THIS IS NOT A MOCK DRAFT.
Did I mention that this isn’t a mock draft?
With the draft 17 days away, most teams will spend this week—or the next two weeks—finalizing their draft boards. One team’s GM told me over the weekend his team is doing what I’m sure others are doing as well: This team’s scouts, coaches and top personnel officials will gather in the draft room at their facility today and, position by position over the next week or so, will finalize grades of each player on the board and have the final grades of all players by the middle or end of next week. The board will be stacked, 1 through the final graded player, maybe 350 in all. The players with character issues—a positive drug test or an arrest—will have a red dot next to their names on the board. Injury risks will have a different-colored dot. Then the team will begin to go over scenarios: How many of our top players will have to be off the board for us to consider trading down? Which teams do we plant seeds with about trading down or up? Then assistant coaches and scouts will call players likely to be low-rounders or undrafted, and begin to prioritize a list of the post-seventh-round players they will chase after day three of the draft. And the GM and his assistants will forage for draft info in the final days.
What follows is my attempt to help. I’ll do my annual mock draft two weeks from today, when, I hope, I’ll know a little bit more than 1. ARIZONA: KYLER MURRAY, QB, OKLAHOMA. I’m not going to predict what will happen in the first round here. Rather, with some education gleaned from calls to those who know in the last few days, I’m going to tell you what I think each team should do when the first round of the NFL’s 84th draft kicks off in Nashville on April 25.
“This is a fascinating draft,” said Gil Brandt—who has worked 62 of them as a scout, personnel director and analyst—over the weekend. “It’s one of the most interesting drafts I’ve seen, because there is no chalk. I think we’ll have lot of the unknown right up to draft day.”
The unknown is important to the league this year, because a third network, ABC, will do the draft live. Just like ABC wouldn’t want the result of “The Bachelor” to surface two weeks before the climax of the show, ABC certainly won’t want leakage on Arizona’s plans for the top pick (and for presumed jettisoned quarterback Josh Rosen) before 8 p.m. ET on April 25. We’ll see whether the Cards, and coach Kliff “Done Deal” Kingsbury, can keep a lid on their plans. They’ll risk the wrath of Roger Goodell if they leak.
The Lead: Round 1
One to 32, here’s my best guess what teams from Tempe to Foxboro are thinking—and who they should be targeting in the first round.
1. Arizona: Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma. I wouldn’t even consider offers, unless they’re ridiculously excessive. Picking Murray here just makes too much sense, with Kingsbury in love with him. GM Steve Keim has to figure, If I hired this offensive innovator as coach, and he wants Murray badly, why would we not give him what he wants? Even with a devalued Rosen going east (Washington and the Giants lead in the clubhouse, as I explain below), this is a move Arizona has to make.
2. San Francisco: Nick Bosa, edge rusher, Ohio State. Big pressure on the Niners to finally draft a pressure player on the line, after taking defensive linemen with their top picks in 2015, 2016 and 2017, and hitting big only on DeForest Buckner in ’16. Buckner, in 2018, was the first Niner to have a double-digit sack season in six years. Bosa’s been injured seriously in two of his last four football seasons, so he doesn’t come without risk. But he’s the right pick here.
3. New York Jets: Trade down. Multiple teams lust after Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, and if I had to bet, I’d put my money on GM Mike Maccagnan picking him here. He’s the cleanest prospect in this draft, and I think if the Jets auction the pick, they’d get three premier picks in return. I’d rather have the three picks—maybe two in the top 45 this year and another high pick next year—to get Sam Darnold a top receiver or tight end plus a building-block offensive lineman (Kansas State’s Dalton Risner?), at least, this year.
4. Oakland: Josh Allen, edge rusher, Kentucky. Jon Gruden picks Khalil Mack II, he hopes, and pays 30 cents on the Mack dollar for him. The best two edge players in the draft this year should be gone in the top four.
5. Tampa Bay: Trade down. That’s a strength of GM Jason Licht, who has done it two of the last three years. And because they don’t seem inclined to sign defensive tackle Gerald McCoy long-term (the Bucs have cap issues), and they could trade him, and they need multiple picks at reasonable prices. If they could deal down to a QB-craving team (Miami at 13?), Houston’s Ed Oliver or Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell could buttress a needy defensive front.
6. New York Giants: Drew Lock, QB, Missouri. Doubt GM Dave Gettleman will do this, or take any quarterback here. (In fact, I keep hearing Dwayne Haskins is sinking, and may be the fourth passer picked in this draft.) Gettleman seems to have more of a mind to fix his lines in this draft. But a franchise passer trumps all. Lock or Haskins should be the pick here—unless the Giants think it’s a lock that Lock will be there at 17.
7. Jacksonville: Jawaan Taylor, T, Florida. “I’ll be shocked if the Jaguars don’t go tackle here,” said one respected GM. Seems like Taylor is the most prepared to be a first-year starter, and could be plug-and-play at right tackle over Will Richardson, last year’s fourth-round pick.
8. Detroit: T.J. Hockenson, TE, Iowa. Hmmm. Even after raiding Jesse James from the Steelers in free agency? Yes. Hockenson’s one the best blocking/receiving tight ends—and he’s passionate about the game—to come out of college football in years. Time for Matthew Stafford to have some easy completions.
9. Buffalo: Jonah Williams, T, Alabama. Odd. Bills haven’t taken a tackle in the last four drafts, and the last one they took high in a draft with an Alabama guy, the failed Cyrus Kouandjio, five years ago in round two. But they band-aided the wideout need in free agency (John Brown, Cole Beasley), and long-term tackle is still a major need position.
10. Denver: Devin White, LB, LSU. Vic Fangio froths at putting the best linebacker and a sure, physical tackler between Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Keep hearing Denver and a quarterback here, but it’s not what I’d do this year, this high.
11. Cincinnati: Multiple choice. I’d love to know what new coach Zac Taylor really thinks of Andy Dalton, and whether he believes one of these passers this year is a better option. Assuming Taylor is okay with Dalton, there’s a desperate need at tackle. I’d go Cody Ford, the Oklahoma tackle. Too high for him, but the need is acute.
12. Green Bay: D.K. Metcalf, WR, Mississippi. Pack should be able to scotch-tape tight end in 2019 with Jimmy Graham/Marcedes Lewis combo platter, so I’d go with a monster receiver Aaron Rodgers might actually learn to trust opposite Davante Adams. This is not the Green Bay way—the Pack traditionally waits to get a wideout down the line. Metcalf could break that mold.
13. Miami: Quarterback or edge rusher. Maybe new offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea and GM Chris Grier have fallen in love with one of the passers. I’d lean that way if I were the Dolphins. But pass-rush is a major need, so I could see Montez Sweat or Brian Burns too. Either would be good here.
14. Atlanta: Ed Oliver, DT, Houston. Pair Oliver with Grady Jarrett, and Dan Quinn, finally, could have the kind of interior terrorism he’s yearned for since arriving in Atlanta. I understand they are mirror players. I also understand how difficult it would be for an interior offensive line to block these two.
15. Washington: Tackle or edge rusher or corner. Imagine being midway through the first round and having your pick of the corner market. Washington could have that, but the corner market is deeper than tackle, and thus a decent corner could be had on day two. If Dillard or Ford is on the board, I’d pick either. Keep in mind that Washington’s my favorite in the clubhouse to deal for Josh Rosen if the Arizona QB is traded.
16. Carolina: Montez Sweat, edge rusher, Mississippi State. The Usain Bolt of defensive linemen could well be gone by now, but he could drop a bit because of inconsistent college play, his minor heart condition, and the fact he’s a little stiff as a rusher. But post-Julius Peppers, Carolina should run this card to the podium in Nashville if Sweat is there midway through the round.
17. New York Giants: Depends on the first pick. If the Giants didn’t take a quarterback at six and Drew Lock is here, he’s the guy. If so, best available offensive or defensive lineman, such as guard/center Garrett Bradbury, who could compete to play opening day at a need position, center.
18. Minnesota: One of a number of offensive linemen, like Dalton Risner, T, Kansas State, or Erik McCoy, C, Texas A&M. If they don’t take the best available protector, I’ll be stunned. The line’s a major need. It got coordinator John DeFilippo fired last year.
19. Tennessee: Irv Smith Jr., TE, Alabama. Marcus Mariota needs an intermediate friend, and Delanie Walker, coming off an injury, will be 35 in August. Smith’s an opening-day contributor.
20. Pittsburgh: Devin Bush, LB, Michigan. When the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier to a spinal injury 16 months ago, they lost the heart of the defense. Bush isn’t Shazier, but he’d give Mike Tomlin the closest thing to Shazier they’ve had.
21. Seattle: Trade down. If the Seahawks hold the pick, it should be for a year-one starter on the offensive line like Bradbury, the center-guard. As it stands … Team most likely to trade down in round one: Seattle. Team with most urgency to trade down in round one: Seattle. GM John Schneider would rather trade on draft day than breathe, and he has but two picks in the top 120: this one and the 84th overall. Over-under on Schneider’s trade-downs on draft weekend: four.
22. Baltimore: Trade down. In Eric DeCosta’s first draft as GM, the safe thing to do—with just two picks in the top 100—is what is in DeCosta’s blood: Trade. If not, and if an explosive wideout like D.K. Metcalf is gone, the smart pick here would be a 10-year center—Erik McCoy of Texas A&M.
23. Houston: The best tackle. I don’t care who it is. The Texans have to get two good tackles in this draft. Andre Dillard, Cody Ford, Dalton Risner … one should still be here. If not, GM Brian Gaine’s got to trade down for value.
24. Oakland: Josh Jacobs, RB, Alabama. It’s a great story, Marshawn Lynch being the billboard for his hometown Raiders. Rebel, rebel. Guess how many carries Lynch has had in the last four NFL seasons? It’s 408. Guess who turns 33 two weeks from today? Time marches on, and a guy who’s averaged 102 carries a year in the last four and who is ancient by running-back standards is maybe a complementary player this year. Raiders need a stud back, and I hear they love Jacobs.
25. Philadelphia: Marquise Brown, WR, Oklahoma. Incredible how similar picks 24 and 25 are. Eagles trading for DeSean Jackson, who will be 33 this year, and he starts a second act in Philly, like Lynch has done in Oakland. Jackson is the same height (5-10) and six pounds heavier at 175 than Brown, who should become the long-term deep threat for Carson Wentz.
26. Indianapolis: Best available front-seven player. Brian Burns still there? Good; he can learn from Justin Houston. Clelin Ferrell? Likely gone. Christian Wilkins? Excellent choice—a 315-pound space-eater who could free Darius Leonard to make even more plays in 2019.
27. Oakland: Nasir Adderley, S, Delaware, or Jerry Tillery, DT, Notre Dame. I tend to think Adderley, because he’s a versatile player (three-year CB, one-year safety) who could fill the hole at safety next to Karl Joseph or plug at corner or nickel as well. Good weapon for defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. The luxury of extra picks might make defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons tempting. He’d have been a top 10 pick were it not for his torn ACL in February.
28. Los Angeles Chargers: Johnathan Abram, S, Mississippi State. Derwin James and Abram in the back end for the next eight years? Sign me up for that.
29. Kansas City: Rashan Gary, edge rusher, Michigan, or best edge player available. Chiefs have gotten rid of their best three pass-rushers in the last 13 months—Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Dee Ford. If there’s one left in the round who can walk, chew gum, and get around tackles at the same time, GM Brett Veach will nab him.
30. Green Bay: Noah Fant, TE, Iowa, or best available offensive lineman. Keep hearing Fant was a distant second to Hockenson among the football people at Iowa, so that could give the Packers pause. They need a long-term tight end, and this could be a good spot to get one.
31. Los Angeles Rams: Best available offensive lineman … Chris Lindstrom, G, Boston College, or Elgton Jenkins, C, Mississippi State. The Rams have major long-term issues on their offensive line. The 2018 starters from center to left tackle—John Sullivan, Rodger Saffold and Andrew Whitworth—will likely all be gone by opening day 2020. Reinforcements must come.
32. New England: Best corner, edge player or receiver. I’d take Greedy Williams, the corner from LSU. Serious top 10 prospect in October, and nothing happened to knock him down other than the fact that so many other corners are close to him in ability. Pats can dip into deep wideout/tight end market at 56, 64 or 73 overall, or with a trade. The tight end who might fit well is Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger—if the Patriots think he can block well enough in their scheme. He can stretch a defense.
The one trend I hear, talking to people around the league, backs up what Gil Brandt said at the top of this column: There is no chalk. Teams will understand the strength at edge rusher is very early, the strength at tackle is from 7 to 30, the strength at cornerback and receiver is 25 to 70, the strength at quarterback after Kyler Murray is in the eye of the beholder, and so that will affect when teams with major needs at those spots pick their guys.
I can see once-beloved players like tight Noah Fant, wide receiver A.J. Brown, defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons, corners Byron Murphy and DeAndre Baker, and defensive end Jachai Polite fall to the second round. I hear Dwayne Haskins could plummet, but that could be late-prep lying too.
It’s going to be fun. I say this every year: The NFL does a good job of building the suspense leading into the draft, and the NFL does a bad job helping teams prepare for the season. There are 115 days between the last day of the regular season and the first day of the draft. There are 90 days between the end of the draft and the start of most teams’ training camps. The NFL could easily cut out three to four weeks of draft prep (which is draft over-prep) and give teams more time with their draft choices, helping their readiness for the season. But you know why the league does this. It’s all about the hype machine. With ABC, ESPN and NFL Network doing the draft live this year, networks are paying for programming. Well-hyped programming, with some mystique. And that is what they shall get.
NFL Zebra Problem10
The last time the NFL’s contract with officials was up for negotiation, in 2012, you might remember some of the debacle calls for the first three weeks of the NFL season, when replacement officials were often derided for some lousy calls. The next contract couldn’t come at a worse time for the league. The league’s agreement with the officials union expires next March, so this is the last year—and a very big one—for this contract. But the expiration of the deal could force the NFL to do something it should have done before the current referee problems reared its head in the past 14 months: consider making all referees full-time officials, and compensating them with richer, multi-year deals to compete with the TV networks hiring them away from the league.
Last week, NFL referee John Parry retired to take a job at ESPN, which, by the way, is cycling through former NFL refs for studio and Monday night game work at an alarming pace. (2017: Gerry Austin; 2018: Jeff Triplette; 2019: Parry.)
There are 17 referees in the NFL, heading 17 officiating crews. And the turnover among the officials is alarming:
• In the last 13 months, seven of the league’s 17 refs have walked away. Last year, four refs (Ed Hochuli, Terry McAulay, Gene Steratore, Jeff Triplette) retired. This year, three more (Walt Coleman, Pete Morelli, Parry) have stepped down.
• The referees who get the annual Super Bowl assignment are deemed the best in the league over the course of that season. The refs in 10 of the last 16 Super Bowls have left the field. If they’d all aged out, that would be one thing. But the referees in six of those games (McAulay did three Super Bowls, Parry two and Steratore one) all left the game in their fifties, a decade considered to be prime time for refereeing. Traditionally, the retirement age for good officials is somewhere in their mid-sixties.
• Two more referees, Tony Corrente and Walt Anderson, are both over 66, and likely have one or two years remaining on the field.
So if the NFL has to replace eight or nine of 17 refs over three seasons, at a time when officiating is under more scrutiny than ever, now you see why the game is on a very slippery slope entering 2019. The new replay rules covering pass interference calls, which is a good idea all in all, will take significant managing and adjusting. Add that to the menu of demanding calls already, and add the pressurized focus on officials today, and then add seven neophyte referees over two seasons heading crews, and you see the potential for problems in officiating in the coming year or so. Major problems.
Network TV is part of the issue. FOX has taken two respected men, Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino who ran the NFL officiating department for 13 of the last 18 NFL seasons, and made them officiating analysts on TV. ESPN plucked Triplette and Parry off the field in successive years. In 2018, NBC hired McAulay and CBS hired Steratore.
Part of the reason is money. Networks will pay more than the NFL. Examining the estimate of what a 20-year NFL official who has worked his way up to referee can make in a football season, per an NFL source:
Game salaries: $190,000.
Referee stipend (given to each of the 17 referees/crew chiefs): $16,500.
Playoff share (given to all non-rookie officials): $25,000
Off-season pay (NFL camp visits, officiating meetings): $23,100 (rough estimate)
Total NFL pay: $254,600.
(Officials who work post-season games get $14,250 for working the Super Bowl and $8,250 per game for all other playoff games.)
The off-season pay is tricky, because officials get $2,100 per days when at ref clinics run by the league, or when they work NFL mini-camps or training-camp practices. I used 11 days of off-season work as a rough estimate.
So what would happen if the NFL began offering referees three-year, $1.5-million contracts to work full-time for the league? And when I say full-time, I mean officials would still be able to do side jobs away from the NFL, just as long as they devoted the requisite full-time hours to the league job. I think that’s the figure that would begin to make the Steratores and Parrys and McAulays have second thoughts about jumping to TV. Money’s not the only issue, though. Officials I’ve spoken with in the last couple of years admit the pressure and scrutiny have ratcheted up. Some don’t like current VP of Officiating Al Riveron—though, to be fair, Riveron’s got one of the toughest jobs in the game and simply can’t please everyone. And it’s a less-intense gig, obviously, to sit in a studio or broadcast booth while the games are going on and analyze plays in slow motion—instead of in real time, with coaches and players screaming at them.
There’s no easy answer to this. But the league can’t afford to keep losing quality officials, and smart and plain-spoken referees and respected crew leaders like Clete Blakeman, Jerome Boger and Bill Vinovich could be next at the TV negotiating table. The NFL often tries to problem-solve by throwing money at issues. Seems to me that money, and guaranteed contracts, would be a good place to start to stop the flood of referees away from the game.
The Rosen Market
Canvassing the league in recent days, I found two teams as favorites to acquire quarterback Josh Rosen, the 10th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, if Arizona chooses to draft Kyler Murray and trade Rosen. I believe if this does happen, Washington is in the best position to do the deal. It could come down to whether Washington is willing to give a second-round pick instead of the third-rounder that obviously it would prefer to trade for Rosen.
Where I think it’s most likely Rosen could go:
1. Washington—Draft picks in top 100: 15, 46, 76, 96. Rosen would be an excellent scheme fit in the offense of coach Jay Gruden and offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. Gruden liked Rosen coming out of UCLA, as did O’Connell. This is a heavy play-action team that likes to throw from the pocket—both strengths of Rosen—and also likes throwing to the tight end. That’s up Rosen’s alley. Seems like the best match of need and availability. Interesting thing about potential compensation. I doubt the Cardinals will have an offer of a 2019 top-50 pick for Rosen; so close to the draft, teams hate parting with high picks. Mike Lombardi, former front-office exec with several teams, told me the other day that first-round picks are like new cars—once you drive one off the lot and own it even for a short time, it’s not worth nearly what it was when you bought it. That’s why I think Washington could try to hold out and pay Arizona the 76th overall pick instead of the 46th.
2. New York Giants—Draft picks in top 100: 6, 17, 37, 95. Unlikely that GM Dave Gettleman will give the 37th pick for Rosen, in part because of value and in part because the Giants really aren’t sure if all the noise about Rosen being difficult has any merit. But the Giants are an option because coach Pat Shurmur is a play-action devotee and likes his quarterback to throw with timing and rhythm. That’s Rosen’s game. Having Eli Manning for one more season would allow Rosen to learn behind a great preparer and very smart player. So how can the Giants make a deal like this, with no pick between early in the second round and very late in the third round? (I’d be very surprised if Arizona would consider Rosen for the 95th pick.) Well, the Giants could offer a second-round pick in 2020, or try to deal the 17th overall pick in some package that would include high second and third-round picks. But dealing for Rosen could allow the Giants to use three picks in the top 40 this year to do what Gettleman really wants to do: continue to build both lines while addressing the post-Eli QB life.
3. Denver—Draft picks in the top 100: 10, 41, 71. Unlikely. But because the Broncos will take a young quarterback this year or next, you can’t eliminate them from consideration.
4. Miami—Draft picks in the top 100: 13, 48, 78. The Dolphins quarterback plans are shrouded in secrecy; Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea have learned well from Bill Belichick. But I’m told the only way the Dolphins go for any quarterback is if they’re convinced that he’s going to be the answer for the next 10 years. Hard to imagine feeling that after watching Rosen last year—admittedly under constant duress behind a bad offensive line in Arizona.
I’d eliminate New England; just don’t sense the interest there. I’d all but eliminate the Chargers; Philip Rivers seems primed to play at least two more years, and they just gave Tyrod Taylor $6 million guaranteed over the next two years.
Washington makes the most sense. We’ll see if the former NFC East partners can make this happen.
On DeMarcus Lawrence20
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a contract that makes as much sense as the five-year, $105-million deal pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence signed with Dallas on Friday. I assumed, as most people did, that Lawrence would play on the franchise tag for the second straight year after I saw a pessimistic David Canter, Lawrence’s agent, at the combine; a deal seemed miles away. It was. But then Canter suggested to Lawrence last week that they drop their six-year proposal down to a more team-friendly five, and advised Lawrence to speak to Dallas president and negotiator Stephen Jones. That call finally happened Thursday.
Sometimes, it’s good for a team to hear from an important player during negotiations; too often the two parties don’t speak to each other. In this case, it really helped. Lawrence told Jones, in effect, I’ve done everything I could do for the Cowboys. I’ve played hurt, played on a one-year contract. I love this organization. I love everything your family has done for me. I want to retire a Cowboy. I really want to make this happen.
In the next 28 hours, Dallas got to an average of $21 million a year ($2 million ahead of Von Miller, $1.5 million behind Aaron Donald, $2.5 million behind Khalil Mack), and though $48 million is fully guaranteed (with another $17 million guaranteed in year three if he’s on the roster in March 2020, which is highly likely), nothing beyond year three is guaranteed. Lawrence, with 25 sacks over the last two years, is a key leader of the Dallas D, and likely will play beyond three years there. But nothing beyond age 30 is a lock in the NFL.
Why both sides won:
• The Lawrence side: Pretty simple. Lawrence will go in for labrum surgery this week, and could be out for four to six months. He’s also had foot surgery, thumb surgery, two back surgeries and a four-game suspension. So to have a higher percentage of his deal than Mack or Donald or Miller fully guaranteed is very good, under the circumstances. He also will pay no state income tax in Texas. Mack will pay 4.95 percent state income tax in Illinois.
• The Cowboys side: Lawrence is a foundation player who has missed just one game in the last two years. He’s a perfect edge player in the Dallas defense, quick and physical, and to assign a cap-space average of about 10 percent to one of the most important positions on the field is a deal Dallas was willing to make, rather than go year to year and risk a bitter player being a distraction. And now the Cowboys have the core of a front seven for the next three years—Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch—that they believe is competitive with any front seven in the NFC.
Next week, I’ll delve into the Russell Wilson situation a bit.
Quotes of the Week
“Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It’s always the [man] who is the stronger one. And when these girls are coming out, who are they looking up to to tell them that is not the way it has to be? And where better to do that than in sports? All these millions of girls who play sports across the country … wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them how women lead?”
—Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw, at the women’s Final Four.
Tremendous. Just tremendous. Here’s how she continued that thought:
“Right now, less than 5 percent of women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. When you look at men’s basketball, and 99 percent of the jobs go to men, why shouldn’t 100, or 99 percent of jobs in women’s basketball go to women? Maybe it’s because 10 percent of athletic directors are women in NCAA Division I.
“People hire people who look like them. And that’s the problem.”
“I’m not saying I’m necessarily morally for betting, but we need to have that opportunity to provide [the] amenity for our fans. And we should be the ones to be able to have that opportunity, because it’s our game.”
—Bills co-owner Kim Pegula, to Tim O’Shei of the Buffalo News, on the team’s desire to explore have sports betting inside their stadium.
“Colleen from New York. First time, long time.”
—Colleen McMahon, the federal judge who sentenced popular New York sports-talk host Craig Carton to three-and-a-half years in prison on Friday, beginning her sentencing decision with a classic talk-show refrain in federal court.
“While we enthusiastically support tackle football for older age groups, we are putting a huge emphasis on flag football for young girls and boys.”
—Randy Ambrosie, the commissioner of the Canadian Football League, on the future of youth football in Canada, in a topical story by Ken Belson of the New York Times.
“I found something I care about less than the AAF. That’s the AAF folding.”
—Gregg Giannotti, morning host on WFAN in New York.
“FREE AUNT BECKY! FREE AUNT BECKY!”
—The chant of a few Lori Laughlin fans outside a Boston courtroom Wednesday, as Laughlin, who plays Aunt Becky on the “Fuller House” TV show, appeared to face charges that she and her husband paid inordinate sums for their two daughters to be admitted to USC. They’re two of the suspects in the national college admissions scandal.
What I Learned30
Michael MacCambridge, the author of excellent football tomes “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” and “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation,” shares my feeling about the NFL’s overtime rule. If a team wins the coin toss, elects to receive, and scores a touchdown on the first possession of OT, the game is over. New England did that in Super Bowl 51 against Atlanta, and again in this season’s AFC Championship Game in Kansas City. MacCambridge was raised mostly in Kansas City, and was in the stands at that game, and shares what he’s learned, and how he feels, about the overtime rule:
“The rule has to change eventually. It’s just going to come down to how many playoff games people want to watch in which a great quarterback never gets a chance to touch the ball. Since the rule was changed in 2011, it’s happened to Aaron Rodgers twice, to Ben Roethlisberger once, to Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl, and now to Patrick Mahomes.
“I understand the old-school mindset that says if you want to win the game, just stop the other team. But it’s not that simple; offense is up, touchdowns are up, yards-per-play numbers are up. And late in a playoff game, where the quarterbacks tend to be better, it’s harder to stop them.
“Which is why, since the rule was changed in 2011, a majority of post-season overtime games have ended on the very first drive. I don’t think that’s equitable, or the ideal way to settle a postseason game. (And I didn’t think it was equitable even before my favorite team got eliminated on the first drive of overtime.) The 2011 rule was a half-measure. Eventually the league will take the logical next step—each team is guaranteed one possession.”
Aaron Rodgers has started 54 games for the Packers since Oct. 1, 2015. Guess how many of those game Green Bay has won.
Twenty-seven. Exactly half.
Washington owner Daniel Snyder has an IMAX theater on his yacht.
You may have noticed I advised Buffalo GM Brandon Beane to pick Alabama tackle Jonah Williams in the first round of the draft.
Could history prompt Beane to ignore that sage counsel?
In the last 30 years, Buffalo has drafted three players from Alabama. (Amazing. In the last nine years, the Bills have drafted six Clemson Tigers.) Let’s recount the stories of those Crimson Tide players who went to Buffalo, all in the top 50 of the last eight drafts:
2011, round one, third overall pick: Marcell Dareus, defensive tackle. Twice benched for violating team rules, twice suspended for NFL substance-abuse violations, charged with reckless driving after being caught drag-racing and hitting a tree, sent home from a preseason game for violating a team rule. Dareus had a heck of a run in Buffalo. He even found time to play a few football games.
2014, round two, 44th overall pick: Cyrus Kouandjio, tackle. Seven starts in three years with the Bills. Just not a good player.
2016, round two, 41st overall pick: Reggie Ragland, linebacker. Bills traded a second-round and two fourth-round picks to move up to get Ragland, and he never played a snap for them. He tore his ACL in August 2016, then was traded to Kansas City the next summer.
I don’t want to be dramatic here, and I don’t mean to say that because three Alabama players were, collectively, abject disasters for the Bills that they shouldn’t take Crimson Tide players. But I’d quadruple-check them if I were Beane.
Tweets of the Week
One thing about my FMIA job that I’m grateful for is the opportunity to comb through Tweets to find smart and cool ones like this.
Send your questions or comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John wants the sky judge. From John R.: “You mention [in the April 1 FMIA] that the coaches originally wanted the sky booth official. I’m unclear why it was not approved. Why was the league steadfastly against the sky judge? The concept of it being superfluous, as you wrote, is puzzling. Something is needed.”
There is a replay official upstairs already. That official in the last two minutes of each half is essentially a sky judge. I would assume maybe some of those would be considered to be sky judges. But there are 17 officiating crews, so an extra official on every crew would mean 17 new officials would need to be found and trained to do a job that currently does not exist in the NFL officiating annals. Now it could be that eventually if more major calls get missed, the league will propose that the replay official become a sky judge-type of official; nothing in officiating is set in stone. But I haven’t seen evidence that a sky judge would improve officiating enough to add that extra layer to the game.
What happened to Mike McGuire? From Tom R.: “You often wrote about an Army staff sergeant you met [on your travels]. Do you still keep in touch? I always enjoyed those interactions.”
You’re right. I wrote a lot about Mike McGuire, who did three tours in the Middle East with the Army, working mostly to dismantle improvised explosive devices so our troops wouldn’t get blown up. I met him at a St. Louis Cardinals game and we corresponded for quite a few years, and he helped facilitate the “Five For Fighting” campaign we did to raise money for recreation equipment for the troops in Afghanistan. I hadn’t been in touch for a couple of years when, last year, I tried to re-connect when I was leaving Sports Illustrated for NBC. I’m pretty sure I had a correct address, email and phone for him, and tried all three, and didn’t get a response. I still would love to reach him, and if anyone knows how I might try, please reach out. But I don’t want to pester Mike. Sometimes, people just move on. He’s a great man, as you probably could tell from our interactions.
Robert Kraft supporter (I guess) checks in. From Walter, of Franklin, Mass. “When Bob Klemko [of The MMQB] got [arrested] for playing Grand Theft Auto with a cab and cab driver did you tell him to just take the punishment? How about the time you and [Jenny] Vrentas decided you needed to use the bike lane to get to a football game on time? Had you been pulled over, would you have told Jenny just to take the fine and the insurance surcharge that goes with it? …What if the Coast Guard had decided they wanted to board your boat when you and your grandson were both not wearing life jackets? Would you have just accepted the fine?”
Walter, this is quite an inside-baseball kind of email, but you asked, so I’ll answer. You’re referring to my note last week, when I said it made no sense for New England owner Robert Kraft to apologize for something, then to fight to prove his innocence in the same case. Klemko was involved in a he-said/he-said with a cabbie in Chicago with some extenuating circumstances; it was not an open-and-shut case. I did something stupid in the San Diego bike-lane incident, apologized for it, and would have deserved whatever punishment came of it. (There was none.) Re the life-jacket thing last summer, I had no idea wearing life jackets on board a boat was mandatory, but if there was a sanction, I’d have paid my price without complaint.
Regarding Kraft: He said, “I am truly sorry. I know I have hurt and disappointed my family, my close friends, my co-workers, our fans and many others who rightfully hold me to a higher standard.” And in the 15 days since he made that statement, he pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial; his lawyers alleged an illegal search; his lawyers moved to suppress video evidence in the case; and he rejected an offer to take a plea deal. Well, what exactly did he publicly apologize for then? And why did he apologize if he was then going to allow his lawyers to argue for his innocence?
10 Things I Think I Think
1. I think my biggest takeaway from Tyler Dunne’s excellent unpacking of the Packers/Rodgers/McCarthy/Thompson story is this: Mike McCarthy is going to have work hard, and repair his tarnished image significantly in the next nine months, to have a real shot at a head-coaching job in 2020. With the broadsides he’s taken since getting fired by the Packers late last season, McCarthy has a chance to be Brian Billick—a Super Bowl-winning coach damaged so much late in his tenure that he never got a chance to coach another team.
2. I think there’s a journalism tale in Dunne’s story too. He got significant parties to the story—most notably Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley and Greg Jennings—to go on the record about a very sensitive topic involving one of the great players in recent history on a storied franchise. A franchise, I should add, that has been excellent at keeping dirty laundry in-house. What Dunne did is penetrate the bubble, and in today’s NFL, with so many filters between the media and the players, that’s an incredibly hard thing to do.
In today’s media, what’s also hard, and what Bleacher Report deserves credit for, is giving a writer four months to work on a story. I talked to Dunne on Friday (he’ll join me on my podcast dropping Wednesday), and he started reporting this story in early December. He talked to more than 50 people for it. Kudos to Dunne, and to his bosses, for realizing what a gold mine the story was, and taking the needed time that so few media entities allow today.
3. I think Matt LaFleur had to be quaking reading that story. Here’s LaFleur, four years older than Rodgers, never been a head coach, never been in charge of a veteran, star quarterback, and now he’s got to run a team after reading a story that portrays Rodgers as a vindictive, you-better-do-it-my-way guy. LaFleur’s never had to walk in front of a room of 90 guys and command them, which is a daunting enough task. Reading Dunne, LaFleur has got to worry about what kind of partner he’ll have in Rodgers. I hope Packers president Mark Murphy, in the search process, saw enough signs in LaFleur that he’ll be able to handle a quarterback like Rodgers and be able to lead a team.
4. I think, come to think of it, that Dunne probably just helped Aaron Rodgers prepare to be great again in 2019. Rodgers will understand that many now will view him as a controlling home-wrecker, and he’ll be supremely motivated to show what a team guy, and a winning guy, he is. He’s not going to want to be known as the 800-pound gorilla. He’s going to want to be known as a great leader and winning player. That’s my guess anyway.
5. I think someone from the Alliance of American Football, co-founder Charlie Ebersol or chairman Tom Dundon, owes eight cities and players and coaches an explanation about the league folding in the middle of its first season. Someone needs to step up and explain why the league, which was talking about a multi-year gestation period, died after eight weeks. I have known Ebersol for years, and my experience is that he is a good person. I’m going to hear his explanation first before passing judgment on anything other than my first point: The players and coaches and employees of the AAF deserve to hear what happened, and soon. But I want to take you back to a conversation I had a year ago with Ebersol, when I asked him about how he could be so sure this league would make it when the sporting road is littered with disastrous minor football leagues. Ebersol made three points:
• He was building for the long term. Ebersol said, “The most important thing of all the previous attempts of spring football—football—was not the core focus. There was razzmatazz, there was marketing, there was excitement, but never before did you have national champion coaches, you didn’t have Super Bowl coaches, you didn’t have Bill Polian and you definitely didn’t have a reimagining of the structure of a league that empowered the players to be taken care of … Me, my investors, my partners, Bill [Polian] my co-founder, and the people involved, are all looking at a seven to 10-year business model as a starting point of what we are trying to build.”
• He said he had partners willing to be patient. “Amazon didn’t make its first dollar of profit for 23 years,” Ebersol said. “We’re not a business based on one or two billionaires pouring money in and hoping for the best on the promise of 80,000 people in the stadiums and a massive TV deal. No, this is a very sober business model.”
• He said the returns in early years would be insignificant. “The type of money that we raised is from institutions that do not look at first and second-year returns. They look at seven.”
Ebersol has not spoken publicly since the death of the AAF. But a few things are clear. The AAF trusted an early $170-million investment from a former investor with the Vikings, Reggie Fowler, and had his money vetted through league investigators. It’s unclear how or why this money turned out to be an issue during the first year of the AAF, but when the league needed Fowler’s money in year one, it had a problem accessing all of it. That led to needing immediate help early in this season—and, clearly, Ebersol should not have relied on one investor to this extent, to the extent that his efficacy threatened the entire league—and so the league turned to Dundon. But Dundon, who saved the league early with a cash infusion, clashed with Ebersol and Polian over the direction of the league.
6. I think Ebersol is going to have to explain why he wasn’t willing to see the league through the last month of the first season. Did Fowler or Dundon, or both, view the AAF as a steppingstone to NFL ownership, and were their initial investments shows of faith to NFL owners that they should be considered for future franchises? We don’t know. But questions like those hang over the death of another minor league that had grandiose visions and not enough money to support them.
7. I think the other thing people who build spring football league have to ask is whether we really want football in the spring. I have little interest in it, and I didn’t have one email, tweet or text in the last two months asking me if I’d be covering the AAF, or criticizing my lack of attention to it. From mid-February to late April, the time of AAF games, I believe my readers/experiencers care about the combine, free agency and the draft. Not that it’s impossible for the AAF or another minor league to exist, but it should exist as a minor league, without all the bells and whistles (an extra official known as a Sky Judge, coach-to-QB communication, and so many of the other pricy toys that you just don’t need to run a sports league). This was Triple-A football, and should have been financially managed as such.
8. I think I don’t give the XFL much a chance either. I’ve heard people in the last few days say things like, “Great for the XFL—now the competition is out of the way!” But how is the XFL not going to bleed money the way the AAF did, even if Vince McMahon has all that wrestling dough to throw into this?
9. I think I speak for everyone who has covered football or had any association with the Chargers over the years when I say how sad it was Friday to learn of the death of Ramona Johnston, the wife of former Chargers PR czar Bill Johnston, from Huntington’s Disease. She was 60, and had battled the cruel disease for the final third of her life. When the Chargers moved north to Orange County—soon they’ll be playing in Los Angeles—two years ago, Bill Johnston decided to remain in San Diego rather than move with the team. He didn’t want to move Ramona from her full-time care facility in San Diego. Over the years, Bill raised in the neighborhood of $3 million for the Huntington’s cause, running marathons with his daughter Hayley and setting up galas to fund research for one of the most debilitating diseases known to man. Best wishes to Bill, a true gentleman and wonderful husband, and his family.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Anyone in December have a Texas Tech-Virginia national championship game? Bueller? Bueller?
b. Football Story of the Week: Dunne’s, of course.
c. Football Story of the Week 2: Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, on an AAF linebacker who broke his forearm in two places on the last AAF weekend, and what his fate is.
d. “I haven’t heard anything. Who’s going to do my therapy? Who’s going to pay for this? I got nowhere to stay. It’s a s— show,” said Gionni Paul of the Salt Lake Stallions.
e. Newspaper Feature of the Week: Corey Kilgallon of the New York Times on the Bayonne Bleeder, Chuck Wepner, finally getting a statue in his beloved hometown of Bayonne, N.J.
f. Wepner begat “Rocky.” True story.
g. Wepner wrestled Victor the Bear—a bear, a real 400-pound declawed brown bear—twice. The bear’s reward after one of the bouts with Wepner was a bottle of Coca-Cola. Also: Wepner got thrown out of the ring in a wrestling match with Andre the Giant.
h. You have got to look at the photo down toward the bottom of the story, the image of Wepner stalking Muhammad Ali after knocking him down in the ninth round of their heavyweight title fight in 1975 at the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Richfield, Ohio. Ali got up, and registered a TKO of the bloody Wepner in the 15th round. Wepner, truly, is a living legend.
i. Officiating Story of the Week: by Josh Lewis, for Football Zebras, the officiating site, on Amanda Sauer-Cook, the first openly gay official working pro football (she worked AAF games).
j. Why, Antonio Brown? Why? Why go on social media and blame Ju Ju Smith-Schuster for the Steelers not making the playoffs? Bush league.
k. United States Infrastructure Story of the Week: Samantha Rafelson of NPR on the imminent structural danger of 47,000 bridges in this country.
l. Uh, this just in: It will take 80 years to get those bridges back up to proper specifications, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association says. Perhaps we should get to work on that. Americans, who cross those bridges 187 million times a day per the NPR report, seem to be playing Russian roulette when they cross them.
m. Story on Something I Didn’t Know of the Week: a radio story from Alice Driver for the “Reveal” show, from the Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s a case study of a central American person applying for and receiving asylum in the United States. (Starts at the 18:10 mark of the hour-long show.) Excellent, you-are-there look at the forces driving immigration and asylum-seeking.
n. I simply cannot believe the amount of time, energy, web space and media coverage devoted to the unveiling of the New York Jets new uniforms Thursday night. They’re actually nice—the white shirts, in particular, are lovely. But holy cow. The coverage was exorbitant.
o. Man, I am so old.
p. Odd, also, is the fact that “NEW YORK” appears above the numbers on the front of the Jets jerseys, even though the team practices in New Jersey (33 miles from New York), has its offices in New Jersey (33 miles from New York), plays in New Jersey (nine miles from New York). Almost all Jets players reside in New Jersey. I guess when you lived in Jersey for 23 years, as I did, you notice slights like that.
q. Coffeenerdness: I’ll say this about Brooklyn: Incredible coffee culture there. So many good local coffee shops. Manhattan is Starbucks. Brooklyn is craft coffee.
r. Beernerdness: A leftover from my league meetings trip recently: Huss Brewing Co. (Tempe, Ariz.) has a great hot-weather beer, a Kolsch called Scottsdale Blonde. Had one at a spring-training game, and it was crisp, ice cold, and just right.
s. What political brainiac told Bill de Blasio it’d be a good idea for him to run for president? Selina Meyer?
t. You’re off to a great start, “Veep.”
u. More Jonah Ryan, please.
v. Probably not a popular opinion—Woj, put me in my place here—but the Basketball Hall of Fame seems like the Basketball Hall of Very Good to me.
w. Bumpy/rocky/pathetic start to the season (all road games) for the world champ Red Sox. But this is why Alex Cora’s a good manager, IMO. Asked whether opening with an 11-game road trip is part of the reason for the awful start, Cora said, via Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe: “This is the big leagues. We don’t travel in middle seats and we don’t stay in motels. The way they treat us in the clubhouse is five-star. … We’re not making excuses.” Good for him.
x. Best to you, Kelly Stafford, in your surgery and recovery from a brain tumor. Matthew and Kelly Stafford do such good work in metro Detroit, and there’s been an outpouring of good wishes and prayers for her in her fight.
y. Good on the Dolphins, who continue to run one of the best charitable events in the NFL, the Dolphins Cancer Challenge, which in nine years has raised $32 million for research at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami. This was the weekend of the event, and several players and owner Stephen Ross biked 14 miles for the cause.
The Adieu Haiku40
Josh Rosen might be
smart to look at condos in