by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Football season seems like it never ends. Even in March, when the attention of sports fans is usually turned toward college hoops and the Big Dance, plus the late-season playoff drives in the NBA and NHL.

But not this March. And not when the NFL generates the big stories it did this past week.

In rapid-fire succession, the offseason news cycle was distorted by big news out of Denver, where Peyton Manning created a chain reaction of big stories by announcing his intention to sign with the Broncos, which in turn was the trigger for John Elway to deal Tim Tebow within the next 48 hours to the Jets (although that deal still technically hadn't closed by Friday). Then, the big shocker from the commissioner's office when severe penalties were handed down in the Saints' "Bounty-gate" scandal that saw the team not only fined $500,000 and stripped of a few quality draft picks, but also watched HC Sean Payton get suspended for a year and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (hired by the Rams earlier in the offseason) suspended indefinitely. New Orleans GM Mickey Loomis was also suspended for the first half of the 2012 campaign. And we suspect we haven't heard the last of the New Orleans bounty scandal, with guilty players likely to feel the wrath of commish Roger Goodell soon enough.

Just like that, the NFL once again dominated the sports headlines in what is usually a quiet period for the league. Not this offseason, however.

Let's take those storylines, one by one, and examine them further.

1) Manning to the Broncos. While various media sorts talk about the on-field implications of Manning to Denver, we'd like to note another interesting development in the courtship of the former Colts QB that highlights the difference between the NFL and other major sports.

Simply, Manning was not compelled to look at "big market" teams as his high-profile counterparts in the NBA and Major League Baseball would be apt to do. There isn't any Los Angeles team to worry about in the NFL, and New York is no different, or a more desired locale, for free agents in pro football than anywhere else, really. Credit the NFL's shared-revenue formulas (thanks to Pete Rozelle's foresight over a half-century ago) and salary cap rules that have created a more level playing field for franchises. In the NFL, places like Denver, Green Bay, and Pittsburgh are highly-desired destinations. When was the last time a high-profile NBA free-agent-to-be was considering the Nuggets or Bucks, anyway? Or a high-priced baseball free agent not interested in the Yankees, Red Sox, or another "big market" team? (Prince Fielder's recent signing with Detroit a mild exception, but you get our point). Denver has long been regarded by players in the NFL as one of the top destinations, which undoubtedly played a role with Manning, who in the end had apparently narrowed his choices to the Broncos, the Nashville-based Titans, and the 49ers. New York, with the Jets, was never a serious consideration.

Manning's availability also provided an escape hatch for Broncos prexy John Elway, who had watched Tim Tebow-mania dominate the Rocky Mountain region and distort the storylines in Denver. Elway was always a reluctant bandwagoner with Tebow-mania, slow to accept the ex-Florida Gator as his QB of the future, although Elway seemed perfectly willing to turn the keys of the offense over to Tebow for the near future before the opportunity to snag Manning came along. It was perhaps the only way Elway could move away from Tebow-mania. The chance to get a Hall of Fame QB is a rare one, and only under cover of a Manning-like acquisition could Elway justify a switch away from Tebow to the Denver fan base.

Still, Elway is running a bit of a risk, as he killed Tebow-mania in the Rockies with one fell swoop. Despite passing recent physicals, Manning's neck problems from last year are still a concern. But the chance that Manning will be close to his pre-injury version was enough to convince Elway that this was a risk worth taking. It could be argued that a healthy Manning was worth 7, 8, or more wins to last year's Colts, who collapsed in his absence and ended up with the top pick in the draft, which began this whole domino effect anyway. The Broncos are also beginning to experience a free-agent windfall from the Manning signing, with top-shelf Saints CB Tracy Porter (who ironically picked off Manning to score the clinching TD for the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV) enlisted shortly thereafter, providing an electric combo on the defensive corners with Champ Bailey.

Denver figures to move high on the list of other free agents, including some of Manning's old Colts teammates that would include TE Dallas Clark and C Jeff Saturday. Normally, Denver wouldn't seem to be in the market for a center with young J.D. Walton already in the fold, but Manning's presence has apparently prompted the Pro Bowl-caliber Saturday to narrow his choices to the Broncos and Packers. Clark, released by Indy on March 9 and one of Manning's most-trusted targets with the Colts, also seems likely to have the Broncos on his short list. Stay tuned.

2) Tebow to the Jets. Whatever the reward the Broncos reap with Manning, there will forever be a void with Denver fans who got to experience the thrill ride with Tebow last fall. Not since George Blanda's heroics with the Raiders in the 1970 season had we ever recalled a player being the catalyst of such a string of improbable white-knucklers as we did with Tebow last season.

Indeed, we had never seen anything quite like it, especially the dynamics involved with Tebow's emergence and the ascent of the Broncos from an also-ran to a playoff team. Along the way Denver HC John Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy altered the Bronco offense in a rare mid-course correction (unheard of in the NFL) to fit Tebow's skill set, introducing the option as a staple of the new offense, which resembled the attack that Tebow used to detonate for Urban Meyer at Florida. Denver, a drab outfit with Kyle Orton at QB, suddenly became one of the main storylines of the league with Tebow, as the Broncos won improbable game after improbable game, often in last-minute rallies (and with help, we should add, from excellent PK Matt Prater, whose succession of clutch, long-range field goals, some of them from 50+ yards, keyed a few of those last-minute wins).

Tebow's heroics provided that rare and very sweet taste of unexpected success for Broncos fans, the older of whom lived through Denver's rapid rise to prominence in the late '70s with the "Orange Crush" defense of the long-ago Red Miller regime. Broncos fans have long believed nothing could match the thrill of the run to the franchise's first playoff appearance and Super Bowl in the magic season of 1977. But Tebow-mania came awfully close. We suspect Denver and Tebow fans had a lot more fun watching their team careen through those wild finishes and hair-raising wins, most of which were completely unexpected, than the spoiled fans of the Packers, Patriots, Steelers, and other teams who expect their teams to win every game and could not have enjoyed their team's successes nearly as much. Nothing can replicate unexpected success for sports fans, and the Tebow Broncos were one of the best examples of such that we can recall.

We also gave Tebow a lot more credit last season than did many media sorts and his various critics, devoting significant space in a couple of editorial pieces to the Tebow phenonmenon. We acknowledged some of Tebow's mechanical flaws, but tried to place the whole scenario in the larger context in which Tebow's intangibles proved a powerful positive force, especially in those games when eliminating the various negative plays (turnovers, sacks), which that were mostly absent in the Broncos' 6-game win streak after Tebow took over as the starting QB. They weren't absent in a few of the Broncos losses under Tebow in which he and the team looked bad. But we stand by our more-forgiving assessment of Tebow and suggest he could emerge as a force for the Jets, who are reportedly very excited about adding the Tebow dimension to their offensive package, which they hope complements, not disrupts, starting QB Mark Sanchez (which might have a very thin line to walk). Coach Rex Ryan and new o.c. Tony Sparano, who introduced the "Wildcat" looks to tthe Dolphins attack in 2008, apparently value Tebow's potential role in adding that element to the Jets offense. Although the circus has already apparently begun in the Big Apple (did anyone check out Joe Namath's comments after the Tebow acquisition?).

The NY Post and the Daily News can't wait.

3) Saints Bounty-Gate. Most expected that heavy penalties were coming the Saints' way when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell got around to handing out punishments from the "bounty" program masterminded by former d.c. Gregg Williams. Still, most NFL observers were thrown back in their chairs by the severity of the penalties, especially the one-year suspension of HC Sean Payton. Most pro football insiders were expecting a suspension for the head coach, but more along the lines of 4-6, perhaps 8 games at the most. The indefinite suspension of d.c. Williams came as less of a surprise, as did the draft picks and monentary penalties.

There are a variety of angles to the Saints' bounty situation which no doubt motivated Goodell but, we believe, present a potentially tricky precedent being set. Some of the factors included:

a) The Saints' evasiveness in answering the original charges and attempts to deflect the internal investigation. This reminds of Southern Cal's behavior with the NCAA regarding the penalties handed out during the investigation of the Reggie Bush illegal benefits situation a couple of years ago. Like the Trojans, the Saints likely received extra punishment for not being fully cooperative.

b) Goodell looking to make a statement. It is not lost upon NFL observers how Goodell was made to look way behind the curve when called before Congress in October of 2009 regarding the concussion and head trauma issue in the NFL. The league has made numerous strides in those regards since, but Goodell (at least in his own mind, we believe) needed to rehab his reputation when the opportunity presented itself. Bounty-Gate provided that chance.

c) Legal issues. No one has to tell Goodell or the NFL of the litigious nature of society. The league is already in the crosshairs of a number of former players who suffered debilitating injuries during their playing careers, many of those relating to head trauma. The last thing Goodell or the league needs right now is to hand the equivalent of a loaded gun to an army of attorneys who could make a lot more trouble for the league if one of the players happened to be maimed or otherwise incapacitated by the bounty system. Though football is a violent game, the concept of the bounty system crosses the line into potential criminal behavior, with possible charges of mayhem, assault, or other serious crimes suddenly a concern. Sensing more potential legal problems in the future, Goodell had to act quickly to hopefully stamp out the problem that might be more widespread than just the Saints' clubhouse. After last summer's lockout and the growing number of retired players contemplating legal action for mis-diagnosis for their long-ago injuries, the last thing Goodell needs these days is another extended controversy on his hands.

d) Potentially dangerous precedent. Here is where we believe Goodell could eventually put himself in a pickle by the extent of the punishment to Sean Payton. By setting the penalty bar so high, what if evidence emerges of other teams running similar "bounties" as did the Saints? What if half (or more) of the coaches in the league had similar shenanigans going on in their locker rooms regarding bounties? Would Goodell be ready to suspend half of the coaches in the league? And would Goodell automatically punish the head coach with the same penalty handed to Payton? Will he judge the severity of the "bounty" and have a tiered punishment system? We're also still waiting to see what develops as punishments related to players who were implicated in the Saints' bounty system as well. That shoe likely drops within the next couple of weeks.

Although we cannot say with any certainty if similar, Saints-like bounty systems were present elsewhere in the league, let's just say we would be shocked if the Saints were the only transgressor. This is not the first time the "bounty" concept has been made public; Buddy Ryan's Eagles were implicated many years ago for supposedly having a bounty out for Cowboys PK Luis Zendejas. And remember the infamous "body bag" game Ryan's Eagles played against the Redskins?

Pro football is an inherently violent game, wherein normal rules of societal conduct are often ignored. So we suspect the bounty concept was a lot more widespread than just the Saints' clubhouse.

Still, we are going to be curious at the response of team owners and coaches who are going to have to respond to Goodell by the end of the month to guarantee that no similar bounty systems exist within their teams. We'd bet a not-so-small amount that more than a few NFL coaches are gulping nervously at having to deny the existence of such activities to the commish. Disclosure of such activities would come with a harsh penalty, and the "code" among players has already been broken by someone who undoubtedly was a snitch to the league office about the Saints' activities. Not that being a snitch was a bad thing in this scenario.

Without the resources to conduct widespread investigations such as the case with the Saints, we doubt Goodell will be sending an army of investigators to each team. The hope, from Goodell's point of view, is that the severe penalties to the Saints and Sean Payton will act as a powerful deterrent, which is exactly the message Pete Rozelle put across to Alex Karras and Paul Hornung when suspending them for the 1963 season for betting on games and their association with "undesirable" elements. Joe Namath's brief retirement in 1969 related to his ownership interest in the Bachelors III nightclub was also a reaction to Rozelle ordering his disassociation with elements connected to the club.

For the moment, we suspect the suspensions will end with the Saints and a few more players who might get punished, but we can't say for sure. We also aren't naive enough to think the Saints were the only team doing these sorts of things. As for the punishments, however, it reminds us of someone getting pulled over for going 75 MPH in a 60 MPH zone, and trying to talk their way out of a traffic ticket by saying it was the flow of traffic at the time. To which the officer responds, "You were still speeding."

The Saints simply got caught speeding.

Next week: A look at the Final Four, the college hoops coaching carousel, and MLB season win "over/under" recommendations!

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