Did you know there’s an NFL game THIS SUNDAY!!?!!!???!! I’m excited. Sure, it’s the Hall of Fame game and the starters will barely play, but any time you get to see Drew Brees or Larry Fitzgerald on the field, you get to witness greatness. Training camps are all under way and injuries have already started. I haven’t seen any major season enders yet, which is good. You never want to see a guy miss the entire season, even if it’s a player I’m not too fond of. Embarrassed on the field to the point of getting benched? Absolutely. I’d love to see Osi Umenyiora get benched after he gets pancaked for half of a season. But that can only happen if he’s on the field.
The two big off field stories this week were in the AFC North. The Browns had a majority of the team sold and the Steelers signed a WR to a big extension but not the one people were expecting. The sale of the Browns has very little impact on this season, but the long term effects are a big deal. The Antonio Brown extension will have a huge impact this season as well as the future WR corps in Pittsburgh.
Let’s start off with Cleveland. Randy Lerner didn’t dream of being an NFL owner. When his father passed away 10 years ago, he inherited the team. From everything I’ve ever seen, he tried to run the franchise with a hands-off mentality. He hired football people to handle football operations and just kind of took a step back. The problem with this seems to be that leadership questions were inevitable. If Lerner listened to the wrong person, he made the wrong decision. I won’t say he got bullied or anything but he may have let the wrong people influence his decisions.
Enter new owner Jimmy Haslam III. Now, the Browns have a passionate football fan as an owner. That’s a big deal. Lerner wanted to win and build a good team, but I don’t think that works unless it’s truly a passion. Look at some of the best NFL teams over the past decade or so. It’s safe to say guys like Jim Irsay of the Colts, Bob Kraft of the Patriots, the Rooney family of the Steelers, and Jeff Lurie of the Eagles love football. They’re hands on with their coaches and front office without constant meddling like the late Al Davis. Haslam has been around success with his minority ownership of the Steelers. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the best teams over the past 30-40 years. The culture the ownership brings is a huge part of that. If you don’t have the right mentality at the top, it can trickle down and I think that’s part of the reason the Browns haven’t been that good.
If Haslam brings the Steelers mentality to Cleveland, I expect a completely different franchise in a few years. The one thing Pittsburgh always did right is consistency. A majority of people reading this column have seen only 3 people coach the Pittsburgh Steelers: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin. Chuck Noll started coaching the Steelers in 1969. Since Randy Lerner became the Browns owner in 2002, they have had 4 head coaches (Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, and Pat Shurmur).
The big question is whether or not Haslam will keep the staff in place (Mike Holmgren as President, Tom Heckert as GM, and Pat Shurmur as head coach). There have already been rumors that Holmgren will be out after the season. I think that would be a mistake. I think the Browns are finally headed in the right direction. They have a pretty good OL with a franchise LT. They have a workhorse at RB who has a bright career ahead of him. They have some real talent on a defense that could become one of the best in the NFL very soon (they were 10th in yards and 5th in points in 2011). If Brandon Weeden pans out as a good starting QB, the Browns could easily be a playoff contender.
One of the great things about the NFL is that it’s cyclical. With a few good drafts and a good coach, a team can go from worst to first quickly. We’ve seen it happen numerous times and it will probably happen again this season. As fun as it is to mock Cleveland, it’s better for the NFL to have all 32 teams competing and new owner Jimmy Haslam III should finally bring Cleveland up from their depressing recent history.
The Cleveland Browns will have to make it through the Pittsburgh Steelers if they want to do anything in the AFC North and Mike Wallace might make it a little bit easier. Wallace is currently a restricted free agent who hasn’t signed his 1-year contract yet. He’s hoping to get a contract extension and it looks like he won’t get it. The reason is that the Steelers just gave 2011 team MVP Antonio Brown a 5-year, $42 million extension. The rumor is that the Steelers offered that contract to Wallace and he scoffed at it, so they gave it to Brown.
Antonio Brown may have had the most underrated 2011 season of any NFL player. Brown had 69 receptions for 1,108 yards. He added 1,062 kick and punt return yards as well. He is the first player in NFL history to have 1,000 receiving and return yards in the same season. To put in into perspective, Mike Wallace had 72 receptions for 1,193 yards. Sure, Wallace had more touchdowns (8 to 2) but for the great deep threat Wallace is, he only averaged half a yard more per catch. Brown added over 1,000 return yards in addition to his receiving totals, so you can see why he was team MVP.
You can certainly argue Brown put up those numbers with teams afraid of letting Wallace get loose. The point remains that Brown had a great 2011 season and the Steelers have been enamored with his offseason work. Wallace is looking for a deal in the Vincent Jackson range, which was about $11 million per year. That’s nowhere near what Brown just got, which as a 5 year extension (total of 6 years since Brown was on last year of rookie deal) averaged around $7M per.
That begs the question, what happens to Mike Wallace now? The Steelers have come out and said they won’t trade Mike Wallace and no one believes them. I’ve heard someone offered a 1st round pick and if that’s the case the Steelers are fools to say no at this point. I highly doubt Mike Wallace signs the tender. The Steelers can own him for the next 2 seasons without committing a single penny beyond that. He’s stuck on the restricted free agent tag this season and possibly the franchise tag in 2013. If he gets hurt in 2012, the Steelers can let him walk and lose nothing financially. He has to get his long term deal before he steps on the field again or he’s taking a huge risk.
Wallace’s main strength is speed. He’s one of the fastest WRs in the NFL and that makes him one of the best deep threats. An ACL tear could turn him from game breaker to JAG (just another guy). At this point, I don’t think the Steelers can afford to give him an extension in 2012. They were in salary cap hell this offseason and had to cut a ton of veterans just to get under it. The Brown extension only puts 1/6th of his signing bonus on the 2012 cap that wasn’t already there, so it’s a cap friendly deal. They can’t afford to cut Wallace a huge signing bonus and a decent salary in 2012 without putting future salary caps at risk.
This could be one of those ugly disputes that goes into the season. Wallace has no incentive to show up because he could lose his career with one injury and have very little to show for it. I honestly don’t know what will happen. The Steelers don’t seem like a team who will invest close to $100 million in 2 WRs. I lean towards a trade happening right before the season starts.
-The 2008 Beijing Olympics have ruined opening ceremonies. The London ceremony was interesting but we’ll never see anything as incredible as what we saw in 2008.
-If Jeremy Shockey wants to be on an NFL team in 2012 he probably shouldn’t be attacking the commissioner on Twitter.
-I love it when a coach curses out a player. Some guys can handle it, some can’t. The ones who can’t are cut out for the NFL and it’s an easy way for coaches to find out who wants to be there and who doesn’t. I wish media sources would more frequently publish the rants coaches go on because they’re pure entertainment.
-Random 2012 prediction: Reggie Bush finishes top 5 in the NFL in yards from scrimmage. He builds on his 2011 season and actually shows the talent that made him the #2 overall pick.
-Kyle Boller signed a deal with the Chargers and retired the next day. According to Ravens fans, he’s nearly a decade late.
-I’ll start throwing a few fantasy sleepers out there since fantasy drafts will be starting up in a few weeks. At RB: Doug Martin and Isaac Redman. Neither will be a top 2 back on your team, but both should be solid backups. Martin is going to win the starting job in Tampa and should get 200+ carries. Mendenhall won’t be 100% this season and Redman will be the man there. I’m not high on Redman but he’ll get the carries to put up decent numbers.
-While I don’t think Greg Schiano is going to be a great coach in the NFL, I do like what he’s doing in Tampa. Getting rid of some of the problem players (not all, Aqib Talib, at least not yet) will at least make the team more disciplined. The Bucs underachieved in 2011 and discipline was a huge reason. And players like Blount and Talib, while still on the roster, had competition brought in to force them to step it up.
-Something always happens when I’m editing my column and today’s event is very sad. Titans WR OJ Murdock died today in an apparent suicide. Thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends, and teammates.
-I got involved in a Twitter conversation about what the hardest thing to do in the NFL is. My suggestion was a QB stepping into the blitz to throw a pass because he knows he’s about to get hit hard. A common trend with a lot of others was man to man coverage on a WR, especially if you’re on an island without safety help or on a blitz. What do you think?