Category: News


Dominic_RaiolaWhat year is it? Oh, it’s 2013? Good to know, because Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola set us back a few years today before and after the Lions began their game against the Green Bay Packers.

The Wisconsin Band, one of the best in the nation I must say, typically performs for at least one Packers home game during the season. As someone who grew up across the street from three boys who have ALL played the tuba and marched in the band I am very familiar with this tradition and I have seen numerous pictures of them during these events. In fact, my best friend even got to do a Lambeau Leap into the crowd after his performance (a childhood dream for any die hard Packer fan). The Packer faithful love the band, and the band loves performing at these events. It is truly a win-win, but that wasn’t the case today thanks to Raiola.

According to a Wisconsin tuba player, Raiola and his teammates were engaged in their pregame warm-ups on the field near the goal line when he turned around and called him and the other tubas “Fat mother f**kers” and told them that “they sucked.” According to that tuba player no one in the band had done anything to provoke him, and no other band members I spoke with witnessed anything that could have provoked Raiola. The tuba player I spoke with made sure to point out that the rest of the band hadn’t even been on the field yet, and none of the tuba players said anything to him, so no one in the band could have provoked Raiola prior to him making those comments.

As the band was preparing to play the National Anthem another band member told me Raiola was yelling at him, saying such things such as “Hey fat guy, you want a hot dog?” When this band member did not acknowledge him, he continued to yell at other band members within earshot of him until the band began to play. A third band member told me Raiola was calling a band member near him a “fat fu**” prior to their pregame performance as well.

After the band’s halftime performance multiple band members I spoke with told me he and multiple other band members vividly heard Raiola ridicule a trombone player’s weight while they were performing. One band member reported hearing a female member of the band say “Hey number 51,” referring to Raiola, which multiple band members told me he responded to by calling her “the c-word” as they were walking back to their seats.

This is all in addition to this facebook status which has been shared 243 times as of this writing:

Zach York Facebook Status

According to this band member Raiola made comments regarding his sexuality, as well as other insults involving his sister and recently deceased mother. An additional band member confirmed this story, adding that one such insult was “[Raiola] was going to take his trumpet and shove it up his sister’s p***y” in addition to Raiola “repeatedly calling him a f*g.” According to this band member “as soon as we stopped for our position to play the National Anthem I just heard [Raiola] yelling continually at him.”  Multiple other members of the band reported hearing Raiola uttering homophobic slurs throughout his unprovoked denigrating of the students prior to the National anthem.

This is a developing story and as I confirm more information regarding this story I will be sure to update this post. Raiola, 34, is the longtime starting center for the Detroit Lions. He was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2001 NFL Draft and has been a regular starter since the 2002 season. He played college football at the University of Nebraska.

It is worth noting that while Raiola’s comments were completely uncalled for, a band member confirmed to me that Lions safety Louis Delmas apologized to him and other members of the band for Raiola’s actions and assured them that he had spoken with him about it. He also added that he enjoyed their performance.

Update: 11:31 am CT 10/7/13

For those asking, I have emailed the Lions director of Media Relations for comment and have not heard back as of this time. At least one other writer has attempted to reach them for comment and has not heard yet back either.

Update: 11:37 am CT 10/7/13

The Lions have issued a statement, this is via Chris McCosky of Detroit News and DetroitNews.com:
@cmccosky: Lions statement on Raiola: “Those reports are extremely inconsistent with the standard of behavior we expect from our players.”
@cmccosky: More from Lions: “We currently are gathering more information and will respond further when appropriate.”

Update: 11:48 CT 10/7/13

Jay Sorgi (@jsorgi) interviewed the father of a band member who witnessed it, listen to the interview and read his article on it here: http://www.jrn.com/tmj4/green-bay-packers/Report-Lions-player-tosses-epithets-at-UW-Band-during-Packers-game-226755831.html

Update: 12:05 CT 10/7/13

My colleague Jeff Risdon weighs in on the Raiola comments: http://www.detroitlionsdraft.com/2013/10/raiola-and-the-band/

Update: 12:20 pm CT 10/7/13

Jay Sorgi interviews a band member who heard the comments Raiola made: http://www.jrn.com/tmj4/green-bay-packers/Report-Lions-player-tosses-epithets-at-UW-Band-during-Packers-game-226755831.html

Update: 1:53 pm CT 10/8/13

Dominic Raiola has issued an apology. Here is the link courtesy of Jay Sorgi: http://www.jrn.com/tmj4/green-bay-packers/Lions-player-apologizes-for-attacks-UW-Band-members-during-Packers-game-226935431.html

Update: 1:58 pm CT 10/8/13

This will likely be the final update, Pro Football Talk is reporting that the Lions will not discipline Raiola and that he is making a donation to the Wisconsin Band program. No word on how much money he is donating. http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2013/10/08/dominic-raiola-donates-to-wisconsin-band-wont-be-disciplined-2/

Johnny Manziel: Enough Is Enough

First of all, I just want to say that I am a little frustrated with myself for even writing this article. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject of Johnny Manziel and the outrageous attention he has been receiving this offseason, and as a result I am very passionate on the subject. But as much as I have wanted to write this article for the past few weeks, I also regret doing it because it is just adding to the list of articles and news stories talking about him, and that is not something I am proud of doing. I am proud of what I have written here, but I am not proud of continuing to excessively discuss Manziel and everything that has happened to him. I think we have gone beyond overkill, and I think we all as members of the media and society need to take a step back and think about what we are doing and the impact it could have. However, in order to do that, I must talk about myself a bit to help create some context for why I think the way I do.

It seems pretty clear to me that Manziel is overwhelmed by everything that has happened to him, and I can’t say I blame him one bit. I am a NFL Draft analyst and I pride myself on finding potential stars or breakout players before the season starts, and even a week or two into the season I had never heard of Johnny Manziel. In that sense, watching him play and develop over the course of the season was beautiful to me. I didn’t see it coming at all, and that was refreshing. As I strive longer and harder to turn covering or participating in football into my long term career I am finding that making football my job removes a little bit of the fun from watching it. I can’t help but look up players I have never watched before when they make a play that sticks out to me. I can’t help but analyze the plays as they unfold, and I find it harder and harder to turn off the scout inside me and just watch the game to enjoy it. In a weird way, that is why I think I, in some miniscule way, understand what Manziel is attempting to grapple with.

Let me be very clear: I have never played a down of organized football. I worked for Beloit College’s football team for three years doing film work while I attended the school, but I have never played. I realize that makes what I just asserted seem completely ridiculous, but I have no interest in deceiving people by making them think that I too was a superbly talented quarterback who had to struggle to comprehend and control his own fame. That has never happened to me. However, I did grow up in affluent suburb called Edina in the state of Minnesota and I think I understand, in very small way, how Manziel has grown up. I lived in the same house for my entire life until two years ago when my parents told me they were getting a divorce. I visited during my school’s October break my senior year of college and everything was the same. My parents were clearly unhappy, my basketball hoop was still intact in the backyard, and all of my possessions were in my room or downstairs in front of our big screen TV. I was happy with things remaining the way they were, but I knew they wouldn’t be that way for long. When I came back for Thanksgiving just a month later my mom had moved into a new house 30 minutes away in the country and my dad had moved into an apartment ten minutes away, but still in the city of Edina. My house was empty and on the market, and I felt like I was robbed of the chance to say goodbye to it. It was my own fault for not doing so ahead of time, but I still I felt like I had missed the chance to pack up all of my things one possession at a time, reminisce about all the memories I had made in that house, and then make my peace as I moved on with my life. When I go home I still drive by my old house, thinking about all the memories I made living there for over 21 years of my life, and how lucky I was to have not had to move out of my family home until I had nearly graduated from college. But this clarity and perception of what was happening has only come to me after having been removed from that time period, and I am hopeful that the same will be true for Manziel, though by then I am afraid it might be too late.

Let me pose you all a question. How often after a tragic event happens to a celebrity or someone who is perceived to “have it all” do we all say “it’s always the happy ones” or “no one saw it coming”? I did not anticipate Junior Seau, a Hall of Fame linebacker with thousands of adoring fans, committing suicide as he unsuccessfully grappled with his life post-football. The point is, it’s not “always the happy ones,” it is always the ones that are perceived as happy from the outside, from fans, and from the media. As unfortunate as this is, Wright Thompson’s brilliant article on Manziel and his family have made it obvious: A tragic event may be coming. There are signs, the writing is on the wall, and yet no one is letting up. Everyone who writes about him continues to push him further and further to the brink. Why? Because he won a Heisman trophy? Because he tries to escape his own persona by living a normal college life? Because he makes mistakes??

I realize many people think Manziel is spoiled, and as a result have absolutely no sympathy for him. After all, he and his family are wealthy, if he wants something he can buy it, and even if he doesn’t succeed as a NFL quarterback he likely won’t ever be working two low-paying jobs just to pay the electric bill. But isn’t there an old adage that money doesn’t buy happiness, or did I just make that up? Just because you or I – complete outsiders as it pertains to Johnny Manziel’s life – think to ourselves, “Wow, if I had everything he has then I would be very happy with my life,” doesn’t mean that Manziel is happy. That likely has everything to do with his perspective as well as your own, but I don’t think there is anyone who has read an article about him that would argue that he doesn’t seem like he is troubled, or perhaps even deeply troubled. I have no proof of this, but I believe Manziel is partying and trying to have fun to escape the reality that he has stumbled into. And you know what? I don’t blame him. I’ve never been under nearly the same microscope that Manziel has been under, and yet I have gone out and partied to try to deal with the stresses of my life in a similar, albeit likely less extravagant, fashion. This all dawned on me over this past weekend that I spent in Madison, Wisconsin with my best friend since I was in middle school.

I woke up on Friday, July 26th and as I do most days I got up, grabbed my phone, and checked Twitter. I tend to get on Twitter and read my timeline like a personalized newspaper, catching up on things that may have happened over the hours that I was sleeping. It may seem ridiculous, but there have been many nights I have gone to bed at 2:00 or even 3:00 am and woken up the next morning behind on a story regarding a suspension, an arrest, or even at times, a death. That was the case on the morning of July, 30th when I woke up and saw an ESPN alert that Texas A&M’s Polo Manukainiu, and incoming Utah Ute Gaius Vaenuke had tragically lost their lives in a one vehicle accident.

However, last Friday, something much different happened. I looked at my Twitter notifications and to my shock and awe David Pollack, an ESPN analyst and member of the College Football Gameday crew, had followed me on Twitter. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was to me. I watched Pollack dominate the SEC as a Georgia linebacker as I was growing up, and I watched him blossom into a very good NFL player prior to his career ending neck injury. I was relieved to see him land on his feet with ESPN and continue to be involved with football, something not all football players manage to do after their careers end whether on their own terms or someone else’s. Not only was I honored to have him follow me at all, but he was just shy of 95,000 followers (he has since exceeded that total) and follows under 100 people. It absolutely blew my mind, and I really couldn’t wrap my head around it. I immediately texted my best friend, asked him what he was doing this weekend, and in minutes it was decided that I would be heading up to Madison, Wisconsin – one of the country’s greatest college towns – to hang out with him on his last full weekend before he went back to school. I needed to get away and share the absurdity not only of David Pollack following me on Twitter, but of Bomani Jones, a man I have been reading and watching on ESPN First Take since I was in high school (if not longer) following me on Twitter two weeks beforehand. I may not have been Johnny Manziel but, not to toot my own horn, I felt like I was getting popular on Twitter. I began to think about whether or not I should get a personal account for my high school and college friends to interact with me on, something I never thought I would do, that I honestly thought was a ridiculously egotistical thing for anyone to do when I first created my NFL Draft Blog and Twitter account. “Why would I ever need a personal account and a professional one? Will I ever be that egomaniacal?” It seemed absurd to me, and yet here I was, contemplating the very thing that just a few years ago I practically swore I would never take myself seriously enough to do.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, the craziness did not end there. I went out with my best friend and some of his friends from college and had a great night. It really helped me get out of my own head. I woke up at 8:00 am the next morning, and while my friend slept in the other room, I began working on my Arkansas Razorbacks prospect preview by watching their entire Spring Game on YouTube prior to watching the games I have on my external hard drive. I completed my evaluations of about half of the players that I wanted to include in the preview, but decided to delve deeper into my evaluation of Travis Swanson, Arkansas’ highly touted senior center prospect who I have seen regarded as the top center in this class. He has all the size, football IQ and leadership capability you could want in a center, so without having scouted him it made sense that he would be discussed in such a way. However, upon watching him play I was disappointed. I expected a 1st or 2nd round player, but I felt like I was watching a 4th rounder. That shouldn’t sound like an insult (though I realize it likely comes off that way) because being drafted at all is a monumental accomplishment. I elected to tweet my thoughts about Swanson being a “mid-rounder”, not knowing what would ensue that afternoon.

A local TV reporter in Arkansas happened to see my tweet and in his response he casually mentioned that my opinion of Swanson seemed to fly in the face of what the Razorbacks’ new head coach, Bret Bielema, seemed to think of the senior center. We had a brief, civil discussion, and as a result I received tweets from a few Arkansas fans eager for me to further explain my position. Understandably so. I continued to watch Arkansas games to further improve my evaluation of Swanson as well as the rest of his teammates that I was including in the preview, when all of a sudden I saw a new interaction pop up on Twitter. I paused the game, opened the Twitter tab on my laptop, and to my complete surprise, Bret Bielema had seen the tweet, looked at my Twitter page and sent a response. Without quoting it directly, he essentially insinuated that because I was a “former” draft analyst at the web site NFL Draft Monsters (where I cut my teeth in my coverage of the NFL Draft) my opinion should not be trusted, and that his evaluation of his center was correct. I was not offended by this, rather I enjoyed the confrontation and another insinuation that I simply didn’t know what I was talking about. I thrive in those situations as Alex Holmes and his family found out when they attacked my credibility as it pertained to my evaluation of his brother, Khaled Holmes, after I projected him as a 4th round draft pick in June 2012 prior to his being drafted in the 4th round of the 2013 draft. I simply couldn’t believe that Bielema, the former head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers (whose town I was staying in for the weekend) and the new head man of an SEC football team had taken the time to look at my Twitter profile and respond to my tweet, even if it wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence in my skills as a draft analyst. I respectfully responded and, as I expected, received no response from him, but that didn’t stop a number of angry Arkansas fans from calling me a hater, looking through my past scouting reports to find guys that I had missed on, or simply telling me I had no idea what I was talking about. My phone went off with new tweets for the rest of the afternoon, as well as text messages from friends who thought it was absolutely hilarious that I had ruffled Bielema’s feathers enough to get a response out of him.

As the night wore on I went out to have some fun and get my mind off of this new Twitter interaction, and after a couple particularly specific shots at my credibility I responded to a couple of angry Arkansas fans in a less than professional manner. I didn’t swear at them, but I did use a heavy dose of sarcasm and I was less than nice to them. I was tired of being attacked, particularly since they hadn’t even gotten to read my analysis of Swanson because I hadn’t even written it yet! The next night I again went out with my friends and had fun, but unfortunately got in an argument with a Vikings fan who disagreed with my selection of David Fales in a Twitter mock draft I had been participating in. He wasn’t being very respectful, and I was pretty short on patience after my bout with the unhappy Arkansas fans the day before, so I wasn’t very respectful back. It was just another ridiculous Twitter interaction, and I was starting to get overwhelmed by the whole thing. This was capped off beautifully by gaining a number of influential followers who were beat writers or reporters in Arkansas and Kentucky following discussion of the Razorback prospects and the release of my Kentucky Wildcats prospect preview on Monday, July 29th. That same day, I was followed by Chris Smith and Trey Flowers, two very talented starting defensive ends on the Razorbacks, just days after their coach insinuated I wasn’t exactly credible. The brightest moment of all was, without a doubt, one of my all time favorite players, Alge Crumpler, following me on Twitter. Crumpler was a star tight end on the Falcons back when Mike Vick was on the team, and I have been a huge fan of his for at least the past ten years. Seeing him finally follow me on Twitter was a huge moment for me, and yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds. But later, to top it all off, I got dragged into a pissing match that a New York Post beat writer found himself in after mistakenly tweeting about the read option being a formation, rather than just a play. If you had told me on Thursday night when I went to bed that within the next four days I would be followed by all those people, tweeted at by Bielema and involved in any of those absurd arguments, I would have told you that you were crazy.  And yet…here I was.

I am telling you all of this not to try to put you to sleep, not to try to act like I am a hot shot, but to get all of this off my chest in what I consider to be a safe space on my blog. I may not be proud of this, but all of that overwhelmed me. I began to realize that I couldn’t just tweet whatever I wanted without ever having to face the consequences of the things or people I was tweeting about seeing my thoughts. I finally understood that I had to be more professional on Twitter, and though I had learned those lessons previously, I had never learned them as intensely as I had this particular weekend. And finally, I am telling you this because this is the context that I needed to paint for you so that I could prove to you that in some miniscule, fraction of a way, I think I understand how Johnny Manziel feels.

I have spent thousands of words trying to explain why I think I understand how Manziel feels, and yet even as I type it that sounds ridiculous to me, as I’m sure it sounds just as ridiculous to all of you. Yet I still believe it anyway. I have not felt the pressure he has, nor have I been attacked the way he has been, but on a microscopic level I have experienced a small fraction of what he has. I have let my frustrations get the better of me after reading too many negative tweets, I have lashed out at people who I felt have criticized me unfairly, and I have tried to get away from it all by surrounding myself with trusted friends who, as much as I want them to, didn’t understand what I was going through. Doesn’t that sound, just a little bit, like what Manziel is dealing with?

I have spent a lot of time trying to legitimize my claim that I get where Manziel is coming from, but now it’s time to delve deeper into what he is dealing with. It is clear to me that Manziel has stumbled into this fame without knowing exactly what to do with it, and before he knew it, partially because he was barred from interacting with the media per Kevin Sumlin’s coaching policy, Johnny Football took off and no one got to know the man behind the mask. I see people criticizing his maturity, lambasting him for poor decision making, and shredding him for how he carries himself. I see people call him cocky, arrogant, spoiled, and various other adjectives. But how many of you reading this had your life figured out at 20 years old? How many of you were vastly more mature than Manziel is at the ripe old age of 20? I certainly wasn’t. I might have thought I was at the time, but I like to think I’m smart enough now to realize that I wasn’t. I made mistakes. I screwed up. But most importantly, I learned from it. I can’t speak to whether Manziel is learning from it or not, but for his sake I hope he is. And if he hasn’t yet, I have faith that as he gets older and hopefully wiser that he will.

So is Johnny Manziel just a kid too immature for the fame he has stumbled into? Or is he a metaphor for all of college football and our society in general? We have this very talented 20 year old kid who we should be cherishing for his mesmerizing play on the football field, yet all we ever talk about is him going to courtside basketball games, going to fraternity parties, putting up pictures on instagram or tweeting things he should probably keep to himself. He is making Texas A&M and the NCAA millions of dollars, he helped Kevin Sumlin get a $1 million raise, and Texas A&M is building a new stadium, yet all Manziel has gotten out of the deal is largely unwanted limelight and near constant attacks on the content of his character. Not that he needs the money, but he is clearly a precious product on the field, yet he benefits from his performances much less than those running the show around him. He is such a bright light on the field, yet all the attention he receives off of it threatens to smother that light until it burns out. As a society and as a collective media shouldn’t we at least consider giving him a break?

Maybe it’s not fair to think that someone who has achieved so much at such a young age should even have a chance for, much less deserve, a break like that. But the more I hear about Manziel the more I keep thinking back to Ryan Leaf. Leaf was considered arrogant to a point that people disliked him, he was consistently getting in trouble off the field, and after he retired a complete disappointment he was indicted on burglary and controlled-substance charges in Texas in May of 2009. In March of 2012 he was arrested on burglary, theft and drug charges in his home town of Great Falls, Montana. Then, four days later, he was arrested again on burglary, theft and two counts of criminal possession of dangerous drugs. He was sentenced to seven years in custody of the Montana Department of Corrections, but he continued to cause trouble, including threatening a staff member and violating the conditions of his drug treatment placement. He was clearly a very troubled young man, and he never got his life together. As a result, he ended up in jail. Can’t you say similar things about Jamarcus Russell? Or Maurice Clarett?

Yes, they brought this on themselves, and Manziel has brought this on himself as well, but even in spite of all he has accomplished, all the fame he “enjoys” every day, and all the money he could potentially make, I feel bad for him. He clearly doesn’t want all of this attention if you ask me. I think he wants to be a normal college kid, and I think he wants to be able to have fun and play football. But his immense success has taken that away from him, and that’s something that is hard for people to understand. They see him win games and they see him partying and think “wow, that kid has it all” but I think he parties to try to escape his own celebrity, or to at least try to wrangle it.  I think that way because I think that is exactly what I would do if I was in his shoes. The world is obsessed with “Johnny Football” the electrifying athlete who beat Alabama as a freshman, was the 5th player to ever pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 more in the same season, and the only freshman to ever win the Heisman trophy in the history of the award. But they do not know Johnny Manziel the person, they only know some of the infamous things he has done off the field while he tries to escape or hide from the insatiable demand for updates on his whereabouts or activities from any news outlet you can think of. I would bet you $1,000 that all Manziel wants right now is some time to himself with his friends, with his family, without having to worry about someone taking a picture of him having fun, and without having to worry about being swarmed by strangers trying to catch a glimpse of his greatness. It’s hard to explain, and even harder for a normal person to understand, but I think that sometimes when you want something so bad for so long and you finally stumble into it you realize that it isn’t exactly what you thought it would be and it’s harder to control than you ever could have imagined. I think Manziel is finding that out right now.

It is for that reason that I am hoping and begging all of you to collectively give Manziel a break. Will that actually happen? No, it almost certainly won’t. But amidst all the overzealous analysis of his character without ever having spoken a word to him, amidst all of the criticism of how he carries himself off the field, and amidst all of the constant discussion about him and his future I would feel remiss if I didn’t at least voice my opinion on the matter and say that I am worried about him. I am worried that as the attention he garners from the media continues to intensify it will push him closer and closer to the edge of the cliff, and I don’t know what is waiting for him if he falls off of it. Drugs? Alcoholism? Jail time? Death? I have no idea what it could be, but I know I am not alone in worrying about him now that I have read Thompson’s article, which involves his parents openly agonizing about what will happen to him if he doesn’t mature and if this pressure doesn’t let up. I don’t want to find out what happens to him either, so I am hoping that Manziel finds a way to block out the pressure, live his life, and mature. I’m only 23 years old and I can’t imagine the pressure he is under, and I can see minute similarities between him and myself aside from the major difference in athletic ability and fame. I still have a lot of growing up to do, and so does Manziel, especially because he is three years younger than I am. If I was in his position I would want people to cut me some slack, and even though from a NFL Draft perspective he is raising a lot of red flags, the last thing I am thinking about right now is his NFL Draft stock. I am more worried about him as a person, and if he can’t find a way to cope with all of this pressure I think he is going to crack like Ryan Leaf did, although perhaps not in the same exact manner.

When he officially declares for the NFL Draft we will cross that bridge and discuss his draft stock, but for now I’d rather just appreciate all of the talent he has and marvel at what he can do on the football field. Shouldn’t we enjoy what we have in Manziel before he is gone? And more importantly, shouldn’t we focus on the positives and try to give him the benefit of the doubt for some of his shortcomings? Wouldn’t you want someone, or everyone, to do that for you if you were in his position? Haven’t people given you second chances in life, looked past any of your shortcomings, and given you the benefit of the doubt? I know I have, and I still believe in the golden rule that you should treat others the way you want to be treated. So tell me, are you treating Manziel the way you would want to be treated if you were walking a mile in his shoes? If you aren’t, maybe you should reevaluate how you perceive his situation. Like most things, it’s not as black and white as “he’s a hero” or “he’s a villain.” He is just Johnny Manziel, and he deserves a break.

It seems like ages ago that I and many other Falcons fans were beginning to have that sickening feeling deep down inside: Will Mike Vick be able to lead the Falcons to a Super Bowl? For so many years I had debated and rationalized why Vick could and would be the quarterback to get the Falcons to their first Super Bowl since 1998, but with every year that passed with little to no progression from Vick and the same disappointing losses in the playoffs after the magical win over Brett Favre and the Packers at Lambeau Field I began to wonder if Vick had what it took to win a Super Bowl. It sounds like revisionist history now, but the year before Bobby Petrino was hired I had given up almost all hope. I wasn’t convinced that Vick was going to put the time in to improve and without that I was convinced the Falcons would keep losing in the playoffs to teams with the athleticism to keep Vick in the pocket and force him to make accurate, on time throws (like the Eagles, for example). Petrino was hired and I was very, very skeptical. He had just signed a 10 year, $25.6 million extension with the Cardinals that suggested he was getting significant interest from other schools and Louisville wanted to make an obvious commitment to him to fend them off. He signed  that contract on July 13th, 2006. On January 7th, 2007, not even a full 6 months after he signed a 10 year extension, he became the new Head Coach of the Atlanta Falcons. I thought he was a snake, but he had an impressive track record on the offensive side of the ball and Vick’s strong arm would seemingly be a great fit in his system. Then the entire team came crashing down after Vick was indicted on dog fighting charges and suddenly every Falcon fan was longing for the better days when Vick would drop his eyes before going through his progressions, scramble and somehow avoid a sack to extend a drive. As bad as that season was, I honestly thought it was a necessary cleanse. The Falcons never would have cut Vick with that contract unless something like that happened, and I was more than convinced the Falcons weren’t going to win a Super Bowl with Vick at the helm. If we wanted to win a Super Bowl, as hard as it was, we needed to get a new quarterback. I never really anticipated seeing Vick go that abruptly, but it opened the door to a bevy of possibilities. As we all know, Petrino confirmed my suspicions and ditched the Falcons and all of his players before the season was over (again, less than a year after he became the head coach) to accept the same position at Arkansas.

You might all be wondering what this has to do with this season’s Falcons. Vick hasn’t been on the roster for years, and most Falcon fans are glad they got rid of Petrino (myself included). But after so many years of wondering if we had a quarterback and a roster that could make a run at a Super Bowl, this year I truly believe that we can. The reason I’m writing this article, however, is because I believe that if we don’t win one this year we might not have another good chance for a few years.

Now you are probably really confused. “This team is 13-2 and they’re in the playoffs year in and year out with Mike Smith at the helm and Matt Ryan at quarterback. Who is this guy?” The answer to that question is I am a guy who has been advocating for the Falcons to draft a dynamic tight end to learn from Tony Gonzalez for three years to no avail. The answer to that question is I am a guy who has been begging the Falcons to draft a pass rusher who has the potential to replace John Abraham once he inevitably starts to slow down and become less effective. The answer to that question is I am a guy who has taken a look at the upcoming free agents the Falcons will have to try and re-sign this offseason, and it’s a significant list.

The Falcons team this year is a team that feels like a team that can win a Super Bowl to me though. They have gotten breaks when they’ve needed them, they have won close games without playing their best, and they have beaten teams that have given them issues in the past (most notably the New York Giants, but also the New Orleans Saints). Not only that, but they have evolved from a team that protects Matt Ryan with the running game to a team that throws the ball to compensate for Turner’s ineffectiveness that I hope will lead to his release this offseason. They have also evolved from a team that could barely stop anyone on defense to a team who forces a lot of turnovers and can win games with their defense. That is the biggest difference this year, and that is one reason why I think this is the year they need to win.

If the Falcons don’t win this year they are going to have some pieces to replace, some depth to replenish, and probably some front office personnel and coaches to replace. Mike Nolan has transformed this defense from a middle of the road defense into an aggressive, turnover forcing machine. I personally believe he has been one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL this year, if not the best. But now that he has done such a great job with the Falcons defense there are going to be teams that will consider giving him another shot at being a Head Coach, and he deserves those opportunities. But if the Falcons lose him their defense will not be the same. Their front office has done a great job drafting as of late as well, and that has led to David Caldwell reportedly garnering interest from teams that will need a new General Manager. Losing him would certainly be a significant blow to the Falcons front office.

On the field the Falcons have a lot of potential issues to manage as well. Brent Grimes is coming off of a serious Achilles injury that plenty of great athletes haven’t come all the way back from, and he is a free agent after the Falcons were unable to reach a long-term agreement with him on an extension that led to them using the franchise tag on him (and ultimately losing Curtis Lofton in free agency to the Saints). The Falcons likely won’t feel comfortable giving him a huge long term deal, and Grimes will want more than a one or two year trial contract. If they weren’t able to come to an agreement last year before his injury I don’t see any reason they will all of a sudden see eye to eye on his value this year. If you follow me on Twitter you are well aware that I am not a fan of Dunta Robinson and I would much rather have Grimes than Robinson, but Robinson already got a big contract and according to www.spotrac.com (@spotrac) he is due $8 million in 2013, $10 million in 2014 and $11.5 million in 2015. I would be very surprised if they paid him the final $21.5 million they owe him on that contract, but regardless of that they already have a lot of money tied up in him and probably aren’t ready to sign Grimes to a big contract after his injury even if he deserves to get paid much more than Robinson does.

Not only is Grimes a free agent, but Tony Gonzalez is a free agent and he is very likely going to retire. The Falcons are lucky to have had him for this long, and for some reason they wouldn’t draft a quality tight end prospect (I was pounding the table for Aaron Hernandez since I had a 1st round grade on him) to be his heir apparent. Well now they are faced with Gonzalez’ retirement and his back-up tight end is Michael Palmer. Palmer is not the long-term answer, and he’s certainly not going to replace Gonzalez’ impact on the passing game that Matt Ryan has gotten used to the last three years. On top of that, Sam Baker is an unrestricted free agent (UFA), his back-up Will Svitek is a UFA, old man river Todd McClure is a UFA, and William Moore is a UFA. Key reserves like Chris Hope and Mike Peterson are UFA’s as well. The Falcons don’t have a replacement on the roster for Grimes (though I have been very happy with how Robert McClain has played this year), Gonzalez, or William Moore, and McClure’s heir apparent Peter Konz has spent the majority of the year getting beat at right guard, including an embarrassing showing against Ndamukong Suh on Saturday night against the Lions.

There’s certainly nothing stopping the Falcons from retaining Baker, Svitek, Grimes, Moore, McClure, Hope and Peterson, but McClure and Peterson are getting very long in the tooth, Baker has been an average starter his entire career, Svitek isn’t the answer at left tackle, and I’ve already detailed some of the potential issues with locking Grimes up. These aren’t cornerstone players, but losing Grimes and Moore would be devastating long term for this secondary, and the Falcons’ offensive line isn’t good enough to deal with losing one or more starters without a significant upgrade. Not only that, but even though John Abraham is under contract through 2014 with a modest salary of $3.25 million for both 2013 and 2014 he is unlikely to continue to play at this high level for much longer and the Falcons have not secured a suitable replacement for him either. Lawrence Sidbury was drafted to hopefully develop into a quality pass rusher but he has been an absolute non-factor his entire career in Atlanta, and even though Jonathan Massaquoi has some upside he fell to the 6th round because his production dropped off considerably the year before he declared for the draft. Hopefully slimming back down to his sophomore weight will help him develop into a quality option, but I’m also not holding my breath for him to become the caliber of player that Abraham has been for the Falcons all these years. That means the Falcons will be facing some tough decisions this offseason, but luckily for them this draft class figures to have some high end tight end talent and has a bevy of pass rushing depth. The Falcons would be very wise to look at TE and DE in the first two rounds this year in my opinion.

I don’t mean to write a doom and gloom article, because it’s very conceivable that the Falcons retain the key free agents they need to sign and I would assume they will retain restricted free agents like Robert McClain, Vance Walker and Michael Palmer. But it’s also entirely possible that they balk at Grimes’ contract demands, lose Tony Gonzalez to retirement, and lose one or more of their quality free agents this upcoming offseason. The impact Gonzalez has can’t be understated, and if Abraham’s play starts to drop off the Falcons’ pass rush will be a serious problem that will only be rectified by daring blitz packages that will risk exposing the secondary in coverage.

So, long story short, the stars have aligned for the Falcons this year. The bounces are going their way, they have home field in the playoffs, Matt Ryan has plenty of weapons to throw to and the defense is the best it has been in years. Here’s hoping the Falcons go all the way this year, but if they don’t it could be a little while before they have a shot to go back.

Les Miles confirmed today that dynamic LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu has been dismissed from the football team “permanently” according to his press conference. According to Ben Allbright (@NFLDraftMonster) Mathieu has failed 3 drug tests at LSU, including one this past week. That is apparently what prompted this stern action from Les Miles and LSU as a whole. If it is true that he has failed 3 drug tests it is my understanding that he will not be eligible to simply transfer down to a FCS level team, play for a season, and then enter the NFL Draft. The handling of this situation from the school will be very important to keep an eye on, because if they do not level disciplinary action on him (in the form of a suspension, etc) then according to John Infante (@John_Infante) he would be eligible to use a one time transfer exception to transfer to a FCS school. So we have to wait to see what the school does, and then we will have a better idea of how this will play out.

This is certainly a stunning development, I myself am a big fan of Mathieu and have been touting him as a dynamic player since I watched him during his true freshman season two years ago. He became a well known star as a sophomore, but he tested positive for synthetic marijuana which resulted in a suspension from LSU during the season last year. That didn’t dissuade Mathieu from continuing to use marijuana and now he has been dismissed from the team. Regardless of your stance on marijuana use, there is no doubt that it is sad to see a young man with a bright future in front of him see it go off the rails because of positive drug tests. He’s still a talented player that should be drafted in the 4th round range because of his on-field ability, but if he doesn’t turn it around and stay clean at whatever school he goes to (or if he doesn’t stay out of trouble if he isn’t allowed to play anywhere at all) then NFL teams are going to be even more wary of taking a chance on him even if he is supremely talented.

I’m wishing him the best in his future endeavors, and I hope he has a chance to play at a FCS school this year, but more than that I hope he can find a way to stay clean to avoid further jeopardizing his chance at a successful NFL career.

I will update this article as more information comes out and more details of this story are confirmed. At this time, we know that Mathieu will not be back at LSU and will have to hope for a FCS transfer.

–Tom

**Update**

Reports are coming out that Tyrann Mathieu is transferring to McNeese State. I haven’t seen it confirmed by a major network like ESPN yet, but a photo came out of Mathieu allegedly from the McNeese State football facilities. I can’t say 100% that Mathieu will be at McNeese State, but that is what it looks like is going to happen. It makes sense because it is only 2 hours from LSU and only 3 hours from New Orleans where Mathieu is from. I’m glad Mathieu will be able to play this season (at least as far as we know right now) and attempt to rehabilitate his draft stock. Hopefully that goes better for Mathieu than it did for Janzen Jackson, who left after a year at McNeese State and went undrafted before signing with the Giants this offseason.

I will update this further as more information becomes available.

This is all that remains now that Joe Paterno’s statue has been removed from outside of Penn State’s football stadium.

As everyone with access to the internet, a cell phone, a television or newspaper is aware, the NCAA and Penn State negotiated severe sanctions for their football program in the wake of the scandal surrounding Jerry Sandusky’s serial child molestation case and the corresponding cover-up by the former Penn State President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Head Coach Joe Paterno. The sanctions were intense, including a $60 million fine to be paid over the course of the next five years, scholarship reductions including limiting the Penn State roster to 65 players for the next four seasons and limiting new Head Coach Bill O’Brien to only 15 players that he can sign to scholarships instead of the usual limit of 25. On top of that, Penn State faces a four year ban from bowl games and from the Big-10 championship game, and will be on probation for four seasons after the ban expires. As if that didn’t send a clear enough message, all of the 112 wins Joe Paterno and Penn State earned from the 1998 season through 2012 have been erased from the record books, removing Paterno as the all-time leader in wins in college football history. Ironically, the man who helped set this entire investigation in motion, Mike McQueary, was the last player to officially win a game as the starting quarterback at Penn State under Joe Paterno in 1997. Paterno’s wins have been erased, buildings named after him have been renamed, and the tailgating area has gone from “Paternoville” to “Nittanyville.” Oh yeah, and Paterno’s statue that previously stood as a reminder of all the incredible things he was able to accomplish and all the boys he was able to mold into men as head coach of the Penn State football program was removed, leaving only dirty, faded walls and jutting pieces of metal that previously anchored the statue of a fallen legend.

“Educator. Coach. Humanitarian.” He may have been the first two, but he certainly fell short of the third. Ultimately, Paterno turned out to be another cautionary tale about the corruptive tendencies of power, money and influence. He was considered to be the incorruptible face of morality and the poster boy of “winning the right way” in a time period where stories of recruiting scandals and underhanded dealings are the norm, even if they are rampantly underreported. He even went on an ESPN special with Coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke entitled “Difference Makers” in which the coaches talked about how they were able to build programs where they not only molded high school kids into men who could leave their institutions prepared to contribute in a positive way to society, but also win a lot of games and national championships while they did it.

It is hard for me to watch that special in the wake of this scandal because it is hard for me to imagine how Paterno could live out this damning of a lie. He went on a nationally televised special focusing on the importance of integrity and morality while he and other senior Penn State administrators were protecting a serial child rapist that used his football program and all the glitz and glamour that came with it like candy to lure at-risk children from his own charity into his metaphorical van. I can’t imagine how Paterno could walk by his own statue and not be consumed by guilt and shame. “Humanitarian.” What kind of a humanitarian listens to another man describe the sexual assault of anyone, much less a young child, happening in a Penn State facility and doesn’t immediately go to the police? What kind of humanitarian not only tells the administrators of the university but then later manipulates them into inaction in the name of self preservation?

Not only is it hard for me to watch the ESPN special that Paterno was a featured guest on, it is hard for me to watch even the most basic coverage of the sanctions levied against Penn State on ESPN because of Penn State alumni talking about these sanctions creating “new victims” because of the severity of the penalties. Let’s get one thing clear, the players, current coaches, new administrators and the students are innocent bystanders in this situation. Sandusky took advantage of everyone in that community, betraying everyone that trusted him with children and using his reputation as a caretaker and a good man to prey on innocent boys that often needed a positive male role model in their lives. But make no mistake, even though the football program will have to deal with adversity they are in no way, shape, or form victims. They may be frustrated, they may be angry that Sandusky has negatively impacted them without ever even coaching them, but to assert that Sandusky has made them victims is insulting to the young people that he took advantage of in showers, in his house and in hotel rooms. The real victims of this case are every young boy that Sandusky sexually assaulted not only from 1998 on, but likely from 1977 (the year he started the Second Mile charity) until he was finally arrested during the football season this past year.

Let’s put this in perspective: the football team is still intact, albeit weaker than it was a year ago at this time, the players that had scholarships before these sanctions still have scholarships now, and if they don’t wish to deal with any more fallout from this tragedy they are free to transfer whenever they wish. Instead of being deprived of football for up to four seasons, a penalty that would have likely permanently crippled the Penn State football program for decades, Penn State will be playing football this season. Let’s consider that Southern Methodist (SMU) got the death penalty in 1987 and when the football team returned in 1989 the coach Forrest Gregg went 3-19 in his only two seasons as head coach. SMU continued to be largely irrelevant for the next 20 years before reaching its first bowl game since the sanctions in 2009, exactly 22 years after the death penalty was dealt to the program in 1987. That was a two year death penalty, so one can only imagine the damage a four year death penalty might have done to Penn State.

If you want to put your money where your mouth is, donate whatever you can afford here: https://donate.rainn.org/ This is a great organization and it also has plenty of helpful information to help improve awareness of rape, abuse and incest not only for yourself, but for your loved ones.

Penn State will be playing football next year, thousands of people who rely on the football team for jobs and business will not be seriously impacted by this, or at least not as seriously as they would have been had the team been shut down for the next four years. The football players will be fighting for their lives on the football field because the deck is certainly stacked against them when it comes to recruiting and roster size, but Bill O’Brien has echoed my sentiments that these severe sanctions are much better than the death penalty, and he said it succinctly “We will play football this season.” That says it all right there, but it also speaks to one of my problems with these sanctions and this scandal in general. These penalties doled out by the NCAA have drawn more attention to the football program yet again instead of focusing on the crimes Sandusky and those who covered them up committed. Mark Emmert, the President of the NCAA spoke about seeking to show that football had become the priority at Penn State and that it was unacceptable. While these penalties certainly set a precedent that suggest if anything close to this scope happens again it will incur serious penalties from the NCAA, it also draws attention to football and winning again all while talking about how that shouldn’t be the focus. Now everyone is talking about the “victims” that this has caused, and many are expressing sympathy for the football players who are being impacted by something they had nothing to do with. They certainly deserve sympathy, but they are not victims. Things could be much, much worse for them, but the NCAA’s sanctions were fairly player friendly given the circumstances. They can choose to stay at Penn State and help try to keep the football program’s metaphorical head above water or they can go to another school where they can chase more playing time, better academics or the chance to compete for a national title. The players that choose to stay at Penn State are not victims, they are players who are committed to the university, the community and the teammates they have grown to love. They are players who have chosen to remain there, not players who have been chained to the university by the NCAA. They are in fact the opposite, any potential transfer shackles that existed have been removed by the NCAA and speculation has run rampant as media and coaches alike speculate about who might leave the program and who might stay. So the players that walk onto that field wearing Nittany Lion blue and white on September 1st, 2012 are not victims, they are players who had every opportunity to leave and chose to stay. They have chosen to do what they could to heal a community that has been betrayed not only by a predator impersonating a charitable force for good, but by administrators who enabled him to continue to stalk their children that needed protection more than anyone else.

I don’t want to sound like I don’t appreciate the difficulty of what all of the Penn State players and alumni are going through. I can’t imagine the hell that the players have been put through having to try to focus on playing games amidst this scandal, not to mention just living their lives and succeeding in their classes. It isn’t fair and they shouldn’t have to deal with this, but this is an unfortunate lesson that they have to learn: life isn’t fair. All too often the strong prey on the weak, and all too often the strong use their influence to act in their own self interest. We have all had to clean up after someone else’s mess, but most of us are lucky to be able to do so without photographers taking pictures of us, without journalists writing about us and without thousands of people watching us every weekend. Unfortunately, the football players and the new coaching staff will be under a microscope, but I would be shocked if there was not an outpouring of support from the Penn State family and the surrounding community in the wake of this scandal. Everyone wants to move on after a tragedy like this, and this will be no exception. Football will provide an escape from this tragedy, even though in a twisted way it was what helped cause it, and Penn State will likely sell out their first couple of home games if not all of them. The team will likely struggle in the face of all this adversity but Penn State fans are fiercely loyal (as I have found out thanks to some of my tweets about this case and about how the players aren’t actually victims) and will support this team even if they struggle on the field.

This statue of Paterno proved to be evidence of worshiping a false idol, and a reminder of the shortcomings of a coaching icon.

I just don’t want everyone to lose sight of what this case has taught us. Joe Paterno was looked up to by everyone in the Penn State community and was considered to be someone who could do no wrong. He was only human after all, however, and proved why we should not worship false idols. Our society today is too concerned with elevating successful people as beacons of perfection only for them to disappoint us with a scandal or a mistake. No one is perfect, not you, not me and not Joe Paterno. The difference is, Paterno was worshiped as a perfect man who won football games while also shaping young minds into productive members of society and, if you believe the rumors, he controlled Penn State and the athletic department, not the other way around. There is certainly evidence of this, particularly the $5.5 million severance package he received (including Paterno negotiating for additional money after the Sandusky scandal broke) when he was fired from Penn State. It secured his family use of the Penn State private jet, his wife access to the Lasch football facility that Sandusky was caught assaulting a young boy in, and obviously vast financial compensation. And while no one may have had a problem with a football coach controlling an entire university prior to this scandal, clearly it is easy to see that it was a problem now. Paterno’s interest in winning and in preserving his own job prevented him from making a decision to act in the interest of basic human decency and it enabled Sandusky to assault more children before he was finally arrested for his crimes. How anyone could live with themselves after that is beyond me, and I think Paterno finally realized what he had done after he was fired as the Head Coach of the football team. I think that once he was being persecuted by some (though not many) for what he had allowed to happen it finally registered that his actions played a critical role in not just one but multiple young boys having their innocence stolen from them by a predator, and then he passed away shortly after.

This article was not meant to focus only on Joe Paterno and ignore the crimes that Sandusky committed, because clearly Sandusky is the main perpetrator in this tragic case, but the fact remains that the culture permeated by Paterno at Penn State allowed Sandusky to operate in good faith without anyone sniffing around for foul play. That is why no one asked questions when he spent so much one on one time with boys from his charity. That is why no one asked questions about young boys staying in the same hotel room as Sandusky at Penn State away games. That is why no one asked questions about boys sleeping over in Sandusky’s water-bed in his basement. That is why no one asked questions about Sandusky showering with boys alone in Penn State facilities. That is why guidance councilors that his victims went to refused to believe what they alleged he had done to them and didn’t help. That is why Sandusky told his victims that were attempting to resist future advances that no one would believe them if they accused him of assaulting them. Sandusky did many awful things, and I hope he gets over 400 years of prison time even if he won’t live to see but a fraction of it. But one of the most tragic aspects of this case is that it could have been stopped, if not in 1998 or before at least in 2001, but it wasn’t. And while Sandusky is the man who committed many of the crimes, the administrators at Penn State and Joe Paterno certainly committed crimes of their own by harboring a child molester and not reporting him to police. So while some may allege that Sandusky deserves the ire of the media more than Paterno, I would allege that while Sandusky deserves (and has gotten) plenty of attention from the media, Paterno and his colleagues are certainly not exempt.

This case is proof that just because someone establishes a charity doesn’t mean it is for the right reasons. That just because a coach gets significant media praise doesn’t mean he is infallible. And just because a coach has a statue in front of a stadium doesn’t mean he doesn’t make mistakes. That certainly stands true in the case of Joe Paterno, because even though he did a lot of great things over the course of his tenure at Penn State he made at least one critical error choosing to ignore or cover up Sandusky’s heinous crimes. Paterno’s case proves that one can spend a lifetime building trust from friends, family, and your community, but that trust can be fleeting even if you are a legendary football coach. Paterno regularly practiced what he preached, but when he needed to act with morality and integrity the most he made the wrong decision, and instead of stopping multiple assaults and protecting young boys he sought to protect himself, his football program and his legacy. And now THAT is his legacy. He could have been an all-time great football coach and a man who truly practiced what he preached and stopped a monster in his own ranks once he was made aware of it. Instead he inexplicably protected him and now his beloved football program is paying the price.

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