Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Big Ben's Big Change of Course

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterNovember 5, 2014

Marc Serota/AP Images

1. The road was long for Roethlisberger

We look at Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger now, and we see history. We see greatness. He's become so good, so astounding, we've forgotten how far he's come. We've forgotten that Roethlisberger could have possibly ended up in prison instead of the Hall of Fame. 

Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote this in a letter to Roethlisberger four years ago, announcing a six-game suspension of the quarterback:

In your six years in the NFL, you have first thrilled and now disappointed a great many people. I urge you to take full advantage of this opportunity to get your life and career back on track.

There was more from Goodell:

The Personal Conduct Policy makes clear that I may impose discipline 'even where the conduct does not result in conviction of a crime' as, for example, where the conduct 'imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person.' As the District Attorney concluded, the extensive investigatory record shows that you contributed to the irresponsible consumption of alcohol by purchasing (or facilitating the purchase of) alcoholic beverages for underage college students, at least some of whom were likely already intoxicated. There is no question that the excessive consumption of alcohol that evening put the students and yourself at risk.

The Personal Conduct Policy also states that discipline is appropriate for conduct that 'undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players.' By any measure, your conduct satisfies that standard.

This was 2010, and Roethlisberger was NFL Public Enemy No. 1. He was one of the first test cases of Goodell's exemplary use of power under the new conduct policy by punishing players who hadn't been convicted of a crime.

That year, Roethlisberger had been accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in a nightclub. It was an ugly time for the quarterback. It was so bad, in fact, ESPN reported that the Steelers were trying to trade him.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

This is all remembered for context. The Roethlisberger we see now isn't the same man, on or off the field.

I remember seeing Roethlisberger at the training camp post-suspension. He had changed. He wasn't the cocky jerk who had alienated his locker room. He was humble, different. Whatever he did, it seems, has held to this day.

I mean, ultimately, we can never know a lot of the people we root for and cover. I always thought Ray Rice was a good dude. But superficially, at least, Roethlisberger took advantage of not being prosecuted and not, you know, possibly ending up in jail.

So when I watch him now obliterate record books and make the Steelers Super Bowl threats again, I can't help but wonder what might have been with Roethlisberger.

How close he came to not being on the field at all.

2. Bigotry hurting Michael Sam?

Brandon Wade/Associated Press

It was about two weeks ago that the Dallas Cowboys released Michael Sam. Since then…crickets.

From what I've heard, no team is interested in signing Sam. Now, that could change. It could change any day or any hour now. But for the moment, no interest. This is…odd. Highly odd. Historically odd.

There has been a sentiment from some that the media has been on a pro-Sam crusade, but it's not that. It's about fairness, and what I want people to do is consider the following data. Read it closely. Be objective. I did, and there is no other conclusion to come to other than this one:

If Sam had wanted to play in the NFL, he should have never come out. He should have stayed in the closet because the data shows that bigotry is playing a part in him not making the NFL.

The data comes from Outsports.com's Cyd Zeigler. We've been speaking about Sam over the past few weeks, and Zeigler did some digging. This is what he found:

Since 2000, 73 different men have won the Defensive Player of the Year award in the big five football conferences: ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac-12 and SEC. Of those 73 men, only four have fared worse in the NFL Draft than Sam, all of whom went undrafted.

Jackson Jeffcoat was the Big XII Defensive Player of the Year just last season. The Texas linebacker signed with the Seattle Seahawks after the draft, was cut in August, then signed with Washington before Week 1. Incidentally, no Texas players were drafted in 2014. He's currently on Washington's active roster.

Mark Herzlich was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2008. The former Boston College linebacker signed with the New York Giants in 2011, made the 53-man roster and just re-signed with the Giants this past March.

Nick Reid was the 2005 Big XII Defensive Player of the Year and went undrafted in 2006. He played in NFL Europe and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in spring of 2006. He was cut by the Chiefs and assigned to NFL Europe again, later signed by the Chiefs after the Super Bowl in 2007. If the practice squad had 10 spots in 2006 the way it does today, chances are good Reid would have been on that practice squad.

Dale Robinson, the 2005 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year out of Arizona State, got the least traction of any of these players, going undrafted and being cut by the Indianapolis Colts before the start of the 2006 season. Again, the practice squads were smaller in size then.

Let's stop there for a moment. Reid, Robinson and Sam are the only players in recent NFL history—going back 14 years—to fail to make an active NFL roster after being Defensive Player of the Year in a major conference. Even that fact is interesting.

Reid was signed to a two-year deal by the Chiefs and then allocated to NFL Europe in 2007. Remember, back then, teams used NFL Europe almost as an extension of their roster. It was like a farm system. Players teams thought had potential but couldn't make active or practice squads were sent there. So basically, Reid made a roster as well.

More from Zeigler:

The three former Defensive Players of the Year to go in the sixth round: Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones in 2011, Oklahoma linebacker Rufus Alexander in 2006 and Oregon State DE Bill Swancutt in 2005. All three men were on active rosters in the NFL for at least three seasons.

None of these players—except Sam—were drafted in the seventh round. It's interesting, though, to compare Sam to Nick Reed (not the same [Nick] Reid as above), the 2008 Pac-10 Defensive Lineman of the Year. He was selected 247th in the 2009 NFL Draft (two spots ahead of where Sam was drafted five years later). Like Sam, Reed was a defensive end (for Oregon) who had an 'undersized' label. In fact, Reed was an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Sam.

Unlike Sam, Reed made the Seahawks' active roster that season after a strong preseason. Sam was cut by the St. Louis Rams after his strong preseason in which he was fourth in the NFL in sacks.

So in many ways, what happened to Sam is one of the most unusual things to ever happen to a player of his caliber. Ever. Over the past 14 to 15 years, we've never seen anything like this.

This from Ziegler is damning for the NFL:

To put it another way, of the 73 DPOYs in the big conferences since 2000, 95 percent were selected earlier than Michael Sam; all but two since 2000 (97 percent)—and 100 percent in the last eight years—made an active roster his rookie season...all except for Sam.

What does that mean? What people say is, If Sam was good enough, he'd be on a team. Maybe that's true, but teams still fear Sam. Fear is a dynamic here. Despite Sam handling himself like a professional, keeping a low profile, fear of an openly gay man in the locker room is still an issue at play. Otherwise, he'd be on a team.

I don't believe in coincidence or anomalies. There is something wrong here.

There was also the alleged circus aspect Sam might bring to a team, but Sam, again, has done everything the right way. He hasn't said a word. There's been no circus. Nothing.

I can't find one team personnel man who will say Sam's sexuality is at play, but I'm not buying it. 

When I think of Sam's story, I think of past players like Warren Moon. When Moon came out of college, every NFL team passed on him. They all justified why they did it. He can't play. He's not good enough. But it was simple bigotry, to the point that Moon had to start his pro career in Canada.

It's possible Sam might have to do the same.

Sam's experience teaches future closeted gay athletes an important and unfortunate message about the NFL: It's still not ready for you to be open about who you are.

3. Welker should think about future: part 1 billion

Broncos coach John Fox said Wes Welker is "day to day" (per USA Today's Lindsay Jones) after taking a horrific shot in the back against New England. Welker has taken a lot of brutal hits. A lot. That was one of the worst.

A Patriots player after the game texted me: "What do you hear on Wes?" I can tell you that former Patriots teammates were concerned for Welker and asking about him. They have since gotten in touch with him, I believe.

I can say this with certainty: After however many concussions he's had (three, five, 10?) and the hits he's taken, there are a lot of people close to Welker who want him to walk away from the game for the sake of his long-term health.

4. Gronk all the way back

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

One of the most talked about things in football now—and I mean, more talked about than almost any other topic—is the resurgence of tight end Rob Gronkowski. It's amazed people in the Patriots organization. It's amazed people on other teams who have gone against him. It's amazed almost every corner of the sport.

Very few people outside of the Patriots thought they'd ever see Gronk back to form after so many injuries and surgeries. Yet here he is. There are lots of good candidates for Comeback Player of the Year, and he is definitely high on the list.

Against the Broncos, he had 105 yards and one score. That was Gronk's 50th career touchdown catch, in just his 59th game. That tied Randy Moss—yes, that Randy Moss—for the second-fastest in league history to reach 50 career touchdown catches. Only Lance Alworth was faster doing it in 54 games.

5. Hoyer power

David Richard/Associated Press

The Browns are 5-3, and as I've been freaking saying all along, Brian Hoyer is a good quarterback. I'm not saying he's Tom Brady, but he's good. And the Browns can win with him. Yes, they can win a title with him. No need for Johnny Manziel talk.

Consider this statistic: In 11 starts with the Browns, Hoyer is 8-3 with 2,629 yards and 15 touchdowns with an 88.2 rating. Not bad. Yes, they can win with him. They have been.

6. Impossible

I mean…how? How? How does he do that?

One thing I do know: Odell Beckham Jr. will be a star in this league—and not because he can make circus catches, but because he's extremely talented. The Giants picked a good one.

7. Luck continues to skyrocket

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

From the Elias Sports Bureau:

Andrew Luck extended two streaks in his game against New York. First, he became the first player in league history to throw for at least 350 yards in five consecutive road games. That's quite the impressive number. Putting up that kind of consistent yardage in hostile environments is a true sign of how good he is becoming.

Also, Luck's thrown at least 40 passes in each of his last six games, the third-longest streak of that kind in NFL history. The others were Drew Bledsoe (1995) and Matthew Stafford (2012-13), who each had seven-game streaks.

Both stats show that Luck is emerging from being a very good quarterback to becoming something even better.

One last thing from Elias: The Colts are the first team to score at least 40 points and gain 440 or more yards in a road game against the Giants since the Chicago Cardinals did it in 1948.

8. If the Giants don't make the playoffs...

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Expect heads to roll, and not just Tom Coughlin's. Around the league, there's speculation front office changes could come. No one knows to what degree, but I can tell you personnel men around the NFL are bracing for the Giants to undergo fairly substantial changes if the team fails to make the postseason again.

9. On playing quarterback for the Jets

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

This quote from former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe on Mark Sanchez, and playing quarterback in New York, is fabulous. He told ESPN's Colin Cowherd:

Going to play quarterback for the Jets is like, you know when they used to take the pretty young virgins up to the edge of the volcano and just throw them in. That's kind of what it is when you play quarterback for the Jets. It just feels bad, and Mark had to live with that for a long time. People threw him under the bus like he was the whole reason for the demise of the Jets.

10. More trouble in D.C.

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

This story from the Washington Post's Jason Reid is a fabulous piece of reporting and opinion. It's rare, in these days of writers and journalists sucking up to teams and the league, to get a genuine piece of reporting like this.

I should also add that the person who broke this story originally, Britt McHenry, nailed the story first. She got it exactly right and was unfairly criticized.

That team is a mess, and as much as the team tries to deny that fact, it is. And one of the main issues remains the type of players inside of it. There is a tremendous leadership vacuum, and that needs to addressed before almost anything else.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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