It was late in the afternoon last Tuesday in the Flagstaff Ballroom of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix. A historic National Football League vote was on tap. For the first time, owners would vote on whether to enable coaches to throw replay-challenge flags on pass-interference plays called and not called on the field.
Owners, head coaches and top club officials of the 32 franchises, 100 or so people in all, sat in the room, with the eight-man Competition Committee and commissioner Roger Goodell front and center. In the audience, a few noticed the odd couple together in the middle of the stage. In the center: Goodell, the authoritarian commissioner. Next to Goodell: Saints coach Sean Payton, who has had a rocky relationship with the commissioner, suspended by Goodell for a year over the Bountygate scandal in 2012 and, more recently, not happy with the league’s blithe treatment of an uncalled penalty that might have kept the Saints out of Super Bowl 53.
Now, the vote—31 teams in favor of a rule that would allow replay challenges on pass-interference calls and non-calls for the first time ever, one team against. Forty-eight hours earlier, asked for a show of hands for how many teams favored allowing replays of uncalled interference plays, fewer than 10 hands were raised. And now, a 31-1 vote to approve. Pretty big upset, in other words.
One club official who noticed strange bedfellows Goodell and Payton sitting together also noticed Goodell slap Payton on the leg when the vote came in. We did it! That’s what the slap of camaraderie seemed to signify.
This column is about a significant vote, but it’s also about where the National Football League is right now, a year after the foundation of the league felt tremors from declining TV ratings, a president bullying the league over anthem protests, the Colin Kaepernick case, the smoldering embers of the Goodell-Jerry Jones rift, and the sharp rise in concussions—a waking giant of a problem that, if uncorrected, would threaten the future of the sport.
This year was different. Much different. The owners knew Goodell wanted a rules tweak to cover the egregious no-interference call in the NFC title game. Plus, there was a don’t-worry-be-happy vibe at the Biltmore. The only negative on the NFL landscape was the Robert Kraft/prostitution embarrassment, but that felt like almost a non-sequitur to be dealt with by Goodell. On league matters, there was cooperation, a feeling among owners that if something was so important to the commissioner and the coaches (and replaying interference calls and non-calls certainly was), ownership should be a good collective partner and vote for it.
“Dead on,” said Payton, speaking of the cooperative nature at the meeting. “A lot has changed. This was a really good teamwork meeting.”
One of my first league meetings was in 1989, when Pete Rozelle, worn down by two late-tenure player strikes and endless litigation with Al Davis, unexpectedly resigned as commissioner in Palm Desert, Calif. In the 30 years since, the annual spring meetings, a time of reviewing the good and bad from the previous year and setting the table for the future, have most often featured internecine strife over labor or TV or expansion or replay or player health and safety … something. Often, two or three somethings.
Nine years ago, during the coaches’ annual golf outing at the league meetings, owners passed a rule mandating both teams touch the ball in postseason overtime games, unless the first team with possession scores a touchdown. The coaches were dead-set against it, figuring it added another layer of decision-making that they didn’t want. (Though it has hardly turned out that way; the coin-flip winner almost always takes the ball to start OT.) I remember coaches returning from golf had this attitude of, The owners did WHAT?!
Over the years, that kind of it’s-our-game attitude by owners has been common. But this year, from the start, it was different. This was a kumbaya year. Eight days ago, arriving for the meetings, Giants co-owner and Competition Committee member John Mara told me there wasn’t nearly enough support to replay-review interference not called on the field. I thought there was no chance of the league approving what had been the owners’ great white whale—allowing replay on a subset of plays that didn’t get flagged by officials on the field. Then five things happened, in chronological order:
1. Goodell told the owners stridently Monday that though replaying pass-interference calls and non-calls wasn’t perfect, it was important to fix a problem laid out for all the world to see in the climactic moments of the NFC title game. They needed to pass a rule allowing replay to address interference. Though Goodell’s reputation in the public eye has been badly tarnished in recent years, he still gets high grades as a diplomat among the 32 owners. “Roger felt strongly in favor of being able to put a flag on the field, in response to the NFC Championship Game,” said a club official close to the process. “He was definitely a vital person to all this.”
2. The coaches met as a group Monday and stressed how much they wanted interference addressed in the replay process. One coach in the meeting said: “Technology is too advanced to leave replay alone. All of America sees a huge mistake that we can do nothing about.”
What the coaches really wanted was an eighth official in the upstairs officiating booth, the so-called Sky Judge, but the league was steadfast against that because of the presence already of a replay official at each game, and of league officiating czar Al Riveron conversing with the on-field ref during replay reviews. The Sky Judge would be superfluous, the league believed—plus there’d be a challenge to get 17 Sky Judges ruling with the same standard from crew to crew. Interesting side note: Monday began with a full-league meeting during which international play and players, new marketing plans and gambling preparedness plans were discussed. And so when the coaches’ meeting stretched from its scheduled one-hour length to an hour-and-a-half, then close to two hours, a couple of coaches wanted to hurry things up. Not New England’s Bill Belichick, who had a few pointed words about the time they’d spent on the non-football stuff that morning and told his peers, essentially, We’re not hurrying out of this meeting. This stuff’s too important.The coaches left after two-plus hours, giving their two Competition Committee members, Payton and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, their proxy to push hard for some form of replay on pass-interference.
3. “Let’s hear from everyone who has something to say,” Competition Committee chair Rich McKay said to open a full league meeting Tuesday morning. Dallas coach Jason Garrett, a member of the coaches subcommittee of the Competition Committee (and a Princeton grad), had something to get off his chest. He spoke for about four minutes, and when he was finished, the room gave him a loud ovation. One top club official told me that in more than a decade at these meetings, he’d never heard such a reception for a speech. I found Garrett late Tuesday and asked him what he’d said.
“I talked about the credibility of the game and the focus of the game,” Garrett said. “And what resonated with me after the two Championship Games was this: The four teams playing at the end of January, the best teams in our game, play overtime games. Fantastic football games. And what is America talking about? Officiating.
“The two best teams in the NFC play this unbelievable game. Great coaches, great players. A Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees, and so no one is even talking about the game and all of those elements after the game. They’re talking about one thing: the call that was missed. And so for me, the idea of somehow finding a way within the structure that already exists to be able to rectify that play, that egregious mistake, is paramount. If we all put our heads together, we can solve this situation. As we go forward, we can clean this up so that this isn’t the focal point of everybody at the end of this unbelievable game. It goes to the credibility of the game and the integrity of the game.”
“A pivotal moment,” said this top club official. “I think when people heard it in such a convincing and simplistic way, even those who were really opposed to reviewing plays that hadn’t been flagged started to think we needed to do something about it.”
This club official, by the way, had been opposed to being able to review non-called interference plays. His team—his owner, actually—now was on the fence.
4. The Competition Committee met again at midday Tuesday and settled on the fourth proposal they’d considered on pass interference. The committee was now split, 4-4, on support of “putting a flag on the field,” as everyone called it—allowing coaches to replay-challenge pass-interference both called and not called. Still opposed on the Competition Committee: Dallas’ Stephen Jones, Green Bay’s Mark Murphy, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Denver’s John Elway. The last tweak, rules proposal 6C, had the key element: making pass-interference reviews allowable either after flags or with no flags, with the proviso that in the last two minutes of the first half and the game that the calls be subject to booth review only.
The important element here: Hail Mary plays. Some teams felt if coaches could challenge a Hail Mary on the last play of the first half or game, it would lead to every one being challenged, and coaches pushing for interference to be called the same on Hail Mary plays (when everything but a tackle or egregious shove is overlooked). That was the key change. Murphy and Elway switched to being in favor of 6C. And soon, after more discussion, Jones and Tomlin changed, and now the Competition Committee was 8-0 in favor of 6C … allowing all pass-interference plays, called or not called, to be eligible for review, with all reviews in the last two minutes of a half called only from the replay official upstairs.
5. The vote was anticlimactic. Cincinnati was the only team opposed, with 83-year-old owner Mike Brown, who thinks replay is far too intrusive on the sport, casting the no vote. The meeting to approve the new standard lasted only about 25 minutes.
Fair question to Payton from Sal Paolantonio in a gaggle of reporters afterward: “Think the coaches staged a coup?”
“Not at all,” Payton said. “Anything but. I think that today, this set of owners meetings, forget the specific rule, there were just a lot of great, healthy discussions about our game. Someone asked about our fans specifically in New Orleans. I said, ‘Look, when you’re on this committee, there’s a little bit of a responsibility for the game and football fans in general.’ That’s what this meeting was about.”
Later, to me, Payton said: “Bill Belichick said it best when he talked to the media—it’s an honor to be part of the process. This was not a Saints rule or a Rams rule. It’s an NFL rule. Maybe that play in the championship game was the Titanic, and it led to this moment. But what happened this week was about making the game better. I truly believe we did.”
When Payton left the Flagstaff Ballroom, he picked up all his papers—the rules proposals and his notes—and he organized them neatly, and took them home to New Orleans. For him, those papers are souvenirs from a week he’ll want to remember.
Tougher Gig For Al Riveron
The man who preceded VP of Officiating Al Riveron, Dean Blandino, thinks about the details now. Riveron, I’m sure, is thinking of them too. I requested some time with Riveron on Thursday, and the league declined, preferring to get its new plan together before putting the man in charge of it out front.
“The important thing,” Blandino said, “is establishing a standard. There is already so much pressure in that job [VP of Officiating] anyway. I doubt you’ll see a lot of calls overturned. My feeling is there is so much contact downfield the standard will have to be high to overturn the call, or to give a pass-interference penalty when one wasn’t called on the field.”
That is my biggest question: We know the bar will be very high, as it always has been, for an interference call on a Hail Mary play. There will have to be a clear tackle, or a two-hand shove, for an interference call in the end zone, according to two members of the Competition Committee I spoke to. Good. Hail Marys should require a mugging for a flag.
But what of borderline pass-interference calls or non-calls? In regular replay, to overturn a call requires incontrovertible evidence that the call on the field (or, in the case of some interference calls, the non-call on the field) was wrong. What would be the standard for interference? The same?
As former ref Terry McAulay, now an NBC rules analyst, said Saturday: “What about the Brandin Cooks play?”
Very interesting. With 4:28 left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 53, New England led the Rams 10-3. Jared Goff threw deep down the right sideline for Cooks, who had a step on cornerback Stephon Gilmore, with safety Duron Harmon sprinting over from center field. As the ball fell to earth around the New England five-yard line, Gilmore reached toward Cooks and grabbed his left forearm. As Cooks reached for the ball, Gilmore had his hand on the arm for maybe half a second. As the ball got to Cooks, the Ram receiver appeared to get both hands on it, but he could not make the catch.
In real time, it was hard to notice any sort of early grab or touch by Gilmore. And Cooks did manage to get his left hand in position to help try to make the catch, though the left arm was clearly slightly restricted. The ball fell incomplete.
(Gif via CBSBoston via NFL Game Pass)
On the next snap, Goff threw an interception. For the Rams, that was the game.
Via NFL GamePass, I was able to see the replay of the Super Bowl 53 game telecast Saturday. I watched the Gilmore tug/grab/arm-restriction between 20 and 25 times. On the replay, CBS’ Tony Romo said, “Gilmore grabs his arm just a little bit.”
Jim Nantz said: “Gotta make that catch.”
Romo: “ … Gilmore’s got a little bit of his arm right there.”
From the time Cooks stands up after the contact to the time the next play is snapped, 37 seconds pass. That would be enough time, clearly, for Rams coach Sean McVay to be told in his ear by an upstairs replay analyst to throw the flag—or at least to tell him there might be something there.
That is the kind of play that could torment Riveron and his New York officiating staff next fall. It’s close, the kind of play that, if called, you could understand and support. There’s a restriction, though not a killer restriction. Are these close calls the kinds of game-turning plays you’d want to have reversed?
But the Competition Committee reviewed the Cooks play in the runup to the meeting, and viewed it as a foul that should have been called. So when the league proceeds to define interference in review, it’s likely with that letter-of-the-law direction from the committee in mind. This is something that needs to be studied and resolved by Riveron and the NFL office. In 2017, Riveron got ripped for a series of ticky-tack replay calls. He was better in 2018. But it could be a rocky road in 2019, with interference calls and non-calls added to Riveron’s already crowded plate.
I would understand a reversal there, but I don’t think I would have overturned it.
“I absolutely feel the same way,” McAulay said.
“In my opinion,” Blandino said, “that is a good example of the on-field standard being different than the replay standard. In real time it’s so close the only way to consistently officiate it is to not call the foul, which is what they did. With the ability to slow it down on video you can see the contact is early. This to me is the biggest issue with making these plays reviewable.”
No—the biggest issue is how tortuous and controversial pass interference is as a foul. That’s why I think the standard for overturning a call or non-call on the field has be a high standard. The evidence has to be overwhelming. “To think the two of us can watch the same play and agree on pass interference all the time, that’ll never happen,” Raider coach Jon Gruden said at the meetings. “For us to think we can look at a replay in super, super, super-slo-mo and determine whether it is or it isn’t is unrealistic. I tried to do it in [the ESPN Monday night] booth for nine years.”
I’ve always said that from Labor Day till early February, the most important job in the league belongs to the commissioner. Number two: the vice president of officiating. For Riveron, that job gets a lot tougher in 2019.
Raiders coach Jon Gruden did notice his franchise won the award for best sports transaction at the prestigious MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, for the (previously) reviled deal of all-pro linebacker Khalil Mack to the Bears. The winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Economics, Richard Thaler, loved the deal because he doesn’t love mega-bucks non-quarterbacks, and like to maximize high draft choices. (The deal: Mack and a second-round pick to Chicago for two first-round picks and third- and fifth-round picks.) “I do know we got that,” Gruden said last week. “I think it was the only award we got last year.”
Interesting reaction, further, from Gruden. He’s never backed down from claims that the Raiders couldn’t afford to build a deep roster by paying two players gigantic money. In this case, that would have been, combined, paying Derek Carr and Mack, on average, about $47-million a year. So instead of keeping Mack and paying him, Gruden opted for the cost-controls of five first-round picks over the next two drafts, with the bigger money going to Antonio Brown ($19 million a year, average), Trent Brown ($17 million), Tyrell Williams ($11 million) and Lamarcus Joyner ($10.5 million).
Follow my math here. The 10 key Raiders right now—Carr, the four big free agents this year, and the five first-rounders over the next two drafts, averaging about a $3.5 million per player per year—will be a weight of about $99 million a year over the next three to four seasons. If the Raiders had kept Carr, Mack and wideout Amari Cooper and signed all the market contracts, that would be three players for about $65 million per year, on average.
“If we did come up with the money to make the [Mack] contract happen last year, we wouldn’t have any of these men we’re talking about now,” Gruden said. “We would not have Trent Brown. We would not have Antonio Brown. We wouldn’t have Lamarcus Joyner. We wouldn’t have [linebacker] Vontaze Burfict and we wouldn’t have Tyrell Williams. And we wouldn’t have the three first-rounders that we’re talking about.
“So, you have to consider all of it like the Nobel Prize winner did and digest it for yourself. I’m not gonna sit here and say that I didn’t cry for three days. I wanted to coach Mack and Mack knows it. But that trade allowed these acquisitions that we’re talking about today to even happen.”
It’ll be a fascinating experiment in roster management by Gruden and his new GM, Mike Mayock. But it’s damn hard to find Khalil Macks, even high in drafts.
“It’s time. The fact that their gender is different? Who gives a s—? I think back to the best teachers I ever had. Most of them are female. In football, we’re glorified schoolteachers. You can know all the football in the world, but if you can’t teach it … Why not take a great teacher of any gender and let them help your players? I don’t see it as an issue and I’m looking forward to the day it’s not news.”
—Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians, who added two women to his coaching staff last month. Lori Locust will be assistant defensive line coach and Maral Javadifar assistant strength and conditioning coach. The Bucs are the first team in NFL history to have two full-time female assistant coaches.
“There’s nothing less important in life than the score at halftime.”
—Raiders owner Mark Davis, to Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, on the optimism around the franchise with the trades and the draft choices and free-agent signings made entering the midway point of the team’s offseason.
“We’re excited to play those teams.”
—Saints coach Sean Payton, to Steve Wyche of NFL Network, on the teams (presumably Arizona, Cincinnati and Green Bay) that hired neophyte offensive head coaches this offseason, capitalizing on the early NFL success of hot young offensive coaches like Sean McVay of the Rams, and leaving behind more versatile, well-rounded coaching candidates.
“The fact that we had the number two pick made it more difficult, because they wanted that badly. They wanted two number ones. We weren’t willing to part with that. That’s too valuable of a pick—even for a player of [Beckham’s] magnitude.”
—San Francisco GM John Lynch, to KNBR Radio in San Francisco, on failing to make a deal with the Giants for wideout Odell Beckham Jr., because the team was not willing to include the second overall pick in this year’s draft in a proposed trade with New York.
“Working out, playing sports, chicks.”
—Rob Gronkowski’s listed hobbies in his high school yearbook, as relayed by Jeff Hathhorn, sports director of 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh.
“We were able to make sausage in one day.”
—Competition committee chair Rich McKay, on the hurried compromise that led to the passage of the NFL’s first replay rule covering pass-interference calls.
One of the most decorated punters in NFL history, Shane Lechler, made his retirement official Friday. Former Colt Pat McAfee, the NFL’s punting champ in 2016, on what he learned from the man he calls the greatest punter of all time, Lechler:
“In college, at West Virginia, I basically was a rugby-style punter. That’s where you catch the snap, run to my right, punt it, and hope you get a good roll. It’s basically a rollout punt. The GM of the Colts, Bill Polian, thought I could be a standard NFL punter—he said I was athletic enough to figure it out—and so I worked at that. At the start of my second year, 2010, I got an iPad, and I started studying Shane. He was the best. [Lechler had led the league in average punting for five of the previous seven season.] I asked for film of him, and I studied every one of his punts. Every week, that’s the first thing I’d want to see.
“His form and technique were pitch-perfect every single time. The ability to be that great for that long, 18 years, is not just a physical gift. You’ve got to work at it. So consistent. Great every year. Never hurt. In this game, it’s the work you do when no one is watching—the cerebral work too. You could tell how much of that Shane did.
“He was a bomb-hitter. He was Big Papi. He was Babe Ruth. I heard he liked to drink beer, too, and I liked that. I figured, ‘This is probably the guy I should try to be.’ It was like year four, and it clicked for me. Like a pitcher finding a pitch. I’d see him before games when he got to Houston [in 2013], and I told him how I’d studied him. His film, really, was an asset I could craft my career out of. Him and Thomas Morstead—they’re the two guys I ended up learning the most from.
“Late in his career, Shane told me one time in warmups, ‘It’s your league now. I’m old now.’ Just a throwaway comment for him, but for me it was huge. It’s something I never forgot. Without him, I don’t know where my career would have been.”
I believe Shane Lechler is a Hall of Fame player, and not just because his 47.6-yard average over 18 seasons is the best yards-per-punt average in NFL history. What always impressed me about Lechler was his incredible consistency. To illustrate that, compare the six seasons in his twenties to his 10 seasons in his thirties to his two seasons in his forties.
• Lechler’s punting average in his twenties: 45.78 yards per punt.
• Lechler’s punting average in his thirties: 48.31.
• Lechler’s punting average in his forties: 48.35.
I liked Dallas’ trade for edge rusher Robert Quinn of the Dolphins last week … because of the price (a sixth-round pick in 2020), because of Quinn’s age (28), and because of his relative NFL production.
There are nine active edge rushers between 70 and 110 on the NFL’s all-time sack list, per Pro Football Reference. Where Quinn ranks against his peers in career sacks per game:
Al Michaels, 74, says he has never knowingly eaten a vegetable.
Michaels, who looks quite healthy for a man whose palate repels broccoli, simply finds vegetables reprehensible and totally unappetizing.
I saw him in the lobby of the Arizona Biltmore at the NFL Meetings, and we discussed this.
“I’ve just come from my VA meeting,” Michaels said. “Vegetables Anonymous.”
How long was Shane Lechler around?
He punted nine times in the Tuck Rule game.
In Lechler’s first NFL game, the only touchdown of the day came on a Rich Gannon-to-Andre Rison pass. Gannon is 53 today, Rison 52.
Redeye home from the meetings late Tuesday night. Connection. Phoenix to Minneapolis, off the plane about a 5:20 a.m. Central Time, with a 90-minute layover before Minneapolis to LaGuardia. Time to kill. Coffee to purchase. I spy a Starbucks, and I follow a 30-something man, wife and four daughters into the long line. The man turned around after a few seconds in line.
“Hey Peter,” he said. “Chad Greenway.”
Whoa! The Greenways—Chad and Jenni, and kids Maddyn, Beckett, Blakeley and Carsyn, from fifth-grade down to 2 years old—were on the way to Mexico for spring break. The kids were (politely) bouncing off the walls, so excited about going someplace warm for a while.
I asked him what he was doing, and he said he’d gotten into the vodka business. Gray Duck vodka, with all Minnesota ingredients.
I did manage to procure a Chad Greenway Factoid of the Week. He’s a South Dakotan, and his grandmother is still alive there. She’s 102. As a girl, her family traveled by covered wagon.
To comment on the column, or to say anything about anything, you can reach me by email.
Kyler and the Cards. From Bryce, of Meza, Ariz.: “A lot of verified people on Twitter have started saying they know 100 percent that the Cardinals are drafting Kyler Murray. Am I crazy for questioning these guarantees four weeks before the draft?”
No. You should question them, unless one of the verified accounts belongs to @SteveKeim. The Cards’ GM has the final call on the pick. I do not doubt that Arizona will pick Murray, but I doubt the final call has been made this morning, 24 days before the pick has to be brought to the stage in Nashville to start round one.
On dissolving the All-Star crews. From Susan H.: “As at least one step in remedying the Saints/Rams no call, will the NFL ditch the all-star crew usage at the playoffs and move to keeping intact crews that know each other and communicate well?
Said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s EVP of football operations: “We’ve heard it, even from the officials. That is something we can address.” What I heard in Phoenix, Susan, is that the All-Star crews will be eliminated. The league has to figure out how best to do it.
Excellent question, Pat. From Pat A.: “How would the new interference rule play out on that Golden Tate catch in the Monday night football game between Seattle and Green Bay?”
So … there were two questions on that play. Was there pass interference when Tate, a member of the Seahawks then, was jockeying for position and clearly pushed off on a Green Bay defender to get better position as the ball came down? Was there clear evidence against Green Bay defensive back M.D. Jennings? Both Dean Blandino and Terry McAulay told me over the weekend they thought that, even though interference rules on Hail Mary plays are quite liberal, the pushoff by Tate should have been a foul. And I thought possession should have gone to Jennings, but that part of the play likely could not have been overturned because of the uncertainty.
1. I think this Robert Kraft battle over his prostitution charge—and all the various legalese tributaries that go along with it—makes zero sense to me. I do not understand apologizing for something and then fighting to prove innocence, or whatever Kraft is trying to prove, in the same case … all the while keeping his name in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Admittedly, I haven’t been in his shoes, either in wealth or status or this case. But this could have gone away quickly if he’d simply said a few more things when he apologized recently:
a. I’m guilty, and I will not fight the charges.
b. I’ll do whatever the legal system requires.
c. Though I had no idea and still don’t if there was any use of human trafficking in this place I frequented, I’ll contribute X dollars to fight the scourge of human trafficking, and I’ll meet with local and national experts to do what I can to stop human trafficking in the United States.
d. Though I believe my history as an NFL advocate and cornerstone should be considered, I’ll take my punishment from the NFL without complaint.
2. I think there’s no chance of any of that happening, but I still think it’s the best idea. Take your medicine. Get the story out of the headlines. What he’s gaining by this—other than a fight that may be futile to keep the video of the incidents from ever seeing the light of day—I have no idea.
3. I think if I was recruiting coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (there is no such staff position, but maybe there should be), I’d cut a highlight reel of what Bruce Arians said at the league meetings and play for prospective free agents still out there … and for draftees. His best line: “We’re going to win, and we’re going to win now. Everybody is always riding the fence. Hey, jump in the pool. It’s gonna be all right.”
4. I think it’s good to see Jason Witten so excited about his return to the Cowboys, and good for him that he really still wants to play. “When Jerry Jones presented me the opportunity to come back, I was extremely excited … It was just something tugging on me inside to say that maybe there’s something still left to go out there and go after that championship,” he said Saturday night. But it’s hard to believe (bordering on impossible to believe) that he’d be doing it had he been a B to B-plus analyst as an ESPN rookie.
5. I think Jordan Howard (24 years old, 3,370 rushing yards in three Chicago seasons, fully healthy) fetching only a 2020 sixth-round pick in trade Philadelphia tells you everything you need to know about the value of running backs in today’s game. Particularly running backs who don’t make defenders miss. Howard’s a nice player who’s averaged 4.1 and 3.7 yards per carry in the last two seasons.
6. I think there was lots of guessing on the Sunday Night Football opener in Phoenix, with the league making it official that Green Bay and Chicago would open the season on Thursday night, Sept. 5. New England will host Sunday night. Guessing:
a. I doubt the Patriots’ foe will be Cleveland. The Browns are the sexiest team of the offseason, of course. But my experience as a schedule-watcher is that the league might want to save Browns-Pats for a little later in the season, while giving the Browns a national Sunday-nighter at home (Steelers at Browns?) early in the season to capitalize on local fervor.
b. I doubt the Patriots’ foe will be Kansas City. Two years in a row the Chiefs have played in prime time at New England on NBC; a third is unlikely, though not impossible. The other networks will be clamoring for Brady-Mahomes after NBC got the first Brady-Mahomes match in 2018.
c. Jets? Not impossible, with Le’Veon Bell providing some glitz. But there’s no guarantee the Jets will be good, so I’m iffy on that one.
d. Steelers? Could be. No reason not to, especially since CBS has had the last two meetings of the teams on doubleheader Sundays. Also could be a big Thursday-nighter for FOX.
e. Cowboys? That’d be my guess. Pretty good team, pretty good attraction. A good headliner for the first Sunday of the season, and ratings gold because of Dallas, but hardly one of the great games of the season.
7. I think my over-under on Cleveland in prime time this year is four. A Sunday night, a Thursday night, a Monday night, and then a second one on either Monday or Thursday. I use the 2018 Niners as my template. They had four when the schedule was invented in April. Sexy young quarterback, exciting offense, rising team. The Niners had two Mondays, a Thursday and a Sunday, though the Sunday game got scrubbed in flex scheduling after Jimmy Garoppolo got hurt.
8. I think I hope Jordy Nelson gets his due in Packer history. Think of his average year in his prime, years four through eight of his Packer career: 79.4 catches, 1,219.6 yards, 11.4 touchdown catches. He played 16 games in four of those five seasons. He’ll be missed. He already is missed.
9. I think the AAF is making quite a bit of news, and for the wrong reasons. The only way a spring football league is going to work is to open its doors for business and keep them open for a minimum of three years. Staying power is the key. Period. To be rumored to be dying in the first month and at the end of the second month … who would have faith in the league now?
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Best Story I’ve Read By a Football Writer This Year: Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star: The mobster in our midst.
b. I recommend several stories to you every week in this space. I cannot recommend one higher than Keefer, who covers the Colts, finding a son of a major, major New York mobster living in hiding in central Indiana after very nearly ruining his life.
c. John Franzese Jr. had to live in hiding because he did the worst things someone in a Mafia family can do: He wore a wire to get the goods on his father and his mob friend, and then he testified in open court against his father, sending him back to prison in his nineties. There are things you don’t do in the mob, and then there is what John Franzese Jr. did to his father.
d. Then he got an alias, moved to Indiana in hiding, and now Keefer tells you the whole story. Gripping.
e. There is a journalism component to this. For all journalism students and writers, I strongly recommend this piece for another reason: the way Keefer tells the story. He takes you to the edge of a cliff in the first part of the story, then leaves you hanging till the end to find out exactly what happens in the father-son part of the story.
f. Zak Keefer could write a thousand stories on the Colts beat. He’ll never write one like this. Congrats to him. It’s wonderful, and wonderfully crafted too.
g. TV Story of the Week: the CBS Evening News story on the late Army Staff Sergeant, Travis Atkins.
h. President Trump gave the Atkins family the Medal of Honor, and my gosh, if anyone deserves such an honor, it’s Atkins.
i. His dad: “The real reward is what your men think of you.”
j. RIP Joe Bellino, the 1960 Heisman Trophy winner from Navy, who was the idol of a lot of American boys in the late fifties and early sixties—including an Annapolis boy who was 8 when Bellino won the Heisman, Bill Belichick.
k. Baseball Story of the Week: by Laura Albanese of Newsday, a profile of Yankees radio announcer Suzyn Waldman.
l. Waldman: “I’m not accepted, I’m tolerated.” Man, that is tough.
m. Interesting story on how Katie Sowers, the 49ers’ offensive assistant, got her start as an NFL assistant, in an interview with Audie Cornish of NPR.
n. Coffeenerdness: Best coffee I had all week: a Cortado (half steamed milk, half espresso) at East One Bkln in the pleasant walking neighborhood of Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn. Hard to make espresso any better than that. And the artistry of the fern on top of the drink—exquisite.
o. Beernerdness: Speaking of exquisite, I hadn’t had a glass of Moretti on tap in a very long time till Friday night in lower Manhattan. I am very much looking forward to the heat of summer, and returning to the same place, and sitting outside, and having three.
p. Doing a great job on the NCAA tournament, Gene Steratore.
q. Bryce Harper’s first home run as a Phil traveled 465 feet in Citizens Bank Park. My Lord.
r. I see Rick Reilly’s been busy.
s. Ahead the next three Mondays in this column: draft, draft and more draft, culminating in my one and only mock draft on April 22. Prepare to be blown away by its accuracy.
in Cleveland today. Fainting
ensues by the Lake.