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NFL morning after: The unappreciated Jay Cutler

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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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Andy Reid to Tamba Hali: Let’s just talk about it

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Andy Reid appreciates Tamba Hali’s love for the game, but the Chiefs coach isn’t promising the linebacker’s playing time will increase this season.

“The one thing you love about Tamba is that he loves to play,” Reid said, via Alec McChesney of the Kansas City Star. “I mean, that’s the one thing. I can’t tell you he’s getting any younger. I can’t tell you that. I do love the fact that he bugs on you that he wants to play.

“As coaches, we have to make that decision. And so, when we make the decision that he plays seven plays or 27 plays or 47 plays, that’s what we do. And is a player always going to be happy about that? No. That’s not how it works. But do I love the fact he wants to play? Yes. He’s probably going to be 50 years old and still tweeting out those things, that he wants to get in his plays. I love that about him.”

Hali, 33, took to Twitter on Saturday, expressing anger at getting only seven snaps in the team’s playoff loss to the Steelers. He started only two games last season with but 3.5 sacks, the second-fewest of his career, as Dee Ford and Justin Houston solidified starting roles.

Reid said he wishes Hali had talked to the coaching staff rather than airing his grievances on social media.

“We don’t want him to do it through the social media part and all that,” Reid said. “Let’s just talk about it. If you have a problem, let’s talk about it.”

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Unenforceable rule may become relevant to Gareon Conley’s contract

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With Raiders first-round cornerback Gareon Conley unsigned and still under investigation for rape, the team and the player have a problem. How do they work out a deal with a cloud still lingering that could result in Conley being prosecuted and possibly convicted?

The answer is simple. As one league source with extensive experience negotiating contracts explained it recently, teams drafting players who present unusual circumstances often will communicate with the player’s agent before the pick is made, making a verbal request for eventual contractual protections. Although any such terms would be both unenforceable and a violation of the labor deal, it happens — and both teams and agents respect these wink-nod arrangements.

If the Raiders asked Conley while on the clock (or, quite possibly, before being on the clock) whether Conley would agree to certain terms if the charges remain unresolved when camp opens and if Conley agreed, Conley’s camp should honor the commitment. If the Raiders made no such requests, then the team made Conley the 24th pick in the draft with no strings attached; he should get every penny and every term that he would have gotten regardless of the unresolved criminal case.

To date, we’ve been unable to determine whether the Raiders made any special requests, or whether Conley’s agents agreed. Side deal or not, both sides now know what the posture will be entering camp. The only thing left is to work something out in accordance with what was, or wasn’t, promised on the first night of the draft.

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Jourdan Lewis’ attorney says Lewis merely threw pillows at accuser

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While his Cowboys teammates practiced for the first time, rookie Jourdan Lewis was in Ann Arbor, Mich., as his domestic assault case began Monday with jury selection and opening statements.

According to John Counts of mlive.com, Assistant Washtenaw County Prosecutor Lou Danner characterized the March 15 incident as a violent assault that started with three blows with a pillow.

“He did it hard,” Danner said, via Counts. “He used force behind it, and he knew he shouldn’t have.”

Lewis later dragged Nikole Miller, 21, across the floor and forcefully put his hands on her neck before leaving, Danner said in opening statements.

Lewis’ attorney, John Shea, said Lewis merely threw pillows at Miller after she woke him and confronted him about wasting “a few pennies worth of electricity” after falling asleep with the lights on.

“Throwing pillows at someone is not domestic assault by anyone’s definition,” Shea said.

Miller and Lewis are expected to testify Tuesday, with Shea telling the jury Monday that Miller had changed her story several times.

Five women and two men, all Ann Arbor residents, make up the jury.

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Mark Murphy: Packers will never give up a home date for an international game

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The Packers accept the fact that the NFL won’t host a Super Bowl at Lambeau Field. And since the Packers won’t host a Super Bowl at Lambeau Field, they won’t have to automatically sacrifice a home game to the league’s ongoing overseas obsession.

Thus, via SportsBusiness Daily, Packers CEO Mark Murphy told shareholders on Monday that the team will “never” make that swap.

The league office eventually could disagree. Even if the usual suspects continue to be the ones who give up home games for games in Europe, Mexico, or elsewhere, the league’s ongoing expansion of the international games could make a squeezing of the Packers and other teams supposedly immune from the obligation vulnerable.

Or maybe the league will offer the Packers some other sort of deal in exchange for a home game. Without knowing what the offer would be, it’s impossible to know that the Packers would refuse it.

So while “never” may draw cheers from the shareholders/fans who were at Lambeau Field on Monday (it did), “never” is the kind of commitment that it will be hard for Murphy to honor.

Of course, he only has to honor it for as long as he’s the CEO.

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Tony Sparano happy with his Vikings OL after injury-plagued 2016

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The best thing about this year is it’s not last year for the Vikings offensive line. Minnesota used 12 players and eight different starting combinations in its line last season.

In two games last season, the Vikings were down to five healthy offensive linemen on game day. Tight end David Morgan served as the emergency backup, though Minnesota never had to use him.

“It would be hard for me to imagine something like that happening again,” Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano said, via Chad Graff of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I’ve never been involved in a scenario like that.”

Sparano asked for reinforcements in the offseason, and the Vikings gave him new tackles in Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, who are expected to start on the left and right respectively.

“Looking at it right now, and after watching this group in the spring, I’m excited about where we are,” Sparano said. “I love this group of guys. They put their heads down, they work hard, they’re smart, they’re strong, and they’re tough. Those are the qualities you look for.”

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Robert Griffin III gets a workout with the Chargers

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With training camps opening around the NFL, Robert Griffin III has finally drawn some interest.

Griffin will work out for the Chargers on Tuesday, Adam Schefter of ESPN reports.

It’s the first report of any team having any interest at all in Griffin, who was the second overall draft pick and the NFL’s rookie of the year in 2012. A knee injury in the postseason after his rookie year changed the way Griffin played, and he’s never been even close to the star quarterback he was as a rookie.

Now he’ll get a shot to show he’s at least in good enough shape to serve as a camp arm and perhaps a backup to starter Philip Rivers.

Behind Rivers the Chargers have three quarterbacks on the depth chart: Kellen Clemens, Mike Bercovici and Eli Jenkins. If Griffin is even close to the same player he once was, he’s an improvement over any of those three backups. But whether Griffin can ever return to form remains to be seen.

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Gerald McCoy has a tweet storm of his own

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Another day, another disgruntled defensive player taking his displeasure to social media.

Two days after veteran Chiefs pass rusher Tamba Hali vented on Twitter about a lack of playing time in the playoffs, Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has taken to Twitter to complain about, well, something.

They won’t appreciate you until you’re gone,” McCoy said in his first message. “Soon enough though. Then we’ll see.”

Three minutes later came this: “No more being quiet. I’m done holding my tongue. Believe that!!”

That one was immediately followed by this one: “You try and try with people but they don’t get it. They push you and push you until you cross that line. Well line crossed!!

Finally, and nearly a half-hour later, McCoy wrapped up his quartet of messages by declaring as follows: “Training camp, 2017-2018 season…………… LETS GO!! Now it’s really time to go!! No more talking or tweeting.”

Tom Jones of the Tampa Bay Times has tried to make sense of the various messages, and the reason(s) for them. Jones also suggests that there could be a link between McCoy’s comments and the looming launch of Hard Knocks.

Whatever the reason, it definitely adds a layer of flavor to Hard Knocks. If the Buccaneers decide to embrace the subplot and not leave it on the cutting room floor.

Ultimately, McCoy’s complaints may not matter for 2017, unless the Buccaneers can find a trade partner. His $13.25 million salary for the coming season is nearly fully guaranteed. Absent a trade, he’s not going anywhere until 2018, at the earliest.

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Cowboys cut Lucky Whitehead, whose agent says wasn’t in Va. at time of supposed arrest

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The Cowboys cut Lucky Whitehead, even though the receiver’s agent said Whitehead wasn’t in Virginia at the time of his supposed arrest.

Whitehead’s agent, Dave Rich, showed NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport flight records that have Whitehead flying to Dulles at 7:20 a.m. on June 22, six hours after Whitehead supposedly was arrested in Prince William County, Va.

Whitehead was accused of taking less than $200 worth of items from a convenience store.

On July 6, Whitehead failed to show for an appearance related to the June 22 arrest, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

The court date has been rescheduled for Aug. 10.

As Whitehead was escorted off the practice field Monday by a member of the team’s public relations staff, Whitehead told reporters he didn’t know what they were talking about.

I didn’t even know about that,” Whitehead said, via Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

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Antonio Brown has another message for Le’Veon Bell

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The Steelers don’t need to spend much time trying to persuade running back Le’Veon Bell to sign his franchise tender. Receiver Antonio Brown is doing the heavy lifting for them.

After public comments that followed a private conversation that created the clear impression that Brown wants Bell to accept the pending $12.1 million offer and to be “committed to the cause,” Brown has taken to Twitter with a “let’s go”-style plea for the teammate Brown wants to see at training camp.

The fact that Brown feels compelled to lobby Bell to show up confirms that a holdout is indeed possible. But Brown would be wise to tread lightly here.

The window on a long-term deal for Bell closed last Monday. Unless the Steelers plan to offer Bell more than $12.1 million for 2017 or to promise not to use the franchise tag again in 2018, there’s nothing more the Steelers can do to get him signed. Which means that Brown’s plea, absent a similar message to management aimed at getting them to sweeten the one-year pot, could be interpreted by Bell as an effort to pressure him to accept a franchise tender that, to date, he has decided to reject.

Brown has now gotten a pair of multi-year deals without ever having to play out a contract or operate under the franchise tag. Bell has yet to get any kind of long-term security. Whatever Bell’s plan for enhancing his financial position, Brown’s effort to get Bell to take the offer squeezes him to alter his approach. Perhaps more importantly, Brown’s well-intentioned exercise in teamwork could turn fans already inclined to embrace rookie James Conner against Bell.

So if Brown is going to continue to try to get Bell to show up, at some point he needs to publicly urge the people who have paid Brown millions to offer Brown another $3 million or so more for 2017.

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Patriots place Dont’a Hightower, Alan Branch on PUP

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The Patriots placed linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive tackle Alan Branch on the physically unable to perform list.

Hightower missed the offseason program with an undisclosed injury. He missed three games last season with injuries and played only one full, 16-game season in his first five seasons.

The Patriots, though, signed Hightower to a four-year extension with more than $17 million guaranteed in the offseason.

Branch did not attend the team’s voluntary offseason program. He returned for the mandatory minicamp last month, but the Patriots held him out of practice.

Branch, 32, signed a two-year deal this offseason that included $3 million in guaranteed money.

The Patriots also placed offensive tackle Andrew Jelks on the non-football injury list.

New England can remove Hightower, Branch and Jelks from the lists at any time.

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Saints bring back Michael Mauti, place four on PUP list

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Linebacker Michael Mauti’s 2016 season with the Saints ended early when he had surgery to treat ulcerative colitis, which he said was the best move for his long-term health and would not stop him from playing in 2017.

Mauti’s attempt to continue his career will come with the Saints. Mauti shared a picture of his contract signing with the team on social media Monday.

Mauti saw most of his action on special teams in eight games last year and all 16 in 2015 after joining the Saints as a free agent. He blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown during a 2015 game against the Falcons.

The Saints also placed four players on the physically unable to perform list. Left tackle Terron Armstead, center Max Unger, guard Senio Kelemete and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe are all eligible to be activated at any point. Armstead is expected to miss a large chunk of the season after having shoulder surgery in June, however.

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John Elway: This is a special place, and the Broncos are home to me

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The Broncos officially announced the signing of John Elway to a new five-year contract through 2021.

“We’re pleased to reach an agreement on a five-year contract with John to continue leading our football operations,” president and CEO Joe Ellis said, via the team press release. “During these last six seasons, John’s clearly established himself as one of the best general managers in all of sports. He’s demonstrated impressive football instincts, a strong business acumen and a consistent ability to build competitive teams.

“There’s no doubt John means a great deal to the Broncos, our fans and the entire community. It was important for us to reach this long-term agreement, and we’re all excited to now turn our full attention toward the 2017 season.”

Elway, entering his seventh season as the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations/General Manager, has overseen a team that has the second-most overall wins (73) in the NFL since 2011. Denver has five AFC West titles and two Super Bowl appearances in that span.

The Broncos say that Elway ranks as the only GM in the NFL in the past six years to acquire future Pro Bowl players through the NFL Draft, street free agency, unrestricted free agency and college free agency.

Elway, who has made Denver home since a 16-year Hall of Fame career with the Broncos, never was leaving. But both sides appear happy to have a long-term deal in place.

“I appreciate the trust and confidence that Joe has shown in me,” Elway said. “[Owner] Pat Bowlen has always put outstanding leadership in place, and I’m grateful for the support Joe gives us to compete for championships each and every year.

“This is a special place, and the Broncos are home to me. While there’s still a lot of work to be done, I’m excited about the future of this team and this organization.”

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When will Cowboys hold misbehaving players “accountable”?

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On Sunday, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett addressed the issue of players getting in trouble. And then word emerged on Monday of yet another player getting in trouble.

“There’s a standard that we have here with the Dallas Cowboys — behavior on and off the field and how we’re going to handle those things,” Garrett said, via the team’s official website. “We’re going to hold those players accountable to what those standards are, regardless of what the circumstances were that were involved.”

The words send a clear message. The video and audio have a clear tell. Watch the clip attached to this post; Garrett does the classic hard gulp before saying the word “accountable.” Possibly because he knows damn well that the Cowboys aren’t about to hold anyone accountable.

It’s a point made here a few weeks ago, and nothing has changed. The owner calls the shots, and the owner is willing to tolerate boys being boys in order to put his fingerprints on a trophy earned by a team that he built.

So the coach is toothless when it comes to making an example out of anyone or everyone who crosses the line. The truth is that there is no line, or if there is it’s going to take a lot more than what has happened to date for someone to step over it.

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Report: Greg Olsen won’t hold out

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Panthers tight end Greg Olsen wants a contract that he feels has a better ratio of productivity to compensation and he didn’t rule out holding out of training camp in order to press his case, but it looks like that won’t be how things play out in Charlotte.

Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer reports that Olsen plans to report to the start of camp at Wofford University with the rest of his teammates on Tuesday.

Olsen became the first tight end in league history with three straight seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards when he caught 80 passes for 1,073 yards last season. He’s set to make base salaries of $6.5 million in each of the next two seasons.

Olsen’s push for a new deal has been going on at the same time as linebacker Thomas Davis‘ quest for his own and the way those things were being handled have been cited by some as reasons why the Panthers fired General Manager Dave Gettleman last week. Marty Hurney, who returned to the G.M. job on an interim basis after Gettleman’s firing, was in the job when the Panthers first acquired Olsen in a trade with the Bears.

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Saints WR Willie Snead signs tender

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Saints receiver Willie Snead already said he would report to training camp with his teammates. He still wants a long-term deal, but Snead signed the exclusive rights free agent offer Monday, protecting him while he practices.

Snead is scheduled to make $615,000.

Snead has 141 catches for 1,879 yards and seven touchdowns the past two seasons and expects to play a big role in the offense again this year. Minus a multi-year deal, Snead will become a restricted free agent in 2018.

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