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Gene Steratore, Tony Corrente to referee league championship games

Arizona Cardinals v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

The four teams that will play for the right to head to the Super Bowl were set last weekend. Now the two referees that will legislate the two conference championship games this weekend are also in place.

According to Mike Pereira of FOX Sports, Gene Steratore and Tony Corrente will be the head officials for the AFC and NFC Championship games on Sunday. Steratore will man the NFC game between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. Corrente will get the AFC battle between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos.

Steratore has not yet been assigned to work a Super Bowl in his time as a referee. Corrente was the head referee for Super Bowl XLI between the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears. Corrente also worked the 2009 AFC Championship game between the New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts and the 2000 NFC Championship between the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants.

Corrente battled throat cancer in 2011 that forced him to miss time during the season to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Steratore and Corrente will not have their normal crews working with them this weekend. Officials for conference championship weekend are all mixed with officials that graded out strongly during the regular season. Those officials drawing conference championship assignments consist of those rating as the highest two overall percentages at each position of any not already working the Super Bowl.

As per league rules, we already know the referee for the Super Bowl will be one of the four that worked in the divisional round last week. Clete Blakeman, Terry McAulay, Carl Cheffers and Pete Morelli worked the four games last weekend and one of them will take the field in three weeks at MetLife Stadium for Super Bowl XLVIII. All officials that will staff the Super Bowl crew worked in games last week.

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ESPN’s shower report gets The Daily Show treatment

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When it comes to determining whether an NFL news story has fully crossed over to the mainstream, I apply two general barometers:  (1) whether I get asked about the topic by people I don’t know very well (or at all) in places like the grocery store and restaurants; and (2) whether it becomes a topic on The Daily Show.

Wednesday night’s edition of the Comedy Central staple featured a look at the ESPN report regarding the shower habits of Michael Sam.

“Why would his teammates feel uncomfortable showering with Michael Sam?” Jon Stewart said.  “Does he use Axe Garlic & Rotten Egg body wash?  Does Michael Sam have a Kuato? . . . .  Michael Sam’s gay.  Are we not over this yet?”

Reacting to the explanation that Sam’s absence from the shower room with teammates may have resulted from Sam engaging in football-related activities, Stewart said, “Yes, those are all the most likely things a football team might be doing.  But couldn’t he also be singing show tunes or binge-watching Bravo?  ESPN viewers need to know.”

Stewart then brought in “Senior Sports Correspondent” Samantha Bee, who provided a “report” regarding Sam’s alarming lack of “locker room behavior of normal heterosexual NFL players,” such as “grab ass,” “dip snaps,” and “ball cupping.”

She then produced a copy of Jeff Pearlman’s Boys Will Be Boys, reading graphic quotes relating to Charles Haley’s notorious locker-room behaviors.

The ultimate conclusion?

“If Michael Sam wants to fit in to the NFL, he’d better cut the shy act and gay it up,” Bee said.

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Another drug bust at house of former Steeler, but no chicken

Deshea Townsend AP

Pennsylvania police have raided another home owned by former Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend in a drug bust.

Thankfully, no chickens were involved this time.

According to Liz Navratil of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Townsend owns a home in Ross where cops arrested several people on drug charges last year.

He also owned a property in Mount Washington, where cops found 1,500 bricks of heroin, 16 guns, more than $100,000 in cash and a live chicken.

Townsend, who now works as an assistant coach at Mississippi State, hasn’t been implicated in either case, and didn’t comment on either.

It appears he’s just the landlord, but he has a string of really bad tenants.

In the latest case, police responded to a call to a condominium, where a neighbor reported a loose pit bull, and then heard “a thud and then a dog yelping in pain.”

When they went inside, they found 30 bricks of heroin in a shopping bag with more than $7,000 in cash.

The case creates a number of questions, but the one that still haunts my dreams remains from the first one: Why one live chicken?

With two, you can have eggs. With multiple chickens, maybe it’s a cock-fighting ring or a poultry farm.

But one chicken is either dinner or a pet or a god or a sacrifice, and I may not sleep until I know the answer.

UPDATE 8:20 a.m. ET: I stand corrected. I’m informed by a renowned poultry scientist that one hen will lay unfertilized eggs without a rooster.

But still.

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Retirement decision not helping Josh Brent get back in, so far

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A year ago, Cowboys defensive lineman Josh Brent helped the NFL avoid a delicate decision.  Charged with intoxication manslaughter in connection with the death of teammate Jerry Brown but not yet tried or convicted, Brent could have shown up for training camp and forced the NFL to try to suspend him.

It could have sparked a fight between the NFL and the NFLPA under the substance-abuse policy, given that Brent was a first-time offender and that his legal case had not yet been resolved.  Instead, Brent chose to retire.

Now with the case resolved and Brent’s debt to society paid, he wants to return.  And the Cowboys want him.

“He’s had that [life-changing] experience,” owner Jerry Jones recently told 105.3 The Fan Dallas/Ft. Worth, via Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com. “He deserved that, and some people think he deserved more, but the point is he has been through some eye-opening days. We could really benefit from that as a football team.”

But the NFL is dragging its feet on this one, considering the possibility of imposing a suspension on Brent, who already has missed 20 regular-season games since the incident.

In contrast, former NFL receiver Donté Stallworth missed one season, 16 games, after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter several years ago.  Stallworth’s penalty came via suspension, not retirement.

Brent was never suspended.  He now wants to play.  If the league imposes a suspension on him in the wake of his decision to unretire, future players in that situation will realize that choosing to retire could be worse than digging in their heels and forcing a suspension.

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LaVon Brazill lands in Canada after NFL suspension

LaVon Brazill AP

Wide receiver Josh Gordon was finally suspended by the NFL for the entire 2014 season on Wednesday, leaving him with a long stretch away from the football field in the coming months.

LaVon Brazill is in the same suspension pot as Gordon, but he’s going to be back on a field a lot sooner. Brazill was dropped by the Colts following his suspension, which left him free to head to Canada to continue playing the game.

Brazill has signed on to the practice roster of the Toronto Argonauts and could move up to the active roster if the team likes what they see from him in practice in the coming days and weeks. Should that happen, Brazill will get a chance to put some things on tape for NFL teams that might be interested in bringing him aboard for the 2015 season or start carving out a longer career in Canada.

The same option isn’t open to Gordon, who remains under contract to the Browns. That limits your ability to engage in physical activities, as Adam Jones found out when the Titans balked at his attempt to become a pro wrestler during his own long suspension from the league.

Brazill had 23 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns in 25 games for the Colts over the last two seasons.

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Thursday morning one-liners

Patrick Willis ,Greg Olsen AP

The Bills will get their first look at QB Jordan Palmer tonight.

Dolphins RB Daniel Thomas is still fighting for his job.

Patriots RB Jonas Gray is among the youngsters trying to make a good last impression.

QB Matt Simms is in the driver’s seat for the third job with the Jets.

The Ravens might dip into the trade market for some CB help.

The Bengals were extremely interested in Tyrann Matthieu in the draft two years ago.

Breaking down the Browns roster before final cuts.

The Steelers’ attempt to add speed this offseason has been evident.

Texans QB Tom Savage will get plenty of chances tonight.

Are the Colts really considering adding G Richie Incognito?

Jaguars rookie WR Allen Hurns has impressed with his maturity.

Veteran K Garrett Hartley was part of the Titans’ workout yesterday.

The competition for the final RB spots on the Broncos roster will be fierce.

The Chiefs are working to keep their training camp in St. Joseph.

Raiders QB Derek Carr is looking forward to an extended look tonight.

Richard Marshall is accepting his move from CB to S with the Chargers.

The Cowboys are expected to bring back RB Phillip Tanner for tonight’s game.

Giants QB Ryan Nassib is still fighting for the No. 2 job.

Eagles S Malcolm Jenkins has added some gravity to a questionable secondary.

The Redskins have shown the ability to run this preseason.

Bears WR Santonio Holmes is still trying to fit into a new offense.

Lions WR Golden Tate got the crowd fired up at the team’s kickoff luncheon.

Tonight’s the final chance for Packers QBs Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien to impress.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wants to see some poise from QB Christian Ponder tonight.

The Falcons have an app to allow fans get pictures with cheerleaders.

Panthers TE Greg Olsen didn’t travel to Pittsburgh with the team as his son had open-heart surgery.

Saints QB Drew Brees still has the desire to compete.

The Buccaneers’ starters won’t get much work tonight.

Taking a look at how the Cardinals’ 53-man roster might shake out.

Rams WR Chris Givens can feel QB Sam Bradford’s pain.

Rookie LB Aaron Lynch has a lot to prove to the 49ers tonight.

Seahawks QB Terrelle Pryor will be ready to see the Raiders again.

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Wes Welker cleared to travel, not to play

Welker AP

As Broncos receiver Wes Welker recovers from a third concussion in his last 10 games, Welker has received medical clearance to travel to Dallas for the preseason finale against the Cowboys.

According to Mike Klis of the Denver Post, Welker has not yet been cleared to play.

While the news constitutes tangible proof that Welker isn’t presently debilitated by his most recent brain injury, any doctor who signs off on Welker returning to action must be comfortable with the risk that the next concussion will be the one from which Welker doesn’t quickly and normally recover.  Though his total career concussions aren’t known because he spent plenty of time playing in the days of the how-many-fingers-two-you’re-good protocol, Welker could be on a path that results in concussions happening much more easily, and lingering much longer, given his history.

So at what point do the doctors operate like a boxing referee and stop the fight?  On one hand, Welker and any player should be permitted to accept whatever risk he consciously understands and chooses to embrace.  On the other hand, at a certain point a player must be protected from himself.

With each additional concussion, Welker gets closer and closer to that moment.

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Jets QB coach: Geno Smith’s made big improvement in ball security

New York Giants v New York Jets Getty Images

Geno Smith will be the starting quarterback for the Jets against the Raiders in the season opener, but he’s not guaranteed all that much beyond that if he doesn’t show clear improvement over his rookie season.

Quarterbacks coach David Lee thinks that Smith has already showed real progress in one area. Lee said Smith had a tendency to “go off the reservation” last year, but has reined things in as he’s become more comfortable in the offense. As a result, Smith is showing an increased ability to hang onto the ball heading into his second NFL season.

“That’s probably been the No. 1 most encouraging thing, is he’s secured the ball in the pocket,” Lee said, via the Newark Star-Ledger. “He’s had two hands on the ball, he’s working with two hands on the ball as he’s escaping the pocket and moving and sliding. Just his ball security has been a gigantic [improvement]. And that’ll be the biggest turnaround thing for us, if he just takes care of the ball and doesn’t get it knocked loose. So that’s a good observation. That’s the big thing he’s improved.”

Smith turned the ball over 25 times last season, but only two of them came in the final four weeks of the regular season and he’s thrown one interception this preseason. Keeping that up would be a major plus for both the offense and the defense, to say nothing of Smith’s chances of remaining the starter ahead of Michael Vick for the entire season.

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Report: Tom Brady was “very upset” with Logan Mankins deal

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Over the years, Tom Brady has taken less money than he could have made, in order to keep trusted parts around him.

And he didn’t say much about it in the past, as he was left with a bunch of receivers who remember watching him as kids.

But this time might be different.

According to Jason Cole of Bleacher Report, Brady was “very upset” with the trade of Logan Mankins, adding that “he was not happy with the move.”

Trading Mankins to the Buccaneers was a completely mercenary move, after asking the Pro Bowl guard to take a pay cut before shipping him out.

And that’s all within the realm of doing business, until it infringes on the trust Brady has put in the team by working his numbers around those of others.

As we mentioned earlier this week, if this is the real Patriot Way, then it’s inevitable that one day Brady will be in this situation.

After watching all the receivers he knew leave town, and now one of his most trusted blockers, Brady is well within his rights to wonder how the team is better now than it was before the trade for a fourth-round pick and a spare tight end.

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Colin Kaepernick still trying to figure Stevie Johnson out

steviejohnson AP

New 49ers receiver Stevie Johnson hasn’t done much of anything this preseason, catching just two passes for 11 yards in three games. Colin Kaepernick says that’s because he can’t always find Johnson on the field.

According to Kaepernick, Johnson doesn’t always run routes the way Kaepernick is expecting, and that means Kaepernick doesn’t necessarily see Johnson get open.

“There are times that he’s going to make a move on a DB, and you have to be ready because he’s also making a move that you have to see,” Kaepernick said, via the Sacramento Bee. “So I think that’s something where it took a little bit longer just to get used to his body language because he had some unorthodox things that he does. But ultimately his separation is there, he’s getting open.”

Johnson acknowledged that his playing style can be hard for a quarterback to figure out.

“I’ve pretty much taken it upon myself to be unorthodox to make up for some things that other receivers have – you know, speed and quickness,” Johnson said. “I set up my routes a little different. It’s a gift and a curse. Because it can take some time to build chemistry with quarterbacks. But at the same time, the gift is that you know you can get open.”

It doesn’t do the 49ers much good for Johnson to get open if Kaepernick can’t find him. If Johnson is going to help the 49ers win, the two of them need to get on the same page in a hurry.

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Jon Beason, over food poisoning, close to a return

Taye Diggs, Jon Beason AP

Giants linebacker Jon Beason has always been a guy who’d leave everything on the field.

But as he comes back from a offseason toe problem, he didn’t have a lot to give last week.

According to Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News, Beason struggled with a bout of food poisoning last week that slowed his ability to rehab.

I was sick last week,” Beason said. “I got a little food poisoning. I was under the weather. I couldn’t train. I was feverish.”

He’s better now, and doing more change-of-direction drills to make sure his toe allows him to play. He said he’s still pointing to the regular season opener against the Lions, and expecting to play.

“I’m looking to come off PUP in the next couple days,” Beason said. “I’m doing everything to make sure my conditioning is up to par.

“I feel good. I feel confident that I will be able to go out and contribute on Sept. 8.”

Being able to keep food down between now and then will help, but getting Beason back on the field will help the Giants shore up a defense that’s going to have to perform this year.

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Kansas City Chiefs team bus involved in accident in Wisconsin

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The Kansas City Chiefs arrived in Wisconsin on Wednesday ahead of their preseason finale with the Green Bay Packers Thursday night.

However, they ran into an issue on their way to the team hotel.

According to the Associated Press, a vehicle containing two adults and three children entered an intersection and collided with one of the Chiefs’ five buses that were transporting them from the airport to the hotel.

The Outagamie County sheriff’s office was providing the caravan of buses with an escort when the bus was struck. One of the children in the car suffered a minor cut to their head and were taken to a hospital for treatment.

No one from the Chiefs was hurt in the incident.

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Bruce Arians says Darnell Dockett’s surgery “went great”

Carolina Panthers v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

The Arizona Cardinals lost defensive tackle Darnell Dockett for the season when he tore his ACL in practice two weeks ago.

While Dockett won’t be available to Arizona this season, the first stage of his recovery appears to have gone to plan.

According to Josh Wienfuss of ESPN.com, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday that Dockett’s surgery “went great.”

“He was in really good spirits,” Arians said. “Texted him back and forth, and he’s anxious to get back.”

The surgery was performed by Dr. James Andrews. He is expected to return to Arizona after spending the next five days in Florida and is expected to remain with the team throughout his rehab. Arians wants Dockett to have a presence in the locker room and on the sidelines during games despite not being able to participate.

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Derek Carr gets a final opportunity to steal the Week One job

Carr Getty Images

None of the three first-round quarterbacks will be starting in Week One. But the first of the second-round quarterbacks could end up winning the gig in Oakland.

Derek Carr has one last chance, via the fourth game of the preseason, to make a case that he should get the chance to lead the Raiders into a minefield masquerading as a regular-season schedule.

“The more that I can be out there, the happier I’ll be,” Carr said, via Jerry McDonald of InsideBayArea.com. “That’s why we work so hard in the offseason. That’s why you spend so many hours here before anyone’s here. That’s why you do all those things, because you want to go out there and help the team win and I’m looking forward to it.”

With starter Matt Schaub dealing with a bad elbow and still-bruised psyche, Carr could with a strong showing against Seattle swipe the starting job.

“I’ve said it from Day One, the guy’s comfortable in the huddle,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “The game’s not too big for him. I still believe he sees the field very well. I don’t think the game’s too fast for him, which a lot of times is a concern with a rookie quarterback.”

Ultimately, Carr could be the first rookie quarterback to start, joining his older brother David as rookies who lined up under center to launch their rookie seasons.

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Julius Thomas thinks emphasis on defensive fouls could pump up his numbers

Thomas AP

Last year, Julius Thomas set the Broncos’ single-season record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end, with 12.  This year, he doesn’t have a specific goal to beat that. 

Generally, however, he realizes that his numbers could be even better, thanks to the renewed emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding.

Thomas addressed that and other topics during a recent visit with PFT Live.  The first subject?  Whether he thinks the NFL should outlaw Peyton Manning’s Rocky Top dance.

Thomas also identifies a guy on each side of the ball who could be due for a breakout year, like Thomas had a year ago.

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Vick, Cooper are “all good” after offseason snub

rs_560x415-130731200656-1024.VickCooper.ms.073113_copy AP

As the Jets prepare to end the preseason with a low-travel-cost trip to Philly, Mike Vick will return to the place where he spent five NFL seasons.  He recently told Ian O’Connor of ESPN New York that Vick’s proudest moment as a professional athlete came with the Eagles a year ago, when he defused the Riley Cooper situation.

Specifically, Vick stood up for and spoke out on behalf of Cooper, after he was caught on camera using a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert.

Guys were mad at me for a while,” Vick said of his Eagles teammates.  “They were upset with me for a day or two, like six or seven guys who were just like, ‘Really, how could you do that?’ And then I’m getting phone calls from people everywhere, and my Twitter page is kind of in an uproar. But I took that stand for him, man, and I just hope at the end of the day that he appreciates that.

“I just hope he’s [appreciative] of my boldness to step out in front of the world and say what I said, and he appreciates what I did and understands the magnitude of it, because nobody else was going to step up and say anything. I could’ve said the same thing that 25 of my teammates were saying, and there was built-up anger.”

Some apparent anger built up for Vick in the offseason, after Cooper signed a new contract to stay in Philly, thanks in large part to the fact that Vick helped take the sting out of Cooper’s comments.

“A couple of things transpired since [the incident] that I dislike, and I’ll be honest with you,” Vick told O’Connor.  “After he signed his contract, I sent him a text and I never got a text back, and that made me feel a certain type of way.  But I’m not the type of guy who holds grudges.”

If Vick were a guy who held a grudge, it’s all been resolved.  Via Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer, a Vick spokesman said Vick and Cooper have spoken today, and that they “are all good.”

Regardless, Vick’s comments should that the Cooper situation easily could have imploded both for the player and for the team, and that Vick had an important role in keeping it all together.

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