George just waiting for another chance
Jeff George is sitting at home waiting for some team to give him another chance to play.
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.
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.
|“||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. ”|
|— Jeff George|
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.
For a dozen seasons, the last few of which have been spent battling knee problems, Tennessee Titans left offensive tackle Brad Hopkins has been among the NFL's premier weakside pass protectors. And for Sunday's contest against Indianapolis, and his matchup with Colts right defensive end Dwight Freeney, he will have to bring his "A" game. Freeney is not only the Colts' best pass rusher, but probably their best defensive player, period, the one guy for whom an opponent must extensively game-plan. In four games against the Titans, and working against Hopkins most of the time, he has 19 tackles total and one sack in each contest. When he came into the league, the undersized Freeney was primarily a speed-rusher, but he has picked up some new tricks. The Colts will move him at times to the inside shoulder of the tackle because he has developed some nice counter and spin moves.
Two terrific young tailbacks, Baltimore's Jamal Lewis and LaDainian Tomlinson of San Diego, will each play in their 50th regular-season game this weekend. Lewis has rushed for 4,814 yards in his first 49 games, Tomlinson 4,685. Here are the top rushers in league history over the first 50 games of their NFL careers:
Player - Team - Yards
Eric Dickerson - Rams - 5.597
Earl Campbell - Oilers - 5,411
Jim Brown - Browns - 5,248
Terrell Davis - Broncos - 5,062
Edgerrin James - Colts - 4,814
Stat of the Week
There has been considerable skepticism over the possibility that Deion Sanders will line up at wide receiver for the Ravens this weekend but, with Travis Taylor sidelined by a groin injury, one might argue that "Prime Time" is actually the most qualified player on the roster to join Kevin Johnson in the lineup. The three candidates to replace Taylor -- third-year veteran Randy Hymes and rookies Devard Darling and Clarence Moore -- have combined for six catches, 123 yards and no touchdowns. In his various flirtations with the wide receiver position, Sanders has 60 receptions, 784 yards and three touchdowns.
Stat of the Weak
In last Sunday's victory over the New York Giants, Terrell Owens had three touchdown catches. That equals the number of scores for the Philadelphia Eagles starting wideouts of a year ago, when Todd Pinkston had two touchdown grabs and James Thrash had one.
The Last Word
"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
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.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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