FOOTBALL NOTES Vrabel ready to tackle issues Patriot representative emphasizes education By Mike Reiss | March 18, 2007 The NFL Players Association is holding its annual meeting in Maui this week, and player conduct is expected to be one of the hot topics of discussion. Linebacker Mike Vrabel realizes the issue will be front and center after a string of 2006 arrests across the league, but it's not one he planned to highlight in his role as the Patriots' player representative. Instead, Vrabel was preparing to talk about education. He believes the league can do more for its players, and hopes the association continues to push harder in that area. He points to his former teammate, Ted Johnson, as an example of why more education and player programs are needed. "I know Ted Johnson is an issue that is near and dear to everybody's heart," said Vrabel, "and I think you say, 'If it can happen to a guy like Ted Johnson, it can certainly happen to Mike Vrabel or anybody.' I think we need to look at what type of education we're giving these guys before [retirement]. "Certainly, we all make the choice to play this game and enjoy the way we're compensated, and we love playing football, but we have to look at what we're going to do after football. Ted, I thought, had a plan. And whether it was concussions or the drug addiction, or whatever it was, things made a turn for the worse. So I think we need to look at that." The 31-year-old Vrabel returned to school in the 2004 offseason, completing his degree in exercise science at Ohio State. He took advantage of the NFL's tuition reimbursement program to defray the costs, but said it wasn't ideal because he was crammed for time. Vrabel would like to see the NFL extend its reimbursement policy so that players don't have to be in the league to take advantage of it. "I did it and barely got through, and I only had a handful of classes and had to take some independent study," said Vrabel, who suggests a three-year reimbursement window in which players could finish their degrees after playing. "I'm going to address that; if guys are serious about that, why can't we extend it out a little bit? That's a benefit that the owners will say 'we give them this' but that seldom gets realized." The franchise tag is another thing Vrabel expects to be debated. He questions whether teams are using the tag as it was initially intended. "The way we were explained it as a union rep, it was to give the team ample time to negotiate a long-term deal, in good faith, or trade the player like Tebucky Jones [in 2003], which I thought was the ethical way to do it -- the team gets something for the player because they used the tag, and the player gets the contract that he wanted from a team," Vrabel said. "So in that case, it's amicable." Yet Lance Briggs's stalemate with the Chicago Bears has been anything but amicable this offseason, with the Bears saying they don't intend to negotiate a long-term deal and Briggs saying he is considering sitting out the season. While most players would prefer to do away with the franchise tag, from a player representative perspective, Vrabel believes it's not a reasonable expectation. He doesn't think it is worth players surrendering years before reaching free agency to eliminate the franchise tag, which would be one possibility owners might consider. Vrabel noted the different approaches players have taken when assigned the franchise tag, including his teammate, cornerback Asante Samuel. "[Seattle's] Walter Jones never said a word, he played for a lot of money, reported to training camp three days before the first game, and was a great player," said Vrabel. "Asante has kept quiet and I think that's maybe the proper way -- you get more bees with honey than you do vinegar. Lance Briggs, I don't know him, but he has come out and said some things that he may or may not do. "Certainly, the franchise tag has to be addressed and looked at, but it's not going to change. We would have to give up too much, I believe, to get that tag taken away. However unfortunate for Lance Briggs's situation, if he plays this year, he will be compensated well, 2-3 times what most other linebackers are making. "You have to debate the issues that apply to a majority of the league, but I guess if those seven players make enough noise, people take notice. It wasn't an issue when Asante didn't say anything, but now it's an issue when Lance Briggs says he's not playing for the Bears. "I can't say for my team, the Patriots, that we should do away with the tag. Asante may or may not get his deal -- and I hope he does and gets the security that he deserves and he's earned. Those are the type of things we talk about and try to discuss and we're looking forward to doing it."