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NFL morning after: A great time for great quarterbacks

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The NFL is, more than ever before, a quarterback league. And we’ve got some great ones playing in these playoffs.

If the wild card weekend taught us anything, it’s that the NFL in 2014 is dominated by quarterbacks. When quarterbacks are playing great football, like Andrew Luck and Alex Smith played in Indianapolis on Saturday, the results are spectacular. When quarterbacks are playing badly, like Andy Dalton played in Cincinnati on Sunday, the result is a team with no chance to win, even when its defense plays well.

The good news for fans who like offense is that next weekend’s four games have what may be the best quarterback matchups in NFL history. Just think about how good the quarterbacks are in the four divisional round games:

Philip Rivers vs. Peyton Manning: Manning will win the fifth Most Valuable Player award of his career for his record-breaking 2013 season, and he’s the best passer in football. But after Manning, the next-best passer in the NFL over the course of the 2013 season was Rivers. Rivers completed a league-leading 69.5 percent of his passes in the regular season, had 32 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and took a team that looked before the season like one of the worst in the NFL to the playoffs. This will be a great matchup of great passers.

Andrew Luck vs. Tom Brady: Luck threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns as he got the first postseason win of his career on Saturday, and now he’ll travel to New England and face Brady, who has 17 career postseason wins. If the Colts can pull the upset, this could be a changing of the guard: The quarterback who has three Super Bowl rings giving way to a much younger quarterback who’s probably going to win multiple Super Bowl rings before his career is over.

Drew Brees vs. Russell Wilson: Brees topped 5,000 passing yards for the fourth time in his career this season; no one else has reached 5,000 yards more than once. Wilson, who grew up idolizing Brees, may be the most exciting player to enter the NFL in recent years: He scrambles like Fran Tarkenton and has a gun like John Elway.

Colin Kaepernick vs. Cam Newton: This is the one that has me the most excited because it’s the one that has the greatest potential to show us what the future of football will be. Running quarterbacks are here to stay, and in Kaepernick and Newton we have the two best running quarterbacks in football facing off. Kaepernick has two of the three best rushing performances by a quarterback in NFL postseason history, with his 181-yard game against Green Bay last year and his 98-yard game against Green Bay on Sunday. Newton led all quarterbacks in rushing in the regular season, with 585 yards, and he’s the all-time quarterback record holder for rushing touchdowns in a season.

Quarterback matchups don’t get any better than that, and that’s what I’m most excited about heading into the divisional weekend. Here are my observations from wild card weekend:

There were no 100-yard rushers. The flip side of the NFL being a league of great quarterbacks is that the running game has been de-emphasized. There wasn’t a single 100-yard runner in the NFL this weekend. In fact, it was a quarterback, Kaepernick, who led all runners in the wild card round with his 98-yard game against the Packers. Running backs just aren’t the NFL’s marquee players anymore.

Smith had a game like no other. Until Saturday, no player in NFL history had ever passed for 350 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and added 50 yards on the ground in any game, regular season or postseason. But Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith became the first player to do it on Saturday when he passed for 378 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, and added 57 rushing yards. Quarterbacks shouldn’t be judged on wins and losses: When a quarterback plays the way Smith played on Saturday and leads his team to 44 points, he shouldn’t be judged harshly just because his team’s defense gave up 45 points. But the reality is that quarterbacks are judged on wins and losses, and so a lot of people will choose to remember that Smith overthrew an open Cyrus Gray on what could have been a touchdown pass, that Smith lost a fumble and that Smith’s intentional grounding penalty took the Chiefs out of field goal range late in the game. Me, I’ll remember that Smith turned in the game of his life.

Hilton stepped up in a big way. T.Y. Hilton, who became the Colts’ No. 1 receiver by default after Reggie Wayne suffered a season-ending injury, had the best game of his career and one of the best games anyone has ever had in the playoffs on Saturday. Hilton’s 13 catches were tied for the second most in NFL postseason history, and his 224 receiving yards were tied for the third most in NFL postseason history. The Colts were very wise to take Hilton in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, the same draft in which they selected Andrew Luck. Those two are going to be a great combination for many years to come.

Two big changes for the Saints panned out. After the Saints’ Week 15 loss to the Rams, New Orleans coach Sean Payton decided he had seen enough of struggling kicker Garrett Hartley and left tackle Charles Brown. And so the Saints cut Hartley and signed Shayne Graham to take his place, and benched Brown and promoted rookie left tackle Terron Armstead to the starting lineup. Both moves looked very good in Saturday’s playoff win over the Eagles. Graham went 4-for-4 on field goals, while Armstead held his own against the Eagles’ pass rush and helped keep Drew Brees upright. Give Payton credit for recognizing two spots on his team that needed to get better, and making the necessary changes.

McCoy couldn’t get loose. During the regular season, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage, averaged 5.1 yards a run and 10.4 yards a catch, and had 17 different plays of 20 yards or more. Against the Saints on Saturday, McCoy averaged just 3.7 yards a run and 3.8 yards a catch, and his longest play of the day was 11 yards. The ability of Rob Ryan’s New Orleans defense to keep McCoy in check was a huge part of the Eagles’ season ending on Saturday.

Lewis can build a defense, but he can’t build a quarterback. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has a well-earned reputation as a great defensive mind, and his defense was strong on Sunday, holding a good San Diego offense in check for most of the game. Unfortunately, Lewis has Andy Dalton as his quarterback, and Dalton was beyond terrible on Sunday, with three turnovers that pretty much handed the game to the Chargers. Lewis may need to sign or draft another quarterback this offseason because Dalton simply isn’t up to the task.

Keenan Allen plays the game the way it’s meant to be played. Allen, the rookie receiver who led the Chargers with 1,046 receiving yards, only had two catches for 21 yards on Sunday. So why am I singling Allen out for praise? Because I love the way this young man plays the game, even when he’s not getting the ball. Allen’s brutal but legal block to spring teammate Eddie Royal on a nine-yard run was my single favorite play of the weekend.

TV is better than being there. Three of the four teams that hosted games over the weekend had trouble selling out their stadiums, and no one should be surprised by that. The truth is, if you have an HD TV and a comfortable couch, sitting at home and watching the games for free is a lot better than paying a small fortune to sit in an uncomfortable stadium, often in terrible weather, surrounded by loudmouth drunks. I don’t blame the fans in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Green Bay who were slow to sell out their stadiums last week, and if anything surprises me, it’s that Philadelphia fans sold out their stadium within minutes of the Eagles putting playoff tickets for sale. If I lived in Philadelphia, I would have much rather been at home on Saturday afternoon, watching that great Chiefs-Colts second half, than in my car fighting traffic on my way to the game. And I would have rather been at home to watch my team lose to the Saints than sit in the cold on Saturday night. The best place to watch football is at home.

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Clay Helton has no concerns about sharing a stadium or a market

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USC coach Clay Helton joined Wednesday’s PFT Live, primarily to talk a bit about some of his prospects entering the draft. In addition to addressing the NFL future of defensive back Adoree’ Jackson and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and the challenges associated with keeping quarterback Sam Darnold focused on the present, Helton addressed the reality of sharing his stadium with one NFL team — and his market with two of them.

Helton has no complaints about having an NFL tenant in the Coliseum. It definitely didn’t hurt the product; the Trojans were undefeated last year at home. They’ll have the Rams in the same building for two more seasons.

After that, the Rams and Chargers will share space in Inglewood. But that’s not giving Helton any concern about the ability of the Trojans to continue to draw plenty of interest in a market that is crowded with options — but also with people.

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Dolphins add tackle Avery Young

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The Miami Dolphins signed tackle Avery Young and waived cornerback Daniel Davie on Thursday with a non-football injury designation.

Young himself spent all of the 2016 season on the non-football injury list with the New Orleans Saints with an undisclosed issue after signing with the team as an undrafted free agent from Auburn.

He returned to practice with the Saints at midseason but was never activated from the NFI list.

Young played both guard positions and right tackle at Auburn.

Davie was signed by the Dolphins in January to a futures contract. Davie spent brief periods with the Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season after going undrafted from Nebraska.

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Vikings running back Latavius Murray has ankle surgery

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The Minnesota Vikings announced Wednesday that newly signed running back Latavius Murray had ankle surgery in North Carolina.

The surgery, performed by Dr. Bob Anderson in Charlotte, was said to be successful in a team statement.

“We were aware of the required surgery prior to signing Latavius on March 16,” the team said in a statement. “Latavius is expected to fully recover and be available for training camp.”

Murray has over four months to recover before training camp opens for the Vikings in late July.

The need for ankle surgery was likely apparent to each of the teams Murray met with in free agency. He had visited the Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars as well before reaching a deal with the Vikings. Ultimately, the issue didn’t concern the Vikings enough to dissuade them from signing him last week.

Murray scored a career-high 12 touchdowns last year with the Oakland Raiders and rushed for 788 yards in 14 games.

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Goodell suggests enhanced use of play clocks

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The NFL often routinely uses a play clock throughout each game. However, it’s not as universal as it soon could be.

In a Wednesday letter to fans, Commissioner Roger Goodell suggested expanded use of a play clock in order to keep games moving along.

“Regarding game timing, we’re going to institute a play clock following the extra point when television does not take a break, and we’re considering instituting a play clock after a touchdown,” Goodell wrote. “We’re also going to standardize the starting of the clock after a runner goes out-of-bounds, and standardize halftime lengths in all games, so we return to the action as quickly as possible. Those are just a few of the elements we are working on to improve the pace of our game.”

Goodell also emphasized a point that is coming up too often to not happen — an effort to eliminate the kind of lulls that can get folks in this short-attention span society to change the channel or to otherwise find some other shiny object on their phones, tablets, or wherver else distractions currently come from.

“Together with our broadcast partners, we will be working to meaningfully reduce down time and the frequency of commercial breaks in our game,” Goodell wrote. “We will also be giving our broadcast partners increased flexibility to avoid untimely breaks in the action. For example, we know how annoying it is when we come back from a commercial break, kick off, and then cut to a commercial again. I hate that too. Our goal is to eliminate it.”

It’s smart, and to the extent that it came from last year’s ratings panic (which seemed to have subsided by the end of the year), the short-term dip in viewership could help make the game much more watchable in the future.

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Packers re-sign Christine Michael

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After arriving in Green Bay midway through the 2016 season, running back Christine Michael will stick around for 2017.

Michael has re-signed with the Packers, Field Yates of ESPN reports.

The Packers, who said goodbye to Eddie Lacy this offseason, expect to start Ty Montgomery at running back, and Michael can back him up.

Last season Michael played six games for the Packers, carrying 31 times for 114 yards and a touchdown. He had previously played for the Seahawks, who cut him in November even though he was their leading rusher. Michael originally entered the NFL as a second-round pick of the Seahawks in 2013 and has had two stints in Seattle as well as time in Dallas and Washington.

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Goodell hints at substantive changes to game broadcasts

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Apart from an effort to speed up the pace of the game, the NFL apparently plans to explore strategies for altering the manner in which the game is presented to its fans.

“We . . . know that you feel there are too many elements in the broadcast that aren’t relevant to the play on the field,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in his Wednesday letter to fans. “With our partners, we will be looking to instead focus on content that is most complementary and compelling to you — whether that is analysis, highlights or stories about our players. All of these changes are meant to give you more of what you want: a competitive game with fewer interruptions and distractions from the action.”

That’s a broad statement, and it suggests that the league will be mandating changes to the manner in which games are televised. It’s unclear where or how an enhanced focus on “analysis, highlights or stories about our players” will fit into the presentation of a football game, since there currently aren’t many spots for doing anything other than reacting one play at a time to the things happening on the field.

It’s also unclear what Goodell means when he says there are “too many elements in the broadcast that aren’t relevant to the play on the field.”

A cynic could view that statement as part of a broader effort to ensure that the broadcasts will focus only on positive storylines, with negative aspects that may nevertheless be newsworthy or compelling receiving less emphasis in the name of taking even greater advantage of the three-hour infomercial for which the league gets paid billions every year. This particular cynic will withhold judgment on that point until more details emerge regarding the changes that will be made.

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Former Patriots center Bryan Stork calls it a career

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Once a very promising young offensive lineman, former Patriots center Bryan Stork has decided to call it a career.

“I can’t say I’m retiring because I’m only 26 but I have decided to officially step away from playing the game of football which I will always love dearly,” Stork wrote on Twitter. “While chasing a childhood dream I was very blessed I had family, friends, and coaches on my side to help me get to where I wanted to go.”

Last year Stork became the subject of an odd story in training camp, as the Patriots were reportedly poised to cut him, then traded him to Washington, before reports surfaced that he was contemplating retirement. Stork decided not to retire at that time, but he then failed his physical in Washington, nullifying the trade, and he was released. Stork tried to sign on with a couple of other teams but that never materialized, and he didn’t play last season.

Stork has had several injuries, including concussions and a neck injury. He will be remembered for starting for Florida State’s 2013 national championship team, then starting for the Patriots when they won Super Bowl XLIX a year later. He is one of only a handful of players in the history of football to start for the college national champions and the NFL champions in back-to-back seasons.

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Jaguars sign former Raiders tight end Mychal Rivera

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The Jacksonville Jaguars announced on Wednesday they have signed former Oakland Raiders tight end Mychal Rivera.

It’s a one-year deal with a team option for a second year according to Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network.

Rivera has played in 61 games for the Raiders over the past four seasons with 15 starts. Last year was his least productive year in Oakland, recording just 18 catches for 192 yards and one touchdown as Clive Walford assumed the primary pass receiving role from the position. Rivera’s career-highs came in 2014 with 58 catches for 534 yards and four touchdowns.

Rivera had visited the New York Jets earlier this week before agreeing to a deal with Jacksonville.

Rivera gives the Jaguars another veteran option at tight end to pair with Marcedes Lewis following the trade of Julius Thomas to Miami this offseason.

Rivera was high school (Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, Calif.) and college teammates (Tennessee) with Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson.

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Jim Mora misses the relationships with other his fellow coaches

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In an extended interview with PFT Live, former Falcons and Seahawks coach (and current UCLA coach) Jim Mora addressed a wide variety of interesting topics. At one point, I asked him what he misses about coaching in the NFL.

He said he misses the relationships with his peers. While NFL coaches fiercely compete, the competition ends, for the most part, on the field. Sure, there’s often some competition when it comes to free agents. But not nearly the kind of neverending fight for talent that happens among college coaches.

Constantly, they’re trying to get players to choose their school over another one. Constantly, they’re relying upon their ability to essentially swipe a talented player from another coach. As a result, Mora said he doesn’t have the kind of relationship with his fellow coaches that he had when he coached in the NFL.

That’s just one example of the things Mora discussed. The full video is worth a listen.

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Roger Goodell explains to fans how new replay system will work

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In a move that feels a lot like a President making his case for legistlative change to the people before the House or the Senate cast a vote, Commissioner Roger Goodell has sent a letter to fans outlining various changes that will be considered by the owners next week in Arizona.

The letter from Goodell with the salutation “Dear Fans” presents the proposals in a way that suggests the changes are a done deal, even though the changes won’t be finalized until at least 24 owners vote in favor of them. This means either that Goodell has polled enough owners to conclude that at least 24 votes are coming — or that he has concluded that enough owners are on the fence to justify an effort to work the public in advance of the vote. Why else, frankly, would he feel compelled to tell the fans about the changes only one week before the changes become actual changes?

As it relates to the centralization of replay review, a topic that has been a sore point for multiple coaches and team executives who worry that this will allow the league office to make decisions aimed at reaching outcomes desired by 345 Park Avenue, Goodell outlined the new procedure that would be adopted: “Instead of a fixed sideline monitor, we will bring a tablet to the Referee who can review the play in consultation with our officiating headquarters in New York, which has the final decision. This should improve consistency and accuracy of decisions and help speed up the process.”

It also should allow Microsoft to get even more bang for its product-placement buck, with the peep-show approach replaced by an official using the official tablet of the National Football League, complete with that distinctive electric blue case.

Apart from the obvious change to the appearance of the replay review process, the new approach would result in the referee losing final say over the outcome, with the league office having the power to overrule the ruling on the field.

So why involve the referee at all? Doing so eliminates the sense that the decision is being made remotely (and possibly arbitrarily). In fairness to the league, it also allows for an extra set of eyes, which is never a bad thing. And, as mentioned above, it provides for greater integration of the Microsoft tablet into the presentation of the game. Which makes that partnership even more valuable to the league.

Especially when the time comes to put the official tablet sponsorship out for bidding.

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Titans sign offensive lineman Tim Lelito

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The Titans have made it a point to strengthen both lines, and added some depth on offense Wednesday.

According to a tweet from his agents, Saints free agent blocker Tim Lelito has signed with the Titans.

Lelito also visited with his hometown Lions, but apparently found a better deal in Nashville.

Lelito has started 24 games the last four years with the Saints, and gives them some experience in the middle after losing Brian Schwenke to the Colts.

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Bart Hubbuch withdraws lawsuit against New York Post

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In roughly 99.999999999 percent of all civil lawsuits, an effort to dismiss the case is met with a vigorous effort by the plaintiff to keep the case alive. In the wrongful discharge lawsuit filed by Bart Hubbuch against the New York Post, a motion to dismiss filed by Hubbuch’s former employer apparently has prompted Hubbuch to walk away.

The official paperwork reflects a stipulated dismissal of the case with prejudice, which means that the case can’t be re-filed at some later date. While the paperwork contains no mention of the reason for the ending of the lawsuit, a spokesperson for the Post left no doubt, via statement sent by email to PFT: “In response to the . . . motion to dismiss, Mr. Hubbuch has voluntarily withdrawn his lawsuit, acknowledging his claims were frivolous.”

Dismissal notwithstanding, Hubbuch’s attorney, Scott Lucas, disputes a key portion of the statement from the Post.

“The claim was voluntarily withdrawn,” Lucas told PFT by phone on Wednesday afternoon. “There has been no acknowledgement that it was frivolous.”

The Post recently filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing among other things the falsity of Hubbuch’s contention that he wasn’t working when he posted a controversial tweet regarding the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Hubbuch’s lawsuit relied in large part on the contention that he was using Twitter “on his own time, from his own computer, and from his own home.”

The motion to dismiss sough sanctions against Hubbuch and Lucas, based on the contention that Hubbuch “has asserted that (1) his January 20th Tweet was sent on a day that was his ‘day off’ and (2) he was told that the Post had no written social media policy,” and that “[t]he documentary evidence submitted on this motion squarely proves those sworn assertions to be fabrications.” The stipulation dismissal of the case states that each party will be responsible for its own litigation costs; it’s possible that the Post offered to abandon any claim for sanctions in return for an agreement to end the case.

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Chiefs bring back defensive lineman Jarvis Jenkins

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The Chiefs made one big change on their defensive line, but they’ve brought another key part back.

According to a tweet from his agent, Chiefs defensive end Jarvis Jenkins has re-signed for another year.

The Chiefs brought Jenkins in after he was cut by the Jets in November, and he provides a solid rotational option for them. They let nose tackle Dontari Poe walk out the door in free agency, and replaced him with former Eagles lineman Bennie Logan.

Jenkins was originally a second-round pick by Washington, and has also spent a year with the Bears.

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Is a looser bright-line rule coming for celebration penalties?

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Reports of a plan by the NFL to give officials discretion to determine whether the penalize teams for excessive celebrations suggests that the currently strict bright line (no going to the ground, no use of the ball as a prop) could be replaced with something much fuzzier and subjective. The end result still could be a looser standard that nevertheless carries with it a bright line.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the league may actually be getting closer to a bright-line rule that allows for consistency in the determination as to whether a foul occurred but that is less rigid than the current standard. The specifics of any such possible rule currently aren’t known.

That’s good news, if it occurs. Based on current reporting, the rule would be looser but it also would be flexible, allowing for too much interpretation — and for too many different potential rulings based on the perceptions and attitudes of 17 different officiating crews.

The source also didn’t rule out immediately the possibility of using replay review in some form to allow for oversight of decisions made regarding conduct that doesn’t happen during a play. The challenge would be coming up with the right standard, and obviously ensuring that the process would occur expediently and reliably.

The NFL has absorbed extensive criticism for stripping individuality out of the sport by prohibiting some spontaneous displays of enthusiasm following touchdowns and other significant plays. Last year, the league began the process of giving teams a wider berth, for example by not automatically flagging players making snow angels, even though that necessarily results in players going to the ground.

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Felony charges against Adam Jones dropped

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Bengals cornerback Adam Jones isn’t out of the woods yet, but the concentration of trees in this particular forest is less dense now.

According to Katherine Terrell of ESPN.com, felony charges of harassment with a bodily substance against Jones have been dropped.

That’s a long-winded way of saying spitting on a jailhouse nurse, which Jones was arrested for in January.

He still has pending misdemeanor charges of assault, disorderly conduct and obstructing official business, and will plead not guilty to those charges according to his attorney.

The Bengals have apologized to fans on his behalf, but are taking their time making a decision on what to do about it, leaving any possible punishments in the hands of the league and the local prosecutors.

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