Tuesday, March 27, 2012

These Jets are about to crash

Rex Ryan came onto the scene in New York like a new sheriff ready to clean up someone else’s mess. And early on he did exactly that. He put the fun back in football for New York Jets fans, bringing laughter, cheer and wins.

Wigs, snacks, a foul mouth, bird flipping and foot fetishes aside Ryan brought bravado and hope to Gang Green.

Now hope borders on despair.

Looking back on his days with the Baltimore Ravens as the beloved defensive coordinator serving under Brian Billick and later John Harbaugh, Ryan had a knack for getting the most out of his players and placing them in position to be successful.

Many of the Ravens’ defenders wanted Rex to succeed Billick has the head coach. A team known for its defense, carried for years by Ray Lewis & Co. seemed like the most logical launching pad for Ryan’s head coaching career. Ed Reed and Bart Scott pleaded Rex’ case.

Rex thought he was in the driver’s seat literally and figuratively. During the interviewing process Ryan pulled his truck into Billick’s then recently abandoned parking spot marked, “Head Coach.”

Ryan can never be accused of lacking brass stones.

But the hefty coordinator never had a chance in Baltimore. The Ravens front office understood why Rex was rejected previously by the San Diego Chargers and Atlanta Falcons. They were familiar with his immaturity and understood that naming Ryan their head coach came with risks – big risks.

Some coaches are better off being colonels not generals.

And the Ravens took a pass.

Winning however has a way of masking the aforementioned embarrassments for the Jets owner Woody Johnson. Losing exacerbates them.

So does a bad locker room.

Rex sees himself as somewhat of a Malcontent Whisperer. He threw out the welcome mat to Antonio Cromartie, Kris Jenkins, Santonio Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson and Plaxico Burress – hardly choirboys.

For awhile it worked. But then results fell short of expectations and the fingers started pointing like six-shooters in the Wild, Wild West. And as it so often happens in the NFL when things go wrong the blame often falls upon the shoulders of the quarterback.

Unfortunately for Rex and the Jets, Mark Sanchez’ shoulders aren’t all that big and stout. Towards the end of the 2011 season the weight began to force Sanchez to bend a bit from the hips. And now Ryan with the addition of Tim Tebow, on the heels of giving Sanchez a contract extension no less, is pushing down on the back of Sanchez’ head.

“I don’t see Tim [Tebow] just holding a clipboard. He’s going to be playing for us. There is no doubt,” Ryan said at the league meetings. “He will have a role. We know that. There won’t be a better Wildcat quarterback in the game. Is that his only role? I don’t believe that – we’ll see what happens.”

“We have a No. 1 quarterback. Mark is our No. 1 quarterback. Tim Tebow is our No. 2 quarterback, but he’s also going to do other things for this football team,” Ryan added. “He’s a football player. That’s what I keep wanting to put out there. Let’s not just look at him as a quarterback. I look at him as a football player.”

But that football player is a quarterback and when your No. 1 quarterback is 2009’s fifth overall draft pick with a bruised and battered ego, something has got to give.

Ryan is a riverboat gambler – that’s an understatement of the obvious. But this roll of the heavenly dice with Tebow might not have the rallying effect (in a locker room sorely in need of one) that Ryan thinks. More likely it will divide Gang Green more rapidly than Moses split the Red Sea.

And if that happens, look for Woody Johnson to shoot the sheriff.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Cut McKinnie to save Grubbs?

Pro Bowl unrestricted free agent Ben Grubbs is a player the Ravens would love to keep – provided the cost isn’t exorbitant and that it doesn’t tilt the scales so heavily towards the interior of the offensive line that they can’t afford a quality long-term tackle for Joe Flacco’s blind side.

Some have suggested that the Baltimore Ravens release Bryant McKinnie to create cap space for Grubbs. But wouldn’t solving one problem (not being able to afford Grubbs) trigger another problem at left tackle?

Granted, McKinnie wasn’t the end-all-be-all at left tackle but he was serviceable and the Ravens inability to advance beyond the AFC Championship could hardly be hung on his shoulders.

But let’s look at the economics…

McKinnie received a $1M bonus last year, so $500K of that $4.2M (his 2012 cap figure) would still count towards this year’s if he is released. The $3.7M savings would go a long way toward creating room for Grubbs, but if the Ravens replace McKinnie with a stop gap solution, chances are they would have to sign someone who would earn close to the same amount that the team would save through a McKinnie release.

The team could turn the blind side duties back over to Michael Oher and have Jah Reid, a player the team is apparently high on, fill in at right tackle. But Oher has struggled at left tackle. Do the Ravens really want to go there again? What if Reid isn’t ready to be a starter? What’s next, Ramon Harewood?

Unless the Ravens are willing to assume these risks, the only way that Grubbs remains a Raven is if he’s willing to give the team a hometown discount.

Didn’t we have a similar conversation a few years back regarding Jason Brown?

Monday, March 05, 2012

Get your pen ready Ray Rice!

Player agents want to use previously completed deals as benchmarks for their clients. If they believe that their client(s) is as good as another player whose contract ink is barely dry, that becomes the starting point of negotiations for their client’s deal.

Enter Todd France and Ray Rice…

The two will look to recent deals signed by Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson – deals that I’ll go out on a not-so-daring limb and say both the Titans and Vikings regret.

So why should the Ravens base their discussions with Ray Rice on the mistakes of others?

It is salary cap roulette to pay running backs big money long-term particularly when bargain replacements can be found in the draft (Rice being one of them).

This isn't meant to be a knock on Rice. It's just the nature of the beast.

Rice deserves a fair deal and for that the Ravens should look no further than the one MJD signed in 2009 (5 years, $31M, $17.M guaranteed). MJD ‘s productivity closely mirrors that of Rice (see here) and he’s on a team with relatively little to no offensive options. Mix in some inflation and fluff that MJD deal up to 5 years, $39M and $22M guaranteed.

That’s fair Ray Rice.

The alternative is to be tagged for 2 years; Ravens groom the replacement and then let someone else overpay for a RB heading into his 7th season.

I know it sounds cold but that's the NFL.

Right player, right price.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

YOU ASKED, I ANSWERED: The Rice Franchise Tag

It appears as though Ray Rice is going to be franchised. Is this the right move? Can he buck the short productivity lifespan of running backs and what are the team's plans for depth at the position with Ricky Williams retiring?

Franchising Rice is the right move for the Ravens, particularly when his contractual demands are said to be knocking on the door of Adrian Peterson’s bloated contract. Peterson is a greater talent and let’s not forget that he was a beneficiary of circumstance. As part of an attempt to land a new stadium deal in Minnesota, Vikings’ owner Zygi Wilf wanted to lock up Peterson long-term. And while the deal may have been a good business move overall, it was a bad contract and mirroring that is just wrong for the Ravens on many levels.

Running backs are relatively inexpensive to replace. That’s not intended to discredit Rice’s ability but it’s just the nature of the game. One only needs to look at the top 6 backs this past season, none of which was a first round pick and none remotely close to earning AP dollars. Big running back deals just aren’t practical in the salary cap era. It would not surprise me at all to see the team franchise Rice again in 2013 and then move on to the post Rice era.

As for Ricky Williams, the club seems to be willing to go with second year back Anthony Allen as Rice’s backup with former Miami Hurricane Damien Berry in the wings – a 2011 practice squad player. But don’t be surprised if Williams “retirement” isn’t just a veteran ploy to circumvent the offseason conditioning program, OTA’s and part of training camp. My gut says that even the club sees his return as being a decent possibility

Friday, February 24, 2012

Tag, you're it Ray Rice!

This idea will not be wildly popular. In fact, most of you are likely to consider this to be blasphemy for a Ravens fan.

Do not sign Ray Rice to a long-term contract!

There, I said it.

Now let me explain it.

It’s rather common knowledge that the average career life expectancy of a running back in the NFL is the shortest of all positions. Research suggests that average is 2.57 years. Now I do believe this average is artificially low because running backs that occupy a spot on a 53 man roster even for a season or less bring that average down.

League studies support such a notion.

The NFLPA is quick to tell everyone that the overall average career life expectancy of an NFL player is 3.5 seasons. That may be true but did you know that the average career length for a player who makes a club’s opening-day roster (active/inactive roster or injured reserve) in his rookie season is 6 seasons?

That certainly swings the pendulum a bit.

Those numbers climb even more if the player was a first round pick (9.3 seasons) and still greater if he’s a Pro Bowl player (11.7 seasons).

And as we know Ray Rice is a Pro Bowl player.

So if the average career length of a running back is 2.57 years and that of the average player is 3.5 (22.86% less) it goes to reason that the average Pro Bowl running back has a 9 year career. To date Ray Rice has 4 accrued seasons in the NFL.

The question then becomes one of how much longer will Ray Rice be among the NFL’s best running backs in order to determine his value going forward in dollars and cents.

Rice and his agent have decided to set the bar at Adrian Peterson’s 7 years, $100 million deal that included guaranteed money of $36 million. Hopefully the Rice camp is simply throwing numbers against the wall to see what sticks. Somewhere in Owings Mills Ozzie Newsome is still doubled over in laughter.

And when he rubs those laughing tears from his eyes and compares Rice to Peterson these are the career stats he’ll be looking at:

A. Peterson: Att. – 1406; Yds. – 6752; Avg. - 4.8; TD – 64; Rec. – 137; Yds. – 1309; Avg. - 9.6; TD - 3

R. Rice: Att. – 959; Yds. – 4377; Avg. - 4.6; TD – 24; Rec. – 250; Yds. – 2235; Avg. - 8.9; TD - 5

Even if the two players were equals (they’re not) why should the Ravens use a ridiculously one-sided Peterson contract as the bench mark?

The answer is, “They won’t!”

The mounting evidence just screams at organizations not to pay running backs big long-term dollars. The productivity that inspired the big contract like Peterson’s is just not sustainable. We’ve seen this Groundhog Day movie time and time with running backs. Even Pro Bowlers who remain in the league (albeit with reduced workloads), at some point will fail to produce the numbers they once did given the typical wear and tear of a backfield workhorse. It is so much more economical and more importantly – cap friendly, to find young running backs with more tread on the tires to carry the load.

And the interesting thing is that you don’t even have to invest a top pick in many cases to find that economical guy!

Consider these telling facts regarding NFL running backs:

* Not one of the league’s Top 6 backs from 2011 is a first round pick.

* Three of the 6 are second round picks (Rice, LeSean McCoy and Maurice Jones-Drew), one is a third round pick (Frank Gore), one a fifth (Michael Turner) and the last an undrafted free agent (Arian Foster).

* Of the 30 top 10 finishes over the past 3 seasons for running backs, the average position in the draft was the 70th pick, i.e. an early third rounder.

* The average age of a Top 5 performer over the last three seasons is 25.7. Ray Rice is now 25.

* Four of 2011’s top 5 performers made $900,000 or less.

* Over the last 3 seasons the top 5 performers have averaged $2.056M per season and nine of those top 5 finishes were $900,000 or less.

* Only 4 of the 10 highest paid running backs in 2011 finished in the top 10. The 6 not finishing in the top 10 averaged $8.93M in salary.

The facts overwhelmingly support NOT giving Ray Rice a long-term deal – particularly one in the Adrian Peterson or even Chris Johnson range. The Vikings and the Titans probably won’t admit it but inside their respective team headquarters you just know they’d like to have a redo on those gaudy contracts.

You see contracts like that make it difficult for teams to effectively manage their cap, particularly when players don’t perform to the level of their pay. In the case of a running back that likelihood is greater than all other positions. And when you mix in the relative bargains that can be found, whether those bargains are in dollars, a modest draft pick or some combination thereof, bank breaking deals for backs end up being organizational back breakers instead.

Yes Ray Rice is arguably the Ravens’ best player (for now). Yes he’s an exemplary teammate, leader, role model and he engages the community and of course we’d like to see him in purple and black for the remainder of his career.

That said, the Ravens should use the franchise tag on Ray Rice this season ($7.7M) and the next (estimated $9.24M).

Afterwards, who knows? That’s just the way it is for running backs in the NFL.
Push emotion to the sidelines. This isn’t personal.

It’s just business.

Resources used: NFLPlayers.com, NYJetscap.com and NFLCommunications.com

Thursday, February 23, 2012

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Saying goodbye to a dream weaver

I’m sure every one of you reading this has had death in some way, shape or form knock on your door. A friend, a relative, an acquaintance – perhaps a co-worker, gone seemingly in a moment. And you are reminded of the fragility of life.

This morning I learned of the passing of a man, a friend who once embodied strength, energy, vitality, confidence and moxie. Craig Willinger, soccer aficionado extraordinaire, 42, a man stricken by a high-risk cancer just a few years ago is gone.

News like this has a numbing affect.

Things like this only happen to other people.

Maybe you see yourself as bulletproof – maybe you deny your own mortality. Count me among you.

When death hits close to home it temporarily knocks you off track. The once important daily tasks are suddenly far less important. But then we dust off, get back on track and get back in the game. And when you do you hope that the experience of your loss can influence you in a positive way. And you pray that your lesson resonates.

But then life gets in the way. While you are busy again with all those other plans there’s a disconnect and the lesson fades – maybe it even gets lost. I hope not.

When Craig Willinger learned of his illness he did what I suspect most of us might do. He created a bucket list and at the top of that list for Craig was to see his favorite team, Bayern Munich play at home in Germany.

During his return to Baltimore after realizing a dream Craig turned his attention towards making dreams come true for others. In 2009 the Craig Willinger Fund was set up to help children fighting cancer, live a dream. Since then Craig’s vision coupled with a child’s dream has become a reality for a few children. Craig’s family and friends are determined to keep the CWF alive.

Craig will undoubtedly be missed and his legacy of chasing and realizing dreams will echo in eternity. And the hope here is that it inspires others to do the same.

As we say goodbye to this vibrant man, I can’t help but be reminded of a card I read many years ago that has always stuck with me. It went something like this:

“Many years from now it won’t matter how much was in your bank account, the house you lived in or the car you drove. What WILL matter is that the world may be better because you made a difference in the life of a child.”

If that is the definition of a successful life, and I think it is, Craig Willinger, you were a smash hit!

Thank you for the lesson, the laughs but mostly for being a difference maker.

You will never be forgotten.

If you care to make a donation to the Craig Willinger Fund click here and thanks for your consideration.