Something profound for football’s future will happen this week. The league’s 2,500 players (anyone who had a contract with any team for any part of the 2019 season is eligible to vote) will decide whether a controversial Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and owners will pass muster.
• If it’s approved, the league will have labor peace through the end of the 2030 season, giving the NFL 43 consecutive seasons of football without a regular-season or playoff game being lost.
• If it fails, a period of rancor will settle over the game. The league will play the 2020 season under more restrictive work rules; about $300 million in pension improvements for retired players will be lost; the league’s 60-percent minimum-salary players would lose around $90,000 apiece in the 2020 season; and the uncertain American economy and impact of the coronavirus could make negotiations in 2021 more difficult.
Those two bullet points sum up the CliffsNotes on the state of the CBA. Trust me: The player vote ending Thursday at midnight—a simple majority vote will determine the outcome of the NFL CBA—is a monumental referendum for the next decade of the NFL.
It’s the calm-before-the-storm week. Next Monday begins the legal-tampering period, when the Tom Brady domino could either fall or lean to one team, opening the gates for the most veteran quarterback movement in an offseason since free agency was born 27 years ago. Catching my eye this week, and I’ll cover these below:
1. A nice guy finishes first.
2. Why you should not bet against Joe Burrow.
3. The Volunteer State needed lots of them, and the local football team stepped in.
4. The backstory to how a Seahawk curbed his enthusiasm.
5. Andy Reid’s been trying to get Eric Bieniemy a head-coaching job. A new video should help.
6. If you don’t know Sid Hartman, who turns 100 next Sunday, you need to.
7. I don’t know where Tom Brady’s going. I don’t think Tom Brady knows where Tom Brady’s going.
The Lead: NFL CBA Vote
I won’t take up the majority of this column with labor stuff, because I know you don’t read this column to learn about jousting between millionaires and billionaires. But I thought the final hours of the NFL Players Association president Eric Winston’s six-year run as president should be noted. Some immense pressure and criticism trail him as he walks out the door.
“What’s your gut feeling about this vote?” I asked Winston over the weekend, as he prepared for his last union meeting as president. “Pass or fail?”
“I’ve gotten that question a few times,” Winston said from a hotel lobby in Miami, site of the annual NFLPA meetings. “I would think it would pass. I would think it would pass by a lot. It’s important that we let the process play out, and important that all players understand the issues and vote their conscience.”
If the NFL CBA vote fails, Winston said, “We know we’ll be approaching some tense times.”
About 150 players are scheduled to attend the three-day meeting that began Sunday. Voting for a new president—Carolina tackle Russell Okung is the only announced candidate—is planned for Tuesday.
Winston sounded calm when we spoke, but I’ve heard about the toll this has taken on him, particularly from those who think he and union executive director De Smith rushed a bad deal. “There’s people,” Winston said, “I call ‘em Twitter lawyers, who think somehow this deal was put together quickly. These have been some pretty long and painstaking negotiations. One thing this has not been is rushed. De went to every team during the fall, let ‘em know exactly where we were. We spent 20 hours since the season ended with our player reps. There have been some misconceptions about the process. You’re not going to get everything you want in a negotiation, and we certainly didn’t.”
The biggest problem for the deal herded by Smith and Winston is the 17-game schedule. Packers player rep Aaron Rodgers told ESPN Radio in Wisconsin last week he wondered “how the hell that even got into the conversation because nobody wanted it.” Winston said he respected Rodgers, who he said had been “very thoughtful” during and after the negotiations. But, Winston said, “I have not heard that from a lot of other guys . . . We made a very aggressive offer early on. We wanted a lot, and the other side [owners] said, ‘You want a lot of this stuff, and this is what we want.’ ”
“It wasn’t our idea,” Winston said, “but the other side has a say too. And we got a lot out of it—a higher AR [all revenue, the figure both sides are using for the total increase in dollars in this deal], higher minimum [salaries], expanded rosters, four more practice squad players per team, better work conditions in training camp, better health care, better benefits, a major increase in pension for thousands of former players.”
Somehow, in the zillions of tweets and stories done on this NFL CBA, there has been very little said about the biggest accomplishment of the deal for the union. (Some journalism school should do a study of whether Twitter and some high-profile anti-CBA tweets impacted the vote. As Smith told Mike Florio last week: “Only a fool would say it does not.”) Some 11,000 former players from bygone eras will have their pensions increased by about 53 percent (from $30,000 annually to $46,000), while approximately 700 players who played just three seasons will get pensions for the first time, and about 4,500 will get $50,000 health-savings-reimbursement accounts. “That is something I’m really proud of,” Winston said. “Our leadership said, ‘We can’t leave these guys behind.’ I don’t know why it has been covered the way it has—maybe it’s not high on the list for current players—but I know it was important for our leadership.”
If the proposed NFL CBA is voted down, those pension and retirement improvements for nearly 12,000 ex-players go on hold. And if there’s a bitter fight next offseason, and if the economy and TV picture isn’t rosy, and if owners figure You guys had your chance at a great deal, a perk like sweetening the pot for the ex-player who’s been retired for 45 years could be the first thing to go. No one knows. But lockouts and strikes get ugly, and the union will have to be most concerned with today’s player, not yesterday’s.
Winston got a little nostalgic over the phone. “There’s some of that,” he said. “It’s bittersweet to be going, a little. But I pass the baton, and I’m proud to pass it.”
He saved his best line for last. He knows if this deal fails, there could be a job action sometime in 2021 by hard-line players. Players haven’t had the gumption to walk off the job since September 1987, and even then, solidarity lasted only two weeks before stars like Lawrence Taylor began trickling back to work, unwilling to sacrifice their big salaries. Imagine asking Jimmy Garoppolo to give up his $24.1-million salary in 2021. Or saying to Aaron Donald, “Sacrifice that $19.9 million for the cause.” They’re in their prime earning years, and one year of that prime might be spent not earning anything. Of course I doubt it comes to that, but NFL players collectively have never had the fortitude to risk a year of income for the greater good—in this case, say, for 51 percent of the gross instead of the likely 48.5 percent this deal will provide.
“It’s one thing to get into a work stoppage,” Winston said. “It’s another thing to win one.”
Clip and save that one.
Nice Guy: Austin Ekeler10
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler‘s agent, Cameron Weiss, had to beg scouts to watch the Pro Day of his client, from tiny Western State (Colo.), two years ago. The Chargers were going to sign one undrafted free-agent running back after the 2018 draft, and coach Anthony Lynn wanted Corey Clement. But the Eagles snagged Clement, and the totally unknown Ekeler was the consolation prize.
In training camp, the Chargers gave him the number “3.” A non-number, basically. The number of a player sure to be cut. He was used on special teams in training camp—not on the prime teams, but on the scout-team special teams. One day he asked Lynn what he had to do to make the team. Keep working, Lynn said. The coach didn’t know who he was. A scout told Weiss: “He runs like his hair’s on fire.” Then the sixth back at the start of camp kamikazed himself into a roster spot.
When Melvin Gordon held out to start last season, Ekeler got more and more chances, and then he had one of the most interesting games of 2019—101 rushing yards, 112 receiving yards at Jacksonville in December. He’s a McCaffrey type, having lined up as a receiver on 25 percent of his snaps last fall. So instead of signing Gordon long-term, the Chargers picked the versatile Ekeler to sign. On Friday, Ekeler inked a four-year, $24.5-million contract, per Adam Schefter, with $15 million guaranteed. “The phrase ‘feel-good story’ doesn’t do Austin’s story justice,” Weiss said.
Weiss is not a big-time agent. In 2019, as Ekeler got better and better, he got feelers from multiple agents to go big-time. But Weiss was his Jerry Maguire. “I look for talent in places other people in my business don’t,” Weiss said. “I have to. Western State, I didn’t even know what state that was in.” When Weiss finished the contract with the Chargers last week and phoned Ekeler to tell him the news, all Ekeler could do was giggle.
“Are you serious?” Ekeler said, and he couldn’t stop laughing.
Ekeler was in his car Friday afternoon when we spoke, on his way to Las Vegas to celebrate his contract. With Weiss. “One of the things that’s crazy about the NFL is when I got to camp, I’m sitting in a room with guys who make $10 million a year. I see what everyone’s making, and I said, ‘Dang! That’s a lot of money!’ That’s why I’m laughing when Cameron tells me about the deal—it just didn’t seem real that I’d be making that money.
“You know how people say, ‘More money, more problems.’ I think money exemplifies your true character. It’s going to bring out the person I truly am. I live in the moment. The best chance you have to succeed is living in the moment—nothing matters except what you do to be better now. That’s who I am. That’s who I’ll continue to be.”
Cincy Grows On Burrow
Jordan Palmer is Joe Burrow’s QB tutor. Most draft prospects have them. They’re guys who polish mechanics, familiarize college guys with NFL ways. Palmer played briefly for the Bengals, and his brother is Carson Palmer, the former top pick of the Bengals who badly wanted out of Cincinnati at the end. Anyway, Jordan Palmer being Burrow’s QB coach means you’re getting a totally prejudiced view of the guy when he talks. But I bring it to you because I know Palmer, trust him, and know what people in the NFL think of him. They trust him.
Palmer began working with Burrow in the summer of 2019, when Burrow was coming off a meh first season at LSU. After coaching him and spending time with him, Palmer got to be sold on him. Burrow was twice being overlooked for the starting job at Ohio State, then went to LSU and struggled in his first year. “When I look at maturity and confidence in Joe Burrow, I didn’t need more than two days,” Palmer said. “I watched him throw, I heard the story, I spent a bunch of time with him. And I go, ‘Pfft, I don’t know. This dude could be the next one.’ I did not say that he was gonna throw 60 touchdowns passes, win the Heisman trophy, blah blah blah. But it was obvious. And now I think these NFL people meeting him are seeing that.
“There is such a thing as being a competitive learner. Joe goes to LSU to play, obviously, but he’s there, and he gets his master’s. He knew he was going to the NFL. You don’t get your master’s unless you look at school and go, ‘Well, I’m gonna be here. I might as well go as far as I possibly can in school too.’ He’s a competitive learner. So when I look at him transitioning to the NFL, I look for patterns, patterns of dealing with adversity. Patrick Mahomes—I was so adamant that this guy is ‘next’ because I had seen patterns with him. The patterns that I’ve seen with Joe is, he took a bad high school football program and they barely lost in the state championship. He gets knocked down at Ohio State but he still believes in himself. Then what happened at LSU. Well that’s a pattern. He came, he was humble, he bought in, he got others to buy in, he demanded execution across the board and led by example in that category. So yeah, he’s gonna be a great pro.”
This is what the Bengals are seeing right now. Cincinnati needs a steely kid who can come onto a downtrodden team and lift it. There’s no guarantee than anyone can transform a team that hasn’t won a playoff game in 30 years into a January winner, but Burrow gives the Bengals the best chance of anyone in this draft to do it. That’s why he’ll be the first pick in the draft in 45 days.
NFL Films: LIV Video20
As you probably know, NFL Films goes wild at the Super Bowl—a bit less so during the season, but in covering every game of every season, the league’s cinematic arm is able to get a feel for every team with sideline video and open mics. Films covered this Super Bowl with 39 cameras, tied for the most ever at a Super Bowl. But I’d say some of the best stuff in this year’s video—which will be released Tuesday—comes from the regular season.
What caught my eye is a sideline scene from Week 2. Inside the Chiefs, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is viewed as a great counselor, as a perfect aide-de-camp for Andy Reid, and as a calming influence for Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs’ play-calling hierarchy goes like this: Reid picks the play and replays by headset to Bieniemy, and Bieniemy calls the play into Mahomes’ helmet. Did you know that Bieniemy, who also reminds Mahomes of other defensive keys or down-and-distance reminders, memorizes each play in the game plan, so when the play clock is running down, he can quickly recognize what Reid wants and relay it by rote to Mahomes. “He’s invaluable to me, knowing every play by heart, and with what he does during the game with Patrick,” Reid says.
So in this video, you’ll see the Bieniemy influence early in the season. The way NFL Films does these videos is by covering every game briefly during the season, then going long on the Super Bowl. I found the Week 2 story of the Chiefs’ rout of Oakland telling. The Raiders were up 10-0 in the Black Hole, and a frustrated Mahomes came to the bench.
Body language is significant in all walks of life. When Bieniemy was speaking to Mahomes, Mahomes wasn’t pissy. He was attentive. You could tell how much he trusts his offensive coordinator.
“Pat! Pat!” Bieniemy said. “Really nothing to talk about.”
“Yes sir,” Mahomes said.
“Let’s get your group together,” Bieniemy said to him above the din in Oakland. “Let’s go calm the storm and get your guys together and play some team football.”
Now it’s silly to suggest that Let’s go calm the storm was the key to Kansas City beating Oakland. Mahomes is a mature player and doesn’t need a hand-holder. But you saw the video from the Super Bowl, when, during a video review at the most important time of the game, Mahomes said to Bieniemy: “Do we have time to run ‘Wasp?’ “ That’s the third-and-15 call that gave the Chiefs the momentum to win the game. The trust Mahomes has in Bieniemy is apparent. So Mahomes, in Week 2 in Oakland, threw for 278 yards and four touchdowns, and the Chiefs went on to rout the Raiders.
That single moment in Oakland is why these videos teach you so much. NFL Films is not just a PR tool for the league, or for teams. It’s fitting that Steve Sabol will go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year, because this 74-minute Super Bowl video for the Chiefs (“Super Bowl LIV Champions: Kansas City Chiefs”) is one he’d take great pride. You could see so much good sideline stuff that explains why Reid has the kind of team that can last on top for a long time. And if Bieniemy gets his overdue shot to be a head coach, this video (there are other examples of his influence) will be Exhibit A why.
Sid Hartman at 100
Sid Hartman, Minneapolis media legend, has been in the newspaper business for 91 years. No lie. He will celebrate his 100th birthday this week by writing his customary three columns for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and co-hosting his Sunday talk show on WCCO radio. His birthday is Sunday. The Star-Tribune will publish a special section on Hartman. And the radio station will host an all-day Sidtennial celebration of the man who was part of a trio of local sportsmen who brought professional basketball to Minneapolis in 1947. Hartman was 27. “In those days all the sportswriters had different roles away from the paper,” he said Saturday. Hartman brought a check for $15,000 to Detroit to pay the owner of the dying Detroit Gems for the franchise. It was christened the Lakers, because Minnesota was the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The Lakers. Yes, LeBron’s Lakers. The franchise relocated to Los Angeles in 1960.
So it went for Hartman, who was tangentially involved as a local booster and columnist with bringing the Twins and Vikings to town too . . . and with being a true national columnist, building tight relationships with Bob Knight and George Steinbrenner (“my close personal friend George Steinbrenner,” was his prefix for the famous people in his rolodex) and commissioners. And now, with the help of two aides and a walker, he marches on, hard of hearing but continuing to do the only thing he wants to do. “I love doing this,” he said Saturday. “There’s nothing else I want to do.”
Said good friend Bud Grant, the Hall of Fame Vikings coach: “Sid’s told me, ‘If I quit doing this, I’d die.’ “
“Here’s what’s amazing about Sid,” Grant said. “How many people do you know who write three days a week and do a radio show—at 100! And there’s stuff in those columns from every team in town! He knows everybody!”
Hartman has a knack for getting along with everybody in college and pro sports. He considered Grant his best friend, and Grant didn’t like Vince Lombardi. The feeling was mutual. “That’s the thing with Sid,” Grant said. “Every Big Ten football and basketball coach, he’d pick up the phone and talk to them when he needed ’em. They’d all take his call. He never cut anybody’s tires in his column. Never broke a confidence. He got along with Vince and with [George] Halas, all of ‘em.”
On Saturday, I asked Hartman why he still loves it, and the secret to his long life in a business that burns out its share of eager beavers.
“I don’t know,” he said, his voice hoarse and a bit distant. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I live a healthy life, I don’t break any rules. I think that’s it.”
That’s enough. I’ll be reading next Sunday.
Good for the Tennessee Titans, who loaded up three busloads of players, coaches and staff Friday morning to head to an area east of Nashville hard hit by the EF-4 tornado that killed at least 24 people last week. Coach Mike Vrabel loaded up his white pickup and drove to the one blown-away neighborhood, GM Jon Robinson riding through the subdivision on the sideboard. “At one point,” Robinson said, “we had people holding up the power lines so Mike’s truck could get through. And then we formed a supply line to bring cases of water to people, and reporters put down their pads and their phones and got to work and joined the line.”
The tornado hit in the middle of the night, maybe two miles from the Titans’ practice facility just north of downtown Nashville. No player or coach had a home destroyed. When Robinson went to work a couple of hours after it passed, there was plywood on the highway and one interstate sign in tatters. As a Tennessee native, Robinson felt he had to help—as did the rest of the organization. The franchise donated $1 million to relief efforts. And on Friday, the delegation of Titans went to the Elizabeth Park neighborhood for several hours, helping cut fallen trees and clearing debris.
“It made me proud that we’re living up to our nickname, the Volunteer State,” Robinson said Friday afternoon. “I’m proud to be from Tennessee. There’s a spirit here . . . there was a spirit out there today. We didn’t feel obligated to help because of our organization. We feel obligated to help because of the spirit of the community. This is Nashville. The people in need would be the first to help when someone else needed it. And they’ve been so supportive to us as a football team. Today, we just returned the love.”
A Star Is Born
I’m a “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-aholic. It’s the Larry David show on HBO with humor that appeals to most of us and turns off others; it’s Seinfeldian with mature and cringeworthy themes. The Seinfeld part is understandable, since David was one of the creators of the show. This is the story of how Seahawks vice president of communications, Dave Pearson, landed on one of the great “Curb” episodes ever—last week’s show about a Jets’ fan so distraught about the team’s performance that he kills himself—and the tentacles of the show that had to do with a golf outing.
Seattle’s general manager, John Schneider, runs a charity with his wife called Ben’s Fund, which fundraises to help families of children on the autism spectrum. At the Ben’s Fund gala in 2018, ardent Seahawks fan Jeff Schaffer, one of the executive producers of “Curb,” donated an auction item to die for (if you’re a “Curb” fan): a walk-on role in a future episode of the show. “My favorite show, by far,” Pearson said. “I love everything about it.” At the event, Pete Carroll asked Pearson’s wife Beth, “If I get this for Dave, will he do it? Will he go through with it?” Of course he would, Carroll was told. So Carroll made the winning bid, it got announced, and he said to Dave: “That’s for you.”
“Pete’s as gracious, generous and compassionate a boss as you could have,” Pearson said. “That was amazing to do.”
Pearson had a choice of two roles, both at Larry’s golf club: He could be a guy in a towel in the men’s locker room, or he could be a golfer appealing to the club pro for a favorable ruling on the course. That was easy; Pearson wasn’t going to be on TV in nothing but a towel. So he flew to Los Angeles 13 months ago to tape his part of the show. He was going to have two lines of dialog at the course, with Larry and Ed Begley Jr., standing nearby. Pearson was asked if he had any problem using profanity. “Swearing is my best quality,” he said. The day before, he practiced his two lines, totaling 24 words. When he got to the course, he had his own trailer, and took a van with the actors (David in the front seat, with Begley Jr. and Richard Lewis in the van) to a spot on the course. His scene as an aggrieved golfer, took four takes. “What was tough,” Pearson said, “is my scene had to be timed up perfectly with Larry and Ed Begley Jr.—as soon as Ed finishes, I have to start, and Ed Begley Jr. walks behind us during the scene. And I had to stand a little awkwardly so the camera could show Larry watching our scene.
Pearson, in red golf sweater, next to playing partner, to club pro Jimmy: “Jimmy, what’s the rule on this? He swung, the club head fell off, but he followed through. That’s a stroke, right?”
Jimmy: “Decision 4 dash 2. A strike is defined by forward movement of a club to the ball. The shaft itself is not a club. No penalty.”
Playing partner: “YES!”
Pearson, walking away: “F— you, Jimmy!”
Jimmy: “Read the rule book!”
Afterward, Pearson had lunch with David, Lewis, Begley and the actors. “They couldn’t have been any more welcoming. And yes, Larry loves the Jets. He talked about the Jets.”
“Awesome, fabulous, wonderful experience,” Pearson said. “They said I did fine. It was different than I thought it’d be. But the toughest part was watching it on TV with my mother-in-law in the room.”
There are some rather adult themes in this episode. And spoiler alert: Austin Seferian-Jenkins name is in there. Twice. Oh, the pain of the Jets fan.
Quotes of the Week40
“Every time the market goes down 1,000 points, an owner says, ‘Can I have my vote back?’“
—An impeccable ownership source, to me, on the strange place the league is as it waits for the player vote to finish on Thursday.
Amazing that the stock market, the coronavirus and CBA would be connected as the vote goes down the home stretch this week. This source referred to the owners voting last month to approve the deal it made with the players union on a new bargaining agreement.
“Do you know what this team has done to me?! I haven’t enjoyed a football season since 1989! Maybe ’98, when Parcells was the coach for a year. That was good too. But that’s it!”
—Larry David, avid and anguished Jets fan in real life and on his TV show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” pining about the pain of being a Jets fan on last week’s episode.
“There is no league without the players. … Please vote no on this deal, and let’s get some people outside of the NFL’s web to negotiate a real deal for us—something that we’re proud of, something that will set up the next generation, and that’ll change the landscape of the NFL forever.”
—Wide receiver Kenny Stills of the Houston Texans, amplifying his “No” vote on the current CBA vote by the league’s players.
“They can get out and start to clean up instead of taking pictures like I see people doing. Put your phones down and pick up branches.”
—Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel, on “Good Morning Football” Friday as the Titans went out in the community to help with tornado cleanup, commenting on the gawkers in the area.
“Pay the man.”
—David Ortiz, at Red Sox spring training, on New England Patriots and Tom Brady.
Not that easy, Papi.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous for a layup … I think back to five years ago, I didn’t even know I would make it home from the hospital. To say I got into a D-1 basketball game and I scores, I can’t put into words what that meant to me.”
—Vermont senior basketball player Josh Spiedel, to Alex Abrami of the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, after scoring his first college points in a game against Albany last week. Spiedel was recruited from an Indiana high school, and before he enrolled in college, he was in a car accident that left him paralyzed on his left side and in a coma for four weeks. His appearance on the floor last week on Senior Night at Vermont was his first since the accident. Good piece on it from Pat Borzi of the New York Times.
Length of tenure of each of the managers/head coaches/coaches for the nine pro sports franchises in New York/New Jersey:
Aaron Boone, Yankees: 2 years, 3 months, 9 days
David Quinn, Rangers: 1 year, 9 months, 15 days
Barry Trotz, Islanders: 1 year, 8 months, 17 days
Adam Gase, Jets: 1 year, 1 month, 29 days
Alain Nasreddine, Devils: 3 months, 6 days
Mike Miller, Knicks: 3 months, 3 days
Joe Judge, Giants: 2 months, 1 day
Luis Rojas, Mets: 1 month, 16 days
Jacque Vaughn, Nets: 2 days
Coaches/managers in the job longer than two years: 1.
Average length of tenure of the current New York-area coaches/managers: 10 months, 15 days.
Men you’ve never of or had no idea they coached pro teams: 2 (Nasreddine, Vaughn).
Weird factoid: Gregg Popovich has coached the San Antonio Spurs for 15 years, 5 months and 7 days longer than the combined stays of the nine New York-area coaches/managers.
Per the New York Times, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been fined $3,115,000 in his 20-year tenure as team owner.
That comes out to $155,750 being taken out of his pocket annually by the league.
Tweets of the Week
This is the stupidest thing that has ever aired on television. Congratulations to all involved. pic.twitter.com/vARi9yQ0Bv
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) March 6, 2020
Timothy Burke is a Florida-based reporter who can count.
Brian Williams? Really?
Seen on my drive to Tallahassee this morning: A shop advertising free toilet paper with the purchase of a gun.
— Matt Baker (@MBakerTBTimes) March 6, 2020
Matt Baker is a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times.
I have learned that CeeDee Lamb's real name is Cedarian and that he was not, in fact, named after a compact disc. Sad day
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) March 3, 2020
Mike Renner works for PFF.
Mail call. Send your comments to me at email@example.com, or on Twitter.
Interesting concept. From Mike Parlow: “In terms of CBA negotiations, could it be possible to have the 17-game schedule as a one-year trial with another vote four weeks after the Super Bowl to see if players are still for it?”
Doubtful. Because it’s hard to ram through a 17-game schedule in time for the 2020 season, then possibly vote it out after the season. And it’d be hard playing 16 games this year, 17 in the 2021 season, then voting up or down for it in early 2022, and if it dies, going back to 16. That’s a tough way to run a sport, and to negotiate a TV deal.
I overstated the danger of the coronavirus. From Bill Travers: “In my humble opinion, you missed an opportunity with your FMIA article, [expressing] an exaggerated fear of the coronavirus. The flu has killed 10 times as many people in the USA than the coronavirus has in China. Gun violence has killed more people in the USA than the coronavirus has worldwide. You missed a huge opportunity to contrast and compare gun violence in the USA with the latest bug-du-jour. Yes, death is scary, but we’re all going to die someday. Odds are a million to 1 either of us will die from the coronavirus.”
Could be. Bill, I truly hope you’re right. I don’t remember the federal government allocating $8.3-billion to prepare to fight the flu; Congress did that the other day for the coronavirus. I don’t remember near-daily briefings from the White House about the flu. There is a vaccine for the flu; there will not be any such thing for at least a year, experts say, with this new virus. One of the doctors working on a vaccine, Richard Hatchett, said the other day: “This is the most frightening disease I’ve ever encountered in my career.” It may turn out that this virus won’t be catastrophic, but that’s something you don’t know and I don’t know. Best to prepare for it aggressively.
I don’t quite understand this logic. From Andrew E. Stead: “You keep ignoring this issue and blithely suggesting that a 17-game season presents a significant increase in risk for players without explaining how or why this is the case. Is there data that significant injuries steadily increase as the season progresses, such that one can objectively determine, e.g., that games 15 and 16 are materially more dangerous than games five and six, and thus there is an evidentiary foundation for concluding that game 17 would be materially more dangerous than game seven? Kindly either provide evidence supporting your argument, or stick to what is objectively accurate, sir.”
I’ve never said there are more injuries per week as the season goes on. I said, for instance as it pertains to concussions, that a 17th regular-season week would logically mean the threat of eight additional concussions, based on the average number of concussions suffered in a regular-season week (which was eight in 2019). And I did say it stands to reason that a player who will play an extra regular-season game, with the wear-and-tear on the body from a 16-game season, could have a better chance to get hurt or to aggravate an injury by playing 6 percent more snaps (the number of extra snaps for a starting player that a 17th game would engender) on an already battered body. What’s to argue with either of those points?
10 Things I Think I Think
1. I think it is amazing what has happened to the Jaguars in the last 26 months, since Jan. 21, 2018. That afternoon, the Jaguars were 10 points ahead of the Patriots in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game in Foxboro. Since that afternoon, the franchise is 11-22, and 11 of its top 14 players on defense have either disappeared or, as is the case with defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, seems headed for a tag-and-trade when free agency begins in nine days. Imagine the top five players from the secondary gone, including cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.
The denuding of this team is amazing. The Jaguars seem headed for a major rebuild, and just as amazing is the fact that the coach and GM, Doug Marrone and Dave Caldwell, will be kept aboard for at least this season. No coach/GM combo will be under as much pressure as Marrone and Caldwell—and they’ll be headed into the fire with 2019 sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew favored to be the quarterback on opening day.
2. I think, regarding the NFL CBA vote, the smartest words were written this week by Mike Florio:
“It all comes down to whether players will ultimately sacrifice the ability to play football and the ability to get paid to play football for a year or longer in order to apply maximum pressure to the league. For De Smith, who isn’t engaged in a drive-by analysis of these issues but who presumably wrestles with them on a full-time basis, the conclusion that he obviously reached is that the players get the biggest slice and pie by moving forward now, without further delay or another work stoppage that NFL players aren’t in a position to endure.”
If players are willing to strike, or to stay strong during a lockout, the whole scene changes. Maybe they would be in this case. I doubt it. There were 174 NFL players in 2019 making at least $250,000 a week; I’m interested to know not only how many of those players are voting no on this deal—but how many would be willing to sacrifice a year of their salaries to push the owners into what they would view as a more equitable deal. A tenth? A quarter? The last time players were willing to miss games to push the owners into a bigger chunk of league profits was 1987. Since that three-week strike in 1987, 33 years ago, players have not been willing to risk paychecks to get a better deal with the owners. Even then, players leaked across the picket line (I saw it; I covered that strike) and the strike collapsed after three weeks. Say players vote no on this deal. Can the union find a hundred Maurkice Pounceys to hold the line during a strike or lockout? It may come to that.
3. I think I keep coming back to this: Networks are itching to extend their deals with the NFL now. There will be streaming or subscription possibilities (Amazon, Google, Facebook, ESPN+) for another separate package made possible by the institution of 16 more regular-season games. Would they still want to do rich deals a year from now, or 18 months from now? Yes—but perhaps not as rich, because of the likely diminution of TV ratings in this election year. “Likely,” actually, is wrong. “Virtually certain” is right. NFL ratings were down 8 percent in the Trump-Clinton election year, 2016, and most analysts expect that sort of drop again in this more-polarized political environment. There’s momentum to do deals now. It’s uncertain whether that momentum will exist similarly in 2021.
4. I think I still don’t like the 17th regular-season game. I understand the economics. I understand the players won’t be as rich, nor the owners, without it, and I understand the labor deal would be not nearly as good as the one the players are voting on now. My feeling is the players could have gotten some reduction in padded practices (not 12, as with the new deal, but some) without giving owners an extra regular-season game. I just think players playing an extra game makes hypocrites of the NFL establishment that talks about the emphasis on health and safety all the time.
5. I think this was an enlightening and smart column by Mike Lombardi of The Athletic about Tom Brady and Kyle Shanahan and whether the 49ers might actually try to sign him. Lombardi writes:
“Even at his age, Brady can take the game over with his mind; he can get into the right play and does not need the right call all the time. This is not a knock on [Jimmy] Garoppolo, but rather a tribute to Brady’s experience — and it’s something that could bring a title to the 49ers. Brady would be ideal for the present, and trading Garoppolo would give the 49ers an asset for the future. They could trade Garoppolo back to the Patriots or any other team in need of young talent, then spend draft capital on another young quarterback. Shanahan has great faith in his ability to find non-mainstream quarterback talent. He believes his offense makes the quarterback better and that he does not need rare skills at the position. He would not look at signing Brady as merely a short-term fix, because he knows he could find another young talent at the position.”
The temptation is to give this thought zero credence, but I don’t because all the Niners would have to say is, Jimmy Garoppolo’s our quarterback now and for the future, and we will not be making a change. But they haven’t said that. And there is no offensive mind in the NFL more confident in himself and his offense—and rightfully so—than Shanahan. Whereas I would say, Why take Brady for a year or two instead of Garoppolo for the next 10 years? Shanahan MIGHT say, Gimme Brady, and I’ll worry about next year next year.
6. I think I do not know what Tom Brady is going to do, truly. I don’t even have a good idea. But it is telling that the Patriots have had 64 days since the end of their season to secure him for his last couple of years as a pro football player and have not done so. Could they still? Yes. Just seems more likely that he’ll sign elsewhere now, one week before the legal tampering period begins (but a couple of weeks into the illegal tampering period).
7. I think if you’re rooting for the Vengeful Game of the Year, you might keep these three matchups in mind as the free-agent period begins next week: The Patriots host San Francisco (imagine Brady of the Niners at Belichick and Garoppolo of the Pats) and Las Vegas in 2020. The Patriots play the Chargers in Los Angeles in 2020. They do not play Tennessee, Indianapolis or Dallas, teams that at various points have been rumored to be possible for Brady.
8. I think, in the wake of the bombshell Tony Romo contract with CBS, and the report from the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand (that made me fall out of my chair) that ESPN may try to invent an Al Michaels-Peyton Manning Monday night booth, I’m struck by a few things about Manning. In the last couple of years, no one I’ve talked to thought it likely that Manning—enamored of the Dad life in Denver these days—would do TV. But if ESPN’s serious about creating an all-star booth and paying Manning $20 million a year, I do think he’d have to think about it, especially now that bro Eli’s retired and ESPN feels the pressure to get a booth as starry as CBS or NBC or FOX has.
Manning, I’ve thought till now, would be as likely to be a John Elway and run an NFL team as he would to be a high-profile TV guy. But how much would he make running a team? Eight million, maybe? He could work half as hard, and have six free months a year, and make double or more the money, doing TV. And it’s not a forever job—he could do it three or five years and if he still wanted to run a team, he’d be attractive at that job in, say, 2026. We’ll see if he takes the bait this time . . . though I doubt sincerely Michaels will be part of such a booth.
9. I think Marchand made a good point on my podcast this week, talking about rising star Dan Orlovsky and ESPN. This was before he broke the Manning news, talking about ESPN’s history with lesser names. “Who are the biggest star analysts that they’ve had?” Marchand said. “They’ve had some big names, but these are the biggest stars: Dick Vitale, solid coaching career but nothing special. Kirk Herbstreit, solid college career, nothing overly special. Jay Bilas on college basketball. Those are the ESPN guys, and that’s where they came from. The issue for Orlovsky is he’s still kind of young in the position. I’m not sure ESPN, after their missteps, is going to have the guts to do that.” He meant putting him on Monday Night Football. But Orlovsky’s star is rising, and he’s going to do something big, and soon.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Why would LeBron James say he won’t play basketball if there are no fans in the stands? For a smart guy to say something like that, in this environment, when our approach to daily life can change radically from one day to the next—I was just floored.
b. It’s one thing to say you don’t want to play in front of an empty house. But to say you won’t play in an empty house? Might be a good idea to hold fire on that one till we see what the near future holds on the coronavirus.
c. Dan Peterson died recently, at 86. You very likely didn’t know Dan Peterson, but Steve Hartman of CBS News brought his story our way four years ago, when 4-year-old Norah Wood quite likely saved his life. And when Peterson died, Hartman fortunately revisited the story, and Norah.
d. Tara Wood, Norah’s mom, on what Norah meant to Dan, and vice versa: “Humanity at its best . . . to love and be loved.”
e. What a story.
f. Podcast of the Week: From the excellent “Snap Judgment” series that airs nationally on NPR stations, a riveting story of a rural Alaska town with a single, unarmed police officer who answers a call one day that changes everything in her life.
g. Thirty minutes into “Watching Over Mountain Village,” I had to stop what I was doing and just sit down and listen to this.
h. Column of the Week: Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal on the New York Knickerbockers getting into a fight with Spike Lee. If you are not an NBA follower, Lee is not only the most famous, dedicated fan of the NBA, but also the only recognizable face of this woebegone franchise.
i. Jason Gay is so good, as a writer, thinker and analyst of the sports scene. Spike Lee has been a season ticket holder to Knicks games for about 30 years. He is America’s Sporting Masochist. He has evidently been entering Madison Square Garden through the media entrance for a while, and the Knicks wanted him to enter through the VIP entry gate instead. The Knicks picked last Monday night, when Lee was on a crowded elevator, to enforce the rule that he should be entering through the VIP entrance. According to Spike, he was asked to leave the building and re-enter through the proper gate. Lee said no. Which led to a fight, and Lee going on ESPN to lay waste to the Knicks, and the Knicks issuing a press release to rip Spike. As only it could, the New York Post hilariously labeled the brouhaha “Gategate.” Anyway, back to Gay. He wrote:
“Were the Knicks an ordinary business, they might be privately miffed that Spike took it to ESPN, but they’d rightly conclude that there was zero upside in escalating a public tangle with their most high-profile customer. The only mission would be to make it right. The situation would be finessed. They’d opt for the high road, and let Spike win this one. Right or wrong, he’s earned the goodwill. For crying out loud, the man wants to come to Knicks games . . . It is incredible, really, in what remains very much a crowded, streetwise city of schmoozers and fixers, that one of the most iconic New York brands can never read the room. The Knicks change their players and personnel—they just installed a new president, Leon Rose, best of luck to him—but the petulant vibe stays the same. They get it, you don’t, and dissent will eventually get you exiled.”
j. Gay called the Knicks “a stubborn franchise coasting on geography and the inexplicable faith of its customers. Spike Lee has paid a lot of money to watch a lot of crummy basketball. Let him use whatever door he wants.”
k. Media Story of the Week: Ben Strauss of the Washington Post on The Athletic, the haven for sportswriting in an era of media-job-slashing everywhere.
l. Great headline on the story: “Sportswriting’s future may depend on The Athletic, which is either reassuring or terrifying.” Strauss wrote:
“[The Athletic] now employs around 430 journalists in the United States and the United Kingdom, likely the largest stable of sportswriters and editors in the industry. (ESPN has around 400 comparable reporters and editors, plus hundreds more who work in TV and other parts of the newsroom.)
“As a result, it can feel like the future of a fabled profession — the sportswriter — rests on the shoulders of a company whose co-founder, Alex Mather, once clumsily promised to ‘wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed,’ and a company whose prospects remain shrouded in mystery.
“The Athletic has raised $140 million, is approaching 1 million subscribers and is valued at about $500 million, according to the company. But it’s not yet profitable. It hasn’t released any revenue figures. And it has continued to raise money, including a recent buy-in from actor Matthew McConaughey. In other words, it could represent the idyllic future of sports journalism, a venture capital-backed mirage or something in between. What’s certain, though, is what the Athletic means to the profession right now. And what it would mean if its jobs went away.
“ ‘I’m more optimistic than I have been, but you shudder to think about it’ said B.J. Schecter, a former editor in chief of Sports Illustrated and current head of the Seton Hall sports media program. ‘All this talent on the market — where are they going to go? It would be catastrophic.’ “
m. Saw Freddie Freeman mic’d up against the Red Sox the other day on ESPN. Whoever thought of that—MLB is going to expand the use of that with players this season—is pretty smart. Freeman was witty and cool. Every team has someone who would be either funny and clever or, if more serious, educational during games.
n. My wife and I are halfway through season one of “The Crown” on Netflix. Wow. That’s a great show. Claire Foy’s so good as Queen Elizabeth, and the show takes great pains to be true to the England of 60 and 70 years ago.
o. Coffeenerdness: The Italian Roast, a little extra strong, pushed me through the end of the column late Saturday night. I did note last week that Starbucks is no longer allowing personal cups to be filled in stores, at least for the time being. Seems extreme, but I get the caution of not waiting baristas handing cups that might be altogether clean, particularly in regions with high coronavirus positives.
p. Congrats to the very deserving winner of the 2020 AP Sports Editors’ Red Smith Award, Christine Brennan of USA Today. The award is given annually to a person who’d made major contributions to sports journalism. Which Brennan has. She’s such a great and intrepid reporter.
q. Understandable, but still a bummer, to see Elizabeth Warren drop out of the presidential race. Thought she was tough and extremely intelligent (“I’ve got a plan for that!”), and the failure of her campaign means that it’ll be at least another four years before a tough, smart and resourceful woman is our president. It is way past time for a woman to run our country. “One of the hardest parts of this is all those promises,” she said when she dropped out, meaning the promises she made to young girls and women about staying in the race and driving to be the first female president. “And all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years. That’s going to be hard.”
The Adieu Haiku30
Gut feeling: The Nets
will rue the day the franchise
inked Kyrie Irving.