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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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Bruce Irvin on Packers rookie center Corey Linsley: “I’m gonna pray for him”

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Rookie Corey Linsley will get the start at center for the Green Bay Packers in Thursday night’s season opener against the Seattle Seahawks.

The fifth-round pick out of Ohio State will get the call due to a knee injury to starter J.C. Tretter that will keep him out for the start of the regular season. In addition to dealing with the raucous crowd at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, Linsley will have to matchup against Seattle nose tackle Brandon Mebane for the majority of the evening.

Seattle linebacker Bruce Irvin doesn’t envy the task Linsley will face Thursday night.

“If I’m a rookie and I’ve got Brandon Mebane my first game – he’s one of the best nose tackles in the league – it’s going to be big for him,” Irvin said. “I’m gonna pray for him. It’s going to be a long night, man.”

The last time the Packers traveled to Seattle in 2012, the Seahawks sacked Aaron Rodgers eight times in the first half. Mebane and Irvin both picked up two sacks apiece that night against Green Bay.

Mebane is one of the more underrated nose tackles in the game and is a key piece in Seattle’s defensive front. With a rookie lining up across from him, the Seahawks hope to take advantage of Linsley’s inexperience.

“We’ve just got to take advantage of it,” Irvin said. “All the weaknesses he shows us, we have to expose it and hopefully [Mebane] gonna do what I know he gonna do to him.”

Irvin says he expects to play against the Packers as well Thursday night. He missed the entirety of the preseason while recovering from offseason hip surgery. He returned to practice this week.

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Wes Welker calls drug policy system “clearly flawed”

Wes Welker AP

After learning that he would be suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s performance enhancing drugs policy, Denver Broncos receiver Wes Welker elected to express issues over the policies themselves while expressing ignorance over his violation of those policies.

In an email to Mike Klis of the Denver Post, Welker relayed the standard line from players following drug suspensions that he would “NEVER knowingly take a substance to gain a competitive advantage in any way.”

However, Welker then turned his attention to the system that led to his suspension in the first place. Welker called the drug testing programs “clearly flawed” and vowed to attempt to get the issues corrected in the future.

“I have never been concerned with the leagues performance enhancing or drug abuse policies because under no scenario would they ever apply to me, but I now know, that (drug-policy procedures) are clearly flawed, and I will do everything in my power to ensure they are corrected, so other individuals and teams aren’t negatively affected so rashly like this,” Welker said.

Welker did not elaborate on what part of the process he took issue with. However, the policies themselves were collectively bargained as a part of the CBA that was signed between the league and player’s union in 2011.

A first offense for a violation of the performance enhancing drugs policy is a four game suspension. The four game suspension is actually a five-week ban as the Broncos have their bye week in Week 4.

The league officially announced the suspension Tuesday night. He will be eligible to return to the team on Monday, October 6.

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Wes Welker officially suspended first four games of season

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The NFL officially announced Tuesday night that Denver Broncos receiver Wes Welker will miss the first four games of the season after violating the league’s performance enhancing drugs policy.

The four game suspension will actually be a five-week ban in total as the Broncos bye week falls in Week 4. Welker is eligible to return to the team’s active roster on Monday, August 6. He will miss games against the Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals. All four teams won at least 10 games last season.

“Tonight’s news regarding Wes is very disappointing for our team, but we understand the league’s authority in this area. While it’s unfortunate to not have him to start the year, I have full confidence in our wide receivers and expect that group to continue playing at a high level,” head coach John Fox said in a statement.

“I have no doubt that Wes will remain focused on his preparations for the season and stay in excellent shape during his time away from the team.”

The banishment under the PED policy happened because Welker took MDMA, a banned substance under the substance-abuse policy, that had been cut with amphetamines, a banned substance under the PED policy.

The timing of the announcement was somewhat odd. It comes late on a Tuesday night and the Broncos had likely already built a game plan with the assumption Welker was going to be available to play this week. In addition, if the suspension had been announced before final cuts on Saturday, the team could have kept an additional player during cuts as Welker would have been placed on the reserve/suspended list.

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Welker may not be suspended for Week One

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The good news for the Broncos and receiver Wes Welker is that he may not be suspended for Week One.  The bad news for the Broncos and Welker is that it may not matter, since he has yet to be cleared to play.

The worst news for the Broncos is that, if the NFL had finalized the Welker suspension by Saturday, the Broncos would have been able to keep someone they’d cut on the roster for at least the first four weeks of the season, since Welker would have been placed on the reserve/suspended list based on his four-game suspension for violating the PED policy.

One of the many things learned the during StarCaps case was that suspensions routinely are announced by Tuesday, since that’s the start of the work week.  As of Wednesday, Welker will practice and in turn be eligible to be paid for the week.

It means that, when Welker eventually is suspended (he will be), he’ll be more likely to miss a game that he would have been able to play, in light of his most recent concussion.  It also means that someone like safety Duke Ihenacho could have been kept around for the first month of the year.

For now, it means that, if Welker receives clearance to play on Sunday night against the Colts, he’ll be in the lineup — barring a dramatic departure by the NFL from its past practices.

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Brent will appeal decision to delay his reinstatement

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Former Cowboys defensive lineman Josh Brent has ended his retirement. The league, however, hasn’t.

Brent won’t be reinstated for 10 weeks. Brent’s agent, Peter Schaffer, tells PFT that Brent will appeal the decision.

“We are going to invoke our appeal right,” Schaffer said by phone. “We were truly hoping that the Commissioner’s response to Josh’s request for reinstatement would be one that we wouldn’t have to appeal, and that it would be fair and based on precedent. The last thing we thought we’d have to do today would be appeal the decision.”

Schaffer pointed to the only other recent case involving a player found responsible for DUI resulting in death: former NFL receiver Donte’ Stallworth.

“It was the same exact situation,” Schaffer said. “Both were tragic and unfortunate.  Stallworth received a 16-game suspension.  I base everything on precedent.  The precedent was set.  But Josh will serve a 30-game suspension.”

That calculation treats Brent’s placement on the non-football injury/list list and his 2013 retirement as de facto suspensions. While it’s unclear whether the NFL would have suspended Brent in 2013 while he was awaiting trial, Brent’s retirement allowed the NFL to avoid a very delicate situation.

“It’s important that Josh voluntarily retired,” Schaffer said.  “He could have forced the NFL to go through a tremendous amount of scrutiny for allowing him to play pending trial or for attempting to suspend him before he had been proven guilty.  Where’s the incentive for someone to do that in the future?  Giving him twice what Stallworth received doesn’t seem to be acknowledge that.”

The procedure moving forward isn’t clear, given that Brent technically hasn’t been suspended.  Instead, his reinstatement has been delayed.  Schaffer believes that Brent should be allowed to play pending the appeal.

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Former Cardinals QB Max Hall arrested for shoplifting, cocaine

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For a moment there, it looked like Max Hall was going to be the next Kurt Warner.

But he ended up more like Montana — Tony Montana.

According to the Arizona Republic, Hall was arrested Friday on suspicion of possession of stolen items and cocaine.

The report said Gilbert police were called to a Best Buy store, where they found Hall with “several stolen items from Best Buy and a nearby Walmart.”

He was also packing a “personal use quantity of cocaine,” which I guess depends on how often you use.

The former BYU quarterback — this latest one was a whole different kind of mission — started three games for the Cardinals in 2010, and was most recently working as an assistant coach at a high school

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NFL holds Irsay to higher standard, sort of

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As expected, the NFL has lowered the boom on Colts owner Jim Irsay.  And the NFL believes that it held Irsay to a higher standard than the league’s players.

The NFL is correct.  Sort of.

A player who pleads guilty to a DUI ordinarily gets no suspension and a maximum fine of $50,000 for a first offense.  Irsay received a six-game suspension and a fine of $500,000.

It was also a higher standard when compared to the 2007 DUI of Dr. Jerry Buss.  The late Lakers owner was suspended only two games (they play 82 for the season) and fined $25,000.  (The NFL may not want to completely embrace NBA precedent, in the event that an NFL owner eventually is illegally recorded during a private conversation saying things that objectively would be regarded as inappropriate.)

The appearance of holding Irsay to a higher standard masks the inadequacy of the financial penalty.  The league office has advised PFT that there will be no monetary consequence beyond the $500,000.  Which means that Irsay will otherwise lose none of the money that he will earn during the six weeks that he’s suspended.

While the NFL’s constitution and bylaws cap any fine at $500,000, the league has no limit on the money that can be withheld when someone is suspended.  Saints coach Sean Payton, for example, lost more than $5 million during a full-year suspension for an overhyped bounty program that he had no involvement in establishing or maintaining.

Likewise, players routinely lose more than $500,000 during suspensions.  Broncos receiver Wes Welker, for example, will lose 4/17th of his $3 million base salary, 4/17th of his $3 million roster bonus, and 4/17th of his $2 million signing bonus allocation as a result of his four-game suspension for violating the PED policy.

That’s $1,882,578 in lost revenue for Welker.  And that’s well over three times what Irsay, a billionaire, will lose during a 50-percent longer suspension.

So while it generates a strong headline for an owner to be suspended, he’s not forfeiting anything close to the millions in revenue that will continue to flow into the team’s coffers.  The team he’ll continue to own will continue to generate enormous profits that he’ll continue to be able to do with as he pleases.

Ultimately, it’s not a real suspension unless the suspension comes without pay.  In this case, Irsay is being suspended with pay — minus an amount that, given his net worth and the revenue that will continue to be generated over the next six weeks, is roughly the equivalent of a speeding ticket.

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No decision yet on Josh Gordon lawsuit

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On Monday, we reported that Josh Gordon will decide in the next day or two whether to sue the NFL in response to his one-year suspension for his latest violation of the substance-abuse policy.

As of Tuesday, no decision has been made.

Look for something to happen quickly, especially since practice gets rolling on Wednesday for the regular-season opener against the Steelers.  Since Gordon, if he sues, will ask for a preliminary injunction that will allow him to play while the litigation is pending, the sooner he gets the process rolling the more time a judge will have to consider whether to allow Gordon to keep playing.

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Saints bring back Shayne Graham

Shayne Graham AP

Three days after releasing both kickers in their cut to 53 players, the Saints have brought one back.

The team has re-signed kicker Shayne Graham, according to the NFL’s Tuesday transactions.

In a corresponding roster move, the club waived second-year quarterback Ryan Griffin.

Graham, 36, connected on all four field goals (long of 39 yards) and 4-of-5 extra points in preseason play. However, the club parted ways with Graham and Derek Dimke after the exhibition slate.

But now, Graham is back, and seemingly so for the regular season opener at Atlanta.

The move leaves Luke McCown as the lone backup behind Drew Brees. It would not be a surprise if the Saints re-signed Griffin to the practice squad, but he will have to clear waivers first, and it will be interesting to see if he’s picked up after a solid preseason (48-of-77 passing, 530 yards, three TDs, one interception, 90.3 QB rating).

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Source: Welker took Molly at Kentucky Derby

Welker

Wes Welker’s good day at the Kentucky Derby turned out to be not so good.

His winnings that day exceeded $57,000.  But human error resulted in the Broncos receiver being overpaid by nearly $15,000.

Now, he’ll lose a lot more than that due to his four-game suspension.

Per a league source, the banishment under the PED policy happened because Welker took MDMA, a banned substance under the substance-abuse policy, that had been cut with amphetamines, a banned substance under the PED policy.  (Here’s where all the Walter Whites in the crowd will try to claim in the comments and on Twitter that MDMA and amphetamines are the same thing.  They’re not, Jessie.)

As happened with Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick, pure MDMA wouldn’t have triggered a violation under the PED policy.  The presence of amphetamines resulted in a one-strike, four-game suspension.

If the NFL and NFLPA had struck a deal on HGH testing, Welker likely wouldn’t have been suspended.  It’s believed that the new drug-testing policies that will become effective if/when a final agreement is reached on HGH testing will result in amphetamines shifting to the substance-abuse policy during the offseason.

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Greg Robinson not in Week One starting lineup

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The second overall pick in the draft will start the season on the second string.

Rams guard Greg Robinson, a tackle whom the team has moved inside, has moved behind Rodger Saffold on the depth chart at left guard, via Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-DispatchDavin Joseph will start at right guard.

Joseph, who joined the team in May, makes it easier for the Rams to take it slowly with Robinson, who’s still adjusting to life in the NFL, where the playbook and the protections is far more complicated than the offense at Auburn.

Still, it’s a disappointment for the second player off the board to not be starting.  If the Rams were able to capture a Mulligan, they’d surely take the quarterback who won’t be starting in Jacksonville.

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Wes Welker suspended four games for violating PED policy

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Broncos receiver Wes Welker has been suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s policy against performance-enhancing drugs.

According to multiple reports, Welker tested positive for a banned amphetamine.

Welker becomes one of the highest-profile NFL players to be busted for a PED violation. Welker led the league in receptions three times while with the Patriots, and he was a component of the best offense in the NFL last year with the Broncos.

There’s been much talk in recent days about whether Welker would be healthy enough to play in Week One after suffering a preseason concussion, but now that talk is moot: Welker will miss four games regardless of whether he is cleared by the league’s concussion protocol.

The Broncos should be in OK shape at receiver even without Welker, thanks to the signing of free agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders and the drafting of rookie receiver Cody Latimer.

Welker will not be permitted to practice with the team during the suspension. He will be eligible to return in Week Five.

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NFL says Josh Brent can return starting Week 11

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The NFL has will allow Josh Brent, the Cowboys defensive lineman who killed teammate Jerry Brown while driving drunk, to return to the Cowboys this year. But Brent isn’t eligible just yet.

Brent cannot play until Week 11. He is suspended for the first 10 games of the season and not allowed to participate in any team activities for the first six weeks of the season. He can begin practicing in Week Nine. He will not be permitted to return if he is involved in any prohibited alcohol-related incidents.

If Brent believes he deserves to re-join the Cowboys sooner than that, he has five days to appeal the decision. Brent has already missed the end of the 2012 season after his car crash in December of that year, and the entire 2013 season as well. In all, he’ll have missed 30 games by the time he’s eligible to play in Week 11.

The Cowboys have indicated that they will bring Brent back once the NFL gives it the OK. So as long as Brent stays out of trouble, expect him to be with the Cowboys late this season.

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Steelers’ defense preparing to face both Manziel and Hoyer

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Brian Hoyer will start at quarterback for the Browns against the Steelers on Sunday, but he’s not the only quarterback the Steelers’ defense is preparing to face.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says he thinks Johnny Manziel will play on Sunday, and the Steelers have to be ready for that.

We anticipate them using both in some capacity, and I think that’s the appropriate approach for us to take,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin coached Hoyer briefly when Hoyer spent some time on the Steelers’ roster in 2012, and Tomlin said he has always thought highly of Hoyer as a smart, well-prepared quarterback. But the Steelers also have to be ready for the threat Manziel brings, particularly as a runner.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that [Hoyer] is the guy they’ve chosen to go with,” said Tomlin, “but that being said, we have a great deal of respect for Johnny Manziel and his talents and what he did to get to this point in his career. We fully expect them to utilize him in some capacity in this football game. They didn’t draft him in the first round to watch, and we understand that.”

The possibility of a two-quarterback system makes the Browns one of the NFL’s more unpredictable offenses heading into Week One. Tomlin doesn’t know exactly what to expect against Cleveland, but he does expect to see Johnny Football, and not just Johnny Clipboard.

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Bears place Marquess Wilson on injured reserve/recall

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If Marquess Wilson is to return to the Bears’ lineup, it will have to be after midseason.

The club has placed Wilson, the second-year wide receiver from Washington State, on injured reserve with a designation to be recalled, the club announced.

The 21-year-old Wilson suffered a broken collarbone early in training camp. He was expected to compete for the club’s No. 3 receiver role.

With Wilson’s roster spot open for the time being, the Bears re-signed cornerback Kelvin Hayden, who was released on Saturday. The 31-year-old Hayden missed the 2013 season with a torn hamstring, but he appeared in 16 games (two starts) for Chicago two seasons ago.

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