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NFL morning after: Cam Newton silences his critics

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

If you don’t like Cam Newton after watching him on Sunday against the Falcons, it says more about you than it does about him.

It was such a pleasure to see Newton, the Panthers’ second-year quarterback, look like Cam Newton again in Sunday’s 30-20 upset of the Falcons. Newton was absolutely amazing, throwing the ball with velocity and accuracy on a 23-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen and having one of the best runs in the NFL all season and then doing a flip into the end zone on a 72-yard touchdown. That score gave Carolina a 23-0 lead against an Atlanta team that entered Sunday’s game with the best record in football.

The Panthers blowing out the Falcons on Sunday was a big surprise, but this was the Cam Newton I expected to see all season.

Of course, I’m the idiot who picked the Panthers to win the NFC South this season, so perhaps I was a little too optimistic about Newton. But while I may have been too quick to anoint Newton a star after his excellent rookie season, much of the football world was way too quick to jump all over Newton when he struggled at some points this season. The negative stories got really silly, with people getting on his case for everything from supposedly taking too long to get dressed after a game and holding up the team bus (which the Panthers said didn’t happen) to allegedly failing to show the proper deference to veterans at last year’s Pro Bowl (which was a bizarre story to surface 10 months later). Just as I didn’t understand the obsession so many people had with all of his off-field activities when he was winning the Heisman Trophy at Auburn, and didn’t understand the pre-draft criticisms of his allegedly fake smile, I don’t understand why so many people try so hard to paint Newton in a negative light this season.

It’s true that early in the season, Newton’s performance on the field did give his critics some ammunition. He had two interceptions in a loss to the Buccaneers, three interceptions in a loss to the Giants, an interception and a fumble in a loss to the Cowboys, two interceptions and two fumbles in a loss to the Bears and two interceptions and a fumble in a loss to the Broncos. He’s made his share of mistakes.

But the thing we have to remember is, that’s what 23-year-old quarterbacks do. Newton’s shockingly good rookie season last year and the success of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson may have made us forget this, but playing quarterback in the NFL is hard. Really hard. And not many people can walk right out of college football and perform at a high level in the NFL. Newton played at such a high level as a rookie that maybe we should treat a step back in his second season not as an invitation to rip him mercilessly, but as a simple example of regression to the mean.

And after Sunday’s game against the Falcons, I’m not so sure that Newton has really regressed anyway. He’s now on pace to throw for 3,963 yards this season, just short of his rookie record 4,051 last year. And he’s on pace to run for 788 yards, even better than the impressive 706 he gained as a rookie. In the last four games, Newton has a total of 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and zero fumbles.

The 4-9 Panthers have plenty of problems. Their defense is mediocre, their special teams are terrible, and their much-hyped running back trio of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert isn’t playing well enough to merit their hype — or their contracts. But one problem they don’t have is a question mark at the quarterback position. They answered that question for years to come on the day they drafted Cam Newton.

Newton was the player who impressed me most on Sunday. Here are my other thoughts:

Rex Ryan’s decision to deactivate quarterback Greg McElroy tells me a lot about the Jets. It tells me that they think Mark Sanchez is so mentally weak that he would have been looking over his shoulder if the option of benching him for McElroy existed. That’s not a good sign. Ryan’s decision to go back to Sanchez after benching him for McElroy last week worked, in the sense that the Jets won. But it worked out for the Jets because they were playing the terrible Jaguars, not because Sanchez played well. Sanchez completed just 12 of 19 passes for 111 yards against one of the worst defenses in the NFL in Jacksonville. Ryan won’t bench Sanchez, but he should.

We still have some great running backs in this league. The NFL has become, more than ever before, a passing league. But there are still some phenomenal running backs, and two of them got off to phenomenal starts on Sunday: Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles had 103 yards in the first quarter against the Browns, and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson had 104 yards in the first quarter against the Bears. Charles and Peterson are both coming off major reconstructive knee surgery, and yet Charles is 11 carries away from surpassing Jim Brown for the NFL record for yards-per-carry average (a record that requires a minimum of 750 career carries; Charles has 739), while Peterson is closing in on a 2,000-yard season.

The officials are using automatic replay reviews as a crutch for getting calls wrong on the field. In the second quarter of Jets-Jaguars, the Jets fumbled and Jacksonville’s Dwight Lowery recovered. Lowery was obviously down when he jumped on the ball, and yet the officials allowed him to get up and race to the end zone for a touchdown, without blowing the play dead. The reason? The officials are now letting plays go because they know scoring plays are automatically reviewed, and they figure replay will bail them out if they get it wrong. But that’s not what instant replay is intended to do: The officials should call every play as well as they can, not just abdicate their responsibility on the field and waste a bunch of time afterward when their mistakes get corrected on replay.

And sometimes even when they have a replay review the officials get the call wrong. In the second quarter of Titans-Colts, Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck threw the ball just as he was being tackled, and Tennessee’s Will Witherspoon grabbed it and raced 40 yards to the end zone. Fortunately for the Colts, a replay angle clearly showed that Luck’s knee was down before he let go of the ball, so the interception would be overturned, right? Wrong. The referee somehow looked at the replay and allowed the Titans’ touchdown to stand. If the officials are going to use replay as a crutch, and then they’re going to get the call wrong even when they have that crutch, then the NFL has a serious problem on its hands.

Seattle may be the toughest place to play in the NFL. The Seahawks improved to 6-0 at home on Sunday with their demolition of the Cardinals, and it’s a good thing for the rest of the NFC that the Seahawks are probably going to have to go on the road in the playoffs, because I wouldn’t pick anyone to beat the Seahawks in Seattle. The Seahawks are winning with a great defense, an excellent running back in Marshawn Lynch and a good young quarterback in Russell Wilson. If only the Panthers could put that kind of team around Cam Newton.

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Taylor Mays working way back from shoulder dislocation and labrum tear

Joique Bell, Taylor Mays AP

The Cincinnati Bengals lost safety Taylor Mays for the season when he suffered a torn labrum and dislocated shoulder last October.

Mays dislocated his shoulder when attempting to tackle Bilal Powell in a game against the New York Jets. According to Tom Pelissero of USA Today, the shoulder dislocation tore Mays’ labrum in two places and it took 90 minutes to get put the shoulder back into its socket.

Mays had begun to find a role in the Cincinnati defense as a linebacker in the Bengals’ nickel package before the injury. Instead, his season ended and set forth a lengthy rehabilitation process.

“The hardest part was I tore it where the biceps tendon attaches, so in my rehab process, they were like, ‘No, you can’t do bicep curls,’” Mays said. “As a guy with meathead tendencies, not being able to do bicep curls – that was rough.”

The Bengals re-signed Mays to a one-year deal in March. Mays says he expects to participate in the team’s offseason program which kicks off next week. He estimates the shoulder is close to 90 percent healed, which should put on pace to be back to full strength by the start of training camp in July.

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49ers turmoil could help get Harbaugh what he wants

Harbaugh Getty Images

The 49ers’ offseason started in rocky fashion, as the tension between coach Jim Harbaugh and G.M. Trent Baalke bubbled over.  The drama became obvious even before the season ended, via the reporting of Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News.

As Harbaugh moves toward the fourth of five years of his contract with the team, he hasn’t received a new deal.  Recent turmoil unrelated to the coach but directly arising from several of the team’s players could help Harbaugh get what he wants, for several reasons.

First, the 49ers desperately need some good news right now.  Securing Harbaugh for the long haul would accomplish that.

Of course, that could be bad news for the folks in the front office who reportedly have a hard time getting along with the ultra-competitive Harbaugh.  To the extent that reports of friction between Harbaugh and G.M. Trent Baalke are true, giving Harbaugh the long-term deal he wants could also mean replacing Baalke.

Second, someone bears the blame for draft picks that have been devoted to guys who have gotten into trouble or who have ended up being busts.  Each of the first three men picked by Baalke — linebacker Aldon Smith, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and cornerback Chris Culliver — have found themselves in awkward situations, to say the least.  (Kaepernick has not yet been arrested or charged for whatever it was that happened earlier this month in Miami, and he may never be.)

The fifth-round pick in 2011, guard Daniel Kilgore, also has an arrest this year, for public intoxication.  (This week, the charge was dismissed.)

The first two players selected in 2012 haven’t done anything wrong.  But they also haven’t done anything good.  First-round receiver A.J. Jenkins is long gone, and second-round running back LaMichael James has landed on the trading block.

It’s not publicly known whether Harbaugh supported or opposed any of those selections.  He could bear some of the same blame as Baalke.  Harbaugh likewise could be basking in vindication as to one or more of the players that Baalke wanted but Harbaugh perhaps didn’t.

Regardless, Baalke had the final say, which means that Baalke gets the bulk of the blame.  Which makes Harbaugh look better in comparison and could nudge the organization between giving him the money he wants and hiring a G.M. who will work in conjunction with Harbaugh to find players who will produce at a high level and stay out of trouble.

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Report: Arbitrator rules DeSean Jackson owes Drew Rosenhaus over $500,000

DeSean Jackson, Corey Webster AP

New Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson will have to allocate some of the money from his new contract with Washington to pay off a debt to his former representation.

According to Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer, an arbitrator ruled Tuesday that Jackson owes $516,415 in back loans and fees to agent Drew Rosenhaus.

Rosenhaus filed the grievance against Jackson with the NFL Players Association last June after he was dropped by Jackson. The grievance claimed Jackson owed Rosenhaus more than $700,000 in loans and fees from his tenure representing Jackson.

Jackson intends on appealing the decision by the arbitrator. He is now represented by Joel Segal, who negotiated Jackson’s new contract in Washington.

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Jaguars re-sign WR Mike Brown

San Diego Chargers v Jacksonville Jaguars Getty Images

The Jaguars have re-signed wide receiver Mike Brown, an exclusive rights free agent, according to the NFL’s Wednesday transactions.

Brown was third on the Jaguars in receiving yards (446) and fourth in catches (32) in 2013. He also hauled in two touchdown passes. Brown appeared in 11 games, starting six.

A third-year pro, Brown (5-10, 200) played quarterback at Liberty. The Jaguars signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and moved him to wide receiver. The 24-year-old Brown was added to the Jaguars’ roster late in his rookie season, and in his second NFL campaign, he was Jacksonville’s fourth-most targeted player on offense, with 56 passes thrown his way.

Brown is one of 12 wide receivers on the Jaguars’ roster — a count that does not include Justin Blackmon, who will have to be reinstated after his November 2013 suspension.

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Judge Brody has not rejected concussion settlement a second time, yet

Gavel AP

A document that appeared on the federal court docket in Philadelphia on Wednesday but that was misunderstood by the media resulted in a flurry of headlines proclaiming that Judge Anita Brody has rejected the proposed settlement in the concussion lawsuit a second time.

She hasn’t.  (Yet.)

The document, we’re told, merely reflected internal court housekeeping and not a new decision that an attempt to change Judge Brody’s mind has failed.

Of course, that could still happen.  Judge Brody could decide that the second attempt by the lawyers to persuade her to give preliminary approval to the settlement fails to alleviate her concerns.  It hasn’t happened yet, however.

Judge Brody rejected the settlement primarily due to her concern that the $675 million compensation fund created by the $765 million settlement won’t last long enough to satisfy all potential claims.  The easy solution would be for the NFL to guarantee that, if the money runs out at some point in the future, the NFL will replenish the pot as needed.  If, after all, the NFL has a high degree of confidence that the funds will last, the NFL should have no qualms about satisfying any deficit.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs continue to wait.  It’s been nearly eight months since the deal was negotiated, and the settlement process likely will consume another eight months, or more.  They agreed to settle the case in part because it meant that much-needed funds would be made available to them sooner rather than later.

Sooner quickly has become later.  And it likely will be a lot later until the settlement is resolved.

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Report: 49ers “shopping” LaMichael James

San Francisco 49ers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

The 49ers are reportedly willing to deal a recent second-round pick.

According to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, the 49ers are “shopping” reserve tailback LaMichael James.

An Oregon product, the 24-year-old James has attempted just 39 regular season rushes since being drafted in 2012. He returned 23 punts and 12 kickoffs for the Niners last season.

According to the Bee, James has “made it clear” he wants more work at running back; it’s unclear whether that has prompted the 49ers to be open to moving in him in trade. Barrows also suggests James could conceivably be used in a package if the Niners were to move up in the draft.

The 49ers have James, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore and Jewel Hampton in reserve behind starting tailback Frank Gore. Were James to be moved, the 49ers could look to add another back. As Barrows notes, the 49ers have met with UCF tailback Storm Johnson and will meet with Towson running back Terrance West.

Including James, only three of the Niners’ seven 2012 draft picks remain with the club, with first-round pick A.J. Jenkins shipped to Kansas City after just one season.

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Dollars suggest Chris Johnson won’t be a role player

CJ AP

On the surface, it’s easy to assume that Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson will share the load in the New York backfield.  The numbers suggest strongly that Johnson will be the lead dog.

Johnson will earn $4 million in 2014.  Ivory will earn $1 million.  While that doesn’t mean Johnson will have four times the touches as Ivory, it indicates that Johnson has greater value — and in turn that he’ll have the greater role.

Also in the mix is Bilal Powell, who has a base salary of $1.4 million this year.  Mike Goodson remains on the books for another $1 million, but he’s likely the odd man out given the arrival of Johnson.

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Sidney Rice returns to the Seahawks

Sidney Rice AP

It’s been a good week for receiver Sidney Rice.

On Monday, he received clearance to return to football activities from Dr. James Andrews.  On Wednesday, he agreed to terms to return to the team that cut him earlier this year, the Seattle Seahawks.

Rice broke the news himself on Twitter.  Per a league source, it’s a one-year deal.  We’re told the deal pays more than the veteran minimum, but the specific amount isn’t currently known.

The move comes less than three years after Rice signed a long-term deal that was due to pay him $8.5 million this year.  He’ll undoubtedly make much less than that.

The Seahawks had remained interested in bringing back Rice.  News of a visit to the Jets may have been the nudge that the Seahawks needed to close the deal.

The Giants, Saints, and Panthers all had some interest in Rice.

He appeared in 33 games during three seasons with the Seahawks, with 748 receiving yards in 2012.  Last year, he tore an ACL in late October.

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Dwayne Bowe pays fine, resolves case stemming from pot arrest

Dwayne Bowe AP

Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe, who was arrested in November for marijuana possession, has paid a fine and pleaded guilty to amended charges to resolve the matter.

Bowe pleaded guilty today to defective equipment and littering and paid $610 in fines.

“Like others charged with speeding and possessing marijuana for the first time, Mr. Bowe pleaded guilty to amended charges,” city prosecutor Amy Ashefford told the Kansas City Star, adding that Bowe was treated no better or worse than anyone facing similar charges.

Bowe said in January that he thought he was racially profiled, but last week he released a statement saying the police had treated him fairly.

Now the question is how the league office will treat Bowe. A marijuana offense typically results in a one-game suspension, although littering and “defective equipment” may not be enough to get Bowe in any type of trouble. Still, the fact that this case started with a marijuana arrest could result in Bowe being placed in the league’s substance-abuse program.

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RB-needy teams left to focus on the draft

Carlos Hyde

There has been much said about running backs having a tough go of it in free agency, and in case we had forgotten, we were reminded with Chris Johnson taking more than a week to find a new team.

Johnson, who was PFT’s No. 34-ranked free agent, signed a two-year, $8 million deal with the Jets on Wednesday. And this was a good deal, given the market this offseason, as colleague Mike Florio pointed out.

In all, it took Johnson nine days from his official release from Tennessee to land a new gig. Contrast this with DeSean Jackson, who had a deal with Washington in three days. And Darrelle Revis had an agreement with New England in but a few hours after his departure from Tampa Bay.

With Johnson signed, there are no starter-caliber tailbacks left in free agency. There are some decent complementary players available, with Michael Bush (ex-Bears) and Ronnie Brown (Chargers) two of the better options left, per Rotoworld’s rankings. According to Pro Football Focus, Brown earned a positive grade as a pass blocker in 2013, but he played just 157 snaps, and he had a negative grade as a rusher, as did Bush, who’s gained less than four yards per carry in each of the last three seasons.

In short, teams needing a running back are probably left to add one in the draft. The Titans, Browns, Jaguars, Bears and Vikings are among the clubs who could use at least one more tailback. However, of these teams, only the Titans may need a starter. The Browns (Ben Tate) and Jaguars (Toby Gerhart) signed young, starter-caliber veterans in free agency, while the Bears (Matt Forte) and Vikings (Adrian Peterson) just need understudies for their established lead backs.

The Bengals, Bills, Broncos, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Chiefs, Colts, Cowboys, Falcons, Giants, Patriots, Rams, Ravens, Redskins, Steelers and Texans are other teams who seem logical contenders to bring in another back.

The question is, who takes the first tailback in May, and in which round? In his most recent mock draft, Rotoworld’s Josh Norris has no backs going in Round One. Also, NFL.com’s Nolan Nawrocki has just one back – Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde — listed as a potential first-round selection.

In an offseason that won’t be remembered as an especially glorious one for the running backs of the world, the draft looms as the final act. Not getting any stage time on the draft’s first night would be another low point.

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Busy day for Jets, with Sidney Rice visiting

Sidney Rice Pic Getty Images

On the same day the Jets added a home-run threat to their running game, they’re looking for more help for their passing attack.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, former Seahawks wideout Sidney Rice is visiting with the Jets today.

The Jets will want a look at his surgically repaired knee, as he was just cleared by Dr. James Andrews following his October ACL tear.

When well, Rice has been a good downfield threat (averaging better than 15.0 yards per catch each of the last five seasons).

But staying well has been an issue, as he’s played 16 games in a season twice in seven NFL seasons.

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Police say Sharper’s DNA was found on clothing of one of his accusers

Darren Sharper, Blair Berk, Leonard Levine AP

A Tempe, Arizona police department testified Wednesday that ex-NFL safety Darren Sharper’s DNA was found on the clothing of one of the two women accusing him of drugging and sexually assaulting them.

The Associated Press reports that the testimony came at a hearing in Tempe on Wednesday that saw Sharper’s lawyers challenge the evidence authorities are using as a basis to keep Sharper in jail without bail. Sharper is accused of drugging three women and sexually assaulting two of them last November.

Detective Kevin Mace testified that Sharper’s DNA was found on the clothing of one of the women he’s accused of assaulting, but none was found on the other woman. Mace also testified that Sharper had a prescription for the sedative zolpidem and that a police search of the apartment of one of the women turned up a shot glass with zolpidem residue. 

Sharper also faces charges along similar lines in California and Louisiana with the possibility of more to follow in other states. He was granted bail in California, but will remain in jail in Arizona pending a decision on his bail. The hearing will continue on Thursday.

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Reports: Victor Hampton arrested after altercation with his sister

victorhampton

Former South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton, a prospect in next month’s NFL draft, was in the news this week when it was reported that he was wanted for questioning in connection with an attack on a man in a New York City nightclub. But that’s not the only incident that has Hampton in the news.

Media outlets in South Carolina are reporting that Hampton has also been arrested and is facing a charge of disorderly conduct after an altercation with his sister.

Local TV station WLTX is reporting that the incident happened at a home in Columbia, South Carolina, on April 6. According to the report, Hampton and his sister, Victoria, got into an argument, police were called, and the two continued to fight even as police tried to separate them. Eventually, both Victor and Victoria were arrested.

Local TV station WIS obtained the police report, in which the arresting officer says the brother and sister wouldn’t stop fighting as both police and their mother attempted to break them up.

“I asked both subjects to stop yelling and they would stop for a second then start right back yelling, threatening each other, calling each other obscene names, using fighting words and stances,” reads the report.

Although he had a year of NCAA eligibility remaining, Hampton left school early to enter the NFL draft. He was viewed as a mid-round pick, but off-field issues will likely have a negative impact on his draft stock.

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Chris Johnson: I want to prove the doubters wrong

New York Jets v Tennessee Titans Getty Images

The Jets landed running back Chris Johnson on Wednesday, ending a brief free agent stint that didn’t feature overwhelming interest around the league in Johnson’s services.

Johnson spoke to Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean after signing his contract and he had some of those teams on his mind when discussing his plans for the upcoming season. Johnson said he’s going to draw motivation from those who think he doesn’t have the same spark he had when he was running for more than 2,000 yards for the Titans.

“I have a fresh start. Now I am going to go out there with a chip on my shoulder,” Johnson said. “I know a lot of people are doubting me. I want to prove everybody wrong who has doubts in me. I am very excited about [joining the Jets]. It’s a team on the rise and I want to make them better. … I still have it.”

Johnson joins Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell and Mike Goodson in the Jets backfield at the moment, although there’s a good chance they’ll part ways with Goodson now that Johnson is in the fold. How things will shake out in terms of playing time remains to be seen, but he new Jet said he’s already spoken to offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg about the different ways he’ll be used in 2014.

“I think I’m going to fit in pretty well,” Johnson said, via the team’s website. “Just talking to him and to Rex, who’s a guy that likes to run the ball, I think I’m going to fit in very well. We talked about all those things, catching out of the backfield, getting the ball to me in space.”

Johnson had 42 catches last season, one fewer than Jets team leader Jeremy Kerley, and his four receiving touchdowns were as many as Jets leader Jeff Cumberland, which underscores the need for more offensive talent on the roster. The Jets have added that in Johnson and wide receiver Eric Decker. With more likely to come in the draft, the Jets will look a lot different offensively than they did last season and that’s a step in the right direction.

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Saints bring former center Jonathan Goodwin in for visit

Divisional Playoffs - New Orleans Saints v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

The Saints lost center Brian de la Puente in free agency, so they need to find a replacement.

They might be turning to the guy de la Puente replaced.

According to Mike Triplett of ESPN.com, the Saints brought veteran center Jonathan Goodwin in for a visit today, making a reunion possible.

Goodwin was made expendable when the 49ers chose to extend Daniel Kilgore this offseason, and let the 35-year-old hit the market after three years as the starter.

They have some other internal options, but the team might want some experience in the middle given the all-in approach they’ve taken this offseason.

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