside and running to that same six yards, that's the hypotenuse of that right triangle. It's longer, right? … We talked about Pythagoras and it's been going for the last few days. -- Jason Garrett
High school geometry? JUST WHEN I THOUGHT I WAS OUT, GARRETT PULLED ME BACK IN. At least that explains this leaked page from Tony Romo's playbook, including his study notes:
Such is the nature of the first week of camp: starving fans are served a seminar on the cost-benefit analysis of steak. First-round picks haggle for a few days over the language in the fourth years of their contracts, and it is big news. Young veteran quarterbacks sign the contract extensions we all knew they would eventually sign, and it is big news. Jason Garrett discusses the hypotenuse of a triangle … well, that was bound to be news, no matter what. The Wall Street Journal stuff gave way almost immediately to the New England Journal of Medicine reports, with Dennis Pitta of the Ravens and Jeremy Maclin of the Eagles suffering season-ending injuries before we could even settle into the whole "preseason report" routine.
Before we major in on-field goodness, we have to slog through the freshman requirements in econ and anatomy. Most teams were still not practicing in pads until late in the week, and a few teams were not yet practicing at all (the Bills opened camp on Sunday evening). But our insatiable craving for football news had us scrutinizing the ledgers instead of watching the grass grow beneath stretching players. First-round pick and franchise quarterback extensions were all we had for much of the week, and it was better than nothing.
Looking for camp … in all the wrong places?
With the NFL news wire reading like midday CNBC, it was time to head to Cortland, where the Jets unveiled something different this year: an actual training camp. Not a Tebow Circus, Rex Ryan Comedy Jam, or ESPN programming marathon, but an organized attempt to prepare football players for a successful (or at least not depressingly inept) season.
Those of us who were in Cortland both last year and this year could feel the difference immediately, in part because there were about half as many of us this year. Watching Mark Sanchez clown around with Stephen Hill on the sideline, or rookie Sheldon Richardson breeze through a press conference that focused on fundamentals instead of telenovela theatrics, it was clear that the Jets were looser. That is not the same as being better, but it is a step in the right direction.
The "Circus is Over" storyline is the prevailing storyline in the opening days of Jets camp. Braylon Edwards first made the observation late last week. Edwards was not in camp with the Jets in 2012 -- he was competing with Terrell Owens for reps in Seattle, which must have been its own little carnival -- but he has been an on-and-off member of the Jets for years and knows the culture. "Just listening to people, there's been a consistent theme people are happy about," he said of the new, buttoned-down tone.
So the suddenly businesslike Jets delivered the cure for the Talkin' Offset Language Cap Management Amortization Blues this weekend. The team was in shells on Saturday, which usually cuts down on the hitting, but tempers flared when low-string wide receiver Vidal Hazelton pushed off of Antonio Cromartie during 1-on-1 receiving drills. Cromartie walloped Hazelton after the catch, and both parties came up jawin' and shovin'. An old-fashioned, rite-of-summer donnybrook ensued: nothing serious, but enough to clear the dollar signs from the brain. Another tussle between obscure players broke out during Sunday's spongy afternoon session. Ahhhhh, contact talk, not contract talk.
The Jets are awash in storylines; this year, most of them are refreshingly non-ridiculous. There is a quarterback controversy, though it provided few fireworks in the early days of camp. Mark Sanchez took all of the reps with the first-team offense on Saturday and he looked precisely Mark Sanchez-ish, rudimentarily competent when required to do little more than fire short passes. Geno Smith, live-armed and inexperienced, ran the second team on Saturday and got a few first-team reps on Sunday while Sanchez handled one-on-one drills. He enjoyed his moments -- a read option in which he outran upstate New York, a bomb to up-and-coming receiver Clyde Gates, another bomb to Stephen Hill -- but also demonstrated his inexperience by overthrowing the occasional screen pass. Already, this year's quarterback battle feels more like a "who will win" scenario than last year's "what will this team resort to" sadness.
The Jets have new players at the skill positions. Edwards and Kellen Winslow are in camp to recreate the magic of 2007 Cleveland Browns football. No, no, that is "old Jets" talk. General manager John Idzik is familiar with both from their time in Seattle last year (Edwards in a handful of games, Winslow during a brief camp stint), so the Jets are really trying to recreate the magic of the 2012 Seahawks training camp, which worked out much better than 2012 New York Jets camp.
Idzik called Edwards a "plug 'n' play" receiver who can walk right into a system and pick up his role. As a veteran on the decline who was waived by Idzik's Seahawks late last year, his role may be to serve as a veteran security blanket during camp and the early part of the season, while the team develops Gates and a deep pool of other big, promising receiving prospects. Edwards is clearly a step slower than he was in his 2007 heyday, but still has the size and body control to make leaping catches and work inside of press defense.
As for Winslow, he rode from the team facility to the practice field on a bicycle; either that, or the Jets just signed Chris Froome. Winslow is in shape and behaving normally when not trying to climb back into the Peloton, but Jeff Cumberland looks better than Winslow right now and faster than he looked last year.
There are other football stories. Santonio Holmes is hurt, a sure sign of July. Journeyman running back Mike Goodson's status is a mystery; he was arrested on a sampler platter of DWI-drug-possession-weapons charges in May, but he is not incarcerated or suspended, so he should be here. Goodson's absence is getting stoked as a scandal/cover-up by some of the New York media crew, who may just be reflexively focusing on the non-football stories after a full season of non-football. Goodson is an obscure, knockaround player who was not particularly good in his best season (which was 2010, for the 2-14 Panthers).
Goodson's absence has paved the way for John Griffin to get more reps. Griffin is a second-year back from UMass who is fast and has great receiving skills. Griffin spun his body and leapt to make a catch along the sideline on Saturday, though he bobbled some kick returns in the rain on Sunday; coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said that Goodson has the talent to play a role but most improve his consistency. The same can be said of Goodson, but Griffin already appears to have more talent and consistency.
I don't want to oversell the transformation. Veterans who were cut by the Seahawks are not going to make the Jets contenders. In some important ways, Jets camp has not changed. The defense is still well ahead of the offense, though that is a typical July phenomenon at every camp. Most passing drills look like sack-and-pass-breakup drills. Referees supervised the one-on-one drills that briefly erupted in Cromartie-versus-Other-Guy violence, and they threw so many yellow flags that it looked like early leafing season in Cortland County.
But the madness has subsided, and one of the biggest reasons is Idzik, who provides the Jets with something every interesting NFL organization needs: a really boring guy. Come to Cortland to get away from the money stories and focus on the hitting. Stay for the new general manager, who has his mind on the money.
Move Over Dad, 'Cuz I'm a Double Dipper
Offset language is a by-product of the dream logic that prevails in the world of the NFL contract. Since 2011, all first-round picks have signed four-year contracts which are really five-year contracts which only last three years. From there, it gets confusing.
At the end of the third year, the team can pick up the option for the player's fifth year, or they can flat-out release the player. If they release the player, they must pay him his salary for that fourth year, even if another team picks him up and signs him to a new contract. But through the miracle of offset language, the team can specify in the contract that it is off the hook if it releases a player and another team signs him, making a four-year contract with a fifth-year option a three-year contract with a sort-of fourth year option and a fifth year option.
You are probably swallowing your tongue right now, and that was the simplified definition. It's amazing how much NFL coverage revolves around offset language in late July, when offset language itself is one of the most tedious morsels of accounting I can imagine, and it is a difficult issue for most of us to relate to. Basically, teams are trying to squirm out of the four-year contracts that they agreed to when they negotiated the rookie salary cap in 2011, while players are trying to codify their right to "double dip" for a year. Both sides are hedging -- the team against making a bad pick, the player against not fulfilling his potential -- which makes the whole business unseemly, if understandable. The player and team (and the fans and the writers) want to see the player in a helmet on July 28th, 2013, but the player and team are focused on who will write what check in the spring of 2016. It's an argument over the prenuptial agreement during the bouquet toss.
But offset language keeps players out of camp, so it is a matter of interest. Eric Fisher agreed to offset language in exchange for the quicker delivery of up-front money, 2013 bucks being worth more than 2016 bucks as a simple rule of economics. Fisher was the first pick in the draft, so no one is safe from offset language moving forward: look for 2014 to be the last offset battleground, for better or worse.
But this summer, offset language is still a team-by-team trench war, and no team exemplifies that like the Jets. First-round pick Sheldon Richardson is practicing here in Cortland, while fellow first-round pick Dee Milliner is holding out.* Richardson signed a contract with offset language. Milliner's holdout is almost certainly offset related. Idzik made it clear that the Jets are insistent about offset language, and he isn't budging. Idzik is not one to launch inflammatory quotes, but he said that there would be progress in the Milliner talks "whenever there's more than one party involved."
*UPDATE: Milliner agreed to terms with the Jets on Sunday night. Terms were not disclosed.
Idzik arrived from Seattle with a reputation as a cap guru, so the offset language standoff makes sense. So far, he has been even more than a bursar for the Jets. He is a detail guru, an executive who appears to be bringing organization back to the Jets organization. Mark Sanchez singled him out as the person who has changed the team's personality. "You talk to the guy: He doesn't say much," Sanchez said. "There's not much to say. Go put it on the film, we'll evaluate it, we'll play the best players we've got and go win as many games as possible; it seems like a simple formula, but when you get back to basics sometimes that's the most effective way to do things."
Idzik used similar words to say the same things on Saturday. "In the NFL, you are going to live with distractions and to the extent that you can maintain your focus on the tasks at hand," he said. "But if you can just focus on the basics … yes, we have tried to instill that mindset not only with the players but throughout the organization. And hopefully you're sensing that." He realized while talking about staying focused on the basics that he lapsed into cliché-speak. "It sounds so trite," he admitted. It does, but this was a team that ignored the trite-and-true in recent years, with disastrous results.
Idzik talked about communication and consensus building, about basing decisions on an "accumulation" of evidence. Some of my colleagues, bless their Jets PTSD-suffering souls, sense a power struggle. Who really has final say on personnel matters or the quarterback controversy: Ryan, Idzik, or Woody Johnson? For the recent Jets, that was always the best question to ask. But for better organizations, that is often the worst question, because the "final say" is organizational.
"It's a collaborative effort, guys," Idzik said, sounding a little exasperated with final-say questions. "It's not how it seems: that you wake up one morning and everyone's waiting out with bated breath on someone with the scroll." In the past, a Jets executive talking about opening a scroll would prompt a Seventh Seal apocalypse joke, but times are slowly changing.
The Seahawks created a new culture of success while Idzik was there; they made it irrelevant whether a particular decision was made by Pete Carroll, John Schneider, Idzik, or Paul Allen. Idzik may not be able to transplant that in New York, but players have noticed that he is trying.
The Dollars and Sense of Quarterback Salaries
Matt Ryan needs to thank Joe Flacco for his new contract. I read that sentiment several times in the last four days, in Tweets and blog posts and on comment threads. I picture Falcons owner Arthur Blank and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, their eyes blurry and shirts pitted, brainstorming into the night among empty cartons of low-mien:
ARTHUR BLANK: Gosh, Tom, I am at my wit's end. Our quarterback is excellent, and he is in the final year of his contract. He could leave and seek employment elsewhere if we do not act soon. What on earth do we do about it? Should we throw him a party? Buy him a new hat?
THOMAS DMITROFF: Say, you know what the Ravens recently did? They paid their young, successful quarterback an incredibly large sum of money. He signed the contract, and that solved their problem.
ARTHUR BLANK: Why, that's brilliant! By offering financial compensation which accurately represents the value and scarcity of the player's skills, we can extend his period of employment! It's a totally new economic paradigm!
Yes, the Falcons learned their lesson from watching the Ravens. They learned that if they let their playoff-caliber quarterback play out the final year of his contract, he may have a sudden late season surge that propels the team to a Super Bowl victory, then sign back with his team for a huge wad of money, though not quite as huge as what the Falcons ended up paying Ryan…
Wait a minute: the Falcons learned nothing from the Ravens! They did everything exactly opposite of the way the Ravens did, though trying to repeat the Ravens model would be unwise for a number of reasons.
Quarterback contracts are a matter of slow inflation. The highest paid quarterback is typically among the most recently paid quarterbacks, and the contracts of Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, and Joe Flacco will only look like a big deal until Colin Kaepernick gets deeper into the third year of his four-year contract and Robert Griffin III gets to discuss his importance to the Redskins in 24 months or so.
There was a lot of conversation about whether Ryan is worth the money, a drearily prepackaged sports-talk debate in which we all pretend to fathom the difference between 20 and 21 million dollars. Terrell Davis unintentionally hammered home the futility of such a "worth it" debate when talking about Texans quarterback Matt Schaub on Friday: "Until he gets to the Super Bowl, I cannot consider Matt Schaub a potential Super Bowl quarterback." Well, once he gets to the Super Bowl he is no longer a potential Super Bowl quarterback, is he? Until a quarterback proves absolutely that he will earn Super Bowl money, he will appear to not deserve Super Bowl money, and once he wins a Super Bowl, he may well be too expensive to re-sign.
These are the kinds of problems that the Jets would love to have. They extended Sanchez's contract last year, a decision that did not reflect consensus or collaboration, but did raise questions about who within the organization had final say. Sanchez is now a walking, talking freshman philosophy class conundrum: would you rather have eight million dollars and no respect from the public at large, or a living wage and a name that does not prompt immediate giggles?
A few days in Cortland serve as a helpful reminder that Sanchez can walk, chew gum and throw a football 20 yards with some zip and accuracy. He is also a fifth-year veteran who does the things veteran quarterbacks do: barks and jokes at his teammates, takes charge of drills, runs the simple stuff as if he has been doing it for years (which he has). The NFL is full of mediocre-to-middling quarterbacks, and it is possible to win a bunch of games with one if the circumstances around him change. Circumstances are changing, from the front office culture to the offensive staff (it's hard to get a sense of Mornhinweg's system from a few practices, but the Eagles at their worst were never as hapless as Tony Sparano's Jets), to the skill position rebuild.
Sanchez could end up becoming another "circumstance," sooner than later. Smith demonstrated velocity and release quickness unlike anything the Jets have had in recent years. Last year's backup quarterback reps were essentially wasted practice time. The defense blew up the plays too easy to get anything out of it, receivers had no hope of seeing a crisp pass whether they were open or not, and few Wildcat-type plays were executed in full-pad practices, lest the ever-present ESPN cameras see too much. Smith already executes plays well enough to make reps meaningful for his receivers: another tiny step in the right direction.
Sanchez-fatigued fans may clamor for Smith, but there is no sense of urgency right now. Smith's second-round status and Jets-friendly contract are part of the reason. Idzik and his staff negotiated a deal with Smith and his Jay Z-backed agents that did not include a "quarterback premium," the sweetener middle-round quarterbacks often receive to signify that they are in a different situation than, say, a middle-round linebacker. Smith's deal also includes bonuses tied to offseason workouts, a hedge that will discourage holdouts or flighty behavior from a player who scared off some teams by the way he handled the pre-draft process. Insiders are chirping that the novice agency got snookered. The bigger story should be that the Jets were the ones doing the snookering.
As the discussion returns once more to dollars and contractual minutiae, we look again to the field at SUNY-Cortland for a nourishing dose of real football, even if it is just in shells, like on Saturday, or delayed and rain-drenched, like on Sunday.
The Jets ran some direct snap plays on Saturday, with Sanchez split wide while Jeremy Kerley executes a Pistol option and Bilal Powell or Joe McKnight take snaps and fire up the middle. These are not necessarily bad-acid flashbacks to Sparano: Mornhinweg had some direct snap plays in his Eagles playbook back when Brian Westbrook was around to run them. Last year, of course, Wildcat flourishes were big news in Jets camp. Now, they are camp notes, as they should be.
While Milliner holds out, Richardson demonstrates some of the confidence that made admirers of some and detractors of others during his college career. "I ain't stuggling," Richardson said of his rookie adjustment. "I'm picking it up pretty fast." Richardson batted a pass back into reserve quarterback Greg McElroy's face during an 11-on-11 drill. "I hope I don't get a fine," he said. "I was kinda close to [the] quarterback".
Quinton Coples, drafted as a defensive end, took his first reps as a hybrid end/outside linebacker, but was not nearly as confident as Richardson as a rookie last year. When asked about Idzik's role in changing the team's personality, Coples delivered a priceless response: "Who?"
John Idzik: the general manager. (Coples knows this; he just did not hear the question clearly.) The person who will have the final say on major personnel decisions, but only after accumulating consensus. The guy who worries about dollars and cents. The guy who doesn't say much, but who is sending a loud message to Dee Milliner, and who has upstaged the fading bluster of Rex Ryan. The best way to intrigue jaded, traumatized Jets observers is to bore them.
Speaking of Ryan, he has been toning down his act for years, and it was refreshing to hear a tactician from a family of tacticians talk about strategy instead of using the daily press conferences as performance art platforms. Ryan talked a little about the read-option, how good he thinks Geno Smith can be at it, how effective he wants to be at executing and stopping it, how defenses addressed it back in Fran Tarkenton's younger days (it involved stitches to the face) and why such tactics will not work today. "The zone read, the option, is just mathematics," Ryan said. "The offense is trying to get the numbers advantage."
Now Ryan is talking mathematics? What hath this Idzik character wrought? Ryan is making sense for now, but if he starts spouting right triangle trigonometry, it may be time to worry about what is written on that scroll.