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10-Point Stance: Peterson, Rice, Incognito Returns Would Show NFL Hasn't Changed

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterFebruary 11, 2015

Evan Habeeb/USA Today

1. Same old NFL

Everyone in football has always believed that Adrian Peterson will be back in the NFL. Despite the despicable act of beating his own son, and despite the photos, any question about his return has been just a matter of when and where. 

Now I'm beginning to hear something interesting on a player no one was as certain about.

My thought had been that Ray Rice would never play in the NFL again. I thought teams would be too afraid to sign him, considering the brutality of what he did and the fact it was caught on tape. Afraid that the ugly video would stick not only to Rice, but also to the team that signs him, the owner that signs him, the coach that signs him. Afraid they would all be linked forever.

Signing a player like Rice wouldn't seem to fit in the supposed new NFL culture, where teams were theoretically going to be more cautious about signing troubled players.

But that notion seems to be changing, and not just slightly.

I still don't believe Rice will play in the NFL again, but I used to be 100 percent sure. Now, based on conversations with numerous team executives over the past few weeks, it's more like 50 percent. At best. One general manager told me point blank, "He will 100 percent be on a team next season." Word is, teams thinking hard about Rice are in the NFC.

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What's changed? Why aren't teams afraid of that video that I thought (and still do, to some degree) would scare the bejeezus out of them? Two things:

First, NFL teams know fans have short attention spans. That's why they aren't as afraid of fan backlash, or of scorn from the public and activists.

In other words, this might be the same old NFL.

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 11: A Miami Dolphins fan holds a sign for Richie Incognito during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on November 11, 2013 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The signing of Richie Incognito, the perennial toad, is one clear indicator that's the case—that the expected shift from an NFL where teams sign anyone no matter their troubled history to a more responsible league isn't happening.

The second reason is just raw practicality. There is a dearth of free-agent runners. DeMarco Murray and Justin Forsett are the stars, but both are coming off career years. I love Frank Gore, but he's 400 years old. Mark Ingram is good, not great. Darren McFadden will strain something in the time it takes you to read this sentence. Same with Ahmad Bradshaw. There are a few other OK options in Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Ryan Matthews, C.J. Spiller.

The talented runners from that group will either stay with their teams or start a bidding war for their services. All of this leaves a huge opening for a player like Rice, who isn't that good anymore but might be better than what's out there.

So Rice might be back. Not because he deserves to be, but because nothing's really changed in football and because of need.

2. A year later

It was a year ago this week that Michael Sam came out as gay. It was one of the most important moments in sports. Sam handled the moment with nothing but class. Some NFL teams and fans: not so much.

What's become clear with Sam is something I've contended all along (for years) and something others (mainly in the media) are now just realizing: The NFL was never going to fully accept Sam. There would be pockets of acceptance but not overall acceptance, and that has proven true.

Cy Zeigler's excellent story about Sam on Outsports, like others he has done on Sam, ends the argument of whether Sam is being discriminated against. It's more than clear now: Sam isn't in football because he's gay.

So on the anniversary of such an important moment, we know that Sam handled himself with great professionalism. Maybe one day the NFL will catch up.

3. Where will Sam go?

Brandon Wade/Associated Press

I made this point some time ago and it's still valid: He will have to go the Warren Moon route.

Moon faced extensive bigotry coming out of college. It was so bad he had to play in Canada. My guess—and I could be wrong—is that Sam will have to do the same thing.

Sam, like Moon, will have to over-prove himself to teams that are looking for every reason not to sign him.

4. Boy, was I wrong

Jun 12, 2014; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III looks on during minicamp at Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

I told Browns fans not to worry. Told them their organization was in good hands. Told them the management team knew what it was doing. Good coaches. All will be OK. Just chill. Relax.

Yeah, so I nailed that one.

The key to the Browns' failures is ownership. This is where fans get screwed and part of the success of their team comes down to luck. If you get lucky and have a good ownership group, like the Mara family or the Rooneys, then you know the team will be run professionally. If you get a clown, you're screwed.

Across the league, teams are stunned by what's happening in Cleveland. I mean, genuinely stunned. Actually, there is a mix of stunned and pity. Teams feel sorry for Browns fans. They deserve better. But with that owner, they won't get better anytime soon.

5. Official bust

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

This story from ESPN.com's Mike Wells explains the Trent Richardson phenomenon in Indy. Just an all-around mess. Now the question becomes, what do they do with him? 

6. Dorsett on CTE

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, who was diagnosed with CTE in 2013, describing his battle to Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket (via The Dallas Morning News):

I'm in a battle, obviously. I got diagnosed with CTE and it's very frustrating at times for me. I've got a good team of people around me, my wife and kids, who work with me. When you've been in this town for so long and I have to go to some place I've been going to for many, many, many years, and then all of a sudden I forget how to get there. Those things are frustrating when it comes to those things. I understand that I'm combating it, trying to get better. But, you know, some days are good. Some days are bad.

I signed up for this when, I guess, I started playing football so many years ago. But, obviously, not knowing that the end was going to be like this. But I love the game. The game was good to me. It's just unfortunate that I'm going through what I'm going through. I'm in the fight, man. I'm not just laying around letting this overtake me. I'm fighting. I'm in the battle. I'm hoping we can reverse this thing somehow.

Now, in fairness, I'm not certain if a living person can be diagnosed with CTE. Nonetheless, these types of stories are the NFL's nightmares. Unfortunately, they will keep coming.

7. Super Bowl ring sold

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The Ravens put out a statement saying runner Jamal Lewis sold his Super Bowl ring "due to financial difficulties." Well, yeah, I assume most players would only sell something so precious, a symbol of the greatest accomplishment in team sports, if they really had to. I didn't think Lewis would do it on a whim.

The ring Lewis sold might have been the so-called extra ring—the one from the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII victory, which Lewis wasn't a part of—but it's still a ring that symbolizes so much, and Lewis knows what that ring means because he won one in 2000 with the Ravens.

(You also have to wonder if Lewis also sold that ring, but it was just never publicized.)

Money mismanagement remains a pertinent issue for a significant number of current and former athletes. It's gotten better but incrementally. 

Lewis made more than $46 million during his NFL career, according to Spotrac, but nonetheless became one of a number of athletes to sell his championship ring. It's just sad, to be sure. No, I don't feel sorry for Lewis. He made his own choices. Yet selling something that has to mean so much to him is—I can't find another word for it—sad.

8. This criticism of RG3 is just plain idiotic

There are legitimate beefs with Robert Griffin III. The idea, spouted during an Instagram argument and relayed by The Washington Post, that "he cares more about his brand, social media than working in his craft" is not one of them.

Athletes are allowed to have lives. Griffin isn't out getting arrested. He's not deflating footballs. He's not committing acts of domestic violence. He's making a (moderately) entertaining video and posting it on social media. People outraged by that need to seriously examine their lives.

9. Brawl over LA team coming?

Nick Ut/Associated Press

When the NFL sent a memo, obtained by the Los Angeles Times, to owners about potential team relocation to L.A., it was attempting to do a simple thing: mark territory.

As in, NFL ownership, as a whole, is saying all owners hold the cards on any potential move. The league as a whole will make the decision, not an individual owner. That may not be totally accurate since Al Davis successfully sued the league over his move. But the memo was a preemptive strike. If an owner moves, get ready for a fight.

10. Rest in peace Ed Sabol

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

Met him several times, liked him a great deal. A really smart man who always told you something about the sport you didn't know. Maybe the greatest innovator the league has ever seen. He'll definitely be missed.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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