Each week, the Washington Post’s Mark Maske provides in-depth Monday morning NFL analysis with “First and 10,” a dissection of the league’s most important developments from a weekend of action.
First and 10: Feb. 16
1. L.A. free-for-all? | 2. Gurley’s knee
3. Winston, Mariota throw | 4. Who will be the 3rd QB chosen?
5. Pass rushers abound | 6. White’s fast 40
7. Fisher says he’s counting on Bradford | 8. Discipline czar
9. Titans’ options | 10. Chain of custody
INDIANAPOLIS — Late in the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, when wide receiver Dez Bryant made his fantastic catch that wasn’t, as it turned out, a catch at all, it seemed clear that the NFL — beginning with its rule-making competition committee — had to act this offseason. It had to do something, it seemed, to clarify what is a legal catch and what isn’t under NFL rules, and to bring that more in line with a common-sense approach to interpreting what happens on the field.
But with the competition committee now deliberating over what it will recommend to the owners next month in Phoenix at the annual league meeting, it is unclear whether there will be any modification made to the so-called Calvin Johnson rule that was the determining factor in Bryant’s non-catch. Even among people familiar with the competition committee’s deliberations, there are differing opinions as to what the outcome will be.
“Nothing’s going to happen there,” one of those people said last week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “There’s a clear standard now.”
But another of those people said: “I think something has to be done. The Dez Bryant play, that was not a good look.”
Bryant, remember, made what appeared to be a superb leaping catch near the goal line on a key fourth-down play. But the initial on-field ruling of a legal catch was overturned via an instant-replay review and the play was called an incompletion, giving possession of the football to the Packers and in effect sealing Green Bay’s victory. The officials cited the rule, named for the Detroit Lions wideout once involved in a similar play, that requires a receiver who falls to the ground while in the process of making a catch to maintain control of the football while on the ground.
Some observers have argued that, even under the existing rules, the Bryant play was improperly called. Under the rules, if a receiver secures possession of the football and makes what is regarded as a football move before going to the ground and losing the ball, he has made a legal catch and has become a runner and therefore losing the ball is considered a fumble if he is not down by contact. Some say that Bryant, by reaching toward the goal line with the football in his hand, made a football move and should have been awarded a catch.
But Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, has said he believes the Bryant play was properly called under existing rules. For Bryant to have been ruled to have made a catch before losing the football, Blandino has said, his football move would have had to be more obvious.
The problem, as some within the league acknowledge, is that the Calvin Johnson rule often does not match up with what the average fan believes upon watching a play. Most fans who watched the Bryant play undoubtedly felt that Bryant caught the ball. If the NFL has a rule that says that Bryant didn’t catch the ball, is that a worthwhile rule?
The Calvin Johnson rule, in that way, is counter-intuitive much as another high-profile rule, the tuck rule, once was counter-intuitive. The NFL kept the tuck rule in place for years even while acknowledging its flaws, saying that it could not come up with a workable alternative without relying too heavily on the judgment of the game officials. But eventually, the NFL got rid of the tuck rule, choosing to trust the officials’ judgment to make more common-sense rulings about what is a fumble and what isn’t a fumble by a quarterback in the pocket.
The competition committee met last week in Indianapolis and is to have another set of meetings in Naples, Fla., before deciding what to recommend to the owners in Phoenix. Any proposed rule modification would have to be ratified by at least three-quarters of the owners.
Another major issue facing the committee is whether to recommend making pass interference calls reviewable by instant replay. That comes after the officials threw a flag for pass interference against the Cowboys at a crucial moment during their opening-round playoff triumph over the Lions, then picked up the flag and opted against calling the penalty.
One person with knowledge of the competition committee’s work said last week: “There are a dozen replay proposals. To get 24 votes for any one of them might be difficult.”
Said another person familiar with the committee’s deliberations: “What if you don’t have the right [camera] shot? How do you tell that to the coach? But things could change. Sometimes things get proposed that surprise the heck out of me.”
St. Louis Rams Coach Jeff Fisher, a member of the competition committee, called this year’s volume of replay-related proposals “probably the largest number that I can remember with respect to instant replay” and said the committee is merely “scratching the surface on it now” before delving into the matter more deeply in the coming weeks.
“To me, that’s the biggest concern with it is you have an on-the-field, full-speed, bang-bang call made by the official, let’s just say pass interference,” Fisher said. “And now you’re gonna go to replay and you’re gonna go frame-by-frame-by-frame [to] determine whether it is or not. I’m not so sure that’s where we want to go in our game right now.”
New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick previously has proposed making all calls reviewable by replay, simply with a restriction on the number of replay challenges at a coach’s disposal. Arizona Cardinals Coach Bruce Arians said last week at the combine that he has come to see the merit in that approach.
“Last year I thought it was kind of a weird recommendation that everything was reviewable,” Arians said. “I’m kind of believing Coach Belichick now, with everything should be reviewable and you get three [challenges]. You pick and choose whether it’s holding, any play that judgment was involved in. I think I’m going for that one, though.”
Fisher said there has been “some frustration” expressed to the committee about the officiating this past season.
“But there always is,” Fisher said. “And this is the time for them to vent. We have a general managers subcommittee as well. It’s a time for them to vent: ‘Put these two plays on. How come this is called and that wasn’t?’ That’s our game. That’s the human element in the game. We recognize that. I think since Dean and Al [Alberto Riveron, the NFL’s senior director of officiating] have taken over, I think we’re on the right track. They’re working very hard. They’re very forthright with the calls either Sunday night or Monday morning: ‘Yeah, we made a mistake. We blew it.’ Or, ‘No, I disagree with it,’ or whatever. And that at least gives you a chance.”
… AND TEN
Does the NFL suddenly have a free-for-all on its hands with a mad, three-way scramble to be among the one or two franchises that will play in Los Angeles?
The announcement late last week by the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders that they are pursuing a joint stadium project in Carson, Calif., added plenty of intrigue and the potential for future combativeness to the precarious NFL-in-L.A. situation.
That move by the Chargers and Raiders came after Rams owner Stan Kroenke announced his plan last month to build a stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
It already was well known that the Rams, Raiders and Chargers were the three top candidates for a possible move to the Los Angeles market, which has been without a team since the Rams and Raiders left town following the 1994 season. It previously was clear, once the NFL halted any potential franchise relocation to Los Angeles this year, that the league was targeting the 2016 season to have a team or two in place there.
But now the chase to get to L.A. is real in a much more overt, public way, with the announcements by the three teams.
It seems unlikely that the NFL wants three teams in Los Angeles, so the league has quite a bit of work to do. They have appointed an owners’ committee on Los Angeles. It has stressed throughout the process that any proposed franchise relocation is subject to a three-quarters approval vote by the owners.
There is, of course, a history of litigation between the league and late Raiders owner Al Davis over the Los Angeles market.
Longtime agent Leigh Steinberg wrote on Twitter that the “NFL says it controls which stadium gets built and which teams transfer to LA, but teams have moved before without NFL approval[.]”
Davis’s son Mark, the team’s current owner, is expressing a desire to work within the NFL’s parameters.
The Raiders and Chargers said in their joint statement issued Thursday: “We also both understand and respect the NFL’s relocation process, and we intend to adhere strictly to the relocation procedures that the League has set forth for Los Angeles.
“In particular, we respect the right of the NFL’s owners to decide on all Los Angeles-related relocation issues and understand that any relocation application that is filed for Los Angeles must obtain the approval of three-fourths of the NFL’s owners.
“Both teams have kept the NFL owners’ committee on Los Angeles, and the Commissioner, fully informed about our joint efforts.”
The Raiders and Chargers said they “remain committed to continuing to work in our home markets throughout 2015 to try to find publicly acceptable solutions to the long-term stadium issue” that would keep those franchises where they currently are. They said they will “move down two tracks simultaneously,” and added: “We are pursuing this stadium option in Carson for one straightforward reason: If we cannot find a permanent solution in our home markets, we have no alternative but to preserve other options to guarantee the future economic viability of our franchises.”
If the Rams, Raiders and Chargers all end up wanting to move to Los Angeles, the NFL might have to attempt to broker a compromise between the teams.
The Raiders have had conversations with representatives of San Antonio, Tex.
If St. Louis loses the Rams, could it become a candidate to have another franchise replace them in relatively short order, much as Baltimore and Cleveland regained teams after losing them?
So much is now being juggled when it comes to the NFL and Los Angeles. Some are doing their best to steer clear of it.
“If I don’t know anything, then when someone asks me and I say I don’t know anything, I’m telling you the truth,” Fisher said. “My focus, and of course this is coach-speak, is on this year … and as things come up nearly on a daily basis right now, they’re gonna continue to change. Whatever happens, happens. But I love St. Louis. We’ve got a great fan base. We’ve got some work to do as we go through this process, how it ends up. But our focus is on 2015.”
Fisher also said something that the NFL clearly hopes ends up being true: that whatever happens in Los Angeles will be up to the league.
“That’s the league’s call there,” Fisher said Friday in Indianapolis. “It’s unfortunate that there has not been a team there. But I’m not involved in all the specifics of the market and all those kind of things, what’s available and stadium sites and those kind of things. Clearly that’ll be the league’s call.”
Georgia’s standout running back, Todd Gurley, was at the NFL scouting combine despite being unable to participate in drills while he continues to work his way back from the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that he suffered in November.
“I’m just trying to get my knee back right and show teams that I can come back healthy,” Gurley said.
Gurley’s torn ACL came in his first game back after serving a four-game suspension by the NCAA for accepting $3,000 for autographed memorabilia. Even so, he said he did not regret his decision to return and play rather than safeguarding his NFL future by sitting out the remainder of the college season.
“I did it because I love football,” Gurley said. “That’s what I do, playing football my whole life. Injuries come with the game. I wouldn’t take that game back for nothing.”
Asked what he planned to tell NFL teams about his autographing suspension, Gurley said: “Just man up to my mistakes. I made a dumb mistake and I suffered the consequences. I have to move on from that. But just show them that I’m a great person at the end of the day.”
It’s unlikely that anyone in the NFL will hold that suspension against Gurley. No one in the NFL, after all, should have anything against trying to make money off football. It is, above all, a league of commerce.
But the condition of his knee clearly could impact Gurley’s draft status. He said the timetable for his recovery is six to nine months, leaving his availability for the start of his first NFL training camp in question.
“I’m just trying to get back safe but as quick as possible,” Gurley said.
Gurley was asked about Adrian Peterson having a 2,097-yard rushing season for the Minnesota Vikings in 2012 after returning from a torn ACL suffered late in the 2011 season.
“That definitely motivates you,” Gurley said. “But I’m definitely not Adrian Peterson. That guy is a freak of nature. But my goal is to be a freak of nature as well and try to get back as fast as possible. But I’m not gonna rush anything.”
The NFL Network reported that Gurley did not allow doctors to examine his knee at the combine on the advice of surgeon James Andrews. Gurley plans to allow teams to examine his knee at a medical re-check next month, according to the report.
Gurley was regarded as a potential game-changing runner by some NFL talent evaluators before he got hurt. He said his draft aspirations have not changed.
“I’m not here to be No. 5 overall or a second-round pick,” he said. “I want to be the best. … I know what I can do. I feel like I can come in and help a team. You all might think I sound ridiculous. But that’s the confidence I have in myself.”
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota both participated in Saturday’s throwing drills for quarterbacks at the combine.
It has become increasingly rare for top quarterbacks to throw in Indianapolis. Many have declined to do so in recent years, opting to wait to throw at their pro-day campus workouts for scouts. That puts them in more familiar, comfortable surroundings and enables them to have their own receivers at their disposal.
Winston generally received high marks from talent evaluators for his performance Saturday.
“Jameis Winston’s natural accuracy is rare,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay wrote on Twitter. “Unique trait. Makes it look so easy!”
Louis Riddick, a former scout and front office executive for the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles, wrote on Twitter: “Jameis dropping dimes. Easy. Natural.”
Most seem convinced that Winston will make a relatively smooth transition from the Florida State offense to an NFL passing offense.
“Looks almost too easy for … Jameis Winston,” former NFL safety Matt Bowen wrote on Twitter. “Footwork, release. Throws a catchable ball with accuracy. Very comfortable in this workout.”
Of course, quarterbacks are supposed to look good without a pass rush in their face and with their receivers not covered by defenders.
“I just watched a different workout than everyone else,” former Eagles and Cleveland Browns executive Joe Banner wrote on Twitter. “Winston was good, but nothing worthy of these raves. Not very telling stuff anyway[.]”
The biggest issue for Winston, of course, is convincing teams that they can trust him after his off-field issues at Florida State. It’s not immediately clear how much headway he made in that regard during his interviews with teams while at the combine. That won’t be known for certain until the draft, given the often-misleading signals that teams like to put out during the pre-draft buildup to hide their true intentions.
But Winston did well when he met with media members Friday. He addressed his off-field issues before even being asked about them. He answered questions directly and was not evasive. He said he realizes he must convince teams that he’s worthy of being the face of their franchise. He was funny and engaging. He showed a commanding presence and appeared to be a natural leader.
That won’t matter, of course, if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have the top overall selection in the draft, and other teams are not convinced that Winston can avoid future off-field troubles.
There are no such concerns about Mariota. With him, teams must project whether his considerable skills will translate into NFL success and must try to figure out how quickly and seamlessly he will make the transition from Oregon’s offense to a pro-style passing game.
As for Mariota’s performance Saturday, Riddick followed his analysis that Winston was “dropping dimes” during the passing drills by writing that Mariota was “doing the same.”
Said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock: “I thought Winston and Mariota were outstanding. The thing that I like about Jameis Winston is I think he throws an extremely catchable ball. He’s got all the arm strength you want. But he makes it easy for the receiver based on the route. He understands that. He gets it. Just naturally and innately, he gets it.
“What I liked about Mariota was just the footwork. You can see how athletic he is. He ran the 4.5, whatever he ran [4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash]. But you can see that translates to his drop-backs now, a sense of urgency with his feet. I think you can see — I know he’ll be able to adapt to being able to get under center. It’s the pocket awareness part that you can’t tell out here. Physically, he’ll be able to do all the things they ask of him.”
Mayock said he was glad to see that Winston and Mariota were unafraid to show what they could do in Indianapolis.
“Tony Dungy said this to me years ago when he was coaching: ‘We want bright-light kids, guys that aren’t afraid to get out there with 32 NFL head coaches and general managers and just rip it,’ ” Mayock said. “Who cares? Just get out there and rip it.
“And that’s what I try to tell all the kids that ask me if they should throw at the combine. I’m like, ‘Yeah. They don’t really care if you throw an incomplete pass. They’re smart enough people to understand you’ve never seen that wide receiver before.’ So a lot of times, the agents or their parents or whatever say, ‘Ah, no, don’t [throw].’ Just get out there and rip it. And that’s what they did [Saturday]. So it’s just another check. Bang, the kid wasn’t afraid…. I thought it was awesome.”
There’s no consensus as to which quarterback will come off the board third in the draft after Winston and Mariota (or Mariota and Winston).
The most obvious candidates are UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Baylor’s Bryce Petty and Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson.
Mayock said he doesn’t regard any of those in the next tier of draft-eligible quarterbacks as being ready to play immediately as a rookie.
“Your guess is as good as mine is as good as the guy with the third-round pick or the second-round pick in the draft,” Mayock said. “My take personally is that after the first two guys there’s nobody ready to step in and play. I told you how impressed I was with Bryce Petty’s arm [Saturday]. He throws a beautiful football. [But] I don’t think he’s ready to play…. In the old days we were saying first-round quarterbacks were kind of 50-50. I think it’s even tougher now because of the spread [offenses in college]. That’s a long way of saying that I think Petty is a year or two away. Hundley is a couple years away. We didn’t get to see Garrett Grayson [Saturday]. I think they’re all down the road a little bit.”
Grayson was sidelined by a hamstring injury.
Mayock said he likes Petty as a passer but wonders about Petty’s transition from Baylor’s offense to an NFL offense.
“I think the guy that’s just a beautiful, natural thrower of the football is Petty,” Mayock said. “Do I have a whole bunch of questions about him [regarding] pocket awareness? Absolutely. But if you were just gonna stand there and play catch in the backyard or play seven-on-seven, that’s my guy. He throws a beautiful football.”
This draft is well-stocked with elite pass rushers who could line up as defensive ends in a 4-3 alignment or outside linebackers in a 3-4 setup. Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Missouri’s Shane Ray and Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr. are regarded as potential top-10 picks.
“I think it’s the best edge class we’ve had since 2011; ’12 and ’13 weren’t that great. … I think Dante Fowler, Shane Ray and Randy Gregory are three outstanding edge guys,” Mayock said.
Gregory said he is well aware of the value of a top pass rusher in today’s pass-happy NFL.
“Depending on who you talk to, I think some people think it starts with the quarterback,” Gregory said. “I’m not gonna sit there and disagree with it. But I understand where the game’s headed. I understand there’s a lot of passing going on. I understand you need somebody to throw the ball. You need somebody to block for him. So you need a left tackle. And then you also need somebody that can go after him. So you need a defensive end that can rush the passer. I understand that aspect of the game and I’m glad that I’m in a position where I possibly could get taken early due to the fact that I’m pretty decent at pass rushing.”
Gregory said he has been working with former NFL defensive lineman Chuck Smith on his pass-rushing techniques.
“Growing up, I really liked Osi Umenyiora, Aldon Smith,” Gregory said. “Von Miller, I’m a real big fan of. … Growing up, I used to watch the NFL and just sit back and watch it. Now I really sit back and break down the game and look at how they pass rush and things like that. … Working with Chuck Smith, you watch film on these guys and a lot of them he worked with and he taught some of the moves. … Everyone is using the same pass-rush moves.
“There’s not really any new moves coming out. So guys like J.J. Watt, they’re technicians. There’s a reason why they do what they do well. They work on the same things day in and day out … and it shows on the field.”
Gregory spent two seasons at Nebraska after a stay in junior college.
“My best years are ahead of me,” he said. “I think I’ve done a lot with the time I’ve had. I played two years of JUCO. My second year, I got hurt. So really I played one year of junior college and three years of college in general, and two years of [Division] I football. So for me playing a position — I got moved here sophomore year of high school — I’m relatively new to the position still. So I’m still learning things and I think I’m real coachable. I’m real smart so I pick up a lot of things. I pick up different plays real quickly. So the sky’s the limit for me.”
Ray did not participate in on-field drills at the combine because of a foot injury that he said he suffered in Missouri’s bowl game.
“I play with a lot of passion and a lot of energy,” Ray said. “I’m really physical. I’ve shown that I can make plays in the open field, that I can drop into coverage. Throughout my career, my coaches moved me all around the defense. I’ve played over 3-techniques and beat guards. I’ve stood up and rushed from the middle. I’ve dropped into coverage and came back and cover guys coming out of the backfield. And I’ve just displayed my speed consistently and what I feel like I can do as a 4-3 defensive end and an outside linebacker…. Most of the guys that I watch is guys like Von Miller.
“When I think of myself as a football player, I try to compare myself to what he does and his athleticism and his versatility and how the Broncos use him and move him around. I think I’m that same kind of player.”
Ray was ejected from the SEC title game for a hit on Alabama quarterback Blake Sims. Ray said there is no lingering animosity between the two over the play.
“Actually me and Blake train together,” Ray said. “So I talk to Blake every day about him. Honestly it’s a football play and it happened. Me and Blake are actually pretty good friends. I’ve talked to his family. They just kind of talk to me and say any time I’m in their area, I’m welcome to have a place to stay. So I got over it. He got over it. It’s a football play that happened and it’s done.”
Ray seems to have learned his lesson.
“Just one thing I learned from just going after quarterbacks, especially going to the NFL, I’ve got to aim a lot lower and wrap up their legs instead of trying to get a hit on them, and just bring them to the ground,” he said. “That’ll probably be the safer thing to do.”
He said he is telling NFL teams that he is confident he can be a defensive play-maker.
“My main message for all these coaches and GMs is just, ‘I’m your guy. If you need somebody to go attack from anywhere on the field and be unstoppable — if I get a one-on-one, I’m gonna win it. Do you want a guy that you want to make the play on third down and go get the quarterback, strip the quarterback? I’ll go do that,’ ” Ray said. “You know, that’s what I did for my team. When they needed for me to do something to make a play or go chase down a guy with the football, I was the guy to go do that.”
West Virginia’s Kevin White is vying with Alabama’s Amari Cooper and Louisville’s DeVante Parker to be the first wide receiver selected in the draft.
White helped himself when he was timed at 4.35 seconds in his 40-yard dash Saturday.
“My top three receivers are pretty much everybody’s top three, right?” Mayock said. “Kevin White’s been my guy since the first time I put tape on. And I think Amari Cooper is the safe choice. He’s like Torry Holt…. I mean, just everything smooth and easy. However, what I see with White is a higher ceiling. I see a bigger guy that runs faster.
“So I was hoping he’d run 4.45, 4.46, somewhere in that range, and he runs 4.35 and he made everything look easy. And I just talked to some coaches walking off the field and I was like, ‘What’d you think of White?’ Every single one was like, ‘Wow. It was easy.’… So if you start taking a look at Oakland at No. 4, if they go with a wide receiver, I think it’s wide open right now with Parker, Cooper and White.”
Fisher denied a report by CBS that the Rams granted quarterback Sam Bradford permission to seek a trade.
Fisher continues to say he intends to have another option at quarterback in place by next season but he is counting on Bradford to be the starter. With the Rams facing possibly their final season in St. Louis and coming off their eighth straight losing season, Fisher was asked during his combine news conference what message he would deliver to the team’s fans.
“Those that came out saw some really good football games,” Fisher said. “And the true fans that know what we’re doing see improvement. They know that we’ve been without our first-round pick of a starting quarterback. When we’ve had him, he’s 5-2-1 in the division. And we weren’t very good when we got here. So we’re counting on him. I’m betting on him. And if that doesn’t happen, then we’ll win games with somebody else.”
The NFL appears to be considering Lisa M. Friel for its newly created position of chief disciplinary officer. The former prosecutor has been serving as a senior adviser to the league since early in the just-completed season.
It does not appear that Eric H. Holder Jr., the outgoing U.S. attorney general, is a candidate. He formerly conducted the league’s investigation into Michael Vick’s involvement in a dogfighting operation.
It is not known what other candidates might be under consideration.
The chief disciplinary officer is to oversee the NFL’s independent investigations into cases of off-field misconduct by players and other employees, and to make initial disciplinary rulings in such cases under the personal conduct policy.
Assuming the Buccaneers choose either Winston or Mariota with the top overall pick, the Tennessee Titans will have an interesting decision to make with the No. 2 selection.
They could take whichever of the top two quarterbacks is left. They could decide that Zach Mettenberger, a rookie last season, is good enough and promising enough to be their quarterback and instead select USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams or one of the off-the-edge pass rushers. Or they could make a trade with a quarterback-needy team eager to move up.
“Is there value sitting at 2 for Tennessee? Absolutely,” Mayock said. “If a quarterback goes at 1 and they’re sitting at 2 and they’re okay with Zach Mettenberger, then yeah, the store’s open. Let’s see if we can barter a little bit. But Tennessee’s got a tough decision to make. They might want that quarterback. I still think we won’t know a thing going up till the first day of the draft. That’s part of the intrigue of it. But yeah, I still think there could be play at 2, no doubt.”
In the wake of DeflateGate, the competition committee probably will change the chain-of-custody procedure by which the footballs, after they’re inspected by the game officials prior to kickoff, are given back to team-affiliated attendants. Instead, the footballs likely will be given following the pregame inspection to league employees for safeguarding.
But Fisher said at the combine that the committee probably won’t act on that issue until after the investigation by attorney Ted Wells of the Patriots’ use of under-inflated footballs in the first half of the AFC title game is completed.
“I would submit that we probably won’t have any discussions until everything has been resolved at the league office level,” Fisher said.