The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
The NFL brought its 254 newly drafted players to Ohio last week for the Rookie Symposium, a de facto employee orientation, and there was Aaron Hernandez, arrested and charged with murder on live national television on Wednesday, serving as a glaring example of how a bad decision can ruin a promising NFL career in an instant.
But Troy Vincent, the former 15-year cornerback and now the NFL’s senior vice president of player engagement, didn’t have to change the week’s agenda much.
The symposium didn’t morph into, “Don’t do what Aaron Hernandez did.” That should be obvious.
“This case speaks for itself,” Vincent said by telephone. “I literally have to spend no time on it. Our focus here this week has been about one thing — giving these young men hope.”
Interesting timing, no doubt, for the Hernandez case to unfold while the NFL was educating its rookies on what it means to be a professional athlete and the consequences of life in the spotlight.
Interesting, too, that the symposium didn’t devolve into a deconstruction of everything Hernandez did wrong (allegedly), and how players shouldn’t follow his example.
Hernandez wasn’t totally ignored during the week’s discussions — “this is what bad decisions and poor relationships can lead to,” was the message Vincent gave about the Hernandez saga — but the NFL didn’t want his case to be the focus of the week, either.
“We want to talk to them about the success stories, and what the NFL can do for them both on and off the field,” Vincent said. “We have 254 men who are new employees of the NFL, and we want to give them hope and give them nuggets and tools to sustain themselves as professional football players.
“We have a ton of success stories. We have our redemption stories. It’s about hope.”
That’s why 80 percent of the week’s events focused on “being the professional that we know you’re capable of being,” Vincent said, and only 20 percent on “those things that put you, your family, and our tremendous brand at risk.”
The seminar was broken into four areas of concentration — history of the game, total wellness, the NFL experience, and professionalism — and focused on peer-to-peer connections both in large ballroom sessions and small groups. There were 14 transition coaches in attendance helping players learn about managing relationships, substance abuse, mental health, and suicide prevention — especially important in light of the Jovan Belcher tragedy last November.
But Vincent remembers what it’s like to be 22 years old and forced to sit in a room and listen to a bunch of presentations.
“We don’t want to beat them over the head with policy,” he said. “But we must talk about it — you’re no longer on scholarship. We’re using the same language that the coaches have been using — minimize distractions so you can be the best football player you can possibly be.”
Which is why the most important guests of the symposium were the players — both current and former — who led the seminars and breakout sessions. There were examples of players who had lengthy careers and were positive role models in their communities, such as Chad Pennington, Aeneas Williams, and Brian Dawkins. There were current players who escaped the bad influences of their childhood, such as Vernon Davis and Broncos second-year pro Derek Wolfe.
And perhaps most poignantly, there were the redemption stories — players such as Adam “Pacman” Jones, Tank Johnson, Maurice Clarett, and even former basketball star Chris Herren, who relayed their tales of woe in a seminar entitled, “Are you bigger than the game?”
“We want to make sure we have a good balance, but we want to show you more positive [stories] because we don’t talk about enough the good that’s going on,” Vincent said. “And we believe that while the minority gets the headlines, the league over its time, the good guys far outweigh some of the poor decisions that some of our men make.”
Johnson, who played defensive tackle from 2004-10 for the Bears, Cowboys, and Bengals, specifically addressed the perils of gun ownership in his seminar. During his career he twice pleaded guilty to gun charges, was held on home confinement, and saw his bodyguard killed in a shooting.
“We talked about gun ownership — if you own a firearm, knowing state and local laws, making sure that you’re a responsible firearm owner,” Vincent said. “We left no stones unturned. We didn’t back away from anything or sugarcoat anything. We were direct and responsible.”
Again, Vincent and the NFL didn’t exactly shy away from the Hernandez case when he was arrested. They said a prayer for the family of murder victim Odin Lloyd and highlighted that this would be a big media story.
“[Wednesday] I just shared with them, ‘Hey fellas, the media is here, the media has every right to ask you the question, and you have every right to answer or move on from the question,’ ” Vincent said. “That’s a teachable moment, but I think enough has surrounded that particular case. I don’t really have to say much, other than we’ll talk about relationship management in your breakout sessions.”
And the education continues beyond the symposium. Once training camp ends, each rookie who makes a 53-man roster will be enrolled in a mandatory 10-week “rookie success program,” which is run by each team and will continue to cover topics such as relationship management, mental health well-being, and understanding consequences of actions.
But the NFL can only do so much, of course. Hernandez sat through the same symposium in 2010, and it appeared to do little to change his lifestyle.
“Everybody’s going to walk away and make their own personal decisions on how they live their lives,” Vincent said. “We just want to make sure we give everybody information, and let them know that there are consequences with each decision.”
The NFL wants to stress to the players and the public that the stories of success and redemption far outweigh the Aaron Hernandezes of the league.
“We’re just trying to give these men hope,” Vincent said. “The NFL has been wonderful for decades, and there’s no reason why these men can’t be great pros. Whether you’re a starter, you’re a backup, special teams, drafted, undrafted — enjoy it. Soak it up.”
IT CAN BE DONE
Patriots have shown they can do without
Now that the shock of last week’s arrest and release has worn off, it’s time to start wondering how much losing Aaron Hernandez will affect or change the Patriots’ offense.
The Patriots have played 54 games since Hernandez arrived in 2010 (including playoffs), and he played in 44 of them, while missing 10 for various injuries.
In 44 games with Hernandez, the Patriots averaged 395 yards (281 passing), 30.8 points, and went 34-10 (.772 win percentage). In 10 games without him, including six last year, they averaged 454.4 yards (301 passing), 39.3 points, and went 8-2 (.800 win percentage).
Perhaps the sample size without Hernandez is too small, but clearly the Patriots were able to move the ball, score, and win games when he wasn’t in the lineup. Of course, it helps that they had Wes Welker and a healthy Rob Gronkowski in the lineup for those games, too.
But Hernandez, 6 feet 1 inch and 245 pounds, was a matchup nightmare for defenses — too big for defensive backs, too quick for linebackers.
ProFootballFocus.com looked at how opposing defenses accounted for Hernandez, and found that they used a slot cornerback to cover him 71 percent of the time. Having an extra cornerback on the field improves a pass defense, but also makes it easier for an offense to run the football.
Yet when Hernandez wasn’t in the lineup, and was replaced by Daniel Fells or Michael Hoomanawanui as the second tight end, defenses only used a nickel cornerback 37 percent of the time.
The moral of the story? Unless the Patriots can find another fast tight end, opposing defenses will be able to use more linebackers and traditional defenses, and could make it harder for the Patriots to run the football this season.
Sanchez could use lesson in discretion
Mark Sanchez (left) should thank his lucky stars that the Aaron Hernandez case took off on Wednesday morning, because the Jets quarterback once again made a fool of himself and left his bosses and few remaining fans slapping their heads in amazement.
The website TerezOwens.com dug up a video on Tuesday showing a bare-bottomed Sanchez dancing in a house and smoking what are presumably cigars with two female friends in California.
Now, we don’t begrudge Sanchez for partying with beautiful women, — but can’t this guy go one offseason without an embarrassing video or photo hitting the Internet? Just shut off the cameras, dude.
Yes, that was Jaleel White — better known as former sitcom star Steve Urkel — sending a tweet to Patriots tight end Jake Ballard earlier this month. The tweet came after Rob Gronkowski had back surgery but before Hernandez was implicated in a murder investigation.
“It’s becoming obvious to some you could be in for a monster year sir,” White tweeted at Ballard.
So, what’s going on here? How is Ballard so lucky as to receive a tweet from one of the most memorable characters of the ’90s?
It wasn’t as random as you’d think. White, now 36 and still taking on small acting roles, actually works with Blake Baratz, Ballard’s agent.
“Jaleel and I became friends when I moved out to LA in 2004, and I felt he would be a great mentor to our young men who are constantly in the spotlight,” Baratz told the sportsagentblog.com in 2011. “Jaleel has experienced much of what young professionals go through and he can be a very positive influence for them on how to be professional young men. Jaleel continues to be a mentor to our clients.”
For about a decade now, high school and college teams have been listing some of their top offensive playmakers with the positional designation of “ATH,” or athlete. Sometimes they run the ball, sometimes they catch it, and good things usually happen when the ball is in their hands.
Now that trend is hitting the NFL. The Jaguars have revealed little about how they plan to use fifth-round draft pick Denard Robinson, but his positional listing is intriguing: “OW,” for offensive weapon.
Robinson was a quarterback for three seasons at Michigan before transitioning to more of an “athlete” during his senior season. He’s not a polished passer, but he’s still a threat throwing the ball, and he is electric with the ball in his hands, whether he is a running back, receiver, or kick returner.
“I am in the running back meeting room, so that’s where I’m going to continue to make my plays and just be an offensive weapon — go to receiver, or go to quarterback, or go to running back and make plays happen,” Robinson told the team’s website.
Christmas came about six months early in Wisconsin, where the waiting list for Packers season tickets is believed to be the longest in the NFL at about 105,000.
The Packers have just about completed a $146 million renovation to Lambeau Field that added 7,000 seats, pushing the new capacity to 79,594 for this season. The expansion allowed 5,000 names to come off the waiting list, and the team reported that approximately 3,800 of those names accepted season tickets.
In February, Packers fan Brad Suave tweeted that he finally has Packers season tickets, 37 years after putting his name on the list.
The Cowboys stuck by defensive tackle Josh Brent last December after he totaled his Mercedes in a high-speed drunk driving accident, killing teammate Jerry Brown.
But Brent is back in jail after court records show he failed a drug test for marijuana, violating the bond conditions imposed on him after being charged with intoxication manslaughter. He also failed an initial drug test in May.
Police contend that Brent, who was driving on a suspended Illinois license, had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit at the time of the accident.
That Brent can’t stay away from marijuana while his livelihood hangs in the balance is the ultimate sign of immaturity.
What’s up with the trash talk coming from Baltimore? Ravens receiver Torrey Smith went out of his way on Twitter last week to say: “I understand that every fan base has bad fans what I’m saying is NE fans have more than others and think they are better than everyone else.”
Then he added, “yeah I said it” and “no apologies I meant what I said.”
Now, Smith did claim last September that Patriots fans mocked him after the recent death of his brother, which if true is utterly reprehensible. So, we’ll give him a pass here.
But the Ravens’ official Twitter account taking a cheap shot at the city of Miami? Bizarre.
The @Ravens account posted an image on Tuesday morning showing pictures from the Ravens’ championship celebration alongside the Miami Heat’s recent championship parade, with the caption, “#BALTIMORE sure knows how to throw a party!!!” The pictures showed a packed M&T Bank Stadium, and a sparse Miami parade route, ostensibly as some sort of dig at Miami for being a bad sports town.
But the pictures were misleading, and the Ravens failed to mention that the Heat championship parade drew 400,000 fans, nearly twice as many as showed up to celebrate the Ravens.
So, what’s the deal? Are the Ravens upset at the Dolphins stealing linebacker Dannell Ellerbe in free agency? Bitter that Miamians live in a tropical paradise? Or just desperate for attention? We’re guessing it’s the latter. No one likes a sore winner, guys.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.