Browns' Benard grateful for second chance

Marcus Benard offered very little in the way of details about the October 2011 motorcyle crash that ended his season last year.

But the Cleveland Browns defensive end did say he learned some things about himself and life following the crash that broke his right hand and caused other unspecified injuries.

You learn more about life,” he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer following the Browns OTA work. “You learn more about yourself. Sitting out and going through what I went through, rehab and everything, you always sit back and evaluate yourself and evaluate your position in life and definitely a little bit of insight.”

It marked his first interview since the crash.

Benard was traveling at a high rate of speed on I-71 when he lost control of the motorcyle and hit a guard rail, propelling him about 80 yards from the bike. So Benard knows he is lucky to be alive, much less playing football again.

He is also learning a new position, switching to outside linebacker in the Browns new 4-3 system and running with the second unit

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Terry McCormick covers the Titans for

Bucs name Eric Stokes director of college scouting

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have named Eric Stokes as director of college scouting.

He comes to the Bucs after a two-year stint with the Seattle Seahawks as their assistant director of college scouting, according to Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune. The Seahawks, in that time, has success rebuilding their secondary with some fine young draft picks.

A former safety for the Seahawks, Stokes has experience in the pro and college scouting departments for the franchise. He was an area scout for seven years and worked on the pro side for three.

The Bucs have a young team and have had high picks in recent drafts that have yet to pan out.

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Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

Erik Walden has fresh perspective following domestic ordeal

Erik Walden has a fresh outlook on the game of football and he says it was the weekend he spent in jail that opened his eyes.

The outside linebacker for the Green Bay Packers spent Thanksgiving weekend locked up following a domestic dispute with his live-in girlfriend. Walden, who was charged with disorderly conduct-domestic dispute, received a deferred judgment and was given 50 hours of community service and counseling.

The Packers brought him back and for this season they have signed him to a one-year contract. But there is competition.

“(Sitting in jail), it's the first time I ever sat down and did some thinking,” Walden told Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “What have I accomplished? Where have I been? You never want anything like that to happen, but at the end of the day, it made me stronger mentally to prepare myself for everything that's going on – the perception and all of that. I'm good now.”

It remains to be seen what kind of fit Walden will have on the defense this season. Nothing is guaranteed and he has to make the team. But if he’s feeling pressure, he didn’t share that.

“Now, man, I feel good. Football is easy now,” Walden told Dunne. “After going through what I went through last year, I look at it totally different. Football ain't hard. This is fun. That's my approach to it.”

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Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

Lions not frustrated by Cliff Avril situation

Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand says the club has made Cliff Avril “very substantial offers” and says lines of communication with the defensive end remain open.

Avril has not shown up for the team’s offseason program as he has not signed his franchise tag tender. He’s seeking a long-term deal.

“Some guys have signed the tender and chosen to come in and practice without an extension, the Wes Welker example,” Lewand said, according to Anwar Richardson of “Some haven't. I don't question Cliff's commitment, his work ethic, anything. He's made a choice to work out on his own. These are obviously voluntary sessions. We can only talk about the guys who are here.”

Lewand says the team remains in communication with Brian Mackler, who represents Avril. Whether a deal can be completed before the July 16 deadline remains to be seen. There is time.

“We'll leave the dialogue open,” Lewand said. “I talked to Brian recently, and we have an ongoing dialogue. We've said all along, we'd like Cliff to be here. We've made some very substantial offers to him. We haven't been able to work a deal out.”

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Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

Bengals bundle ticket packages

The Cincinnati Bengals, who have had their issues selling tickets over the years, have decided to split the games on the 2012 scheduled into packages for fans to purchase.

Tickets are $53 each, and according to WKRC Channel 12, the orange pack contains tickets to games against Cleveland, Dallas, Miami and Pittsburgh. The black pack has tickets to game versus Baltimore, Denver, Oakland and the New York Giants.

The two-pack games pair the Browns and Steelers, Cowboys and Dolphins, Broncos and Giants, and the Ravens and Raiders, who are now quarterbacked by former Bengal Carson Palmer.

While the idea of packaging tickets is not really new for sports like baseball, basketball, hockey and college sports, it is perhaps worth considering for other NFL teams who battle attendance problems in an era of a sluggish economy and HD televisions in living rooms.

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Jerry Jones all for Dez Bryant being used on punt returns

The Dallas Cowboys have flip-flopped on the idea of using Dez Bryant as a punt returner.

Heck, owner Jerry Jones himself has flip-flopped about using the wide receiver on special teams.

Right now, Jones is all for it. The topic became a real issue during the season opener last season when Bryant was injured returning a punt, suffering a deep thigh bruise. Jones was critical of the decision at the time, and Bryant sat out the following game.

I have no issue with us making business decisions relative to him returning punts,” Jones said, according to the Dallas Morning News. “What I do want him to do is to get enough repetitions so he can have a sense of fielding them and when to field them and when not to field them and make those kinds of judgments, but I like him back there to use him when we've got a long field or a chance for a return.

“He's quite a weapon, and I'm for using him.”

Bryant is a dynamic open-field threat because he has size, speed and moves to make defenders miss. The Cowboys badly need him to be a dynamic performer as a wide receiver. We’ll see how they balance his talents moving forward.

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Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

A look at the 'X Spot'

Click here to read the entire Inside the Playbook series.

Click here to see my zone blitz breakdown.

How do you disguise a simple route concept in the NFL? Use some added window dressing (pre-snap movement, splits, personnel) and give the defense a unique look to run a base scheme. Today, we will do that up on the chalkboard by flipping the base “Spot” route (7-curl-flat combo). Bring the backside X receiver across the formation (to take the place of the curl) and run the same route from a different alignment (called the “X Spot”).

First, let’s take a look at the base “Spot” route from the Bears-Eagles matchup:

Bears vs. Eagles
Personnel: Tank (1 WR, 2 TE, 2 RB)
Route: Spot


– 7-curl-flat combo with Tank personnel on the field. Align in a “bunch” with the RB, Matt Forte, removed from the core of the formation as the open (weak) side X receiver.

– Run off the top of the coverage with the 7 (corner) route, widen the underneath defender with the quick flat route and target the inside curl. Find a hole in the zone coverage, sit down and catch the ball.

Now, let’s check out the “X Spot” drawn up on the chalkboard:

Personnel: Regular (2 WR, 1 TE, 2 RB)
Route: X Spot


– First thing you have to key on: the split of the X receiver (highlighted in orange). From a defensive perspective, this should tell you to expect an inside breaking route with the “reduced” (or nasty) split.

– Bring the Z receiver in on short, “divide” motion to create a bunch (Z, Y, F) and run the WR across the formation on an inside Hi-Lo combination. The TE (Y) will break to the 7 cut with the FB (F) bursting to the flat out of a “Strong I” alignment.

– With the Z running the underneath crosser to the open side of the formation, we need to replace him in the curl. That’s where the X comes in. With that “reduced” split, the X will work back to the closed side of the formation and sit down in the curl.

– By using the X receiver, all we are doing is creating the “Spot” route from a different alignment and personnel grouping. Remember, there is only so much you can do with 11 players on the field, so how you disguise and dress up your routes is key to production.

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Default letter to Jaguars withdrawn

The letter sent by the City of Jacksonville claiming the Jaguars were in default on their lease at Everbank Stadium has been termed a “misunderstanding” and been withdrawn, says the Florida Times-Union.

After the initial letter, Jaguars owner Shahid Khan sent a letter to the city refuting the matter.

“Given the long-standing positive relationship between the Jaguars and the city, and new information which appears to indicate that the two parties simply have a misunderstanding on this matter, I hereby withdraw any notice of default,” said Jacksonville general counsel Cindy Laquidara, who wrote the intial letter claiming the club was in default.

Jacksonville mayor Alvin Brown also sent a letter to the Jaguars owner saying the city has no intentions of terminating its lease of the stadium to the Jags.

“Let me be crystal clear: The city of Jacksonville has absolutely no intention whatsoever of terminating its lease with the Jacksonville Jaguars,” Brown wrote to Khan.

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Jim Harbaugh hijacks press conference to talk about Peyton Manning

San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was asked a question about defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga throwing the football when he hijacked his own press conference today.

Sopoaga, you see, can reportedly throw the football about 70 yards in the air. He’s got a terrific throwing motion, particularly for a defensive lineman, and can flat out wing the ball.

But in answering questions about Sopoaga, Harbaugh decided to change the topic to another guy who is a little more well known for throwing the football – Peyton Manning.

“Oh, one other thing,” Harbaugh said, according to a transcript provided by the club. “There’s the perception out there, and it’s an erroneous perception, that we were flirting with Peyton Manning (way back in March). I keep hearing that over and over and over again. It’s silly and it’s untrue. It’s phony. Even the perception that we were pursuing him. We were evaluating him. I’ve said it all along, Alex Smith has been our quarterback. There’s no scenario, other than Alex choosing to sign with another team, that we would have considered him not as our quarterback. And don’t like to compare or talk about somebody else that’s on another team, but in this case it’s time to set the record straight.

“Alex Smith is our quarterback, was our quarterback, and had every intention of always bringing him back. There would be no circumstance that we would have let Alex Smith go. Now, were we out there seeing, evaluating if we could have them both? Heck yeah. And you evaluate that, you eliminate the possibility. And further evidence, we would not have given any player that was out there in free agency a sixth of our salary cap, and let six, or seven of our own guys go here. So, hopefully that sets the record straight and you don’t have to keep reporting the silliness and phoniness.”


So, we’re supposed to believe that when the 49ers brass, Harbaugh included, traveled across the country to watch Manning work out, that they were not pursuing Manning? When Manning took a physical for the club the 49ers were not pursuing Manning?

Harbaugh has been an ardent Smith supporter from Day 1. He remains that today. But the fact is the club didn’t truly ramp up efforts to sign Smith until after Manning had decided he would sign with the Denver Broncos. So, it seems a little phony on Harbaugh’s part to suggest the 49ers were not doing more than theur due diligence when it came to Manning.

“Like I said, there was interest and we evaluated it, pursued it, further evaluated it and there was conversations,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not going to go into all those personal conversations, but there was nothing said to Alex that was not said to Peyton Manning or in house here, on the record, off the record. Both those young men knew exactly what our intentions were. And I was very clear about that, that Alex Smith would be back here as our quarterback in 2012, if we could make that signing. We said the same thing to Alex as we said to Peyton.”

Smith, of course, made a free-agent visit to the Miami Dolphins during this time and was possibly going to visit the Seattle Seahawks. Does anyone really envision a scenario where Manning signed with the Niners and they also kept Smith?

“We’re not going into all the—it’s not your right, or anybody else’s right to know exactly what those implications would have been,” Harbaugh said. “But, you could understand the best fit for us was Alex Smith. And we weren’t going to give a sixth of our salary cap to anybody out there. We like six or seven of the guys we’ve got on this current team that much.”

What if Manning had wanted to join the 49ers?

“Like I said, there was no scenario where we weren’t going to have Alex Smith on this team if we could help it,” Harbaugh said. “Now, you don’t control all those factors, so I think that’s very clear, very concise. Hopefully everybody can understand that.”

So, what about Sopoaga throwing the ball after all?

“He throws a very long ball,” Harbaugh said. “And a very tight spiral too. Yes, throws as well as any big man I’ve ever watched. He’s amazing that way.”

That is believable. When it comes to the Manning and Smith stuff, I think we're splitting words here.

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Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

Asher Allen surprises Vikings by retiring

From the looks of things, the Minnesota Vikings gave Asher Allen some time to think about his decision.

He didn’t change his mind.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Allen walked into his office last Thursday and told him he had decided to retire. Today, news of the decision finally broke as the club listed him on the reserve/retired list.

“Surprised,” Frazier said today, according to Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I didn't see that coming. But everybody has to make decisions that are the best for their family.

“He explained to me this is something he wanted to do and had given it a lot of thought. He came in my office last Thursday, talked about it and informed me of what he wanted to do.”

The Vikings selected Allen in the third round of the 2009 draft from Georgia. He was entering the final year of his contract, that included a $725,000 signing bonus. If the Vikings wanted to, they could pursue one-quarter of that bonus.

Allen missed the Washington game in Week 16 last season with a concussion. It’s unknown if that had anything to do with his decision, however.

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Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune