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Special Monday 10-pack: Winners and losers in free agency

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Only six days ago, the free-agent market opened.  One of the biggest classes of veteran players, with some of the biggest names, landed on the market.

Apart from the Peyton chase, much of the dust has settled.

And so now we’re required by the laws of football analysis to tell you who won and who lost, even though we won’t really know the answer until they start playing games.

Which, you know, will feature winners and losers.

1. Winner:  Eagles.

Last year, with a compressed offseason and a new defensive coordinator who had been an offensive line coach for 14 prior seasons, the Eagles foolishly embarked on a spending spree, bringing in a bunch of big-name players and setting the stage for a Wonderlic pick-sixer blurting out the dreaded “Dream Team” label.

Apart from the challenge of getting a bunch of new employees on the same page quickly, the move surely caused some of the men already under contract to wonder why they weren’t getting a share of the free-agency windfall.

This year, the Eagles have focused on taking care of their own, which is a much better way to ensure that a true spirit of team will take over the locker room.

Perhaps most importantly, the Eagles have set the stage for receiver DeSean Jackson to turn back the clock to 2009, when he wasn’t concerned about staying healthy and/or getting paid.  The Eagles have addressed those concerns via a long-term deal that, in comparison to some of the too-heavy contracts given to lesser receivers and in light of Jackson’s rocky recent history, looks like a win-win.

Maybe that means “win” will be a more common term in the term’s vocabulary this season.

2.  Winner:  Packers.

G.M. Ted Thompson rarely makes a big splash in free agency.  The biggest exception came in 2006, when at the very public urging of quarterback Brett Favre the team signed cornerback Charles Woodson.

Other than that, the Packers under Thompson take a very conservative approach, building through the draft and using free agency on a limited basis, with low-cost talent addressing specific needs.

It’s not sexy this time of year.  But this isn’t the time of year when championships are won.  Unlike downtrodden organizations (such as the Packers themselves in 1993, when Reggie White chose Green Bay from a long list of suitors), the Packers don’t need to do anything to fire up the fan base or breathe life into the franchise.

It’s the right approach for this specific team.  The Packers have won, once again, by doing nothing.

3.  Winner:  Bills.

Speaking of downtrodden organizations, no team needed a big-ticket free agent like Mario Williams more than the Bills.  And they went all in, pulling out all the stops and persuading Williams to spend two nights in town and eventually getting the job done.

It gives Buffalo and the Bills a major boost, igniting intense local interest and legitimate national attention.  It also makes good football sense; defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt now has a player around whom the team’s new 4-3 defense can be built.

It wasn’t cheap, and it may prove to be a mistake.  But it was a risk the Bills needed to make if they ever hope to become relevant again.

4.  Winner:  Patriots.

At first, it looked like the Pats would follow the Pack’s “closed for business” approach to the early days of free agency.  But with needs at receiver, they’ve added a player in Brandon Lloyd who’ll have a far bigger impact than Chad Ochocinco (then again, the bar is low), and they’ve given Wes Welker a little cause for concern by landing a candidate to play slot receiver in Anthony Gonzalez.

They’ve also addressed an area of need on defense, adding the once-promising Trevor Scott to the rotation of recently underachieving pass rushers.

The Pats could still use a true deep threat to clear out all the underneath traffic.  But even if Lloyd is the biggest addition, the team that nearly won the Super Bowl in 2011 will be contending again in 2012.

5.  Winner:  Chiefs.

Yes, they were denied admission to the Peyton chase.  But let’s not forget that, despite all the dysfunction and key injuries of 2011, the Chiefs weren’t far away from winning the weakest division in the NFL.

Unlike most teams, the Chiefs found bargains even before the market softened, adding running back Peyton Hillis to a one-year, fire-under-butt-lighting $2.6 million contract, tight end Kevin Boss for three years and $9 million, right tackle Eric Winston, and backup quarterback Brady Quinn.

Hillis and Quinn played for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll in Cleveland, adding some familiarity to the new Romeo Crennel regime.  Winston addresses a key area of need, and Boss gives the Chiefs a second pass-catching tight end, which apparently is now a mandatory requirement for any team that hopes to be highly successful in the passing game.

Next up, don’t be surprised if Crennel lures another former Brown to Kansas City, with linebacker Kamerion Wimbley on the market.

6.  Loser:  Dolphins.

Peter King of SI.com chronicles a decade of bizarre personnel moves by the Dolphins, but the organization is now developing another troubling reputation:  anyone with options won’t opt for Miami.

It began last year with owner Stephen Ross clumsily pursuing coach Jim Harbaugh, which painted a vivid picture of disloyalty to coach Tony Sparano.  It continued in 2012 when Ross tried, and failed, to lure coach Jeff Fisher to town.  And it spread to the ranks of players in 2012, with Peyton Manning showing tepid interest at best in joining the team (even though some believed it was a done deal that he’d be a Dolphin).  Then, Matt Flynn’s decision to play for the Seahawks instead of former Packers coordinator/Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin did more than raise eyebrows — especially when followed by Steelers safety Ryan Clark proclaiming that “no one” wants to play for the Dolphins.

It’s possible that Philbin simply wasn’t all that interested in Flynn, and that Philbin knows  Flynn’s pair of high-end performances (one in 2010 and one in 2011) won’t translate to being an effective week-in, week-out starter, once opposing defenses have a chance to study enough of his film and figure him out.  If that’s the case, the Dolphins shouldn’t have even brought him to town for a visit.  By doing so, it creates the impression that they wanted him — and that yet again they failed to get their man.

Correct or not, there’s now a perception that no one of significant consequence wants to work for the Dolphins.  And the harder Ross tries to turn the page by making a “big splash,” the more likely it is that he’ll continue to swing the bat and hit himself in the face with it.

7.  Loser:  Saints.

With Bountygate lingering, the Saints had even more reason to work out a new, long-term deal with Drew Brees.  And yet the Saints continue to fail to find a middle ground with their franchise quarterback.

There’s a chance Brees simply wants too much.  But here’s the problem:  He deserves it.  The best NFL quarterback of the last six years, if he wants to max out his contract, then he should.

And as to the idea that he needs to leave some money behind so that the Saints can field a competitive team given the salary cap, here’s one important point:  It never stopped the Colts from being competitive when Peyton got every last dollar he could.

And while it’s good that the Saints kept receiver Marques Colston, they lost Robert Meachem.  And while it’s good that they lured Ben Grubbs away from Baltimore, the lost Carl Nicks.

More importantly, they’ve yet to do anything to address needs on defense, which could become even more significant once the suspensions come down.

8.  Loser:  Vikings.

Good teams can afford to sit on the sidelines in the early days of free agency.  The Vikings are not a good team.

With plenty of cap room and a tenuous stadium situation and a fan base that may choose to do things other than attend or watch Vikings games this season, the franchise needed to make a splash.  Not a Mario Williams cannonball; but something more significant than a John Carlson dog paddle.

It’s doesn’t mean the Vikings should go hog wild.  But they should have made it a priority to land one big-name player, even if it meant overpaying a little.

The offseason is about selling hope.  Teams like the Packers, Patriots, Giants, and Steelers can afford to do nothing in March; the hope is implied.  For teams that have fallen, March is an opportunity to prove that they’re at least trying to get up.

9.  Loser:  Ravens.

The Ravens had four players in the PFT Hot 100 free-agency list.  Three already have bolted for greener pastures:  defensive end Cory Redding, linebacker Jarret Johnson, and guard Ben Grubbs.

To make matters worse, guard Evan Mathis opted to stay with the Dream Team in lieu of joining a team that, on paper, seems to have a better chance of making its dreams come true.

Then there’s the lingering possibility that someone will make restricted free agent cornerback Lardarius Webb an offer the Ravens can’t afford to match.

Though there’s a long way to go before September, it’s hard not to think that, at least for now, the Ravens have faded a bit closer to the pack in the AFC.

10.  Loser:  Bengals.

By capping 2011 with an unlikely playoff berth, it can’t be said that Paul Brown Stadium routinely was less than full due to the fact that the team was bad.  Instead, the fan base is fed up with owner Mike Brown.

Even though the team is laying a solid foundation of youthful players, Bengals fans think it’s not because of Brown but in spite of him.  And with a huge cap surplus for 2012, the Bengals haven’t done much to persuade anyone that they’re willing to spend.

The good news is that, after several days of inaction, the Bengals have gone bargain shopping, adding offensive lineman Travelle Wharton and defensive back Jason Allen.  They also managed to keep free-agent safety Reggie Nelson, who had attracted an offer from the Jets.

But this is the one playoff team that needed to at least chase a marquee free agent.  They didn’t have to land the guy.  Mike Brown simply needed to show that he’s willing to move from the nickel slot machines over to the no-limit poker table.

The Bengals may once again be competitive in 2012.  The fans won’t embrace the franchise they way they should, however, until they see large chunks of their money being reinvested in players who can help the team compete for a championship.

11.  Loser/Winner:  Redskins.

I know.  I said there would be only 10 winners and losers.  But I didn’t say anything about the team that lands in both categories.

The $36 million in unexpected cap charges for treated the uncapped year too literally makes the Redskins losers.  Their refusal to shrug their shoulders when they did nothing wrong makes them winners.

Their ability to still find a way to spend money makes them winners.  Their decision to give so much money to the likes of Pierre Garçon and Josh Morgan makes them losers.

Their willingness to move up to No. 2 and get the franchise’s first true franchise quarterback since Sammy Baugh possibly will make them winners.  Mortgaging the future by giving up three first-round draft picks and a second-round pick possibly will make them losers.

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Tedford heads to the B.C. Lions

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Health issues kept Jeff Tedford from serving as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator in 2014.  Now released from his contract, Tedford has found a new job, north of the border.

Per a league source, Tedford has accepted an offer to become the new head coach of the B.C. Lions of the CFL.

Tedford, who was out of football in 2013 after being fired by Cal, ultimately took a leave of absence after heart problems emerged prior to the start of the regular season.  He never returned, and his absence became a vastly underrated detriment for a team with a defensive-minded head coach (Lovie Smith) and a smattering of offensive position coaches without the experience needed to coordinate the offense in Tedford’s absence.

Tedford’s decision to return to coach suggests he could have returned to work for the Bucs in 2015.  Which invites speculation as to whether he wanted to leave Tampa, whether Tampa wanted him to go, or a little bit of both.

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Jim Harbaugh won’t answer Michigan question

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On Wednesday, multiple reports indicated that Michigan has offered the vacant head coaching job to 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.  Asked about the situation on Thursday, Harbaugh opted not to dust off a Nick Saban-style answer.

Instead, Harbaugh refused to address the situation.

“As you know, I only talk about the job that I have,” Harbaugh said, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News.  “We’ve been together a long time.  Always been my policy.”

It’s unclear whether anyone asked Harbaugh on Thursday whether he’ll have in 10 days the job he currently has.  Then again, some questions don’t need to be asked.  It’s become a given that Harbaugh won’t return to the 49ers in 2015, and no one from the team’s camp or the coach’s camp has even attempted to float the idea that he’ll be back.

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DeMarco Murray says decision on playing this week will be up to him

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Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray moved up from unofficial participant in practice to limited participant in practice on Thursday and said that his surgically repaired left hand is feeling good.

That keeps hope that Murray, who is wearing a plastic protective shell over the broken bone in his hand, can play on Sunday against the Colts very much alive.

“I’m a very competitive person and I want to help this team out as much I can, so whatever that portrays me doing Sunday, then we’ll see,” Murray said, via ESPNDallas.com. “But I’ve had two good days, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Murray said that the ultimate decision about playing will be up to him, something that owner Jerry Jones confirmed when he said that doctors told him that Murray “has to tell us if he feels like playing or not” and that it is about how Murray feels rather than strategy. Barring a change in Murray’s condition in the next 24 hours, it sounds like he’s headed for a questionable tag on Friday and the words coming out of Cowboys camp have the needle pointed in the direction of playing.

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Josh Thomas says Jets didn’t coach him

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Apparently, the Jets didn’t tell cornerback Josh Thomas, “Don’t let your playbook be stolen.”  They apparently didn’t tell him other things, too.

Claimed Wednesday on waivers by the Lions after being cut by the Jets on Tuesday, Thomas met with the media and talked about the things he didn’t learn about in New York.

“I feel like I wasn’t given the attention necessary as far as being engaged from the coach-to-player standpoint and knowing the things I need to work on,” Thomas said, via Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com.  “It became where I was there as a player and wanting and desiring some feedback that wasn’t given.  So sometimes I may have been standing there with a [deer-in-headlight] look in my eyes trying to figure out what I needed to do.

“So at the same time, just from the past experiences, every organization operates differently — so it could be the way that the Jets operate.  I just want to be great.  I want to get better every day.  I look forward to enhancing something about my game every day, and [the Jets] were just more independent there.”

So what was his reaction to the first day in Detroit?

“It was refreshing, like, ‘Thanks for coaching me,'” Thomas said.

If the Lions make it to the playoffs, the message to the Jets could be, “Thanks for cutting me.”

Which could give other Jets players an idea.  An idea that could lead to a lot more playbooks being lost.

 

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Norv Turner: It’s pretty incredible to me what Teddy Bridgewater has done this season

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The Vikings won’t make the playoffs in 2014, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner feels pretty sure that they’ve found themselves a quarterback.

Turner opened up his press conference on Thursday with a long statement about how impressed he’s been by the play of rookie Teddy Bridgewater this season that seemed to be a defense against criticism of Bridgewater’s two interceptions against the Lions last Sunday.

Turner said he’s seen many quarterbacks struggle when faced with a shifting supporting cast — eight offensive linemen, three different running backs, three different tight ends and a wide receiver who was signed off the Browns practice squad, for example — and that he hasn’t seen those struggles from Bridgewater, who Turner says has been asked to handle more than any other young quarterback he’s worked with.

“It’s pretty incredible to me what he’s done, how he’s handled it, the things he’s gotten done and what he’s really done is made everyone around him better and that’s a quality that you’re looking for … the thing that excites me is he can make any throw you need to make — he does it with people around him, he does it with people hitting him, he does it when he has to slide in the pocket. He knows how to play football and that’s the starting point of the quarterback position. He’s got the intangibles you need and he’s going to continue to get better and better,” Turner said, via Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

There’s obviously room for growth from Bridgewater, but the Vikings probably feel pretty good about that taking place if his performance this season is his floor. And they almost certainly feel better about the quarterback position than they did at this point last year, which is one positive to take away from the season.

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A.J. Green out sick on Thursday

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The Bengals were without their best wide receiver in practice on Thursday.

Concern about A.J. Green missing Monday’s game against the Broncos isn’t high, however.

Green missed Thursday’s session with an illness that Geoff Hobson of the team’s website reports isn’t believed to be serious. Green is expected back at work on Friday, leaving him ample time to prepare for Denver’s visit for a game that the Bengals need to assure themselves of top position in the AFC North heading into the final week of the regular season.

Linebacker Emmanuel Lamur also missed practice with a hamstring injury, but “looked ready to rehab” according to Hobson. Assuming Lamur plays, he’ll likely play a part in the team’s plan for slowing both running back C.J. Anderson and tight end Julius Thomas come Monday night.

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McDonald case reconfirms NFL teams do whatever they want to do

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So why did the 49ers stand steadfastly behind defensive lineman Ray McDonald when he was arrested but never charged with domestic violence but summarily dump him after a search warrant was served in connection with a rape investigation?

Short answer:  NFL teams do whatever they want.

That’s the only way to reconcile the team’s loud adherence to due process in one case, and it’s lightning-fast discipline in another case.

What’s that, you say?  McDonald created multiple distractions?  So did Aldon Smith.  And he’s still employed.

He’s still employed because he’s a much better player.  If McDonald had played better this year, or if the 49ers still had a shot at getting to the postseason, McDonald would still be employed, too.

Excuses are made for the players deemed valuable to the team.  Examples are made of the scrubs.  That’s the way it will remain, even under the new personal conduct policy.

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George Iloka: We can’t do what we did last week and apply it to Peyton Manning

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Some people might worry about overconfidence on a defense that’s coming off a shutout, but it doesn’t look like it will be a problem for the Bengals this weekend.

Safety George Iloka was asked Thursday what the team could carry over from their 30-0 win against the Browns and scoffed at the premise of the question. Iloka said it would be “foolish” of the team to think they could “take the things we did” to shut down Johnny Manziel and apply them to stopping the Broncos.

“It’s Peyton Manning and it’s Johnny Manziel,” Iloka said, via ESPN.com. “He’ll be a good quarterback one of these days, but let’s not put him in the same type of category right now. The only thing we can take from last week is how fired up we came, how intense we were and try and come out the gate the same way.”

There’s not much to add to Iloka’s point about the two quarterbacks other than to say that he’s absolutely correct. Monday night will be miles away from Week 15 in Cleveland for the defense literally and figuratively.

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Cutler says he was “shocked” and “disappointed” to lose job

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Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said he was “shocked at first, then disappointed” to lose his job, but he didn’t lose his sense of humor.

The local media descended to today’s press conference about his benching, after most of them missed his post-game remarks Monday.

“I’m glad you guys could make it,” Cutler said as he took the podium. “I missed you after the game.”

Jokes aside, Cutler made it clear he wasn’t expecting being benched for Jimmy Clausen, but said he thought he did have a future in Chicago.

Asked directly if he could play for coach Marc Trestman again next year, Cutler replied: “Yes, . . . I think I could. I definitely could.”

A moment later, he said “I think we’d have to figure some things out in the offseason.”

He went on to call Trestman “a heck of a quarterback coach.”

But he also acknowledged that the contract he received last season made that complicated.

“There’s a lot of money in my contract,” he said. “And that comes with a lot of expectations.”

None of which he’s met this year, which is why he’s holding court in an unusual press conference. He admitted he might not have handled things well yesterday upon hearing the news, but he’s handling this press conference better than many in his career.

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Seahawks extend K.J. Wright

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The Seahawks have locked up a young starter on their stellar defense for the next four years.

K.J. Wright, the 25-year-old linebacker who has started all 14 games this season, has signed a four-year extension.

“In the offseason, we identified K.J. as one of our core players moving forward and aimed to keep him as a part of the Seahawks family for a long time,” G.M. John Schneider said in a statement. “The timing of this signing gives us the ability to keep as many of our core players together as we possibly can. Since Day One, K.J. has been a true professional in his daily approach and we are excited for K.J., his family and the 12s to keep him in the organization.”

The Seahawks drafted Wright with the 99th overall pick in 2011 and he became a starter as a rookie. He’s a big part of the Seahawks’ defensive success and would have been a big target of other teams in free agency next year, but now he’s in Seattle for the long haul.

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Murray returns to practice field

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Unofficially, Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray practiced on Wednesday, two days after having surgery to repair a broken hand.  Officially, Murray didn’t practice.

On Thursday, Murray was back on the practice field.  It’s unclear whether that means he officially practiced.

Via ESPN.com, Murray engaged in warm-ups, caught passes, and took handoffs.  Which sounds like what he was doing Wednesday, before the Cowboys declared he did not practice.

On Friday, the Cowboys will apply a label to Murray’s availability.  The team has been optimistic, and Murray wants to show he can suit up for all 16 regular-season games — that’s something he hasn’t done in his NFL career.

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Marc Trestman thinks Jay Cutler can benefit from benching

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Bears coach Marc Trestman took to the podium for the first time since benching quarterback Jay Cutler, and said he discussed the switch with the players involved before going upstairs.

Trestman told reporters that he met with Cutler and Jimmy Clausen before discussing it with General Manager Phil Emery, making it clear that it was his decision.

Trestman trotted out the old “best interest of the football team,” line in discussing the swtich, and said he thinks Cutler will be better for it in the long term.

“I’ve seen careers revived from moments like this,” Trestman said. “And I really feel like Jay will do that.”

Of course, all the early speculation is that Cutler’s next start will come for another team, and that they’re protecting him to trade.

Trestman said he “changed my mind,” when asked about previous support of Cutler.

Clausen took the first reps in practice today, and Trestman said this decision only pertained to this week. He said that Cutler would be active and be Clausen’s backup.

“I think we need a lift at quarterback, we need a spark,” Trestman said. “The weight of the world should not be on Jimmy Clausen.”

Nor should the burden of a collapsing franchise.

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Ron Rivera: Cam Newton “probably” starts on Sunday

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Panthers quarterback Cam Newton increased his workload in practice on Thursday and seemed fine on the field as he works toward a full return to action after suffering two transverse process fractures in his back in a car accident last week.

That’s left the Panthers feeling pretty good about Newton’s chances of starting against the Browns. Coach Ron Rivera said, via Steve Reed of the Associated Press, after Thursday’s practice that the team isn’t naming a starter yet because they are “trying to make sure we go through the process” but answered “probably” when asked if he expected Newton would ultimately be the choice.

For his part, Newton said he is not experiencing any pain and that he wants to play if he’s able to play. He added that he doesn’t want to be a “distraction” and that he won’t try to be tough while playing through an injury if it would hurt the team, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the case with no signs that Newton’s presence would be a negative for the Panthers before or on Sunday.

Given all of that, it looks like it would be a surprise if anyone other than Newton starts as Carolina tries to win another game and stay alive in the hunt for the NFC South division title heading into the final weekend of the regular season.

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Philip Rivers back at practice

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Adam Schefter of ESPN reported Thursday that Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has a “more severe” back injury than the team has let on, which created some worry about his status for Saturday’s game.

Rivers, who is also listed as having a chest injury, didn’t practice on Tuesday or Wednesday, although neither he nor coach Mike McCoy expressed much concern about his ability to play against the 49ers. That position got some support on Thursday when he returned to the practice field.

Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego reports that Rivers “didn’t do cartwheels” during the session, but that he stood in the pocket and made throws without difficulty. Since his job calls for him to do the latter and not the former, it would seem that he’s on track to play this week regardless of the condition of his back.

Defensive end Corey Liuget and tight end Ladarius Green also returned to practice for the Chargers, while running back Ryan Mathews remained sidelined by the ankle injury that kept him out of last week’s game.

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LeSean McCoy OK with ceding goal-line work to Chris Polk

Chris Polk AP

The Eagles scored three rushing touchdowns in short yardage against the Cowboys last Sunday night, but none of them were scored by LeSean McCoy.

Chris Polk scored twice and Darren Sproles scored once, leaving McCoy with four rushing touchdowns in 2014 after scoring nine times on the ground last season. The decision to go with other backs didn’t get the Eagles a win, but it did help boost their lagging red zone production and McCoy says he’s fine handing off those carries to Polk if it helps the club.

Some of the short-yardage stuff, Polk’s obviously a little bit more powerful back, so they’ve been giving him some of the runs in short-yardage in a couple games, especially last game,” McCoy said, via CSNPhilly.com. “He’s not getting all of them, but if it helps the team, that’s what I’m going to do. There’s just some plays on 3rd-and-1 type of situations where I probably wouldn’t have gotten it, where I see him kind of hit a guy, drag a guy and get in there. It’s hard to be selfish with a player like Polk to use him to do those type of things.”

McCoy was careful to say that he feels capable of handling the role and he’s scored on 3-of-10 carries from inside the 5-yard-line this season, but the Eagles feel Polk is a better fit for the job right now. That trumps anything else when vying for a playoff spot in the final weeks, something McCoy seems to understand well.

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