Athletic Quarterbacks Challenge Pocket Passers

Agile quarterbacks like Michael Vick, Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin III are gaining ground on traditional players who sit in the pocket, timing the perfect pass. NPR correspondent Mike Pesca and Super Bowl-winning QB Joe Theismann talk about how quarterbacks and the game of football have changed.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. No position in team sports is more important or more mythologized than a professional football quarterback. The men who stand behind the center make the most decisions, the most money and the most mistakes.

Over the years, these central figures in America's favorite sport acquired stereotypical characteristics: Quarterbacks are tough, savvy, field generals, leaders of men who stand calmly amidst the madness to deliver pinpoint passes downfield, in two words: Peyton Manning.

Yesterday, the Denver Broncos signed the celebrated veteran and pushed aside the wildly popular and unconventional Tim Tebow, who led the team to the playoffs last season. Will faster, more athletic, more powerful players like Tim Tebow come to push aside the pocket passers of old? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, studies suggest daily doses of aspirin can significantly reduce the risk of cancer. But first, the cult of the quarterback. We'll talk with former NFL star Joe Theismann in a few minutes, but Mike Pesca first. He covers sports for NPR and joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hi.

CONAN: It was one of the most interesting scenes last season was to watch the great classic quarterback, John Elway, almost eat his liver as he watched Tim Tebow lead his team to the playoffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PESCA: Yeah, auto(ph) - was it Atlas, or which Greek mythology figure had the griffon eating, pecking at his liver? I'll think of it in a second.

CONAN: Prometheus.

PESCA: Right, he was pulling the auto-Prometheus. Put that in a playbook, I like it. Because John Elway is exactly the prototype that you're talking about, the pocket passer, the guy who had a cannon for an arm, who knew how to read a defense, who knew how to do all those things that Tim Tebow didn't. But Tim Tebow was winning.

So in his role as GM of the Denver Broncos, Elway would see that and be happy that his team was having success, and yet he has this internal barometer of right and wrong for quarterbacks, and what Tim Tebow was doing was all wrong. You could see that he didn't know how to deal with it. He didn't know how to deal with the fans saying we want Tebow, and when Tebow had this string of successful games, he was wondering: Am I going to be handcuffed into future seasons of Tebowism? Which I'm sure Elway said, we got very lucky this year, we did some good things, he has some assets, but we mostly got lucky, and I would not like my professional life linked to Tim Tebow.

And then, I know that Tim Tebow very much believes in religion and manna from heaven, but you want to talk about manna from heaven, Mr. Peyton Manning enters the scene, and the Broncos lock him up, and John Elway is very happy.

CONAN: And more than one publication used the word martyred to describe what happened to Tim Tebow.

PESCA: Yeah, that fits in with Tebow's myth. And then if you really want to talk about - wow, I think there's probably something to be written about - I think it's Matthew 21:12, where Jesus goes into the temple and upends the money-lenders and throws them out of the temple. That's Tim Tebow going to the Jets locker room, a locker room that was very dysfunctional; where Santonio Holmes, the disaffected wide receiver, hated his quarterback Mark Sanchez; where Rex Ryan and all his bluster and profanity, you know, causes a cauldron of dissent and people sniping at each other.

And here comes Tebow, the saintly Tim Tebow. Who will win this eternal battle of the souls? Stay tuned for the 2012 season.

CONAN: Well, that's the personality issue, and it's going to be interesting as Saint Tim goes to Gomorrah on the Hudson.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: But this battle over the nature of the position, John Elway was offended, it seemed - aesthetically offended - that the position was not being played the way he thought it ought to be played.

PESCA: Yeah, and there's maybe something to that. I will say this: There are - there is the type of pocket passer, the passer who drops back and throws for yards. And this type of passer is absolutely ascendant in the NFL, mostly because of - the players themselves are great, the offenses are great, but there have been so many rule changes that allow the quarterbacks to flourish.

And if you look at the top five passing seasons in NFL history, in terms of yards thrown - I mean, there have only been five seasons where a quarterback has thrown for over 5,000 yards - three of them were this year. So that tells you that the rules have changed, as well as the quarterbacks have changed.

But at the same time, Michael Vick and Cam Newton are perhaps two better examples than Tim Tebow, of the mobile quarterback, of a quarterback who could hurt you with his arm but also hurt you with his legs. And I think one of the things about Tim Tebow is there is a role for the mobile quarterback, it will challenge offensive coordinators and the traditional NFL purists, but a smart person should be able to incorporate that into the game.

It's just that Tim Tebow was really - and is really such a poor standard-bearer for the running quarterback - because his arm, compared to Newton and compared to Vick an compared to the Heisman trophy winner who's coming in, RG3, Robert Griffin III - it just is totally inadequate, Tim Tebow's arm is. So that's maybe one of the reasons why John Elway just couldn't take it when Tim Tebow dropped back to pass and couldn't complete a 12 yard out, one of the most fundamental passes in the NFL.

CONAN: And the curmudgeons will stand up and say wait a minute, you've got a running quarterback, the one thing you know is that they will not finish the season in one piece.

PESCA: Well, that's true, but, you know, Tim Tebow is a very thick, bulky guy. Michael Vick is a little more fragile, and he often does get hurt. And Cam Newton has only played one year. But he had an excellent rookie-of-the-year type year, and he's a bigger guy. I don't know what RG3 is going to be, he's kind of skinny, but he can throw a little. I think...

CONAN: But boy, he's fast.

PESCA: Yeah, he's really fast. I think, though, one model for successful quarterbacking, and not the only model, is Ben Roethlisberger, who is a big guy who could run. But how he uses his running ability is not to tear downfield - sometimes he does that - but he uses his feet to avoid the sack. So he continues to establish himself as a thrower. He'll run around in the backfield, because he has a really porous offensive line, and then he'll use his arm primarily to hurt you. And anyone who knows physics knows that no matter how fast these guys are, a thrown ball will always travel faster than a run ball.

CONAN: Mike Pesca is with us as we discuss the evolution of the quarterback. 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And Avi's(ph) on the line with us from Nashville.

AVI: Yeah...

CONAN: Avi, go ahead.

AVI: Yeah, great to be with you. I don't think that Tim Tebow is the poster boy for this dichotomy that we're talking about between the pocket passer and the scrambler, mostly because Tim Tebow is not a good thrower period.

CONAN: Except in the fourth quarter in overtime, I think you're right.

AVI: So the issue with Tebow has never been as it was with Michael Vick and dating all the way back to Randall Cunningham, whether it's better to have a quarterback who you can always find in the same place, namely five to seven yards back in the pocket. Because I think we've seen with Vick, and now Cam Newton, that having a threat with your legs - and Aaron Rogers, frankly, as well, really improves your football team.

The problem with Tebow and the reason Elway doesn't like him is because whether it's on the run or in the pocket, he doesn't hit his receivers.

CONAN: There is something to be said for that, again with the exception of very late in the game and in overtime, in which he was very accurate and very lethal. But Avi makes a point, Mike Pesca. In the past, this conversation has acquired a lot of attitudes of race about it.

PESCA: Well, yeah, that's true, and even though people will always say are we talking about a running quarterback versus a pocket passer, and people will always bring up the exception - oh, it's not about race, they might say, Fran Tarkington was a scrambler, who's a white quarterback, and Tim Tebow, now, for all his throwing inadequacies, is a white quarterback.

But of course - of course race comes into it, and a lot of depends upon the systems that these quarterbacks were brought up in. And a lot of the time, the big colleges used to have white quarterbacks playing for them, and they would be the pocket passers, and the scramblers were often more the black quarterbacks. But that is definitely changing.

I don't think right now, among NFL personnel types, there is racism or racism that would redound in someone making huge blunders or not giving good quarterbacks an opportunity. I think among fans, I think in the casual conversation, there is often an undercurrent of the racial dynamic, and I definitely think that some quarterbacks get criticized as not being leaders, and sometimes that's a proxy for race.

But you did see that with Cam Newton. There was a lot said about his personality, his character. Maybe you shouldn't draft him because he was a poor character. So on the one hand, you could say yeah, because his dad accepted money for him to play at Auburn, that might lead you to think he has poor character. But on the other hand, you could say that that was his dad and not him.

But now as we're looking at Robert Griffin III, he's - no one has ever criticized his character. It's one of the assets of drafting him. So if it was pure racism, I would think that there would be more red flags made about him, and we're not really seeing any.

CONAN: And there is, of course, the other great quarterback coming out this year, from Stanford, the quarterback with the, well, unlikely wonderful name of Luck as the quarterback. But in any case...

PESCA: And he's more a pocket passer, and Griffin is more of a rusher, but Griffin's really a pocket passer. If you compare Griffin's statistics to Cam Newton, Griffin only ran for a few hundred yards.

CONAN: Here's an email from Steven(ph) in San Leandro, California: I don't deny that today's NFL quarterbacks have amazing talents. I've wondered, though, just how good they'd be if they were not programmed by their electronically wired coaches. With few exceptions, all the plays in the NFL are called by the coaches.

The first thing I would do if I were NFL commissioner-dictator would be to ban all electronic sideline communications in the NFL: no wired-up coaches, no voices helmets, just 11 players versus 11 players, a game played on the field. How does your guest think today's NFL quarterbacks would fare if they were not programmed by the coaches and the plays sent in from the sidelines?

Well, it used to be hand signals or flags or whatever, but yeah, the first time - old-time quarterbacks will say is, yeah, it was different in my day, when we called the plays ourselves.

PESCA: Yeah, but who stands in direct opposition to this? Peyton Manning. There's been no quarterback who's had more freedom than Peyton Manning. Sure, he's given a game plan, but he goes to the line of scrimmage, and he shouts audibles that seem like some weird stream of consciousness, not even worthy of James Joyce. He'll shout, you know, Louisville, chocolate, ice cream, "Soul Train." What does that mean? No one knows.

But the offense will change according to what he's saying and on every play. Sometimes he'll just fake calling those signals. Sometimes he'll reposition his running backs or his wide receivers. So it seems that he's not an automaton at all. It seems that he has autonomy, and a lot of these other quarterbacks, the great ones do that, too. They're not as programmed as the fact that, you know, we see them with the helmets, and we see the offensive coaches with their Motorola headphones. They're not as programmed as that would exist.

And by the way, even though Motorola has the contract for the sideline technology, they don't actually use Motorola technology, I found out.

CONAN: Oh really? That's interesting.

PESCA: Yeah, they just - they have the contract to wear a headphone, and they're using something else.

CONAN: That's Mike Pesca, who's NPR sports correspondent. In a minute, Joe Theismann, the world champion quarterback, formerly of the Washington Redskins, will join us, as well, as we discuss the evolution of the quarterback. We should note also, that Tim Tebow, who were talking about earlier, traded today by the Denver Broncos to the New York Jets for I think a sixth - and seventh-round pick and a bag of balls. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Several of the NFL's up-and-coming quarterbacks share a link in George Whitfield Jr., a private QB coach. He's worked with Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton and now trains Stanford's Andrew Luck. Several players who demonstrate the evolution of the pro quarterback.

In an interview with the New York Times, Whitfield cautioned that while Peyton Manning and Tom Brady may not have the same physical abilities, the difference they both share is mechanics, fundamentals and organized mindset approach. The guys who can sustain long careers and healthy careers are the guys who can operate on the chessboard.

But will faster, more athletic, more powerful players put that chessboard in three dimensions and push aside the pocket passers of old? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is former Super Bowl champion, Joe Thiesmann spent 12 years with the Washington Redskins, and he led the Redskins to a victory over the Miami Dolphins back in Super Bowl XVII. He joins us from his office in Sterling, Virginia, where he's an analyst for the NFL Network. And Joe Theismann, nice to have you with us today.

JOE THIESMANN: Thank you, Neal, it's great to be with you.

CONAN: And this debate over the prototypical quarterback over the challenge of more younger, more athletic, this is endless, isn't it?

THIESMANN: It is, and there really isn't a prototypical quarterback anymore. I think what you're seeing more and more are coaches taking the ability of the young man who plays the position and then adapting to him. And, you know, I think in the case of Cam Newton - I was listening to Mike a little bit earlier - but in the case of Cam Newton, because he struggled at the combine and didn't throw the ball that effectively, that was a lot of the evaluation that was made about Cam's ability to throw the football, very similar to what we see with Tim Tebow and what he went through last year being a 46-percent passer.

But they both bring something unique and different to the position. Some of us that have played in more of a traditional sense - and you mentioned Tom Brady and Peyton Manning - guys that aren't as mobile, they really had to get it done with their arms, and offenses were designed that way.

Now what you're finding is that there is a lot more of the incorporation of them using their athletic skills, but the fear still remains - and the commitment you want to make to a quarterback is eight, 10 years - the fear remains with someone like Cam or someone like Tim, or possibly even someone with Robert Griffin Jr. coming in, who has all the tangibles and intangibles that people are looking for, is: What about the durability factor?

That is the question that looms with someone that decides to take off and run the football as much as they do. There isn't anybody that knows more about one hit taking you out of the game than I do.

CONAN: We - Joe Theismann refers to a notorious hit by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, who - which ended his career.

THIESMANN: That's right, and it's - so, you know, there is that susceptibility when you're a more mobile quarterback that you could wind up taking that one shot that takes the best-laid plans of an entire organization and, sort of, puts them on the shelf. And that's really one of the questions that looms, I think, for Peyton Manning, going forward.

CONAN: As I remember, Joe, you were standing in the pocket when you got hit by Lawrence Taylor.

THIESMANN: I was, I was, but, you know, on top of that - and Michael Vick is a very mobile guy who got beat up in the pocket. So there really is no safe place. A lot of times you think you're safer when you do run out of the pocket, but our profession happens to be one of vulnerability. You can get it anywhere in our game.

The important thing is, I think you have to be able to throw the football effectively to be able to play the position effectively.

CONAN: I was curious, though, there seemed to be almost a sigh of relief from some people - and I heard a quote from Brian Urlacher, the middle linebacker with the Chicago Bears, yesterday - a sigh of relief that the Tebow experiment seems to be over. He's being traded to the New York Jets, where he will be, I guess, a backup and run a specialty offense called the Wildcat, where he will be more a runner, probably, than a passer - and just from time to time.

He won't be the starting QB. This offense against the old idea of the quarterback, well, that its time has run its course.

THIESMANN: It does. It goes contrary to it. But again, it's - we're in a different age, and I think you can't be Neanderthal about what has taken place. Football is a very gladiator-type game. You know, you've got your gladiators dressed in uniform doing battle and combat in these coliseums, but the fact of the matter is it is a very sophisticated game.

And I was listening to you guys talk about the headset communications and everything that goes on. For coaches, it's good with young players, and then once you get an older veteran who's been successful, it becomes less and less important. And I just don't see where this is going to be a success.

The difference that Tim Tebow brings to, quote-unquote, "the Wildcat," which was basically taking someone who was a runner and putting them back at the quarterback position because defenses do not design defenses to stop quarterbacks. They're designed to stop everybody else, but not the quarterback.

An so if you had a running back at the quarterback position, you really didn't have someone assigned to him. In the case of Tim Tebow, he brings a uniqueness because he does have the ability to throw a football, where the Ricky Williams's and the Brad Smiths were guys that really, you couldn't say they threw the football that well.

Tim has to develop the ability to throw the football. If I'm Mark Sanchez, even though I signed a new contract, I'm not thrilled, because you're talking about specialty packages that take me off the field. Now, do you want to take Tom Brady off the field? Do you want to take Peyton Manning off the field? Do you want to take Drew Brees off the field, because you think you can get five or six or eight plays out of a certain type of a formation? I think it disrupts the rhythm of a quarterback.

CONAN: And Mark Sanchez is the incumbent and fair to say, Mike Pesca, embattled quarterback of the New York Jets. And this was the same situation that came up last year, when Tim Tebow was on the bench, and you had fans in the stands chanting we want Tebow.

THIESMANN: Well, Tim is - Tim became - he's like Jeremy Lee(ph), just as an - Jeremy Lin with the New York Knicks. It's the flare for the dramatic that we deal with in society today. In Tim's case, he was counted out. You know, he couldn't throw the football. He couldn't win. Well, he still can't throw the football effectively, but he found a way to win - but not just win, but win in a dramatic fashion that captured the fancy of the world, not just us in American football.

But he became a phenom around the world because of week after week after week he would do something incredible, and then you get to the playoffs against the highly vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers, and he wins that game in overtime with a pass.

But through the course of - can someone go through the course of time and be effective - not for seven games, not for a year, not for two years - but can you play the position in an effective manner and not be able to throw the football? And I believe the answer to that is no.

PESCA: And I would say, an add-on to what Joe was saying. When you spoke earlier of Brian Urlacher maybe being offended, the sensibility being offended, I think there is a little bit of a rift between the football rationalists and the magical thinkers, in that the people who know the game would watch Tim Tebow and say sure, just like Joe was saying, there's great flare for the dramatic at the end, but watch what he does every down, watch how fundamentally deficient he is. It would bother them.

And perhaps the magical thinkers would say, it doesn't matter if the guy just wins. And when you say the guy just wins, it drives NFL personnel people or draft evaluators or really studied football fans, it drives them up a wall. The other side to that argument is: Why do we watch sports except for the magic, except for the things that upend expectations? And that's one of the things that makes Tim Tebow a guy you can't keep your eyes off of.

And probably it is annoying to Mark Sanchez, and I would just say about him, that he - the deal for Mark Sanchez is he needs to become the kind of guy where you say we can't take him off the field. Then he will know he will have succeeded. A couple years ago when the Jets had Brad Smith on their team, and they ran the option a lot, those few plays would actually help the Jets offense. And without that little wrinkle, the Jets offense wasn't nearly as good last year.

So Sanchez is a competitive guy, and sure, no one's happy that you bring around another star who's playing your position, but it could be a motivation for him.

THIESMANN: I don't - see, Mike, I agree with everything you said except for one point. It's hard to be motivated, when you're not on the field, to be able to continue to do what you do. Playing the position of quarterback is like a chess game, and I heard you mention it.

You know, you want to set up your chess pieces to try and get checkmate. Well, if you're setting up your chess pieces, and then all of a sudden you're on the sidelines for four plays, now you go back to the board, and you said wait a second, what did I do with that pawn? Was it knight to pawn four? I mean, what did I do?

I just - from a quarterback's perspective, we're rhythm guys. It's like I love the game of golf. You watch - everybody talks about tempo, and everybody talks about rhythm. When you're a quarterback, it's the same thing. You get into the flow of the game. Mark has had trouble - really struggled getting into the flow of a game when he was a full-time starter without being taken to the sidelines.

I think - I don't really see this as a big positive for Mark Sanchez. It may work out for the Jets, but for Mark Sanchez, this will put more pressure on him to be able to perform at those moments when he's asked to perform.

PESCA: Right. I know, a week ago Mark Sanchez was saying, I'm the Jets quarterback. I couldn't have more pressure on me if anyone tried.

THIESMANN: Yeah. Raining on his parade.

CONAN: Joe Theismann, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

THIESMANN: My pleasure. Nice visiting with you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Joe Theismann, the former quarterback for the Washington Redskins. Also an email we have from Anne(ph) in Birmingham: Cam Newton's father was not accused of recruiting violations with Auburn. It was another school - I think Mississippi State. Auburn was not involved and was cleared after extensive investigations. The state of Alabama gets enough bad press without blunders we didn't do. I hope you'll correct it.

And we apologize for the error. Let's get callers in. This is Red(ph), and Red is with us from Denver. Rod(ph), excuse me.

ROD: Hi. Hello, gentlemen.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ROD: So this is my two cents on the whole matter. For the value - Tim Tebow wasn't very - one of the highest paid quarterbacks at all, but the value that he gave the Broncos institution - I mean, it was kind of a no-brainer to keep him. I think the only reason that John Elway got rid of him at all is because he completely offended him, not just fundamentally on the field with his mechanics, but the Tebowmania, the secular - his secular sensibilities.

Believe it or not, out West, out here, there's a lot of secular people, and they were not very appreciative of bringing this religious aspect into the game. And I think that that really distracted from football, and that really was the reason why John Elway, pretty much, made his decision. It was the fan base, like the hardcore Broncos, were really, really appalled at the fact that here's a guy, you know, proselytizing here on - in their city, and they just didn't like it.

CONAN: Mike, I think, to some degree, that died down through the course of the season. And one of the things that many people said was that Tim Tebow, because of his charisma, was a guaranteed popular person with the fans and sold a lot of tickets.

PESCA: Yeah. And I - what the caller is saying may be right. I just have never seen it, you know, quote, "out of Elway's mouth" or someone reporting off the record that he had a problem specifically with his religiosity. You could substitute the religiosity with anything else that would make this guy a rock star, and a GM doesn't like to be in the position of having, you know, a popular insurrection forcing his hand, especially in a way that he doesn't like.

And though Tim Tebow's popularity - let's not discount the fact that the Jets signed him because they thought he'd be a capable backup who could make a couple of plays on offense every game. Sure, they definitely did. But don't forget the fact that they also signed him because Jets season tickets are still on sale, and Woody Johnson, the owner of the Jets, knows that he has to sell and pay off this new stadium.

And I don't think - I think it's too cynical, and some of the hosts on local New York sports radio have been saying all this is about is getting the back page of those tabloids. All this is about is jealousy against the Giants and selling tickets as a Jet. I don't think that's true. But I think that if you're going to take a guy who does help the team a little bit, why not take the guy who can help the team a little bit and sell tickets a lot? And I think that factored into the decision.

CONAN: NPR's Mike Pesca. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And David's(ph) on the line, David with us from Tucson.

DAVID: Hi. Thanks for taking my call, Neal. I think a lot of what's going on with the quarterback position, the position is real - still very much playing catch-up to the Lawrence Taylor phenomenon of the early '80s. Before Lawrence Taylor, I think football teams at the youth level, on all the way up through high school, their best athletes, their best players always went for the offensive side of the ball. Lawrence Taylor came along, and, all of a sudden, he changed the dynamic. He threw 180 into it. Suddenly, teams could be competitive by putting their best players on the defensive side of the ball.

And I think we're living in an age where we're seeing the deficiency in athleticism come from, you know, from the offensive side where you don't have the great number of fantastic breakaway running backs like you used to. In today's NFL, you know, it's like having a shutdown cornerback, like a Darrelle Revis, where - that's a luxury not all teams have.

So the upper - the one percent of the NFL, those teams are going to have a Tom Brady. They're going to have, you know, the Drew Breeses and the great quarterbacks. But for the other teams, they've got to make do with somebody, and players like a Tim Tebow are going to fit that bill. They're going to come in, have a niche. They're going to have a moment. They're going to have some wrinkle at certain seasons or certain parts of the seasons that defensive coordinators are going to have to try to adjust to. And that gives the offense at least a temporary advantage in the head-to-head matchups. So I'll take my...

CONAN: All right, David. Thanks very much. And I think you made your point. I can't let Mike Pesca go. We can't have a conversation about the NFL today without talking about the other big story of the day, and that is really serious fines handed out to the coaches and general manager at the NFL - at the New Orleans Saints for Bountygate.

PESCA: Yeah. The Saints had a program where players would pool money and be paid by other players for big hits. And in the playoffs, injuries were rewarded. And if a player - an opponent - was injured and couldn't come back to the game, that got an extra bonus. So it's not unheard of for players to have bounties or little bits of money for big hits. Rewarding for injury seems to be unprecedented.

But the big thing that this was different from everything that's gone on in the past or what has been reported, is that the coaching staff of the Saints knew about this, perhaps even oversaw the program. So Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator of the Saints, who is, you know, a guy who takes pride in the fact that his defenses play nasty, that you remember the defenses because they put hard licks on you, he was either overseeing or at least countenancing this program.

Now, the NFL came down, as you say, really hard on the Saints - their administrators, Mickey Loomis, the GM, suspended for half a year, Sean Payton, the coach, suspended for a year. Gregg Williams, who left the Saints after the season and before the story broke and latched on with the Rams, he is suspended indefinitely. It was - people thought that maybe Williams would be suspended and perhaps indefinitely. I think the punishment against Sean Payton is surprising in its severity, but it shows how seriously the NFL took this.

CONAN: And the team itself was fined $500,000 and lost a couple of draft picks. That's going to be pretty serious too. And how do you lose your coach for a full season? We'll have to see what the Saints do now.

PESCA: Yeah. Well, I would say that Sean Payton was out with a broken leg for a few games last year, and the Saints did pretty well. Now, that is a few games during the season. Drew Brees, as a quarterback, knows his system, so they'll probably be able to get by. I don't think that the league was intent on making the Saints product on the field that much worse, but they had to issue these big suspensions, from their point of view, simply because, well, it's a horrible sportsmanship.

But also, they face a lot of lawsuits. And people are suing the NFL for head injuries. And if the NFL doesn't take a stand and say, the second we found out about this, we stood up against it in the harshest way, it could open themselves up to these various lawsuits.

CONAN: Mike Pesca, we'll let you get back to collegiate basketball.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PESCA: Thanks.

CONAN: Mike Pesca, NPR sports correspondent with us from New York. You'll hear his reports on the NCAA basketball tournaments later in this weekend. Coming up, new two studies suggest taking aspiring every day can reduce your risk of cancer. Stay with us. It's THE TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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