As noted in the Sunday Blitz in recent weeks, Atlanta, which enacted a major roster purge last offseason, faces some more difficult decisions on veteran players after this year, as the Falcons attempt to chart a solid course for rebounding from a dismal 2013 campaign that saw an incredible collapse.
But one veteran about whom the Atlanta brass seems to have already made up its mind is tailback Steven Jackson, who will fall far short of his usual 1,000-yard output in a year marked by a hamstring injury and inconsistent blocking in front of him. The Atlanta brain trust certainly seems ready to ignore the fact that Jackson is now 30 years old, the dreaded age for most runners, and will be 31 by the time training camp starts next summer.
Coach Mike Smith, apparently chalking up Jackson’s “down” year to the injury, generally poor line play, and the fact the Falcons have trailed in so many games in 2013 (limiting the tailback’s opportunities), said last week that he has “no doubt” the 10-year veteran can remain a productive player. “He’s gotten into the swing of the running game the last four or five weeks,” Smith said.
Added offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter: “There have been circumstances that affected (Jackson), but we’re starting to see him play like we’ve been accustomed to. He’s just about over the (hamstring) and it shows.”
Granted, Jackson has been better as he reaches full recovery from the hamstring, especially in the past three games. But although he averaged 64.7 yards in those three outings, after averaging only 36.4 yards over his first seven starts (he missed four full games with the injury), Jackson hasn’t improved quite as much as the Falcons suggest.
Yeah, he’s demonstrated more power, as graphically illustrated when he absolutely pancaked Washington cornerback Josh Wilson at the goal-line last week. But his average over the last three games isn’t significantly better (3.6 yards) than it was in his first seven games (3.4 yards). And he’s now gone a career-worst 15 straight starts without a 100-yard outing. Jackson late last week cited notching his first 100-yard game of the season (and since last November) as his biggest goal for the final two games of 2013. But on Monday night, he faces a San Francisco defense that hasn’t permitted a 100-yard individual game all year. And the finale against Carolina on Dec. 29 is versus another stingy defensive unit.
But Jackson, signed as a free agent in the offseason to replace the jettisoned Michael Turner as Atlanta’s starting tailback, is conceding nothing.
“I’m back running hard and physical,” he said, “and not worried about anything that’s come (beforehand). I’m just looking at the present, what’s left and what I can do to help this team now and (in 2014).”
There have been some suggestions locally that Jackson might not project into the team’s future. Perhaps that’s true of the long-term future – as noted, he will be 31 next July, so it’s hard to look beyond next season – but the former St. Louis star and three-time Pro Bowl performer sure looks like he’ll be back for ’14. His salary for next year ($3 million, with $500,000 of that guaranteed) and cap number ($4.17 million), on the three-year, $12 million deal he signed in the spring, are really not unpalatable for a starting back. Sure, looking ahead to 2015 is tricky, since Jackson will be 32, will have a salary of $3.75 million and cap charge of nearly $5 million, but one more season seems projectable.
The problem for the Falcons, if they released Jackson, are twofold: First, backups Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling and Antone Smith (currently injured) are role-players who probably aren’t big threats to carry 20 times in a game. And while the 20-carry benchmark is diminished anymore in the league, it’s still important to have a back with at least the potential for such a workload. Second, at least on the surface, Jackson seems to be a good fit for what Koetter wants to do offensively. The exit of Turner confirmed what everyone seemed to already understand, but which the club never acknowledged, that Atlanta is no longer a downhill power-oriented offense, but needs a more versatile back, capable of catching the ball, too.
In his prime, Jackson was such a back. And unless the Falcons unearth a back in the draft – it’s highly unlikely they would sign one again as a free agent – Jackson might be the most optimum fit. He might not be in his prime anymore, and, despite all the excuses, that seemed evident in 2013. But it also seems the Falcons, as they prepare for another likely round of paring notable veterans, are keen on bringing Jackson back for another season in 2014. And ready to see if 2013 was the aberration for him the team’s brass suggests it was for the rest of the organization.
*Arguably, the most public attention San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks commanded in 2013 might have been when he was fined $15,750 by the league for a hit on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. The sanctions, which were considered dubious by a lot of players and fans, drew considerable criticism of the NFL brass. The second most attention paid the eight-year veteran? Maybe when he opined that Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III shouldn’t be playing (he’s since been shut down, of course) because, opined Brooks, he wasn’t nearly 100 percent physically. But there are those who suggest that Brooks is having his best NFL season and merits a close look because of his on-field performance.
“He gets overlooked,” Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He can do so much. I don’t know why some people don’t realize how good he is.” Brooks, 30, has career highs in tackles (56), sacks (8.5) and passes defensed (seven) with two games left to play. He might not be quite as explosive off the edge as outside partner Aldon Smith, but he has developed into a technically sound pass rusher and two-way defender. Each of the other three San Francisco starting linebackers – Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Smith – has been to the Pro Bowl. It’s not a given that Brooks, overshadowed by his teammates, will even get a sniff this season, albeit his strong performance. But Bowman is among those who feel he should be considered.
“The rest of the guys are so good,” Bowman said, “that people take him for granted. But watch him play and you realize he’s good at so many aspects of the game.” Brooks may have been at his best when Smith was in rehab for alcohol abuse. Since Smith’s return, he’s probably more in the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean Brooks has just shuffled off stage left. The former University of Virginia star entered the NFL as a third-round choice of the Bengals in the 2006 supplemental draft after a problem-filled college tenure. The Bengals kept him for only two seasons before releasing him, and he was quickly claimed by the 49ers in 2008. He was one of the leftovers that Jim Harbaugh inherited from predecessor Mike Singletary. Smith has termed him “the perfect complement,” and Brooks has evolved not only into that, but into a really good player in his own right as well.
*Last week, the Sunday Blitz noted the idea that the NFL’s competition committee could consider narrowing the goal posts for the first time in league history, from the 18-feet, 6-inch width they have always been, and the idea was raised again after the Monday night performance of Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker, whose 61-yard game-winner at Detroit was one of his sixth field goal conversions. But two members of the competition committee told NFP last week that, while the idea has been casually proposed by some, and might actually get an airing when the influential group huddles in Florida in advance of the NFL’s annual meeting in March, it isn’t likely to fly.
“It’s not to the critical point yet, I don’t think,” one member said. “I don’t know if you penalize a position just for excellence. We’ll see how (things go) over the next season or two.” Kickers are converting field goals at a record rate, 86.1 percent going into the weekend, which would outdistance the old record of 84.5 percent. There are 13 kickers who have converted 90 percent or more of their attempts, and there have been 86 successful kicks of 50 yards or more, including Matt Prater’s record 64-yarder a few weeks ago.
“Nothing’s automatic,” said the competition committee veteran, “but you’re surprised anymore when a guy misses from 40 yards or (closer). Kickers are just better, you know? But I still don’t think that it warrants a change (of the goalposts).”
*Detroit tailback Reggie Bush had the best intentions last week when he agreed that the Lions are an undisciplined bunch, but that coach Jim Schwartz isn’t to blame for the team’s lack of attention. But the supposedly innocent remarks, meant as an endorsement for the embattled coach, whose team appears to have squandered a golden opportunity in a diluted division no one seems to want to win, may have backfired. Word is that Detroit management turned a keen ear to Bush’s statement, and that some executives regarded it more as an indictment of Schwartz than the vote of support it was meant to be. One of the league’s brightest guys, and a coach who utilized computers and advanced metrics back when he was a defensive coordinator, when it wasn’t as fashionable as it is now, Schwartz could be the guy who pays for the rash of penalties, turnovers and inexplicable screw-ups by a Lions team that management feels possesses playoff-level talent. General manager Martin Mayhew, who seems to have done a good job, could come under scrutiny, too.
*How big a breakout season has it been for Cleveland second-year wide receiver Josh Gordon? Despite sitting out the first two games because of a suspension from the league, and playing with an inconsistent quarterback situation, the former supplemental draft choice leads the league in receiving yards (1,467), average yards per catch (19.8), most receptions of 20 yards or more (25) and also of 40 yards or more (nine). Notable is that Gordon has five straight outings with at least one reception of 40 or more yards, combining for seven during that stretch.
“When you miss time,” Gordon told NFP, “it makes you hungry to make up for the lost chances and it makes you humble and anxious to help (the team). And I think I’ve grown as a player and a person.”
With two games remaining, Gordon can become the first NFL player to post more than 10 receptions of 40-plus yards since Randy Moss had 14 during his 1998 rookie campaign with the Minnesota Vikings. Since 2000, there have been five players – Torry Holt (2000), Santana Moss (2005), DeSean Jackson (2009), Mike Wallace (2010) and Calvin Johnson (2011) – with 10 grabs of 40 or more yards in a year. So how likely is Gordon to add to his 40-yard total? He faces the Jets on Sunday, with New York having permitted 15 such catches, third most in the league in 2013. Then he finishes the season at Pittsburgh, which has allowed 12 long bombs this year, including two to Gordon (47 and 42 yards) on Nov. 24.
*Much has already been written about the looming salary cap problems for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014, and there will be plenty more attention paid to it once the club concludes a second straight year without a playoff berth. But for now, the team, which has already started crunching numbers, is hopeful that coming into compliance with the $126.3 million cap (that was the spending limit recently floated to owners, although it’s expected to be a little higher) won’t include the release of linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
The seven-year veteran is under contract through the 2016 season, at salaries of $8 million in 2014 ($13.6 million cap), $8.5 million for 2015 ($14.1 million cap charge) and $9 million ($12 million cap). The 29-year-old Woodley, who has suffered through injuries the past couple years and recently went on I.R., has only nine sacks the last two seasons. He hasn’t had double-digit sacks since 2010, his third straight year with 10 or more. But venerable defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau still feels Woodley has something left in the tank and wouldn’t mind continuing in 2014 to fiddle with a rush alignment that includes Woodley, current sack leader Jason Worilds and 2013 first-rounder Jarvis Jones.
Of course, to do so, the Steelers have to conjure up a way to keep Woodley and stop the emerging Worilds from departing as an unrestricted free agent. No small feat, to be sure, but the Steelers feel that some retirements, adjustments to veteran contracts (like that of safety Troy Polamalu?) and addressing the contract status of Ben Roethlisberger will help staunch the projected overage. Pittsburgh has been in a kind of “cap jail” for a few years now but, the current surplus aside, club officials think the situation can be resolved in another year or two.
*Fifteen-year veteran Denver cornerback Champ Bailey is set to try to come back from injuries for the third time in 2013, and seems confident he can contribute to the Broncos’ push for a Super Bowl title.
“It’s been so hard sitting, but I feel as good as I have all season, and think I’m ready,” Bailey said.
Battling a foot injury since the preseason, along with some other ailments, Bailey has appeared in only three games and played a total of about 8-9 quarters. Before this injury-marred season, the 12-time Pro Bowl defender hadn’t played in fewer than nine games since tearing up his knee in 2008, an injury that limited him to nine games. At age 35 – he’ll be 36 in the summer – there have been some whispers that perhaps Bailey might retire and start the clock ticking for his Hall of Fame eventual induction. But at least for now, he insisted, that notion hasn’t entered his mind.
What also hasn’t occurred to Bailey, apparently, is the idea that he might move inside to safety, as some of the great corners have done late in their careers. Said Bailey: “I still feel like a cornerback, mentally and physically.” When he signed his latest extension, a four-year add-on in 2011, it was thought that the Broncos would structure the contract with the design of eventually switching Bailey inside, but that wasn’t the case. Bailey still has two more seasons remaining on the deal, at base salaries of $9.5 million each for 2014 and 2015. The cap charge is reduced a bit in both seasons, about $10.8 million in ’14 and $10 million for ’15, from previous levels. But that’s still more than a 36-year-old safety would earn, so the Broncos still consider Bailey a cornerback. With all the injuries this season, the club’s thinking could change in the offseason. For now, though, the coaches seem ready to welcome Bailey back to a decimated secondary, to see if he can contribute in the postseason.
*With the news that Marcus Mariota had submitted a request to the NFL’s advisory panel for an assessment of his draft stock, NFL scouts continue to hope the Oregon quarterback will change his mind about staying in school. Mariota said through a university spokesman his stance hasn’t changed, but scouts have not stopped evaluating him, in case he does flip-flop and opt to make himself available in the draft. . . . Here’s how bad a season it’s been for the Falcons: At the team’s Dec. 15 home game against Washington, club officials rewarded one whole section at the Georgia Dome by distributing free scratch-off tickets from the Georgia state lottery. Turns out the tickets were from 2011 and were expired. . . . The 15 “modern-day” finalists for the Hall of Fame class of 2014 will be announced Jan. 9. Ballots were due in Canton last Friday. . . . Lions defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley have combined for 16 penalties this season. . . . Although the draft will not be held until May, the so-called “league year,” which lifts the trade moratorium and starts the beginning of free agency, begins March 11. . . . The Chip Kelly offense has gotten the lion’s share of attention in Philadelphia, and deservedly so. But the defense of coordinator Bill Davis, with a few exceptions, has played far better than anyone felt it would and deserves plenty of credit. Davis has emphasized takeaways and the Eagles have responded by creating turnovers in 10 straight contests. A team that was a league-worst minus-24 in turnover differential a year ago is plus-9 now. . . . For now, there is nothing to the rumor of Jon Gruden leaving the Monday Night Football booth to return to the Oakland sidelines. In fact, Raiders insiders insist that Oakland owner Mark Davis, unlike his late father, would prefer to exercise some patience with incumbent coach Dennis Allen. But, the sources caution, that could change in the next couple weeks. . . . In a season of excellent performances, many NFL people feel that the jobs done by Joe Philbin in Miami and Arizona’s Bruce Arians have been extraordinary. Arians has kept in contention a Cardinals team whose talent level might not be as good as its record. Philbin has remained resilient in Miami in the face of the Jonathan Martin incident and, barring a collapse, will take the Dolphins to the playoffs. . . . Washington and Dallas, who meet this week, are at opposite ends of the division spectrum. The Cowboys have not lost an NFC East game and the Redskins haven’t won one.
*With the 47-yard interception return by free safety Eric Berry against Oakland last week, Kansas City may have signaled that it’s getting back to the takeaways-into-touchdowns mindset that marked its 9-0 start. The Chiefs are plus-109 points in differential on points scored and surrendered as a result of turnovers. They’ve scored 133 points after takeaways and allowed just 24 points following turnovers. No one else is close to that plus-109 number. The next closest team in points differential is Seattle, at plus-73. In the 22-year stretch 1991-2012, only three teams – New England in 2010 (plus-115), Minnesota in ’98 (plus-104) and Washington in ’91 (plus-102) – were over 100 points in differential. The average for the 22-season stretch was plus-81.9 points.