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NFL morning after: Andrew Luck takes his star turn

Andrew Luck AP

You know that 13-play touchdown-scoring drive you saw at the end of the Colts’ win over the Packers on Sunday? That’s what a franchise quarterback is supposed to look like.

Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick who had the biggest pair of shoes to fill in the NFL when he took the place of Peyton Manning as the Colts’ quarterback, did every single thing you’d want a rookie quarterback to do if you’ve just put all of your faith in him as the man to lead your franchise for the next decade or so. He ran the no-huddle offense, he managed the clock, he checked down to tight end Coby Fleener when he needed to, threw deep to receiver Reggie Wayne when he needed to, even took off running and picked up a big first down on a third-and-7. Overall, Luck went 8-for-10 for 90 yards and a touchdown on the drive, which gave the Colts a 30-27 lead with 35 seconds to play.

This was a game in which the Colts, who were heavy underdogs, fell behind 21-3 at halftime. Coming after an impossibly difficult week in which they found out their coach, Chuck Pagano, was hospitalized with leukemia, it would have been easy for the Colts to go into the tank. But Luck wasn’t going to let that happen. He was simply great, completing 31 of 55 passes for 362 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, and adding 24 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown.

Although Manning’s Broncos lost in New England on Sunday, he was outstanding again, with 345 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. And yet no matter how well Manning plays, I doubt there’s anyone in the Colts organization who would take back the decision to release Manning and draft Luck.

With 1,208 yards this season and a 2-2 record, Luck is the first rookie in NFL history to average more than 300 passing yards and lead his team to at least two wins in his first four games. Luck is doing things rookie quarterbacks have never done before. This is what NFL teams dream their rookie quarterback might be able to play like. Luck looks like a star.

Luck was the player who impressed me most on Sunday, but there were a lot of other things I liked, and a few things I didn’t:

The other rookie quarterbacks are pretty good, too. All five of the NFL’s rookie starting quarterbacks — Luck, Washington’s Robert Griffin III, Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden and Seattle’s Russell Wilson — have shown a lot of promise. Griffin was knocked out of the Redskins’ loss to the Falcons early on Sunday, but he’s coming off a September in which he was named the league’s offensive rookie of the month. Tannehill threw for 223 yards and had no turnovers as the Dolphins beat the Bengals. Weeden’s Browns are 0-5, but he’s on pace for 4,121 yards this season, which would break the rookie record of 4,051 that Cam Newton set last season. And Wilson is the one rookie quarterback whose team has a winning record, after the Seahawks improved to 3-2 with a win over the Panthers on Sunday.

I love the intentional safety. What a smart call by Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, leading 16-10 and facing a fourth down on his own 18-yard line with a minute left in the game. Instead of punting, which would have given the Panthers the ball somewhere around midfield, Carroll called for an intentional safety, which allowed the Seahawks to take a little more time off the clock and then take a free kick from the 20-yard line. Whether the score was 16-10 or 16-12, Carroll knew that his defense just had to keep the Panthers out of the end zone to win the game. And taking a little more time off the clock and moving the Panthers back a little bit farther would make that a little bit tougher. A smart strategic decision by Carroll.

Let’s eliminate the term “mild concussion” from the NFL vocabulary. That’s how Redskins coach Mike Shanahan described the injury Griffin suffered on Sunday, and I know Shanahan was just trying to say that Griffin has a good chance of playing next week, but still: The NFL needs to make it clear that there are no “mild” concussions. It was also disconcerting that the Redskins at first only described Griffin as “shaken up” before later acknowledging that he had, in fact, suffered a concussion. The NFL is investigating whether the Redskins’ handling of Griffin followed league protocols for players who suffer head injuries. If nothing else, the Redskins would be wise to stop brushing off concussions as “mild,” or as just a player being “shaken up.”

Chris Johnson stinks. I don’t know what on earth is wrong with Johnson, the Titans running back who held out from training camp last year until the team gave him a $53.5 million contract, but the reality is he’s just not a good football player anymore. Yes, he still has speed and is capable of breaking long runs, but NFL teams need a running back who can gain yardage consistently, not just break long runs occasionally. And when Johnson gained just 24 yards on 15 carries on Sunday against the Vikings, it marked the fourth time in five games this season that Johnson was held under 25 yards. Johnson is averaging just 2.9 yards a carry, a number that gets usually gets NFL running backs cut. He’s terrible.

Take a minute to appreciate Johnny Unitas. When Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass on Sunday night, making it the 48th consecutive game in which he had done so, he was breaking a record that Johnny Unitas set in 1960 — 1960! Think how different the NFL passing game was in 1960. In 1960, Unitas led the league with 25 touchdown passes. In 2011 there were nine different quarterbacks with more than 25 touchdown passes. The game has changed so much that it’s amazing any passing record could last for more than half a century, but Unitas’s record did. The Colts sure have had some great quarterbacks.

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Antonio Brown will return punts again this year

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

Antonio Brown plays a big role in the Steelers offense, but that won’t be his only role in the coming season.

Coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that the team will use Brown as a punt returner this season as well. There was some thought that the addition of the speedy Dri Archer in the draft would lead to a change in roles for Brown, but Tomlin said that Archer will only be an option for the team alongside Brown.

That announcement naturally leads to thoughts about the injury risk that Brown will take on by expanding his portfolio, but Tomlin said that the team won’t live in fear of injury when it comes to deploying a player they believe can help them.

“He is a Pro Bowl caliber return man, so that’s how you play him,” Tomlin said of Brown, via the team.

There’s no question that Brown has skills with two career punt return touchdowns and a 12.8-yard average on returns last season. He’s also a Pro Bowl caliber receiver, though, and losing that would likely hurt the Steelers much more than going with Archer or others as the full-time punt return options.

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Jim Harbaugh says he won’t keep a player guilty of domestic violence

Jim Harbaugh AP

When 49ers Ray McDonald was arrested for felony domestic violence this weekend, he became the first test case for the league’s new, tougher policy on the matter.

But he’ll also test his own coach’s long-held attitude toward players who put their hands on women.

During his regular appearance on KNBR this morning, Harbaugh made it clear he would not tolerate behavior such that McDonald has been accused of.

“I’ll be very clear,” Harbaugh said, via Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com. “You ask me how I feel about domestic violence. I can be very clear about that. If someone physically abuses a woman and/or physically or mentally abuses or hurts a child then there’s no understanding, there’s no tolerance for that.”

Asked if he would not allow a player convicted of such charges to remain on his team, he replied: “Yes, we would not. We can be very clear.”

McDonald is continuing to practice with the 49ers, and has maintained his innocence. The 49ers have said they’ll continue to investigate, and Harbaugh said he was also convinced he needed to let the legal process play out.

“There are going to be two principles at play here,” Harbaugh said “And one is, I’ll speak for myself, I’ll speak for the 49ers: We’ll not tolerate domestic violence. The second principle, we’re firm believers in due process. And I ask for your understanding on those two principles.”

Those are not mutually exclusive principles. But it does put Harbaugh in stark contrast to his brother John, who has wrapped his arms around running back Ray Rice, whose shamefully light punishment triggered the increased punishment McDonald could face.

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Jim Irsay sentenced to probation, drug testing in plea deal

Jim Irsay, Edgerrin James AP

Colts owner Jim Irsay pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle under the influence on Tuesday, bring an end to the legal case stemming from his arrest in March.

Irsay faced two misdemeanor charges as a result of the arrest, but the second one was dropped as part of a plea deal that left Irsay sentenced to a year of probation. Mike Wells of ESPN.com reports that Irsay, who was found to be under the influence of oxycodone and hydrocodone, will undergo drug testing as a condition of his probation and that his driver’s license has been suspended for one year.

With the legal case now concluded, the question is whether the NFL will also be issuing a suspension as a result of Irsay’s malfeasance. Adam Schefter of ESPN has reported that a six-to-eight-game suspension is expected with a good chance that the league will act quickly to enact the suspension before the Colts open the season against the Broncos on Sunday night.

Irsay had no comment before leaving the Hamilton County courthouse.

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Devon Still has bigger concerns than being on the practice squad

Devon Still AP

On the surface, the Bengals cutting defensive tackle Devon Still and putting him on the practice squad might appear to be a case of a team trying to salvage an underperforming draft pick.

But there’s far more to Still’s story, and the Bengals’ willingness to stand by him.

According to Paul Dehner of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Still’s 4-year-old daughter Leah is battling cancer, and Still admitted he can’t give a game his undivided attention.

“I completely understand where they were coming from,” Still said. “I can’t give football 100 percent right now. In the business aspect they want guys to solely focus on football, which is understandable. We are here to win this city a Super Bowl and right now I am not in a position where I can give football 100 percent of everything I have.”

In a sense, the practice squad is the perfect opportunity for the team to help Still, since he’ll continue to make more than $100,000 if he stays there all year, and he’ll maintain his health insurance at a critical time. But he won’t travel on road trips, so he’ll have the opportunity to spend more time in Philadelphia with his daughter as she begins a fourth round of chemotherapy.

Their loyalty in a profession not known for it is not lost on Still.

“They could have just washed their hands completely of it,” he said. “Say we don’t care what’s going on in his personal life, we just want people who can care 100 percent on football, that’s what they pay us to do. But they thought about my personal issues and allowed me to come back on the practice squad so I still have insurance. They said if I keep working on my physical with my injury and mentally prepared myself to focus on football, then they can move me back up to the roster, so I am not all the way out of the loop. . . .

“The Bengals were loyal to me. I’m not about to up and leave them. Loyalty is something I really need right now because I never know what direction this is going to go with my daughter.”

The Bengals deserve credit for allowing Still the opportunity to deal with a personal crisis, and he hopes to repay them down the line, by playing the kind of football they imagined when they chose him in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

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Kurt Coleman signs with Chiefs

Kurt Coleman AP

Kurt Coleman and Andy Reid are back together again.

Coleman’s agent Blake Baratz announced on Twitter that the safety has signed a contract with the Chiefs for the 2014 season. Coleman was released by the Vikings as Minnesota got down to 53 players over the weekend, but spent the first four years of his career in Philadelphia and played for Reid in three of those seasons.

Coleman made 29 starts while Reid was the Eagles coach, but is ticketed for a backup role in Kansas City. Eric Berry and Husain Abdullah are going to start, but the team was short on experienced depth and Berry’s been bothered by a heel issue throughout the summer.

Kelcie McCray and undrafted rookie Daniel Sorensen are the other safeties currently on the Chiefs roster, although the corresponding roster move to bring Coleman on board could change that. The Chiefs also have five running backs at present, so the move may come from another area.

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Jerry Jones OK with having Orton in Buffalo and Weeden in Dallas

weeden AP

Now that Kyle Orton has returned to football and signed with the Bills, does Cowboys owner and General Manager Jerry Jones have any regrets about releasing Orton from his contract?

Not at all.

Jones said he was expecting Orton to sign with some team at the end of the preseason, and Jones is fine with that because Jones believes the Cowboys have a good backup quarterback in their own right in Brandon Weeden.

It didn’t really surprise me because right at the end, right when we started to camp, Kyle basically came to Dallas and expressed an interest in playing,” Jones said on KRLD-FM, via the Star-Telegram. “But we had decided to go in a different direction. We liked everything Weeden was doing, so it gave us a good chance to take a player that’s got a chance to help us many years into the future. We thought getting Weeden some experience, you could have him where Kyle Orton is pretty quick. That’s not taking anything away from Kyle Orton as much as it is giving Weeden a big plus.”

For now, Jones thinks he made the right move when he let Orton walk and signed Weeden. If Tony Romo goes down, Jones may reconsider.

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PFT Live: Seahawks talk with Curtis Crabtree, PFT Planet calls and tweets

Russell Wilson AP

We’re a little more than 48 hours away from the start of the 2014 season and PFT Live is your spot for everything you need to know about the Packers and Seahawks ahead of the season opener.

We’ll start things off on Tuesday with a visit from Curtis Crabtree of PFT and KJR Radio in Seattle. He’ll give us the latest scoop on what to expect from the Seahawks as they try to pull off the first Super Bowl repeat in many moons. He and Mike Florio will talk about Percy Harvin’s role on the offense, the makeup of the offensive line and much more during the show.

We’re also interested to find out what you want to know about Week One. Florio will answer your questions, so send them in on Twitter — @ProFootballTalk — or by giving a call to 888-237-5269 during the show.

It all gets started at noon ET and you can watch it all live by clicking right here.

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Bucs preparing this week as if Jeff Tedford won’t be there

Jeff Tedford AP

No one can be sure what to expect from the Buccaneers’ offense this year, with a new head coach, a new coordinator and a new quarterback.

The fact we don’t know who’ll call the plays this weekend adds to the mystery.

According to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, the Buccaneers are preparing this week as if offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford won’t be there for the opener against the Panthers.

The 52-year-old Tedford has been out since he was hospitalized for an undisclosed surgery last week. He stopped by the team facility over the weekend, but hasn’t returned to a full work schedule yet.

“Obviously, Jeff’s been leading our offense through the whole offseason, so any time you take a piece away, there can be some disruption,” quarterback Josh McCown said. “But the coaches seem like they are, so far, doing a great job picking up the slack and doing what we need to do.”

Head coach Lovie Smith said Tedford has been working part-time from home, and wouldn’t rule him out of appearing Sunday.

“With technology, you don’t have to be here every second to get work done,” Smith said. “Jeff is involved in what we’re doing right now, having as much input, pretty much as he would have if he was here.”

Quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo called the plays in Thursday’s preseason finale, and would again if Tedford’s not on site.

Arroyo’s never called a play in an NFL game. Then again, neither has Tedford. At this stage, you hope he gets himself well, and doesn’t insert himself into a high-pressure environment before he’s physically able.

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Greetings from Seattle

clinksoccer-600x399 Getty Images

Football really starts this week.  And PFT is on the scene in Seattle for the Thursday night opener against the Packers and Seahawks.

Which means that I had to muster the nerve, fueled by something strong enough to power a jet engine, to walk into a plane (actually, two of them) and to make the long trek west from West Virginia.

Now that I’m here, I’ll be heading over to CenturyLink Field for PFT Live at 9:00 a.m. PT (noon ET) and Pro Football Talk on NBCSN at 2:30 p.m. PT (5:30 p.m. ET).

On Tuesday, Curtis Crabtree joins me from the set for PFT Live, and we’ll also answer your questions.

Later in the week, I’ll be joined by Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent for PFT Live.

It all leads up to Thursday night, when the ball gets kicked to start the season.

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Report: Derek Cox back with Ravens

Derek Cox, Kenny Britt AP

When cornerback Derek Cox was released by the Ravens over the weekend, word was that the team would be bringing him back to the active roster in time for the first week of the regular season.

It looks like that move has come to pass. Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun reports that Cox has re-signed with the team on a one-year deal under the NFL’s minimum salary benefits provision that will have him count $570,000 against the cap while being paid $730,000.

Wilson reports that Cox drew interest from an AFC South team in the last couple of days, but opted to return to the team that signed him shortly after he was released by the Vikings earlier this summer.

With Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Asa Jackson back at practice this week, the Ravens should be at full strength at corner for the season opener against the Bengals. How much time that will leave for Cox is up in the air, but the Ravens probably wouldn’t be bringing him back if they didn’t have a role in mind for him.

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Jacques McClendon named starting center in Jacksonville

Josh Scobee, Jacques McClendon AP

Thanks to Brad Meester, the Jaguars haven’t had to worry about finding a starting center for quite a while.

That changed this year, though. Meester retired after a 14-year career and the Jaguars had to find a replacement for the middle of their offensive line. Their first choice was Mike Brewster, but he struggled so much in the first two preseason games that he wound up being waived off the roster entirely over the weekend. They then turned to Jacques McClendon for the third game and liked his work enough to hand him the starting job for the regular season.

“I don’t have any time to revel about that,” McClendon said, via the Florida Times-Union. “We came in and tried to attack this game plan for the Eagles. I’m really looking forward to making sure we’re on top of our P’s and Q’s and are ready for the game on Sunday.”

McClendon, a 2010 fourth-round pick, made the first two starts of his career at guard for the Jaguars at the end of last season and actually played more guard than center this summer. That should have the Jaguars line growing on the fly as they are starting rookie Brandon Linder at right guard, newcomer Zane Beadles at left guard and Luke Joeckel at left tackle after he opened his NFL career on the right side.

Quarterback Chad Henne will bear some of the brunt of any growing pains in front of him, which likely went into the thought process behind letting Blake Bortles begin his professional days on the bench.

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ESPN clumsily moves on from Michael Sam shower report

Sam AP

As Michael Sam waits for an NFL opportunity that may never come, some think that the reluctance of other teams to add the SEC defensive player of the year to the practice squad flows from the ESPN report regarding his shower habits.

While his shower habits and anything else unrelated to his football skills should have no relevance as to whether he should hold one of the 2,016 jobs currently available in the NFL, the extra attention and potential for external disruption connected to a member of the practice squad could be making some (or perhaps many) teams shy away.

We’ll never know whether Sam would be on a roster if ESPN hadn’t inadvertently complicated his situation by haphazardly trying to share some of its details, even if those details weren’t fully developed.  But we do know more about how the story came to be, courtesy of Richard Deitsch of SI.com.

Deitsch explains how the story of Sam’s habits could have been a real story, if it had been reported the right way — and of course if the facts had supported a conclusion that Sam deliberately was avoiding the shower room when teammates were present.

“In the right hands and with the right reporting, it can be a story,” Outsports.com co-founder Jim Buzinksi told Deitsch. “If one were to determine that Sam was in fact not showering with his teammates and that his behavior is different from the showering habits of the other Rams, that could be a legit story. But it has to be seriously reported and sourced. What Josina Anderson did was throw out one anonymous player who said Sam ‘seemed’ to be holding back showering, then quoted another saying there could be a million reasons why this is. . . .

“It was junk food reporting, devoid of journalistically nutritional value. When Jon Stewart makes you a punchline, you know you have swung and missed.”

ESPN doesn’t seem to be willing to further dissect its K.  ESPN declined to make reporter Josina Anderson available to Deitsch, and she separately declined comment when Deitsch contacted her directly.

That’s a bad decision, on both fronts.  While it’s obvious that ESPN has decided that not talking about the story will end the discussion of it, ESPN needs to fully own it and discuss it and debate it if the media in general is going to actually learn from it.

Deitsch separately learned that Anderson didn’t ask about Sam’s shower habits, and that a player brought up the shower issue in response to a question regarding how Sam is fitting in.  While it hardly excuses the decision to publish those details, which carried many more fingerprints than Anderson’s, it helps paint the full picture about what happened.  If ESPN had cooperated with Deitsch in the same way ESPN hopes that teams and players will cooperate with ESPN, the picture would be even more complete.

Deitsch has other great details that help tell the story about how a story that shouldn’t have been told came to be.

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Cardinals begin stocking practice squad

Patrick Chung, Brittan Golden AP

The Cardinals lost wide receiver Walter Powell to the Jets after putting him on waivers, but they have been able to bring several other players cut on the way to 53 players back to the practice squad.

Wide receiver Brittan Golden is the most experienced member of the squad among the players announced by the team. Golden joined the team last season as a member of the practice squad, but eventually graduated to the active roster. Golden played in five games and made four catches for 136 yards, but the arrivals of John Brown and Ted Ginn made the numbers game a losing one.

The Cardinals haven’t announced the return of defensive tackle Christian Tupou, but Mike Jurecki of FOX Sports 910 reports he’ll also be back with the team. Tupou, claimed on waivers during the offseason, had three tackles in five games for the Bears last year.

Arizona also brought back linebacker Jonathan Brown, tight end Andre Hardy, cornerback Jimmy LeGree, tackle Kelvin Palmer and guard Anthony Steen. There are three spots left to fill on the practice squad.

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$30.87 million fully guaranteed at signing for Watt

Watt Getty Images

More details are trickling in regarding the new contract for Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

Per a source with knowledge of the deal, Watt will receive $30.87 million fully guaranteed at signing.  The source says that the balance converts at the beginning of the 2016 league year.

Which means that, after two more seasons, $51.876 million will be fully guaranteed for Watt.  That’s a far better structure than the Colin Kaepernick deal, which won’t see the injury-only guarantees fully flip for five years.

The structure beyond 2016 still becomes important, because at some point the Texans may have to choose between Watt and linebacker Jadeveon Clowney.  The bigger Watt’s cash and cap numbers after Clowney finishes his third season, the less the Texans will have to pay both of them.

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Texans fill their practice squad

Travis Labhart, Steven Johnson AP

The Texans have named 10 players to their practice squad, including a pair of wide receivers who played their college ball in state.

Texas A&M products EZ Nwachukwu and Travis Labhart are two of the players who will be joining the team for practices this year. Both Labhart (pictured) and Nwachukwu were part of the team’s final round of cuts, something they share with the other eight players named to the squad.

Defensive end Keith Browner, linebacker Max Bullough, tight end Anthony Denham, tackle Matt Feiler, center James Ferentz, guard Alex Kupper, fullback Toben Opurum, and cornerback Marcus Williams.

None of the players were drafted by the Texans, who found room for nine of their 2014 picks on the 53-man roster while safety Lonnie Ballentine wound up on injured reserve.

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