*Yes, it's Tuesday -- hope everyone enjoyed their Labor Day.
The Depth Chart
Mandatory Monday kicks off with five thoughts about a weekend with no NFL games but plenty of action.
1. Week 4 of the preseason is like a trip into a mirror universe where all the failed prospects of the last decade never failed. Matt Leinart, Vince Young, Trent Edwards, and Jimmy Clausen were among the quarterbacks who got significant playing time as coaches sifted through the bottoms of their depth charts. Five years ago, it would not have been crazy to think that all of them would be Week 1 starters this year, the NFL's young quarterback ruling class in a world that barely heard of Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson.
The failed prospects did typical Week 4 preseason stuff -- execute basic playbooks, throw up-for-grabs passes to third-string receivers -- and overall they looked pretty bad doing it. Those final preseason games, while barely watchable, remind us just how imprecise a science scouting is and just how important development is to a quarterback's career. It's our annual look at baseline, replacement-level football mediocrity, and it is never pretty.
2. Jadeveon Clowney was held sackless last Thursday against North Carolina, and the chatter about next year's first overall pick started three days before the Labor Day barbecues. Clowney is no longer a Heisman candidate. Clowney was never a Heisman candidate. Clowney is all hype, overrated, etc. etc. The prattle taught us one thing: most of the people who dreamed up these storylines never focused on defensive line play while watching a football game before in their lives.
Here is a great cutup of Clowney's performance by the gang at Draft Breakdown. This is what an exceptional defensive line prospect looks like, folks. He doesn't record six sacks per game. In fact, he often battles double teams or finds that screen passes were set up specifically to counteract his pass rush.
Clowney faced James Hurst, currently listed as the sixth best tackle in the 2014 draft class by CBSSports.com, and he won plenty of battles against Hurst, swimming to beat the blocker inside or winning the first-step battle to the outside. Clowney dragged a ballcarrier down from behind, registered a few hurries, split some double teams and dictated much of North Carolina's offensive gameplan in what turned into an easy win for his team. But no, he did not record a sack. After the game, we learned that Clowney was battling a stomach virus, but illness or not, this was a fine game, the kind a top-five lineman in the draft often has. The best pass rushers in the nation often have low sack totals for the same reason that the top cornerbacks in the nation end the year with zero interceptions: opponents can scheme to avoid them.
If the North Carolina game really takes Clowney out of the Heisman race, then the fault lies with the Heisman race. No NFL scout will watch film of Thursday's game and drop Clowney anywhere.
3. The Browns did not have a kicker as of Monday morning. That's … different. Perhaps fantasy football strategies are finally seeping in to the NFL. If your fantasy league does not require gamers to fill all position slots during the draft, there is always some wise guy who drafts a seventh running back instead of a kicker, knowing that 15 starting kickers will be available on waivers this week but Taiwan Jones may not. That wiseguy is me, by the way.
The Browns lowballed veteran Phil Dawson in free agency, so the veteran went to San Francisco to replace David Akers, who went to Detroit to replace Jason Hanson, who is waiting for his guaranteed spot in heaven after serving 21 years with the Lions. Rookie Brandon Bogotay and veteran Shayne Graham competed through training camp to determine who could suffer the most ill-timed lingering injury. Graham, already well into the downside of his career (his stubby kickoffs were a huge problem for the Texans last year), suffered a back injury in mid-August. Bogotay responded to this wide-open door to employment by suffering a groin strain in a preseason game. Punter Spencer Lanning mopped up that game with a pair of field goals (and an ugly miss). The Browns axed both Bogotay and Graham, and assigning Lanning K-P duty is one of those terrible ideas doomed to failure, as the Falcons learned with Michael Koenen a few years ago.
The kicker waiver wire includes Havard "Kickalicious" Rugland, Dan "Carpalicious" Carpenter and Billy "Not Going There" Cundiff. Derek Dimke and Jeremy Shelley. Dimke was 6-of-7 on preseason field goals for the Buccaneers, for what it's worth. Shayne Graham and Brandon Bogotay are also on the waiver wire; the Browns should give them a look!
The Browns kicker problem may be solved by the time you read this. Kickers do not have to practice with teammates to get comfortable in the same way that quarterbacks or inside linebackers do. That said, this is a heck of a time to be combing the bottoms of rosters for someone who will be expected to provide about 20-30 percent of your team's points.
4. Speaking of Browns special teams legends, Josh Cribbs' career may be over. The Raiders released him, and while other teams have expressed interest, lingering knee issues kept Cribbs off the field for the entire preseason. A contender with the luxury of signing an all-purpose special teams leader may pursue him, but only if he can pass a physical.
If there was a Special Teams Hall of Fame, Cribbs would be a worthy candidate. Cribbs made the Pro Bowl as a return man twice, and he could have made it as a gunner in other seasons; his skills as a return man often overshadowed how well he handled other special-teams tasks. Cribbs returned 11 kicks for touchdowns in his career, and he was the Browns' most valuable player in several of his best seasons.
The Special Teams Hall of Fame would have to include Steve Tasker, Bill Bates, Billy "White Shoes Johnson,"Ray Guy, and at least a half-dozen kickers who are not good enough for Canton but are too good to forget. (Jason Elam, for one). Returners like Brian Mitchell and Ricky Upchurch would be honored, but there would be plenty of room for all-purpose yeomen like Fred McAfee and Gary Stills. The snack bar and lavatories would be right at the entrance to the Hall; that way you wouldn't miss any of the special teams action because you were getting food or going potty.
Okay, there will never be a Special Teams Hall of Fame. Cribbs was a heck of a player. He was as close to a superstar as a player can get while return kicks for a team that never makes the playoffs. He deserves better than to become a waiver wire afterthought.
5. Crosby Stills, Nash and Young's 1970 Déjà Vu album has become one of the most underrated and unfairly maligned albums in rock history. Written off as over-indulgent and pretentious since the first punk revolution, the album stands as a towering achievement for its reimagining of prog-rock, folk, and singer-songwriter fare. Move past the twee "Our House" and campfire sing-along "Teach Your Children" and you find gems like the album-opener "Carry On" and Neil Young's raw "Country Girl" medley. Listened to with fresh ears, without the baggage of the band's constant squabbling and later descent into maudlin elevator music, Déjà Vu packs an ambitious, idealistic 1960s wallop that cuts through the contrived faux-folk stylings of latter-day Mumford and Sons clones.
What? You don't care about my classic rock opinions? I just figured that if Rolling Stone is suddenly going to write about football…
Championships are won and lost in the NFL during Labor Day Weekend.
Only seven NFL teams employ head coaches who have won a Super Bowl. Only seven NFL teams employ starting quarterbacks who have won a Super Bowl. The Redskins have a coach but not a quarterback, the Broncos a quarterback but not a coach, but the rest overlap, making eight teams with "proven champions" in one of the driver's seats. That leaves 24 NFL teams, 3/4ths of the league, without a proven winner for a coach or quarterback.
Believe it or not, executives for those 24 teams do not sit around their offices on Labor Day weekend and have conversations like this one.
OWNER: We need to find ways to become winners. Any ideas?
HEAD COACH: I don't know, since I have never won. Maybe we need to be more winnerish.
GENERAL MANAGER: Only winners win, so maybe I need to go find some winners.
OWNER: We need guys with the beating heart of a champion. Can we identify those players?
TEAM DOCTOR: I will see if there is a setting for that on the MRI machine.
HEAD COACH: Maybe I can install a winning attitude, though that may be impossible because I have never (sob) won.
GENERAL MANAGER: Try that, and I will purge the roster of guys who aren't winners!
No, the brain trusts of those 24 "leaderless" teams, and the eight teams with recent Super Bowls to brag about, worked as hard (or harder) over Labor Day weekend than they work during training camp and the regular season. Owners, execs, and coaches had two important tasks to perform, one of them unpleasant, the other tedious and unglamorous.
First, they had to cut players. Second, they had to sift through the cuts and waivers to find potentially helpful players that were cut by other teams. These two tasks are as important as signing splashy free agents in March or selecting the right rookie in April.
Cutting players is an awful job: coaches spent Friday and Saturday shattering dreams, then shattered a few more as the transaction smoke cleared on Sunday and Monday. Cutting any player is a depressing task, but cutting the wrong players can be disastrous. The final cuts come at the end of an eight-month evaluation process, starting with pre-draft and free agent scouting, moving through minicamps, and concluding with training camp and the preseason games. The evaluation process is subjective, imperfect, and not 100% fair: the first round pick is making the team, as is the big-dollar free agent, and there is not a darn thing the seventh-round pick can do about it except try to beat someone else for a job.
Cuts are determined by shifting talent levels, but also changes in organizational philosophies and the delicate balance between budgetary concerns, immediate needs, and developing future talent. When the Bears released J'Marcus Webb, a pet project of the last coaching staff, they redefined themselves. When the Colts released the last holdovers of the awful Bill Polian drafts and the Eagles got rid of Danny Watkins and other failed late-Andy Reid era experiments, they redefined themselves. But cuts are not just about regime changes. The Raiders made a statement about frugality by releasing Chris Kluwe. The Seahawks signaled how serious they are about cap consciousness and player development by releasing Michael Robinson, a former Pro Bowler and one of their most popular players.
The releases made room for players like tackle Jordan Mills, the Bears fifth-round pick, and fullback Spencer Ware, the Seahawks' sixth rounder. These players won jobs because they were given opportunities. Mills started preseason games at right tackle and will start the season there. Ware got 23 preseason carries. But their opportunities went beyond what they did in the games we could watch on television. These late-round picks got meaningful reps in training camp. They made the most of learning opportunities in minicamps.
Are both Mills and Ware, and the many other unknowns who survived cuts this week, really better at this moment than the former starters and Pro Bowlers who were released? That's not certain. (Mills may be better than Webb, but it is close. Ware is younger and cheaper than Robinson). What's certain is that coaches ground hour upon hour of tape, sat through dozens of positional meetings, and took the evaluation process seriously at every possible moment. Zero seat-of-the-pants decisions were made over Labor Day weekend. By good teams, anyway.
After the unpleasant task of cutting players comes the tedious task of scouring the waiver wire and sorting the available players into various bins: call him immediately, keep an eye on him for later, remove him from our team's plans. This process seems like mild fun for those of us playing at home. "Hey, Jonathan Dwyer ran for 623 yards last year. He has to be better than our third-string running back. Why won't our cheapskate owner and lazy general manager call him?"
The real waiver wire work is far more laborious. Most teams already have dossiers on dozens of the players who hit the unemployment line while we barbecued and watched baseball: these players were scouted for recent draft boards, evaluated as opponents or potential free agents, and so on. Each team's front office collated the player dossiers with whatever recent information they had, then prioritized the available players. Big names like Dwyer don't usually go to the front of the list: a third-round pick from two years ago who got caught in a numbers crunch on a good team is more likely to get the general manager's dialing finger itchy than some guy on your 2012 fantasy team.
This waiver wire evaluation process is the NFL's under-the-radar secret. For many teams, it's a weapon. For other teams, it's a trap. To put a fine point on it, Ted Thompson and his Packers staff spent more time in the last three weeks watching other teams' preseason film and updating his files on available players than Jerry Jones did. John Schneider of the Seahawks knows the bottoms of opponent's depth charts almost as well as his opponents do, unless those opponents are Jerry Reese of the Giants and Ozzie Newsome of the Ravens, who know their practice-squaders and PUP-list stashes better than anyone.
Not every team devotes equal manpower and talent to the process of culling the waiver wire. We don't see the results of their efforts until there's a major injury crisis that throws the third stringer, the practice squader, or the guy signed "off the street" in late September into the starting lineup. Then, we see who really labored on Labor Day.
So lots of important work got done in the last four days, and we only really saw the tip of the iceberg: A Graham Harrell here, a seven-man Jaguars waiver splurge there. It's grueling, laborious work that is best done behind the curtain while we are swimming with the family or watching Clemson-Georgia. Instead of wondering what it takes to win games, large staffs of football professionals pore over tape, compare notes, call agents, arrange tryouts, offer contracts, juggle practice squad and reserve list rosters, and sweat every detail to make sure the 53rd person on the roster is the best available applicant.
We may never know for sure how well some front offices did their jobs this weekend. Some of the players labored over this weekend will never play a meaningful snap. But the last three Super Bowls were won by teams that reached deep into their benches -- and onto the waiver wires -- to survive injury-marred seasons. The teams that didn't do their job this weekend won't make it that far, but we will probably blame their failure on a first round bust or a free agent failure, not a player they cut too soon, or a guy they didn't sign because he slipped right past them. This nitty-gritty stuff just isn't that interesting, but it is the real secret behind the eternal question of what it takes to be a winner.
Stuck at the end of the article because the least interesting thing in the world these days is a sportswriter predicting stuff.
Super Bowl: 49ers over Patriots. Two strong teams, yet unsexy Super Bowl choices because both lost so much receiving talent in the offseason. Take a look at the Ravens receiving corps through last September's eyes: Anquan Boldin (now with the 49ers), Torrey Smith entering his sophomore season as a one-dimensional bomb threat, a mistake-prone return man all-but run out of Houston named Jacoby Jones, and a pair of tight ends who left the board in the 11th round of your fantasy draft. The Patriots and 49ers receiving corps are better than they look on paper, as Tom Brady spent much of the preseason demonstrating, and these two teams are pretty darn strong everywhere else.
Surprise Team #1: Carolina Panthers. The preseason defense looks great. Ted Ginn may be the most important player no one is talking about, as he fixes two of the Panthers biggest 2012 problems: a second receiver opponents actually care about, and a return man who doesn't fumble. Cam Newton? He's not as great as the 2011 hype or as bad as the 2012 criticism, and he can still get better. This is a Wild Card team, at least.
Surprise Team #2: Chicago Bears. They will win 10 games and compete for a playoff spot. Wait, they did that last year … The Bears will win 10 games and compete for a playoff spot in a new, more encouraging way. For once, the Bears storyline will not be how the defense is dragging the offense kicking and screaming through the season. That will be surprising.
Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady
Offensive Player of the Year: Adrian Peterson. It has come to my attention that these predictions are supposed to be "bold," not "freakin' obvious." I will try slightly harder to be interesting and buzzy from here on.
Defensive Player of the Year: Luke Kuechly, Panthers. Take a heady, athletic linebacker and place him behind a disruptive front four, and the results could be special.
Comeback Player of the Year: Terrell Thomas, Giants. Okay, maybe I am trying too hard to be buzzy and interesting. I just wanted to mention Thomas, who is trying to come back from three ACL tears. He was one of the best young cornerbacks in the league before his knees started betraying him, and it would be great to see him return.
Comeback Player of the Year (More Likely Candidate): Maurice Jones-Drew. Yes, Robert Griffin probably will win it. The problem is that Griffin never really went away. Peterson was in the same boat last year, and we may need to define precisely what a "comeback" is. A comeback should be a return from a lost season, not an epic offseason rehabilitation effort, as important as such an effort might be. Others may disagree. If the NFL appoints Chad Pennington as the official arbiter of comebacks, I will support his decisions.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Giovanni Bernard, running back, Bengals. Eddie Lacy will spend a lot of the season breaking two tackles to reach the line of scrimmage. E.J. Manuel's rise has been slowed by knee surgery, and he is more likely to have a traditional rookie season than a 2012-style rookie season. Bernard will end up with 1,300 yards from scrimmage.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jon Bostic, linebacker, Bears. Bostic does not have a starting job yet, but Bears experts tell me it's a matter of time, and the second-round pick had a heck of a preseason. Bears middle linebackers tend to have pretty good careers.
Coach of the Year: Marvin Lewis, Bengals. This award is too often like "Best New Artist" at the Grammys: some coach who rides an easy schedule and a hot streak to a one-time 11-5 record becomes Eddie Rabbitt, then disappears forever. This year, the award goes to a coach who did something much harder: survived ups and downs, many of them beyond his control, and slowly built a perennial playoff team.
Most Passing Yards: Peyton Manning.
That Was Too Easy. Second-Most Passing Yards: Drew Brees.
Okay, Let's Rephrase It: Newcomer on the Passing Yardage Leaderboard: Ryan Tannehill. He has the arm, his receiving corps has improved, and the Dolphins want to open the offense up. Plus, the Dolphins will be playing from behind more often than they would like.
Rushing Yards, Besides Peterson: LeSean McCoy. He is great, and the Eagles are going to run the ball a lot this year, even when playing from behind.
Receptions: Brandon Marshall. Jay Cutler can't help it. If Marshall's hip problems flare up, let's go with Reggie Wayne.
Sacks: J.J. Watt. Yeah, obvious. This horse has been ridden about as far as it will go.
Class of 2012 Quarterback Prediction: Andrew Luck, Griffin, Wilson and company will suffer a 10-20 percent performance drop-off, and we will react to it as if it is a 70-80 percent drop-off.
Class of 2013 Quarterback Prediction: Even after a 10-20 percent drop-off, last year's rookies will be light years better than this year's rookies.
Class of 2014 Quarterback Prediction: Tajh Boyd is going to be good. AJ McCarron is going to plateau at "OK." Teddy Bridgewater will be exciting. Johnny Manziel will be a one-man source of copy, and he is arriving just in time, because …
Tim Tebow got cut and cleared waivers this weekend. That surprised some people, but not me: I wrote my Patriots Release Tim Tebow article and published it on June 10. I got the date right and everything, although I somehow overestimated Tebow's stats by a wide margin.
It would be fun to toot my own horn about this Nostradamus-like prediction, but of course the cut-down dates are published early in the year, so it is no great trick to guess the exact date when a player will be released. The bottom line: hundreds of my colleagues, and millions of fans, predicted that Tebow would be released during the final round of cuts. I just chose to write about it on the day he was signed, when others were forced to play it journalistically straight (there are some advantages to having "humorist" in your job description) or chose to tell Tim Tebow Tall Tales.
Those Tim Tebow Tall Tales remain profitable, though it is rapidly becoming a down-market industry: selling bejeweled cell phone covers at the mall kiosk instead of selling nationwide wireless networking solutions. Some are peddling revisionist storylines -- it's not the Jets' fault that Tebow does not know how to properly throw a football, folks -- while others wait for his inevitable return. Tebow will get another tryout in the next year or so. He may end up on a roster as a third stringer or emergency quarterback, as might Tyler Wilson, Mike Kafka or Jordan Palmer. Quarterback prospects fade very, very slowly.
But seriously, folks: it is over, it is over, it is over, it is over, it is over. There is nothing to speculate about, nothing to discuss, no body to jolt electrified zombie life into. The fork is in the turkey, the turkey is cooked and eaten, the carcass picked for salad, the bones boiled for soup stock, Thanksgiving is over, Christmas is over, the tree is in a landfill, the spring fashions are on the mannequins. Tim Tebow will never be a starting NFL quarterback. He is not qualified for the job. He has proven so conclusively, several times over.
It is time to stop faking surprise, anticipation and interest. I wrote Tebow's release in June so I did not have to write it on the last perfect Saturday of summer. If I write about him again, it will be under the direct orders of an editor, but I do not think that will happen. My job is to write about NFL players, and to entertain you with the element of surprise. Tebow is not an NFL player, and nothing about him is surprising. You deserve something better than rehashed mythmaking, and from this sentence on I promise to spend the 2013 season delivering that to you.