Dec 30, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; A reflection of Qualcomm Stadium in a puddle on the field during the first quarter of a game between the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

NFL: The Perception League

The NFL has been called a quarterbacks league, a copycat league, the No Fun League, and “Not For Long” if you don’t play well enough. Increasingly, it has also become the Perception league.

Think about how our perceptions have changed, and shaped the way we think about… Joe Flacco… Ray Lewis… Randy Moss… Colin Kaepernick went from project to protege overnight. If Tom Brady yells at his teammates during a game, he’s a competitor. But when Jay Cutler does it people say he’s just a dick. Perception.

When Brady recently signed a restructured contract extension, the perception was that he “took less money” because he’s such a Great Guy who just wants to win. Of course, it was quickly pointed out that the extension is fully guaranteed, regardless of injury, so he’ll be making $9 million per year at ages 38-40. In fact, Brady has renegotiated his contract 7 times and gotten a raise each time. But the media narrative is that he’s willing to play for “less” (but still more) so the Patriots can afford to build a winner around him (just as he and his even-richer supermodel wife have built a moat around their mansion).

The perception is that the NFL has a salary cap, but the reality is there are many ways around it. Obviously Brady is only the most famous example; players all over the league are lining up to re-do their deals. (I’m still not sure what the difference is between these book-cooking “restructured” contracts and whatever it is the Cowboys and Redskins were penalized for doing during the un-capped season.)

From New England, we travel to Kansas City (like Matt Cassel, Scott Pioli, and Romeo Crennel before us). Cassel is out, now that the Chiefs have agreed to trade for former 49ers starting QB Alex Smith. The perception is that Smith is/was the top QB available this off season, a solid veteran for new coach Andy Reid to build around. But not long ago Alex Smith was the poster boy for mediocrity, declared a bust perhaps mostly due to being drafted first overall but also in part because it looked like he just wasn’t that great of a football player.

But now that he’s spent a couple years playing well under Jim Harbaugh and playing an instrumental role in the Niners rise to contention, we perceive bringing in Alex Smith to be your starting QB as a slam-dunk of a no-brainer move. I’m not saying he’s terrible or anything, but he’s 2-25 as a starter when the opponent scores 24 or more points and he’s never thrown for 20 TD’s in a season. Let’s just say he may have benefited from the dominant defense and strong running game in San Francisco.

From San Francisco, he travels to Kansas City (like Joe Montana and Elvis Grbac before him). Now he’ll be playing for Andy Reid, another test case in NFL Perception. Most view him as a “great coach,” and he was hailed as the most sought-after skipper about 12 seconds after he was officially let go from Philly. Certainly his record with the Eagles was impressive, but I still see him as a bit overrated. His play calling and clock management (or lack thereof) definitely cost them some games over the years.

It’s interesting that the Chiefs, holding the first overall pick in the upcoming 2013 NFL Draft, saw no franchise QB’s worthy of the number one pick, so they traded for a guy who was once a first overall pick because a QB-desperate team was picking first in a draft that was perceived to not have any franchise QB’s (although some guy named Aaron Rodgers did slip all the way to the 24th pick).

Anyway, I assume the fans in and around Kansas City are thrilled about the new direction of the Chiefs…. But it wasn’t that long ago that most people would have pointed and laughed at the thought that a surefire way to turn your team around would be to bring in Alex Smith and Andy Reid!

Replacing Reid in Philadelphia is former University of Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. Once again the perception when the NFL coaching carousel started spinning was that (other than The Legendary Andy Reid) Chip Kelly was THE hottest name in coaching. Vince Lombardi reincarnated. Well, in the words of that true legend, “What the hell’s going on out here?” Again, not saying Chip Kelly stinks at coaching football. But he’s never coached at any level in the NFL, and had never been a head coach at any level of college until taking the helm at Oregon in 2009. Just 10 years ago, he was the defensive coordinator at Johns Hopkins.

College coaches have had their ups and downs when making the leap up to the NFL (and often quickly back down to the college ranks). For a while, the perception was that the big-name college coaches just couldn’t cut it (thanks to the failings of Lou Holtz, Butch Davis, Steve Spurrier, Bobby Petrino, Nick Saban, and others). Of course, now that perception has changed (thanks to Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll suddenly threatening to put a stranglehold on NFC domination).

Chip Kelly hails from the Pac-10 conference where Harbaugh and Carroll once operated, as does USC QB prospect Matt Barkley. He was once perceived to be a near-certain franchise QB and possible first-overall pick had he left school early for the 2012 draft. Now he’s just somewhere near the top of the pack of middling QB hopefuls in what is universally deemed to be a pretty weak draft class for franchise QBs.

The top-rated QB in the upcoming draft, one originally rumored as a possible first-overall pick by the Chiefs before they traded for Alex Smith, is West Virginia’s Geno Smith (no relation). Geno has undergone his own perception evolution. Not really on many people’s radar before the 2012 season, Geno put up some ballistic statistics early in the season in Dana Holgorsen’s high-powered Mountaineer offense. On his way to a senior season of 4205 yards with 42 TD’s and only 6 interceptions on 72% passing, he dropped 656 yards in a game against Baylor when he threw more TDs (8) than incompletions (6).

But WVU cooled off (thanks to attempting to play out the season without a defense) and Geno wasn’t even among the finalists for the Heisman. Now, he could be the key to how the first round of the draft unfolds. The perception is that he’s probably the safest bet from this QB class to be a longtime starter and possible Pro Bowler. But some say he’s not worth a top-5 or top-10 pick. Others think that quarterback-needy teams at the top of the draft (Oakland, Philadelphia, Arizona, Buffalo, the NY Jets, and possibly Cleveland) might regret passing on a poised, talented, and experienced passer like Geno Smith.

Speaking of perception, Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o went from Heisman finalist and likely top-5 pick to now being in danger of slipping out of the first round simply because of the infamous fake dead girlfriend hoax and his slow 40-yard-dash time at the NFL Combine.

Of course our perception of all these players and where they end up getting picked will change by the Monday morning after the draft, and then again when they take the field in the fall and then again many times over the next several seasons.

Which brings us back to future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady, who was a compensatory 6th-round draft pick, the 199th player selected that year.


Tags: Alex Smith Andy Reid Chip Kelly Free Agent Geno Smith Kansas City Chiefs Manti Te'o Matt Barkely Tom Brady WVU

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