Revenue sharing stands in way of new CBA
Trying to get the NFL owners to agree on how to share revenue has been a difficult task for Paul Tagliabue.
WASHINGTON Just about the time NFL owners were convening for a Wednesday morning session here on business-related matters, a fleet of black, unmarked SUVs pulled up and a fast-moving SWAT team quickly established a secure perimeter around the posh hotel at which the league meetings were being held.
Within a few minutes, Secret Service agents patrolled the lobby, and officers from various law enforcement entities made themselves conspicuous. A host of plainclothes lawmen you know, those undercover trench-coat guys you see in movies, sporting earpieces and seemingly talking into their wrists suddenly descended on the place. In a scene that was way too real life for most of we media hacks unaccustomed to this kind of stuff, you half-expected to see Clint Eastwood or Denzel Washington emerge from a cop car.
So, commissioner Paul Tagliabue, chagrined at the lack of movement on the vexing revenue-sharing issue that threatens the underpinnings of the NFL's nonpareil success, had finally called in some muscle to try to nudge the most intransigent owners, huh?
Uh, no, not quite.
Seems some diplomatic dignitary with Middle Eastern ties, said to be Palestinian, was visiting the hotel for a meeting of his own. Seems, too, Tagliabue might have a better chance of brokering an accord between the Israelis and Palestinians than of striking a compromise deal with his league's "have" and "have-not" franchises, especially given the incremental-only progress on narrowing the widening disparity between the two.
Peace in the Left Bank before the NFL grabs another piece of the Left Coast, specifically the lucrative Los Angeles market, could happen because resettling in Los Angeles will not happen now, it seems, until the NFL reaches an extension of the collective bargaining agreement. And that won't occur until (or unless) the league resolves its internal debate over how to distribute its wealth in a more egalitarian fashion.
|“||There's going to have to be give and take on everyone's side. Not just for the sake of the individual club owner, but for the league as a whole. That's the bigger picture. If people are shortsighted enough not to see that, you may [eventually] wind up without a collective bargaining agreement, and you may have a strike year. I don't want to say Armageddon, but you understand what I'm saying. ”|
|— Dean Spanos, Chargers president|
You almost wondered if the commissioner might have been tempted, after two days that didn't move things significantly closer to resolution, to snatch an AK-47 from one of the SWAT team members. He could have holed up the owners in a hotel ballroom, at rifle-point, barred the doors, and ordered that no one was leaving until a new revenue-sharing plan was in place.
Because he is a man more interested in building bridges than detonating them, Tagliabue opted to point this more figurative gun at the heads of the 32 owners: He has scheduled a series of five meetings, one per month from June through October, in an attempt to settle the knotty problem of revenue sharing. There are few things league owners dislike much more than meetings. But at this point, for those owners of the highest-revenue franchises, sharing more of the bounty with their less fortunate brethren might be one of them.
"Hopefully, by then," Tagliabue claimed on Wednesday evening, referring to October, "we'll be signing an agreement and not looking like pumpkins."
Or, more accurately, like bumpkins.
Then again, if the clock strikes midnight on the NFL, and the league plays under an uncapped season in 2007, or allows the labor accord with its players to expire, the 32 owners are going to be quite a collection of ugly stepbrothers. Yet that's the way things are headed and, despite the guarded optimism offered by the commissioner in his wrap-up to this week's meetings, owners seem stalemated on the revenue-sharing issue.
"There's going to have to be give and take on everyone's side," said San Diego president Dean Spanos. "Not just for the sake of the individual club owner, but for the league as a whole. That's the bigger picture. If people are shortsighted enough not to see that, you may [eventually] wind up without a collective bargaining agreement, and you may have a strike year. I don't want to say Armageddon, but you understand what I'm saying."
Dallas owner Jerry Jones, whose Cowboys are among the NFL's highest earning franchises noted: "We'll find an answer, because we have to, and everyone knows that. But what [the solution] is, well, I don't know yet. I don't think anyone does, really."
By now, though, most everyone knows the central question: How does a league whose hallmark has been competitive balance wrought, in part, by splitting the revenues from national television contracts, leaguewide licensing deals and the sale of most tickets, now reconcile the reality that 8-10 of its franchises earn so much more than the others? Can a small-market team like the Minnesota Vikings be competitive in the long term when it takes in perhaps $100 million less in revenues than the Washington Redskins?
Currently, the 32 teams share evenly about 60 percent of the approximately $5.5 billion that the league generates in aggregate revenues. But it is the percentage of unshared revenues monies derived from things like luxury suites, club seats, concessions and parking, local radio and television, sponsorships, advertising and stadium and training complex naming rights that has mushroomed. Most of the exponential increases in those areas have been with the more prosperous franchises, certainly those that have either new or dramatically refurbished stadiums.
In a perfect world, some league officials contend, the amount of unshared revenues would be roughly halved. But the NFL world has become an increasingly imperfect universe according to the lower revenue owners.
"It's a huge problem," acknowledged Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay. "And you get some sense that the [richer teams] aren't all that sympathetic. Everyone keeps talking about the need to get something done. But we're just inching along right now, that's all. People say talk is cheap, you know? But the more we just talk, without taking any kind of action, well, it's not cheap at all. The gap just keeps widening. The last thing we want to be is baseball, where you've got a team spending $250 million or whatever on [payroll] and another one spending $35 million. We can't do business that way."
The fact is the NFL is finding it difficult to conduct meaningful business in several key areas. Until the owners resolve their internal problems, there likely will not be an extension to the collective bargaining agreement. The current deal expires after the 2007 campaign, and that season would be an uncapped year, minus an extension. Translation: There would be no spending limits at all. Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, has cautioned if the salary cap genie ever escapes the bottle, there will be no jamming him back into the vessel.
His counterpart on the league side, Harold Henderson, vice president of labor relations, told ESPN.com last month that windows of opportunity for an extension are beginning to close. Henderson said he fears as the league nears the uncapped year, some will dig in on their negotiating stances and positions will become more rigid.
At the bargaining table, league officials have all but said they can meet the union's demands for a bigger portion of the pie. In fact, the NFL is prepared to essentially share all its revenues, not just the so-called "designated gross revenues" currently called for in the collective bargaining agreement, with its players. But it can't get a handshake deal with Upshaw until the owners reach a middle ground among themselves.
The inertia created by the current unsettled situation even means league officials have slowed the process for deciding the fate of the Los Angeles market. The league might be attempting to create some leverage against the high-revenue teams in that regard creating pressure to get things fixed, so that the NFL can move forward in Los Angeles, and owners will be able to share in the riches to be reaped there but that still might not be enough to loosen the current gridlock.
"No one is talking about [the NFL] yet in terms of hockey or basketball, where you've had one [NHL] season wiped out already, and now the [NBA] is talking lockout," said Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. "And let's hope we never get into that discussion, OK? We'd better be smart enough not to start down that road." Fans like to consider the salary cap some sort of great equalizer but that isn't really the case. As noted here in the past, the cap is more a bookkeeping number than a spending limit, and only partly reflects a franchise's payroll and other player-related costs. That's why teams like Washington, the league's Golden Goose, can afford a payroll in excess of $100 million, while some other clubs have an outlay of 40 percent less than that.
On Tuesday evening, after a day of meetings, the owners proceeded to Capitol Hill for some flesh-pressing with congressmen. The evening is said to have been arranged by Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, which was ironic, since the league owners figure to engage in plenty of filibustering over the next few months. Lots of lobbying, too, it seems.
To be honest, the NFL long ago ceased to be a mom-and-pop operation, but now it has lost its mom-and-pop feel, too. Old-guard owners, such as Dan Rooney in Pittsburgh and Ralph Wilson of Buffalo, speak wistfully of the "one for all and all for one" days of yore. Wilson recently recalled a time when he floated the Oakland Raiders a $400,000 loan in the early 1960s to keep the team in business, because he feared if the franchise collapsed, the old AFL would have disintegrated along with it.
Unfortunately, there is a sense the old attitude of "buddy, can you spare me a dime" philosophy doesn't exist much anymore.
It used to be said the league was built on the shoulders of individuals like Rooney, or his father, the late and sainted Art Rooney Sr. But the composition of the ownership has changed pretty dramatically, with many of those in the younger crowd having leveraged themselves and their fortunes to buy their way into the pretty exclusive fraternity. Those newer owners tend to be increasingly aggressive, certainly more entrepreneurial, and they have to be, since many of them carry such exorbitant debt services.
|“||No one is talking about [the NFL] yet in terms of hockey or basketball, where you've had one [NHL] season wiped out already, and now the [NBA] is talking lockout. And let's hope we never get into that discussion, OK? We'd better be smart enough not to start down that road. ”|
|— Arthur Blank, Falcons owner|
Bob McNair of Houston, who spent $700 million to buy the expansion Texans and is doling out $40 million per year in interest on the debt he incurred, says he has to maximize every dollar. Chairman of the nine-man committee that has been studying NFL economics for the last year, McNair continues to vow that a solution will be reached. But his words don't always mesh with the wishes of some of his brethren.
"We paid a big price to buy [into] a big market," McNair said, "and that's a consideration we have to keep in mind. If you take most of the high-income teams and subtract the debt service, the difference isn't quite as substantial as it's made out to be."
Don't try telling that to Wilson, who has sounded a cautionary clarion call, and bristles when some of the big-money owners suggest they work harder than he does and that they market their teams more efficiently. Wilson presides over a Rust Belt team in a city with a declining population, has to market the Bills to Western New York and Canada to help fill his stadium, and argues he doesn't have as many moneymaking opportunities.
When it comes to those revenue streams, Wilson suggested in a recent interview with the Buffalo News, that the high-revenue franchises are moving along swimmingly while clubs like the Bills are barely treading water.
"They want to knock us down and have us get up at the count of nine, so they can have another fight and knock us down again," Wilson said.
On Wednesday evening, as the league's two-day meeting concluded, Tagliabue tried to put an optimistic face on the proceedings. He allowed that there were several areas of what he termed "structural changes" that were floated during the sessions, and cited a few examples of models being studied by the owners.
Yet even as owners hustled into limousines and taxicabs to catch early evening flights back to their home precincts, the Secret Service agents still surrounding the hotel served as a symbolic reminder that it remains a tense time.
In the real world, certainly, and in the NFL world as well.
"We're at a critical juncture," said Rooney, one of the NFL's most influential owners, and a man who has suggested the league faces perhaps its biggest test in 50 years, or ever since it decided to share television revenues. "The disparity keeps getting bigger and it you just look at the projected numbers on where this is headed, it's mind-boggling. I've always been an optimist and I always will be, so I believe that we're smart enough to figure this thing out and that cooler heads will prevail. But we've got to start making headway. To this point, there hasn't been a lot of movement, and that's disappointing."
Around the league
• It's never easy to divine what goes into the owners' decision to award a Super Bowl to a candidate city (although the good folks from Atlanta were convinced Wednesday, when their city finished as the runner-up to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII, that the infamous ice storm of 2000 scuttled their chances). But there is a growing suspicion that what prompted owners not to vote for Houston, which was, along with Atlanta, considered a front-runner for the 2009 game, was a backlash directed at Texans owner Bob McNair from some of the smaller-revenue franchises.
Some owners from small-market teams feel, justifiably or not, that McNair has not been particularly sensitive to their needs. The Houston owner is a class act and has quickly risen to a position of undeniable prominence in league circles. He is chairman of the nine-man committee that for the past year has been studying league economics. There might be a core group of owners that feels McNair has not done enough in that position to nudge some of the high-revenue teams toward a new and more equitable agreement on revenue sharing.
Whatever the rationale of McNair's peers, Houston was the first of the four cities vying for Super Bowl XLIII to be eliminated. And that was almost as shocking as the fact that Tampa, which apparently tossed a ton of freebies at the NFL, including 150 tickets for each owner to a Super Bowl eve gala at Busch Gardens, won the rights to the game.
• One of the comic-relief elements of the league meetings was watching the British media, represented considerably in Washington, try to track down reclusive Tampa Bay owner Malcolm Glazer for any comment on his pending purchase of the Manchester United soccer club. Their intrepidness was only feebly rewarded. Glazer, who apparently entered the meeting most days through a back entrance (one member of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl bid committee suggested the Bucs owner was ferried to the meeting level in a freight elevator one day), is a tough guy to nail down. Even when he appeared at the news conference after his city's bid for Super Bowl XLIII was chosen, he declined to answer queries about the Man U situation.
Far more important to Glazer than responding to queries from the British media, however, was fielding questions from his NFL fraternity brothers, particularly those on the finance committee. As noted by ESPN.com earlier in the week, it appears there are no provisions in the NFL's cross-ownership rules that will preclude Glazer and his family from consummating the $1.5 billion acquisition of the world's most high-profile sports franchise. There remain some questions about an agreement that Manchester United has with a Las Vegas developer to build a casino near the club's famed stadium, Old Trafford. League rules prohibit an owner from having a stake in a casino. But Glazer apparently did a reasonable job of addressing concerns in that area, although there is still some work to be done.
All of that said, there remain a few owners who aren't prepared to rubber-stamp Glazer's foray into the soccer world. Not surprisingly, one of them is Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, an NFL traditionalist. "Am I concerned? Yeah," Rooney said. "Not about the financial aspects so much as by the time [factor]. Malcolm can say that his sons are going to run the soccer team, but how much time will he have to spend in England? And does that interfere with the time he's spending on the Bucs? I'm sure he'll figure it out. But I'm in the football business. And I believe our principal sport should be the National Football League."
• For now, we'll stick to our guess, made in this space last week, that the San Francisco 49ers will have top overall draft pick Alex Smith signed to his first contract well in advance of the start of training camp. But the deal might not come together quite as quickly as we guessed a week ago. Tom Condon of IMG Football, the agent for the former Utah quarterback, huddled with 49ers negotiators this week and, while there was some progress, it wasn't as if the bargaining was advanced all that much.
The two sides, as previously noted, seemed in the same ballpark financially and had moved on to some matters of contract language. But it still appears there is some reluctance on the part of the 49ers to pay Smith more than Eli Manning, the first overall choice in the 2004 draft, received in his deal. IMG Football, of course, represented Manning as well, and isn't likely to do a deal worth less than last year's contract for the No. 1 pick.
Brown was offered a two- or three-year contract by New Orleans that would have paid him $1.2 million for 2005 and a much fatter signing bonus. The Saints spent plenty of time in their sales pitch assuring Brown that he would be their No. 3 wideout, and operate out of the slot, where he had so much success in the past. The Pats didn't make a lot of promises, other than to tell Brown that he will have the opportunity to compete for a roster spot. So, is Brown nuts for taking a deal worth $400,000 less than the Saints would have paid him? No, not nuts, just rare. There are some guys in the league who will change teams for a $40,000 difference in money. But Belichick does an incredible job demonstrating loyalty to players, and Brown is the latest example of that loyalty returned.
By the way, in addition to the contributions he might have made on the field, Brown would have been a terrific addition for the Saints even more for the mature presence he would have brought to the New Orleans locker room.
• Without much fanfare this week, a pair of one-time NFL first-round draft picks, defensive end Demetrius Underwood (Vikings, 1999) and cornerback Rashard Anderson (Panthers, 2000), signed with CFL franchises in an effort to resuscitate their careers. Anderson, who has not played since 2001 after being banned by the league for repeat violations of the substance abuse policy, signed with the Calgary Stampeders. Underwood, whose NFL career was essentially ended by bipolar disorder, joined the Ottawa Renegades.
Eleven veterans who were first-round selections have gone north of the border to try to restart their football careers, and here's hoping Anderson and Underwood fare better than some of the others, such as tailback Lawrence Phillips, offensive tackle Bernard "Big Bird" Williams and wide receiver R. Jay Soward.
Anderson, who was reinstated by the NFL a year ago after finally kicking a marijuana habit he had been unable to shake for a long time, could find no takers in the league after he was released by Carolina. He said this week that playing in the CFL is more important to his ongoing aftercare than it is to getting back onto an NFL roster. "I sit back and think about some things," said Anderson, 27, who begins practicing with the Stampeders this weekend. "My coaches would say, 'How could you mess up millions of dollars?' [But] that wasn't the reason a person should stop doing the things I did. You should stop because it's your life, because you are sacrificing yourself, your family and all of that. That's when you realize that this stuff is messing you up. As far as money, the fame and the glory, it doesn't mean anything. You have to learn that [drug use] is affecting your life, your family, your kids. I [finally] realized that's not the way to be. But I didn't [just] realize it in five days. It took me three years."
A big, physical defensive back with good speed, Anderson said he has been clean now for 15 months.
• Don't be surprised if, in the not-too-distant future, the so-called "Rooney Rule" is extended to include front-office jobs. The rule, the name of which is disdained by Steelers owner Dan Rooney, is essentially the guideline that stipulates that a team must include minority candidates during the process of filling head coach vacancies. Several months ago during his Super Bowl week news conference, commissioner Paul Tagliabue noted that the league wasn't quite ready yet to apply those same guidelines to vacancies for general manager and other front-office positions. "We don't have penalty or mandatory interview requirements [for the front-office jobs] because we haven't satisfied ourselves that we've done enough to recruit people and to really have a deep pool of talent within the league," Tagliabue said at the time.
But the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group that has championed the cause of diversity and inclusiveness in the NFL workplace, continues to push for the Rooney Rule to be extended. And Rooney allowed that there is increasing discussion about doing so. "We're definitely talking about it, and I think, at some point, you'll see it," Rooney said.
• Look for free-agent linebacker Peter Boulware, recently released by Baltimore, to begin making visits to interested teams after the Memorial Day holiday. Boulware and agent Roosevelt Barnes have all but finished studying the rosters, and linebacker situations, of the 13-14 teams that have indicated interest in the eight-year veteran and four-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher. The teams most likely to interest Boulware remain Cleveland and Seattle, but there are other situations he likes as well. As noted here previously, teams are going to want a thorough physical exam on Boulware, who hasn't played since the next-to-last game of the 2003 season. Some teams contend that, although Boulware is suggesting he could play a full game right now, he is only about 80 percent rehabilitated from the knee and toe injuries that sidelined him for the entire 2004 campaign.
• The issue was never raised in front of the membership this week, or even floated to the competition committee, but New England owner Bob Kraft had been quietly lobbying for a rule that would permit a team to "protect" the No. 2 football man in its organization. Translation: A team could block one key employee, perhaps its director of football operations, from accepting another job as long as he was under contract.
In the case of the Patriots, for instance, Bill Belichick is recognized by the NFL as the team's primary decision maker on matters relating to football. Vice president Scott Pioli, the brilliant first lieutenant, is viewed as New England's second-in-command. Several people who have heard about Kraft's pitch refer to it as the "Pioli Rule" because they feel it is fully intended to limit his options. But Pioli has said he intends to honor his contract with the Patriots and once Pioli's deal lapses, Kraft can't keep him anyway if he opts to leave for another job.
The initiative by Kraft has little support, especially among general managers and personnel directors, and seems to be dying a quiet death. But it's a good bet that, if the matter had been presented to the competition committee, it would have been panned. "It's not a fair rule," one team official said. "You've got to be able to have some mobility for the No. 2 guys. If a team loses its head coach, for whatever reason, there is a pool of candidates and lots of options. You can consider, for instance, exploring the college ranks. But there is no outside arena from which to find a new general manager or personnel director. We're not growing those people outside of our [league] ranks."
McQuarters, whose résumé includes 58 starts in seven NFL seasons, and who has played virtually every position in the secondary and on special teams, will continue to explore his options. He might visit with the New York Giants, and all three Florida franchises have indicated an interest in meeting with him, as well. The former San Francisco first-rounder has 10 career interceptions and 52 passes defensed. He has averaged 9.4 yards, and scored three times, on punt returns and has a 21.2-yard average on kickoff returns. McQuarters' career has been marked by inconsistency but, in a league where teams always need cornerbacks, he will find a home soon enough.
• San Francisco wide receiver Derrick Hamilton, a 2004 third-rounder who was having an impressive spring and making a strong run at the No. 3 wideout spot, this week became the fourth player leaguewide to sustain a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear in an offseason workout. But those critics who contend that teams have taken the offseason activities to an extreme, and that many players don't have enough time for their bodies to recover from the previous season, can hold their denouncements on these four injuries. Ligament injuries, unfortunately, are a part of the game, even in the offseason. The bigger problem is the number of soft tissue injuries that players sustain in the offseason. Those are a much more significant indicator of how little "down" time players have anymore.
As for the 49ers, well, Mike Nolan might have to sign a veteran wideout now to replace Hamilton, but that doesn't mean the Niners' first-year head coach regrets not adding David Boston or Jerry Rice when he had an opportunity. "I want a good receiver, not a receiver with a good name," Nolan said. There should be a few veterans, notably Rod Gardner of Washington and perhaps Kansas City's Johnnie Morton, available in the next week or so. And there are a few serviceable guys, Tai Streets for one, who are still in the unrestricted pool.
• It wasn't all that surprising this week when the Denver Broncos moved cornerback Jeremy LeSueur, a third-round pick in 2004 who missed his entire rookie campaign with a hernia injury, to safety. There were plenty of scouts before the 2004 draft who felt that the former University of Michigan standout, a terrific athlete with good size and hitting skills, was perhaps better suited for safety at the NFL level. If he can make the transition, LeSueur would provide a big boost to a Denver secondary that lacks cover skills at its interior positions and has been exposed by Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis receiving corps in each of the last two postseasons.
But the switch of LeSueur to safety continues a trend for the Broncos and for coach Mike Shanahan. We've noted here in the past how poorly Shanahan has drafted candidates for the defensive line. Well, his track record with cornerbacks isn't exactly sterling, either, especially in the first three rounds. Denver chose Chris Watson in the third round in 1999, and kept him for all of one year. Deltha O'Neal was the team's first-round pick in 2000, but after O'Neal fell into disfavor, Shanahan tried to convert him into a wide receiver, then traded him. The Broncos still haven't figured out whether Willie Middlebrooks, a first-rounder in 2001, is a corner or a safety. And now LeSueur is being moved to safety.
• It probably isn't the career boost that will catapult him into upper management, but a big-time Tip Sheet thank you to Charles Newsome, the assistant manager of the Sprint cell phone store on 18th Street in Washington, D.C. After yours truly carelessly left his cell phone on top of a Delta ticket kiosk in Atlanta on Monday evening, Newsome hooked me up with a new one and quickly reactivated my number on Tuesday morning. Charles was a real lifesaver. And to the jerk who took my original phone, and opted not to turn it in to the lost and found office in Atlanta, well, I hope you have a great time with that $99 piece of junk that is now inactive.
• Punts: Credit Houston general manager Charley Casserly for continuing to seek ways to upgrade the offensive line unit in front of often-sacked quarterback David Carr. Entering the expansion franchise's fourth season, Casserly has provided enough talent to win, even though the Texans play in a division featuring Indianapolis and Jacksonville, but one big key remains keeping Carr perpendicular. The Texans recently signed Victor Riley and this week visited with former Arizona starting tackle L.J. Shelton. ... Saints sources continue to brag about the offseason performance of quarterback Aaron Brooks, who they claim has responded well to the scaled-down playbook used by new coordinator Mike Sheppard. ... We were remiss last week in failing to congratulate legendary former Auburn coach Pat Dye -- the father of good friend and Atlanta-based agent Pat Dye Jr. -- on his selection to the College Football Hall of Fame. ... The chances of tailback Eddie George returning to Tennessee, to serve as backup to Chris Brown, are growing increasingly remote. There has been little contact between the Titans and George of late, as Tennessee, despite some denials, has focused its attention on acquiring Travis Henry from Buffalo in a trade. ... The Rams will soon extend the contract of general manager Charley Armey, but only by one year, not the five-year add-on he had requested. ... Word is that Carolina's Jake Delhomme won the EA Sports Quarterback Challenge, which was conducted May 13 but won't air until July. Rumor also is that Detroit's Joey Harrington finished last. ... Bengals right offensive tackle Willie Anderson, clearly one of the team's most key players on and off the field, would like a contract extension that guarantees he will finish his career in Cincinnati. The Bengals, a bit wary of the offseason knee surgery Anderson had, despite positive signs in his rehabilitation, will wait to see how he responds once he gets back on the field in camp before considering such a contract move.
• The last word: "He's an actor, not an athlete. I didn't buy him as a quarterback. I didn't buy him as a linebacker in 'The Waterboy,' either. He's just so stiff, especially when he drops back to pass. Really stiff. He reminds me of Kurt Warner." -- San Francisco 49ers tailback Kevan Barlow, after watching Adam Sandler this week in the remake of "The Longest Yard"
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .