This offseason has been a strange time to be a disgruntled ex-NFL player.
There’s no question that even with the improvement in medical and post-career benefits for retired players from the 2011 league lockout, many players feel that there are too many hoops to jump through to get medical care and feel disenfranchised with a league that has long forgotten them.
At the same time, the NFL certainly appears to be trying to make up for some of the mistakes of the past.
“There is a lot of stuff going on right now that is putting everything in a limbo state with this retired-player thing they’re trying to develop,” said former Saints offensive lineman Kyle Turley, one of the NFL’s most outspoken critics. “So everybody’s kind of sitting back right now and waiting to see what’s going to happen.”
The creation of a legacy fund in 2011 got the most publicity, with the NFL adding $620 million to the pension plans of retired players.
The league also expanded its long-term insurance plan for players with debilitating injuries from football, and last year it expanded benefits to widows and other survivors of players.
But in recent years the NFL has realized that there is more to taking care of players post-career than just paying a few medical bills. The mental side — helping players cope with the end of their athletic careers and transition into the everyday world — is arguably just as important.
Already the NFL has offered “boot camps” to current and recently retired players to teach them skills in various fields — entrepreneurship, real estate, broadcasting, hospitality, journalism/broadcasting, and more — through its Player Engagement Program, headed by ex-Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent.
And this weekend, the league is ramping up its efforts even more with a unique four-day program held at Tufts University.
Organized and run by former 12-year NFL receiver James Thrash, the Transition Assistance Program takes place through Monday with the goal of helping approximately two dozen former players with the physical, psychological, and social transition to the real world.
“When you leave the game you feel a disconnect from your former teammates and friends. Sometimes you feel like you’re alone,” said Thrash, 38, who lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and five children.
Hence he helped develop this weekend’s program, with the goal of providing peer-to-peer counseling as well as one-on-one time with certified professionals.
On the health front, the players are getting eating tips from a nutritionist, exercise tips and workout plans from trainers, plus health screenings and blood work.
On the mental side, they will work with counselors about dealing with self-esteem and not letting themselves be defined by football. And they will work with transition counselors about dealing with big changes in the dynamics at home with their wives and kids.
Thrash hopes to eventually hold three or four of these seminars a year, in different parts of the country.
“No matter how well-prepared you are when you leave the game, it still creates a tremendous amount of challenges,” Thrash said by telephone. “And one of the reasons we wanted to allow the program not to get too big was making sure each person feels like it’s custom fit for them.”
And, most importantly, it’s not just for the players. The wives or significant others were specifically invited to attend this weekend’s session, as well.
“That was something that for us, we really felt like it was critically important,” Thrash said. “When I left the game, it wasn’t just me dealing with different issues. It was also my wife and also my kids. I thought that to have that type of support, and allow those couples to go through that transition together, would be huge.”
Of course, not everything is rosy between the NFL and its alums.
According to nflconcussionlitigation.com, there are more than 4,800 named player-plaintiffs in the 242 concussion-related lawsuits as of June 1.
And while the NFL has extended its medical benefits available to retired players, many will never believe it’s enough.
Turley, for example, will squeeze in four surgeries — to his back, ankle, knee, and hip — before his insurance runs out this September.
“They chew you up, spit you out, and you have to go and find and fight your way through all of these roadblocks in your way to get your benefits,” Turley, 37, said last week.
He’s on the board of directors of the Gridiron Greats, and the charity is providing services for former players where the NFL falls short.
On June 20, Turley will be in Pittsburgh to announce a program that will provide pro bono medical assistance for former players who need it.
But even Turley, one of the thousands suing the NFL, is aware that the league is making strides in helping out players after their careers end.
“It’s a great thing that guys are putting these things together,” he said. “I think it’s more important for guys to rally together, talk about a lot of these issues, and put them on the table.”
A PASSION FOR THE GAME
Patriots rookie Sudfeld offers skills, work ethic
Patriots rookie Zach Sudfeld had just finished a sweaty, exhausting offseason practice on Wednesday afternoon, but wore a giant smile on his face when coming off the field.
“I absolutely love football,” said Sudfeld, 24. “It’s just something I’m very passionate about. It’s a great thing to be able to come out here every day.”
Sudfeld is definitely one player who appreciates the opportunity given to him by the Patriots, who signed him as an undrafted free agent in May. And if Sudfeld can stay healthy, the Patriots may have found themselves a true gem at tight end, which is particularly important given the uncertainty surrounding Rob Gronkowski and his forearm and back injuries.
Sudfeld only had one impact season at Nevada, but he made it count. He had 45 catches for 598 yards and nine total touchdowns in 2012, earning recognition as a Mackey Award semifinalist.
But he went undrafted, in part because of an extensive injury history.
After redshirting in 2007, Sudfeld missed all of 2008 with multiple shoulder surgeries, a wrist fracture, and knee surgery. He spent 2009-10 as a backup, and 2011, supposed to be his breakout year, was wiped out after suffering a gruesome broken leg in the season opener.
Sudfeld successfully petitioned the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility, and became the Wolf Pack’s best safety valve and red-zone threat in 2012.
Sudfeld earned the nickname “Flint” from his Nevada teammates for being the spark of the offense. As a receiver, he measured up favorably to the Mackey Award finalists, including the top tight ends in the draft — Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz, who were picked in the first and second rounds, respectively.
Sudfeld caught a significantly higher percentage of targets (74.1 percent) than Eifert (61.1 percent) and Ertz (64.7 percent). He also had more “key receptions” than any of the other tight ends in the draft — 22 that went for long yardage, converted a key third or fourth down, or was inside the red zone that gave his offense a better opportunity to score.
But where Sudfeld really sets himself apart is with his blocking. He led all tight ends with 24 blocks that resulted in touchdowns, including 19 in the run game, five in the passing game. Travis Kelce, taken in the third round by Kansas City, had the next most touchdown-producing blocks with 10.
Sudfeld also graded out as a 94.6 percent blocker, by far the highest grade among draft prospects.
“I have a lot of things I have to improve on,” he said with humility after Tuesday’s practice. “Maybe some things I got away with in college, I definitely won’t be able to here.”
But with Gronkowski ailing and Jake Ballard coming off a torn ACL, Sudfeld seems like a good bet to crack the Patriots’ 53-man roster. Listed at 6 feet 6 inches, 258 pounds, and with a 4.73 40, he’s a natural athlete and a good red-zone target.
“I’m just grateful that the organization gave me this opportunity to come in,” Sudfeld said. “I’m doing everything I can to work hard and keep my head down as a rookie — work hard and learn from the guys ahead of me.”
LEGEND IN HIS OWN TIME
Sacking quarterback was Jones’s specialty
The death of Hall of Fame defensive end David “Deacon” Jones last week at 74 saddened the NFL community, but also served as an important reminder that the NFL had some fearsome, if now forgotten, pass rushers back in the day.
The quarterback “sack” — a phrase coined by Jones in the 1970s — didn’t become an official stat until 1982, and the list of the NFL’s all-time leaders only includes players from the last three decades. In that vein, here’s our list of the top 10 pre-sack pass rushers (in no particular order):
■ Deacon Jones (1961-74): His patented “head slap” revolutionized the art of rushing the quarterback, and unofficial counts credit him with as many as 194½ career sacks (Bruce Smith is the NFL’s all-time leader at 200).
■ Doug Atkins (1953-69): A 6-8 former basketball player with a fiery mean streak would literally leap over offensive linemen and terrorize quarterbacks for George Halas’s Bears.
■ Gino Marchetti (1952-64, ’66): Fearsome Colts pass rusher was named All-Pro nine times in 10 years and the top defensive end in the NFL’s first 50 years.
■ Coy Bacon (1968-81): He was named the Rams’ best defensive lineman in 1971-72 and had 21½ unofficial sacks for the Bengals in 1976.
■ Elvin Bethea (1968-83): Eight-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer is credited with the most sacks in Oilers/Titans history (105, including 16 in 1973).
■ Willie Davis (1958-69): Hall of Famer helped the Packers win five titles in the 1960s, was All-Pro five times, recovered 21 fumbles in his career, and didn’t miss a game in 12 seasons.
■ Carl Eller (1964-79): Leader of the famed “Purple People Eaters” unofficially had 44 sacks in a three-year stretch, played in four Super Bowls, and recovered 23 fumbles.
■ Alan Page (1967-81): Speaking of the “Purple People Eaters,” the defense excelled because of his interior devastating pass rushing — 173 career sacks and 28 blocked kicks unofficially.
■ Leo Nomellini (1950-63): “The Lion” was a dominant interior force for the 49ers for 14 seasons, played in 10 Pro Bowls, and was named All-NFL multiple times at both offensive and defensive tackle.
■ Jack Youngblood (1971-84): Jones’s replacement missed one game in 14 years, annually led the Rams in sacks, led them to a Super Bowl, and played in seven straight Pro Bowls from 1973-79.
Belichick ranked high among coaching greats
ESPN is ranking the top 20 all-time NFL coaches, and Bill Belichick checks in at No. 7, behind Chuck Noll and Paul Brown and just ahead of Tom Landry, Joe Gibbs, and CurlyLambeau.
As of Friday, the top four spots had yet to be announced, but figure to be a combination of Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Bill Walsh, and George Halas. Our view: Belichick and modern-day coaches deserve more credit for working in an era of free agency and parity; Bill Parcells (No. 11) is ranked awfully high for someone whose teams won just three playoff games (and no Super Bowls) in his final 11 seasons as coach; and Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, should be ranked higher than ninth.
Offensive tackle Marcus Cannon hasn’t been able to crack the Patriots’ lineup in his first two seasons, with just one start in his 23 appearances. But the fifth-round pick in 2011 might benefit this year from a position switch.
Cannon (6-5, 340) has been working a lot at guard during offseason practices, and could challenge Dan Connolly for a starting spot.
At minimum, it appears the Patriots are preparing Cannon to be a super sub who can fill in at tackle or guard.
“We’re trying to get this guy to make himself as valuable a player as we can and valuable for us,” offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said.
Cool moment last Monday at Redskins Park, where fullback Eric Kettani held his “pinning” ceremony after practice after being promoted to lieutenant in the US Navy. He took his oath in front of a couple dozen teammates, and was presented with a Redskins flag that was flown over FedEx Field in his honor. Patriots fans remember Kettani as an undrafted free agent in 2009 who was a member of the organization for parts of four years but didn’t suit up because he was called into active duty. He briefly was with the Patriots’ practice squad in 2011 and ’12, but was cut last September and spent the season on the Redskins’ practice squad. Kettani chose coach Mike Shanahan and position coach Bobby Turner to pin his new rank on his collar. “He’s a great representative for our country. He’s everything you look for in a person,” Shanahan told reporters. “I’ve had guys in the military, but not lieutenant. I’ve got to salute to him now.” . . . Quote of the Week. Ravens star receiver Torrey Smith, a day before receiving his Super Bowl ring in a ceremony on Friday: “For somebody like me who’s never won a thing, I might act like a woman when she sees her engagement ring. I can’t wait.”Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.