June 14, 2012

By ANDREW SELIGMAN | Associated Press 

 

 

 

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — The Chicago Bears opened minicamp, and one key piece remained missing — Matt Forte.

 

The Pro Bowl running back was absent Tuesday as expected, with his franchise-player tender remaining unsigned. So the staredown with management continues, and coach Lovie Smith seems to be staying out of it.

 

Asked if the situation bothered him, he said, "It's not an issue for me and it can't be."

 

"During the course of the year you have guys who aren't here for whatever reason," Smith continued. "You coach the guys who can go, who can practice. We've been spending all our time with that. I know Matt Forte. I'm sure he's getting ready to go. But in the meantime, the best thing we can do for the Chicago Bears is just keep this train going, which we've done."

 

Forte hasn't signed his $7.74 million tender, and he has a July 16 deadline to agree to a multiyear deal with more guaranteed money. He is not required to attend minicamp because he's not under contract, and Smith insisted he's "having a blast" coaching the players who are. He wouldn't say if he expected Forte's situation to be resolved by now or in time for training camp next month.

 

Either way, it's a big issue for a team with high expectations.

 

The Bears believe they have the talent to compete for an NFC championship after a big shakeup following a disappointing 8-8 finish. They fired general manager Jerry Angelo and replaced him with Phil Emery. They shook up their coaching staff, promoting Mike Tice from line coach to offensive coordinator to replace the departed Mike Martz. And they made several big roster moves, none bigger than the trade for Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall with Miami.

 

It would help if they had Forte in the mix.

 

"We'd love to have him," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "Hopefully we get him for training camp but if we don't, we've got to move on. It's part of the business. I don't think anyone is worried about Matt coming in and not being able to learn the offense or being out of shape. I think he picks things up really quickly. He's a smart guy. He's going to come in in shape. So it's just a matter of time if and when we get the guy."

 

Forte sought an extension last year, but negotiations went nowhere. He wound up making the Pro Bowl for the first time, finishing with 1,487 yards from scrimmage and 997 rushing, but his season ended with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee in a loss to Kansas City on Dec. 4. By then, the Bears had lost Cutler to a broken thumb and were in the middle of a freefall that knocked them out of playoff contention.

 

They're deeper now, and they believe they have a potentially explosive offense. Cutler, Marshall and new quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates were part of one in Denver, and they believe they can be even better this time around.

 

"The communication across the board has been fantastic," Tice said. "Among the players, and between the coaches and the players, you see a good rapport, and that's always important. At the end of the day, we're all in it together and we're all trying to do one thing, and that's win the championship. We need them, they need us, and if we work together toward that goal, we'll be successful."

 

A big part of that is Forte.

 

The Bears believe they can get by if he holds out after bringing in Michael Bush, but they envision the two anchoring a deep running game.

 

"I think you need to have two good backs, and we have two good backs," Tice said. "Of course, we love Matt, and we're excited about having Mike, and we like (Armando Allen), too. We're excited about our blend back there. We think that they all complement each other, and I think they're all going to be able to find their niche and make big plays for us."

 

NOTES: LB Brian Urlacher (left knee) and WR Alshon Jeffery (lower leg injury) sat out on Tuesday. Urlacher was injured in the final regular-season game and has not practiced during the offseason. "He's not ready to go yet," Smith said. "He's on pace. Our plan was to take it slow with him. " He said Urlacher should "be good to go for training camp." As for Jeffery, Smith said, "Hopefully he'll be able to do something before this minicamp is over." ... The Bears waived CB Donovan Warren.

 

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June 14, 2012

By MARK LONG | Associated Press

 

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — One day after the Jacksonville Jaguars took a strong stance on Maurice Jones-Drew's contract situation, the star running back made his feelings equally clear.

And he did it without saying a word.

Jones-Drew skipped the opening day of a mandatory minicamp Tuesday, showing just how disgruntled he is about his current deal, and has no plans to join the Jaguars for any part of the three-day practice session.

Coach Mike Mularkey can fine Jones-Drew up to $60,000 if he misses the entire camp.

"Obviously I would have liked to have had him here a long time ago," said Mularkey, who declined to say whether he will levy a fine. "It's not like all of a sudden something's new. It's been the same case. I'm trying to focus on the guys that are here, similar in talking about the guys that do it right on the weekends. Basically the same thing.

"The guys who show up here have gotten a lot done for us in all phases. Those are the guys I want to talk about. Write a good story about good things for them that are happening."

Jones-Drew, who led the NFL in rushing last season with 1,606 yards, has two years remaining on a five-year contract worth $31 million. He is scheduled to make $4.45 million this season and $4.95 million in 2013.

Coming off a career year, Jones-Drew wants to be one of the league's highest-paid backs. His contract currently ranks eighth among NFL backs, behind Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, Tennessee's Chris Johnson, Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, Houston's Arian Foster, St. Louis' Steven Jackson, Carolina's DeAngelo Williams and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch.

But Jaguars general manager Gene Smith made it clear Monday that the team has no plans to renegotiate with Jones-Drew, setting the stage for a potentially lengthy holdout.

"He has expressed that he would like to renegotiate and we have expressed again that we feel he has a contract with two years left that we expect him to fulfill those obligations," Smith said.

Both sides have valid arguments.

Jones-Drew signed his deal in 2009, before rushing for at least 1,300 yards in three consecutive seasons. Not only has he seemingly outperformed his contract, MJD is the face of the franchise and probably the only player on the roster known outside small-market Jacksonville.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, paid him based on the expectation that he would flourish as a starter after spending the first three years of his career splitting carries with Fred Taylor. And they don't want to set a precedent of renegotiating with players who have two years remaining on lucrative deals that included big signing bonuses.

Jacksonville also might not be enamored with paying a running back into his 30s, especially one who takes as many pounding hits as Jones-Drew does.

"Guys are going to try and posture themselves to have an advantage because this career is short, especially for running backs — their shelf life is seen as short — so there's points that can be made on both sides and they're both perfectly valid," guard Uche Nwaneri said. "He's the face of the franchise, no doubt. But the NFL is a business.

"Just like coaches got to make tough decisions, GMs got to make tough decisions and players have to make tough decisions. It's tough for him to make that decision that I'm not going to be show up here and be with my teammates and be out here working and learning this new system. That's a tough thing to do. ... We want everything to end up being resolved."

The Jaguars have missed the playoffs each of the last four years, but with new ownership, a revamped coaching staff and added playmakers on the NFL's worst offense, they feel they are close to turning things around.

And Jones-Drew is a key to getting it done.

"The unfortunate thing is that he's not here," cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "We know he's getting his work in. We know he's working hard, but to be with the team is the main thing. Whenever he gets here, we will greet him with open arms."

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June 07, 2012

By CHRIS JENKINS | Associated Press 

 

MILWAUKEE (AP) — George Koonce holds several years' worth of work in his hands, his voice booming as he reads from one of its 200-plus pages.

First comes an acknowledgment that it's difficult for regular people to have sympathy for wealthy former NFL players who have a hard time handling the end of their careers. Next comes a plea to coaches and administrators.

"The message being sent to players at an early age, in middle school, high school, and on the professional level, needs to include information on the afterlife," Koonce reads.

In this case, the former NFL player isn't using the term "afterlife" with a religious connotation. He's talking about life after football.

"The pursuit of a quality education, and diversification of interests, needs to be top priority for these young men," he continues. "Football must be secondary. From the perspective of great teachers and philosophers, it is demeaning and foolish to reduce people to just their athletic prowess."

Having found out firsthand that a member of a Super Bowl-winning team isn't necessarily wired for instant success off the field, Koonce used his own struggles — which included depression and even a suicide attempt — to fuel a dissertation on the issues former players face in retirement, one of the final steps toward earning his doctorate in philosophy at Marquette University. Koonce knew he wasn't alone, a point that was driven home in innumerable conversations with fellow former NFL players during his research.

Then again, tragically, on May 2.

That was the day Koonce turned in his dissertation. Then he returned to his office.

"That's when I saw the news flash about Junior Seau," Koonce said.

Koonce calls the former star linebacker's suicide heartbreaking — but perhaps not shocking, given that Koonce nearly met the same fate.

After eight seasons with the Green Bay Packers — playing a critical role in the team's run to the Super Bowl after the 1996 season — and one with the Seattle Seahawks, Koonce found himself out of football after the 2000 season. At first, he just kept working out and waiting for the phone to ring. Surely, another team needing a linebacker would be calling.

Koonce said it took about two years to realize that call wasn't coming.

"I wasn't used to that," Koonce said. "Because I was the best at everything I did. Now, I've been, the academic term, 'deselected.' Cut."

Koonce's voice grows louder and more deliberate as he talks about the sense of rejection he felt.

"Waived," he said. "Told, 'We don't need you anymore.' That was tough for me to live through that. The first time I've ever really been rejected."

Koonce said that led him to excessive drinking, inactivity and eventually an attempt on his own life.

"I think a lot of guys feel like, 'That was my purpose, to run around and tackle people,'" Koonce said. "It was tough. It was a culmination of drinking, and I was in a very dark place."

Koonce tried to kill himself by driving his car off the road in 2003.

"And that's when things turned around," Koonce said.

With the support of his wife, Tunisia, Koonce got counseling, became more involved in his church and got serious about moving on to the next chapter of his life. She asked what he wanted to be; a college athletic director, he answered.

How was he going to get there? He had no idea.

"And I thought I had prepared," Koonce said. "But I didn't really have a plan."

He enrolled in a sports management program at East Carolina, graduated and eventually became the athletic director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2009. But Tunisia died from breast cancer later that year, and Koonce resigned in 2010.

Today, Koonce works in fundraising at Marquette. Earning his doctorate is a tribute to his late wife.

"I was very fortunate to have a wife like Tunisia who got me involved in church, got me involved in school," Koonce said. "And I'm very thankful for everything she did for me and for my family. She literally pulled me out of the ditch."

Through his research, Koonce hopes to help the next generation of players avoid that ditch entirely by better preparing for the transition away from football.

Koonce says he began his research by talking to current and former players informally to identify adjustment issues. He narrowed it down to formal interviews with 21 players, some of whom requested anonymity.

"The game is gone — and, in a lot of ways, you're gone," Koonce said. "A lot of guys that I talked to said that when they left the game, it felt like they were going through a divorce. It felt like a piece of them died."

Koonce found that emotional issues are common. Seeking support is not.

"Now you're lost," Koonce said. "Now you're depressed. Now you start self-medicating. You're drinking. Doing cocaine. Taking pain pills. Trying to do some things to try to numb what you're going through. Because you can't talk to anyone. Because your whole life, you were taught that, 'George, your ankle, we're going to tape it up.'"

Koonce certainly came across post-football success stories in his research: Former Packers defensive end Willie Davis earned his MBA at the University of Chicago after his playing days were over, then took over a struggling beer distributorship and turned it into a successful business.

But the majority of players Koonce talked to admitted having trouble in transition.

Perhaps the most extreme example Koonce cited in his work was an unidentified former player who dressed in a suit and left the house holding a briefcase every morning, then came home every night, making it seem to his family like everything was OK. As it turned out, he spent those days sitting in a parked car. The player eventually killed himself and his wife, Koonce said.

"From a very early age, you have this idea of being a tough-man mentality," Koonce said. "And when you are vulnerable, like so many of us are when we leave the game, that's when you go into isolation. That's when you want to go off by yourself and try to figure things out. But it's tough when you're not talking to someone."

To help players avoid such issues in retirement, Koonce says coaches and administrators must do a better job of emphasizing education. Koonce acknowledges this is easier said than done, given that coaches are paid mostly to win games.

Koonce also calls on the NFL Players Association to become a "big brother" to players, taking a more active role in helping players prepare for life after football.

"I'm not trying to put blame on the NFL Players Association or the NCAA or the NFL as a whole," Koonce said. "But there are some things that need to be done that I think can be implemented to help those once-heroes in transition."

Two former players in charge of post-career programs, NFL Vice President of Player Engagement Troy Vincent and NFL Players Association Senior Director of Former Player Services Nolan Harrison, say progress is being made in helping former players adjust to life after football but acknowledge there is room for improvement.

Koonce says that the responsibility ultimately falls on players themselves, who must do a better job of recognizing and taking advantage of potential business connections that could help them down the road.

"You have a chance to interface with some of the top, most influential people in that state, in that community," Koonce said. "But if you're so engulfed in playing the sport that you're playing, it really doesn't make any different. There are opportunities that are going to pass you by that you really didn't embrace when you were on that campus or when you were in the NFL. You're so engulfed in the next play, the next quarter, the next half, the next game, the next season."

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June 14, 2012

By DAVE CAMPBELL | Associated Press

 

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The NFL has suspended Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Jerome Simpson for the first three games of the 2012 season, punishing him for a felony drug conviction tied to a marijuana shipment to his home last fall.

Simpson was suspended for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He was also fined one game check, the league announced Monday, meaning he must forfeit nearly one-fourth of his $800,000 salary this year including the three weeks he won't be paid while being barred from team activities and facilities.

Simpson is allowed to participate in all preseason practices and games, but will miss games against Jacksonville on Sept. 9, at Indianapolis on Sept. 16 and Sept. 24 against San Francisco. ESPN had reported that he would be suspended for three games.

The 26-year-old Simpson left Cincinnati to sign a one-year contract with Minnesota. He acknowledged his pending punishment during interviews, admitting last week "it's kind of frustrating" for him to think about having to sit out his first three games with his new team.

"I won't be out there with my guys playing the game I love, but it's the technicality of my situation," Simpson said.

Authorities said they tracked a shipment of 2 1/2 pounds of marijuana to his Kentucky home in September and that they found another pound of the drug inside the house. Simpson was sentenced to 15 days in jail, three years of probation and 200 hours of community service plus a $7,500 fine and court costs. He previously pleaded guilty a prohibited act relating to controlled substances.

Simpson's potential outweighed any of the off-the-field risks for the Vikings. He had three 100-yard games last year, the same as Minnesota's entire team, and he brings stretch-the-field potential for second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. The Vikings sorely lacked someone in their passing game last season with game-changing speed like Simpson's, a skill he has already shown off in spring practices.

The Vikings posted video on their website of an acrobatic catch Simpson made over cornerback Chris Cook last week, and team spokesman Jeff Anderson said Tuesday on Twitter the clip has been viewed more than 50,000 times.

"It was crazy," Ponder said afterward. "He plucked it right off the guy's head. That shows me that I can trust him. I can throw it down field, and he's going to go make a play."

Simpson, a second-round 2008 draft pick out of Coastal Carolina by the Bengals, played sparingly his first three years in the NFL but had a breakout season in 2011 while catching 50 passes for 725 yards and four touchdowns.

 

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June 07, 2012

By TIM ­TALLEY |

Associated Press

 

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — Jacksonville Jaguars first-round draft pick Justin Blackmon appear­ed in an Oklahoma courtroom Monday for the first time since his weekend arrest for suspicion of drunken driving.

The former Oklahoma State star wide receiver’s attorney entered a not guilty plea for him to a misdemeanor count of driving under the influence. Black­mon was allowed to remain free on $1,000 bond.

Police arrested Blackmon during a traffic stop in Stillwater early Sunday after a breath test allegedly showed his blood alcohol content to be three times the legal limit.

Blackmon left the courtroom surrounded by friends. His attorney, Cheryl Ramsey, declined to comment.

The Jaguars selected Blackmon fifth overall in April’s draft. A team spokesman said Sunday that the Jaguars were trying to learn more about the arrest and had no comment.

Blackmon has not yet signed with the Jaguars, and it was not immediately known how the charge might impact negotiations.

Blackmon is Jacksonville’s fourth first-round draft pick since 2000 to face problems after being selected. The team has tried for nearly a decade to find a suitable replacement for its best receiving tandem ever, Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell.

Former Arkansas quarterback-turned-wide receiver Matt Jones, selected in 2005, was charged with cocaine possession in July 2008 and ordered into a drug treatment program. He was suspended for three games in late 2008 for violations of the NFL’s drug policy and cut in the spring of 2009.

The team's 2004 first-round pick, Washington wide receiver Reggie Williams, wasn’t re-signed after being charged with drug possession in Houston in 2009.

And wide receiver R. Jay Soward of Southern Cal, taken in the first round in 2000, seldom played due to drug and alcohol problems that led to numerous suspensions.

 

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