Calvin Johnson’s deal at the heart of NFLPA’s collusion concerns

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Yes, the NFLPA is investigating whether the Broncos and Cowboys have colluded in connection with their negotiations regarding long-term offers for receiver Demaryius Thomas and receiver Dez Bryant, respectively. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the suspicions flow from a mutual rejection by both teams of Calvin Johnson’s contract with the Lions.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, both teams have taken the position that proposals made on behalf of the players are too high, explaining that Johnson’s deal doesn’t reflect the receiver market because that contract was influenced by the salary-cap numbers generated by Johnson’s enormous rookie contract from 2007, four years before the launch of the current rookie wage scale.

That coincidence hardly would be enough to prove collusion standing alone. Any team trying to negotiate a fair deal for a receiver would resist paying Calvin Johnson money ($16 million per year) simply because Johnson’s deal was driven by other factors.

In this case, the source tells PFT that the NFLPA has credible information the Broncos and Cowboys have been communicating to set, control, or manipulate the relevant market — elite receivers who entered the league in 2010. Of course, nothing prevents the players and their agents from comparing notes and devising strategies; Thomas and Bryant soon will be represented by the same firm, given reports that Todd France (who represents Thomas) will be joining CAA (which represents Bryant).

But while it’s fair for players and agents to work together to push the market higher, teams can’t work together to keep the market lower.

If collusion between the Broncos and Cowboys occurred, it was unnecessary. Regardless of where the market is or where it’s going, the Broncos and Cowboys currently control the rights to Thomas and Bryant, and their long-term value should be driven not by what Johnson got from the Lions or what an elite receiver would make on the open market but by the reality that the tag will pay them each more than $28 million over the next two years.

There’s also an argument to be made that the receiver market will soon soften, given the new supply of game-ready wideouts who are more prepared than ever before after catching so many more passes in college, high school, and at the 7-on-7 camps that have proliferated to encourage quarterback development.

Either way, the Broncos and Cowboys should be smart enough to independently understand the realities of the market, to place a fair value on the receivers, and to either work out long-term deals or employ them under the tag for 2015. Communicating and coordinating regarding the issue adds nothing, other than the fresh headache that both teams will now have to deal with as the July 15 deadline looms for working out long-term deals with franchise-tagged players.

Regardless of whether the credible evidence of collusion ever becomes a finding of collusion, the emergence of this suspicion could be aimed at breaking whatever impasse currently exists between the Broncos and Thomas and the Cowboys and Bryant. After Wednesday, when the time period for signing franchise-tagged players to multi-year deals expires, it won’t matter.

Over the next five days, the threat of a potential collusion case could help break the logjam.

Henderson ignores new/old Personal Conduct Policy distinction in Hardy ruling

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At the hearing on Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy’s 10-game suspension, the NFL didn’t specifically state which version of the Personal Conduct Policy had been applied to Hardy’s alleged acts of domestic violence from May 2014. Likewise, hearing officer Harold Henderson didn’t force the league to do so.

Fittingly, the 12-page, single-spaced ruling from Henderson fails to identify whether the Personal Conduct Policy in existence as of May 2014, the new penalties imposed in August 2014, or the new policy adopted in December 2014 applied.

“I find the record here insufficient to determine when a new policy was promulgated or effective,” Henderson writes at page 6 of the decision. “While this record includes documents written and distributed after the May 13, 2014 incident, it is my opinion that they do not in fact constitute a new policy but rather explain and expand on the policy which has existed for several years with some enhancements consistent with the prior versions. Here it is unclear if there ever was a complete new policy published, but I do not find that either the draft sent to owners for discussion at their December 2014 meeting . . . or the attached Memorandum to All NFL Personnel given to owners for distribution to players constitutes such new policy.”

Again, Henderson’s inability to come to that conclusion likely comes from his failure to put the NFL on the spot at the hearing, with specific questions about whether the discipline arose under the new policy or the old policy.

Henderson later explains that, in his opinion, it doesn’t matter whether the policy did or didn’t change.

“The analysis of ‘new policy vs old’ may be inappropriate here,” Henderson writes at page 7 of the ruling. “The arguments on retroactive application of the policies miss the mark. This policy is not a law, subject to ex post facto considerations. Rather, it simply communicates a process for exercise of the Commissioner’s authority to govern conduct detrimental to the interests of football.”

Henderson contends that the discipline imposed on Hardy “could have been levied under any one of those prior Personal Conduct Policies, none of which mentioned any specific length of possible suspensions.” He concludes that “it is not necessary to sort out which policy was applied, because the result would be the same under either.”

The result, first mentioned when dropped into the final sentence of the final paragraph of the ruling, is a six-game reduction, from 10 games to four. Why the reduction from 10 games to four? Because, as Henderson writes, “ten games is simply too much, in my view, of an increase over prior cases without notice such as was done last year, when the ‘baseline’ or discipline in domestic violence or sexual assaults cases was announced as a six-game suspension.”

So, to summarize, Henderson doesn’t know whether the NFL used the old policy (which produced a two-game suspension for first-offense domestic violence incidents) or the new policy (which moved the baseline to six), Henderson doesn’t think it matters to the resolution of Hardy’s case, and then Henderson relies on the new six-game baseline as proof that 10 games is too many, reducing it to a number below the new baseline.

And it took Henderson only 43 days to reach that convoluted and logically inconsistent conclusion.

Everyone knows the policy changed last year, sparked by the application of the standard penalty of two games to Ray Rice and exacerbated by the release of a video that gave the NFL a chance to see what it already knew happened in that Atlantic City elevator. In an effort to put out the P.R. brushfire, the NFL first increased the penalties under the policy in August (after the reaction to the two-game suspension) and then instituted a new policy in December (after the far more intense reaction to the release of the video).

Of course there’s a new policy; Henderson’s failure to acknowledge that comes off as obtuse. Then again, if he’d acknowledged the policy had changed, he would have been required to analyze the case solely in reference to the penalties implemented under the old policy.

That process would have started with the Rice case, which resulted from a brutal blow to the head that rendered his then-fiancée unconscious. Henderson then would have been required to explain how what Hardy allegedly did was twice as bad as what Rice actually did. And Henderson would have been unable to do it.

So he instead selected an outcome that didn’t match or exceed the post-Rice six-game baseline but that was twice as much as the standard suspension under the old policy. Which was the only way Henderson could balance the possibility of having his decision overturned by a federal judge against ensuring that the NFL continues to appoint him to handle these appeals.

NFLPA concerned about Cowboys, Broncos colluding on WR contracts

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Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant and Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas are both free agents, but neither is really “free” because of the franchise tag. If one player signs a long-term contract, it could set the market and help the other in negotiations. And so it could be beneficial to both the Cowboys and the Broncos to make sure that neither team gives its franchise receiver a big-time deal.

But if the Cowboys and Broncos discussed such a deal, that would be collusion. And the NFL Players Association is investigating whether that happened: Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that the NFLPA believes the Broncos and Cowboys had discussions about Bryant’s and Thomas’s contracts, in violation of the collective bargaining agreement. (PFT has confirmed that the NFLPA indeed has these suspicions.)

If there’s proof of collusion, Bryant and Thomas could sue for damages. But collusion can be hard to prove.

Bryant and Thomas have until Wednesday to reach long-term contracts. If they can’t, they can only play this season on the one-year, $12.8 million contract that comes with the franchise tag.

Jerry Jones: We are looking forward to having Greg Hardy as part of the team

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When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell initially suspended Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy for 10 games earlier this year, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones released a brief statement that said the team anticipated and respected Goodell’s decision.

Jones also said that the team would use its resources “to ensure a positive outcome.” Hardy got a positive outcome on Friday when arbitrator Harold Henderson found that a 10-game suspension was “simply too much” for Hardy based on the policies in place at the time he was arrested on domestic violence charges.

Jones issued another brief statement after Henderson’s ruling on Friday afternoon that avoided any specific comment on Henderson’s ruling.

“We are looking forward to the start of the season and having Greg be a part of the team,” Jones said.

In May, Hardy said that he will “make sure Jerry’s happy” because Jones took a chance on him this offseason despite the uncertainty about his availability for the 2015 season. If Hardy is on the field, healthy and productive for the 12 games he’s now eligible to play this season, he’ll likely realize his goal of putting a smile on Jones’s face.

Harold Henderson on Hardy suspension: 10 games “simply too much”

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Roger Goodell’s willingness to overstep any bound of precedent of punishment has been revealed by his recent run of losses in court.

But now, his hand-picked arbitrator admits the commissioner went too far in suspending Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy for 10 games.

“After consideration of all the record evidence and arguments, I conclude that the Commissioner acted within his authority and properly exercised his discretion in finding that Hardy violated the NFL Personal Conduct Policy,” Henderson said. “I find that the conduct of Hardy clearly violates the letter and spirit of any version of the PCP since its inception, and of the NFL Constitution and Bylaws long before then. The egregious conduct exhibited here is indefensible in the NFL.

“However, 10 games is simply too much, in my view, of an increase over prior cases without notice such as was done last year, when the ‘baseline’ for discipline in domestic violence or sexual assault cases was announced as a six-game suspension. Therefore, the discipline of Mr. Hardy hereby is modified to a suspension of four games; all other terms of the discipline letter remain in place.”

Whether Hardy’s side decides to fight the four-game punishment remains to be seen, but Henderson’s backtracking on this one makes it clear the league prefers the appearance of being tough on crime to actually being tough on crime.

Is Hardy’s reduced suspension good news for Brady?

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With Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy’s 10-game suspension reduced to four games, what does that mean for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game suspension?

As a practical matter, arbitrator Harold Henderson’s decision to cut Hardy’s suspension from 10 games to four games makes it very difficult for Commissioner Roger Goodell to keep Brady’s suspension at four. Keeping Brady at four would invite the wrath of Patriots fans who believe Goodell has equated Brady’s conduct (whatever it was) to domestic violence, and it also would invite the wrath of those who believe Goodell has equated domestic violence to Brady’s conduct (whatever it was).

So Goodell now has no real choice but to reduce the suspension, most likely to two games. It still won’t be easy to do; ideally, Goodell needs to find a way to shorten the suspension without undermining the multi-million-dollar efforts of Ted Wells, the man Goodell hired to spend multiple millions of dollars investigating #DeflateGate.

Complicating matters is the disconnect between public reaction to Goodell being perceived as punishing a player too aggressively and Goodell being perceived as punishing a player too leniently. Goodell has now had four straight high-profile disciplinary decisions (the 2012 bounty scandal, Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension, Adrian Peterson’s suspension, and Greg Hardy’s suspension) overturned by a higher authority. And no one has ever suggested that this chronic inability to make appropriate decisions renders him in any way unfit for the job he holds.

Conversely, the failure to impose enough of a suspension on Rice nearly cost Goodell his job less than a year ago. Can he reduce Brady’s game to two games on his own, or does Goodell need to run his record to 0-5 by holding firm and forcing Brady to go to court?

Some will suggest that Hardy’s reduced penalty resulted from coordination between the league office and Henderson, a former league-office employee. But that type of coordination could result in a decidedly uncoordinated attempt by Goodell to tiptoe through the next — and perhaps most important — minefield he faces.

Hardy will confer with NFLPA, agent to determine next step

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As of Wednesday, a source close to Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy scoffed at the notion that Hardy would accept a reduction in his 10-game suspension to six or eight games. Now that the suspension has been cut all the way down to four games, the scoffing may not be nearly as strong.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Hardy will confer with the NFL Players Association and agent Drew Rosenhaus to determine whether a lawsuit challenging the four-game suspension should be filed.

It’s believed Hardy will be advised to roll the legal dice, since the upside would be two additional games of compensation. Ultimately, the decision will be Hardy’s.

Either way, time is of the essence. With Hardy apparently conceding that a two-game suspension under the prior version of the Personal Conduct Policy was appropriate, he’d need to get a final ruling from a court before Week Three of the regular season. It’s possible that he’d seek an injunction preventing the NFL from suspending him more than two games, delaying the other half of the suspension until the litigation ends.

Hardy also could choose to sit for four games (Giants, at Eagles, Falcons, at Saints) to start the season, ensuring he’d be available for the balance of the regular season and postseason. If he sues and obtains a short-term injunction in September (which would allow him to face the Falcons and Saints), Hardy could end up missing much more important games in December or January.

The situation takes on a much different feel given the decision by arbitrator Harold Henderson to scuttle six of the 10 games imposed on Hardy by Commissioner Roger Goodell. While Hardy had not lost any of his resolve to fight as of Wednesday, the semi-favorable outcome before Henderson will be a factor in the final decision regarding whether to file suit.

Without seeing the ruling from Henderson (we’re trying to get our eyes on it), it’s hard to know whether his reasoning for a four-game suspension. Under the Personal Conduct Policy that was in effect when Hardy’s conduct occurred, a first-offense domestic violence incident resulted in a two-game suspension.

Greg Hardy suspension reduced to four games

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The long wait for arbitrator Harold Henderson’s ruling on Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy’s appeal is over.

Henderson has upheld the suspension originally handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, but Hardy’s ban has been slashed from 10 games down to four. Hardy was suspended as a result of his arrest last year on charges of domestic violence. He was convicted of the charges in a bench trial, but exercised his right to have a jury trial and the charges were dismissed when Hardy’s ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder failed to appear.

The question now for Hardy, who was also inactive for 15 games last season while on the Commissioner’s exempt list, is whether he will pursue a further reduction in court. Hardy and the NFLPA contend that the NFL retroactively applied new rules governing domestic violence adopted after Hardy’s arrest, with the two-game suspension originally given to former Ravens running back Ray Rice standing as an example of the way discipline was meted out before that suspension touched off heavy criticism that sent the NFL down the road to making changes to the system.

Hardy’s contract with the Cowboys calls for him to be paid $578,125 per game when he is active. That makes Friday’s decision a lucrative one for Hardy even if he doesn’t make a courtroom push to get back on the field even sooner. Under the current suspension, Hardy will be eligible to return to the lineup for Dallas’s Week Five home game against the Patriots.

Cam Newton calls removal of Confederate flag a “triumph” for all

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In the wake of last month’s Charleston church shootings, the Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton were extremely active.

So with the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds Friday, it’s no surprise that Newton viewed it as a cause for celebration.

According to Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer, Newton called the act a “triumph,” and said it was a victory for all races, not just African-Americans.

“There shouldn’t be a discrepancy of this particular culture, this particular kind, this particular race between anybody else,” Newton said. “It’s very enlightening, it’s very impactful, to see that flag come down that was remembrance of something that’s not what this country is all about. This country is about the land of the free and anybody can become whatever they want. And with having a symbol that represented so much hatred, it’s just a triumph for it to come down.”

The flag became a hot political topic in the wake of the shootings at the Emanuel AME Church, and the Panthers were quick to ask for its removal. Coupled with Newton visiting the families of some of the victims, and owner Jerry Richardson making a $100,000 donation to help cover funeral expenses, and it’s clearly a significant issue for them, happening so close to their back yard.

Madden remembers Stabler as “one of the greatest competitors ever”

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Hall of Fame coach John Madden remembered his quarterback Ken Stabler today as one of the finest football players he ever encountered.

Stabler, who died on Wednesday at the age of 69, won Super Bowl XI with Madden as his coach. Madden told reporters today that he has fond memories of their times together.

“You think of the good times, the memories, all the games, all the practices, all the meetings, and no matter what you threw in front of him he enjoyed,” Madden said. “He always had a twinkle in his eye and a smile. He was one of the greatest competitors ever. When you think of the Raiders, you think of the Raiders of the ’70s, Ken Stabler has to be right on top. Of all the people I coached, and I coached a lot of great ones, a lot of Hall of Famers, he’s one of the guys who’s really at the top of the class.”

Stabler’s Hall of Fame candidacy is getting a lot of attention in the wake of his death, and Madden said he feels strongly that Stabler belongs in Canton.

“He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback. I think what happens is we get so caught up today in statistics and then comparing statistics, and you can’t do that with different eras,” Madden said.

For Madden, losing Stabler was like losing a family member.

“Yesterday was a very sad day,” Madden said. “It was a shock to all of us. You just think that Kenny’s one of those guys that whatever you throw in front of him is not going to get him down. When you hear ‘Kenny Stabler died’ it’s like a kick in the gut.”

Cliff Avril: Not finishing Super Bowl sucked, but glad docs pulled me out

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In the third quarter of the Super Bowl, Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril took a blow to the head and was forced to the sideline so that doctors could evaluate him for a concussion.

Avril wasn’t allowed to return to the game, something that former Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said was a factor in the Patriots’ fourth quarter comeback and ultimate victory because Avril and Michael Bennett were having success against the New England offensive line. Avril reflected on the end of the game at home in Georgia recently and said that he was happy with the doctors’ decision even if he wanted to be on the field.

“It was real disappointing,” Avril said, via the Macon Telegraph. “All of us are competitors; all of us want to be out there to help our team win in any kind of way. For me not to be able to finish one of the biggest games you’ll ever play in, it sucked. But at the same time, I’m glad the docs decided to not put me back in. Concussions aren’t anything to play with.”

The NFL approved a new injury timeout rule this offseason to give certified athletic trainers working as spotters the ability to stop a game so that a player who may have suffered a concussion out of the game for evaluation. That rule wouldn’t have applied to Avril in the Super Bowl, but it would have applied to Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman. Edelman, who wound up scoring the game’s final touchdown, never left the game after a shot to the head, something Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay cited as “part of the issue” that led the league to put the new rule into effect for the 2015 season.

Shad Khan denies he wants to buy Tottenham Hotspur, move Jags

The NFL reached a 10-year deal with English soccer club Tottenham Hotspur this week to host games in a new North London stadium.

But that doesn’t mean the Jaguars are going to become permanent residents there.

The London Evening Standard reported that Jacksonville owner Shad Khan was interested in buying Spurs (he currently owns second-division Fulham) and moving the Jaguars to London.

But buried deep beneath the sensational headline was what seems to be a salient point.

These reports are total nonsense and complete fiction,” a spokesman for Khan replied.

Speculation about the Jaguars moving to London isn’t new. The speculation that they were moving somewhere has existed long before the league made such a push to promote the game there, with multiple games per year.

Prior to the denial, the report mentioned that Khan had only had “informal discussions” with advisers, and no contact with Spurs officials, which doesn’t really back up what was otherwise a really interesting story.

HBO orders second season of Ballers

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There’s a belief in some circles that the NFL will break its silence on HBO’s Ballers if/when the series is renewed for a second season.

The if has become a when, and the when has become a right now. HBO has renewed the series after only three episodes.

The press release announcing the move says that the premiere episode generated 8.9 million viewers among HBO’s various platforms, including broadcast and digital. Another 5.6 million have watched the show via Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Facebook page.

Apart from the manner in which the show depicts professional football players (with the stereotypical sex, drugs, booze, fighting, and gambling), the show uses NFL team names and logos without consent. HBO believes permission isn’t legally required.

Neither the league nor the Dolphins, the team featured most prominently in the show, has commented on any aspect of the show; however, the NFL earlier this week asked fans questions about the show in an online survey.

If the theory that the NFL was waiting for a second season to be ordered before reacting to the show is correct, a reaction should be coming soon.

The issue extends beyond whether HBO is infringing on protected trademarks. The NFL and HBO have a long-term partnership through the Hard Knocks series. The league could threaten not to renew the contract, or the league could claim that the unauthorized use of team names and logos breaches specific terms of the NFL-HBO deal.

Disclosure of injury information continues to put NFL players in a delicate spot

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When it comes to disclosing injury information, the NFL has struggled at times to strike the right balance. To create a sense of transparency (and in turn to discourage gamblers from pursuing inside information by cozying up to players, coaches, and other team employees), the NFL has developed an injury-reporting system far more complex than, for example, hockey’s upper-body/lower-body shell game. But the individual NFL teams would prefer to keep as much of that information as secret as possible, to protect players from being targeted and to achieve a strategic edge.

Caught in the middle are the players, who often find themselves being criticized for playing poorly when trying to play through an injury that was either unknown or understated. Still, many players would like to keep it secret, in order to keep an opponent from hitting, poking, and/or kicking the injured region.

The balance became more complicated this week, when ESPN’s Adam Schefter not only reported that Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was having a finger amputated but also posted on Twitter an image of the medical record. As noted by Bernie Augustine of the New York Daily News, multiple players reacted negatively to the release of a player’s medical records.

On one hand, the record merely confirmed what had been reported. On the other hand, many saw it as unnecessary, gratuitous, and more than a little over the top.

Even though the HIPAA laws apply only to health-care providers, the mere existence of HIPAA has created a greater expectation among the public that medical records will be kept secret — even if the actual information contained in them is otherwise fair game.

If only one player is reasonably miffed about ESPN’s maneuver, it’s all the more reason to not post the medical record. Whether Schefter wanted to avoid any short-term questions about the accuracy of the report or whether he was just showing off, there was much more to lose than there was to gain by doing it.

The depth of the hole won’t be known until the dust settles on the hospital’s internal investigation regarding how the document was leaked and any litigation arising from the breach of Pierre-Paul’s privacy rights. Some lawyers will simply sue everyone, alleging violations of Florida privacy laws and forcing the hospital and ESPN to battle it out — which could raise the question of whether ESPN would direct Schefter to disclose his source in order to avoid or minimize liability.

Much of how this plays out depends on whether Pierre-Paul decides to push the issue in court. Whether he does that could depend at least in part on feedback he gets from other NFL players regarding whether it makes sense to launch a fight of this nature. Based on the early reactions from several players, Pierre-Paul could find plenty of other NFL players who invoke the wisdom of Doug Llewelyn.

Jim McMahon would have rather played with than for Mike Ditka

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Jim McMahon and Mike Ditka made a pretty good quarterback-coach tandem.

But perhaps their relationship would have been better as quarterback-tight end.

During an interview with Chris Boden on Comcast SportsNet’s “Inside Look” (via the Chicago Sun-Times), the former Bears quarterback suggested his relationship with his boss wasn’t always pleasant.

I would’ve loved to have played with Mike, he was a great football player,” McMahon said. “And had he ever been in my huddle, he would have understood me, I think. We would have gotten along a lot better as players.”

Despite riding one of the best defenses in the history of the game to a Super Bowl title, McMahon also said their predictability when he had the ball kept them from winning more than one.

“I think we just got tired of beating each other up, and that takes its toll after a while,” McMahon said. “Then [Washington coach] Joe Gibbs figured out how to beat us, or beat our defense. Our offense was so predictable. Unless I changed the play, everybody knew what we were going to run. Things just caught up to us.”

Of course, McMahon was the one telling this version of the story, and narrators are often unreliable witnesses to their own flaws. Ditka played it safe offensively in part because McMahon wasn’t always careful with the ball.

Even as he won all 11 of his starts that year, McMahon only completed 56.9 percent of his passes, and had 11 interceptions to go with his 15 touchdowns. So prudence when the ball was in his hands might have been advisable.

But the idea that a rebellious quarterback might clash with a coach who had a big personality as well shouldn’t stand as a surprise, either.