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NFL morning after: A great time for great quarterbacks

kaepernick AP

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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Young Peyton had a very specific way of picking on a younger Eli

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In the two-plus days since the Super Bowl, much has been said about Eli Manning’s blank stare after it became apparent that his brother, Peyton, would win a second Super Bowl ring. Two days before the Super Bowl, Eli shared some details of a time when Peyton’s actions were eliciting something other than blank stares from his kid brother.

During a Friday visit to PFT Live at the Super Bowl, I asked Eli to share details regarding some of the worst things his older brothers, Peyton and Cooper, did to him when they were young.

“You know they were pretty nice to me,” Eli said. “I think the biggest thing they did, mostly Peyton because you know Cooper is older than him, [Cooper] would pick on [Peyton]. So I come along, I’m gonna take it. So [Peyton] would pin me down, you know, put his knees on my arms. He’d just start knocking on my chest until I named at the the time the 28 teams in the NFL. So I got smart eventually I could rip those off pretty quickly. We went college divisions, different things and then if he just wanted to make me cry he’d say, ‘Name ten brands of cigarettes.’ I’m like, ‘I’m seven years old I haven’t started smoking cigarettes quite yet,’ but that’s when I’d just start yelling for mom.”

Until Sunday night, Eli had a leg up on Peyton with those two Super Bowl rings. And while Peyton insisted after the game that he and Eli don’t think in those terms, if they’re in any way normal, at some level it had at least crossed their minds. Eli’s story paints a picture of a very normal big brother/little brother relationship, and while as adults they undoubtedly support each other completely, the inner child who used to pin Eli down and knock on his chest surely is feeling relieved that they’re even, at least for now.

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Vilma: We didn’t game-plan to stop T.O.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

To the extent that the Hall of Fame voters unofficially opted for receiver Marvin Harrison over receiver Terrell Owens due to a de facto waiting line among wideouts, the unofficially official explanation was that Owens was a disruptive presence in multiple NFL cities. Another unofficially official explanation may have been available.

Former Jets and Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma recently explained that his teams didn’t game plan specifically to stop Owens, like they did with Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson. That an argument was used to keep receiver Art Monk out of the Hall of Fame for years, before he eventually got in.

Whatever the unofficially official reason, Owens eventually will get in. He’s now in the same waiting line that put Monk, Harrison, and others in after a delay from which only Jerry Rice has been exempt. And the waiting line is the officially unofficial reason for the decision to keep Owens out, at least for a year.

In contrast, quarterback Brett Favre got in on his first try with, reportedly, a six-second debate — even though it could have been argued that his annual flirtation with retirement from 2002 through 2007 followed by a retirement and strategically-timed unretirement in July 2008 was disruptive and distracting to his latter years with the Packers. While Favre’s wishy-washiness helped deliver Aaron Rodgers to Green Bay in the first round of the 2005 draft, Favre’s lack of a clear, unequivocal commitment to the game for nearly half of his career was a non-issue when it was time to coronate him with a spot in Canton.

For Owens, the coronation eventually will come. But someone had to lose the numbers game in 2016, and it was Owens. Apparently, an unofficially official explanation unrelated to disruptiveness may have been available.

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Reggie Bush says he has no plans to retire

Reggie Bush AP

Reggie Bush’s 2015 season came to an abrupt end after skidding on concrete at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis in November.

The slip left Bush with a torn ACL and ended his season after just five games with the San Francisco 49ers.

But despite the injury and the fact he’ll be 31 in March, Bush isn’t considering retirement yet. According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Bush wants to keep playing in 2016.

“I’m not retiring,” Bush said. “I’m still playing. No, I’m not done. And I would never – knock on wood – I never want to end my career like that, going out with that.”

Bush had just eight carries for 28 yards in five games with San Francisco last season before the injury. He also carried just 76 times for 297 yards and two touchdowns in 2014 with the Lions as both seasons have been plagued by injuries.

Bush will be a free agent when the new league year begins next month.

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Super Bowl 50 first in 22 years without a touchdown pass

Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning, right, is sacked by Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly (59) during the first half of the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif.  (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) AP

The NFL has increasingly become more of a passing league over the last two decades as offensive production has exploded to previously unseen heights.

But Super Bowl 50 featured a rare occurrence when it comes to the NFL’s championship game.

Neither Peyton Manning or Cam Newton completed a touchdown pass in the Denver Broncos 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night. It’s just the first time in 22 years – and fourth time in history – that the Super Bowl didn’t feature a touchdown pass.

Super Bowl XXVIII between the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills was the last Super Bowl without a passing touchdown. Emmitt Smith ran for two touchdowns in the Cowboys 30-13 win over the Bills.

Super Bowl VIII between the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings and Super Bowl III between the New York Jets and Baltimore Colts are the only other Super Bowls that didn’t feature a touchdown pass. The Dolphins beat the Vikings 24-7 behind two Larry Csonka rushing touchdowns. Matt Snell of the Jets and Jerry Hill of the Colts each found the end zone on the ground in the Jets’ 16-7 victory.

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Tony Dungy, Malik Jackson headline Wednesday’s PFT Live

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Day Three of the newly-reconfigured PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio gets rolling at 6:00 a.m. ET, and the final-hour simulcast on NBCSN features a couple of great guests.

Hall of Famer Tony Dungy and Broncos defensive lineman Malik Jackson join the show at 8:15 a.m. ET and 8:35 a.m. ET, respectively.

The two hours before that will include plenty of news, analysis, and hot-takery, with a visit from Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer regarding the latest in the daily drip-drip-drip of news regarding eventually-former Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Until then, here’s a snippet from Tuesday’s PFT on NBCSN with plenty of high praise for Jackson, from Jonathan Vilma and yours truly.

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Broncos should consider exclusive version of franchise tag for Von Miller

Zz1jYjY1NWYyZDI5MGJjZGI4MTJmZDFkNjRjMGY0NGIzNA== AP

Last year, after the Chiefs applied the non-exclusive franchise tag to linebacker Justin Houston, speculation emerged that a team would gladly give up a pair of first-round picks as compensation for signing him to an offer sheet that Kansas City wouldn’t or couldn’t match. Ultimately, no one did.

This year, the Broncos plan to use the franchise tag if they can’t work out a long-term deal with linebacker Von Miller. If they ultimately apply the non-exclusive version of the tag to Miller, would another team sign the Super Bowl 50 MVP to an offer sheet?

The teams most tempted would be those currently picking at the bottom of round one, since they wouldn’t be giving up a high pick to get Miller now — and presumably wouldn’t be giving up a high pick in 2017, either.

One way for Denver to prevent an effort to swipe Miller would be to use the exclusive version of the franchise tag, which would increase Miller’s tender from the non-exclusive amount of roughly $14 million to the average of the five highest 2016 linebacker cap numbers.

Ultimately, the difference in amounts may not be significant. Making the decision to use the exclusive tag easier.

The safest course would be to get Miller signed before the deadline for using the tag. Then, it could be applied to someone else, like defensive lineman Malik Jackson. Whether they can get Miller signed before the tag deadline depends on how much Miller wants, and how much the Broncos are willing to pay. If a middle ground can’t be reached, the Broncos should consider using the exclusive version of the tag.

Otherwise, someone else could be breaking the bank for the man who did the most to shut down Carolina’s offense in the Super Bowl.

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Obama calls Broncos to congratulate them on Super Bowl win

BRIGHTON, CO - OCTOBER 26:  Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks on a cell phone to a potential voter during a stop at a campaign office October 26, 2008 in Brighton, Colorado. Obama continues to campaign as Election Day begins to draw near as he runs against his Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Getty Images

At one point, the Super Bowl postgame coverage included the handing of a phone to the coach of the winning team with a call from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Nowadays, the call comes after the fact.

The Broncos have announced that President Barack Obama called coach Gary Kubiak and team captain DeMarcus Ware on Tuesday to congratulate them on the win.

Quarterback Peyton Manning wasn’t included in the call. Possibly because his Colts beat Obama’s Bears in Super Bowl XLI. (That probably wasn’t the reason. But it would be great if it were.)

The Broncos eventually will visit the White House to meet with Obama. The biggest question is whether the menu for the occasion will include mozzarella sticks and, if so, whether Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller will eat them.

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Strange facts emerge about Super Bowl 50 replay assistant

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From Super Bowl 50 comes a strange postscript that could have become a major problem for the NFL. Via TheBigLead.com, the wife of the game’s replay assistant attended the game as a fan of the Broncos.

Jimmy Oldham reportedly is a Denver-area resident. His wife donned a Broncos jersey for the game and posted a celebratory video to a public Facebook page.

A replay assistant’s potential impact on a given game is limited, especially where (as in this case) NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino was in the booth. Still, it’s a bad look for the league — and it’s something that easily could have been avoided by appointing a replay assistant: (1) who doesn’t live in the Denver area; and (2) whose wife isn’t a Broncos fan.

Per TheBigLead.com, the NFL declined to respond to questions regarding officiating assignments in relation to residency.

During the officiating lockout of 2012, the NFL yanked side judge Brian Stropolo from a Saints-Panthers game due to his status as a rabid Saints fan. As former official Jim Dapoulos explained in the aftermath of the scandal, plenty of officials have rooting interests. Most are far more concerned about doing a good job and earning high marks for their work.

Still, with only one game being played that day, it would have made much more sense to give the assignment to someone else. And if the league believes it would have been unfair to not reward the replay assistant for a great season with a Super Bowl assignment despite where he lives, the league should have ensured that Mrs. Oldham exercised far more discretion regarding her desire to see the Broncos win the game.

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Goodell says extra point rule made the NFL more exciting in 2015

<> on February 8, 2016 in San Francisco, California. Getty Images

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says Year One of the new extra point rule was a success, and more rules tweaks are on the way.

Goodell said the new rule, which moved extra point kicks back 13 yards, is an example of the kinds of changes the league will continue to consider.

“From a competitive standpoint, this season, more games were decided by one score than ever in our history. That led to great competition and the average margin of victory lower than any time in our history. We’ll continue to try to make the game more exciting as we did this last year with the extra point,” Goodell said.

It is true that there were more two-point conversion attempts in 2015 than in 2014: NFL teams went 45-for-94 on two-point conversions in 2015 after going 28-for-58 in 2014. Most fans would agree that a two-point conversion is a more exciting play than an extra point, and so there was a little more excitement in that respect.

Extra points also became more difficult, with kickers converting on 94.2 percent in 2015 after converting on 99.3 percent in 2014. But not all fans buy the idea that more missed extra points translates to more excitement.

What would really be exciting is if the new rule led to some coach deciding to go for two as the default option after touchdowns. So far no coach has done that. Perhaps it will happen if the NFL moves extra points back another 10 or 15 yards.

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New NFL policy requires prospects to authorize background checks

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Before the NFL can determine whether draft prospects should be barred from the Scouting Combine or other league-related draft events for certain criminal offenses, the NFL must be able to make that determination. Before the NFL can make that determination, the NFL must be able to investigate the prospect.

Before that can happen, the prospect must provide authorization to the NFL during the Scouting Combine registration process. If the prospect refuses to provide authorization, the prospect’s invitation to participate in the Scouting Combine will be revoked, according to the memo sent on January 25 to all team presidents, General Managers and coaches.

As a practical matter, players will gladly sign whatever paperwork they need to sign in order to participate in the Scouting Combine. Still, the mandatory background check represents yet another thing that is required of players as part of a lengthy preemployment process that, via the Combine, provides plenty of free entertainment and TV content for the NFL.

The new policy applies to all felony or misdemeanor convictions, and it broadly encompasses any conviction “involving violence,” with specific citation to crimes involving the “use of a weapon, domestic violence, sexual offense and/or sexual assault.”

As noted earlier, the NFLPA had no comment on the new policy, which the league implemented unilaterally.

The policy has no impact on the ability of teams to independently evaluate or draft the players who are barred from league-related draft events, either due to the outcome of the background check or the refusal to consent to one.

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Patriots release Montee Ball, but most thought he wasn’t on the team

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It was believed that the contract of Patriots running back Montee Ball expired on February 1. If it did, the team at some point re-signed him. Because on Tuesday the Patriots released his rights.

The league’s transaction report for Tuesday shows that the Patriots waived Ball, who finished the season on the team’s practice squad.

A second-round pick in 2013, Ball entered the 2014 season as the starting running back in Denver. He lost the job during the 2014 season and was cut just before the start of the 2015 regular season.

Ball was arrested February 5 after a dispute with his girlfriend. The waiver of Ball on February 9 indicates he was employed by the Patriots on February 5, which resets the “days without an arrest” meter to that day, just as it was once again approaching 50.

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Colts add a few more coaches

Chuck Pagano AP

The Colts let go of several assistant coaches last month after reaching a deal to keep head coach Chuck Pagano and they announced some of the new faces on the staff on Tuesday.

Lee Hull will be the team’s new wide receivers coach, replacing Jim Hostler. There have been reports that Hostler will remain with the Colts in a new role but it has not been announced at this point. Hull spent the last two seasons as the head coach at Morgan State and has also worked at Maryland and Oregon State.

Jemal Singleton has been hired as running backs coach after spending last year as the special teams and running backs coach at the University of Arkansas. Charlie Williams was let go in January after four years with the team.

The Colts also hired Maurice Drayton as assistant special teams coach, Quadrian Banks as conditioning/performance analyst and Andrew Hayes-Stoker as assistant to the head coach. They also announced that Joe Philbin will be assistant head coach in addition to working with the offensive line.

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Raiders move on from Nate Allen

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The Raiders have plenty of money to spend in 2016. They’ll be spending none of it on safety Nate Allen.

Per a league source, Allen has been released after one season with the Raiders.

Signed as a free agent after five years with the Eagles, Allen appeared in five games with three starts last season, picking off one pass.

Allen signed a four-year, $23 million contract in 2015. With no signing bonus and a $4.9 million base salary that was due to become available on the third day of the 2016 league year, the Raiders walk away from Allen with no cap hit and no financial responsibility.

A vested veteran, Allen becomes a free agent immediately.

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Police deliver LeSean McCoy investigation to prosecutors

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Amid a report that an arrest of Bills running back LeSean McCoy is “imminent,” police in Philadelphia have completed their investigation. Via Mike Rodak of ESPN.com, the file has been delivered to the District Attorney’s office for potential prosecution.

McCoy apparently anticipates that he’ll be defending himself in court. Via John Barr of ESPN, McCoy has hired Philadelphia defense lawyer Jack McMahon to handle the case.

Several videos have emerged showing portions of the fight that reportedly sent two off-duty police officers to the hospital, both with fractured ribs and one with a fractured orbital bone. One comes from CrossingBroad.com, another comes from TMZ.com, and the third comes from 6abc.com.

It’s hard to make out many details, although the TMZ video seems to show McCoy throwing at least one punch.

Given the symbiotic relationship between police officers and prosecutors, the D.A. will face plenty of pressure to pursue charges against McCoy and all other suspects, in order to obtain justice for the off-duty police officers who were injured in the assault. Given McCoy’s profile and resources, there also will be pressure on prosecutors to get everything right in order to seal off any potential avenues for injecting “reasonable doubt” into the case.

The NFL already is investigating the situation, and it could impose discipline on McCoy with or without prosecution.

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Jets fill out their coaching staff with three hires

26 Jul 1998:  Offensive lineman David Diaz-Infante #63 of the Denver Broncos looks on during the 1998 Denver Broncos training camp at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr  /Allsport Getty Images

Jets coach Todd Bowles has filled out his coaching staff, with the team announcing three more hires today.

The Jets hired former NFL offensive lineman David Diaz-Infante as assistant offensive line coach, promoted John Scott Jr. from defensive quality control coach to assistant defensive line coach, and hired Tim Atkins as defensive quality control coach.

Diaz-Infante had background with Bowles in Arizona, where he worked for two seasons.

He was part of two Super Bowl winning teams with the Broncos, and also played for the Chargers and Eagles, along with stints in the CFL, XFL and the World League.

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