ATLANTA -- During more than a quarter-century in which Jim Steeg worked at the league offices, and for three dozen years in the NFL overall, owners and executives doubtless learned never to underestimate the management abilities of the man arguably most responsible for elevating the Super Bowl to a national holiday.
But if the sentiments echoed at the one-day NFL spring meeting here on Tuesday are any kind of indication, the eminently resourceful Steeg, who presided over the exponential growth of the league's championship game and subsequently served as CEO of the San Diego Chargers, could face some significantly steep problems in selling his latest venture.
Steeg is chairman of the USFL board of advisors and, as widely reported over the past couple weeks, the resurrected loop hopes to reinvent itself as a developmental entity, a "feeder" league or minor league for the NFL. Part of the new league's master blueprint is to basically collaborate with the NFL, not to challenge it, as the former USFL did, prompting its demise after only three seasons.
The NBA has the "D-League," and some players have used it as a timely and providential stepping stone to the majors. So why not a developmental league for the NFL, given that there is no lack of talented players with professional aspirations who are cut before the season, or perhaps never even make it into a training camp?
The plan, if wisely and properly executed, appears to make some sense.
The problem? The NFL seems notably wary of another league, even one that has publicly cast itself as no real threat to the big-time.
"We're so tied to the colleges, I just don't know, really," Atlanta Falcons' owner Arthur Blank told The Sports Xchange. "You probably know more about it than I do. It's something I've heard and read about, but haven't done much homework on it. I guess it could be an interesting concept, but ..."
One of the reservations: There has been some casual discussion, even at the league level, of the NFL birthing and subsidizing its own developmental league.
League executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson acknowledged there could be "some sort of merit" to a developmental league, but acknowledged that any substantive level discussions haven't gained much traction yet. In his post-meeting remarks on Tuesday afternoon, commissioner Roger Goodell cited the collective bargaining agreement struck last summer, an accord which dramatically reduces organized offseason sessions and overall contact practices in general, and conceded the new schedule "limit(s) the amount of time the younger players have to either be evaluated or develop their own skills."
Asked Goodell, rhetorically: "Should we have some sort of developmental league?"
Given the present set of circumstances facing the NFL and its commissioner, and the obvious contentiousness that still exists between the NFL and NFLPA, which seems to battle every league initiative, no matter how innocuous, an answer doesn't appear to be a priority. But neither does consummating any sort of agreement in which a remade USFL serves as a developmental surrogate.
Said Dallas owner Jerry Jones: "I don't know if it fits right now."
Goodell chuckled at a question posed by The Sports Xchange in which the term "allegedly reconstituted" was employed to characterize the reconfigured USFL.
"The first part of the question is definitely accurate," a seemingly dubious Goodell said, alluding to the suggestion that the pending league intends to recast itself in a developmental mode.
"It is something we will continue to pursue," Goodell conceded. "If we do it, my personal view is it should be defined by what the actual objective is. If it is going to be a developmental league, let's call it a developmental league; let's design it as a developmental league. If it is going to be a commercial league that is trying to generate fan interest or generate revenue, we should also be clear on that objective. I think our general view right now is to make it a developmental league."
In interviews and releases, Steeg has never portrayed the USFL -- which plans to announce eight franchise cities within the next month or two, will control player costs and contracts at the central league level, begin play in the spring of 2013, and hold its championship contest a month before NFL franchises even report for training camp -- as anything but a developmental league. But the NFL, which has fought challenges in the past from alternative leagues that initially presented themselves as only an alternative, and essentially won all of them, seems to be balking at this point at establishing a working relationship with the USFL.
One owner joked this week that the name, which conjures up negative sentiments among some veteran team and NFL officials, might have something to do with the seeming reluctance. Several colleagues, though, suggested that the NFL would want to do far more than partially subsidize the USFL, or offer tacit support, as it does with arena football. Translation: The NFL might prefer to do something on its own, rather than have someone else do it.
One example: The NFL this year bought the regional combines established by Steve Austin, and huddled them under its umbrella.
At least in words, and so far actions, Steeg and the USFL, whose advisors include longtime team executive Jim Bailey, Hall of Fame wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, and former NFL quarterback Jeff Garcia, seem to have done things the right way. The reconstituted league, with the rights purchased by Jaime Cuadra of San Diego-based EndZone Sports Management, has embraced the single business entity model; plans to stay out of locales with an NFL or Major League Baseball franchise; will include mentoring programs to help players transition away from their football careers; and provide the NFL access to its players.
There would be, Steeg has reiterated several times, none of the right fees that other leagues have charged the NFL to sign its players.
And it would grant some semblance of relief to the football junkies who suffer from gridiron withdrawal in the spring and summer.
"The spring thing is big," Anderson said, "because the calendar in the fall is getting pretty filled up. With the Sunday and Monday games, the (enhanced) Thursday night schedule, the colleges playing on Saturdays, the spring is the way to go. But ..."
Ah, yes, there's that word again, and it might not be a good one for the USFL.
Several coaches to whom The Sports Xchange spoke this week, both head coaches and assistants, seemed split on the notion of a developmental league. And without the wholesale support of the coaching fraternity, even the NFL might be hard-pressed to introduce the concept of a developmental league. So even with his ties to the NFL, his knowledge of league inner-workings and entre to some of the game's movers and shakers, Steeg could face a difficult time.
For years, the NFL has essentially considered the colleges its minor league system. Tradition will be a tough thing to buck. In concept, a developmental USFL league may be an idea whose time has come. In the minds of some owners, not so much.
"The first thing would have to be the financial model, getting it to work, and they at least seem pointed in the right direction from what I've read," said Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay. "But we'd have to decide, too, that it's something we needed. And I'm just not really convinced of that right now, and probably a lot of other (owners) aren't, either."
Around the League
--One of the early positive elements of the Chicago Bears' workouts, perhaps even an epiphany of sorts to some coaches, has been the performance of tailback Michael Bush as a receiver.
The four-year veteran, signed from Oakland as an unrestricted free agent and presumptive backup to franchise tailback Matt Forte, has caught the ball well.
There were some concerns as the Bears install the offense that is designed by new coordinator Mike Tice that the team might miss the receiving skills of Forte, who remains unsigned and is sitting out the OTA sessions. But Bush has been a bit of a revelation so far.
He's not Forte, admittedly, but not bad, either. In his four seasons with the Raiders, Bush wasn't often utilized as a receiver out of the backfield, and he registered just 91 catches for his career. Part of that, of course, was that Bush was not a full-time starter.
Still, after averaging only 18.0 receptions his first three years, Bush had a career-best 37 catches in 2011, when he started a career-high nine contests. One of the NFL's premier all-around backs, Forte has averaged 55.8 catches in his four league seasons and recorded 50-plus receptions every year.
But there has been no substantive progress in contract discussions with Forte, the Bears aren't sure when he'll report, and, even with the upgraded talent at wide receiver, Chicago needs a backfield receiving threat. Sure, it's only OTAs, but Bush has provided some indication he can somewhat fill the bill.
Bush was added as a complement to Forte, and once the starter resolves his contract situation, he'll go back to providing a solid power runner who loves to bang people. Until then, though, his role is expanded, and he's proving capable.
--With the acquisition of Kellen Winslow from Tampa Bay, add the Seattle Seahawks to the increasing menu of offenses that will expand its use of two-tight end sets in 2012.
No, the Seahawks probably won't become the Pacific Northwest version of the Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez New England Patriots, but coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell definitely have a plan for getting Winslow and incumbent starter Zach Miller on the field together.
As one Seattle assistant noted to The Sports Xchange this week, they aren't paying all that money for Winslow (base salaries of $3.3 million for 2012, $4.5 million in 2013 and $5.5 million for 2014) just to be "a decoration."
The money aside -- and it's always difficult not to consider dollars in the NFL -- the Seahawks landed Winslow for chump change in compensation, just a seventh-round draft pick.
And while new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano was peeved at Winslow for his absence during the first week of OTAs, the Seahawks, who contend they did their due diligence, don't see him as the churlish, temperamental, immature player of his early years in the league.
After the injury problems of his first couple seasons (one of them self-inflicted), Winslow has played in all 16 games in five of his last six campaigns in the league.
And he's a productive player, having averaged over 70 catches the past three years in Tampa, and with four seasons overall of 80-plus receptions.
The puzzle for Bevell will be how to combine two solid receivers in Winslow and Miller. The latter had only 25 receptions in 2011, but averaged 56.5 catches the previous four years in Oakland. The Seahawks insist there's a plan.
--It's been broadly reported that, at the NFL spring meeting on Tuesday, the league agreed to two roster-related proposals: one that would permit a team to bring back one player from injured reserve in the second half of the campaign, and a second that would move back the trade deadline by two weeks, from the Tuesday following the sixth week of play until after Week 8.
Truth is, while there seems to be accord among owners for the two initiatives, they aren't "done deals" just yet.
The NFL's competition committee has essentially handed off the two measures to the Management Council Executive Committee to bargain with the NFLPA over.
And given the current stance of the union and executive director DeMaurice Smith, which makes nothing automatic, the moves aren't exactly a slam-dunk.
Lamented on owner: "Nothing comes easy with those (NFLPA) guys. Even changes that make sense, like these two, they're ready to go to war over them. We'd hope they would go through, but you never know."
Notable on Tuesday was that the competition committee and the owners pretty much passed on a proposal that would have permitted a team a roster exemption for a player with a concussion.
The move was somewhat surprising, given all the focus on head injuries lately. By the way, despite the tacit agreement on extending the trade deadline, there were some objections to it from a few owners.
--Owners continue to be publicly protective of the league's relationship with the colleges.
But with so many high-profile draft choices unable to participate in OTAs because of the rule that prohibits them from reporting until the terms have ended at their universities, a few owners privately indicated some frustration with the moratorium at this week's league meetings.
"Most of these guys aren't even in school anymore, and maybe haven't been for a while," one AFC owner noted to The Sports Xchange. "It's just ridiculous."
There's been no move to address the current rule, but it's very much on the minds of some owners and coaches.
One who declined to get into much detail about the situation was Colts owner Jim Irsay, whose team has been without top pick Andrew Luck or second-round tight end Coby Fleener because of the rule.
"We knew the situation when we picked those guys," Irsay said. "It's not like we weren't aware they wouldn't be around for a while."
--Pretty widely accepted (included in this space) was that one player who could benefit from the new IR proposal, and return during the season rather than having to sit out a full year, might be Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs.
But that won't be true if the change is adopted.
As the proposal is written, a team could only return a player injured "after reporting to training camp."
The league's reigning defensive player of the year, Suggs sustained his Achilles injury during an offseason workout and he would not be eligible for inclusion in the potential rules change.
--It's still a little early to characterize the linebacker situation in Carolina as an embarrassment of riches.
Heck, because of injuries to two projected starters, the Panthers' linebacker corps was an embarrassment, period, at times in 2011.
But coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Sean McDermott seem to be pleased with the potential for the unit to dramatically improve over 2011. Barring injuries -- and, granted, that's never a safe thing to do with the Carolina linebackers -- the unit could be pretty good.
The selection of Boston College star Luke Kuechly in the first round, with the return of three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason from an Achilles injury that limited him to one game last season, should provide the Panthers with plenty of flexibility.
Onetime weak-side starter Thomas Davis is trying to come back from another ACL surgery on his right knee -- the third of his career and second in two seasons -- so he's still a long shot. But if Davis can overcome the knee woes to be even a situational player, he'll add to what could suddenly be a fairly deep position. And that's not taking into account James Anderson, who set a franchise record for tackles last season as the strongside starter.
"So far, so good," Rivera said this week after an OTA session.
For now, Beason, who is being held out of the OTAs, is slated as the starter in the middle, and Kuechly will play on the weak side, although he has taken some snaps at middle linebacker. That could change in camp, but the plan seems to be to keep Beason, who has played weak linebacker in the past, at his most comfortable spot in the middle.
Kuechly, who played primarily in the middle in college but was on the field for all three downs, seems to have taken pretty well to the weak spot.
"He's really fast, not just in terms of running, but also in (smarts)," Beason said.
Kuechly, who had seven interceptions in his college career, including three in each of his final two seasons, was regarded by many scouts as a three-down defender, and is clearly more than just a middle run-stuffer.
--As first noted by Pat Kirwan of CBSSports.com, veteran free agent middle linebacker Gary Brackett has been cleared to play again after a shoulder injury that sidelined him for all but one game in 2011.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that the nine-year veteran, released by the rebuilding Indianapolis Colts earlier in the spring, will be in a hurry to return to the field. Brackett, 32, has had some nibbles.
But he isn't likely to jump at a minimum offer, or basically $1 million, as some out-of-work veterans have done in recent weeks. Brackett's wife has just begun her medical residency, he's got money in the bank, and a burgeoning presence as a motivational speaker.
So he's hardly desperate for a paycheck. He would prefer to play in '12, and at age 32 feels he's got some productive football still in him, but won't force the issue.
Brackett and some other guys who have not lunged at the carrot of a minimum-salary deal are good examples of the stories not often told at a time when the tales of some players who have squandered away fortunes seem to be a lot sexier.
Contrary to the headlines, there are some players, such as Brackett, who have exercised great responsibility with their money, and who can afford to be a bit more deliberate in their career choices.
--A month or so again, the Tip Sheet posited the notion that left tackle Ryan Clady, even more so than some of the wide receivers, might benefit from the addition of Peyton Manning in Denver.
At least financially, that appears to be the case.
While it doesn't appear that a deal is imminent, there have been some extension talks between Broncos' officials and agent Pat Dye Jr., and both parties seem amenable to trying to make something happen.
A two-time Pro Bowl performer, Clady is entering the final season of his original contract, signed as a first-round pick in 2008, and is scheduled for a base salary of $3.5 million.
Although his play slipped some last year, it's hard to gauge the performance because of the change to Tim Tebow and the transformation of the Denver offense in-season, but Clady is still widely regarded as one of the NFL's better pass protectors.
That status should only improve with Manning, who rarely takes sacks, and typically makes his offensive line look better than its individual components.
--The Miami Dolphins are expected to soon start extension discussions with left tackle Jake Long, the top overall pick in '08, and who is entering the final year of his contract.
At the league meeting this week, Miami owner Stephen Ross, in addition to suggesting that Matt Moore probably will be the team's starting quarterback on opening day, debunked reports that the Dolphins might allow Long to depart next spring, after choosing Stanford's Jonathan Martin in the draft last month.
Long has a base salary of $11.2 million in 2012, and a similar cap charge, and the Dolphins could reduce the latter with an extension.
--While publicly optimistic that Hakeem Nicks will be rehabilitated from the foot surgery he underwent on Friday, after suffering an injury during OTAs this week, the New York Giants are more concerned about their 1,000-yard wide receiver than reports have indicated.
That said, the Giants like what they've seen so far from rookie second-round steal Reuben Randle of LSU, feel that second-year veteran Jerrel Jernigan will be more than just a guy with great speed and quickness this year, and are heartened by the comeback of veteran Dominik Hixon after two straight years of knee surgeries.
Make no mistake, the Giants understand they're a better team with Nicks, teaming with Victor Cruz, but New York is a resourceful club with excellent leadership, and seems to know how to adapt to situations. "We've been here before," offensive lineman David Diehl said this week.
--In 2007, agent Drew Rosenhaus, attempting to land an upgraded contract for Lance Biggs, tried to broker a trade in which Washington would have acquired the standout linebacker.
The proposed trade collapsed when Chicago asked for fellow linebacker Rocky McIntosh as part of the compensation package.
Five years later, Briggs has been to the Pro Bowl four times since the failed deal, and is one of the NFL's best paid 'backers.
McIntosh, on the other hand, remains an unrestricted free agent.
While McIntosh has made some visits, most recently to the New York Jets, he isn't widely regarded as a likely starter.
The versatility of McIntosh -- who has played the weak side in both the 4-3 and 3-4, and has been inside in a 3-4 (even though he eventually lost his starting spot last season) -- might make him attractive to a few teams.
But it's unlikely he's going to net a big deal and just as unlikely he'll be projected as a starter no matter where he goes.
Five years is an eternity in the NFL, and the divergent fates of Briggs and McIntosh is just one more reminder of that.
--Punts: It's interesting that, to date, no player has challenged the NFLPA's Smith on his contention that he was coerced into signing the arbitrator's decision in the Philadelphia/Dallas grievances regarding their salary cap penalties. Isn't it the role of the union's top man to make sure that he isn't pressured into signing something? ... In the wake of his resignation last month, there have been rumors that NFL director of investigations Joe Hummel, who had a large role in the New Orleans bounty examination, was dismissed. League officials adamantly deny that was the case. Even if it was, we should all be so lucky. Hummel is slated to double his salary in his new job. ... Two Winslow leftovers: Seattle is paying a lot of money at the tight end position and, to this point at least, there are no signs that adjustments have been made to the contracts of either Winslow or Miller. In addition to the Winslow deal they inherited, the Seahawks owe Miller $14.4 million in bases, including a whopping $6.8 million this season. Second, the coaches in Seattle will have to live with the fact that Winslow typically misses a day of practice weekly because of his knee problems. ... In addition to the aforementioned Brackett, add defensive tackle Fred Robbins to the list of unrestricted free agents who have rebuffed proposals to sign minimum-salary contracts. ... Despite early reports that Green Bay coaches are satisfied so far with the work of Graham Harrell, the Packers may yet look for a veteran backup to Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay, of course, lost No. 2 quarterback Matt Flynn to Seattle as a free agent. The Packers chose B.J. Coleman of Tennessee-Chattanooga in the seventh round last month, but no one in Green Bay considers him a legitimate challenger for the primary backup spot, and it appears there already are some questions about his arm strength. ... He has struggled at times in his efforts to become a play-making wide receiver, rather than arguably the top return specialist in NFL history, but Devin Hester reportedly has looked terrific so far in Bears' workouts. With the additions of Brandon Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery, Hester could be a big force in the slot, Chicago coaches feel. ... There is, according to some Bears' officials, something to the reports that the club could make it a priority to get a contract extension with quarterback Jay Cutler, even before addressing Forte's situation. Cutler has two seasons remaining on his current deal. Chicago officials simply don't feel that a tailback merits the kind of money Forte is reportedly seeking. ... Neither do the Baltimore Ravens agree that franchise back Ray Rice, despite his obvious value to their offense, agree that the versatile star should be rewarded with the kind of deal to which Philadelphia signed LeSean McCoy a week ago. ... Word out of Indianapolis is that left end Robert Mathis has made a little smoother transition to a 3-4, particularly in "drop" situations than right end Dwight Freeney. ... Green Bay insiders caution that the move of Clay Matthews to the right side, to make way for first-round choice Nick Perry on the left, isn't yet set in stone. Coordinator Dom Capers is looking for an improved rush, and aligning Matthews on the open side might be one element of that, but the Packers want to get a longer look at Perry in camp before making anything permanent. ... Two veteran cornerbacks who many felt would be moved inside to safety later in their careers apparently aren't ready to make the switch yet. Perennial Pro Bowl corner Champ Bailey, who will be 34 next month, insisted this week that it's not time yet to make such a move. And the Cleveland Browns have kept Sheldon Brown, a guy often touted by The Sports Xchange as a future safety possibility because of his football smarts, on the outside as well. ... Even with the injury to Nicks, there's been no indication yet that the Giants are preparing a contract upgrade for Cruz.
--The last word: "In the game of football, it's like a war out there. Once you get out on the field, all that stuff is to the side. You're on my side. I played in the NFL for 11 years, and I'm sure there were one or two guys along the line who were gay." -- former NFL defensive end Jevon Kearse, via Outsports.com, on the improving acceptance of gay players in the league