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NFL morning after: The unappreciated Jay Cutler

Bears quarterback Cutler is pressured by Vikings defensive end Griffen during the first half of their NFL football game at Soldier Field in Chicago Reuters

If you don’t like Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, you’re not alone. A poll of fans conducted last season found that Cutler was one of the Top 5 most disliked players in the NFL.

And if you’re looking for reasons not to like Cutler, you saw one when the Bears beat the Vikings on Sunday: Cutler committed one of the dumber penalties of the day when he ran out of bounds and then threw the ball at Vikings cornerback A.J. Jefferson. Throwing the ball at an opponent is an automatic 15-yard penalty, as every NFL player should know. Yes, Cutler can be an idiot sometimes.

But if you don’t think Cutler is a good quarterback, well, you’re wrong. Cutler’s abilities were on display in Sunday’s 28-10 win over the Vikings, but they were even more on display in the way the Bears completely fell apart without him a week ago against the 49ers. And Cutler’s importance to the Bears is on display in every game he misses: In the last three years, in games Cutler both started and finished, the Bears are 26-9. In games Cutler either missed entirely or was knocked out because of an injury in the first half, the Bears are 1-8.

No, Cutler doesn’t put up the kinds of numbers that the NFL’s elite quarterbacks produce, but Cutler doesn’t have anywhere near the kind of offensive talent surrounding him that the NFL’s elite quarterbacks have. The Bears have had one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines for Cutler’s entire tenure in Chicago, and they only got a high-level wide receiver for the first time this year, when they traded for Brandon Marshall.

I believe it’s that Chicago offensive line and that Chicago receiving corps — as well as, yes, acting like a jerk at times by doing things like throwing a ball at an opponent — that has made Cutler one of the most underappreciated players in the NFL. This is a good quarterback, playing on a team that appears headed toward the playoffs, in the NFL’s second-biggest media market, and he should get more credit than he does.

Cutler has a great opportunity, however, to change the way he’s regarded over the next couple of months. With the Bears right in the thick of the NFC playoff race, Cutler has the chance to do what he didn’t do when a knee injury knocked him out of the NFC Championship Game a couple years ago, and play the best football of his career on the biggest stage. I think Cutler is going to open some eyes in December and January. And maybe by February, he won’t be unappreciated anymore.

Here are my other thoughts on Sunday’s games:

Robert Ayers was the toughest player in the league on Sunday. Ayers, a backup defensive end for the Broncos, found out late on Saturday night that his father had died suddenly. But instead of heading home right away, he decided to stay in Kansas City to be there for his team against the Chiefs. Ayers played and played well in a 17-9 win in which the Broncos’ defense shut down the Chiefs’ offense, then was awarded a game ball in the locker room afterward and headed home to tend to his family.

Jared Allen got away with a brutal cheap shot. While his teammate Antoine Winfield was returning an interception, Allen launched himself directly into the head of Bears offensive lineman Lance Louis, delivering a hit that knocked Louis out of the game. Allen said after the game that he thought the hit was legal, but he’s wrong. That’s a blatant penalty that the officials somehow missed, but the league office won’t. Allen is in for a big fine.

The Chiefs got too cute. Kansas City’s opening drive against Denver was running smoothly, with an emphasis on running: Out of the Chiefs’ first nine offensive plays, eight of them were runs, and those eight runs produced 48 yards. So what on earth were the Chiefs thinking with the play they called on third-and-3 in the red zone? Instead of running it again, the Chiefs called a bizarre trick play on which running back Peyton Hillis took the snap, ran to his right, then turned around and threw it to quarterback Brady Quinn. Hillis’s pass showed that there’s a reason he’s not a quarterback: He threw an ugly duck that didn’t even get close, falling to the ground a few feet in front of Quinn. That was a dumb play call that stopped a promising drive.

Something has to be done about the officials, Part 1. Everyone saw the horrendous call on Thanksgiving in which the officials somehow ruled that Texans running back Justin Forsett had run 81 yards for a touchdown, even though he was obviously down after just eight yards. But on Sunday not as many people noticed that the opposite mistake was made in the 49ers-Saints game: San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree caught a pass, got hit, put his hand down to steady himself and kept running, about to break a big play — except that the officials whistled the play dead, wrongly thinking Crabtree had been down. If we can’t count on the officials to get it right on a call as fundamental as whether or not a player was down, what can we count on them to get right?

Something has to be done about the officials, Part 2. Remember during the lockout, how everyone complained that the replacement refs were dragging out the games by taking way too long to make their rulings? No delays from the replacement refs were as bad as the ridiculous delay late in Sunday’s Ravens-Chargers game. After Ray Rice made an amazing play to turn a short pass into a first down on fourth-and-29, the officials delayed the game by a whopping 10 minutes to watch a replay and re-measure the spot of the ball, only to discover that it had been correctly ruled a first down on the field all along. A 10-minute delay late in the fourth quarter of a close game takes all the energy out of the building. Make the call and move on, refs.

Anyone want to help Charlie Batch out? With Batch, the Steelers’ 38-year-old third-string quarterback, pressed into duty on Sunday, the Steelers needed to get big games from their running backs. Instead, Pittsburgh’s four running backs — Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Chris Rainey — combined for just 49 yards on 20 carries, while fumbling six times. Mendenhall and Rainey had two fumbles apiece, while Dwyer and Redman each had one. The Steelers’ eight turnovers were the most for any NFL team in one game since 2001, and the Steelers were upset by the Browns.

Jim Harbaugh made the right decision. Colin Kaepernick is a better quarterback than Alex Smith, and if anyone doubted it before, no one should doubt it after Kaepernick led the 49ers to a big win at New Orleans on Sunday. Harbaugh was wise to bench Smith in favor of Kaepernick, who is now 2-0 as a starter with wins over the Bears (playing without Cutler) and Saints. With Kaepernick under center, the 49ers are going to be a tough team to beat in January. Although if they meet again in the playoffs, I like the Bears’ chances with a healthy Cutler.

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Report: Josh Brent seeks reinstatement, will meet Goodell

Dallas Cowboys v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

Former Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent is reportedly attempting to resume his NFL career.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to meet with Brent by the conclusion of next week, Brent’s agent, Peter Schaffer, told ESPN’s Adam Schefter in a story published Wednesday.

The 26-year-old Brent served a 180-day prison sentence earlier this year after being convicted of intoxication manslaughter in a December 2012 accident that took the life of Cowboys teammate Jerry Brown.

According to ESPN, Brent officially petitioned for reinstatement on Tuesday, the same day he concluded a stay in rehabilitation. Schaffer told ESPN that Brent reached out to Brown’s family for their permission to seek a return to the game, and the family consented.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones indicated Wednesday that the club would weigh bringing back Brent, who retired in July 2013. However, Jones also expressed uncertainty about the reinstatement outcome.

“Well, I will look at that, but I don’t want to get ahead of our self in any way to look presumptuous relative to the commissioner or anybody else in the National Football League,” Jones said. “I don’t want to do that, because I don’t know that he can be reinstated.”

According to Jones, Brent is “contrite” about the accident and “has a lot of resolve” to resume his NFL career, the Cowboys’ owner said Wednesday. The question now is whether Brent will be granted that opportunity.

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Seahawks not revisiting Jermichael Finley after injury to Anthony McCoy

Green Bay Packers v Baltimore Ravens Getty Images

Seattle Seahawks backup tight end Anthony McCoy is likely lost for the season after suffering an apparent torn left Achilles tendon in practice on Tuesday.

With the injury to McCoy, the Seahawks may be in search of some added tight end depth for the roster. However, they won’t be kicking the tires again on free agent Jermichael Finley.

A league source told PFT’s Mike Florio that the Seahawks would not be revisiting discussions regarding the former Green Bay Packers tight end.

Seattle had Finley is for a visit earlier in the offseason but moved on after getting starter Zach Miller to agree to a restructured contract.

One likely complication barring the Seahawks from pursuing Finley is the $10 million insurance policy Finley could cash in on if he doesn’t play football again. Seattle, currently unwilling to budge on Marshawn Lynch’s contract, likely can’t give Finley enough money to provide incentive to forgo a claim on his insurance policy.

Seattle also has a few young tight ends in Cooper Helfet, RaShaun Allen and Morrell Presley that could seize hold of the third tight end spot on their roster.

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Seahawks Jesse Williams carted off field after suffering knee injury

Jesse Williams, Richard Sherman AP

Defensive tackle Jesse Williams was a dominant force for the University of Alabama but slipped to the fifth-round of the 2013 NFL Draft due to injury concerns regarding his knees.

After missing all of his rookie season due to a knee injury, Williams was beginning to turn heads of the Seattle Seahawks coaching staff in training camp with his power to disrupt at the line of scrimmage. However, the injury bug appears to have jumped up and caught Williams again.

Williams was carted off the practice field on Tuesday and the team confirmed to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times that Williams had suffered a knee injury. No further update was given on Williams’ condition or the severity of the injury.

Williams was trying to work into the defensive line rotation for the Seahawks behind starting defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel.

“The thing going into this camp was could he stay healthy and could he play?” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said following practice. “For us right now with Jesse, we can see the strength at the line of scrimmage has not changed, and he actually got a little bit leaner. So for us, we can’t wait to see what he can do. He’s as strong as he ever has been, but still a little leaner so his mobility is better.”

The Seahawks will have to wait for the results of further testing to determine the full severity of the injury. However, leaving the practice field on the back of a cart is never a good sign.

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Antonio Brown unhappy after Emmanuel Sanders critiques Big Ben

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown AP

Former Steelers and current Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders said recently that his current quarterback is a better leader than his former quarterback. One of his former teammates isn’t happy about that.

Responding to Sanders saying that Peyton Manning is “a far better leader” than Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown lashed out at Sanders.

That was terrible,” Brown said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “You don’t throw the quarterback under the bus, the guy who makes you what you are.”

After realizing he had stirred up a controversy, Sanders took to Twitter to try to clarify.

“I never said Ben wasn’t a leader,” Sanders wrote. “I just said Peyton is a better one. I have nothing but respect for Ben as a man and as a player.”

But when a fan asked Sanders about Brown’s comments, Sanders seemed to take umbrage.

They throw dirt on my name-that means they still dig me,” Sanders wrote.

The folks in Pittsburgh won’t dig Sanders’ comments about Roethlisberger, but Sanders was just giving his honest assessment: He’s in a position to know, and he says Manning is a better leader than Roethlisberger.

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Packers add WR Gerrard Sheppard

Baltimore Ravens Rookie Camp Getty Images

In the NFL’s lone successful waiver claim Wednesday, the Packers added first-year wide receiver Gerrard Sheppard, according to the league’s transactions.

Sheppard (6-2, 211) had been waived by Baltimore on Tuesday. The 23-year-old Sheppard signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and earned a spot on the club’s practice squad as a rookie. Sheppard played collegiately at Connecticut (2008-2010) and Towson (2011-2012).

Sheppard’s addition gives the Packers 11 wide receivers, 10 of whom can practice, as rookie wideout Jeff Janis is on the non-football illness list. The move also puts the Packers at the 90-player roster limit.

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Jim Harbaugh annoyed with questions about Aldon Smith

jimharbaugh AP

The 49ers didn’t have linebacker Aldon Smith at practice today because Smith was in Los Angeles, dealing with the fallout from an April incident in which he was accused of making a bomb threat at Los Angeles International Airport. Coach Jim Harbaugh wasn’t in the mood to talk about it.

As reporters questioned Harbaugh, he was having none of it. Here’s the transcript:

Is LB Aldon Smith here today?
“No.”

He’s in Los Angeles?
“What’s that?”

He’s in Los Angeles for his meeting there?
“He’s not here today.”

You can’t say where he is?
“No. Is that my responsibility to tell you where he is?”

You’re the head coach of the football team.
“Yeah, OK. Well you seem to already know. He’s going through a process.”

Then there’s a couple of places he could be. New York being one of them, Los Angeles being the other. He’s in the latter.
“OK. I don’t know if that was a question or a statement?”

Harbaugh answered five follow-up questions without providing reporters with any relevant information. Bill Belichick would be proud.

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Jones: Cowboys “committed” to keeping Dez Bryant “for life”

Stephen Jones AP

Tyron Smith might not be the only young Cowboys star cashing in.

Team vice president Stephen Jones said the Cowboys were “working hard” to get a long-term deal for wide receiver Dez Bryant done next.

We’re totally committed to make Dez a Cowboy for life,” Jones said, via Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Our plans from Day 1, . . . figure a way to get Dez and Tyron extended.”

The 23-year-old left tackle signed an eight-year extension which will keep him with the team through the 2023 season.

Bryant, 25, is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and will make $1.78 million this year, but Jones wasn’t going to speculate on when anything might happen.

“I don’t guess on when things get done,” he said.

The only certainty is that when it happens, it will be big. Although getting Smith done now allows them the possibility of using the franchise tag, giving them a bit of starting-point leverage.

 

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Jim Leonhard reunites with Mike Pettine in Cleveland

Jim Leonhard AP

Safety Jim Leonhard said recently that he had spoken to the Packers about coming aboard for the 2014 season, but the Wisconsin native never reached agreement on a deal with the team.

He won’t have to leave the Midwest to play football this year, though. Leonhard tweeted on Wednesday afternoon that he has signed a contract to play for the Browns.

The move reunites Leonhard with Browns coach Mike Pettine, who was an assistant on Ravens, Jets and Bills teams that featured Leonhard. That year with the Bills came in 2013, when Leonhard started seven times and played all 16 games for a defense coordinated by Pettine. Leonhard had 41 tackles and four interceptions in Buffalo.

With that kind of familiarity and a thin group of backup safeties, the late start to camp shouldn’t hurt Leonhard much. Donte Whitner will hold one starting safety job for the Bills and Tashaun Gipson is pencilled in alongside him, although Leonhard could change that if Pettine decides to go with what he knows come the regular season.

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Bengals CB Chris Lewis-Harris suspended two games

Chris Lewis-Harris AP

The NFL has suspended Bengals cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris for the first two games of the 2014 regular season under the league’s substance-abuse policy, the team said Wednesday.

The 25-year-old Lewis-Harris appeared in six games for Cincinnati in 2013, recording three tackles. He’s vying for a reserve role with Cincinnati, which is deep at cornerback.

Lewis-Harris can play in exhibition games, but the earliest he can return to an active NFL roster is Monday, September 15.

A Tennessee-Chattanooga product, Lewis-Harris is one of 10 cornerbacks on Cincinnati’s roster.

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Cassel, Bridgewater begin even split of first-team reps

Bridgewater AP

The Vikings have a trio of quarterbacks about whom offensive coordinator Norv Turner periodically has raved.  With camp in full swing and the preseason games approaching, Turner has officially narrowed his focus to a pair of finalists for the Week One starting job.

Via multiple reports, veteran Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater have begun equally splitting first-team reps, with former starter Christian Ponder working exclusively with the reserves.

It’s unclear when a starter will be picked.  Appearing on Wednesday’s PFT Live, tight end Kyle Rudolph said that he and the other pass catchers prefer that a decision be made as soon as possible, so that the pass-catchers can focus on working with the guy who’ll be throwing the passes when the season begins.

For more from Rudolph, click the thing in the thing below.

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Gordon’s appeal is indeed all or nothing

Cleveland Browns v St. Louis Rams 8-8-2013 Getty Images

Despite a belief in some league circles that the person designated to handle the appeal of Browns receiver Josh Gordon’s one-year suspension can split the proverbial baby by imposing a suspension somewhere between zero and 16 games, the NFL characterizes the substance-abuse policy in a way that makes clear the absence of discretion.

“The disciplinary penalties were negotiated by the NFLPA and NFL more than 20 years ago and there has never been a proposal to change them,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy tells PFT via email.  “When they were first established, the union expressed the strong view that they needed to be stated and mandatory to ensure that all players be treated the same regardless of position, experience, level of ability, or competitive considerations.  On appeal, the hearing officer’s responsibility is to determine whether the violation was established and, if so, he is bound by the agreed-upon sanctions.”

For players in Stage III of the program, a positive test automatically triggers a one-year suspension.

For Gordon, then, only two options exist:  full-year suspension or no suspension at all.

If the terms of the policy are applied as written, Gordon could indeed be facing a one-year suspension, no matter how unfair or heavy-handed or otherwise wrong.  Or maybe the hearing officer will, consciously or otherwise, broaden the lens and consider the reaction to a one-year suspension for Gordon versus a mere two-game suspension for Ray Rice and his far more heinous conduct.

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Brandon Browner gets heated at Patriots practice

Brandon Browner AP

The Patriots signed Brandon Browner this offseason because he’s a big, physical cornerback capable of keeping wide receivers from doing exactly what they want while running their routes.

On Wednesday, the Pats offense got an up-close view of how Browner makes that happen. Browner shoved wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins to the ground after a pair of plays that saw the duo matched up one-on-one and then got into a shouting match with receivers coach Chad O’Shea that ended when other members of the team separated the two.

Browner said afterwards that he came into practice with the mindset of being more aggressive after the defense “gave up a few easy balls” in Tuesday’s session. He said that he and O’Shea “hugged it out” after practice and explained why he thought the scrapes would make for a better team.

“It gets us both better,” Browner said, via CSNNE.com. “Guys on the other side of the ball, it’s what [opponents are] going to do in guys in games. And it’s what they’re going to do to me in games … That’s my style of play. Play aggressive. You don’t want to cost your team any penalties, but we’ll let the officials do their job.”

Browner will have to cool his jets for the first four games of the regular season while serving a suspension for violating the league’s drug policy, leaving the Patriots to hope that his summer work helps his teammates enough to make the absence less of a hindrance for the defense.

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John Harbaugh: I’m proud of Ray Rice for how he’s handled it

johnharbaugh AP

The Ravens are continuing their public support of Ray Rice, the running back whose two-game suspension for a domestic violence incident has been widely criticized.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said today that he continues to support Rice and believes that Rice is making the most of a bad situation.

“I love the way he’s handled it,” Harbaugh said. “I hate what happened. What happened was wrong, flat out. The thing I appreciate about it is how Ray has handled it afterwards by acknowledging that it was wrong and he’ll do everything he can do to make it right. That’s what you ask for when someone does a wrong thing. So I’m proud of him for that, from that standpoint. And for anybody out there who’s going to misconstrue that and just write, ‘John Harbaugh is proud of Ray,’ then shame on you. I’m proud of him for the way he’s handled it, OK? Disappointed in what happened, but you go forward. You know, you go forward. That’s what we’re going to do as a football team, and that’s what we’re going to do as an individual, he’ll do as an individual.”

Although Harbaugh was careful to explain that he means he is proud of the way Rice has responded since his February arrest, and not that he condones what Rice did to result in the arrest, that distinction may not change the fact that some people simply don’t want to hear the Ravens continuing to support Rice publicly. The Ravens’ full-throated support of Rice has — like the NFL’s two-game suspension — struck many as insensitive to victims of domestic violence.

Harbaugh declined to talk about the backlash to the suspension, which has been widely decried as an indication that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t grasp the seriousness of domestic violence.

“There’s no way I’m going to comment on the length of it, but I know this: Those that make those decisions do so with great seriousness. They aim to be just and fair and they aim to do right by all parties involved,” Harbaugh said.

But Harbaugh did say that he thinks opening the season without Rice will be tough for his team to overcome.

“It’s going to be tough for us,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be two games without one of our very best players. But we’ll move forward and deal with it. Beyond that, there’s really nothing else to say.”

Harbaugh may have nothing left to say, but Rice is expected to address the media on Thursday. His comments will surely be scrutinized by those who believe Rice has yet to show genuine remorse — and who believe both the Ravens and the NFL have been far too supportive of Rice.

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Colts guard Donald Thomas leaves practice early

Joe Reitz, Donald Thomas AP

The Colts need to do a better job of protecting quarterback Andrew Luck, and that job didn’t get any easier today.

According to Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star, guard Donald Thomas is believed to have re-injured his quadriceps, and left the practice field early. He’s expected to have an MRI to determine the severity.

Thomas played just two games for the Colts last year before tearing his quadriceps tendon, sending him to injured reserve. The rehab process also kept him from participating in OTAs this year.

The Colts signed him to a four-year, $14 million deal last offseason, and haven’t gotten much of a return on that investment.

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Tyron Smith’s 10-year deal is “nuts”

Dallas Cowboys v Minnesota Vikings Getty Images

It’s hard to say that a guy who signed an eight-year contract reportedly worth $98 million made a mistake.  But in the NFL, where the player is far more bound to the deal than the team, left tackle Tyron Smith apparently has given the Cowboys near-unilateral control over the balance of his career.

“There’s no way you can do a deal that long,” a league source with extensive experience negotiating player contracts told PFT.  “I’m stunned. . . .  10 years is nuts.”

The extension reportedly places Smith under contract for a total of 10 years at a payout of $110 million.  He’ll have no power to get more money, no matter how well he performs.  And if he doesn’t perform well, the only security he’ll have is the fully-guaranteed money that he received when committing himself to the Cowboys for the next decade.

The full details eventually will be known, and we’ll get a chance to see just how team friendly the contract is.  Unless every year of the contract is fully guaranteed (and if it were, that detail would have been leaked), the mere duration of the deal makes it a bad one for the player — who apparently wanted to do a contract badly enough that he was willing to make a commitment that, for nearly all NFL contracts, never is mutual.

Apparently, the Cowboys knew how badly Smith wanted that new contract, and the Cowboys took full advantage of it.

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