Peyton Manning goes Rocky Top shelf with Tennessee bourbon whiskey at $200 a bottle

For Tennesseans who need their spirits raised by Peyton Manning again, he’s there for them by helping to raise a spirit.

Manning is the headline big-name investor in a new high-end Tennessee-made bourbon whiskey which will be available for purchase exclusively in the Volunteer State starting next Tuesday. For $200 a bottle, one can put Sweetens Cove — named after a beloved golf course in South Pttsburg, Tenn. — on his or her (Rocky) top shelf.

Manning’s recently retired brother Eli is also finanicially backing the Nashville-based product, which will be available for purchase at first online at 9 a.m. May 26 before being distributed throughout the state. CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, retired tennis champion Andy Roddick and singer-songwriter Drew Holcomb are among the other investors.

According to the Tenneseean, Sweetens Cove Tenneseee Bourbon Whiskey will eventually make its way to nearby states, although in limited supply. Before any bottles are sold to the public, however, Manning and company are trying to reserve 20 bottles from the first barrel to donate to charities, including those focused on COVID-19 relief.

Manning has shown a magic touch off the field with his business and commercial ventures, from Papa John’s franchisee to DirecTV (with Eli) and Nationwide pitchman. He’s also getting more attention for his golf game, as he’s teeing off with Tiger Woods against Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson in “The Match: Champions For Chairty” on Sunday, making it a very busy Memorial Day weekend.

In addition to getting the chance to team up with Eli, Manning and Nantz are also great friends tied together by football and golf. Taking it to the next level by marketing Kentucky-style bourbon in Tennessee also seems like it’s overdue on Peyton’s resume.

Early indication is that Sweetens Cove, with its master distiller status, is more sweet nectar than just another celebrity-supported liquor venture. When it comes to Peyton Manning and Tennessee, he always volunteers to bring his best.

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NFL's top backup quarterbacks? Plus, Jarrett Stidham's promise

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

— Five juicy quarterback matchups that stand out on the newly released 2020 schedule.

— Why no one should sleep on the Patriots’ presumed QB1 in 2020.

But first, a look at which teams are best positioned to weather the kind of storm no team wants to face …

* * * * *

The Dallas Cowboys got the Twitterverse’s attention with the signing of Andy Dalton. The three-time Pro Bowl selectee inked a one-year, $3 million deal (with incentives that could push it to $7 million) to back up Dak Prescott. Despite some observers attempting to make Dalton’s signing a leverage play against No. 4 in those ongoing contract negotiations, I believe the move is strictly about the Cowboys adding an insurance policy in a crucial spot as they head into a season with great expectations.

"To have a guy like Andy Dalton come in here — not unlike what Philly had with Nick Foles when Carson Wentz went down — to be able to take control and win games, win huge games for you, if that’s what you need, is really important," Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said on 1310 The Ticket in Dallas. "Certainly you can lay your head on the pillow better at night knowing you have someone like Andy Dalton."

The 10th-year veteran checks off all of the boxes as a top-end QB2 with a high IQ, significant game experience and a winning pedigree. Moreover, he is an effective game manager capable of playing at a high level when surrounded by a Grade A supporting cast. With a solid roster around him in Cincinnati, Dalton showed the football world his potential when he led the Bengals to five straight playoff appearances in his first five NFL seasons.

While the naysayers will argue that Dalton’s game has regressed in recent seasons, I believe his decline coincided with the deterioration of his supporting cast in Cincy. That roster decayed with the departure of Andrew Whitworth and the injury woes of A.J. Green, to name a few significant developments. And given Dalton’s limitations as an individual player, his game relies on the offense’s overall talent.

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If pressed into service in Dallas, Dalton can look like a Pro Bowler again, with a top-five running back (Ezekiel Elliott), a talented trio of pass catchers (Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb) and a beefy offensive line to protect him. He has enough weaponry in place to thrive as a distributor and his significant game experience should enable him to play well as a fill-in.

That’s why the Joneses and new Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy are excited to have a veteran like Dalton in the QB2 role. It is not only hard to find a backup quarterback with enough experience and skill to play at a high level in relief, but it’s also quite challenging to identify an ex-starter with the right personality to work with the QB1. Those factors typically lead teams to settle on marginal backups instead of quality field generals with enough game to reel off a few wins in a starter’s absence.

Yes, Prescott is currently embroiled in a contract negotiation and has yet to sign the franchise tender Dallas placed on him in March. So, theoretically, the stalemate could extend into training camp and maybe even the regular season. In that case, the Cowboys could hand the offensive reigns to a quality veteran. That said, I want to reiterate that I don’t at all believe this move was made to gain leverage over Dak and his hefty asking price. There’s a sizable disparity in overall talent and potential between the quarterbacks. The thought of Dalton unseating the Cowboys’ QB1 is strictly water cooler fodder.

"Obviously, it has no bearing on Dak." Stephen Jones said on 1310 The Ticket. "Dak is the quarterback of our franchise now, and for many years to come. We’ve gotta get his contract — we’ve gotta get over that hurdle. But we’ll do it, it’ll ultimately get done."

After filling the spot with developmental players in recent years, the ‘Boys actually nabbed a capable backup. Considering their divisional rivals in Philadelphia have finished each of the last three seasons in the playoffs with the backup quarterback in the game, the Cowboys understandably felt the need to upgrade their QB2 spot.

If quarterback is the most important player in the game, teams should make sure that the starter’s understudy has enough experience and talent to step in and win, right?

The Cowboys’ decision to sign Dalton gives them a chance to stay in the playoff hunt even with a Prescott injury.

And while we’re on the subject of backups, here is my list of the top five QB2s in the NFL right now:

1) Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis Colts: Chris Ballard and Frank Reich might’ve replaced Brissett as the Colts’ starter, but don’t let his demotion diminish his performance and potential as a player. Prior to suffering an MCL injury midway through last season, Brissett was playing at a high level with a 14:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio on a team devoid of playmakers on the perimeter beyond T.Y. Hilton. Although Brissett’s play slipped down the stretch, he has more than enough game to chalk up Ws as a spot starter surrounded by enough playmakers to enable him to manage the game.

2) Andy Dalton, Dallas Cowboys: It’s not easy for a starting pitcher to go the bullpen while he’s still in the middle of his prime, but that’s where Dalton finds himself in Dallas. He gives the ‘Boys a middle reliever with 70-61-2 career record and solid management skills to guide a star-studded offense that would enable him to play as a distributor from the pocket. Although Dalton’s recent numbers reflect his ceiling as a player, he is good enough to step in and keep the Cowboys’ title hopes afloat if Prescott is sidelined at any point during the 2020 campaign.

3) Case Keenum, Cleveland Browns: The eighth-year pro has carved out a nice career as a spot starter/backup quarterback for five different teams (six, if you count Cleveland). Keenum isn’t quite good enough to be a franchise quarterback, but he can certainly hold down the spot in a pinch when the starter is sidelined due to injury. A few years ago, he enjoyed a magical ride in Minnesota that showcased his talents as a rhythm thrower with timing, touch and anticipation. Although Keenum couldn’t replicate his efforts in Denver and Washington, he could rediscover his magic when he reunites with Kevin Stefanski as Baker Mayfield’s backup.

4) Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints: The former No. 1 overall pick is unquestionably the most talented passer on this list, with a big arm that forces opponents to defend every blade of grass from goal line to goal line and sideline to sideline. Winston’s unlimited range and fearless mentality helped him post a 5,000-yard season with 33 passing touchdowns in 2019. However, he tossed 30 interceptions, including an NFL-record seven pick-sixes. And he leads all players with 111 giveaways (88 interceptions, 23 fumbles lost) since 2015. Considering Winston’s boom-or-bust playing style, the Saints could be in for a roller-coaster ride if Winston is forced into action.

5) Marcus Mariota, Las Vegas Raiders: The mobile playmaker appeared to lose a little of his nerve and aggressiveness during the end of his tenure in Tennessee, but he is certainly an intriguing talent at the position. Mariota has led his team into the postseason as a starter and his conservative playing style results in few turnovers or miscues. If Jon Gruden can unlock his aggressiveness as a passer and encourage him to rely on his legs to escape trouble, the former Heisman Trophy winner has the capacity to win games as an emergency backup or short-term starter in the mold of Rich Gannon for a team that could use a little sizzle at the position.

2020 SCHEDULE RELEASE: Five must-see quarterback duels

The NFL’s schedule release is always exciting for evaluators around the league. Executives circle the "must-see" games on the schedule to ensure their scouts check out the best teams and players in five-star matchups. And in this modern league that’s governed by quarterback play, shootouts between elite QBs frequently provide observers with an opportunity to check out the emerging title contenders throughout the season.

With that in mind, here are five QB showdowns I’m champing at the bit to watch in 2020:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints, Week 1: Tom Brady and Drew Brees are in the twilight of their respective careers, with Father Time nipping at each of their heels. With that in mind, the season opener will provide the football world with an opportunity to see both legends in tip-top shape — before the wear and tear of the season begins to impact their games. Brady should light it up early in the season, with a talented cast of pass catchers boasting basketball-like size and athleticism on the perimeter. If Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard continue to overpower defenders with their superior skills, TB12 could put up ridiculous numbers as a passer. Meanwhile, Brees gained an accomplished secondary option out wide, with Emmanuel Sanders sliding in to alleviate some of the pressure on Michael Thomas to carry the passing game. And with Alvin Kamara at better health, the Saints’ offense should roll.

Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens, Week 3 (Monday night): The battle between Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson will give us a chance to appreciate the revolution at the quarterback position, with these two athletic playmakers earning the past two MVP awards. Although Mahomes and Jackson differ stylistically, their electric games fuel their respective offenses and keep fans on the edge of their seats. Mahomes will get a chance to show off an expanded game with a pass-catching RB (first-rounder Clyde Edwards-Helaire) to complement an explosive receiving corps with speed galore. Continuing to add pieces to his game, the Super Bowl LIV MVP will remain one of the most unstoppable forces in football. Jackson now has more weaponry around him, which could enable the reigning MVP to take another step in his development as an elite QB1. The addition of J.K. Dobbins gives him a high-end RB prospect to utilize in the read-option game. The Ravens also added more speed to the WR corps (Devin Duvernay and James Proche) to augment a unit that already enables Jackson to stretch the field from sideline to sideline and end zone to end zone. With all of these explosive players on both sides of the field, this Week 3 matchup promises fireworks — and plenty of them.

Green Bay Packers at Houston Texans, Week 7: We could witness something of a changing of the guard at the quarterback position when Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson square off in Houston. The two-time NFL MVP has held down a spot in the VIP room of quarterbacks for the past decade, but a young set of emerging gunslingers are on the verge of nudging No. 12 out of the club. In the wake of the shocking DeAndre Hopkins trade, Watson will be forced to carry the offense more than ever before. How will he respond? And how will Rodgers respond to Green Bay’s first-round selection of Jordan Love? Whole lotta QB intrigue in this one.

Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks, Week 11 (Thursday night): It’s quite possible that this showdown between Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson will play a significant role in the MVP race down the stretch. Don’t laugh at the notion of Murray joining the conversation — after all, each of the last two MVP award winners (Jackson and Mahomes) earned the hardware at the end of their second NFL season. With DeAndre Hopkins joining Larry Fitzgerald to give the Cardinals a sure-handed 1-2 punch on the perimeter, Murray could be more aggressive pushing the ball down the field. Wilson has played MVP-caliber football in each of the past three seasons, but the maturation of his WR corps could help him put up monster numbers as an electric, improvisational playmaker.

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys, Week 16: This NFC East showdown features two of the best young quarterbacks in football surrounded by improved supporting casts. Carson Wentz has a faster set of playmakers at his disposal, with DeSean Jackson, Marquise Goodwin, Jalen Reagor and John Hightower operating like a 4×100-meter relay team on the perimeter. Prescott gets to drive an Indy race car fueled by the most explosive "11" personnel unit in football. With defensive coordinators unable to load the box to stop Ezekiel Elliott or utilize bracket coverages to slow down Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup or CeeDee Lamb, No. 4 could emerge as an MVP candidate by taking what the defense gives him from the pocket.

JARRETT STIDHAM: Unwise to dismiss Patriots’ apparent QB1

It’s hard to question a head coach with an NFL-record six Super Bowl rings and 300-plus victories (including the postseason), but that hasn’t stopped folks around the league from raising an eyebrow at Bill Belichick’s moves (and primarily, inaction) at the quarterback position since Tom Brady moved on to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March.

At a time when most teams are building around QB1s with first-round pedigrees, Belichick seems to be at least strongly considering rolling with Jarrett Stidham, a former fourth-round pick, as his starter, with veteran Brian Hoyer returning for his third stint with the team as a backup. The only other quarterbacks on the roster are undrafted rookies Brian Lewerke and J’Mar Smith.

Going with an unproven former Day 3 pick to replace the G.O.A.T. for a franchise that’s synonymous with winning seems like an awfully big roll of the dice. What is it about Stidham that has led Belichick to bypass proven veterans this offseason and QB prospects in this year’s draft?

We might not get a clear answer to that million-dollar question for a while, but I thought that I would take a long, hard look at Stidham’s film from his rookie year and revisit my scouting report on him from a year ago to gain a better perspective on the Patriots signal-caller.

Reviewing my pre-draft notes on Stidham, I thought that he was a hard evaluation due to the up-and-down performances that littered his collegiate career. As a freshman at Baylor, the former four-star recruit looked poised for stardom in 10 appearances (three starts) that resulted in 1,200-plus passing yards, a 12:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a 68.8 percent completion rate and a ridiculous 11.6 yards per attempt.

After sitting out the following season, per transfer rules, Stidham hit the ground running at Auburn with a strong sophomore campaign that included 3,158 yards passing, an 18:6 TD-to-INT ratio and a win over rival Alabama. He not only exhibited A-plus arm talent while showcasing a mix of drive throws and touch tosses on the perimeter, but he flashed anticipation squeezing the ball into tight windows. Stidham’s performance dipped in 2018, partially due to subpar help from his receivers, offensive line and coaching staff. However, he still possessed enough tools to be considered an intriguing developmental prospect heading into last year’s draft.

Fast-forward to his rookie year with the Patriots, when Stidham was fairly impressive directing the offense during the preseason. He connected on 67.8 percent of his passes (61 of 90) with a 4:1 TD-INT ratio while averaging 8.1 yards per attempt. Those numbers lined up with an impressive film resume that showed Stidham making an assortment of throws to every area of the field. The rookie tossed darts to receivers on quick-rhythm throws at short and intermediate range while also displaying efficient footwork and deft ball handling on play-action passes.

With Stidham showing the capacity to work the middle of the field while also throwing pinpoint passes to receivers along the boundary on deep-outs and comebacks, the Patriots should be able to continue attacking opponents with many of the same plays that have been staples in the game plan for years with TB12 at the controls.

Now, I’m not ready to proclaim Stidham a worthy successor to the throne in New England, but he certainly has enough talent to function as a capable starter for the team. Sure, he faltered in his first regular-season action with a pick-six in Week 3 against the New York Jets, which prompted Belichick to bench him and re-insert Brady into a lopsided game. The visual of that benching has created a narrative that suggests the second-year pro isn’t ready to handle the starting job.

Here’s the thing: The backup quarterback doesn’t get many reps during practice during the average game week, and it’s hard for young quarterbacks to find their rhythm without a lot of preparation. As a starter, however, Stidham would get the bulk of the work during the week, and those practice reps would put him in a better position to succeed. Additionally, the Patriots coaching staff would be able to build a game plan around his talents, which should only help him. Considering how many young players make their biggest developmental improvements from their rookie season to their second year, the NFL could see a new-and-improved Stidham when he takes the field this fall.

"Stid worked really hard last year," Belichick told NFL Network during Thursday night’s Schedule Release ’20 LIVE show. "He was our backup quarterback the entire season, and I know he’s working hard in the offseason. I know he’s made a lot of progress in terms of understanding our offense and understanding opponent defenses like all players do from Year 1 to Year 2. I’m sure he will get out there and be ready to go, be prepared, compete hard, and we’ll see where it takes us."

If Belichick’s confidence in his young passer sounds surprising, it’s important to remember his success with unheralded quarterbacks during the Brady era, something he mentioned later in the interview when asked about preparing for life without the legend under center.

"Well, we’ve played at other times without Tom," the Patriots head coach said. "Whether it was the (2008) season after he was injured — we played 15 games with (Matt) Cassel and went 11-5 — or heading into the ’16 season with Jimmy (Garoppolo) and then Jacoby (Brissett) and Tom coming back after the four-game suspension. … We’ll do what we always do. Try to prepare the team the best that we can, utilize our players, the skills that they have, put ourselves in the best position we can to be competitive and win."

Given Belichick’s reputation and Stidham’s natural talents, it would be foolish to dismiss the Patriots’ chances of succeeding with an inexperienced young quarterback who wasn’t hailed as the next big thing when he entered the league. After all, they started their dominance of the league with a second-year sixth-round pick at the controls in 2001, and they could extend their run into the 2020s with an unheralded passer who might come into his own in Year 2.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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Top Wallabies to take greatest pay cuts as World Rugby loan deal looms

Australian rugby's top earners have volunteered to take pay cuts of more than 65 per cent to protect their lower-paid teammates while the game rides out the coronavirus shutdown.

As World Rugby's coronavirus working group prepared to finalise a loan facility worth between $100 million and $200m for the game's tier-one unions, senior Wallabies Michael Hooper, Matt Toomua and Dane Haylett-Petty spearheaded the push for the country's highest-paid players to shoulder the lion's share of cuts.

Kurtley Beale and Michael Hooper will cop a huge pay cut as part of the players’ deal with Rugby Australia.Credit:AAP

Should the plan receive the support of the players, it means Hooper, Kurtley Beale, Taniela Tupou, Izack Rodda, Allan Alaalatoa, Marika Koroibete, Toomua and Haylett-Petty will approve a pay deal that will hit them hardest.

There was no deal or overall number agreed at close of business on Wednesday as negotiations dragged into a third week and the Waratahs were forced to pay their roster in full, the second Super Rugby side to do so.

But sources told the Herald the average percentage cut across the group of 192 contracted players in Super Rugby and the sevens programs was shaping as 65 per cent for six months, distributed using a tiered model.

The highest earners – including Test captain Hooper on close to $1.2 million a season and Tupou, on a deal scaling up to $1 million in his final year – will take cuts much higher than that, allowing players on base contracts in both formats to be buffeted from the worst of the pain.

There were still several concerns among the players, including how the cuts would affect Pacific Islander and South African players who were on visas and would not be eligible for the federal government's JobKeeper subsidies.

The men's and women's sevens programs were also a flashpoint, with both squads off contract in August, a timeline that lined up with the conclusion of their 2020 Tokyo Olympics campaigns.

The Rugby Union Players Association was seeking reassurance on the status of those players after August but had not received any, sources close to the negotiations told the Herald.

The gesture from senior players was also not enough to stem widespread "market-testing" among Australian players of all ages, salaries and experience levels. At least two agents reported a massive spike in players asking them to canvass overseas options as the pay deal uncertainty dragged on.

The absence of a broadcast deal beyond the end of this year was a source of great anxiety, leaving RA unable to make any guarantees that players' contracts would be honoured beyond the emergency deal to cover the next six months.

The picture was expected to become clearer towards the end of the week as World Rugby's coronavirus working group prepared for a crucial meeting on Wednesday night.

The final few unions were expected to brief the group on their financial outlook, while World Rugby's representatives were hoping to be able to paint a clear vision of what the game's cash reserves would allow in the way of assistance.

Despite comments on Tuesday from World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot that the governing body could not afford to bail out the major southern hemisphere unions, sources told the Herald the organisation was close to finalising a short-term loan arrangement worth up to $200 million or more.

The distribution to each union would not be enough to single-handedly plug the revenue gaps forecast by the likes of Australia ($120 million worst case) and New Zealand ($130 million worst case).

But it would be a crucial part of an overall emergency package, combined with the player pay deal, RA's own executive pay cuts and widespread stand-downs at head office and at all the Super Rugby clubs.

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