In June 2007, during a well intentioned "concussion summit" in suburban Chicago, the NFL implemented a so-called "whistleblower" program to encourage its players to anonymously report what was perceived as any less-than-adequate treatment of head injuries by team physicians, trainers or even coaches.
Five years later, in the wake of Wednesday's somewhat Draconian sanctions levied by commissioner Roger Goodell against the New Orleans Sinners for the heinous "Bountygate" scandal, the whistleblower initiative sustained a forearm shiver, a sack nearly as bone-rattling as a Gregg Williams-ordered blitz.
One, in practical terms, from which the league could have a difficult time recovering.
Bountygate wasn't about concussions, at least directly. But the reaction of players past and present to the men who revealed to NFL officials the existence of Williams' surreptitious pay-for-pain program - with those players labeled with derogatory terms like rat, snitch, turncoat and traitor - will give considerable pause to anyone similarly willing to come forward in the future. Will it be worth it, even for players of conscience, to risk the scorn of their peers and shed light on any such indiscretions that they might uncover or witness?
"Maybe not," one player, now retired after a career of double-digit seasons in the league, told The Sports Xchange. "I don't care how long you've been out of (the NFL). ... you still feel like part of a special fraternity. To see the kind of (stuff) heaped on the 'whistleblowers'. ... even if they're still anonymous, they have to feel like they've been drummed out of the club, you know? Like they broke the secret code."
Indeed, the prevalence of reverse whistleblowing the past few days, of essentially attempting to out the outters, could scuttle the initiative.
Implicit in the 2007 outreach to players was the contention that the identity of any whistleblower would remain anonymous. To the league's credit, that has technically been the case in the Bountygate investigation and reports generated by NFL security officials, and probably in instances involving concussion reports, and likely those of other excesses. But that hasn't halted the speculation about who it was that yanked back the curtain on Williams and Sean Payton and revealed the tawdry practices of the New Orleans defense. It didn't, for instance, stop retired Tampa Bay defensive tackle and runaway-with-rhetoric analyst Warren Sapp from publicly fingering tight end Jeremy Shockey as the guy with whom the Bountygate report originated.
Shockey has adamantly denied the allegations and wants the league to take action that will exonerate him.
Last time we checked, Sapp drew a paycheck from the league-subsidized cable TV entity. We're obviously in favor of First Amendment protection, but the NFL should at least reprimand the loose-lipped Sapp, perhaps even suspend him. That the league wasn't swift or definitive with any action - it shouldn't take NFL officials nearly as long, after all, to review The NFL Network videotapes as it did to wade through 50,000 Bountygate documents - suggests tacit approval of Sapp's on-air witch hunt.
Safety Darren Sharper, himself a onetime Sinners standout, used the league's website, NFL.com, to suggest he knows the identity of the player who reported on the bounty payments, and chided him. Sharper has been a guest analyst as well on The NFL Network. Among the players who took to Twitter to decry the "snitch" were Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark and Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White. Punter Chris Kluwe resorted to fairly graphic language on his Twitter account, on the other hand, to lambast any critics of the Sinners' confessor.
Yet the overwhelming sentiment, at least publicly stated, has been to attack the messenger. To suggest he should have maintained silence. And to posit the position that anyone who witnesses anything untoward in the locker room or on the field should simply ignore it, get in lockstep with the unspoken code, to embrace omerta.
Hard as it is for many players to accept, and for even some reporters to become accustomed, the NFL is in the midst of a culture change. Goodell, who demonstrated in the Michael Vick rulings and the New Orleans sanctions that he does not accept being lied to very well, has championed player safety as his legacy. Even before most of the lawsuits began piling up, Goodell had nudged consciousness about concussions front and center. It would be naive to think that making money for his wealthy constituents isn't Goodell's raison d'etre, as it has been for his predecessors, but the integrity of the game (or, "protecting the shield," as the NFL's most overused and hackneyed league-speak now suggests) ranks as a pretty high priority.
In the perfect, bias-free world envisioned by Goodell and his lieutenants, The Whistle Monster at the Superdome (real name: LeRoy Mitchell Jr.) -- the guy who incessantly warbles into a musical instrument for the entire game - wouldn't be The Big Easy's only accepted whistleblower. But the fans of the feel-good team aren't feeling too good these days, because they think Goodell has come down harshly on the homeboys. Whoever the whistleblower was in the New Orleans locker room, he is reviled, not celebrated.
And the fact he is regarded as ostracized by so many players, even anonymously, indicates that, Goodell's efforts aside, the vow of silence in the NFL is one that still holds strong. Forget the laughable hypocrisy of players such as former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita, who lobbied so hard for safety and protection improvements in the new CBA last summer, all the while cognizant of the fact that he was a willing participant in a program that rewarded players for hard hits and injuries. That's a story for another day.
The story for this week is Bountygate and the reaction to it. And much of that reaction augers that the league could be whistling Dixie if it feels that its nascent whistleblower program hasn't been dented by the negative sentiments directed at those who 'fessed up to the New Orleans excesses.
They used to stick their heads in shopping bags in New Orleans, shamed at how pitiful was the team there. The shame of Bountygate figures to bring out the paper bags once again. The real, more bothersome and enduring shame, though, is that the criticism of the so-called whistleblower(s) could prompt them to put their heads in the sand.
Bountygate could spark Brees deal
In its own, curious way, the "Bountygate" scandal could precipitate progress on the Drew Brees contract front, people from both sides of the negotiating table conceded to The Sports Xchange.
The talks appeared to be dead in the water earlier this week, and even the politically correct and forever image-conscious Brees allowed that he is disappointed there is no deal in place, forcing the Saints to use the exclusive franchise tag on him. But because the team has sustained such a damning public relations setback with the Bountygate sanctions, and even some (OK, a few) right-minded fans have been disillusioned by the tawdry matter, New Orleans requires a countermove of positive proportions.
What better, sources from the team and the powerful CAA agency agreed to The Sports Xchange, than to finish a long-term deal for the man who has become not just the face of the team but also of the region? There are, it should be noted, no formal negotiating sessions currently planned. But there has been some contact between the two sides the past couple days and there might at least be some incremental movement in the coming days.
Legal recourse unlikely for Payton, Williams
While it hasn't received much attention in the past few days, there might be some legal implications to the Bountygate mess, perhaps none more interesting than the futures of Sean Payton and Gregg Williams.
Because of the standard contracts that are signed by NFL head and assistant coaches, the men cannot sue the league, an NFL spokesman told The Sports Xchange. They are, as are most employees in the league, subject to discipline from the commissioner.
But that might not stop the coaches, particularly in the case of Payton, from suing their employers, particularly if they are eventually fired. Attorneys who, admittedly, have not specifically reviewed the contracts of Payton and Williams, but have negotiated contracts for coaches in the past, contend such actions would probably be little more than nuisance cases. And two attorneys with extensive business backgrounds contend that Payton and Williams could probably be summarily dismissed "with cause."
Saints owner Tom Benson, who has not been even remotely implicated in the scandal, and has publicly supported Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, appears to have no designs on dismissing high-ranking club officials. The matter could be moot. But he now faces a full year without Payton, whose ego and arrogance seems to have gotten out of control, many agree, and that's a long time for opinions to change.
One opinion, though, that likely won't be altered is that the coaches would face long odds in any sort of legal proceeding.
Tepid market for running backs
It doesn't pay, literally, to be an NFL running back these days. A week ago in this space, The Tip Sheet noted the relatively "down" market for tailbacks - kind of a reflection of the manner in which the position in general has been devalued in recent years - and the deals that were completed this week bore that out.
Sure, Michael Bush got a four-year, $14 million deal to serve as the backup to Matt Forte in Chicago, an insurance policy against the possibility that the Bears' star will skip offseason workouts as a reaction to the franchise tag the club placed on him.
But the truth of the matter is that Bush went into unrestricted free agency as the top-rated tailback prospect and set on breaking the bank, much in the manner DeAngelo Williams did in Carolina last year, when he re-signed with the Panthers. Bush fell well shy of Williams' five-year, $43 million deal.
A week or so ago, prominent agent Joel Segal, who represents free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis, told The Sports Xchange that the market level for backs was at about $3.5-$4 million per year, and that's proven to be about right. There have been no numbers yet for the three-year contract Green-Ellis signed in Cincinnati, but the bet is that they are in the range that Segal predicted.
The four-year contract that former San Diego free agent Mike Tolbert signed in Carolina is worth $2.1 million per season. Notable, too, is that no team has yet signed a runner to be its "feature" back. Assuming that Forte at some point signs with/reports to the Bears, Bush will be his caddy. Tolbert is behind Williams and Jonathan Stewart (for now) with the Panthers. The Bengals expect that Bernard Scott will split playing time with Green-Ellis.
Essentially, those were the top tailbacks on the market, after Forte and Ray Rice were slapped with franchise tags, and Seattle re-signed Marshawn Lynch before free agency began. And none of them signed to be a starter with their respective clubs.
Dreesen on board, Broncos court more TEs
It was expected that the Denver Broncos would add a receiving tight end within the next week, but many didn't feel Joel Dreessen of Houston would be the guy. The six-year veteran confirmed to The Sports Xchange on Friday morning, though, that he has reached an agreement with the Broncos.
And word is that Dreessen, 29, has the Peyton Manning seal of approval. Dreessen isn't particularly heralded, but he has averaged 30 catches over the past three seasons, scored 10 touchdowns in the last two years (including six in 2011) and can be used in the slot and offset from the tackle.
The offense that will be installed by Manning basically demands a tight end option as a receiver, and the Broncos really didn't have one. The favorite, of course, was former Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark, who is recovered from the injuries that limited him to 17 appearances over the last two seasons. But the Broncos had, according to trusted sources in the league, some competition for Clark, including from a few clubs that already have fairly accomplished tight ends.
Said the personnel director from one such team: "The new rage is the two-tight (end formation), and everybody wants the second guy now. So, yeah, (Clark) is in play. He can do so many things, create matchup (advantages), and, while we haven't had him in yet for our medical people to look at, we hear he's healthy."
Even with Dreessen onboard, don't rule out the Colts' "other" free agent tight end, Jacob Tamme, still signing in Denver, although the odds got longer on Friday morning. Tamme caught 67 passes in 2010, when Clark played only six games because of a wrist injury.
No immediate word yet on the Dreessen contract, although Manning's presence and success with tight ends helped lure him to Denver, but it's believed that the Broncos blanched a bit at Tamme's initial price tag of $3-$3.5 million per year.
Denver, by the way, hasn't had a tight end with more than 49 receptions since 2003, Shannon Sharpe's last season with the Broncos, when he had 62 grabs. Over the past three seasons, Denver starting tight ends averaged only 22.7 receptions.
**UPDATE: Broncos sign Tamme
The Denver Broncos failed to add one former Indianapolis teammate of new quarterback Peyton Manning on Friday, but did attract a familiar target for the four-time Most Valuable Player.
The Atlanta-based representatives for unrestricted free agent tight end Jacob Tamme told The Sports Xchange that the four-year veteran, who visited with Denver officials earlier this week, has agreed to a three-year contract. The deal is believed to include a "base" value of $9 million.
The Sports Xchange reported earlier Friday that Tamme was seeking a deal worth $3-$3.5 million per year.
The agreement for Tamme came on the same day the Broncos agreed to terms with Houston Texans' unrestricted tight end Joel Dreessen. Financial details of Dreessen's contract were not immediately available. Despite the additions of two tight ends, Denver was unable to close a deal with veteran center Jeff Saturday. A close friend and confidant of Manning, Saturday opted to sign with Green Bay.
The accords with Dreessen and Tamme were somewhat surprising, given that many felt that Dallas Clark, the unrestricted tight end who had provided Manning with so many options in Indianapolis, would be the club's top choice. But sources said that the Broncos were concerned by Clark's recent history of injuries, which have limited him to only 17 appearances the past two years.
Other teams, however, seem to feel that Clark is sufficiently recovered from his injuries - a severe wrist injury in 2010 and a broken leg in 2011 - and that he will play in the league in 2012. Clark is said to have some options, including with a few teams that already have a solid situation at the tight end spot.
Tamme, 27, has appeared in 60 games in four seasons, with 14 starts. He has 92 receptions for 855 yards and five touchdowns. His career season came in 2010, when he started 10 games because of Clark's wrist injury, and posted 67 catches, 631 yards and four scores.
Although not particularly well known to fans, Dreessen has developed into a solid receiving tight end. He averaged 30.0 catches the past three seasons and scored 10 touchdowns the last two years, including six in 2011.
Both Dreessen and Tamme project as good fits in the offense that Manning is expected to run with the Broncos. That offense may include a traditional, in-line tight end, but also certain to feature a tight end who can play wide or in the slot and create matchup problems for defenses.
Denver hasn't had a tight end with more than 49 receptions since 2003, Shannon Sharpe's last season with the Broncos, when he had 62 grabs. Over the past three seasons, Denver starting tight ends averaged only 22.7 receptions.
Steelers quiet on free agent front
There is only one franchise that, to date, has done nothing with unrestricted free agency. Hasn't signed a player from another team. Hasn't lost a player to another club (little-used offensive tackle Jamon Meredith, who on Thursday signed with Tampa Bay, was not tendered a qualifying offer, so he doesn't count). Has yet to re-sign any of its own unrestricted free agents. Owns a big, fat zero on the unrestricted free agency scoreboard. And that team is the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Even by the club's stealthy standards, it's been a quiet first 10 days of free agency for the Steelers, who probably won't do much during the signing period.
The "Steelers' Way" remains to draft and develop players, not add them from outside. Pittsburgh coaches were keen, early on, for Chicago tight end Kellen Davis, but he re-signed with the Bears. Ever since that brief flirtation, there hasn't even been a hint that the Steelers had their eyes on a player. As of Friday morning, just six other teams had yet to sign an unrestricted free agent from another club.
Lofton could return to Falcson
There is still no guarantee that middle linebacker Curtis Lofton will return to the Atlanta Falcons, but team officials feel better about the possibilities, given what has transpired lately in unrestricted free agency.
For openers, the market for 4-3 middle linebackers hasn't developed, as accentuated by the five-year, $25.5 million contract with which Stephen Tulloch returned to the Detroit Lions this week. Tulloch was regarded in the unrestricted pool as at least the equal of Lofton, maybe better in the eyes of some scouts, and generated only modest interest outside of the Detroit organization.
Like Lofton, he was eyeing the misguided five-year, $42.5 million deal that Cleveland reportedly awarded D'Qwell Jackson to return, and fell far short of that target. Lofton has drawn interest from division rivals Tampa Bay and New Orleans. But a Bucs official told The Sports Xchange that reports in Atlanta that Lofton holds an offer from the Bucs are only "technically true," and that the ardor for the four-year veteran has cooled a bit in the building.
The Saints, who visited with Lofton, could pursue him, especially if incumbent Jonathan Vilma is suspended by the league for his role in the Bountygate scandal. But New Orleans is up against the cap following the addition of defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, and would have a difficult time finding space to pigeonhole Lofton as well.
Although his representatives have disagreed, we've taken the stance that Lofton is a two-down run-stuffer who doesn't belong on the field on third down, even though the Falcons use him in nickel packages, and that his value is blunted because of that. Teams from around the league seem to agree, haven't exactly opened up the vault yet for Lofton, and that provides Falcons coaches and team officials renewed hope he could be back.
Abraham's contract far short of his target
The other positive for the Falcons is that defensive end John Abraham, the club's lone outside sack threat and a player club officials seemed to regard as an even bigger priority than Lofton, found no market in his publicly announced price range and ended up signing a three-year deal that was very palatable to the team.
The 33-year-old Abraham announced that he was seeking a contract worth $12 million per year as an unrestricted free agent. He tentatively set up visits with Tennessee and Denver, then quickly discovered that neither the Titans nor Broncos would be in his financial ball park.
The result: He hustled back to the Falcons on a three-year contract that was purported to be worth $21 million. Alas, typical of the agency that represents Abraham - and which has long made a habit of inflating the contract numbers - the deal is far less.
We don't have all the details, so perhaps, with all of the escalators, the contract can max out of $7 million per year. Even if it does, that's far short of the $12 million annually Abraham was seeking. The "base" deal, minus escalators, though, is worth only about $5.6 million per year. The signing bonus is a modest $2.25 million and another $2.156 million per year comes in the form of two roster bonuses, one of which is tied to appearances by the oft-injured Abraham.
Rooney backs new IR rule
Somewhat interesting that Pittsburgh president Art Rooney II is essentially the impetus behind a proposed by-law change, one that will formally be proposed at the league's annual meetings next week in Palm Beach, Fla. that would allow a club to designate one player from its injured reserve list to possibly return later in the season.
As long ago as 1995, the Steelers declined to place some injured players on I.R., hoping they might rehabilitate sufficiently to return to the field at some point. In '95, it was defensive back Rod Woodson, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the season opener, but ended up coming back for Super Bowl XXX. In more recent seasons, it has been defensive end Aaron Smith. The change, if adopted, would allow the designated player to begin practicing after Week 6 and to play after Week 8, and seems to have pretty good support.
Whitworth slams Bountygate penalties
One of the harshest critics of the hammer that Goodell brought down on the New Orleans organization has been Cincinnati offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, who was a key voice in CBA negotiations last year.
"This is ridiculous," Whitworth told the Bengals' website. "To give a guy the same suspension that you (gave) a guy who went to jail for a felony. ... that doesn't make sense. A guy who gets suspended for steroids can come back in four or eight games and make money, and we applaud that. The (Bountygate people) weren't gambling. They weren't drinking or driving. If you want to make an example of someone, make an example of someone who commits a crime."
Whitworth wasn't directly addressing, of course, the checkered past of teammate Adam "Pacman" Jones. But given his strong words, it should be interesting when he and Jones get together for minicamp. An unrestricted free agent who apparently merited no attention in the market, Jones this week re-signed with the Bengals.
--Although he is familiar with the Wildcat offense from his tenure as Miami head coach, first-year New York Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano is expected to at least pick the brain of longtime coordinator Dan Henning about the use of the formation and the implementation of Tim Tebow on it. Henning, now retired, was essential to the success of the Wildcat in Miami a few years ago.
--With the aforementioned addition of Tolbert, the Panthers definitely will listen to offers for Stewart. But there hasn't been anything serious yet. How do we know? Stewart is entering the final season of his rookie contract, no team will deal for him simply to rent him for a season, so an extension will be necessary. And no club has yet spoken to Stewart or his agent about an add-on. Because of coach John Fox's familiarity with Stewart, everyone is making Denver the favorite. But don't rule out a few other clubs, including a sleeper like Pittsburgh, where the suggestion is that Rashard Mendenhall might not be sufficiently recovered from the ACL injury sustained in the 2011 season finale to play in 2012.
--There have been some raised eyebrows around the league concerning the big D'Qwell Jackson contract cited earlier. But the Browns' deal catching as much scrutiny is the five-year contract to which the team signed Cincinnati unrestricted defensive end Frostee Rucker. The six-year veteran has only seven career sacks in the five seasons he has been healthy, and four of those came last season. But he got a reported $8 million in guarantees on the $21 million deal.
--Jacksonville coach Mike Mularkey and Green Bay counterpart Mike McCarthy have both said in the past few days that their clubs were legitimately interested in Tebow before the trade to the Jets overcame some snags and was completed.
--The potential by-law change noted previously might have more impact on the game, some feel, than a possible change in the trade deadline rule. The competition committee will propose that the deadline be pushed back from the Tuesday following the sixth weekend of play to the eighth weekend. While it could be approved, most general managers surveyed the past few days don't believe it will dramatically increase the number of so-called "deadline" deals. Since 2000, there have been just 18 trades on deadline day, involving only 21 players. The NFL has had just 30 deadline-day deals since 1990.
--There aren't many guys signed from the "non-tender" scrap heap who make a difference for the franchises acquiring them, but credit Detroit for identifying one of the better ones and rolling the dice at a cheap price. The Lions this week signed former Colts cornerback Jacob Lacey, a three-year veteran who, despite starting 25 games in 2009-2011, wasn't even given a restricted tender by the talent-thin Colts. Lacey was benched last season, but the former undrafted free agent is only 24 years old, has experience playing in a good system at least be a decent special teams player. He's better than most of the players signed from the non-tender free agent pool.
--A couple teams actually inquired casually about retired quarterback Marc Bulger is the past few weeks, but were apprised he does not plan a comeback.
--Ironically, Payton e-mailed Whitworth just 30 minutes before the Bountygate sanctions were announced to confirm he will speak at the tackle's charity dinner next weekend. No word yet as to whether Payton will now make that appearance.
--Early returns on the trade that sent inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans to Philadelphia: Personnel people think the deal was a big win for the Eagles, and, while there is a ton of respect for Houston coordinator Wade Phillips, people wonder how well the Texans will play without both Mario Williams and Ryans. That said, there is a consensus that both players will be better returning to 4-3 fronts.
The last word: "If I was on that ballclub, I'd have to learn to love to be miserable. But if they brought him on my team, I'd have to follow him, because I'd have to see if the magic. ... if he could bring it to me. Until the wheels fall off, and the horse breaks down, I'm gonna ride him. But it's a miserable state to put yourself in." - Sapp, before the Tebow trade to the Jets, on the prospect of playing on the same team as the two-year veteran quarterback.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.