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Opposition to Pilot Flying J settlement grows

Pilot AP

Yes, there’s been a proposed settlement of the one of the nationwide class actions against Pilot Flying J, the chain of truck-stops run by Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.  But with up to 4,000 trucking companies supposedly encompassed by the deal, there’s a chance that up to 3,999 of them will choose to exercise their right to pass on it.

The settlement would pay each company every dollar that it lost as a result of the customer fraud rebate scam, plus six-percent interest and attorneys’ fees.

A lawyer representing four of the companies has made his clients’ position clear, via a press release forwarded to PFT.

“Pilot rebate fraud occurred on top of the toughest of economic times for the trucking industry,” the release for Drew McElroy of Knoxville states.  “Because of this, it is understandable that some trucking companies will accept these terms simply because of the economic pressure.

“However, in a case where absolutely no discovery has been conducted, it is hard to reasonably evaluate any proposed settlement.  It is also hard to comprehend how breaking even with a company who has perpetrated fraud is a good deal.”

McElroy’s release comes at a time when the proposed deal has received praise and generated much-needed positive P.R. for Pilot Flying J.  But McElroy sees it differently, calling it a “sad commentary on class action litigation when pundits declare it a good deal to break even with thieves.”

Though the trucking companies shouldn’t unfairly profit from the settlement, allowing Pilot Flying J to pay back the money it should have paid in the first place isn’t the best way to ensure that these kinds of activities will be abandoned by unscrupulous corporations.

McElroy point out that the estimated payout of $35 million represents less than 11 hours of Pilot revenues.  To discourage Pilot and others from engaging in similar misconduct in the future, much greater liability will be needed.

Of course, the five Pilot Flying J executives (and likely counting) who have faced criminal liability likely would say that the message has been received, loud and clear.

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Bears may be protecting Cutler against injury

Cutler Getty Images

Question:  What team benches a quarterback who signed a contract that pays him $22.5 million in 2014 and another fully-guaranteed $15.5 million in 2015?

Answer:  A team that doesn’t want an injury to derail a plan to trade or cut the quarterback.

Yes, Cutler will get $2.8125 million to not play in the final two weeks of the season.  It’s an obvious effort to keep Cutler healthy, so that he can be dangled in the offseason to a team that would be willing to assume Cutler’s contract.

The cap hit for trading Cutler would be fairly small, given that his 2014 pay started as a fully-guaranteed base salary.  In March, $5 million was converted to a signing bonus, clearing $4 million in cap space that assisted with the signing of defensive end Jared Allen.  That $4 million would hit the 2015 cap if Cutler is traded, but it would clear $11.5 million in total cap space for the next season.  And it would get the Bears off the hook for $15.5 million that they owe Cutler whether he’s on the team or not.

So while the decision to bench Cutler is a message to the player and the fans that poor performances won’t be tolerated, it’s actually a message to every other team in the league.  Cutler is available.

Who would possibly trade for Cutler?  That’ll be the subject of another post.

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Michigan reportedly makes run at Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh Getty Images

When it first became obvious Brady Hoke wouldn’t be back next year as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, a report suggested that the folks at Ann Arbor were more interested in John Harbaugh (who didn’t go to Michigan) than Jim (who did).

Now, Michigan apparently has a keen interest in the soon-to-be-former 49ers coach.

Per multiple reports, Michigan has offered Harbaugh the job.  The package leaked to the media would pay Harbaugh $8 million per year over six years.

That’s far more than Harbaugh currently makes in San Francisco, and far more than the 49ers had offered in failed negotiations on a new deal.  The impasse arose, as one source with knowledge of the talks previously told PFT, because Harbaugh wanted to be paid like a Super Bowl-winning coach without, you know, winning a Super Bowl.

If the offer from Michigan, where it’s easy to finance a large coaching salary since the players get jack squat and free snacks, is real, he’d be paid like a Super Bowl-winning coach without winning a Super Bowl and without ever competing for one for as long as he’s at Michigan.

The leak and its origin suggest that Harbaugh’s agent hopes to use the offer as leverage in talks with interested NFL teams.  If Michigan will pay $8 million per year, how much will the Raiders, Dolphins, or other interested team fork over?  With the talent gap among teams as narrow as ever, a great coach can be the difference between mediocrity and a championship; great coaches at the NFL are worth far more than they currently get.

The possibility that Harbaugh will leave for Michigan also pressures Jed York and company to be very reasonable in any trade talks regarding Harbaugh.  If he chooses to go back to college, the 49ers get nothing.

Then again, the 49ers may prefer that outcome, since they wouldn’t have to worry about Harbaugh finishing with another franchise that which he started in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, some have suggested that Harbaugh wouldn’t use his alma mater as leverage for a better NFL job.  Why shouldn’t he?  Harbaugh played football there at a high level.  In return he got jack squat, without the free snacks.

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Bears bench Jay Cutler, start Jimmy Clausen

Jimmy Clausen, Micheal Spurlock AP

The Bears’ collapse has reached epic proportions, as Jay Cutler has lost his job as Chicago’s starting quarterback.

Cutler has been benched and Jimmy Clausen will start on Sunday against the Lions, Adam Schefter of ESPN reports.

For Cutler to get benched after playing just 14 games into the enormous contract he signed this offseason demonstrates just how big the mess in Chicago is. That contract may cost both Bears G.M. Phil Emery and Bears coach Marc Trestman their jobs.

And Cutler’s play has already cost him his job. Whether Cutler has any future in Chicago or anywhere else in the NFL remains to be seen, and the Bears owe Cutler a guaranteed salary of $15.5 million next season whether he’s on their team or not.

But at the present, Cutler is out, and Clausen is the Bears’ starting quarterback.

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Hot stove alert: Free agency begins March 10

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Dislike your favorite team’s roster? Take heart: By St. Patrick’s Day, it could be much, much different.

The 2015 NFL league year will begin Tuesday, March 10, the NFL disclosed Wednesday as it released the opening portion of its annual calendar.

With the new league year comes the start of unrestricted free agency, one of the primary ways for clubs to procure talent. Even then, at the outset, the market will be somewhat thinned; teams must declare their transition and franchise free agents by Monday, March 2. The fight for the remaining free agents will begin in earnest on Saturday, March 7, with teams allowed to begin negotiating with agents.

Then, at 4 p.m. Eastern on the 10th, the market will open, and deals will quickly be announced.

By March 17 — three months from today — things will have cooled down. Some deals will remain undone, but the big ones will be in the books. A nation of football fans will wear more green than usual and ponder which of the pre-draft chatter is legit and which is junk.

About the 2015 NFL Draft: it kicks off Thursday, April 30 in Chicago. By the time it wraps up on Saturday, May 2, we will have a very good idea of where these teams stand.

At least we’ll think we know. The good news? Rookie minicamps begin the next week. Already you will be tired of the offseason, and the sight of 7-on-7 drills will take your mind off the fact you’re wearing more pastels than usual this spring.

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Manziel says Browns were “a little off” on Sunday

Manziel AP

It’s getting fairly late in the calender for the “Understatements of the Year,” but Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel has offered up an impressive entry for belated consideration.

“I think we were just a little off on Sunday,” Manziel told reporters on Wednesday regarding the zero-point, 107-yard output at home against the Bengals on Sunday.

Manziel then offered up a little Lion King-style philosophizing.

“Last week is last week, and last week is in the past,” Manziel said.  “It’s not about anything having to do with last week.  That’s in the past.  Now, it’s just how do we come out and have a good game this week and how do we come out and be efficient. It all starts with today and starts with getting our game plan in and going out and running it well on our first day of practice.  I felt like we had a good day today. It’s a start for us this week, and now we continue to build on that and work off that throughout the week.”

Manziel also said he thought they had a good week last week, so his assessment of whether it’s going well has proven to be a bad barometer of whether the Browns can avoid being a bad team with the rookie under center on Sunday against the Panthers.  And Manziel knows he needs to do something the next two week to show he’s the answer for 2015 and beyond.

“Play better,” Manziel said.  “Plain and simple.  This position here is about results, and it’s about getting the job done.  You’ve got to do that to be on the field in this league.  For me, that was a first start, and that’s something I’ll remember forever.  Unfortunately, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth, but at the same time, I’ve had bad games in college.  I’ve had bad games in the past, and it’s part of football.  You can’t go out and play perfect every week.  That’s a proven fact.”

It’s a proven fact that Manziel was the opposite of perfect against the Bengals.  He’ll need to be better than that soon or that homeless dude who advocated Manziel being picked to the owner will be giving Jimmy Haslam far different advice in 2015.

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Mike Pettine on Bernie Kosar’s comments: They were a little dramatic

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

Former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar ripped the organization this week for having a culture that is “a complete recipe for disaster” when it comes to developing the team’s first long-term answer at quarterback since Kosar was turfed by Bill Belichick more than 20 years ago.

Tim Couch, one of the fallen would-be saviors, agreed with Kosar, which all but guaranteed that questions about their comments would pop up during coach Mike Pettine’s meetings with the media this week. Pettine faced some on Wednesday and defended the organization’s commitment to building a winner the right way.

“I think that’s a little dramatic. I know I talked about this before when sometimes guys will make comments that are a little bit over the top,” Pettine said, via the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I have a lot of respect for Bernie. He was one of my favorite guys growing up, heck of a quarterback. He’s entitled to his opinion, but being here on the inside of it and seeing what we’re building … We’re in the society of instant gratification. Everybody wants it to happen now, and as much as we want that to happen, it is a process. When you build a house you’ve got to build it from the foundation. You’ve got to build the right way and make sure it’s rock solid. We’re in the middle of that. I get people are going to have their opinions and say what they say, but a lot more of that happens when you’ve lost three in a row. I didn’t hear a lot of that when we had just gotten our seventh win.”

Clearly there’s been something wrong on the organizational level in Cleveland for the team to fail as regularly as they’ve failed since re-entering the league in 1999 and anything that goes badly at this point gets chalked up as being the same old story told in a slightly different way. That’s not fair to Pettine, Johnny Manziel or anyone else who just got to town, relatively speaking, but it’s going to be a reality of life in Cleveland until the Browns are consistent winners.

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Marc Trestman: It’s evident I haven’t gotten best from Jay Cutler

New Orleans Saints v Chicago Bears Getty Images

For the second straight week, Bears coach Marc Trestman is getting questions about benching quarterback Jay Cutler in favor of Jimmy Clausen.

Trestman resisted any temptation to make a change last week and he’s doing the same this week, although he stuck with Cutler while admitting something that’s been apparent to everyone who has watched the Bears on offense this season. Trestman said that he thinks “it’s been evident” that he’s failed to get the best out of Cutler during the 2014 season.

“I haven’t been able [to get the best from Cutler] and we haven’t been able to do the things that we want to get done,” Trestman said, via ESPNChicago.com. “We’re working towards that. But the answer to that is obvious. I’m trying to give you the most truthful answer and that is, we’ve seen moments of it, but it’s not where we need to go. It’s not where we need to be. But it’s not all about Jay. It’s about our entire offense, working together to get it done.”

The question lingering over the Bears right now is whether Trestman will get more time to work with Cutler and the entire offense or if they’ll fire him after a second season as coach that has gone wrong in a wide variety of ways. The failure to get more out of the offense is as damning as anything for Trestman because his offensive acumen is what got him the job in the first place, although it remains hard to believe that Trestman or anyone else is going to find a way to turn Cutler into a radically different quarterback than the one he’s been over the first nine years of his career.

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Painkiller lawsuit dismissed

image2 Getty Images

When a group of former players sued the NFL for the improper distribution of painkillers by team doctors, the effort got a lot more traction in the media than the concussion lawsuits received in their early stages.  Viewed as the next wave of liability for a league plagued with safety concerns, it was presumed by many that the NFL was on the ropes, from a legal perspective.

While the concussion lawsuit ended up generating significant liability for the NFL, the painkiller lawsuit apparently will create none.

U.S. Judge William Alsup has dismissed the lawsuit, explaining that it is preempted by the Collective Bargaining Agreements governing the relationship between the NFL and its players.

“In ruling against the novel claims asserted herein, this order does not minimize the underlying societal issue,” Judge Alsup wrote in a 22-page order, a copy of which PFT has obtained. “In such a rough-and-tumble sport as professional football, player injuries loom as a serious and inevitable evil. Proper care of these injuries is likewise a paramount need. The main point of this order is that the league has addressed these serious concerns in a serious way — by imposing duties on the clubs via collective bargaining and placing a long line of health-and-safety duties on the team owners themselves. These benefits may not have been perfect but they have been uniform across all clubs and not left to the vagaries of state common law. They are backed up by the enforcement power of the union itself and the players’ right to enforce these benefits. Given the regime in place after decades of collective bargaining over the scope of these duties, it would be impossible to fashion and to apply new and supplemental state common law duties on the league without taking into accountvthe adequacy and scope of the CBA duties already set in place.”

In other words, if individual teams and/or individual team doctors have been prescribing medication improperly, the players should pursue claims directly against the teams, through the arbitration procedures available under the labor deal.

The ruling doesn’t account for the period when there was no CBA, following the 1987 strike and until 1993.  Still, even without the Collective Bargaining Agreement, it seems that it would have been difficult if not impossible for former players to prove that the NFL has responsibility for the actions of its teams.

“The essence of plaintiffs’ claim for relief is that the individual clubs mistreated their players and the league was negligent in failing to intervene and stop their alleged mistreatment,” Judge Alsup wrote.  “Plaintiffs anchor this claim for relief in supposed common law duties of each of the various states whose law would apply and vaguely suggest that all such states would impose the same uniform duty on the league to oversee the clubs.

“One problem is this: no decision in any state (including California) has ever held that a professional sports league owed such a duty to intervene and stop mistreatment by the league’s independent clubs.”

Judge Alsup gave the players until December 30 to file a motion for permission to amend the complaint that states a viable legal cause of action. The players also have appeal rights. So while the case isn’t over, it’s the players who are now on the ropes, from a legal perspective.

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Andre Johnson practices as Texans weigh quarterback options

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans Getty Images

The good news for the Texans passing game is that wide receiver Andre Johnson returned to practice on Wednesday after missing last week while recovering from a concussion.

With the Ravens shuffling another new cornerback into their injury-depleted corps this week, having Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins available would seem to give the Texans a sound route of attack come Sunday. That brings us to the bad news.

The Texans are without their top three quarterbacks, leaving them to decide between Thad Lewis and the recently reacquired Case Keenum for starting quarterback duties against Baltimore. On Wednesday, Texans coach Bill O’Brien said he’s closing in on a decision that he doesn’t plan to share with anyone outside the team.

“The team has a pretty good idea which way we are going,” O’Brien said, via the Houston Chronicle.

Whoever does get tabbed will be running an offense that’s pared down to what “the position can handle,” according to quarterbacks coach George Godsey. We’re guessing that’s not an onslaught of passes deep downfield, but we’ll have to wait until Sunday to find that out as well.

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Philip Rivers held out of practice, expected to play

Philip Rivers AP

Philip Rivers‘ tough-guy credentials are well-established. Playing with a torn ACL earns you that much.

But even Philip Rivers needs a day off.

According to Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego, Rivers was held out of practice Wednesday with chest and back injuries.

Rivers has started 128 consecutive games since winning the starting job in 2006, and has played through plenty of aches and pains.

They still hope he’s going to be able to play Saturday night against the 49ers.

“I feel good,” Rivers said Tuesday. ‘I’ll be ready to roll on Saturday evening.”

Head coach Mike McCoy took it a step further today, telling reporters “I expect him to play.”

He wasn’t the only one missing, as the Chargers were without wide receiver Keenan Allen (collarbone), running back Ryan Mathews (ankle), tight end Ladarius Green (ankle) and defensive end Corey Liuget (ankle).

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Dexter McCluster out Thursday, likely out Week 17 as well

New York Jets v Tennessee Titans Getty Images

The Titans signed Dexter McCluster as a free agent to add to their offense and special teams, but his first year in Tennessee looks like it will come to a premature end.

McCluster has been ruled out for Thursday night’s game against the Jaguars because of a knee injury and Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean reports that it sounds like he’ll be out for the season finale against the Colts as well. If that’s the case, McCluster will miss out on the chance to end a disappointing year on a high note.

McCluster ran 40 times for 131 yards and caught 26 passes for 197 yards while failing to make the same kind of impact on punt returns that he had while returning two kicks for touchdowns for the Chiefs in 2013. McCluster signed a three-year deal worth a total of $9 million with $4.5 million guaranteed and he’s set to count $3.35 million against the cap next year.

Left tackle Taylor Lewan (ankle) and quarterback Zach Mettenberger (shoulder) are both doubtful for Tennessee, which means we’re going to see Charlie Whitehurst start for the fourth time this season. Tight end Delanie Walker (knee) and wide receiver Kendall Wright (hand) are both questionable for the clash between 2-12 teams.

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49ers cut Ray McDonald amid rape investigation

San Francisco 49ers v Houston Texans Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers have released defensive lineman Ray McDonald, hours after news broke that police searched his home in connection with an investigation into a sexual assault.

General Manager Trent Baalke said the 49ers made the decision to terminate McDonald’s contract because of a pattern of behavior that the team finds unacceptable.

That represents a sharp contrast from the 49ers’ approach to McDonald early this season. When McDonald was arrested and investigated in a domestic violence case, the 49ers steadfastly stood by him, even as they faced harsh criticism from those who said he had no business on the field at a time when Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson were all banished from the league. In that case, authorities ultimately decided not to charge McDonald.

There’s no word yet on whether McDonald will be charged in the new sexual assault case, but it’s clear that the 49ers have decided that McDonald is someone they no longer want representing their franchise.

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Jay Gruden: No matter what I say about RG3, it gets twisted

Gruden Getty Images

Washington coach Jay Gruden has seen his comments about quarterback Robert Griffin III get turned into something worse than they really were, and he’s come to believe that’s just part of life as an NFL head coach.

“I don’t have much of a concern really,” Gruden said, via CSNWashington.com. “I know that no matter what I say about Robert, it’s going to get twisted one way or the other.”

Gruden believes that people will seek to put a negative spin on anything he says about his quarterback.

“If I say he’s doing great, it’s going to be, ah, I’m too easy on him. If I say he needs to work harder, it means I said he’s lazy. If I said he needs to work on his fundamentals, it means I don’t like him,” Gruden said.

Although Gruden has benched Griffin this season and only put him back on the field after an injury to Colt McCoy forced his hand, Gruden says he has positive feelings toward Griffin.

“I have a ton of respect for Robert, man, and for what he goes through at the quarterback position,” Gruden said, “for what he’s already accomplished as a young quarterback, and what he’s going to accomplish in the future.”

It remains to be seen whether Gruden and Griffin have any future together beyond this season, but for the final two weeks, Gruden is going to say what he pleases about Griffin and let others interpret his words how they please.

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Mike Smith says Julio Jones decision will come Sunday morning

Atlanta Falcons v Green Bay Packers Getty Images

It doesn’t look like the Saints are going to get much advance word about whether they’ll need to stop Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones this weekend.

Falcons coach Mike Smith said Tuesday that the team anticipated getting Jones back in the lineup after he missed Week 15 with a hip injury. During a media session on Wednesday, Smith said that anticipation would be the only course of action for anyone interested in Jones’s status.

Smith said, via Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com, that he will make a decision about Jones’s status around the time he has to hand in his inactive list for Sunday’s game at the Superdome. There may not be any hints during the practice week, either. Jones didn’t practice on Wednesday and didn’t practice at all last week and it seems likely that the Falcons would save whatever Jones might have until Sunday.

The Falcons were also without Roddy White at practice on Wednesday. White was listed as out with an ankle issue after playing all but three snaps last Sunday, so it may be a rest day for White with Jones’s status very much up in the air.

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Woody Johnson makes a Twitter gaffe

Woody AP

As Twitter blunders go, they usually happen when someone sends an ill-advised tweet, or when someone intends to send a direct message that gets directed to the world.

Jets owner Woody Johnson has demonstrated one of the other potential perils of the social media juggernaut.  Via Deadspin, Woody accidentally clicked the “favorite” button on a tweet directed to Johnson advocating the firing of G.M. John Idzik.

“You really need to #FireIdzik at this point,” the fan said.  “This roster is garbagio.”

Said Johnson after realizing the mistake:  “Have to be more careful when scrolling through my Twitter feed.  The tweet I most recently favorited was inadvertent.”

If only he could claim that the decision to hire Idzik has inadvertent, maybe the Jets would have some hope.

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