Topics this week include the biggest offseason stories, nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, what awaits the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons after Super Bowl LI, the Cleveland Browns ties to the big game and more.
Romo, Watson and the quarterback carousel
Deflategate has already been deflated, Peyton Manning has already stepped away, Andrew Luck has already signed his record deal and the central storylines of previous seasons have already been written. Now, new ones await.
Here are five candidates for some of this offseason's most significant headlines:
Romo, Romo, where are thou Romo: As it currently stands, no quarterback has a higher salary-cap number for 2017 than Tony Romo's at $24.7 million. It will not remain that way. No one knows exactly how he will leave Dallas, via release or via trade. But no one expects him to return. So one of the most intriguing storylines this offseason will be where Romo -- the Cowboys all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown passes -- lands. Houston, where there are perpetual quarterback questions, is logical. Denver also makes some sense, though the Broncos have not been interested in the past. Arizona would need a replacement if Carson Palmer decided to walk away from the game. Kansas City always seems to be looking at quarterbacks. Bears general manager Ryan Pace was Romo's teammate for one season at Eastern Illinois, and Chicago could use a quarterback. Romo probably would not opt to go to a team that needs a ton of help (see: Browns, 49ers or Jets). It's hard to know which of these teams will wind up with Romo, but it's clear it won't be Dallas.
The quarterback carousel: There hasn't been a collection of such high-profile quarterbacks with their futures in question at once in any recent season. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be opting out of his contract, according to a source, becoming a free agent. Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins -- already having played under one franchise tag -- is the most leveraged, powerful player in the league, with the ability to walk away from Washington after two more seasons if he so chooses. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, once the prize of the 2009 offseason, could be a salary-cap casualty. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor has a $15.5 million option bonus in his contract due March 11 that would guarantee him $30.75 million over the life of the contract. Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron are both coveted around the league and are expected to draw interest. Even Johnny Manziel, claiming he now is sober, is interested in getting back in the game. Just as there are many quarterback questions, there are many teams that still need to answer them: Chicago, San Francisco, the New York Jets, Houston, Buffalo, Cleveland and Denver.
Peterson's D-Day: Adrian Peterson and Minnesota need to make a decision, and soon. Peterson is due a $6 million roster bonus on March 11 that would trigger an $11.75 million base salary for the 2017 season. As is the case with Romo, no one expects the Vikings to pay that bonus and carry this contract as it is constituted. So the question becomes whether Minnesota and Peterson can reach a restructured deal before March 11, or whether the Vikings will allow their all-time leading rusher to move on to finish his career elsewhere, as the former Cowboys great Emmitt Smith once did in Arizona. The only players to have more career rushing yards than Peterson -- Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Jim Brown -- all were with one team. But it remains uncertain whether Peterson's run in Minnesota will be extended or aborted.
Waiting on Watson: Last offseason, one offensive coordinator said Dak Prescott was his "favorite player" in the draft, but only his fifth-ranked quarterback. The coach loved Prescott's character, immediately identified him as a leader of men. My friend and colleague, ESPN reporter Marty Smith, who was embedded last season at various points with Clemson, said Watson has the same type of character as Prescott, but even more so. "He's Dak with skills," said Smith, who's a big fan of Prescott's, but an enormous fan of Watson's. Smith is hardly alone. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has set up the Browns, one way or another, for a gargantuan home run or strikeout. Before last week's Senior Bowl, Swinney told reporters about the Browns' selection at No. 1: "If they pass on Deshaun Watson, they're passing on Michael Jordan." Well, well. Swinney added: "I mean, I'm just telling you: I don't know what the heck I'm talking about, I'm just an old funky college coach, but Deshaun Watson is the best by a long shot." And if that weren't enough, Swinney closed out his comments by adding: "[Watson's] humble, the same guy every day and always ready. He comes to every meeting prepared, and that's how you change things." Watson is an elite talent with elite character, but NFL evaluators are concerned with the number of interceptions he has thrown. Cleveland's on the clock, but Smith and Swinney are both convinced any team that passes on Watson will regret it.
For starters: Winner of Super Bowl LI will not only get the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but the opportunity to host the Thursday night regular-season opener in September. If the Patriots win Sunday, there's a real chance the 2017 regular-season opener will be a Super Bowl LI rematch; Atlanta is scheduled to play in New England next season, and it could and would mark the second straight season the NFL opens its new season with a Super Bowl rematch from the previous season. Last year, Denver hosted Carolina; if the Patriots win Sunday, they could see Atlanta in New England again in September. The Patriots are also scheduled to host the Chiefs, Chargers, Texans and Panthers, none of which would be the marquee matchup the Falcons would be. If Atlanta wins Super Bowl LI, the Falcons could open the 2017 regular season in their brand spanking-new stadium against the Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers, two appealing matchups. The Falcons are also scheduled to host the Vikings, Bills and Dolphins in addition to their NFC South foes, but no matchup would be as anticipated as the ones against Dallas and Green Bay.
-- Adam Schefter
If the antagonists of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue want to add "concussions" to the reasons he should not be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they might as well blame Pete Rozelle for an unfettered steroids era that might have also contributed to the concussion crisis.
Rozelle is deservedly cited as the greatest commissioner in sports history. He certainly was deserving of his enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. So is Tagliabue, who has met resistance from voters since he retired in 2006.
Tagliabue and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones are the two finalists as contributors when the Hall of Fame voters decide the class of 2017 on Saturday. They'll each need a minimum of 80 percent affirmative votes to be elected.
A few years back, despite overwhelming credentials for election, a couple of arguments made by the anti-Tagliabue crowd seemed anchored to the commissioner's inability (it was categorized by some critics as indifference) to resolve the stadium crises among California franchises, which included the vacated market in Los Angeles. Really?
There was also criticism Tagliabue left the owners with a bad labor deal before he retired because he was too "friendly" with then-NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw. That criticism was laughable and rang hollow, because no one was losing money in the NFL, which gained unprecedented labor peace among pro sports without a work stoppage that had resulted with Rozelle, whose own leadership allowed the disgrace of replacement players for three regular-season games during the 1987 NFLPA strike.
To paraphrase what someone close to Rozelle said several years ago: Tagliabue inherited and rolled up his sleeves to help resolve and fix many of the messes that drove Pete into retirement ... the constant litigation, franchise movement and labor unrest, just to name a few.
This is not to denigrate Rozelle; he was a pioneer who helped lead the NFL into an era where football surpassed baseball as the nation's most popular sport. He was incredibly popular with the media because he was accessible and used his experience in public relations to effectively become a teflon commissioner.
Tagliabue? He was a lawyer. A darn good one that Rozelle and NFL owners retained for some intense court battles. He didn't have an ounce of Rozelle's charisma. He never tried to be somebody he was not, but he was a man for the times who was in the commissioner's chair when television contracts surpassed the billion-dollar thresholds, the league expanded from 28 to 32 teams and, yes, he forged a healthy relationship with Upshaw -- as did a few influential owners -- that led to labor peace and a salary cap that worked for all despite a federal court ruling in favor of the players. Oh, and new stadiums were constructed under this umbrella of labor peace.
Tagliabue might not have made all the right calls, as he has admitted, but he also served with integrity and had a discernible social conscience.
When Art Modell did the unthinkable by moving the Browns out of Cleveland, Tagliabue made certain Cleveland would get an expansion franchise and the "Browns" moniker and team records would remain with its franchise. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Saints owner Tom Benson was well on his way to moving the franchise to San Antonio, but Tagliabue saw the devastation and wouldn't allow it. Several owners did not see New Orleans as a market worth salvaging, but Tagliabue did; he saved the franchise and is credited by state leaders for the resurgence of the Crescent City. Then there's the Rooney Rule, where Tagliabue and Steelers owner Dan Rooney created a policy that required interviews of minority candidates for head-coaching vacancies.
As for the concussion issues, even leading neurosurgeons will tell you that understanding concussions were in infantile stages as recently as 2000. It's probably one reason Tagliabue admitted this week he regretted minimizing concussions as far back as 1994, when he suggested it was a journalism issue, not a football problem.
But, again, blaming concussions on Tagliabue would be like blaming Rozelle for the steroids era during the 1970s and '80s that few seem to acknowledge or remember, and really was a journalistic issue, until Atlanta Falcons guard Bill Fralic took it directly to the media, the commissioner and the NFLPA in 1986 -- a year after Fralic was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
Under the transparency and forceful will of Fralic -- who took his fight to the Senate Judiciary Committee as an active player -- Rozelle did eventually move to ban steroids and tested once a year for it.
But it was Tagliabue who implemented random steroid testing even before there was a new collective bargaining agreement without strong objection from Upshaw, a Hall of Fame guard himself who also was persuaded by Fralic and some of the evidence he had seen and experienced during his own playing days.
No commissioner is perfect. It's a relay race, of sorts. Tagliabue ran his 17-year leg with historic success, integrity and social awareness.
Jones, meanwhile, dared to butt heads with Tagliabue and owners, but he was almost always right. Jones was the most influential voice who changed the landscape of NFL marketing, revenue and other owners enjoyed the unforeseen boon of franchise valuations. And players made their fair share, too.
If you want to blame Jones for firing Jimmy Johnson, you also might want to credit him with hiring Johnson in the first place. Jones replaced a Hall of Fame legend like Tom Landry and hired a college coach who soon constructed one of the greatest teams in NFL history. Jones drove "America's Team" into prosperity when it had been losing money ... and his NFL partners made money, too.
Bottom line? Tagliabue and Jones deserve to be welcomed to Canton with election on Saturday and enshrinement in August.
-- Chris Mortensen
Other offseason business ahead
Both Super Bowl teams have players on expiring contracts who figure to make some headlines this March. The Patriots' most notable free agents are on the defensive side of the football: defensive lineman Alan Branch and Chris Long, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, and defensive backs Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon, who are all scheduled to become free agents in March.
But there are offensive starters and standouts also scheduled to become free agents, including running back LeGarrette Blount, tight end Martellus Bennett and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Running backs Brandon Bolden and James Develin will also join them.
Atlanta players scheduled to become free agents include linebackers Paul Worrilow, Courtney Upshaw, Sean Weatherspoon and Philip Wheeler; defensive linemen Jonathan Babineaux and Malliciah Goodman; tight ends Jacob Tamme and Levine Toilolo; wide receivers Aldrick Robinson and Eric Weems; fullback Patrick DiMarco; offensive linemen Chris Chester and Tom Compton and quarterback Matt Schaub.
Both teams will have plenty of business to address this offseason. But first, there's the matter of finishing off this season.
-- Adam Schefter
The Browns have their prints all over Super Bowl LI
Cleveland is the unofficial sponsor of Super Bowl LI. This game doesn't shape up as it does without the Browns and the decisions they've made.
It started when they fired Bill Belichick in 1995, allowing him to join the Patriots as their assistant head coach and defensive backs coach in 1996. Two men who worked under Belichick in Cleveland, Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli, now run the Falcons -- Dimitroff as their general manager, Pioli as their assistant general manager.
The Browns allowed Kyle Shanahan to get out of his contract after the 2014 season, at which point he joined then new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn in Atlanta and has become one of the NFL's hottest young assistant coaches, slated to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
Former Browns assistants coaches Bryan Cox, Jerome Henderson and Mike McDaniel also have found a home on the Falcons' coaching staff after the Browns let them go. Four years before Shanahan signed with Atlanta, Cleveland traded the fifth pick in the 2011 NFL draft to Falcons, allowing them to select wide receiver Julio Jones. Cleveland used the picks they got in return for Jones on Phil Taylor, Greg Little, Owen Marcic, Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson. Last year, the Browns allowed center Alex Mack to leave as a free agent for Atlanta, then six months later cut wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, allowing the Falcons to claim him on waivers.
Cleveland cut running back Dion Lewis, who went on to shine in New England. Patriots defensive reinforcements in this Super Bowl include former Browns Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo. It's a startlingly high number of moves over the years that weakened the Browns and strengthened this year's Super Bowl participants. Cleveland never has played in a Super Bowl, but its influence is all over this one, as much as any other team in the league not in this game.
Meanwhile, Cleveland just made former Patriot Jamie Collins the NFL's highest-paid inside linebacker with a four-year, $50 million contract that includes $26.5 million guaranteed. Cleveland can only hope it works out better than some of its former moves.
-- Adam Schefter
Emptying the notebook
One of the most overlooked but touching storylines of Super Bowl LI: This is the first time Bill Belichick's sons are both working under him in a Super Bowl. Steve Belichick is the Patriots' safeties coach and Brian is one of the Patriots' in-house scouts, grinding on free agency, the draft and any scouting issue that needs attention. "Special," Bill Belichick said about the father-sons Super Bowl pairing. "Yeah, special -- unlike any other, really. It was obviously great to have Steve, but also to have Brian, too. I mean, it's special."
Speaking of fathers and sons, Bill Belichick has already commented that he sees Mike Shanahan's influence all over Kyle Shanahan's offense. The first thing Belichick notices is the stretch play. Also the bootleg. And the Falcons run those plays in a lot of different ways -- out of 11 personnel, 12 personnel, tight ends together, no tight ends, one tight end, motion a tight end, on and on. But if the Patriots can't stop that play, Sunday will be a long day.
Patriots president Jonathan Kraft was going to have tickets to Super Bowl LI in Houston no matter what. Kraft is an original season-ticket holder for the Texans with his wife, Patti Lipoma, being from the Houston area, though he never once has used the tickets himself. Lipoma's family and friends use the four season tickets in Section 107, row BB, seats 1-4, which are on the 50-yard line. Kraft will have all the tickets he wants -- plus four. His four.
-- Adam Schefter