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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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Mark Brunell doesn’t think RG3 is good enough

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Mark Brunell spent four years playing quarterback in Washington. And he thinks this should be the fourth and final year that Robert Griffin III plays quarterback in Washington.

Asked on ESPN if he thinks RG3 is good enough to succeed in the NFL, Brunell answered, “I do not.”

He has gone backwards,” Brunell continued, via the Washington Post. “It’s not just his decision-making, it’s his fundamentals. He’s taking too many hits, he’s quick to get out of the pocket. Last year was difficult to watch. Does he have the skill set? Yes, but we haven’t seen it in some time.”

Washington picked up Griffin’s fifth-year option for 2016, which suggests that the team still thinks he can be its franchise quarterback. But Brunell thinks Griffin may be gone before the 2016 season.

“This is a make or break season for RGIII, without a doubt,” Brunell said. “If he doesn’t fix those inconsistencies, this could be it for him.”

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NFLPA has short, simple response to Troy Vincent

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After inflammatory comments emerged from NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent regarding NFL Players Association spending on legal fees in cases arising from discipline imposed by the league, PFT extended separate invitations to the NFL and NFLPA to provide guests for Tuesday’s PFT Live to flesh out the issue.

Both requests were declined, but the NFLPA opted to issue a short response to Vincent, via Twitter.

“You consider infinite number of ways to respond to something like this,” NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said, linking the original item from ESPN.com, “and simple is best: ‘small.'”

The public reaction to Vincent’s comments has been as universal as any red state/blue state sports issue ever can be. The union is fighting on behalf of players whose rights were violated by the league. If the league didn’t impose more discipline than it should under the relevant policies, a fight wouldn’t be necessary.

The problem for both sides is that the NFL will continue to be inclined to overdiscipline players. Despite the public rebukes that necessarily occur when the Commissioner’s decisions are struck down, the P.R. fallout for 345 Park Avenue is minimal. Conversely, the perceived failure of the Commissioner to go far enough with misbehaving players nearly brought down his empire last year, in the Ray Rice case.

Apart from the legal fees that justifiably arise when the union is required to fight the league after the league goes too far with discipline is the question of actual waste. And many of you have noted that true waste arose from the NFL making #DeflateGate into a much bigger deal than it should have been, with millions spent on an investigation aimed perhaps not at getting to the truth, but at justifying a knee-jerk result selected early in the process, when no one from the league office realized that the PSI numbers generated by New England’s footballs were both below the 12.5 minimum and also in line with the normal operation of the Ideal Gas Law.

As to the issue of NFLPA legal fees, the smarter (but not necessarily better) approach by the league may have been to cajole one or more members of the media into making the argument. Between the reporters on the league’s payroll and the reporters who have a track record of open disdain for current NFLPA leadership (or both), it shouldn’t have been hard to make the point without forcing a senior member of NFL leadership to connect his name to the remarks.

Some would say it’s admirable for Vincent to express his views directly. The only problem in this case is that his views are substantively incorrect and ultimately not helpful to building the kind of relationship needed to avoid unnecessary fighting.

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Cowboys unsure who their starting running back will be

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Cowboys owner and General Manager Jerry Jones has said he’s very comfortable with the group of running backs he has on his roster. But what the Cowboys don’t know is which one of those running backs will be primarily responsible for replacing the departed DeMarco Murray.

Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown says he isn’t sure if Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden or Lance Dunbar will be the starter, but he’s confident that some combination of the three of them will add up to a good running game.

“We’re very confident in what we have,” Brown said, via the Dallas Morning News. “We got some very good football players. With the addition of Darren it’s going to be a nice group. I can’t say who is going to be the lead dog right now, but those guys are going to compete and we’re going to do what’s necessary to win games. I think we have three capable guys who can go out and do what we need to do. I’m not concerned about it at all.”

As great as Murray was last season, Randle was also very good in limited action as his backup: Randle gained 343 yards on 51 carries, a whopping 6.7 yards a carry. He would seem to be the likely choice as the starter.

The addition of McFadden to go with Randle and Dunbar gives the Cowboys some depth in the backfield, and those running backs will be running behind the best offensive line in the NFL. Despite the loss of Murray, Brown’s optimism is justified: The Cowboys’ running game should be just fine, even if there’s not a clear-cut starting running back just yet.

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Jerry Jones donates $1 million to cancer initiative started by Bob McNair

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When an NFL owner is trying to raise money for charitable causes, they have 31 places around the league where they know they’ll find people with deep pockets who could help.

Texans owner Bob McNair wasn’t looking specifically to NFL owners to help provide the financing for Hope Lodge Houston, which the American Cancer Society would operate as a place for people battling cancer to receive free lodging and support services while in Houston to receive treatment. He and his wife Janice announced that their foundation will donate $1 for every $2 raised through December 31, up to $4 million, to help break ground on the lodge before the end of the year.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is helping to push them closer to their goal. The Jerry and Gene Jones Foundation has donated $1 million to the cause.

“Cancer is already daunting enough, but worrying about travel, lodging, and other necessities while enduring treatment can be a huge burden,” Jones said, via the Houston Chronicle. “Gene and I are proud we can help by joining Bob and Janice McNair and President George and Barbara Bush as they work to bring a Hope Lodge to Houston.”

McNair received a clean bill of health last year after a 10-month fight with two forms of cancer and announced the fundraising challenge a short time later.

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Kevin Coyle: Ndamukong Suh “everything as advertised”

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There was some uncertainty about whether defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh would take part in OTAs with the Dolphins this offseason because he’d routinely missed them when he was a member of the Lions, but any fears of his absence went unrealized.

Suh was more than just present at the offseason workouts as well. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said that Suh went through the workouts with so much energy that the team had to have him dial it down, which Coyle saw as a positive for a player who has lived up to his expectations thus far.

“Quite honestly, yeah, we had to tone him down there a little bit,” Coyle said on the Joe Rose Show on WQAM. “That was a good thing. We had to back him off because he’s really something. First of all he’s an extremely intelligent player. I’ve been totally impressed with his football knowledge and he comes out to the practice field. He’s extremely hardworking. He’s the first guy in line showing the younger guys how to do it. And I’ve never been around a more explosive, powerful man of his size and his athleticism. He’s been everything as advertised. Quite frankly, you can only do so many things in OTAs when you just have shorts and helmets on. I can’t wait to get going here at the end of July when we start training camp and get the pads on and get ready to go because he’s a rare talent and great addition for us.”

It’s a good bet that OTAs will be the only time that the Dolphins ask Suh to go at anything less than full speed and that the Dolphins will continue to avoid buyer’s remorse as long as he’s pushing it to the limit every Sunday.

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Golden Tate: We’re trying to become elite now

Golden Tate AP

The Lions won 11 games last season for the first time since 1991, which was good enough for a playoff berth in Jim Caldwell’s first season as the team’s head coach.

There haven’t been consecutive playoff appearances for Detroit since the 1995 team capped a three-year run of trips to the postseason with a loss in the Wild Card round. Wide receiver Golden Tate says that the team is shooting for the same kind of sustained run of regular season success right now while trying to establish themselves as the team to beat in the NFC North.

“I think it’s time for us to consistently, year in and year out, win ballgames,” Tate said, via the Detroit Free Press. “I think we have the personnel. I think we have the coach, the coaching staff. I think we have a heck of a fan base. It’s time. We’re trying to shake ‘the same old Lions.’ We’re trying to become — I thought we were good — I think we’re trying to become elite now. I think we’re trying to compete with the Packers and give them a run for their money and take over our division year in and year out.”

The Lions won’t be able to lean on Ndamukong Suh up front on defense this year, which means they’ll have to plot a different course to the playoffs in 2015. One hope is that the offense will be more effective in offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s second year at the reins, something Tate and other Lions receivers will work on with quarterback Matthew Stafford in Atlanta before training camp.

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Brett Favre: “I think I could play”

Favre Getty Images

Herschel Walker isn’t the only middle-aged former NFL player who thinks he could still play in the NFL. Brett Favre says he could, too.

“I think I could play,” Favre tells Sports Illustrated in a “Where Are They Now?” double issue. “As far as throwing, of course. I could make all the throws I made before. . . . We’re not trying to start some he’s-coming-out-of-retirement deal. . . . But I could play.”

Plenty of former NFL players probably feel the same way, because they still feel like the guys they were when they played in the NFL. They won’t realize that they can’t until they try, and very few ever return after a multi-year absence from the game.

Regardless of whether Favre could play now, he could have played longer in Green Bay, if he hadn’t made such a hasty decision seven years ago to retire.

“Had I [taken my time deciding], I would have come back and played,” Favre said. “The drama would have been avoided.”

That response overlooks the fact that the Packers pushed him for an early decision, possibly because the Packers knew that by pushing Favre for an early decision, Favre would decide to retire — and the Packers could start the Aaron Rodgers era. If that was the plan, the performance of Aaron Rodgers since Favre retired has vindicated it.

This year, Favre finally returns to Green Bay. And the Packers can be confident that Favre won’t be unretiring one final time before his number 4 is finally retired.

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Colts bring back defensive tackle Jeris Pendleton

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The Colts brought back one of their own, now that he’s healthy.

The team announced they signed defensive tackle Jeris Pendleton.

He spent the last two years with the Colts, but was on injured reserve all last season because of a knee injury. He was originally a seventh-round pick by the Jaguars in 2012.

The 6-foot-2, 323-pounder gives them another big body up front, and someone they have experience with. He played in both playoff games for them in 2013, so they have an idea what he can do.

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NFL sets July 9 date for supplemental draft

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The date is set for the NFL supplemental draft.

The supplemental draft will take place on July 9, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

No team has made a supplemental selection since the Browns used a second-round pick on Josh Gordon in 2012, so the supplemental draft has become a non-event the last couple years. But this year there’s a good chance that a supplemental pick will be used: Clemson offensive tackle Isaiah Battle, who declared for the supplemental draft last week, is an NFL talent who has a real shot of helping some team this season.

West Georgia defensive tackle Dalvon Stuckey, West Georgia defensive end Darrius Caldwell and North Carolina Central wide receiver/kick returner Adrian Wilkins are also available in the supplemental draft.

If a team uses a supplemental pick on a player, that team loses the corresponding pick in the 2016 NFL draft. Players who are not selected in the supplemental draft become free agents.

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Jim Brown “encouraged” Johnny Manziel isn’t “still in denial”

Johnny Manziel, Jim Dray AP

Last summer, Browns icon Jim Brown said that he didn’t mind the amount of attention that quarterback Johnny Manziel received for his off-field social life because he remembered what life was like as a player.

Brown has a different opinion about enjoying the nightlife after the way Manziel’s rookie season with the Browns played out. Manziel went to alcohol rehab after an underwhelming rookie season and has talked about wanting to “close that chapter in my life” as he tries for better results in 2015, something that Brown finds encouraging.

“I’m encouraged, because Johnny is addressing his situation, and that’s speaking to the world,” Brown said, via Jarrett Bell of USA Today. “That message is encouraging. He’s going to give himself the best chance to succeed. Now if he were still in denial, we’d have a different conversation. If he didn’t go to rehab, this would be totally different. … What I would have said to Johnny, or would have hoped he’d do, he’s doing. So I’d say to him, ‘Your commitment to allow the world to know you want to work to change your life, I encourage and support you.’ It would be that simple. I wouldn’t try to impart any great wisdom on him, because it’s a day-to-day process that he’s got to live with.”

Brown doesn’t think the change in Manziel’s off-field habits will necessarily boost him to better things on the field. Brown said last year that he thought Manziel had “something going on” as a player and said this year that Manziel “creates action,” but added that Manziel is going to be a star or a bust without laying a bet on which side of the line the 2014 first-round pick would wind up on.

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Jeremy Hill focused on breaking more tackles this year

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After Bengals running back Jeremy Hill ran for 40 yards on 13 carries against the Buccaneers last season, he said there wasn’t a lot of running room available because the Bucs were playing eight men in the box.

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson didn’t care for Hill’s read on what happened to the running game that afternoon. Jackson said that running backs are supposed to break tackles and that Hill’s “job is to run through somebody and come out the other side” regardless of what the defensive front looks like on a given play.

Getting past initial contact was a focus for Hill this offseason and Jackson said that the back did a good job laying the groundwork for better results.

“For me, it’s just getting that acceleration from the first level to the second level,” Hill said, via ESPN.com. “I’m just trying to lift my acceleration up and miss more tackles. That’s the biggest thing for me. The first guy got me down way too much last season.”

ESPN Stats and Info had Hill averaging 2.29 yards after contact during his rookie season, which was good for fourth in the league last season and helps explain why Hill became such a big part of the offense in the second half of the season. If he becomes even harder for defenses to stop this time around, the backfield work in Cincinnati may not be as balanced as Hill expected earlier this offseason.

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Brian Dixon set to go on trial during Saints’ training camp

Josh Lenz, Brian Dixon

Saints cornerback Brian Dixon may miss some of training camp as a result of his March arrest.

Dixon is scheduled to go on trial in Florida on August 3, the Times-Picayune reports. The Saints will be in training camp in West Virginia at that time.

Dixon was arrested for resisting arrest without violence after a traffic stop in Miami Beach. He has accused the arresting officers of racial bias.

As an undrafted rookie last season, Dixon became a surprisingly important player to the Saints, appearing in all 16 games.

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How much is Russell Wilson worth?

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In his latest interview, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson once again declined to talk about his contractual expectations. But he mentioned two salaries numbers for 2015 — $1.5 million (the amount he’s due to earn under his current contract) and $25 million.

Some have brushed it off as a random figure, plucked from the sky. Others believe it possibly reveals what Wilson is actually targeting.

The numbers came after Wilson was asked what he deserved, provoking this question from Wilson: How much would you pay me?

So we’ll put that question out to PFT Planet. How much would you pay him per year?

The options are below, and we’ll be discussing the issue during Tuesday’s PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio, which also will feature phone visits from two-sport athlete Brandon Magee, former NFL player and current multimedia superstar (or something) Ross Tucker, and Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune.

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Bud Dupree: We want to be the group that revives Steelers defense

Bud Dupree AP

The Steelers have a long history of riding strong defenses to playoff berths, but that trend has slowed in the last couple of years as the team has said goodbye to several fixtures of the unit without getting the same production in their place.

They’ve spent high picks on defensive players in each of the last three drafts with a particular focus on linebackers. Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree have been the team’s last three first-round selections and Dupree says that they want to be part of the core that brings about a revival of the old defensive ways in Pittsburgh.

“I want to be in that group that brings it back,” Dupree said, via Cleveland.com. “We want to bring back that hunger, that eagerness to go after the quarterback.”

Dupree said he takes particular motivation from the chance to join players like Joey Porter, Greg Lloyd and James Harrison as star outside linebackers in the Steelers system. Harrison is still around and Dupree said he’s learned a lot from the veteran about how to thrive in the NFL during their short time working together.

Expecting Dupree to turn into that kind of linebacker as a rookie may be asking too much, but the Steelers need some of their young defenders to make significant strides if there’s going to be a reprise of the old days in 2015. With a strong offense already in place, getting that would leave the team well positioned for another playoff berth.

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United Church of Christ joins effort to change Washington nickname

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The United Church of Christ usually has other business on Sundays, but they’re using their massive membership to try to get involved in the NFL.

According to John Woodrow Cox of the Washington Post, the nearly 1 million-member church is asking its members to boycott Washington’s franchise because of the nickname that many find offensive.

The Rev. Linda Jaramillo, a national officer of the church, said the name “is offensive and causes direct harmful effects to the public health and well-being of the Native American population.”

The UCC is far from the first to take that stance, but their support was noted in a joint release from the National Congress of American Indians and the Oneida Indian Nation, which has led the effort for a change.

“We applaud the United Church of Christ for taking a bold stance against the use of this demeaning and damaging racial epithet,” the statement read. “With its vote, the UCC is demonstrating that organizations and individuals can make conscious choices to demonstrate compassion and respect for their fellow man by working to eliminate this offensive, dictionary-defined slur from our nation’s vernacular.

“As religious leaders from diverse backgrounds all across America continue to speak out about the need to change this derogatory term, Washington team owner Dan Snyder should face the facts and stop clinging to this deeply offensive name. Profiting from the slurring of people of color is a choice that he is making, but we remain hopeful that he will in time come to recognize that changing the mascot is an important moral and civil rights issue that is not going away.”

Of course, Snyder has refused all such suggestions in the past, and will likely continue to until it becomes more attractive to him (financially) to do so.

But hey, as long as they’re “winning off the field,” no one really minds, or notices that they’re not winning on the field, right?

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