At last glance, the rather motley roll call of No. 2 quarterbacks in the NFL included at least one repeat drug offender, a self-confessed recovering alcoholic who once abandoned his team, seven kids who have never thrown a single pass in a regular-season contest, two veterans dragged out of retirement, one guy coming off shoulder surgery, a man whose best position might be wide receiver, a 41-year-old whose aura has always exceeded his talent level, and a guy who suffered a neck injury after he celebrated a touchdown run by bouncing his head off a wall behind the end zone.
Nowhere among that dubious assemblage will you find the name of Jeff George, who at age 36 would graciously accept even a third spot on someone's quarterback depth chart but who remains a passing pariah.
At home in Indianapolis, the 13-year veteran and first player selected overall in the 1990 draft still pushes through a two-hour cardio workout at least four times a week, throws just about every day to old high school buddies and friends willing to suffer the bruises and welts that accompany his passes, stewards his son's fall baseball league team, and offers nuggets to friends who are now local high school coaches.
Oh, yeah, he also sits around the house for hours, waiting for the phone to ring.
"It's hard to watch the games on Sunday, really, because I can't imagine I couldn't be helping some team in some way," said George earlier this week, before heading over to his alma mater, Warren Central High School, for another throwing session. "Here I am, in the best shape I've been in for a long time, about 210 pounds, and still throwing the ball the same way I always could. But for whatever reason ..."
George hasn't thrown a regular-season pass since the second game of the 2001 season in Washington, after which then-Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer opted for a change. He hasn't been on a roster since the 2002 season, when the Seattle Seahawks brought him in, after an injury to Trent Dilfer, as a veteran insurance policy. The last franchise to fly George in for a workout was Denver, last fall, and the phone has been silent since then.
A few weeks ago, when the Buffalo Bills lost backups J.P. Losman and Travis Brown to leg injuries within a week of each other, president and general manager Tom Donahoe considered returning the message that George left on his answering machine, but chose to call Shane Matthews instead. That has pretty much become George's existence of late, floating in some nether region where personnel directors remain somewhat aware of his availability but decline to take advantage of it.
You want to define the term maddening, well, think about this: Jeff George has 124 starts on his résumé, has thrown for 27,602 yards, has a plus-differential when it comes to touchdown passes versus interceptions, carries a career passer rating of 80.4, and, in the eyes of general managers, coaches and offensive coordinators, apparently doesn't rank among the top 96 quarterbacks on the planet?
If this sounds a little personal, uh, yeah, it probably has some of those elements. For the past few years, we have annually fought a mini-crusade, trying to persuade some team to at least afford George a workout. After all, in a league hardly rife with excellence at the backup quarterback position, one would assume there is at least one enlightened general manager out there, right? Well, apparently not, folks.
As strong-armed as George remains, that's how strong-headed NFL teams appear to be, with franchises willing to sign lesser-talented and substantially more flawed quarterbacks than to merely grant an audition the 13-year veteran. Protests to the contrary, everyone knows the Dallas Cowboys released starting quarterback Quincy Carter, at least in part, because of a failed drug test.
It took Carter all of just three weeks, however, to find a new employer.
For George, it has been eight years now since his ugly sideline contretemps with then-Atlanta coach June Jones, definitely a regrettable event precipitated when the quarterback was yanked from a game, a spitting match viewed by a prime-time audience. But, apparently, time has not blurred the moment, and the specter of George and Jones going jaw-to-jaw must be an indelible image for some personnel directors who might not want their own track records so readily recalled. It's OK for those guys to err on a first-round draft pick, another matter entirely for George to have made a mistake.
"Look, everybody knows the history, and I understand people are going to (dredge up) all the old stories and stuff," George said. "But, heck, eight or 10 years, that's a long time. I would think that, by now, I could put that stuff behind me."
Indeed, one might suggest the statute of limitations on George's well-known petulance has expired by now. Even for abrasions that were principally self-inflicted, time should be able to heal all wounds. But when it comes to Jeff George, the memories of NFL front office people are elephantine and the time spent investigating a quarterback blessed with all-time gifts is minuscule.
Query a team official about George, and the one-man leper colony he has become, and the normal reaction is a sigh and rolled eyes. Ask the same officials, however, if they have ever met George, even casually, or engaged him in dialogue, and they concede they have not. New York Jets management boasted after signing Carter a few weeks ago that they had spent plenty of time examining his case. The bet here is that the Jets, and most other franchises, haven't invested a single phone call scrutinizing George's background.
And therein lies the flaw.
To know Jeff George, and we know this from firsthand experience, you have to invest the time to sit down with him, to figure out what makes him tick. The answers don't come in the kind of 10-minute interviews most teams' access rules dictate these days. Instead, there has to be probative dialogue, tough questions, a reconciliation that comprehending the guy is going to involve more than the standard Kodak moment. There has to be an unearthing of his basic humanness, and that takes some digging.
During the second half of the 1996 season in Atlanta, after George was suspended by the Falcons for the sideline incident and efforts to trade him to Seattle had evaporated, my phone rang one day as I was working at home. It was George on the other end, his then-baby son wailing in the background, his wife, Teresa, late coming home from the mall. On the other end of the line, a plaintive voice begged for help.
"Hey, you've got kids, right?" said George, in supplication. "What do I do here?"
Had the rest of Atlanta been privy to that phone call, the city that derided George might have understood him. The same fans who had come to despise him might well have given George a second chance had they been able to view him as something more than a real-life JUGS machine. We said it then and reiterate it now: The guy perceived as the ultimate coach-killer is hardly an ax murderer, and there are dozens of players around the league, still drawing paychecks, who are a ton more sociopath than George will ever be.
Unfortunately, few people know the Jeff George who helped cajole his father, Dave, back into shape after he suffered a catastrophic heart attack in 1995. There aren't many general managers who know that George's mom, Judy, is a breast cancer survivor, and that her son has raised a considerable sum to support cancer research. Not many people have seen George, the devoted family man, doting over his three kids.
Those things don't make George a better quarterback, of course. But they do make him a better person than he is perceived to be. And, let's be honest, the reason his telephone doesn't ring isn't because George can't throw a football anymore but rather because of what league personnel guys see as character flaws.
George will never acknowledge that he has been victimized by a few influential coaches who have steered teams away from him -- and he politely declined to answer when asked whether he is being blackballed -- but there are few other rational explanations for his absence from an NFL roster.
"There are teams who, when I've called them, have told me that I'm overqualified for a No. 3 job on their depth chart," George said, laughing. "I mean, maybe I should go in for a workout and 'tank' a few throws, huh, so they won't think I'm too good for them. All I want at this point is for someone to look me in the eye and tell me the truth. But there is no one who says I can't play anymore. It's just a bunch of excuses. You get tired of the same old thing over and over again."
Make no mistake: George's itch to get back into the league is about neither closure nor cash. He has never been frivolous with his money and can probably live comfortably without ever working again. And he isn't an athlete pining to go out "his way," to exit the game on his conditions, not those forced by the whims of someone else. Nah, his desire is fueled by something more basic, the knowledge that he is still talented enough to play in the NFL and that there are lesser men holding down jobs for which he is qualified.
His obvious frustrations aside, George isn't ready yet to submit, and so the sessions on the practice field figure to extend indefinitely. In his mind, he isn't certain his situation will change, but George is a guy who leads more often with his heart than his head.
"I'm a positive thinker and a man of faith," he said. "Maybe no one will call, I really don't know, OK? But I'm not going to take the chance that someone calls and I'm not ready. I mean, for my own sanity, I have to be ready. Everyone else can make excuses, but I'm not about to give some team another excuse not to sign me.
"My friends, even people in my family, they question how much longer I can keep chasing this thing. But, hey, guys play into their 40s now. If I knew I didn't still have the talent, yeah, then it would be time to stop. But physically, I know I can still do it, that I can help some team on and off the field. When I stop believing that, I'll know it's time to quit pushing myself, but I'm not close to that point yet."
Around the league
Maybe now, with the sanctions levied against the Denver Broncos on Thursday for circumventing NFL salary cap rules, people will pay a little more attention to Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, huh? Yeah, we know, it's easy to dismiss Al and some of his rants, convenient to suggest that he has lost a little off his fastball and is just an ornery and bitter old guy who likes to hear himself whistling in the dark. But it was Davis who first brought to public light contentions that Denver had flouted the cap rules, and who termed the Broncos "cheaters," which is precisely what they turned out to be.
For those of you residing in a cave, or maybe dodging hurricanes, the Broncos organization was fined $950,000 by the league, and ordered to forfeit a third-round pick in the '05 draft, for cap violations that occurred 1996-98. It marked the second time in three years that the Broncos were deemed culpable of cap shenanigans, and seemed to validate the charges made by Davis, most of which were ignored at the time. Seems that once again Denver is getting off pretty light. Five years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost a third-round pick after the team self-reported itself for a cap violation that involved an illegal incentive in the contract of offensive lineman Will Wolford, a deal that paid him extra if he was forced to move from guard to tackle. We note, at the risk of redundancy, that Pittsburgh turned itself in to the league when it discovered the violation. But from the Broncos, who have been rumored for years to skirt cap rules, there was no such confession. Instead, it took a 20-month investigation by the Management Council, the league's labor branch, to flesh out the Broncos' indiscretions.
In his Thursday statement, owner Pat Bowlen even conceded the cap inventiveness by his team was "brought to my attention" by the league. There was no comment from major domo/head coach Mike Shanahan, who oversees everything but the shuffling of paper clips in the Denver front office. It says here that, for a second violation, the Broncos got off with little more than a wrist slap. Then again, that isn't too surprising, given that Bowlen is such a power broker in the league, serves on key committees, and is viewed as pretty cozy with commissioner Paul Tagliabue. But with the two cap penalties, and the court case earlier this year in which it appears that Bowlen tried an end run around former Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser on a potential stock sale, some of the bloom is off the rose. There's an old adage that you can make numbers do just about anything you want them to and, when it came to salary cap matters, Bowlen and his lieutenants apparently believed the axiom. No revelation yet, beyond rumor, as to the players and the agent involved in the deceit. But the agent agreed to pay $100,000 to a charity to avoid acknowledging guilt. In the agent world, where profit margins are a lot smaller than you think, $100,000 is a lot of money, and so it had to be a big-name guy. And why should the league and, more important, the NFL Players Association, allow the agent to walk away unstained (albeit poorer) if he was caught red-handed. Uh, probably because the agent is a heavy hitter and the NFLPA always goes lighter on those guys.
Once again, kudos to Al Davis for outing a franchise that likes to pretend it's squeaky clean. And this final thought: Had it been the Raiders who committed the cap fraud, would Davis' team have escaped with such benign sanctions? Cap circumvention, as Davis has reiterated, strikes at the integrity of the league and is a major indiscretion.
On the subject of sanctions, it's hard to figure out who deserves more of a verbal flogging over the much-discussed incident in which New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin fined four players for not being early enough to a team meeting. If Coughlin wants players in the meeting room at 8:25 for the 8:30 session, why not simply make the start time 8:25? On the other hand, the veteran players were aware of his quirky policy and, like it or not, should have adhered to it. It wasn't shocking that defensive end Michael Strahan was not only one of the players involved but also the source of the leak about how the players have appealed the fines to the union. Strahan's representative, Tony Agnone, insisted this week that these are no more than the standard disagreements between his client and Coughlin. Suffice it to say Agnone's nose grew a little bit on that one. Strahan has chafed about Coughlin's disciplinary methods since the earliest days of the offseason training regimen, when he decided the program didn't apply to him, and let everyone know it publicly. He may be critical to the Giants, but Strahan may soon find out that he isn't going to win a knockdown battle with Coughlin, whose martinet methods sometimes overshadow the fact he is a heck of a coach. Giants management feels that the strident Coughlin is precisely what the franchise needs. It may take him a year or two, but Coughlin, who has already turned over about one-third of the roster in a short time, will get his kind of players in place. We had one official from another NFC team suggest to us this week that Coughlin could be a "one and done" head coach in New York. That is, in a word, ludicrous.
Overshadowed by the excitement accompanying the first weekend of regular-season play was that Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, after steadfastly insisting all spring that he would not adjust his contract, indeed, restructured his deal. Gannon had his base salary reduced from a scheduled $7 million to $4.5 million. He did not receive a bonus to make up the difference. Instead, he will be able to recoup the $2.5 million with "not likely to be earned" incentives. Those incentive levels are said to be very palatable, and Gannon should trigger the extra compensation if he simply remains healthy, stays the starter and posts his usual statistics. A big factor in Gannon's finally agreeing to provide the Raiders some cap relief came when club officials assured him that he is firmly in place as the starter and that, unless he slumps miserably, he need not be looking over his shoulder for Kerry Collins to replace him. Gannon threw the ball very well in the loss at Pittsburgh last Sunday, but can't afford the kinds of turnovers he experienced.
Regular visitors to this site know the high regard with which we view the talent level of the New Orleans Saints, and our fondness for head coach Jim Haslett. But the Saints got off to a rocky start last weekend by laying a bomb against Seattle -- maybe New Orleans players plan to get their slump out of the way at the start of the season in 2004 -- and one can't help but wonder just what is missing with this team. There is no denying the Seahawks are a fine team and there is no disgrace in losing to a club many feel will contend for a Super Bowl berth. But the Saints, especially some high-round draft picks such as second-year defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, performed with zero urgency. At some point, the scrutiny turns to the head coach, and Haslett needs to get his team turned around quickly. If not, Haslett faces the possibility that management and ownership, which have been very supportive of him, could opt for a change at season's end.
When the Atlanta Falcons made Alex Gibbs the NFL's highest-paid offensive line coach this spring, signing him to a three-year contract that averages $1 million annually, clearly there was an understanding he wouldn't be paid by the word. As was the case during his long and successful Denver Broncos tenure, Gibbs is giving the media the silent treatment in Atlanta, and hasn't been interviewed since training camp. Another element he brought with him: having just one lineman, a different player every week, serve as spokesman for the entire unit. Gibbs always contended in Denver that the player interview arrangement was not his idea and that his charges invented it. Hard to believe the Falcons players, just by happenstance, decided on the same protocol, isn't it? Falcons owner Arthur Blank is a marketing maven, and certainly the team's two very astute people at the top of the football chain, general manager Rich McKay and coach Jim Mora, understand the importance of access, especially for a team whose success rate is not admirable. Time one of those guys reminds Gibbs that part of the $800,000 salary he is earning this season includes some responsibilities such as media dialogue. You can still teach that trademark cut-block scheme, it seems, without cutting off access.
One of Gibbs' former charges, tackle Bob Whitfield, rebuffed the Falcons' proposal to rejoin the club this week after team officials declined to guarantee his salary for the full season. The Falcons are concerned about the availability of left tackle Kevin Shaffer for Sunday's game against St. Louis, and Whitfield, released in preseason after 12 seasons with Atlanta, might have actually started the game. But if "Big Whit" was going to dig his cleats out of the closet, there was going to be a price tag attached, for sure. And when the Falcons balked, he opted to sit at home, figuring the phone will ring soon. Given the poor tackle play around the league last weekend, and the spate of injuries already on some offensive lines, it's a gamble he might win.
The Minnesota Vikings have already changed place kickers twice in the past three weeks, and it is not inconceivable that coach Mike Tice might make a switch at punter sometime down the road. Tenth-year veteran Darren Bennett struggled in preseason, was not very effective in last week's season opener and might be starting to lose some of his legendary leg strength. One explanation for Bennett's woes is that, because of the potent Vikings offense, he isn't getting as much work as he did during his long tenure with the San Diego Chargers. But guess what? The Vikes, with talented coordinator Scott Linehan calling the plays, aren't apt to subjugate scoring just to get Bennett on the field more. Notable is that the Vikings on Friday re-signed kicker Aaron Elling, released two weeks ago by them, to handle kickoffs. It was obvious in the opener that, while Morten Andersen can still succeed on field goal attempts of up to 50-52 yards, his leg simply can't take the kickoff duties at age 44.
At least the "backside" portion of the San Francisco defense, the linebackers and the secondary, might not be nearly as porous as some pundits have suggested. Strongside 'backer Julian Peterson was typically brilliant, with five tackles, two sacks, one pass defensed and two forced fumbles in the loss to the Falcons. But also turning in solid performances were middle linebacker Derek Smith (11 tackles), weakside linebacker Jamie Winborn (three tackles and one sack), cornerback Ahmed Plummer and strong safety Tony Parrish. Alas, the 49ers probably will continue to struggle up front, where injuries have ravaged them, and where there is no depth. A back injury that has nagged at right end Andre Carter means Otis Leverette, signed only a week ago, starts on Sunday. Worse, former Arizona third-rounder Dennis Johnson, signed just this week, will be the No. 3 end on Sunday afternoon.
It's clear that the Buffalo Bills are doing everything they can to protect quarterback Drew Bledsoe, to play conservatively enough on offense to keep him out of harm's way, and to continue to play great defense. But the Bills learned a tough and painful lesson last week: In the NFL, you have to play to win, and you can't play not to lose. Sure, cornerback Nate Clements committed a cardinal sin when he attempted to intercept the ball, instead of merely batting it away, on a critical fourth-down play that kept alive a last-gasp Jacksonville possession. But the Bills had a ton of opportunities to put the game away and too often blinked. Even some Buffalo players acknowledged to us this week that the coaches have taken the Bledsoe salvaging job to the extreme. Bledsoe, by the way, is just 2-10 in his last dozen road starts, and the Bills play at Oakland on Sunday.
Sources confirm that the New York Jets likely will lose No. 3 defensive tackle Josh Evans to season-ending back surgery next week. Evans has been trying to play with a bulging disk, and the pain is now bordering on intolerable. New York, a team that's much better than people think, took a precautionary step this week when it claimed tackle Daleroy Stewart off waivers from the Dallas Cowboys. Stewart is a big body who can provide the Jets 15-20 snaps per game.
First-round safety Sean Taylor didn't start for the Redskins last week, but coaches said the former University of Miami standout played well in the packages designed for him. This may be a pattern for coordinator Gregg Williams, who likes to use a lot of bodies: create for Taylor, who often suffers attention lapses, some very specific packages and schemes until he is ready to handle the entire game plan. One happy conundrum for Williams: the need to figure out a way to keep middle linebacker Antonio Pierce on the field once starter Mike Barrow returns from injury. Pierce has proven to be a real find for the Skins, a player better than the coaching staff realized, and a savvy guy who did a great job last week getting everyone aligned in the right place.
Punts: In the 17 regular-season games Cincinnati has played with Marvin Lewis as head coach and Leslie Frazier as coordinator, the Bengals defense has surrendered 138 or more yards on the ground in nine of them. ... Pittsburgh has not won consecutive games since the end of the 2002 season. ... The 196 rushing yards posted by Curtis Martin of the New York Jets last Sunday were the third-most all-time by a back 30 years of age or older. ... Chicago rookie head coach Lovie Smith kept only three defensive tackles active for last week's opener and, in temperatures that reached the mid-80s, the trio wore down late in the contest. ... Unnoticed in Green Bay's impressive victory at Carolina on Monday night was how effective strong safety Mark Roman was in meshing with running mate Darren Sharper and the team's cornerbacks.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.