Quite a busy week, huh, for new Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green.
Let's see, he released five veterans, all of them nondescript and all of them taking snaps away from younger players. He reversed direction on Raynoch Thompson, opting not to cut one of his most talented defenders, after a tete-a-tete with the linebacker. And he benched L.J. Shelton, despite the fact he's a three-year starter at left tackle, and a guy who banked a $5 million signing bonus seven months ago when his contract was redone.
So these four words of advice, having viewed from afar the events of the week, for those folks accustomed to seeing much a slower and more cautious pace from one of the league's most moribund franchises: Get used to it.
Because the fun, and the makeover of the Cardinals, is just getting started. Just wait until Green really hits his stride.
He may not be a miracle worker, which is what it would take to shepherd the Cardinals to the playoffs in 2004. But Dennis Green is a proven commodity, a guy who knows how to win, and who eventually will succeed in the desert. That eclipse which has hovered over The Valley of the Sun for too many NFL seasons will move on in the next couple years.
Among the several nicknames hung on Green by his Minnesota Vikings players, some of them behind his back but most of which he knew about anyway, was "The Sheriff." We think there's another "sh" handle, "The Shark," that might be even more apropos for him in his second head coaching incarnation. Why so? Because if a shark ever stops moving, it dies, and Green hasn't stopped moving and shaking since he touched down in Phoenix.
His hiring, an uncommon stroke of genius by the Bidwill family, has provided energy to a franchise that sorely needed some pizzazz. Green is a do-er, a man of decisiveness and of action, arguably the pluperfect panacea for a team that has been ailing for a long time. If it takes shaking things up a bit to somehow get the dead-in-the-water ship right again, well, he is probably the guy to have at the wheel.
Of course, make no mistake, Green is going to do most of the steering. That doesn't mean vice president Rod Graves won't get input, because clearly his vote will count, but Green has quickly become the face of the franchise. And it's a visage, and a vision as well, that commands respect and allows fans and players to believe something better lies ahead.
Said one veteran: "He's got some snake-oil salesman in him, that's for sure, but you can't help but buy into it. I mean, everything he talks about, he can back up with his résumé. He isn't going to sit still and just wait for something to happen. In a real short time here, he's demonstrated he'll make something happen."
How quickly Green can reverse the fortunes of a team that has made only one playoff appearance since relocating from St. Louis in 1988 remains to be seen. But any inertia won't result from a lack of effort and this week offered just the latest example of how Green figures to operate.
Despite the national spin, dumping the five veteran backups had nothing to do with the salary cap, since the Cardinals were already more than $7 million under the cap and the moves generated only modest savings. Instead, the departures were meant to create more opportunities for younger, hungrier players. In the Thompson case, Green displayed some pliability, deciding to afford the talented but temperamental linebacker another chance. And with Shelton, overweight and apparently underachieving in the offseason, Green showed that reputations and paychecks don't matter to him.
It was suggested that, with the demotion of Shelton at mid-week, Green was sending a message to the troops. But here's the thing about Green: He doesn't send messages in manners veiled or otherwise. What you see with Green is what you get. There is really little pretense and he doesn't reconcile patience very well. When he looks you in the eye, and tells you something, the words are typically stripped of all veneer.
"He's not a guy who blows smoke," said starting quarterback Josh McCown. "There is no hidden agenda. I think part of the reason he has been so quickly respected, beyond the fact he's been there and done it in the past, is that he shoots straight with you."
In the case of McCown, whose resume includes all of three starts, that meant not going after one of the highly regarded quarterbacks in the draft and not attempting to sign a guy like Kerry Collins. A man who believes in his "system," which he trumpets at just about every opportunity, Green went to the playoffs eight times in Minnesota and did so with six different quarterbacks. Not only does he believe in giving people a chance, he also believes in his own abilities to make things work, and it's hard to argue the track record.
Another example of his lack of subterfuge in matters football-related: Three months before the draft, while chatting at the commissioner's party two nights before the Super Bowl, Green all but assured a couple of reporters that if Larry Fitzgerald was granted eligibility, he was going to take him. While everyone surmised Green was bluffing, he never wavered in his conviction, even though the Cardinals had chosen wideouts in the first and second rounds in 2003.
"I never doubted him," Fitzgerald said.
Those who regard Arizona as one of the league's hinterlands, a place where no one will ever succeed, might be wise to adopt a similar stance. This week provided a capsulized insight into Dennis Green and how he works. In the big picture, though, it was just a Kodak moment. There are a lot more changes to come. And, eventually, those changes will dramatically alter the Arizona franchise for the better.
Around the league
What a difference a week makes, huh? In this space last week, the first three items in the "Around the League" section included some mention of tailback Eddie George and his possible departure from the Tennessee Titans. Since then, cooler heads have prevailed and, after a Thursday meeting between George and Titans executives, the climate is a lot more positive. Tennessee had no intention of releasing George anyway right after the June 1 date for gaining salary cap relief, and part of the rationale was that both sides could find a middle ground to satisfy their respective needs. It seems that, with the Thursday session, things are headed in the right direction. George will still have to cut his salary, probably from $4.25 million to about $1.5 million (he already banked a roster bonus of $1 million back in March), but the projection is that he remains the starter. He will have to cede some carries to heir apparent Chris Brown, the second-year veteran who will eventually replace him, but George seems to have no quibble with that. Of course, the money issues still have to be resolved, but George would like to have the situation wrapped up by his wedding, on June 20.
The contract extension that San Francisco negotiated this week with linebacker Jamie Winborn was a nice move by the 49ers, and certainly demonstrates the confidence club officials have that the three-year veteran will recover from what was once considered a potential career-threatening neck injury. A second-round choice in the 2001 draft, the former Vanderbilt star is a solid performer with great promise, but injuries limited him to just 26 games and seven starts his first three seasons. But here's a hint of how productive Winborn might be if he can stay on the field: In nine games last season, none of them as a starter, he posted 61 tackles and three sacks. Project those numbers over an entire 16-game season and you get a feel for Winborn's potential. Agent Steve Baker did a nice job negotiating an extension that provided Winborn a $1 million signing bonus, a tidy sum for a guy with such an extensive injury history. The 49ers announced the deal as a five-year extension but, essentially, it is a one-year add-on. That's because, after 2005, the annual compensation for Winborn can jump to about $6 million, and that would be unwieldy for the 49ers. Winborn gets a $550,00 base salary for 2005 and a roster bonus of $500,000. But here's the best part: If he plays in 10 games either this year or next, he will get a bonus of $1.2 million. That's a payday of about $3.25 million for '05 if Winborn can stay healthy. It is also a show of good faith on the part of 49ers management.
The Jaguars made a good move this week by re-signing defensive end Tony Brackens, the franchise sack leader, but a veteran Jacksonville released earlier in the offseason for cap reasons. Although still limited in practices by chronic knee woes, Brackens remains a natural "edge" pass rusher and is still capable of posting 8-10 sacks per year, especially if his snaps are maximized. At least three other teams made inquiries, one of them serious, about adding Brackens as a situational pass rusher. Notable about the Jags re-signing Brackens, though, is that bringing him back all but negates the salary cap savings that the club realized when he was cut. Brackens' former contract called for him to have a salary cap charge of $9.261 million for 2004. The charge was reduced to $7.051 million, a difference of about $2.2 million, when he was jettisoned. But his new cap charge, on the one-year deal signed this week, is $2.029 million. Added to the "dead money" charge of $7.051 million Jacksonville must carry because of Brackens' old contract, and the team has $9.08 million in cap room counting for him, almost as much as the old charge. The new deal pays Brackens a $300,000 signing bonus, base salary of $1.025 million, a roster bonus of $398,438 and workout bonus of $5,600. There is also $300,000 in so-called "likely to be earned" incentives.
The 2005 draft might not be as deep at wide receiver as this year's lottery but, according to the early grades disseminated to member clubs at the recent sessions held by National Football scouting, the position should again be a pretty strong one. National is one of the two combine groups that provide scouting reports to subscriber teams. Both National and Blesto recently finished their annual spring meetings. The top 10 players as assessed by National feature three wideouts. The elite 10, in order, as graded by National scouts: RB Carnell "Cadillac" Williams (Auburn), CB Antrel Rolle (Miami), DE David Pollock (Georgia), OT Alex Barron (Florida State), WR Braylon Edwards (Michigan), DE Shaun Cody (Southern California), LB Barrett Ruud (Nebraska), WR Mark Clayton (Oklahoma), WR Terrence Murphy (Texas A&M) and WR Craphonso Thorpe (Florida State). These early grades are just an initial indicator, change dramatically over the course of the season, and essentially provide teams preliminary information on potential draft prospects.
One of the pleasant surprises of the offseason in San Diego has been the performance of journeyman offensive lineman David Brandt, who has been working at center despite the fact he has mostly been a guard in his career. Brandt is getting a ton of snaps at center because Jason Ball, who started 21 games for the Chargers over the past two seasons, has skipped all of the offseason programs. Seems that Ball, originally an undrafted free agent from New Hampshire, is balking at signing the one-year "exclusive rights" minimum offer of $380,000. But in this case, Ball has little leverage, since "exclusive rights" means precisely that. A player with less than three years accrued toward the pension cannot talk with other teams even if his contract has expired. In essence, Ball can only re-sign with the Chargers, unless they relinquish his rights. And San Diego officials are not inclined to set him free. Bottom line: Ball, a guy with zero leverage, is losing valuable practice time while coming off an injury that limited him to eight games in 2003, and could well lose his starting job, too.
Having converted only 20 of 33 field goal attempts in 2003, a league-worst rate of 60.6 percent, second-year veteran Seth Marler was going to have a difficult time retaining his roster spot with the Jacksonville Jaguars. But this week may have signaled the beginning of the end for Marler, who aggravated a quadriceps injury that had already limited his work in the offseason. Head coach Jack Del Rio and special teams coordinator Pete Rodriguez weren't happy about the latest setback and neither man tried very hard to hide his displeasure. The Jaguars signed former San Francisco 2003 fourth-round draft pick Jeff Chandler as a free agent this spring and chose Josh Scobee of Louisiana Tech in the fifth round of this year's draft. There is a chance Marler won't make it to the opening of training camp now.
We're not suggesting any conflict of interest or even a hint of impropriety here, New York Jets officials, so no phone calls, please. We do think it's interesting, however, that the franchise recently retained sports marketing powerhouse IMG to help determine how much the club can charge for luxury suites, club seating and sponsorships if the Jets plans for a new stadium on the West Side of Manhattan become a reality. So why is the IMG connection so notable? Because quarterback Chad Pennington, who is entering the final year of his original NFL contract and inarguably is the biggest key to the Jets' future in terms of personnel, is represented by IMG Football.
One element that went into the Washington Redskins' decision to release tailback Trung Canidate, only a year after acquiring him in a trade, is that the team fears he will need foot surgery to repair an injury that slowed him in 2003. The main reason Canidate was lopped, of course, is that he isn't the kind of power back coach Joe Gibbs favors. But some 'Skins officials are whispering to teams seemingly interested in adding Canidate as a backup that he may not be ready to play for a while.
Punts: Chad Hutchinson looks to be the odd-man out on the Dallas quarterback depth chart. Hutchinson is currently ailing from a shoulder injury he sustained while playing in the NFL Europe League and spent this week being examined by renowned orthopedist James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. Also, owner Jerry Jones indicated this week that the Cowboys will not bring five quarterbacks to camp. With Vinny Testaverde, Quincy Carter, Drew Henson and Tony Romo seemingly locked into spots, Hutchinson probably is on the way out. The Steelers have opened contract extension negotiations with starting linebackers Kendrell Bell and James Farrior. Although team official deny it, speculation persists that New Orleans might listen to offers for veteran wide receiver Joe Horn. The Saints aren't going to do anything, though, until they determine that the great offseason performance of former first-round wideout Donté Stallworth is for real, and that he is beyond the nagging hamstring problems of the past. Detroit remains interested in signing veteran defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, but wants him to move further along in his recovery from 2003 injuries before making a solid contract offer.
The last word: "The Browns are not so bad. The Ravens? Ooooh, that would hurt, that would hurt bad. I wish the best for him but, oh, that would hurt right there if he went with those guys." -- Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter, on the possibility that former bookend partner Jason Gildon, released by the Steelers this week, could end up in Baltimore
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.