There is a fine line between tantric and tedious, an ex-girlfriend once told me.
There are some things that are great when extended a little but tiring when extended too far, like guitar solos, Hobbit movies and bouts of medium-competency lovemaking. Add the NFL's Hot Stove League to the list. What was meant to be expansive is about to become exhausting.
We should be within days of the NFL draft by now. The league strenuously avoided Easter weekend in years past, so the first round would probably have taken place on April 24, just 10 days from now. Instead, thanks to the NFL's need to fill the entire calendar, we are still almost a month away. Those two extra weeks make a huge difference to those of us whose mouths run dry whenever we try to utter the words "Johnny Manziel" these days.
Draft coverage is coughing and wheezing right now, a marathoner who just crested a hill and discovered that marathons have suddenly been extended to 31 miles. When the NFL first moved the draft to mid-May, I was briefly excited, because draft coverage is like a chocolate brownie for me. Now, I am like the sinner in ironic hell getting chocolate brownies stuffed down his gullet. The pros and cons of the extended draft timeline are now clear to me, and they do not work out the way I thought they would:
Pro: No one expects me to cover horse racing.
Con: I saw a friend post his "Mock Draft 9.0" on Facebook and began despairing for our entire generation.
As readers, you can no doubt feel the strain and see the seams as offseason events which a) were originally designed to generate essentially zero media coverage and b) have been puffed up in recent years to support a few hours of coverage were taffy-pulled until they covered the conversational gaps between, say, Jadeveon Clowney's Pro Day and Blake Bortles' visit to Jaguars headquarters. You can hear the grinding gears, smell the flop sweat, see the faraway look in Mark Kriegel's eyes. This is so over. Just draft the players, let us set our depth charts and let fans enjoy some baseball and basketball for a few months. Please?
Nope. There is still work to be done. Let's take a deep breath and look exactly where we are in this endless offseason. There are only a few more weeks to go. A few more weeks of Manziel chatter, mock drafts, dishing about the same handful of semi-controversial players, Clowney, mock drafts, free agency dregs, spin, counter-spin and mock drafts. Can you stand the excitement?
What if we throw in pre-draft visits? Like, five weeks of them? Does that do it for you? If so, here's a Flaming Lips song to listen to while reading this week's roundup.
Johnny Manziel made a "positive impression" on the Raiders during his pre-draft visit last week. At least, that's the phrase Ian Rapoport used when reporting the (using the term loosely here) news.
Positive impression? Talk about measured enthusiasm. Which would you rather hear at the end of a first date?
- Before you go, are you interested in seeing the rope swing I installed above my water bed?
- I had a great time, let's neck in the hallway for a while.
- You really made a positive impression on me, Johnny.
Granted, if the date is with Dennis Allen …
Rapoport quoted his Raiders source saying that Manziel was "humble." There you have it folks: for the fifth pick in the 2014 draft, it's down to Johnny Manziel or a pig named Wilbur.
Meanwhile, Teddy Bridgewater reportedly continues to struggle. I think Bridgewater is the best all-around quarterback prospect in the draft, but the longer the pre-draft run-up continues, the more he looks like an undersized, step-too-slow guy whose arm is not that great and accuracy is not as tight as advertised. In other words, he is morphing into Tajhy Boydwater.
Of course, since no one but team officials get to see private workouts and teams cultivate media sources specifically so they can spread disinformation, Bridgewater could have repaired Jeff Tedford's car for him and the Buccaneers would have anonymously called it a "negative, less-than-humble impression." BECAUSE THEY DO NOT WANT OTHER TEAMS TO DRAFT HIM.
Adding three weeks to pre-draft visit season is like adding eight minutes to the credits of a Marvel movie. You must watch the credits, of course, to see Robert Downey eating a sandwich with The Vision at the end or whatever. (Don't spoil Winter Soldier for me. I am taking the kids to see it on Good Friday. And don't tell my mother I am taking the kids to see Winter Soldier on Good Friday. I told her we are going to church.) Anyway, like movie credits, pre-draft visit reporting is a long list of names that represents a lot of hard work but adds zip to your understanding or appreciation of the medium.
Here is an incomplete roundup of the announced visits for just the Big Three quarterbacks, the guys whose fates will shape the rest of the draft.
Johnny Manziel: Raiders, Jaguars, Buccaneers last week, Texans next Monday, Patriots (Patriots!?) last week.
Blake Bortles: Texans Tuesday and/or Wednesday of this week, Jaguars last Thursday, Browns the previous week
Teddy Bridgewater: Two visits with the Vikings last week, one each with the Browns, Buccaneers and Jaguars, plus a Patriots visit.
Just among quarterbacks, the Browns worked out Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr, Keith Wenning and Tom Savage, in addition to Bortles and Bridgewater. Carr also visited the Jaguars, as did Zach Mettenberger and non-quarterbacks like Greg Robinson and Khalil Mack.
We could expand the scope of this conversation to non-quarterbacks, but I don't care, because this is just a list of names with no meaningful context. It's like when my 11-year-old recounts every moment of his travels through the neighborhood -- "Drew wasn't home so I rode to the park and played basketball with David then went to Jaiden's house and played Call of Duty until Reggie's dad took us to the 7-11" -- then neglects to mention that Anthony was lighting bottle rockets with Phillies Blunt and shooting them through his grandmothers window. I only want the facts I can use, thank you.
Can you make any sense of the list above? Do the Patriots think they can, or should, sign Johnny Manziel? Maybe Bill Belichick is trying to determine what former protégé Bill O'Brien would do, you might suggest. C'mon people, he's not Batman. Are the Browns trying to make up their minds between Blake Bortles and Keith Wenning? The Texans' lack of eagerness to interview Bridgewater could signify lack of interest, but visits are often announced hours before (or after) they occur, so one could still happen for the team that has through May 8th to make its first decision. Also, there are two reasons why a team might decline to schedule a pre-draft visit with a player:
- They are certain that they want to draft him or
- They are certain that they do not want to draft him.
That clarifies things nicely.
Pre-draft visits are less of a laughing matter when we consider the case of Brandon Thomas, the former Clemson lineman who tore his ACL during a pre-draft workout with the Saints. Thomas was a collegiate tackle likely to move to guard, a classic mid-round prospect of the type who cannot afford to turn down any or all workout invitations and lacks the sort of talent or resume that guarantees that a team will draft him and wait a year for his recovery. The long, intricate pre-draft visit process has become an extended series of workouts and cross-country trips in which an unpaid potential employee assumes a great deal of personal and professional risk in the name of an ever-expanding example of due diligence taken to illogical extremes.
Last season, I crunched the numbers and learned that of the 495 widely announced pre-draft visits, only 33 players were drafted by a team they visited, a 6.7% hit rate. Thirteen teams drafted zero of the players they interviewed. Reporting interviews does little but work reporters to exhaustion covering meaningless procedural minutiae. I don't want to put my fellow reporters out of work, but imagine if their time was spent watching last year's game film, college scouting film, in some kind of seminar environment or on some other pursuit that might increase our overall understanding of the sport, instead of just laundry listing travel itineraries. Betcha the NFL offseason could be made far more interesting.
Pro Day Season
Watching live Pro Days on television is the new "watching the Combine." And watching the Combine was once the new "watching the draft." The next step for mega-wonks will be watching collegiate spring red-versus-gold games to flesh out your 2016 draft charts. Many of the games are already televised, so it is time for early adopters to get a move on.
In the meantime, the rest of us watch Pro Days, though the real movers and shakers attend. Russ Lande reported from LSU's Pro Day for Sports on Earth on Thursday, and he was there because there was actual news to report. Zach Mettenberger, who suffered an ACL injury at the end of November, threw 100 passes. As Lande reported, Mettenberger looked understandably rusty but showed that his recovery is progressing. This is a rare example of the proper use of a Pro Day: confirmation that an injured player is rehabbing properly and on schedule to participate in offseason work.
Most Pro Days are the opposite of informative. At least Jadeveon Clowney's was hilarious. Jim Washburn, a legendary defensive line coach (now with the Lions) whose every sentence sounds like David Mamet writing lyrics for Eminem made Clowney execute his "bag drill." You would expect a guy like Washburn to force his linemen to crawl across shattered whiskey bottles and run through thorn bushes to sack an imaginary quarterback or something. Instead, Washburn had Clowney jump over some "bags" (little oblong pads) on the ground, then run around picking up tennis balls. See for yourself. Clowney might not have the best work ethic, but if you see him at an Easter egg hunt, give the man his distance.
It looks like the kind of thing a karate instructor does to teach hand-eye coordination to the Tiny Tigers. Clowney also sprinted figure-8's around giant hula hoops for Washburn. He then dominated in both Gaga and Steal the Dragon's Jewels. Scratch a foul-mouthed old drill sergeant of a football coach, and you find a kindergarten gym teacher underneath.
Clowney successfully completed the Balloon Badminton and Freeze Tag portions of Washburn's workout without curling into a little ball and complaining about a boo-boo on his knee or anything, so his Pro Day workout was hailed as a success. And the Wipeout-meets-Romper Room drills made for one of the most fun afternoons of television on NFL Network in weeks. But Pro Days, which have just about wrapped up, remain designed to have minimal news and zero entertainment value. Opening up the offseason schedule to give them a chance to breathe resulted not in finer wine, but more vinegar.
Wonder Leak Season
The annual Leaking of the Wonderlic scores occurred late last week. For convenience sake, the NFL just leaked the quarterback scores itself via NFL.com; no one in league headquarters can even say the word "confidentiality" anymore without cracking up.
Our national debate on the Wonderlic has now evolved into a self-congratulatory dismissal of the Wonderlic, because we are all too savvy to the vagaries of standardized testing to take note of the fact that Johnny Manziel scored a 32 (my, what a fine score), or to go back to talk about how well Steve Young did or how poorly Vince Young did in years past.
The Wonderlic remains an embarrassment, an out-of-date standardized test that would be laughed out of the public education realm as vague, inadequately-vetted hooey but survives in the corporate realm because large businesses like the NFL don't speak educationese and do not know how badly they are being hoodwinked. Actually, the NFL has an inkling that they have been the mark in a decades-long con and has been noodling with a new test design for at least a year, but organizational inertia has kept the Wonderlic alive. At least no one takes it seriously. Or at the very least, everyone makes a big show out of not taking it seriously while making sure to report the scores and carefully note them for future reference.
When it comes to standardized testing, we have bigger fish to fry than some mid-20th-century aptitude test that treats linebackers like they are accounting managers. The standardized testing season we should all be paying attention to is already underway. New Jersey's high stakes secondary tests occurred a few weeks ago, while the elementary school tests begin in late April and continue through mid-May. Your state probably follows a similar schedule. The results will be reported to schools in families in late August, when there will not be time to do anything about them but weep.
Now, my children missed five full days of school this winter to snow and also had three delayed openings. Seven weather-impacted days is a huge hole in the schedule; marking periods are 45 days long, so about 15% of the winter semester was lost of hampered by snow. Missed days represent not only lost teaching time, but lost overall educational readiness as well: when younger kids lose two days out of a five-day week to weather, teachers spend a lot of the other days refocusing and redirecting them. Looking at my own children, I see December through March as a lost semester where the best we could hope for was developmental water-treading. And we're a two-parent, two-educator (present and past) family.
Now, I will bet you a dollar that test scores all around New Jersey and the Northeast will dip sharply this year. Those low scores will affect everything from property values to teacher tenure policies to future curricular decisions. How many shortsighted decisions or erroneous judgments do you think will be made because no one will stop to think, "Gosh, maybe the fact that these kids spend February sledding and playing Minecraft instead of learning could be responsible for a few percentage points of decline?"
We should take the healthy skepticism we apply to Wonderlic scores and use it on the out-of-control testing industry that exists to take your tax dollars away from the classroom and convert it all into bad data. As for the Wonderlic itself, I told the NFL several years ago that I would happily use my testing expertise to create a replacement assessment. I would even take player confidentiality seriously, though the NFL might perceive that as a bug instead of a feature. I am still waiting to hear back from them.
DeSean Jackson Vacation Season
The DeSean Jackson story is … still happening. For a skinny guy, he sure provides a lot of meat on the bone.
Jackson spent last week on vacation at a private island resort. He Instagrammed several photos during the week, including this one of his lunch. You are never too famous or controversial to Instagram a picture of your damn lunch.
For the record, Jackson loves surreal Instagram photo filters almost as much as he loves celebrating a touchdown within seconds (before or after) of scoring one. All of his pictures show a gorgeous blue sky and deep blue seas, lots of blue accents and highlights, not a shade of red anywhere … hmmm … THIS MEANS SOMETHING.
It means that Jackson was on vacation, of course, while all of the other Redskins were involved in offseason training activities. The selfish fiend. You know who else goes on vacation a lot? Gang members. They go on gang vacations to gang locations, while the rest of us are working hard.
Naturally, there was a "Jackson should not go on vacation" controversy, because a football player who will play his first meaningful game in September dares not experience joy in early April. All NFL players must rise at dawn and do nothing but lift weights, ride stationary bikes and study film until lights out at 10 p.m., taking breaks to eat approved foods from Tony Gonzalez's cookbook. They are allowed five days off around July 4th to either hunt or fish.
While Jackson relaxed on the beach, news broke that he did not bother showing up for his exit meeting with Chip Kelly and the Eagles. Who would want to miss an exit meeting with Chip Kelly? Kelly does not do anything the way anyone else does things, so his exit meetings are probably special in some unpredictable way. Maybe there are farewell smoothies. Even if I hated Kelly and had the work ethic of, say, a flighty prima donna wide receiver, I would show up just to hear what music Kelly plays in the background while taking your playbook and security dongle.
Jackson's departure remains a point of bewilderment in Philadelphia, or at the very least everyone is faking bewilderment because the alternative is talking about/watching the Phillies or Sixers. We can argue that exit interviews are unimportant, attending every moment of offseason training is unimportant and that making a fuss about your vacation while your work habits are a matter of public debate is unimportant. At some point, we start to realize that it is sometimes important to consider the unimportant to be important. Jackson does not sweat the details, which can be trouble if he starts to consider everything except going deep on Sunday to be a detail.
By Sunday, Jackson was Instagramming pictures of planes landing, which either means his vacation is over or he plans to apply for a pilot's license before showing up to OTAs.
Dregs of Free Agency Season
Free agency opened a month ago with the excitement of the Patriots and Broncos gobbling up big name veterans in an effort to squeeze the last drops of juice from the Brady-Manning era. It devolved this week into dreary saga involving two horrible organizations playing contractual tug-of-war with a center.
Alex Mack has played eighty games for the Browns since 2009 without missing a single snap. Think about that for a moment: five years in Cleveland without missing an offensive play. Does Amnesty International know about this? Most sane people could not bear to watch every Browns offensive play for five years, let alone participate in them.
Mack snapped footballs to Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brandon Weeden, Thaddeus Lewis, Josh Johnson (once; Johnson was promptly sacked), Brian Hoyer, Jason Campbell and Josh Cribbs on some Wildcat plays. He was coached by Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Rob Chudzinski. His contract has been in the capable hands of George Kokinis, Tom Heckert & Mike Holmgren, Michael Lombardi & Joe Banner, and Ray Farmer. It has been an eventful five years, if not a successful five years.
The Browns, despite an excellent cap situation and a starting lineup light on two-time Pro Bowlers who never, ever get hurt, decided to play offseason chicken with Mack. Instead of negotiating a new contract with the free agent or applying the franchise tag, they gave Mack the transition tag. That allowed Mack to shop for other offers, with the Browns reserving the right to match the offer.
The transition tag scares away most would-be suitors, but the Jaguars are not your typical suitors. They are seeking a veteran replacement for center Brad Meester. Meester played 209 games for the Jaguars dating back to 2000. He played for Tom Coughlin, snapping footballs to Mark Brunell and Jamie Martin. (A full listing of 13 years of Jaguars quarterbacks is just too depressing for a family-friendly website.) Replacing an old veteran stalwart with a younger one makes perfect sense for the Jaguars. What did not make sense was waiting until mid-April, pursuing a player whose initial team had the right to match offers and then making a half-hearted "offer you cannot refuse" which was actually pretty easy to refuse, or at least match.
The Jaguars aspire to be the Seahawks, and they may have been recalling the glory days of the "poison pill" contracts of the Seahawks-Vikings feud, when the teams used creative contract language (player gets an additional $20 million dollars per game played in a purple uniform) to create unmatchable contracts for players like Steve Hutchinson and Nate Burleson. Most poison pill language has been banned from NFL contracts since then, however, so most observers expected the Jaguars to create some intricate deal that included a massive balloon payment in some not-too-distant-future season.
Jacksonville's eventual offer was a five-year, $42-million deal with almost no bells or whistles. The lone wrinkle in the deal is that Mack has an opt-out clause for April of 2016. This was probably the trap door the Jaguars hoped would make the Browns wary: in just two years, Mack can decide he is sick of Cleveland, or Jacksonville, and start over! But do you really think Ray Farmer cares? Why, by 2016 the Browns will probably be two general managers down the road! If the Browns worried about things that happened two years from now, they would not be the Browns.
The Browns matched the offer for Mack, leaving the Jaguars with backup guard Mike Brewster at the top of their depth chart at center and nothing to show for their elaborate attempt at creative player acquisition but embarrassment. The Browns retain Mack for less money than the franchise or transition tags would have cost them, though allowing one of the few NFL teams more desperate than you to dictate your financial decisions is not the kind of thing Farmer should turn into a business model. Mack is the winner in the whole deal: he gets two years of guaranteed money, some down-the-road flexibility and the chance to keep snapping footballs to players like Alex Tanney and Keith Wenning until he cannot stand it any longer.
The biggest losers in the Mack saga are you and I: Jaguars-Browns was the biggest NFL transaction story of the week, when it should have been background noise while Darrelle Revis and Demarcus Ware crisscrossed the country. It is hard enough watching a Jaguars-Browns game. Following a Jaguars-Browns transaction intrigue, particularly one that played out like a spy thriller written by a high school sophomore, was just brutal.
Pro Days are over, every single prospect has visited every single team, the test scores are in, bottom-feeder teams are walking around with their checkbooks open but no one to spend money on, and DeSean Jackson is rested and ready to thumb through a playbook and lift a few weights as soon as he gets back to Reagan International and shares a few cherry blossom photos.
But don't touch that dial! Chris Johnson is still out of work, and we are in the midst of weeks of speculation about why the Titans released him (because he is not good) and which team will eventually sign him (a team so weak at running back that they can sign players who are not good). An unnamed executive just called Jadeveon Clowney a regurgitated pile of turtle turds, and if you cannot trust an anonymous source with an obvious vested interest in lowering a player's draft value, who can you trust? The trade rumors are heating up: hurry up and start theorizing how the Lions can trade up to select Sammy Watkins, because they only have 24 days left to work out a deal.
Twenty-four more days of this? Can I cover horse racing? Please?
We can get through this together, folks. May 8th will arrive and the offseason will finally reach its belated climax. It will be fulfilling, though I will stop short of promising that it will be worth the wait.