Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
21 Dec 2013
by Matt Waldman
Nope. Not weird at all, Grabhammer. I saw the Wolverine football hardware on my street heading north sometime in early February. It was moving so fast the facemask got caught on the edge of a manhole cover and pried the thing loose like a can opener popping the cap on a Yuengling.
The good people of Tennessee say it caused an eight-car pileup on I-75; folks in Kentucky blamed it for rolling power outages; and in the report filed with the Coast Guard, a fisherman on Lake Erie mistook the helmet for the Loch Ness Monster. I’m just relieved to hear it finally came to a stop before anyone was seriously injured.
While none of us reporting these events have visual proof of this helmet’s odyssey – an improbable journey of three and one-quarter longitudinal laps around the earth that spanned approximately 74,945 miles before it rolled to a stop in Grabhammer’s man cave – scientists have a working theory of how it happened. They have traced its beginnings – the launch event – to January 1, 2013 in Tampa, Florida.
Launch Event. I couldn’t think of a better description of what happens to Michigan running back Vincent Smith and his helmet on this 1st-and-10 play with 8:22 left in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina.
The ESPN caption of the universally viewed YouTube clip I’m about to share reads "a rush for a loss of 8 yards." It’s technically correct, but how does one classify what happens above as a "rush" if Smith never took a step with ball in his hands? "Rush attempt" is a more accurate description. After all, Michigan did at least try a running play. There are options I like more: Mugging. Ball jacking. Annihilation.
Yet there isn’t a better term to describe the play that sent this Michigan Wolverine helmet into a temporary orbit around the earth than the phrase "Launch Event." The ignition for the world’s first momentum-powered land-based satellite is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. For those of you who just got out of solitary confinement, here is this proper introduction to the best prospect of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Before scientists defined the travels of this maize and blue helmet as an orbit, fantasy football writer Ryan Boser artfully named this play the "Jacapitation." Actually, he used the past verb tense "Jacapitated," as in "Vincent Smith’s helmet, and any sense of bravado he once possessed as a big-time college football player, was Jacapitated from his head on the afternoon of January 1, 2013."
Clowney is a game-changing talent. Kirk Herbstreit sums it up best when he says that Clowney is to the defensive end position what Calvin Johnson is to wide receiver.
I wrote this intro in July with the intent of profiling Clowney’s game against Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan – one of the best prospects in the country. At the time it seemed like an ideal way to set the tone for the second season of Futures. But something made me wait a couple of weeks and before long, the 2013 storyline on Clowney shifted from him being the best prospect in a decade to a debate about his character, effort, and ultimately an NFL team’s ability to trust him.
I’ll argue that expecting Clowney to earn double-digit sacks off double and triple teams without a player the caliber of Melvin Ingram or Devin Taylor opposite him is naïve. I could ridicule those criticizing Clowney’s drop in tackles for losses when teams no longer sniff in his general direction when they call run plays. I could go into enormous depth about the 13 things I find salient to an evaluation on Clowney’s game:
I could provide play-by-play analysis of Clowney’s game, but it’s played-out. Rotoworld’s Josh Norris nailed it with his take on Clowney as a disruptor in October. Read it here.
Other than this list and link, I’m not writing another word in this column analyzing Clowney’s technique in 2013. I’m not writing about his injuries, either. In fact, let’s remove all the excuses from the argument and examine the real issue that the media has with Jadeveon Clowney:
What if the star defensive end "mailed in" his performance this year in order to protect his business interests for the 2014 NFL Draft just as NFL.com analyst and former NFL scout Bucky Brooks claims?
Let’s presume it’s true. Should NFL teams shy away from Clowney? Brooks still thinks Clowney is a shoe-in as a top-10 pick, but the defensive end will need to mend fences.
"Guys typically don’t change when they enter the NFL and start making money, so you better feel good about everything." Brooks says that Clowney will have to prove there are no real off-field concerns to earn the No.1 overall pick. In other words, behind all the bluster about "mailing it in" Brooks still believes Clowney is worth a pick in the top-half of the first-round.
Brooks devotes a lot of his argument to the rare air of earning the No.1 overall pick and what it means to the organization, the community, and the leadership expectation in the locker room.
It’s about money and status. A team with the No.1 overall pick is still paying a whole hell of a lot of money to one guy. They want a guaranteed game-changer with enough of the bullet points on his resume to cover their ass if said prospect doesn’t work out.
Do you really think there was that much of a difference in perception among teammates and coaches between a prospect like J.J. Watt – the No.11 pick overall in 2011 – and No.1 overall pick Cam Newton? It’s about the money, status, and media perception. It’s about public relations.
NFL teams don’t care what you think; they care about what they want you to think. They care about what you see. They’re going to say the same things about Clowney as Brooks. They’re telling us through draft analysts like Brooks – their personal mouthpieces – that the Gamecock’s performance has raised some red flags of caution.
They’re going to grill Clowney in pre-draft interviews. They’re going to interview his coaches, his teammates, his family, and his third-grade elementary school teacher. If they thought it would be as believable as it is compelling, they’d even arrange a séance with a local psychic to summon the spirit of the neighbor’s dead dog who used to watch Clowney walk to school.
By February, we’ll have reporters telling us that NFL-hired investigators are at the local landfill in Rock Hill, South Carolina sorting through McDonald’s wrappers and takeout containers from the local Chinese joint. After all, they read in the New York Times that Clowney grew up eating this fare. They need to make sure there aren’t traces of anything suspicious.
Any NFL team with a remote shot at Clowney is doing this to make you think that they are approaching this once-in-a-decade prospect’s "lack of effort" with due diligence. They need to have some good PR copy just in case Clowney falls to them. After all, they need to sound composed and sensible about the pick at the lobby of the team complex while the participants in the war room will be screaming, weeping, and fainting like a bunch of teenage girls at the Beatles’ first U.S. tour.
By April, Brooks will be telling his NFL.com readers that he’s talked with enough NFL people to believe that the concerns have been explored in depth. He’ll tell you that teams are satisfied with what they’ve seen and heard even if he’s still personally somewhat cautious about Clowney’s junior year. It’s following the predictable reporting arc of this archetypical draft story.
Wait and see. This will be the party line for the majority of the football media. Of course, there are the attention-getters who cast themselves in the anti-establishment camp of the media business. They’re taking the more cynical stance.
"What does the NFL do? It makes you more of what you already are," says Fox Sports 1 NFL Analyst Clay Travis. "Jadeveon Clowney takes a lot of plays off in college already. Once he’s a multimillionaire you think he’s going to play harder? This guy is Albert Haynesworth with a better first step."
There’s a difference between taking plays off and not trying. The former is the result of incredible feats of athleticism against obstacles most players at Clowney’s position don’t face as a matter of routine. The latter is about attitude. Travis says that he watched Clowney through 2013. He never said a word about 2011-2012.
At age 18, Clowney had Melvin Ingram playing with him on the opposite side. Ingram was a first-round defensive end prospect in his own right and a fantastic athlete by any standard other than Clowney’s. At age 19, Clowney had Devin Taylor starting opposite him. Taylor is now playing well as a rookie end for the Detroit Lions. Opposing teams didn’t consistently treat Clowney like a one-man gang the way they’re doing this year.
These changes in personnel also change how teams compete against Clowney. It means the young defensive lineman is experiencing another new phase of the process that is learning how to become a consistent game-changer. He’s a unique player and teams are often doing unique things against him. In order to become a rare player week in and week out – with or without star-caliber players to assist him – Clowney’s conditioning has to be equally rare.
If Travis watched Clowney’s underclassmen years then he’d be more tempered with his assumption that Clowney is a lazy player resting on his laurels. Using Travis’ own logic, Clowney – the nation’s No.1 overall prep prospect by a mile – would have been lazy throughout his college career if he was some entitled kid getting high off his own newsprint.
The entitled player wouldn’t arrive at South Carolina at 238 pounds and methodically add another 37 pounds of pure muscle to his frame as the New York Times reported. You don’t add that kind of good weight without work.
Whether it’s an analyst like Brooks in his nice suits dancing the two-step with the issue, or Travis climbing into the mud pit as the FOX television network provides the professional wrestling-inspired production setting, most in the media are giving credence to the idea that Clowney intentionally didn’t bring his A-game this year.
But does it matter? That’s the real question. The real answer is that we want it to matter, but it doesn’t.
We want to believe that anyone can be special if they work at it. We want to believe that no one should earn preferential treatment. And we want to believe that an opportunity to play college football and earn an education in exchange for a scholarship is a fair trade.
Tell that to a college football player who has dominated the competition at his position for two years like no one has ever seen and now stands to earn a contract in the neighborhood of four years $22 million as long as he doesn’t get hurt on the job. And in case you didn't realize, college football is a job.
It's a responsibility that holds at least equal weight to the academics side of a player’s college life compared to the average student who doesn’t have a schedule from the moment he wakes until the moment he is told to go to bed. And the average college kid isn’t told when to go to bed.
If a college football player suffers a career-ending injury and earns his degree, he might enter the job market with a starting salary of $40,000-$50,000, depending on his degree and the part of the country he’s looking for a career.
Tell that top prospect that his education is a fair trade if he gets hurt playing college football. Even if he earns a job paying $40-$50K, it's an annual salary that will take 110 years to earn what he’d make in just one year of that rookie NFL deal. Tell him he’s getting an equal end of the deal when South Carolina earns $48 million in revenue from football with $22 million in football-related expenses off his name, his jersey, his image, and his performance.
To approach this argument with some level of fairness, at least the NCAA is generous enough to finance insurance policies to some of its star athletes. According to ESPN, Clowney purchased a $5 million insurance policy through an "'Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Program’ that permits qualifying athletes in football, men's and women's basketball, baseball and ice hockey, to take out a loan to help finance the cost of an insurance policy, which they must repay upon signing a pro contract."
The story explains that $5 million is the maximum amount available and costs roughly $30,000. Add that net payment of $4.97 million to the non-football day-gig and that now-former football star at least comes close to matching his first year of that four-year rookie deal. He’ll still have to work for 339 years at $50K to earn the rest of that initial NFL money.
Even if he returns to school for an MBA, and earns a few major raises and promotions, and becomes a star in his field, it could still take him most of a human lifetime to come within striking distance of that rookie deal. Now think about Clowney’s former teammate Marcus Lattimore, arguably the most complete back last year’s draft class, who, after two career-threatening injuries, will have to earn a second contract form a team to recoup a fraction of what he could have earned before he got hurt -– and that’s no guarantee.
It’s the reason Clowney had friends and teammates pressuring him to sit out the season and train for the year. Right or wrong, they showed that they care about his welfare. They demonstrated the sense to encourage someone to protect his investment. Think NFL executives and coaches don’t sympathize with this 20 year-old defensive end with superhuman talent who watched his teammate Marcus Lattimore lose that kind of money? They know what a player like Clowney stands to lose.
The NFL will say and do all the right things to let us think they care about the perception that Clowney isn’t trying hard. But the NFL only cares that Clowney can and will produce when it matters. College football production only matters in the sense that it demonstrates that the player has skill and talent.
I’ll estimate that at least 80 percent of the wide receivers that I watch in college football mail it in on run plays. They fear a teammate rolling up their leg and snapping a bone, ligament, or tendon. Most find this form of mailing it in acceptable despite the fact that poor effort on a run block can cost the team first downs, scoring drives, and ultimate victories.
Shall we dig up some of Brooks’ tape at North Carolina from the early 1990s? Kudos to Brooks if he gave 100 percent effort on every run block, but I would be shocked if he wasn’t thinking and acting to protect his body for a future contract. After all, he was a second-round pick. He might not have been considered the face of the franchise with that pick, but he was expected to earn a starting job and starters give full effort to all phases of the game.
Personally, I find it ridiculous to question the overall effort surrounding Clowney‘s 2013 performance when studying the evolution of his career at South Carolina. But if we’re to entertain this issue seriously then look at the overall landscape of college football. Close your eyes to the rah-rah and follow the scent of the money and it becomes clear that college football is primarily a massive business that profits more off the backs of its frontline workers than what it gives in return.
Seeing it through this lens, I have a difficult time believing that there’s an unadulterated sense of honor, commitment, and scholarship in big-time college football. There are still inspiring stories, yes. There are feel-good moments that stir our desire to believe once again in its overall nobility. However, we want Clowney’s effort to matter because we want our heroes to be selfless. But if we look at what Clowney stands to lose, I think those holding fast to the principle of sportsmanship and effort over business savvy is clinging to a fraying thread.
21 comments, Last at 02 Jan 2015, 11:18pm by avelin