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NFL morning after: Luck has the Colts on the way to the playoffs

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Luck looks for a receiver against the Miami Dolphins during the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Indianapolis Reuters

Andrew Luck was supposed to be this good. Just not this soon.

Everyone knew long before this year’s NFL draft that Luck would be the first overall pick, and everyone figured that Luck would eventually become a good franchise quarterback and lead the Indianapolis Colts back from last year’s disastrous 2-14 season without Peyton Manning and into the playoffs again. But did anyone really think Luck could lead the Colts to the playoffs as a rookie?

That’s what Luck has a real chance of doing after the Colts’ win on Sunday against the Dolphins, when Luck completed 30 of 48 passes for an NFL rookie record 433 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, as the Colts won 23-20 and improved to 5-3 on the season. Only two teams in the AFC — the Texans and Ravens — have better records than the Colts, who are the leaders in the AFC wild card race at the halfway point of the season.

“No one cares about your record at this point of the season,” Luck said after the game. “It’s all about making it to the playoffs. Obviously, it was a step in the right direction. I am proud of that, but we haven’t accomplished the end goal by any means.”

Will the Colts accomplish their goal of making the playoffs this year? I don’t know, but I do know that there are at least four games left on their schedule in which they should be favored: Thursday night at Jacksonville, Week 12 at home against the Bills, Week 14 at home against the Titans and Week 16 at Kansas City. If the Colts do nothing more than win those four games, they’ll have a 9-7 record, which is probably going to be good enough to make the playoffs in the mediocre AFC. For the worst team in the league last season, a 9-7 record and a wild-card berth would represent an enormous step forward.

And it’s a step that they’re taking primarily because of Luck, who has complete command of the Colts’ offense and a veteran’s mastery of reading through his progressions and finding open receivers. Luck also has a beautiful NFL arm, as he showed on his 36-yard touchdown strike to T.Y. Hilton on Sunday. At age 23, Luck isn’t a good quarterback prospect. He’s a good quarterback right now. And he may be a starting quarterback in a playoff game in two months.

Luck turned in my favorite performance of this Sunday in the NFL. Here are my other thoughts:

Turn your microphone off, ref. Dolphins-Colts referee Tony Corrente got into a shouting match with one of his fellow officials and yelled an expletive — with his microphone on, for all the fans and the TV audience to hear. The NFL’s officiating department will surely remind Corrente that he needs to make sure his mic is turned off after he’s done making an announcement.

Is this pro wrestling? The most shocking moment on Sunday came when Browns linebacker Kaluka Maiava lifted Ravens left tackle Michael Oher and slammed him to the ground. Oher, who as the subject of The Blind Side is the NFL’s most famous offensive lineman, weighs 315 pounds and isn’t easy to throw around. But if there’s any NFL player who can do pull off a wrestling-style takedown of Oher, we shouldn’t be surprised that it was Maiava: He’s the nephew of pro wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Ed Reed is as good a safety as the NFL has ever seen. Reed, who recorded the 60th interception of his NFL career in the Ravens’ 25-15 win over the Browns, has been brilliant in pass coverage during his 11-year career. But my favorite thing about him is the way he turns into a playmaker when he gets the ball in his hands: Reed is the all-time leader in interception return yards, with 1,507, and his average of 25.1 yards per interception return ties him with his old teammate Deion Sanders for the best average ever for a player with at least 30 interceptions. He would have been a great two-way player.

Christian Ponder better turn things around in a hurry. Ponder had a hot start this season and the Vikings won four of their first five games. Now he’s gone into a tailspin and the Vikings have lost three of their last four. Ponder was terrible in Sunday’s loss in Seattle, completing 11 of 22 passes for 63 yards, for a pathetic 2.9 yards per pass, with an interception. After looking like playoff contenders at the start of the season, the Vikings are now a loss to the Lions this week away from being in last place in the NFC North.

Doug Martin is amazing. Have you seen what Martin, the Buccaneers’ rookie running back, has been doing lately? Martin had 25 carries for 251 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday in Oakland, just the second time in NFL history a player had 250 yards and four touchdowns in a game. Martin is a phenomenal athlete with great speed, but I also love what a smart runner Martin is. As Martin raced down the sideline on his 67-yard touchdown, he saw that Raiders safety Matt Giordano was gaining on him. Giordano is one of the fastest players in the NFL, one of the few players who could catch Martin from behind, and Martin saw that Giordano was bearing down on him. So Martin wisely put on the brakes and allowed Giordano to run right past him before cutting back inside and getting into the end zone. Martin was just named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the month for October, and he played his best game yet on the first game day of November. No one is playing the running back position better than Martin right now.

Peyton is the king of the comebacks. Manning’s Broncos trailed 20-17 in the fourth quarter against the Bengals, but on the strength of his two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, the Broncos ended up winning 31-23. Sunday’s game featured Manning’s 48th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, passing Dan Marino for the most comeback wins for any quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, which is as far back as those records are kept. Manning is continuing to show in his first season in Denver that he’s among the handful of players in the conversation about the greatest quarterback ever to play the game. It says something about how well Luck has played that the fans in Indianapolis don’t seem to miss Manning right now.

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Charles gets $8.3 million guaranteed

Charles Getty Images

Omitted from the news regarding the new contract obtained by running back Jamaal Charles from the Chiefs was the amount of the four-year, $28 million contract that is guaranteed.

It was possibly omitted because it wasn’t an eye-popping number.

Per a league source, only the first year of the deal is guaranteed, which it would have been as of Week One of the regular season anyway.  The total amount is $8.3 million, a dramatic increase in the $3.9 million Charles was due to earn in 2014.

Nothing beyond 2014 is guaranteed.  So if the Chiefs were to cut Charles after this season, he’d hit the market with $8.3 million in his pocket from the upcoming season.

Charles probably could have given up some of the total dollars in exchange for getting some injury-only guarantees in future years.  But why bother?  The money only gets paid in the event of a serious injury.  For what the player would have to sacrifice by way of salary, it makes more sense in some situations to simply buy a disability policy.

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Griffin takes another shot at the Shanahans

Griffin AP

Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III has made little effort to conceal something that should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention to the team — Griffin and former coach Mike Shanahan and former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan didn’t see eye to eye.

Last month, Griffin applauded the absence of “ulterior motives” in the organization this year.  On Thursday, Griffin took a more direct, but still passive-aggressive, dig at the Shanahans, when asked by reporters about Griffin’s supposed inability to read defenses.

“You don’t go from the ability to read defenses one year and not have that ability the next, so I don’t believe that one bit,” Griffin said.  “And it’s really just a good thing to have two coaches that believe in you.  Sean and Jay have done a great job.  They’ve given me a lot on my shoulders in that quarterback room and I cherish that.  You want to be asked to do more or just to do the bare minimum.”

The comments imply that the Shanahan didn’t “believe” in Griffin, and that they wanted him to do “the bare minimum” when running the offense.

Then again, the latter observation could be a reflection of Kyle Shanahan’s approach to the quarterback position, given that past pupils like Rex Grossman have described Kyle as wanting the quarterback to run the offense precisely the way Shanahan wants it to be run, with limited discretion or thought on the part of the quarterback.  It’ll be interesting to see whether Kyle Shanahan insists on that kind of structure from his latest pupil, the man named Johnny Football who plays some of his best football when the predetermined plan has landed in the johnny.

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Aldon Smith says he’s remained sober, expects to meet with Goodell soon

Aldon Smith AP

With word of Ravens running back Ray Rice’s two-game suspension being announced on Thursday, we may be drawing closer to learning what kind of discipline the league has in store for 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith.

Smith pleaded no contest to three weapons charges and a DUI this offseason and reports were that he’d meet with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell soon to discuss his situation. On Thursday, Smith confirmed, via Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, that he expects to have a meeting with Goodell soon but that no date has been set yet.

Barrows also reports that Smith said he has remained sober since checking into a rehab facility after being arrested for DUI last September. Smith missed five games while in rehab, something Goodell said could be a factor in any penalty that is ultimately handed down.

The sobriety may also help persuade Goodell to opt for lesser discipline, but Smith has racked up enough negatives that it would be surprising if he’s in the 49ers lineup for the first few weeks of the regular season.

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Mike Priefer: I’ve learned a hard lesson

Minnesota Vikings Media Access Getty Images

The Vikings suspended special teams coach Mike Priefer last Friday night after an investigation into claims by the team’s former punter Chris Kluwe that Priefer made homophobic remarks while speaking to the team.

Priefer made his first public comments about the suspension, which is for three games with the potential to go down to two games after Priefer completes sensitivity training, and said he made a mistake that went “way below the bar” by making the remarks. Priefer reiterated the apology that he made on Friday and said he’s learned a lesson.

“I’m not going to change the way I coach and I’m not going to change the way I teach,” Priefer said, via the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “But I’ve learned a lesson. I have learned a lesson here. That’s a great thing about this situation, I’m going to look back and say something good had to come from this. But I learned a hard lesson, I’ve got to be sensitive to other people in what I say and that’s not going to happen again.”

Priefer didn’t go into specific detail about what he said and will undergo sensitivity training during the first week of the regular season. General Manager Rick Spielman indicated that the team considered firing Priefer, but thought a suspension was more appropriate. Coach Mike Zimmer said he stands behind Priefer because he’s a good person that made a mistake.

“We all make mistakes,” Zimmer said. “We all try to learn from our mistakes. And I think this guy is a very high-character, quality person that I want to stand behind. Honestly, I want to stand behind him because I know what is inside of him, I know what’s in his heart. And he made a mistake, and if anyone here hasn’t made a mistake, I want you to raise your hand, because I know I’ve made plenty.”

Kluwe and the Vikings are working toward a settlement that would avoid a lawsuit from Kluwe alleging wrongful discharge and defamation of character. Should that happen, Priefer and the team will be closer to fulfilling Priefer’s desire to “move on” from the investigation.

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Pierre-Paul says he’s “110 percent,” thinks he’ll remain with Giants past 2014

Jasn Pierre-Paul AP

After going 7-9 last season, there are several Giants veterans on the spot heading into the 2014 season.

Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is right at the top of that list. Pierre-Paul battled injuries early and late while putting forth performances far below the standard he set on the way to a Super Bowl title in 2011, leading him to call it a “lost year” on Thursday. Getting Pierre-Paul back to form is big for a team that doesn’t have many proven pass rushers and it’s big for Pierre-Paul as well.

He’s entering the final year of his contract and what was once assumed to be a big extension is less certain after Pierre-Paul’s poor 2013. The defensive end says he’s “110 percent” now, though, and expects to remain with the team.

“I’m not gonna lie,” Pierre-Paul said, via the New York Post. “Seeing Tuck gone, it’s on my mind a little bit. I think I’m going to be here next year. Honest. Because I know how I play and I know what kind of game I bring.”

Listing the players who are 110 percent or in the best shape of their lives heading into training camp would take most of the month, so such statements should always be taken with an oversize grain of salt. Pierre-Paul has to produce once the whistle blows or his future, Giants or otherwise, is going to be a lot dimmer than it was 12 months ago.

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Report: Jordy Nelson’s looking for $10 million a year

Jordy Nelson Charity Softball AP

Jordy Nelson is definitely a wide receiver.

And he wants to get paid like one of the best.

According to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, a source familiar with the negotiations said Nelson wants a deal “worth at least $10 million per season.”

Nelson’s currently working on the final year of the three-year, $12.6 million deal he signed in 2011, and his $4.2 million per season average is 34th among all receivers.

And since he signed that deal early during the 2011 season, he’s averaged 67 catches, 1,107 yards and 10 touchdowns per season.

With Roddy White cashing in with the Falcons today, the bar was raised again for Nelson, who just turned 29 years old.

The Packers would like to keep Nelson and Randall Cobb (who is also up for free agency after this season), but they might find themselves in a spot where they can afford one or the other, but not both.

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Titans agree with first-round pick Taylor Lewan

Taylor Lewan AP

The final unsigned 2014 draft pick has reached a deal.

The Titans announced Thursday they had agreed to a contract with first-round selection Taylor Lewan, an offensive tackle from Michigan.

The No. 11 overall pick, Lewan (6-7, 309) has played both left and right tackle in the offseason. It’s possible he could challenge veteran Michael Oher at right tackle.

Lewan made 48 starts at left tackle for the Wolverines, earning a variety of All-American honors as a junior and as a senior. He was the third offensive lineman selected in May.

Lewan faces an October trial on assault and battery and aggravated assault charges related to a December incident in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Newsome calls Rice suspension “fair,” Rice doesn’t say whether he’ll appeal

Ray Rice AP

The suspension of Ray Rice has become official, which means that more statements will be issued from folks directly affected by the outcome.

“We appreciate the thorough process the league office used to evaluate the incident with Ray Rice,” Ravens G.M. Ozzie Newsome said in a statement issued by the team.  “The time the Commissioner spent with Ray and Janay is typical of the extra steps the NFL takes when making decisions regarding discipline issues. While not having Ray for the first two games is significant to our team, we respect the league’s decision and believe it is fair.

“We also respect the efforts Ray has made to become the best partner and father he can be. That night was not typical of the Ray Rice we know and respect. We believe that he will not let that one night define who he is, and he is determined to make sure something like this never happens again.”

Rice stopped short of calling the suspension “fair,” which possibly means he’ll exercise his right to an appeal.  He nevertheless continues to accept responsibility for his behavior.

“It is disappointing that I will not be with my teammates for the first two games of the season, but that’s my fault,” Rice said in a statement issued by the team (which is the paper equivalent of a press conference with no questions allowed from the press, which Rice did in May).  “As I said earlier, I failed in many ways.  But, Janay and I have learned from this. We have become better as a couple and as parents. I am better because of everything we have experienced since that night.  The counseling has helped tremendously.

“My goal is to earn back the trust of the people, especially the children, I let down because of this incident.  I am a role model and I take that responsibility seriously.  My actions going forward will show that.”

Neither statement addresses the broader issue of domestic violence, and neither the Ravens nor Rice have said or done anything use this incident as a way to help reduce situations where men strike their wives, fianceés, girlfriends, or any other people (male or female) they regularly encounter in their day-to-day lives.

Maybe the $705,000 that the Ravens won’t be paying to Rice should be donated to one or more groups that support the victims of domestic violence, and maybe Rice should match the amount of his financial penalty with an equal donation.  Some would call the gesture transparent or hollow, but it would have far more tangible impact than generating a page of quotes that avoid acknowledging what happened — Rice threw a punch at the woman he supposedly loves, and he knocked her out cold.

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Jaguars owner says they won’t cut Justin Blackmon

Shad Khan

The Jaguars have every pragmatic reason to distance themselves from Justin Blackmon.

But owner Shad Khan said he’s not about to release his former first round pick, who has been suspended indefinitely by the NFL and was arrested for marijuana possession last night.

We want him to get help he needs,” Khan said, via John Oehser of the team’s official website.

That sentiment seems to be consistent through the organization, as linebacker Paul Posluszny said: “This is no longer a football issue…We want the best for him. He’s a good kid at heart.”

It’s good to hear the Jaguars embrace a kid (it’s hard to call him a player, since he’s barely played for them since his rookie year) who obviously has some problems.

He showed flashes of talent in 2012, when his play might have justified their investment in him. If he had torn an ACL, they’d have gone to great lengths to get him well, so they could benefit from his labor in the future.

But Blackmon’s problem now is not a physical one, and we hope the Jaguars are sincere in getting him the help he needs, even if he never plays another down for them.

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Rice suspended two games, fined a game check

ray-rice Getty Images

The reports regarding the two-game suspension to be imposed on Ravens running back Ray Rice were mostly accurate, but ultimately incomplete.  The league has announced that Rice will be suspended two games and also fined an additional game check.

The decision will result in $705,0882 in lost salary for Rice.  The Ravens also could try to recover $352,941 of Rice’s $15 million signing bonus, paid in 2012.

Since the Ravens play on Thursday night in Week Two, he’ll be back on Friday, September 12, before the rest of the league has played its second game.

“As you acknowledged during our meeting, your conduct was unquestionably inconsistent with league polices and the standard of behavior required of everyone who is part of the NFL,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a letter to Rice.  “The league is an entity that depends on integrity and in the confidence of the public and we simply cannot tolerate conduct that endangers others or reflects negatively on our game. This is particularly true with respect to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women.”

The suspension has been widely criticized as being too soft, even though the league-owned network has described the punishment as an example of the NFL’s iron fist.

That’s an unfortunate metaphor in cases of domestic violence.  In this specific case, many would also say it’s inaccurate.

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John Harbaugh: Ray Rice is a heck of a guy who made a mistake

Baltimore Ravens Training Camp Getty Images

Ravens coach John Harbaugh is standing behind running back Ray Rice, who was suspended for the first two games of the regular season for assaulting his wife.

Harbaugh said today that he and his team would get past the suspension and continue to support Rice, one of the team’s veteran leaders.

“It’s not a big deal, it’s just part of the process,” Harbaugh said, via ESPN. “There are consequences when you make a mistake like that. I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy. He’s done everything right since. He makes a mistake, alright? He’s going to have to pay a consequence. I think that’s good for kids to understand it works that way. That’s how it works, that’s how it should be.”

To many, Harbaugh’s comments will come off as too supportive of Rice, and not reflective enough of the gravity of the situation. That’s also a criticism the Ravens as a franchise received when they arranged a press conference for Rice and his wife in May. Whether Harbaugh meant it this way or not, calling Rice’s crime a “mistake” suggests that it was a relatively minor transgression, and saying that it’s good for kids to learn from it suggests that there’s some kind of silver lining to this story. Harbaugh’s comments struck the wrong note.

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Five questions: Kansas City Chiefs

Reid Getty Images

The Chiefs followed a disastrous 2-14 season with an unlikely trip to the playoffs, followed by an even less likely 38-10 lead at Indy, capped by an even less likely second-half collapse.

For Year Two of the Andy Reid/John Dorsey regime much higher than a year ago, the bar moves higher.  Possibly, too high.

Here are five questions we (or at least I) have about the 2014 edition of the Kansas City Chiefs.

1.  Did they take too many hits in free agency?

A whopping 60 percent of the team’s offensive line bolted for bigger dollars in free agency, led by left tackle Branden Albert.  The team now hopes that Eric Fisher, the first overall pick a year ago, will be able to play better on the left side of the line than the right, where he struggled as a rookie.

Also gone is Dexter McCluster, a versatile weapon who may or may not be replaced effectively by rookie De’Anthony Thomas.

On defense, lineman Tyson Jackson and safety Kendrick Lewis signed elsewhere, and cornerback Brandon Flowers was cut late in the offseason.

The departures, which weren’t offset by many free-agent arrivals, will make it harder to run the streak of playoff appearances to two.

2.  Can they put the playoff collapse behind them?

Maybe it’s good that so many of the old players are gone.  It’ll make it a little easier to get past the playoff collapse if guys who weren’t part of it aren’t still around.

But plenty are still there, and they’ll need to learn from what happened against the Colts without having a wedge arise between the offense and the defense.  Otherwise, whenever the offense builds a lead in 2014 and the defense starts to blow it, “Here we go again” will be the refrain (spoken or otherwise) up and down the Kansas City sideline.

The offense will likely follow the lead of quarterback Alex Smith on this point, especially since his stellar day (378 passing yards, 57 rushing yards, four passing touchdowns, no interceptions) was barely noticed in the aftermath of one of the most deflating losses in franchise history.  If he stays positive when the defense starts to show signs of falling apart, others will be inclined to do the same.

3.  Is Alex Smith the answer at quarterback?

There’s a chance Smith eventually won’t be the guy leading, or cutting off, resentment of defensive failures.  Andy Reid has shown over the last 15 years a knack for getting great performances out of any and every quarterback he coaches, and rookie Aaron Murray could easily become Big Red’s next star pupil.

Smith has one year left on his contract, with the two sides still far apart.  If Smith won’t do a deal on the team’s terms, the team could turn to Murray.

And if the 2014 season goes south quickly, Murray may get a chance at some point to show what he can do before the Chiefs have to essentially choose between Smith and Murray.

4.  How good will Dee Ford be right away?

Before the draft, Dee Ford declared he’s better than Jadeveon Clowney.  Chiefs owner Clark Hunt cautiously has compared Ford to the late Derrick Thomas.

If Ford lives up to either of those assessments, the Chiefs will be able to let Justin Houston walk in free agency and install Ford as the four-letter complement to Tamba Hali.

Or maybe it’s Hali who’ll become expandable after the 2014 season, with the Chiefs opting for the two youngest options at pass rusher.  If we’ve learned nothing else in the past few years, it’s that no high-priced veteran on any team is safe.

5.  Are they nearly done with Dwayne Bowe?

Speaking of high-priced veterans who may be in danger of not being with the team, receiver Dwayne Bowe could be on the outs.  With $11 million in cash due come 2015, Bowe may be on the verge of being a former Chief if he doesn’t increase the production in 2014.

His first season under a five-year, $56 million contract resulted in only 57 catches for 673 yards.  That’s 13 fewer catches and 20 yards less than running back Jamaal Charles, who also ran the ball for 1,287 yards.

Bowe knows that his time is running short if he can’t produce a better return on the investment the Chiefs made not long after Reid and Dorsey arrived.  Otherwise, that cash and cap space will go to someone else.

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Terrance West removed from non-football injury list

Terrance West AP

Terrance West’s stay on the Browns’ non-football injury list was a short one.

The Browns announced Thursday that West, a rookie tailback from Towson, has been removed from the list, clearing the way for him to be on the practice field when Cleveland’s training camp practices begin Saturday.

According to multiple reports, West’s inclusion on the list was related to the club’s conditioning test, but the matter looks to have been quickly squared away — good news for a rookie who could challenge for major work in Cleveland’s backfield.

Three other Browns — offensive lineman Chris Faulk, defensive lineman Jacobbi McDaniel and offensive lineman Jeremiah Warren — were also taken off the non-football injury list and added to active roster, the club said.

The Browns also announced they had waived running back Jourdan Brooks and wide receiver Kenny Shaw. This leaves Cleveland with four open roster spots.

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Jonathan Stewart out a couple of weeks, Edmund Kugbila out for year

Jonathan Stewart, Lavonte David AP

The Panthers dealt with injuries to running back Jonathan Stewart and members of their offensive line throughout last season and they aren’t wasting much time picking up where they left off.

Panthers General Manager Dave Gettleman said on Thursday that Stewart injured his hamstring recently and will miss a week or two of camp while he recovers. The team doesn’t feel it is an overly serious injury, so Stewart will remain on the active roster as opposed to being placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list.

Whether or not this specific injury is serious, it is part of a pattern that doesn’t bode well for Stewart earning a big role in a backfield that also features DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert. He’s played just 15 games over the last two years and has averaged under four yards a carry both seasons while dealing with a variety of aches and pains.

Gettleman also announced that guard Edmund Kugbila will have back surgery in August and miss the entire season. The 2013 fourth-round pick missed his rookie season because of a knee injury and his absence exposes a few more ribs on an already thin offensive line.

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Carl Nicks excused from reporting to Bucs camp for personal reason

Carl Nicks AP

Buccaneers guard Carl Nicks did not participate in voluntary work with the team this spring and wasn’t able to practice during the team’s mandatory minicamp because of the toe injury and resulting staph infection that wiped out his 2013 season, but said in June that he felt like he would be ready to participate in training camp.

The Bucs reported for work on Thursday, but Nicks wasn’t among the players checking in for camp. Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times reports that coach Lovie Smith said that Nicks was excused for the day because of personal reasons.

“It’s part of life. Things come up,” Smith said.

Because of the toe injury, the Bucs have gotten very little return on their free agent investment in Nicks two years ago. He’s played in just nine games for the team and it will continue to be unclear whether he’ll provide much help in the future until he actually gets back on the football field. Smith indicated that Nicks was only excused for Thursday, so Friday should bring more word on how Nicks is feeling and what his future in Tampa looks like.

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