The NFL’s Silly Season Can Have a Serious Side, Too
The Silly Season. Late June. Early July. No workouts. No OTAs. No meetings. Nothing.
Well, in full disclosure, it's not like we've had nothing to help us through this football diaspora. We have had the stupendous World Cup. There's been an NFL Network countdown of the Top 100 players in the NFL, voting methodology for which is loudly questioned by players who don't like their ranking and barely mentioned by players who do. Of course, let's not forget LeBronCenter, brought to you by the famed, fickle Sources Family—League, Unnamed and Close To The Situation. In this final week before the opening of training camp, we shall have the ESPYs.
But in the league Made In America and Played in America (except for now three games in London), this is the rare time of year when absolutely nothing is going on. It's when everyone in an NFL office takes vacation. It's why most weddings get planned this time of year. It's why Peter King is off on the final week of his 2014 walkabout, probably searching for a Starbucks in places named Moose Jaw. And it's why your humble NFL Network narrator writes this week's MMQB on my way to shoot this year's round of Courtyard commercials you'll probably be seeing every three seconds during the season.
Don't worry. I'm not driving. It's just the way I roll during The Silly Season.
Which, to be honest, isn't completely silly. The headlines recently generated by troubled Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon are beyond concerning, especially when some of them express doubt about his entire playing future. The kid is clearly mixed up and needs help. Cris Carter believes the best thing for the Browns and Gordon may just be what the Eagles did to Carter and for themselves back in 1989—cut him. While that may or may not happen, it did lead to one of my favorite storylines of The Silly Season, care of my colleague Michael Irvin: Cris Carter, Nightmare Marriage Counselor.
Which, again, may not be so silly after all, especially if it involves someone's life, career and/or family. It's only silly if it has nothing to do with the ultimate question: Will this story affect wins or losses when toe meets ball in September?
Sometimes, it's easy to tell which stories reach these standards. Take, for instance, the Andre Johnson contract drama playing out in Houston. Nothing silly about this. First, it involves his bank account or, as players would put it, providing for their families. I understand his current salary ($10 million for ’14) is a dream come true for most readers (or the writer) of this Guest MMQB column. But it's about Johnson getting his industry value while he can, which all of us would attempt to accomplish given the chance in whatever profession we undertake.
So, one of the most prolific receivers in recent memory is threatening to retire at age 33 or sit out until he gets a trade. That absolutely reaches the standard for seriousness. New Texans coach Bill O'Brien and his new quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick not having Andre Johnson around—even during training camp—would affect wins and losses in Houston this season. Thus, we have a Silly Season story that is not silly at all.
Then there's the re-sparking of the Richard Sherman/Michael Crabtree feud this week, thanks to an excellent new reality series on The Discovery Channel called "American Muscle." The show televises the exploits that take place in a Plymouth, Mich., gym owned and operated by decorated and popular strength coach Mike Barwis. In the pilot episode, Sherman appears in the gym to inspire some of the current NFL players and future NFL prospects who put their off-season workout programs in the iron hands (and legs) of Barwis.
The fireworks began when one of the trainers in the gym asked Sherman what the deal was between him and Crabtree. Fully aware of the rolling cameras, Sherman said: "It's more than just I don't like the dude."
"It's not going to be something that goes away," he added. "I hope to play him every year for the rest of my career and choke him out. There's not much else I can say about the subject. Nobody will understand it but him and me. That's all that needs to understand."
Let's not focus on what Sherman said but rather when he said it. Sherman said it mere days after Super Bowl 48. In February. When the story was still hot and the feelings still raw. When, as Sherman arrived in Barwis' gym, he limped on the ankle he had just sprained against the Broncos. He was wearing a parka and there was snow on the ground. He said these words five months ago. It just happened to make air in July.
Sure, it will be great when Sherman first lines up against Crabtree in 2014 ... on Thanksgiving Night. But, right now, this affects no one's bottom line. And, since the game would have been afoot between the two regardless of these statements, nothing will be affected in the win/loss department. It's merely a fun story to help pass the time until training camp. Thus, silly.
And then, we have an occasional outlier. In that department, we have the fascinating case of one Jonathan Football. What to make of him? And of his ... endeavors?
With mere days to go until the opening of training camp, when we'll truly begin to suss out the answer to the greater question of whether he can be a successful franchise face during an NFL season, Johnny Manziel has proven without equivocation he is a bright, glittering star of the NFL Silly Season.
Perhaps the greatest ever.
Think about it. If his post-combine life was one great, big MadLib—you know, the famous fill-in-the-blank children's word game—it would appear as if Manziel's answers have all been chosen by Harvey Levin.
For example, let's pretend this MadLib got published back in May, right after the first-round of the NFL Draft in New York City:
"After hanging with ________ and ________ in ________, Johnny Manziel was then spotted at ________ with his new _______ and _______ before _______ and being ______ a rolled-up _________."
Now let's have some fun and fill in the blanks. Shall we?
First, here are the answers Cleveland Browns brass from owner Jimmy Haslem on down would have collectively chosen:
"After hanging with his old choir and pastor in church, Johnny Manziel was then spotted at home with his new playbook and practice DVDs before calling his dog and being brought a rolled-up newspaper."
Fair enough. Now, here's how the snark-aholics at TMZ would have filled out the MadLib at their cubicles:
"After hanging with Rob Gronkowski and bikini hotties in Las Vegas, Johnny Manziel was then spotted at a Hollywood party with his new friends Justin Bieber and Floyd Mayweather before going back to Vegas and being caught on Twitter holding a rolled-up 20-dollar bill."
Incredible. The only thing missing is a Kardashian of some kind.
Make no mistake: for those whose job it is to fill in figurative blanks of NFL coverage during The Silly Season, this is chum in the water. And when it comes to Johnny Football, we in the NFL media need a bigger boat.
Is the Manziel drama Silly Season-worthy material? Or does it meet the standard of serious business because it will affect wins and losses for the Browns in 2014?
But, when it all comes down to it...what does it all really mean?
Just because Manziel doubled down on his Memorial Day Weekend Gronkapalooza by getting photographed with Canada's most notorious egg-tossing, Fisker-speeding tabloid cover boy and America's most well-known sports-gambling sports figure in the same photograph doesn't mean he won't crush it on the NFL gridiron this fall? Right?
Or does it?
Just because the guy who rubs imaginary money as a sign of his confidence was apparently photographed rubbing actual money in a way that inspires little confidence in his ability to become an NFL franchise face doesn't mean that he won't become exactly that for Cleveland. Or does it?
Just because he was mostly able to do what he wanted off the field at Texas A&M while doing mostly whatever he wanted on the field for Texas A&M doesn't mean he can't also live his life that way at the NFL level and be successful. Or does it?
Are we seeing in real time what we would have been seeing in real time had Twitter and Instagram been around when, say, Broadway Joe Namath was living life in the fast lane while building towards and winning a Super Bowl? Or is it worse?
In other words: is all of this Silly Season-worthy material? Or does it meet the standard of serious business because it will affect wins and losses for the Browns in 2014?
Only the playing season will tell. Indeed, this is that rare storyline whose Silly Season status hinges on regular-season results. Thankfully, there's only a handful of ways that breaks down:
1) Manziel starts Week 1 and plays well. If this happens, then all of the above becomes Silly Season material to the nth degree. If Manziel plays well right away and wins, well, then expect to see Bieber in the Dawg Pound by October.
2) Manziel starts Week 1 and struggles. If this happens, then slowly but surely, Manziel's lifestyle gets called into question. If Manziel struggles to the point Brian Hoyer eventually gets the nod, then all of the above immediately loses Silly Season status and comes crashing down on Johnny Football. And then it's all Bieber's fault. Which, by the way, isn't far from the truth in all matters.
3) Brian Hoyer starts Week 1 and plays well. If this happens, then all of the above becomes absolutely moot until the minute Manziel steps on a field. And a large contingent of tortured Browns fans will spend that time torn between enjoying Hoyer's winning ways or worried if Hoyer's winning is really a short-term mirage stunting the long-term growth of a team they envision having a higher ceiling with Manziel under center. Classic Cleveland angst.
4) Brian Hoyer gets the nod and struggles. This is the scenario where the Browns and new coach Mike Pettine wind up in the crosshairs as sticks-in-the-mud. If the team struggles under Hoyer while Manziel fidgets on the sideline with a clipboard and an earbud, then all of the above will be considered by the fan base as Silly Season material that the Browns are improperly taking too seriously by benching Manziel. Unless, of course, the team knows something about the Silly Season behavior that the outside world doesn't know.
And that last part is the Johnny Manziel conundrum in a nutshell: We just don't know. We think we do, but we honestly don't.
Of course, that hasn't stopped virtually every breathing person on the football planet from forming an opinion or taking a side. People either love Manziel for conducting himself in a manner that flies in the face of football convention or loathe him for it and can't wait for the unceremonious fall. There is no grey area, which is a hallmark of virtually every TV-rating needle-moving figure in sports (see James, Lebron; Bryant, Kobe; Rodriguez, Alex and Woods, Tiger).
That's why the Texas A&M Heisman Trophy winner enters his first season of professional football as full-on must-see TV. My take: I love it. I think it's great. Who are we to tell someone how to live a life? If he blows it because he can't handle fame, as Charles Barkley suggests, or can't handle his friends, then that's on him. And he becomes a cautionary tale for other supremely talented young kids coming up the ranks. If he succeeds, and folks are wringing their hands as to how that manifests itself with impressionable fans, then it's on coaches and parents to caution their kids that not everyone can do it the Manziel Way. Nor should they. The NFL will still stand if Manziel wins and makes headway on the sports pages and TMZ Sports pages. In the meantime, Cleveland will rock. And the fans there deserve the rocking after all the misery.
Outside of all that, however, for someone whose job it is to discuss football every single day of the year, I wish to personally thank the football gods for one Jonathan Paul Manziel, the King of the Silly Season. The man who single-handedly helped us all get to Training Camp in 2014.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think the World Cup is spectacular theatre (European spelling, out of deference), and I enjoyed every bloody (more deference) minute of it. I must admit, though, it was maddening at times. There was the frequent flopping—what’s in that magical spray that allows men go from incapacitated to running like a deer in seconds?—to the seemingly arbitrary method of determining stoppage time. Why not have a running clock throughout the match so fans know and refs can be held accountable?
But there were so many things to love about it, especially how much each game meant. I know this might be heresy to say, but the only sporting event that even comes close to mirroring the World Cup in terms of worldwide interest and epic magnitude of the outcome is the Super Bowl. For instance, as Japan was getting set to face off with Ivory Coast in group play, I explained to my 5-year old that a country in Asia was going to play a country in Africa in a stadium in South America and we were going to watch it in North America with everyone else from those continents and others at the same time. I got goosebumps, relaying the sense of global community to my little son. He blinked at me. And then asked if he could go on his iPad. Nevertheless, I think you get the point. It’s just one massive Worldwide Big Dance. To my delight, as well as the entire country, the American national team played a formidable role in it too.
2. I think Ian Darke is as good a play-by-play announcer as there is in any sport, and I would love to hear him call an NFL game. Darke’s calls on the U.S. games on ESPN were clinics on how to sound impartial while still broadcasting the emotions of a game to a highly partisan American audience chock-full of folks new to the sport and event. His sense of humor, grasp of the game and storytelling ability were downright Marv Albert-like. And his use of the English language was beyond refreshing, especially for a sports broadcast. I would love it if an NFL announcer called a jarred, fumbling running back “dispossessed” of the ball or a team getting beaten down like Brazil was by Germany “thoroughly chastened by the result.” I know broadcast teams for the upcoming NFL season are set, but perhaps in 2015 someone will give Darke a pop. Perhaps FOX Sports, which should absolutely procure Darke’s services for the 2018 World Cup.
3. I think the greatest sports invention in recent memory is the vanishing foam World Cup referees sprayed on the field to delineate the spots where a player should take a free kick and, 10 yards away, where defenders could build their wall. What an ingeniously simple way to communicate to fans at home. It was, in essence, FIFA’s version of the yellow first-down line on NFL broadcasts. Except, unlike the yellow line, this simple white foam was quite official. And I loved that the foam dispenser was clipped on the back of the ref’s belt.
Perhaps the NFL can use that foam to mark off the 5-yard zone from the line of scrimmage in which defensive backs can’t touch a receiver. You know, have the back judge spritz the field with a parallel line five yards away from the line of scrimmage while the offense huddles up. Or have the umpire run up to the quarterback and spray a circle around him since, you know, most of the time he can’t be touched.
4. I think I’m a freaking football Nostradamus. Here’s what I wrote last time I did this "I Think I Think" thing in this space last August.
I think all the fans who think the media spends too much airtime and ink talking about Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel best brace themselves. Every move (or gesture) the kid currently makes is not only seen through the prism of whether he can lead his team to a title or himself to the Heisman podium again, but also what it means to his impending draft status. If he officially turns pro (insert joke here) in January as expected, that’s all my network and others covering the talent evaluation process will talk about from the Combine in Indianapolis to Radio City Music Hall. And keep in mind: the draft is being held later next year, in May.
Alright. That’s not a very long, thin limb to reside. (Also, in that piece, I did happen to pick Cleveland as my surprise team of 2013 based on what Norv Turner’s offense could do for Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson.) I figured I’d bring back the Manziel note to just reiterate what an insane season it’s going to be in Cleveland. With all due respect to Hoyer and his status atop the Browns' depth chart for quarterback—and, recently, Indians' ceremonial first-pitch throwing—the Cavs' addition of LeBron will no doubt turn up the heat for the Browns to make their own splash. I think they’ll start JFF in Week 1 in, of all places, Heinz Field, against, of all defensive coordinators, Dick LeBeau. I’d be up for watching that. So will, you know, most of the country. CBS will be doing cartwheels over having that as a regional contest in their first Sunday slate of games.
5. I think Seattle is your Super Bowl favorite this year. Or should be. I know we haven’t seen a repeat champion in more than a decade for good reason, but here's why I think the Seahawks could do it:
a. The Seattle roster wasn’t ravaged by salary cap decisions or free agency, like last year’s defending Super Bowl champion Ravens were. To the contrary, the Seahawks paid some top players to keep them in the fold for years to come.
b. The Seattle coaching staff hasn’t been raided, like most Super Bowl staffs have been. In fact, coach Pete Carroll may be singularly equipped to keep the competitive fires burning. Carroll’s daily mantra of “always compete” sure sounds like the perfect antidote to resting on one’s Super Bowl laurels.
c. The perfect extension of Carroll’s philosophy is Russell Wilson. I know this firsthand. When he guest-appeared on the 2013 season Championship Sunday edition of NFL GameDay Morning, Wilson reported for work at 3:30 a.m. Pacific Time—two-and-a-half-hours before air and a half-hour before your humble host, who usually beats everyone else on the on-air staff to work. Wilson gets it. He knows there’s much on which to improve personally and offensively as a whole.
d. Then there’s the Seattle home-field advantage, which should once again afford the Seahawks the luxury of needing only to play .500 football on the road to have a chance at the division title and, perhaps, conference. That’s regardless of how the NFC West is easily the toughest division in football.
That's why I truly expect to see Seattle in Arizona next February playing for the right to pick up more confetti off the ground.
6. I think I’m glad I’m not an Emmy Awards voter. Just look at the recently announced nominees for Best Actor in a TV Drama:
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards
Woody Harrelson, True Detective
Matt McConaughey, True Detective
For those keeping score, that’s the reigning Emmy (Daniels), Oscar (McConaughey), and Tony Award (Cranston) winners for Best Actor all in the same category. Toss in two previous Oscars for Spacey (American Beauty, The Usual Suspects), a Golden Globe for Hamm and a combined four previous Emmys for Cranston and Harrelson (Cheers) and you have The Emmys Group of Death. I loved True Detective and think McConaughey will win but, when it all comes down to it, Cranston in his final season as Walter White gets my nod. The third-to-last episode of Breaking Bad, entitled “Ozymandias,” may be the best hour of TV I’ve ever seen.
7. I think we may have repeat division winners in six of the eight divisions this year. If you think that sounds far-fetched, well, NFL GameDay Morning researcher Bill Smith says the last time it happened was … 2012. But I’m going to say it happens again, and it’s still not going to involve the division that has yet to have a repeat winner since realignment brought it into existence in 2002: the NFC South. So I predict the Packers, Patriots, Colts, Broncos, Eagles, and Seahawks all repeat as division champions. Is it possible the Panthers and Bengals also repeat too? Of course, but that would give us repeat winners in all eight divisions, which, again, thanks to the NFC South, has not happened once since realignment. I think I’m not ready to predict that one … yet.
You can make book on Peyton Manning having another 50-TD season. If I had the first pick in my fantasy draft this year, I would take Manning. He is going to be on figurative tilt this year.
8. I think I might be naïve, but I was surprised to see how the Packers are still holding off on the inevitable Brett Favre jersey retirement ceremony for fear of negative reaction from the Lambeau faithful. In a story mentioning how Green Bay’s No. 4 won’t be retired in the 2014 season, team president Mark Murphy told Jason Wilde of ESPN.com that concern over booing is “an issue,” adding Favre “doesn’t want it and neither do we. He wouldn’t want to come back and get booed. You can’t control 80,750 people. I really think as time goes on, every year that passes, it’s less likely that he would get booed, but that’s an issue.” Again, I don’t have boots on the ground in Wisconsin, but Favre would get booed out of the stadium if he came back to Lambeau to be feted as the all-timer he clearly is? Really? This Vikings stuff isn’t water under the bridge yet? I find that surprising.
9. I think you can make book on Peyton Manning having another 50-touchdown season. If I had the first overall pick in my fantasy draft this year (by the way, I’ve never had one), I would take Manning. Yes, over Adrian Peterson. Over any running back. I know that’s crazy talk. Every fantasy expert I’ve ever been around says to draft your quarterback in later rounds. I finally did last year with Andrew Luck (Round 6 in a 10-team league!) and I won it all, barely winning the final against the team that had … Peyton Manning. So consider me sold. Manning is going to be on figurative tilt this year, especially after the way last year ended. Plus, I don’t understand how real football is a quarterback-driven sport that no longer drafts running backs in the real draft until the third round, but in standard scoring fantasy football, running backs are still the most valuable commodity. Of course, if I’m not drafting first (and I never do) and if Manning isn’t available when I’m picking, I’m going running back. And then running back again.
10. I think I’d like to offer kudos to Peter King, who bangs out these MMQBs like they’re a limerick and each one is a monster tome. I do have thoughts on coffee and travel—Jet Blue recently insisted my wife remove our sleeping baby from her chest-carrier prior to takeoff—but time constraints at the computer (I have three kids all under 6) forced me to attempt an abridged version of this column. And it was a bear. I have no earthly idea how Peter does this so well for 48 weeks. Kudos to you, sir.
While I’m at it, kudos to all my NFL Media colleagues who toil day-in and day-out in what we call the “non-playing season.” As we know all too well on our Culver City, Calif., campus, there’s no such thing as an off-season. When the playing season is in full swing, there are many NFL Media staffers preparing for events like the Senior Bowl, the Scouting Combine and, yes, the NFL Draft, which we’re all expecting to be far more logistically challenging in 2015. So, congratulations to all my friends and colleagues at NFL Network, NFL Films, NFL.com and all other NFL Media platforms (NFL Now on the way!) on crushing the coverage for yet another “non-playing season.” That said, we made it. Training camp has arrived! To the season!