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Calvin Johnson is in midseason form

Calvin Johnson AP

NFL superstars rarely have 100-yard games in the preseason, because superstars rarely stay in preseason games long enough to reach 100 yards. But Lions receiver Calvin Johnson only needed to play a couple minutes into the second quarter on Friday night in Baltimore to top 100 yards receiving.

Johnson had a nifty 18-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter, giving him five catches for 111 yards on the day — not bad for less than 18 minutes of work.

The biggest play for the Lions’ offense came at the start of that touchdown drive, when the Lions were backed up deep in their own territory. Matthew Stafford dropped back into the Lions’ end zone, looked to his left and fired downfield toward Johnson. The ball traveled about 50 yards in the air and landed right in the hands of Megatron, who was fairly well covered but still had no trouble making the catch for a 57-yard gain.

Johnson can also help the Lions without making a catch: On the Lions’ next drive after the touchdown, they picked up a first down on an illegal contact penalty when Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith had to bump Johnson to keep him from getting past him.

It’s only Week Two of the preseason, but Stafford and Johnson appear to be in midseason form.

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NFL V.P. Adolpho Birch struggles to justify Ray Rice suspension

Ray Rice AP

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has not yet spoken publicly on the controversial two-game suspension given to Ravens running back Ray Rice for assaulting his wife. But one of Goodell’s top deputies, NFL V.P. of labor policy and government affairs Adolpho Birch, went on the radio this morning in an attempt to explain. It did not go well.

Birch’s appearance on this morning’s Mike & Mike was so bad — so totally incapable of justifying the relatively light punishment handed to Rice — that host Mike Greenberg felt the need after the interview to address the listeners who had contacted the show to express their frustration with Birch’s evasions. Greenberg said he was frustrated by Birch’s evasions, too.

“I’m a little taken aback by the conversation, to be honest with you. The reaction is overwhelming and no one seems to think that he did a particularly good job of answering the questions,” Greenberg said minutes after the interview with Birch ended. “I do not feel that most people listening to that discussion feel they got an adequate explanation of how they arrived at two games.”

So how did the NFL arrive at two games for Rice? Well, Birch didn’t really have much of an answer. At one point he said the NFL was “bound in large part by precedent in prior cases.” But Birch said that just moments after insisting that prior cases — particularly the suspension of Ben Roethlisberger after he was accused of (but not criminally charged with) sexual assault — couldn’t be compared to the Rice case.

Birch also refused to answer whether the NFL is aware of information that isn’t available to the general public, such as surveillance camera footage beyond what has been widely distributed showing Rice dragging his unconscious then-fiancee out of an elevator. But Birch insisted that a two-game suspension without pay isn’t a minor punishment.

“It is multiple games and hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think it’s fair to say that doesn’t reflect that you condone the behavior,” Birch said.

But the question isn’t whether the NFL condones a player beating up his wife. The question is whether the NFL is willing to take severe disciplinary actions against a player who beats up his wife. And the answer to that question is a resounding, “No.” The NFL hands out longer suspensions for everything from getting caught smoking pot repeatedly, to taking Adderall without filling out the necessary paperwork to — in the case of Roethlisberger — being accused of crimes without any arrests or charges. For the NFL to come down harder on pot smokers, Adderall users and players who weren’t evan arrested than it came down on Rice is baffling and requires an explanation.

Birch may have been trying to explain, but he failed. Greenberg said that in the minutes after the interview, the show got thousands of reactions via Twitter and email and that, “I can’t find a single one of them that said, ‘Well, that explained it for me.’ Literally not a single one.”

After Birch’s unsuccessful attempt to to explain the suspension, it’s time for Goodell to step up. NFL fans want to know why Ray Rice got off easy, and they want to hear it from Goodell.

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Ray Rice doesn’t appeal suspension, fine

Ray Rice, Janay Palmer AP

There are plenty of people who felt that the league did not impose the proper discipline on Ravens running back Ray Rice last week when they suspended him for two games and fined him an additional game check from the 2013 season in response to Rice’s February arrest for assaulting his wife and subsequent entry into a pre-trial diversion program.

The reaction of those people, most of whom saw the footage of Rice dragging an unconscious Janay Palmer out of an elevator, has been that Rice was not punished severely enough by a league that they feel has imposed harsher discipline on others for less egregious offenses.

Rice is not among the displeased. He had three days to appeal the penalty, but Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that window closed without Rice making any attempt to plead his case for a lighter penalty. Given the overwhelmingly negative response to the league’s initial decision and their actions in comparable situations, Rice probably didn’t have much chance of getting the penalty reduced and reacted accordingly.

That means he’ll miss the first two games of the season, but will be able to participate in training camp and preseason games before the suspension kicks in.

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Kelvin Benjamin getting a “precautionary MRI”

Kelvin Benjamin AP

The Panthers added a bunch of guys to their receiving corps this offseason, pinning much of the hope on first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin.

Now, they have to hope he’s well.

The Panthers announced this morning that Benjamin was “getting a precautionary MRI” after banging knees with a teammate in practice yesterday.

Benjamin wasn’t going to replace veteran Steve Smith immediately anyway, but if he’s out any amount of time, they could be in real trouble throwing the ball.

Though they’ll go two-tight end more (or maybe three), their next-best options at wide receiver are Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery.

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Redskins sign Everette Brown

Drew Brees, Everette Brown AP

Everette Brown has landed with yet another NFC East club.

According to ESPN’s John Keim, the Redskins have reached a deal with the 26-year-old Brown, who likely will play outside linebacker in Washington’s 3-4 scheme.

Brown (6-1, 263) appeared in seven games for Dallas in 2013, recording 10 tackles and one sack. The Cowboys released him earlier in the offseason. Brown has also spent time with Carolina (2009-2011), San Diego (2011-2012), Detroit (2012) and Philadelphia (2013). Overall, Brown has played in 38 regular season games, notching seven sacks.

A Florida State product, the Panthers selected Brown in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft, trading a 2010 first-round selection to San Francisco in the process.

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Panthers offensive lineman Travelle Wharton to retire

Jacksonville Jaguars v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

Longtime Panthers guard Travelle Wharton might not have shrunk quite like his old teammate Jordan Gross, but he’s going to have the opportunity.

According to Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer, Wharton will announce his retirement Tuesday at a press conference at Panthers training camp.

The 2004 third-round pick spent most of his 10 years in the NFL with the Panthers, coming back last year as an injury replacement and playing fairly well.

But he ultimately decided not to try that route again, and will likely join Gross on the sidelines, getting skinny.

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PFT on NBCSN, PFT Live return today

NBCUniversal Logos

Now that that Tour de France thing is over, Pro Football Talk returns to NBCSN.  We’re back on the air at 5:30 p.m. ET, with Kevin Gilbride and Brian Westbrook in studio, along with today’s co-host, Dave Briggs.

Before that, I’ll get back on the non-Tour de France thing bike with PFT Live, the web show that streams right here (click the box in the right rail), featuring a visit from Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News and your Twitter questions at phone calls.

PFT Live starts at noon ET.  Which means I have to shower and shave a lot earlier than I have at any time during the last three weeks, when frankly there hasn’t been much showering and/or shaving.

The best news is that I should be able to sleep inside the house tonight.

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Steven Jackson bought into his own hype last season

Steven Jackson AP

Steven Jackson was used to carrying a bad Rams team, so it’s perhaps natural he thought he’d be the thing that pushed an already good Falcons team over the top.

Instead, the season was as much of a disaster for him as for them, with his streak of 1,000-yard seasons ending at eight, and the Falcons falling miserably to 4-12.

“There were quite a few of the years in St. Louis when I shouldered a large burden, and I knew going into every season what I was going into,” Jackson said, via Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “When I came here last year, I kind of believed my own hype. The team was so close to going to the Super Bowl, and I thought I was going to be the missing link. Then reality slaps you. It’s still a team sport.

“This year I know I don’t have to shoulder the burden of carrying the franchise. I’m not the missing piece, I’m just one piece. I feel comfortable knowing that I can still compete at a high level. But all of the unnecessary stress is gone.”

The Falcons actually need Jackson to be a bigger piece this year. With tight end Tony Gonzalez retired, there’s a big offensive void that someone needs to fill.

Being well would be a good first step, since Jackson’s career-low numbers last year were attributed to a hamstring problem that bothered him throughout. But the Falcons also fixed their disaster of an offensive line, so the cumulative result should be a better chance for Jackson to get back to being himself.

 

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Chris Rainey cut for disciplinary reasons, not football reasons

raineypagano AP

For the second time in his brief NFL career, running back Chris Rainey has been cut for off-field reasons.

Rainey was cut by the Colts today for violating team rules, Adam Schefter ‏of ESPN reports. Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star adds that the release is conduct related and that head coach Chuck Pagano plans to provide more details.

What’s clear is that the decision was not about Rainey’s performance on the football field at training camp, which is consistent with what Pagano has been saying about Rainey: Pagano raved over the weekend about how much he likes Rainey, and when running back Vick Ballard was lost for the season with a knee injury, it appeared that Rainey would play an important role on the team as a backup running back as well as a kick returner.

Instead, Rainey has been released for something he did off the field. We don’t know exactly what that “something” was, but we do know that this has happened to Rainey before: The Steelers cut him shortly after his rookie year ended following an arrest on a charge of battery against his girlfriend. Now that Rainey has blown his second chance with the Colts, he’ll have to hope some team is willing to give him a third chance.

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No practice for Arian Foster on Monday

Arian Foster AP

The Texans played much of last season without running back Arian Foster because of a back injury, making life more difficult for their offense and creating some worry when Foster had to leave Sunday’s practice early.

The good news is that the reason for his departure, which came with the assistance of a cart, didn’t seem to have anything to do with his back. He was getting his legs stretched out on the sideline before riding the cart to the trainer’s room and the Texans didn’t express much concern about his status.

“Is Arian OK? As far as I know,” coach Bill O’Brien said, via CSNHouston.com.

Whatever the issue — Foster dealt with hamstring troubles in training camp last year — it is enough to keep the back off the practice field during Monday’s first padded practice of camp as well. It may just be precautionary as the Texans try to keep a small problem from blossoming, but it will certainly be something to watch given Foster’s recent injury history. Andre Brown will likely see a few more reps with Foster out of the lineup.

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Browns, agents explain Jason Pinkston has “not been medically cleared”

Pinkston Getty Images

On Sunday, no one would say anything about the absence of Browns offensive lineman Jason Pinkston from training camp.  On Monday, the team and Pinkston’s agents issued a brief, two-sentence statement on the situation.

“Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Jason Pinkston has not been medically cleared to participate in football activities,” the Browns and agents Neil Schwartz and Jonathan Feinsod said.  “The team has been in communication with Jason and his representatives and will respect their wishes to not provide any further details at this time.”

The situation sparked plenty of speculation that Pinkston is holding out, given that Schwartz & Feinsod have a reputation for holding out their clients.  That’s apparently not the case, but the absence of complete information invites all sorts of additional guesswork.

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The incredible shrinking Jordan Gross

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Players come to camp every year saying they’re in the best shape of their life.

Former Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross clearly means it.

According to Adam Morgan of Black and Blue Review, Gross has dropped 70 pounds since retiring this offseason, from 305 down to 235.

“I don’t like it. I’m not a big fan of it. I think he looks kind of weird. He looks really unhealthy,” Panthers center Ryan Kalil cracked. “The problem is, he’s walking around and checking himself out in the mirror, and he thinks he looks cool. He just looks bad. And I’ve told him that many times.”

Gross will take it, even with the jabs coming from every direction.

“My wife’s freaking out. She says she’s having an affair on me with me,” Gross said. “I’ve been asked if my brother plays pro football. People look at me funny. I was actually out on our boat, and this girl said, ‘Are you Jordan Gross?’ and I said, ‘No. He’s fatter than I am.’ And she said, ‘Yeah and you’re probably better at football than him, too.’”

The shame of it is, he had finally grown into his ears, which are now again one of his more prominent features.

All jokes aside, the alarming rate at which Gross has dropped the weight underscores how hard it was for him to stay big enough to compete in the NFL. He looks like a fit person now, if not one who spent 12 years playing offensive line.

Photo credit: Black and Blue Review

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Matt Forte wants to disprove notions about aging running backs

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers Getty Images

There aren’t many walks of life when someone who is 28 is considered aging, but that’s the case for running backs in the NFL.

The much-feared 30th birthday isn’t too far away and any potential sign of slippage becomes a reason to worry that a back has hit the wall that separates the productive phase of their career from the final grinding years before retirement. Bears running back Matt Forte turns 29 in December and hopes to change some of the notions that we have about running backs that age during the 2014 season.

“I want to break the stereotype of old running backs going downhill,” Forte said, via the Chicago Tribune. “This offseason I feel better than I have the past five or six offseasons. I got my rest and I know how to take care of my body now. Yeah, it is going to be harder and harder every year, but as long as you continue to have your set routine and stick to it, and a lot of prayer too, that helps a lot. Health is the main deal.”

Health helped Forte stay on the field most of the time last season on his way to career highs in rushing yards and receptions and a third-place finish in total yards from scrimmage. It’s a strong argument against the start of the decline phase of his career, but it was also the most touches in the league and the cumulative effect of those touches could impact Forte this season. They’ll look to rookie Ka’Deem Carey to take some of those touches this season in hopes of keeping Forte fresh, but more production like 2013 will make it hard to keep Forte from showing that 28 is the new 25.

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Retirement decisions carry more weight this year

GETTY_H_110210_BrainScan Getty Images

When the concussion settlement was first announced in August 2013, the parties agreed that any retired players as of the date on which the deal received preliminary court approval would be part of the class of former players who would be eligible for benefits.  Although Judge Anita Brody gave preliminary approval three weeks ago, a source with knowledge of the situation tells PFT that the plaintiffs’ lawyers and the NFL likely would not fight the addition of players like receiver Sidney Rice, who retired last week due to his history of concussions.

For other players currently considering whether to walk away from football, the closing window (assuming it isn’t already closed) for participating in the concussion settlement should be a significant factor in the final analysis.  For now, any players who choose to retire land in a gray area.  As the date for final approval of the settlement approaches, at some point it will be too late.

And while players who retire after it’s too late to join the concussion settlement could file their own concussion lawsuits, the person who brokered the deal explained that future claims likely will fail.

“For a variety of reasons, the underlying theory of this lawsuit about what took place in the past would be difficult to replicate in the future,” Judge Layn Phillips said in a document explaining the settlement.  “Everyone now has a much deeper and more substantial understanding about concussions, and how to prevent and manage them, than they did 20 or even 10 years ago, and the information conveyed to players reflects that greater understanding.  In addition, the labor law defenses asserted by the NFL would represent a very substantial barrier to asserting these kinds of claims going forward.  The combination of advances in medical research, improved equipment, rules changes, greater understanding of concussion management, and enhanced benefits should, and hopefully will, prevent similar lawsuits in the future.”

It means that, if a player has concerns about a history of concussions, whether known to his team or kept secret, and is considering retiring for other reasons, potential participation in the concussion settlement could be a factor.

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LeSean McCoy throws some shade Chris Johnson’s way

LeSean McCoy AP

Maybe Eagles running back LeSean McCoy’s feelings were a little hurt, that former teammate Michael Vick was willing to race him last year, but won’t run against new Jets teammate Chris Johnson.

So the man called Shady threw some shade in the direction of the artist formerly known as CJ2K.

“That’s Mike for you,” McCoy said, via Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com. “Ask him who the best back is, he’ll tell you me.”

While few would argue that McCoy is the better back at the moment, the insecurity is a bit troubling. And Vick might not want to dump on his new teammate just to spare the feelings of a former, slower one.

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Jerry Jones was “that close” to taking Johnny Manziel

Romo AP

Yes, the Cowboys were close to drafting Johnny Manziel.  How close?

Very close.

“I want you to know that almost as I was handing in the card, it was that close to putting that Manziel card in. It was that close,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Sunday on NFL Network, via Clarence E. Hill, Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.  “I looked over to my son, Stephen . . . and I said, ‘I took the right pick.  [Zack Martin] was the top player by three players on our board at the time that we were sitting there looking at [Manziel]. . . .  The question was, ‘Could we make it work with Tony Romo during the period of time that we are going to have Tony?’  And by the way, my expectations are that Tony will be our quarterback several years to come as we move along.”

It’s easy for Jones to say that now.  In fact, it’s necessary, given that the Cowboys didn’t pick Manziel.  But if Manziel had been the pick, how many years could the Cowboys have parked him on the bench behind Romo?  And how relentless would the questions have been regarding Manziel’s elevation to starter?

“Manziel is special,” Jones said.  “I know him personally. I know that he is going to be a success in the National Football League, and it was a hard decision. And it is one that I will probably have for the rest of my career think about.”

Jones won’t have to personally confront the decision until 2016, when the Cowboys are due to visit Cleveland.  If Romo’s back problems have forced him to retire by then and if Manziel has become a quality starter, Jones will be thinking about it a lot.

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