For late May, normally a slow time in the NFL, the league’s really busy. A couple of significant rules—adding a full-time Sky Judge to every officiating crew, and revolutionizing the onside kick—will come up for votes in a special videoconference session Thursday. The league last week began directing the opening of team facilities shuttered for two months by the coronavirus. And in the first week of permissible on-field workouts this spring, coaches began to figure out how to direct players to “practice” in backyards, high schools and open fields around the United States.
The sporting world’s most sophisticated scoreboard, the 100-yard 4k job at Los Angeles’ new SoFi Stadium, went up Saturday. Pandemic-economics are hitting every team, as the realization of a $4-billion income shortfall around the league pounds teams. And hey, football: The Jets signed Super Bowl 47 MVP Joe Flacco to be a backup quarterback. Busy times.
But the thing that hit me above all others in the past few days was an eight-word sentence from the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, Troy Vincent, on the heels of the league instituting its most aggressive changes to the Rooney Rule since, well, since the advent of the Rooney Rule 17 years ago. Vincent, you’d think, would have been happy to see the doubling of mandated minority-coach interviews for every NFL head-coach vacancy, and instituting a mandatory minority-coach interview for every coordinator opening.
Instead, on a conference call discussing the Rooney Rule changes, Vincent sounded like his dog just died.
“The facts are, we have a broken system,” he said.
Vincent, of course, is one of those in the league office who has presided over the hiring process. He is African-American. Now, with only four minority head coaches and two minority GMs in the league, the realization of how far behind this league is—there were six minority coaches in 2005, eight by 2011—meant that even the improved rules came with a sense of failure. And disgust.
“Do I take it personal?” Vincent told me Friday. “Yes I do. It’s my responsibility as a professional athlete, as a man of color, as someone who bleeds the National Football League, bleeds football, it’s part of our responsibility to continue what we believe is right for our game. I’m one of the team members in this relay race.”
He said there was a point during one of the NFL’s recent internal diversity meetings when he realized how far the league was from true inclusion.
“I just went to another place,” Vincent said, “because sitting in these meetings, listening, hearing people give different excuses, like: ‘This is not the right platform’ or ‘Troy, commissioner, I hear what you’re trying to do—not sure this is the right vehicle but we understand.’
“Those are the same words that they told people in my community in the fifties, the forties, about integration of school systems, housing—but not giving us any solutions.”
That’s a pretty strong rebuke of business-as-usual in America’s biggest sports league, by the leading African-American voice in it.
Before I proceed, this is Memorial Day. And if you have a trumpet, and you have nothing to do today at 3 p.m. ET, please, do what Steve Hartman of CBS proposes.
Thank you to all who have served. We do not say it nearly enough. But we can do the things we do because of those who have served our country for decades . . . so thank you, sincerely. At 3 p.m. today, I’ll open the windows of my Brooklyn apartment, and I hope I hear at least one person do what Steve Hartman suggests.
The Lead: Minority Hires
This is going to be an uncomfortable column. It should be uncomfortable to talk about this, because what’s happening in the NFL is not right: 70 percent minority players, 13 percent minority head coaches, 6 percent minority general managers, 3 percent minority owners. What is wrong with this picture? You’re good enough to play, but not to coach, manage or own.
Last season was a good year for the NFL—strong TV ratings, new great teams emerging, a new generation of quarterbacks coming to the fore. A good year for diversity, in some ways too. Two generations ago, black quarterbacks in the NFL were rare. But last year, the top four touchdown passers in the NFL (Lamar Jackson, Jameis Winston, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott) were black. The no-doubt MVP (Jackson) was a black quarterback, as was the no-doubt Super Bowl MVP (Patrick Mahomes). This comes after a decade in which four times the top four touchdown passers, the league MVP and the Super Bowl MVP were all white quarterbacks.
Eight years ago, the NFL had an all-white officiating crew for the Super Bowl. In the Chiefs’ Super Bowl 54 win, the eight-person crew had five African-American men.
I am not suggesting that we put minority quarterbacks and minority officials in positions they are not qualified to fill, just to address some sort of numbers game—or just to make us feel better about humanity. How many teams would want Mahomes or Jackson or Wilson or Prescott or Deshaun Watson to quarterback their teams right now? Thirty-two? It’d be close to that. Regarding the officials . . . Answer this question: Was the Super Bowl well officiated? Was there a big story coming out of the Super Bowl about officiating? There was not—unless you consider a ticky-tack offensive pass interference call on Niners tight end George Kittle a big story. He did push off, though it was mild, negating a big gain in the first half. Debate whether it should have been called, but he did it. Point is, the most diverse officiating crew in Super Bowl history had an anonymous day, which is the perfect day for an officiating crew.
Fast-forward now. So how did the NFL get to the point where only six of 64 top football people in the sport—the 32 head coaches and 32 GMs—are minorities?
Simple answer: The NFL got comfortable. The NFL trusted owners to do the right thing, year after year. The NFL worked diligently when the Rooney Rule was adopted in 2003 to be sure minority coaches got their shot, and the number of minority coaches increased from three in 2003 to seven in 2006 to eight in 2011, and then, after a valley, back to eight in 2017 and 2018. Now it’s fallen to four in 2019 and 2020. So is that a temporary trough? Or is it the new real?
“We don’t talk about it,” Vincent said. “We don’t like to talk about it.”
Vincent’s three reasons for the league going backward: “Self-preservation, nepotism, and agent monopoly. Those are the realities, when you look at what has stunted the numbers. What we’ve done is, through the years, we, myself included, have allowed the self-preservation to take over. People start guarding their turf, at different levels of the personnel side of department and different levels of the coaching. The coaching community. Then there’s been gamesmanship, manipulating policy. You start coming up with different titles, protecting people from moving. I’ll give you the assistant head coach job, I’ll pay you a couple more dollars. I’ll need you to be quiet. Now, I’m protecting you, you can’t go anyplace. Over time, that has evolved and we’ve allowed it.”
Nepotism’s a tough one. Life is about connections in all businesses. But most staffs in the NFL have a coach or coaches with connections. The Vikings have three assistant coaches with fathers on the staff. Pete Carroll’s two sons, Brennan and Nate, are Seahawks assistants. Bill Belichick has hired both sons, Steve and Brian, as Patriots assistants. Andy Reid’s defensive line coach with the Chiefs is son Britt. (I’m sure I’ve missed some relatives or in-laws here.) All of those teams—Minnesota, Seattle, New England, Kansas City—win. So I’m not saying what the coaches are doing is wrong. All I’m saying is it’s an advantage non-relatives do not have.
“Other people would like to bring on their brother-in-law, or their brother, or work with their father,” Vincent said. “But it becomes a barrier to entry, a barrier to mobility. It’s a fact that continues to grow. And now they share each other’s kids. You hire my buddy or you hire my kid’s son, you’re my nephew and because they grew up in the same tree, got the same agent . . . So it’s not that it’s unfair, but it’s a challenge. We’ve got to recognize all of those things and try to break those barriers down.”
I don’t see that one ending. Put yourself in the shoes of a head coach who maybe feels he’s short-shrifted his family with his very long coaching hours over the years, and now he’s had some success and built up some juice within an organization. Now he wants help his son in the family business, or help the son of those loyal to him on his staff. Is anyone going to stop him from making a family/friend hire or two? Likely not.
The point is, whether that’s right or justified or whatever, it is a form of jumping the line.
In March 2000, Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy brought his enthusiastic secondary coach, Herman Edwards, to the annual NFL spring meeting. He asked the NFL to put Edwards on a coaches panel at the meeting, with several head coaches, discussing the issues of the day. In the audience that day was rookie Jets owner Woody Johnson. A year later, in 2001, when the Jets had an opening, they were the first team to interview Edwards—and then offered him the job before he could go on any of his other interviews. Edwards later told commissioner Paul Tagliabue the reason he got the job was the exposure that day at the league meetings to ownership, including Johnson.
Tagliabue, now retired and living in Maryland, stays informed but is not involved or influential in league events. But he was intensely interested in minority hiring late in his 17-year term as commissioner, which ended in 2006. When he left office, there were seven minority head coaches. Fourteen years later, there are four. On the phone with me Thursday, the first thing he wanted to do was put the situation in perspective. When Tagliabue took over as commissioner, there were no African-American coaches. Now 18 teams have hired at least one African-American head coach. So progress has been made. It’s been slow, but it’s not been invisible.
“I think there are two fundamental things needed,” Tagliabue told me the other day. “There must be a pipeline of good candidates, and that pipeline must have first-hand, hands-on exposure to those who make the decisions to hire coaches.”
Tagliabue is convinced that the Edwards hire is an apt allegory for today. One idea he thinks could help—but certainly not the only one: At the league meeting each year, each team brings two promising assistant coaches—some African-American, but certainly not all. Divide the coaches into four breakout sessions: 16 coaches on a panel, with eight teams (owner and GM/club president) in the audience. Over, say, 90 minutes or two hours, a discussion leader would spur the coaches on with questions and topics of the day. Afterward, owners and coaches would mingle and follow up. This wouldn’t be a one-time thing; each year, the owners would see the candidates of eight different teams from the year before.
“Another way to do that in the age of Zoom,” Tagliabue said, “would be to set up 20 top candidates on Zoom with GMs/presidents in the decision-making process.” Not all at once necessarily, but at different times of the year.
I told Vincent about Tagliabue’s pipeline idea. “The commissioner’s right,” Vincent said. “That’s an area we need improvement in. We call that informal networking opportunities. How can we create an atmosphere where the first time someone is meeting Anthony Lynn is NOT doing a formal interview? Commissioner [Goodell] has pushed us in this particular area—creating as many of those touchpoint opportunities as we can. Critical. Super critical. And we have not. We have not done that.”
Three other points . . .
• The league has to delay hiring till after the Super Bowl. The NFL got a huge black eye when none of the four openings this year went to Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who is black. The league avoided a second black eye in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Midway through the fourth, the San Francisco defense had held the Chiefs to 10 points and 240 yards. The architect of that D: Lebanese-American coordinator Robert Saleh, the darling of network producers because of his demonstrative sideline ways. Of course the Chiefs went wild in the last seven minutes, so no one cried out for Saleh to get the last remaining job—Cleveland chose Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski over him. But it’s unfair to the coaches still working to have teams finished with the process in early January. Dates of the last 10 coaching hires/commitments—After the 2018 season: Jan. 7, 8, 8, 9, 9, 20, 2019 . . . After the 2019 season: Dec. 31, 2019, then Jan. 7, 8, 12, 2020. Either coaches still coaching have to serve two masters and make commitments to coach-hungry teams during the playoffs, or they lose out on being head coaches. It’s stupid, short-sighted and unfair to the teams the head-coach wannabes should be serving. It’s also ridiculous that assistant coaches still in the playoff hunt have to spend time weighing (in secrecy) whether to stay with their teams or jump to a new team. The whole system is idiotic.
• There aren’t enough minority offensive coaching candidates to satisfy demand. “I know the NFL is going toward the offensive guys,” said Edwards, now the Arizona State head coach, “but we have the same problem in the college pipeline with the young [minority] coaches.” Namely, there aren’t many of them. After Bieniemy, there’s Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, and, if you believe in the college ascension model, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who has a lot of fans in NFL front offices. But the pipeline of talented young offensive minds, white and minority, needs a boost.
• The NFL did a smart thing is eliminating the barrier to coordinator mobility. Until last week’s vote, teams have been able to block top assistants from interviewing to be coordinators elsewhere. No more. That might have allowed Chiefs quarterback coach Mike Kafka to be the Eagles offensive coordinator this year. Kafka was blocked of the chance by the Chiefs. Allowing an assistant for Team X to interview for a coordinator job at any of the other 31 teams is a rule long overdue.
I hope one of the things I’ve done in the past few minutes has encouraged you to think of head coaches and team president and GMs promoting all coaches, not just minorities, for advancement. “One of the reasons Bill Walsh was such a good advocate for his coaches was that he advocated for coaches [of all colors],” Tagliabue said. “He’d come in with a list that included Ray Rhodes and Dennis Green [both black], and Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren [white].”
If the NFL is serious about pushing coaching or all positions and colors and putting, say, 64 assistants per year in front of the real decisions-makers, that will be a win for the NFL, and a win for football. The worst thing the league could do now would be to continue rounding up the usual suspects. What do the following coaches in the following seasons have in common:
Don Shula, in 1963.
Bill Belichick, in 2000.
Chuck Noll, in 1969.
Andy Reid, in 1999.
Bill Parcells, in 1983.
They all got hired with zero other teams pursuing them. They’re among the 13 winningest coaches ever. They all won championships. They combined to win 15 Super Bowls.
Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin won Super Bowls too. Dungy’s seventh head-coaching interview finally got him his head-coaching shot, in Tampa Bay. Tomlin was the ultimate longshot in Pittsburgh in 2007 and got the job.
You know what Dan Rooney used to say? One size does not fit all. Figure out what works for YOUR team.
Rooney didn’t chase the hot guy in his three coaching hires. Robert Kraft didn’t chase the hot guy in 2000.
Pittsburgh and New England are tied for the most Super Bowl wins ever, with six.
The last word, from a former first-round pick of the Dolphins in 1992, from a 15-year NFL player, from a former NFL Man of the Year, from a former NFL Players Association president, from a current NFL executive:
“When you talk about race, it’s disruptive,” Vincent said. “When people say, ‘Why are you injecting race into our game?’ . . . . Excuse me. Injecting? It’s who we are!”
Pause. “We’re a better society when we’re inclusive.
“Paul Brown and George Halas and Wellington Mara, they were on the front lines of these issues. When we talk about being America’s pastime, we have to represent what the people look like in the parking lot, selling merchandise, the essential workers around the stadium, the players. We have so much room to grow, to truly represent what America is.”
NFL Rule Changes10
Standing in the way of two interesting rules proposals is one very big cautionary tale. You’re probably sick of hearing about what went wrong with the preseason rule passed in 2019 that made pass-interference replay-reviewable, but it does have something to do with the Sky Judge and the onside-kick proposals that will be heard at a special league meeting Thursday, then voted on.
Quick review: After the uncalled pass-interference on the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman late in the Rams-Saints NFC title game, the outcry prompted the league to approve a rule 14 months ago that would allow coaches to throw the challenge flag on pass-interference flags they thought were in error, or to throw a challenge flag on a play the coach thought should have been interference. The rule was administered sporadically and inconsistently—to put it mildly—with many egregious calls not being overturned by review. The rule was not a one-year experiment, and it died an infamous death this off-season. It was not even put up for a vote to continue for a second year.
On Friday, when speaking to Troy Vincent about rules, he lumped in last year’s failure of the pass-interference with the Sky Judge proposal.
“We cannot fail this year,” Vincent told me. “We saw, a year ago, when [the pass-interference rule] played out, starting with myself, what we put in place last year . . . Those outcomes were not good for professional football. Because we didn’t do the proper due diligence, it played out publicly. The last thing people should be talking about is the way the game is officiated. They [officials] should be faceless objects, managing and facilitating game flow.
“We failed. I’m first in line. I shared that [with league officials]. I failed, as the leader of that department. I failed. We cannot allow that to happen again. What did we learn from that? We’ve got to do our due diligence. You can’t rush and just shove something in there without knowing all the consequences. And we found that out last year, live and in action, publicly.
“We didn’t do [our due diligence] last year, and we failed, and we failed miserably.”
Well good. Someone takes responsibility for last year’s officiating debacle. So now onto this year.
The Sky Judge. The coaches have been overwhelmingly in favor of an extra set of eyes in the booth, to call down and alert the referee if the officials on the field missed an obvious foul, or called one obviously wrong—or to get a boundary or goal-line call right. On the surface, it’s a good idea. But in calling around over the past few days, I hear the phrase “unintended consequences” over and over. It is said that on half of the plays in an NFL game, an independent set of eyes, watching keenly, could find an infraction, or an infraction to fix, on 30 or 40 percent of the plays. A defender lined up in the neutral zone; a receiver who should be on the line of scrimmage is a yard off; illegal hands to the face on a player across the field from the action and not involved in the play; a jersey grab downfield on a cornerback away from the play. So should the so-called sky judge have a conscience on what to flag and what not to flag?
“My biggest concern,” said one longtime club executive, “is how often the both official and the ref on the field will be in contact, or have conferences. Maybe they could establish a work-flow so the guy upstairs could be talking to the ref as soon as the play is over and alert him he might have something. But the guy upstairs would need to be an experienced official, I would think, or he’d be stopping the game a lot more than the players and coaches would like.”
“The concept of the eighth man in the booth has some merit,” Vincent said. “But we just don’t have the pipeline [of officials] today. Can we get there? Yes. But today, it could be a challenge.”
We’d be naïve to think some of this doesn’t happen already between a replay official and the referee on the field. It could be as simple as the replay official saying to the referee: “Maybe you should ask your guys if someone definitely saw the ball cross the plane of the goal line. Up here, I don‘t see it.” That’s not supposed to happen, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t happen on at least some crews. And on the pipeline, Vincent is probably right. Some replay officials would be good at it, I’d imagine. And maybe some recently retired officials. But 17 of them?
It’s likely the owners will vote to approve what the Competition Committee approved unanimously—experimenting with the eighth official upstairs during preseason games. Vincent said it’s also possible some form of the rule for an official upstairs will be put in place for the regular season. But that sounds like a rush job to me. Think of the mechanics. The NFL proposal says: “to allow for information to be requested and received in a manner than does not interrupt the normal flow of the game, any information must be provided to the referee when requested during a normal crew conference on the field, or prior to the play clock reaching :25 if the play clock is running.” That’s a lot to consider, especially asking the Sky Judge in 12 to 15 seconds to analyze a play on replay and buzz down to alert the ref that there’s a problem. What the league wants, I believe, is for the owners to give replay officials more leeway to communicate with on-field officials—at least for this year.
I called NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay, former NFL referee, to ask his take on the Sky Judge concept. “Finding 17 people who have the skills to do the job and then clearly defining which rules can be enforced and which rules cannot be enforced are extremely problematic” McAulay said. “Until there is a consensus on both of those issues, it would be difficult to imagine how this could be successfully implemented.” Unless the restrictions of the replay official’s power coming out of the preseason experiment are spelled out to a T.
The onside kick. Owners will vote on a proposal to allow a team up to twice per game to follow a scoring play by running one play and trying to convert on fourth-and-15 from the offensive 25-yard line. If the offense gets 15 or more yards on the play, the drive continues; if not, the defensive team takes over on a short field. The driving force for this is the recent futility of the onside kick, in the two seasons since teams have not been able to flood one side of the field to have a better shot at recovering the kick. (Onside-kick recovery rate, 2013-’17: 16.3 percent. Onside-kick recovery rate, 2018-’19: 10.5 percent.) Owners will vote yea or nay for a one-year trial. I think it could go either way.
In the past few days, I’ve heard a few people talk about the onside kick like it’s some sacrosanct play that must stay in the game. Please. I’d ask this question: Is the onside kick a matter of skill and athletic achievement? Or is it a matter of luck and chance? When the football is placed oblong on the tee, and the kicker tries to shtoink the ball off the turf so it bounces high into air so the 53rd guy on your roster can mug the 53rd guy on the other team, and your 6-5 backup wideout can go up for a rebound and try to grab the ball, or if he fails there’s a scrum for the ball on the ground and whoever can gouge the other guy’s eyes out first wins control of the ball . . . I mean, is that a test of skill?
Example: Opening day. Bucs at Saints. Tom Brady throws a touchdown to bring Tampa within 28-24 with 45 seconds left. Saints have all three timeouts left. As a football fan, do you want Bucs kicker Matt Gay coming on to try an onside kick, a play with a 10-percent success rate? Or do you want Tom Brady to take a shot to complete a pass up the seam to Rob Gronkowski, or an 18-yard out to Mike Evans?
You say that’s unfair because of course you’d rather put it on Brady’s shoulders. Okay. Pick a team. Denver? Denver’s got to get the ball back in the final minute at Kansas City, and so Drew Lock tries to find Courtland Sutton or Jerry Jeudy or Noah Fant for 16 yards with the game on the line. That’s football. That’s fun. That’s suspenseful. Give me that, any day, over the onside kick.
As I say, I don’t know how this one will go. But I know the way I hope it’ll go. I want to see the great players on the field at the most important moment of the game.
This is the fourth in a series on how NFL teams are conducting their offseason programs, and installing their 2020 plays virtually. Previously: the Chargers offensive line, the Seahawks tight ends and the Vikings wide receivers. Today, Detroit wide receivers.
The Lions are in the first week of the NFL’s “Phase II” of the offseason program. In Phase II, teams are allowed normally to work on the field without pads as they begin to install their 2020 playbooks, but this year, because all work is being done virtually, teams have to trust players to do the work they’re being assigned in the honor system. Or, in Detroit’s case, in a necessarily muddled way.
The scene: Coach Robert Prince, from his home in Jacksonville, is the longest-tenured Detroit assistant—on the Lions staff since 2014—which lends an air of normalcy to an abnormal time. He teaches his receivers for a two-hour daily session via Zoom videoconference. The roster on these Zoom sessions, and where they’re joining calls from: Danny Amendola (Austin, Texas), Marvin Jones (San Diego), Kenny Golladay, Victor Bolden and Gerramy Davis (Los Angeles), Marvin Hall (Poway, Calif.), Chris Lacy (Dallas), Tom Kennedy (Farmingdale, N.Y.), Travis Fulgham (Florida), Geronimo Allison (Green Bay), converted DB Jamal Agnew (Detroit), rookie Quinten Cephus (Arizona).
The veteran: Danny Amendola. “Control what you can control,” he says. This is the 34-year-old Amendola’s 12th NFL season. Detroit is his fourth different team, and he’s in his second year as a Lion. The toughest thing, he told me, is that both of the local gyms in Austin where he works out have had to close because of the pandemic, so he had to improvise. He has re-located a weight room—with a dumbbell circuit, Kettlebells, and traditional weights and bars—at the back-house of an Austin friend. That’s where he lifts. He works out at several other places, doing Yoga at his home and throwing with NFL quarterbacks Baker Mayfield (Browns) at Austin’s Westlake High and with Colt McCoy (Giants) on varying days; on this day, he had Yoga at 2:15, and a throwing session with McCoy at 3. “I’ve been throwing twice a week for about a month with Baker,” he said. He also flew (“private,” he said, “being very safe”) to Atlanta for four days of throwing with Matthew Stafford.
“We’re going to miss 14 on-field sessions of OTAs, most likely,” Amendola said. “That’s going to be the toughest thing to get over. But everybody’s in the same boat. For us, the good thing is we got the offense installed last year [under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell], and we’ve got a lot of the same people back this year.”
The assistant coach: Robert Prince. He’s gotten some advice on distance learning from the two teachers in his family—his father and sister. Their advice: “Over-communicate.” In the first three weeks of Zoom teaching, Prince said he explained the whys of every route. If a player wondered why he was running a specific depth on a certain route, knowing the quarterback wouldn’t see him in his prime progression, Prince might explain that he was running a route to get the receiver inside of him open and free from a bashing in the five-yard bump zone. In this week, Prince urged his players to find space to do their route work outside—but he knows it’s hard for players like Golladay, because there aren’t many public open fields in the Los Angeles area, which is still discouraging people from using open facilities for workouts.
There’s another factor for the Detroit coaches. Prior to the off-season program, coach Matt Patricia told each assistant to come up with a plan for every player to work on a weakness, or on an aspect of his game that could be improved. With Amendola, Prince is emphasizing footwork. Some offenses in the NFL have different ways of coming in and out of breaks, or coming off the line of scrimmage. Amendola is working on aligning his footwork with the way Detroit teaches it.
The head coach: Matt Patricia. You’d think, with a 9-22-1 record in two years with the Lions and knowing the pressure’s on in year three, that Patricia would be all wound up by the coaching inconveniences of a coronavirus-plagued offseason. He’s not. In fact, four times in 30 minutes on Thursday, he emphasized the most important thing about this offseason—and in fact, this year as a whole—is his players and staff coming through it healthy. “Football’s important to all of us,” he said. “But I don’t want to see any of our people on ventilators.”
Similarly, as individual team-instructed workouts of players began outside last week, Patricia said he wanted players who could to work out at local fields—but he didn’t want to put pressure on them if their lives were chaotic. Also: In some ways, he sounded like the adversity of this spring would help him. “My biggest struggle in the job is work-life balance,” he said. When he was a kid in upstate New York, he bonded with his dad over “Monday Night Football.” With his son Dominic getting more interested in football, Patricia said it was fun during the draft to spill the beans to Dominic that they were about to pick Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah before the world knew.
• Patricia also praised his players, including Jerrod Davis and Matthew Stafford, for coronavirus-related charity work. “The whole team has been great in helping people in Detroit and in this state,” he said.
• Patricia, a former engineer, actually partnered with Davis and a Detroit nonprofit that employs single parents to mass-make surgical masks to help on the front lines. Patricia has spent his pro coaching career in a Belichickian devotion to the job. But this offseason has driven him to a more balanced life. The X’s and O’s, he said, are important, but more important are the caliber of people carrying out the duties drawn out as the X’s and the O’s. I’d have expected Patricia to be put off by the inconveniences of remote learning and, potentially, zero offseason practices. That’s not at all how he sounded. That’s the kind of attitude that a coach who’s been seen as uptight at times will need when his team shows up to play in a tough division.
Quotes of the Week20
“I know this isn’t the graduation ceremony that you and your families had envisioned. But the world is in a different place today than it was just a few weeks ago. And as Red Raiders, we’re built to persevere in difficult times … This is a day to celebrate, to look back on the friends you made, the professors who have changed your life and the memories that you will cherish forever. Go out and win your Super Bowl. Congrats, Class of 2020.”
—Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, via Adam Teicher of ESPN.com, in his short virtual graduation speech to the 2020 graduating class at his alma mater, Texas Tech, on Saturday.
“We fully expect that we will have positive cases that arise this fall, because we think this disease will remain endemic in society.”
—NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills, on the specter of COVID-19 testing for players during the 2020 season.
“It was like having Jim Crow laws.”
—Former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who is African-American, to the Baltimore Sun, on an NFL rules proposal that was tabled that would have given NFL teams better draft position for hiring minority coaches and general managers.
“I think Brian Hoyer will be the starter week one.”
—Former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich, on ESPN, on New England’s summer quarterback battle.
—New York Post headline in Sunday’s editions, regarding the news that Eli Manning had joined Twitter.
Joe Flacco, neck surgery and all, seems like a marvelous fit, financial and otherwise, for the New York Jets. He may not be ready to throw at full velocity till Sept. 1 because of recent neck surgery, but Sept. 1 is not when the Jets would need him, if they do. The $1.5-million they’re spending on him is a great backup-QB insurance policy for a team in a division that looks suddenly wide open.
Remember, skeptical Jets fans: You’re not buying a starting quarterback in Flacco. You’re buying someone who could win some games with the season on the line—because he’s won some big games in the past. Examples why this was a smart signing by GM Joe Douglas:
• Flacco’s best winning percentage against a division? It’s against the AFC East. He’s 7-0 lifetime against Miami, 3-1 against Buffalo . . . and he’s won two playoff games in Foxboro in four tries. In those four games, the Ravens outscored New England by 27 points.
• In the 2012 playoffs, Flacco went 4-0, beat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road on successive weekends, and had 11 touchdown passes and zero picks in the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. Any of those three nuggets in that last sentence would be highly impressive. All happened in the span of one month.
• The Jets, per the estimable Rich Cimini of ESPN.com, have lost 11 straight games when a backup quarterback starts. All the more reason to get one who can win.
As a freshman cornerback at Wisconsin in 1988, Troy Vincent occasionally lined up in practice to cover a 19-year-old freshman receiver from Texas, Chris Ballard.
Yes, that Chris Ballard, now the GM of the Indianapolis Colts.
King of the Road
It’s week 11 of not traveling for me, and week four of bringing back the. . .
CLASSIC TRAVEL NOTE
This is one of my favorites. It’s from July 2010.
The Westin Hotel/Michigan Avenue in Chicago has long been a hotel of choice for me, because of its proximity to everything in such a great city. Last week, on my last travel leg of vacation, it was also the scene of something I never could have expected: an argument that, in 10 seconds, almost escalated into a hotel-lobby brawl.
There are three elevators in the lobby of the Westin, and at rush-hour check-in last Tuesday, two were out of service. So when my wife and I got to the bank of elevators around 6 p.m., there were 15 or so people waiting for the one working lift. We waited two, three, four minutes. Now there were 25 or 30 people waiting. And then a 35ish man wedged in to the left of the crowd waiting for the elevator. He looked at the line of people and looked peeved. We all were, of course. Then the door opened and 10 or 12 people came off the one working elevator. And the 35ish man took three quick steps to the elevator.
“Hey, hey, hey,” I said. “Come on, buddy. That’s not right.”
The guy stopped. He looked at me. Angry. “Don’t tell me what to do,” he snarled. “I wasn’t going on.”
“Yes you were,” I said. “I saw what you were doing. That’s not right.”
He took a couple of steps toward me.
“I’m a Starwood Preferred member,” he said angrily.
Like that made cutting the line OK. “You’re also an a——,” I said.
Now he walked the final three steps toward me. “You wanna step outside?” Mr. Starwood Preferred said. He bumped my chest hard. “People who use that word are looking for a fight,” Mr. Starwood Preferred said. “People who use that word to me, I go outside with. You wanna go outside?”
Now the elevator was full, and the door closed.
“No, I don’t,” I said.
He was breathing hard on me. “You’re a big talker,” he said, stepping back a step or two.
“And you’re still an a——,” I said. Oh, so clever.
He stepped toward me again. Almost simultaneously, a front-desk gal near the bank of elevators chirped, “I can take a few people up the service elevator!” My wife sidestepped the guy. I walked toward the door, me staring at Mr. Starwood Preferred the whole way. “—- you, ————,” Mr. Starwood Preferred hissed at me.
“Have a nice day,” I said, and boarded the service elevator.
I don’t know exactly why, but I almost wish Mr. Starwood Preferred had taken a swing at me. Even if he’d pummeled me (and he may well have), he’d have known that at least one person out of 30 sniffed out the real idiot in the crowd. Then again, I like my nose unbroken.
Tweets of the Week40
Corporal Pat Tillman#MemorialDayWeekend pic.twitter.com/wFExVaMP39
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) May 24, 2020
Tapper is a CNN anchor, feting the late Tillman on Memorial Day weekend.
Today, our Flowery Branch facility opened for the first time in 67 days.
Our President, Rich McKay, explains how our facility will look different moving forward. pic.twitter.com/eXUykDXKFH
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) May 19, 2020
Welcome @EliManning, In typical fashion, you never showed up until the 4th quarter anyway 😜 https://t.co/Wbun1VS2A0
— Tom Brady (@TomBrady) May 23, 2020
Brady, welcoming Eli Manning to Twitter.
Still waiting to be twitter verified, starting to feel like something else I’ve been waiting for… @verified is this about not having a Super Bowl win?
— Ken Anderson (@KenAndersonNFL) May 19, 2020
Anderson, the former Bengals quarterback, was on the losing side in Super Bowl 16, a 26-21 win by the Niners.
Peyton, two words, if Tom and Phil start coming back…”Philly Special.” Go win it. #TheMatch2
— Nick Foles (@NickFoles) May 24, 2020
Send your email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter.
Interesting question. From Chris, via Twitter: “Why is the alternate onside kick proposal only allowed twice per game? Wouldn’t it be more exciting to allow it as often as possible?”
Chris refers to the proposal (which I wrote about earlier in the column) to allow a team to choose a maximum of twice per game whether, following a scoring play, it either lines up to kick off or chooses to take the ball on its 25-yard line and attempt a fourth-and-15 play. If the team converts, it continues the drive on first down. If the team fails to convert, the ball is turned over with Team B taking it at the spot where the fourth-and-15 play left it. My gut feeling is, Chris, that the NFL doesn’t want to scare off teams thinking of voting for the play with the thought that this play could happen 12 times in a game. Usually, on counter-culture ideas like this one, those pushing it want to pass legislation that could be expanded in the future. For now, it’s likely teams would use it only late in games anyway; the chance of converting a fourth-and-15 play is less than 1 in 5, per NFL metrics. So why would a team, even one with a mobile quarterback with speed receivers going against a team with a poor secondary, take the chance on a play like this very often, knowing that an incomplete pass gives the opposition first-and-10 already in field-goal range?
On Matt Rhule. From Richard O’Hagan, of Beaconsfield, England: “I enjoyed your piece on Matt Rhule, but wondered if you thought that the lockdown might be easier for him and his inexperienced staff, because they have fewer preconceptions about how things should be done in the NFL? Might it not be a lot more difficult for coaches who have had three or four years of doing things a certain way, or for coaches like Ron Rivera who are having to learn both a new team and a new methodology?”
Good point, Richard, and you prompted me to think of something I wish I’d written about last week in my Rhule-Panthers story. Because a guy like Matt Rhule—and his first-time NFL coordinators, Phil Snow and Joe Brady—will be wide open to every player on the roster making the final 53, what especially hurts them is no exposure in live OTA practices this spring. This is the time, and in the early days of training camp, that undrafted free-agents like Austin Ekeler with the Chargers in 2018, and Brent Grimes in Atlanta and Tony Romo with Dallas 15 or so years ago, really started to make their marks. Rhule and the coaches, after seeing their crop of rookies, would have the time to mentally formulate how many young and unproven prospects they’d want to keep to form a nucleus. And now, if their time with the youngsters is limited, who knows how that will affect the formation of the early Panther roster.
I like the way you think. From Sylvain: “I don’t know any of the NFL owners, but I’m sure most (if not all) are decent men. A decent man is not a decent man because he obeys the law, but because he doesn’t need a law. Therefore I’d suggest that the NFL spend more money in the education of minority football coaches and GMs so that a pipeline exists and can support the need for diversity in the league. I remember Bill Walsh initiated such a program, and I’m sure the NFL has today something equivalent. Education is more valuable than repression, don’t you think?”
Paul Tagliabue’s point about a pipeline that is real with real access to the owners and GMs/presidents who run the searches is something like what you’re talking about. I’m in favor of both.
Phyllis George, O.J. Simpson and me. From Brian Biggane: “This story is a lot less about Phyllis, whom I agree did a lot for the game and was underrated, and more about O.J. As the Bills’ beat writer for the 30,000-circulation daily Niagara Gazette in 1975, I asked O.J. after a Sunday home game if we could do a one-on-one the following Wednesday and he said sure. When I got to practice that day the place was abuzz: Phyllis was up in PR man Budd Thalman’s office, waiting to speak with you-know-who. Discouraged, I took my time walking from the field back to the locker room, figuring I’d be waiting an hour or more for my interview. The minute I walked in I was shocked to see O.J. walking toward me still in his sweats. I blurted out, ‘What about …?’ He cut me off, saying, ‘We set this up Sunday. She can wait.’ We ducked into a side room and for the next 30 minutes I got the best one-on-one with him in my three years on the beat while Thalman paced outside, fuming. When we were done I thanked O.J., we shook hands and Thalman hustled him away. For years I told people O.J. was the best athlete I’d dealt with. Then came Brentwood.”
That’s a good one, Brian. Thanks.
10 Things I Think I Think50
1. I think watching Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady for a couple hours of golf Sunday was a relief and fun—not to mention, holy crap, how could anyone play semi-competently in a driving rainstorm! But it was also cool to see two guys who are not professional golfers put their sporting dignity on the line and hit some great and some not-so-great golf shots . . . yet understand that the real purpose here was to raise a staggering $20 million for pandemic relief. Good for these four great athletes and caring people—and good for the others like Russell Wilson who cameoed into the telecast to donate thousands of meals for the hungry to Feeding America. Sunday was a good day for the country.
2. I think something got lost in translation last week in the debate over trying to incentivize hiring minority coaches and GMs with draft picks. A proposal to mandate that teams interview two minority candidates for a head-coaching opening is a step passed, and was widely viewed as a step in the right direction for racial progress in the NFL. But improving the draft position for a team that hires a minority coach is a slap in the face to minorities; that measure was withdrawn without a vote by owners. Both are attempts to move owners to hire more minority coaches.
And though I understand the Louis Riddick point of view that people in an organization might look at an incoming minority coach or GM with the was-he-really-worthy stigma, I wonder this — let’s say the Cowboys hired Eric Bieniemy instead of Mike McCarthy as head coach this year. Let’s say Dallas went 8-8 in 2020 and earned the 82nd pick in the third round of the 2021 draft. As the benefit for hiring Bieniemy, who is black, Dallas would have its pick improved by six slots. Do you think Jerry Jones would be motivated to chose Bieniemy over McCarthy because it would allow him to pick 76th instead of 82nd in the third round 16 months down the road? So maybe there’d be a stigma—but I don’t see the draft-pick thing motivating owners to pick a different coach or GM than the one they thought was best for the team.
3. I think, however, it’s clear that most in position to be picked as a coach of GM of color believe the rule would have meant they were almost certainly viewed as lesser candidates and so needed a competitive spur to make teams hire them. I don’t think that’s why the proposal was advanced, but it’s certainly how it was viewed by those it would affect the most.
4. I think I wonder if I’m the only one who is worn out by the endless discussion of Dak Prescott’s contract. The reporting, the arguing, the talk-showing, the endless prattle that goes absolutely nowhere. It’s not a winnable argument. Does anyone care whether Prescott signs a four- or a five-year contract? Has there been one call to a Texas talk show debating whether he should make $33 million a year or $35 million?
5. I think no one follows sports to read and hear about contracts. It could be that it will be important when July 15 comes and goes, and Prescott plays on a one-year deal and says he’ll follow the Kirk Cousins model and just play out his contract. Now that will be significant. But until then, collective sports media, do us a favor. Leave it alone. It’s boring. It doesn’t matter. It’s a dead end.
6. I think no one asked me, but a few thoughts on the nine-part Tom Brady doc due next year on ESPN:
• Gotham Chopra, the film maker and Brady business partner, is very good. His “Tom vs. Time” six-part series in 2018 is the most illuminating thing ever done on Brady, by anyone. An encore for that show will be tough. I’ll never forget Chopra capturing with a back-seat camera Brady driving away from Gillette Stadium on a pitch-black September night after losing the 2017 opener embarrassingly to Kansas City, and Gisele Bundchen doing everything she could to empathize with Brady and try to life him up—and Brady just sitting there, driving and stewing. Brilliant. Those are the moments that would make the nine episodes of his Super Bowl chases special, and I hope Chopra has a good plan to harvest some.
• Can Chopra make a deal with NFL Films to get some deep-vault stuff on some of the big Brady games and times early in his career? It’s going to be a challenge to make those games come to life without some you-are-there stuff from Brady and mates two decades ago.
• Of course, this could be and probably will be a totally different way of storytelling. My guess is the next two months will be crucial for Chopra and Brady to get a lot of the work done for the series, because Brady won’t want to take time during the season to invest in it.
• I’m a bystander—I don’t know Michael Jordan, and I know Brady some but I’m certainly not tight with him. But Brady doesn’t seem to have the same cutthroat nature as Jordan. Brady’s got some of it, as any high-achieving athlete must have. But I don’t think Brady has a Jerry Krause or a Horace Grant in his life, and the kind of daily foils that made life for teammates miserable. So I hope there is no push from ESPN to Be Like Mike and push storylines that aren’t real. Brady wouldn’t stand for that anyway.
7. I think there’s a clarification on this Steelers ticket story from Friday. You may have heard the Steelers are holding back 50 percent of their ticket allotment from being sold for the 2020 season. That’s not the case. The real story is the team—which has a June 1 deadline for season-ticket payments for the 2020 season—is holding back 50 percent of the tickets they sell as single-game tickets. In other words, not many … maybe a couple of thousand. So if you’ve got Steeler season-tickets, they’re not endangered for this season. (Hopefully if you’ve got them and want to keep them, you can in this time of economic turmoil.) When I first heard this story the other day, I thought: How in the world will the Steelers decide which 50 percent of their fan base to turn away? I’m glad the real story is a lot less interesting.
8. I think Mike Lombardi writes a great column at The Athletic.
9. I think if I ran an NFL team, or owned one, and Roger Goodell came to me today and said: “You’ve got a choice: open Sept. 13 with no fans, and gradually get them back in the stadium in October and be back to capacity by Thanksgiving if there’s no significant flareup of the pandemic—or wait till mid-October and start play at 50 percent capacity, with more fans in stadiums as the year progresses” . . . I’d vote to play Sept. 13, on schedule. Because we just don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know if there’s going to be a second wave around Thanksgiving or later. I’d rather just play the games and try to get fans back when it’s universally safe than hold off, play four or five weeks, then have the disease rear its head and cause the season to stop. No guarantee that this will happen, of course, but if the environment is good to play, even without fans, I’d want to play.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Football Story of the Week: Dan Pompei of The Athletic, on the football life and times of Bears offensive lineman Kyle Long, gone from the game at 30. If you want to know what the real world of the NFL trenches is like, read this Pompei masterwork. Writes Pompei:
Why quit, at 30? A lot can be explained in 16 surgery scars.
. . . In the span of a month in the winter of 2017-18, Long has surgeries on his neck, shoulder, elbow and chest. During the neck procedure, doctors discover the cadaver vertebrae they have is too small for his neck, which is about the size of some waists. When Long awakens from anesthesia after four and a half hours, the first pain he feels is in his hip. He looks down and sees a large scar. Surprise. Bone was taken from his hip to use in his neck.
Then comes a triple surgery in Los Angeles on his shoulder, elbow and chest. Afterward, another violent bout of vomiting along with full-body cramps. His father follows him around a hotel room with a bucket.
b. That’s not every player’s version of the football experience. But it certainly is the experience for some unfortunate souls.
c. Luckily, per Over The Cap, Long made $37 million in his seven-year career. I bet he’d say it was worth it. I wonder.
d. Thanks, everyone, for your many responses to my wavering on “After Life,” the Ricky Gervais show on Netflix. I wondered after being thoroughly depressed by the first two episodes whether to continue. By a vote of 16-1 via email, you told me to stick with it, and so my wife and I did. Now we’re binging through season two and mostly liking it quite a bit. Gervais, of course, is talented, but I might love the cast and the English village and countryside more. And the dog. That incredible Shepherd, or Shepherd mix. So I’m sticking with it.
e. Column of the Week: Kevin Sherrington of the Dallas Morning News, on the life of a sportswriter without sports. Nice and peaceful and pensive. Six months without being in a press box. Long time for someone in this business.
f. Writes Sherrington, about his life at home north of the Metroplex:
The quarters of our confinement: a three-bedroom ‘50s ranch typical of our North Dallas neighborhood when we bought it in 1992 but practically extinct these days. Architectural wonders loom all around us now. Funny thing is, no matter how grand they build them, they still live across the street from me. Other than the old, red F-150 parked out back, the only distinguishing feature of our humble abode is the screen porch. Frankly, we haven’t made much use of it over the years. Too cold in the winter; too hot otherwise. Or that was always the excuse. Maybe we were just too busy to enjoy the pastoral pleasures a screen porch evokes.
A fountain gurgles in a nearby bed of ferns under the canopy of a Japanese maple. A cocky blue jay primps in the basin. Across the alley, the breeze rippling the leaves in a three-story cottonwood sighs like a wave dying on a beach. And then there’s the sound a screen door makes after you let it go: one bark, then two. Reminds me of my grandmother’s house, a two-bedroom cottage where she raised 11 children on the corner of two dirt roads in Henrietta. No, not Troy Aikman’s Henryetta. The town down the road from Wichita Falls. Larry McMurtry country.
g. That’s the kind of story I could read again. Good work, Kevin.
h. Baseball Story of the Week: Joel Sherman of the New York Post, 30 years after the phenom of phenoms, Gregg Jefferies, had a disastrous run trying be the next great New York baseball player.
i. Man, the Mets clubhouse seemed so toxic, so insular, so Sopranos-like to any outsider. You’ve got to feel for Jefferies, and yet, amazingly, Sherman reports he loves the guys who contributed to his New York ruination today.
If the term did not exist, then Jefferies could pioneer the concept of “wrong place, wrong time.” Wrong place? In 1988 where would be the worst location to send a 19-year-old who was lacking in self-awareness, who was bathed in self-interest, who was insular yet familial and a bit aw-shucks and was hailed as the next great player at a time when the sport did not love the concept of who is next as much as it was threatened by it?
Sending Gregg Jefferies to the 1988 New York Mets was like sending a choirboy to Sing Sing. The team had mainly been together for five years, played hard, lived harder, fought among each other but fought outsiders with more ferocity. The infighting, if anything, strangely strengthened the internal loyalty. That unity made the group particularly savage turf protectors.
j. Maybe it’s age—I turn 63 in a couple of weeks—but I’m really becoming fond of my 35-minute-ish afternoon nap.
k. Coffeenerdness: I’m getting into these canned coffees, particularly those made by Rise, Illy and La Colombe. I saw a Maxwell House ad for an iced coffee, and if I find that in the store, I’ll try it.
l. Front Page of the Week: Sunday’s New York Times, as we closed in on 100,000 deaths due to the coronavirus.
m. Grateful to see we’re not forgetting about those we’ve lost, on the front page of a big newspaper. Those who died, and who left loved ones, should not be forgotten. Including these people:
Robert Lee Amos, 66, Columbus, Ind., expert marksman and firearms instructor.
Merle C. Dry, 55, Tulsa, Okla., ordained minister.
Harold Reisner, 78, Pittsburgh, took furniture repair to an art form.
Hailey Herrera, 25, New York City, budding therapist with a gift for empathy.
Cornelius Lawyer, 84, Bellevue, Wash., sharecropper’s son.
Israel Sauz, 22, Broken Arrow, Okla., new father.
Mike Field, 59, Valley Stream, N.Y., first responder during the 9/11 attacks.
Clara Louise Bennett, 91, Albany, Ga., sang her grandchildren a song on the first day of school each year.
Merrick Dowson, 67, San Francisco, nothing delighted him more than picking up the bill.
n. The Times ran a thought on each of the 1,000. It’s overwhelming to read. And you realize it’s only 1 percent, and I thought how great a tribute it was, because now all those people are not just statistics. They are people.
The Adieu Haiku
Service members everywhere:
Thanks for everything.