The Drew Brees part of this column will be everlasting. But part of this column, about the dawn of the annual crazy free-agency cycle, will be obsolete this afternoon, so please speed-read accordingly. Starting at noon ET today, you’ll begin to hear the drumbeat of major moves of the 52-hour (aptly named) legal tampering period in NFL free agency.
Last year, 27 players agreed on deals to change teams in free-agency agreements announced on the first day of the period (big-money deals included Byron Jones to Miami, James Bradberry to the Giants, Jack Conklin to Cleveland), and three very big trades (DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona, DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis, Stefon Diggs to Buffalo). Thirty headlines last year on day one. This year? In many markets, crickets. And as one prominent agent told me, “The sticker shock this year won’t be big deals that shock the public. It’ll be players coming to terms with making 40 cents on the dollar compared to what they thought they’d make before the cap went down so much.”
Forty cents on the dollar might be generous. I think in many cases it’ll be a lot less.
I’ll explain why the market will be so bad, why players will be motivated to take crappy one-year deals instead of disappointing multi-year offers, and why the smartest GMs will sit on the sidelines and let the early spenders max out their credit cards before swooping in to pick at the carcasses in two or three weeks.
But first Brees. One of the most compelling careers in NFL history deserves its due.
The Lead: Drew Brees
The news about Drew Brees is unsurprising. At 42, after 20 years quarterbacking the Saints and Chargers, he announced his retirement Sunday afternoon. Actually, he didn’t announce it—his four children did, in a cute Instagram post at 5:09 p.m. ET, eight weeks after his last NFL game. This morning, he announced he’ll be joining NBC Sports as an NFL analyst.
The newsy part of the Brees retirement: The Saints, assuming they can sign Jameis Winston (likely), will bring Winston and Taysom Hill to a training-camp competition for the starting job, and may the best quarterback win. Barring a surprise, that’s how New Orleans will enter the season—with Winston or Hill the starting quarterback. (Could Russell Wilson, who has listed the Saints as a desirable destination if Seattle trades him, enter the derby? Yes, of course, but there’s no indication the Seahawks will put their franchise quarterback on the block.) The Saints have a couple of moves left before they have to be under the league’s $182.5-million cap figure, but that will happen by Wednesday.
Brees leaves after an extraordinary career as a football player and humanitarian. If you doubt the humanitarian part, you’re entitled to your opinion, but you’d be wrong. I’ll get to that. But the 32nd pick in the draft 20 years ago rose from being replaced by Philip Rivers in San Diego and being flunked on his free-agent physical by the Dolphins in 2006 to signing with moribund New Orleans 15 years ago Sunday . . . and going on to throw for more yards than any player in NFL history.
Brees the player, at 6 feet in heels, was great enough. But it’s entirely possible that no player has meant as much to a city and a state as Brees meant to New Orleans and Louisiana, arriving when the region was irretrievably wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, when a third of the populace had moved away because of the ruination of the area. A month after Brees signed with the Saints in free agency, mayor Ray Nagin said he was hoping the Saints would stay for at least one year so the city didn’t completely lose hope that it could survive. I will never forget riding in the black car with first-round pick Reggie Bush from the airport to the Saints’ facility the day he’d been drafted in the first round. Bush stared out of his window at the wreckage of the city, and his wide eyes said it all. What have I gotten myself into? He had to be thinking that.
Sunday night, I asked GM Mickey Loomis, who recruited Brees along with coach Sean Payton, about the period 15 years ago when Brees was teetering on the brink of coming—or not.
“Think of what we were up against,” Loomis said. “Coming off Katrina. Coming off a 3-13 season. New coach. Drew couldn’t have named one player on our roster, I bet. We were competing against the great Nick Saban for him. What did I have to sell? An energetic coach, plus a place he could turn around. That’s it. He came to visit us first, before Miami, and we tried to get him to commit before he got on the plane to Miami. He wouldn’t do it.
“Then we got him. Think how fortunate we were. Of the 10 coaching jobs open that year, we had to be last. We got the best coach in Sean, and we got the best player in Drew. He came to us when we were at the lowest of the lows, and he helped bring us to the highest of the highs.
“I can’t think of a player in my lifetime who meant as much to a team and a city as Drew meant to the Saints and New Orleans.”
Turns out Brees was a perfect match with Payton, who wanted a coach on the field and an accuracy machine. Brees was both. He was more. Three years after he signed with New Orleans, the Saints finished the year 13-3, with the top seed in the NFC playoffs. But before the playoffs (and the run to the only Super Bowl in franchise history) began, on the Thursday night in the Saints’ bye week, Brees sat in a private room at the luxe New Orleans eatery Commander’s Palace with some of the city’s biggest boosters. I was a fly on the wall that night. What I saw:
Brees convened what he calls his “secret society.” In the dining room were seven of the city’s richest men and biggest boosters, power players who have anonymously teamed with Brees for such post-Katrina causes as the refurbishment of Tad Gormley Stadium in City Park and the funding of the New Orleans Ballet Association’s flagging after-school program. Brees calls the group (two of the members were absent that night) the Quarterback Club. As a token of thanks for contributions past—each man gave at least $25,000 in 2009—and future, Brees dispensed black-and-gold cuff links engraved with “QB.”
“I’d like to propose a toast,” he said, lifting his champagne flute. “All of you care so deeply about the future of this city, not just from a business perspective but from a philanthropic perspective, and it’s so desperately needed right now. A toast to you, and to New Orleans!”
“Hear, hear! To New Orleans!” the group responded.
Earlier in the Saints’ bye week, their quarterback had spent two hours working on another of his pet projects, the Lusher Charter School, for which he’d help raise the money to build a new football field, weight room, scoreboard and running track after the September 2005 hurricane had devastated the facilities and the surrounding Uptown neighborhood. Now, nine days before New Orleans’s playoff opener against the Cardinals in the Superdome, Brees chatted up and rubbed elbows with the men he knew could help him do real good for the city.
“Some guys might be playing 10 hours of Madden today, which is cool,” Brees said. “But this is my outlet. This is what I love to do.
“When I visited New Orleans, I saw it all, the good and the bad. The city was devastated. Brittany [Drew’s wife] and I saw the Lower Ninth Ward. Unbelievable. Cars lying on top of houses. Boats through living-room windows. I felt like I was driving through a World War II documentary. But I just thought, This is a chance to be part of something incredible—the rebuilding of an American city. I felt like it was a calling. Like I was destined to be here.”
That is part of the Brees story. But the football is the biggest part. In NFL history, it’s hard to imagine a better coach-quarterback combination than Brees and Payton. Payton had the imagination to know what part of a defense was vulnerable, and how to pick on it. Brees had the accuracy to do the picking.
For the Saints, Payton was the coder, Brees the executer of the coding. In November 2018, in a meeting room at the Ritz-Carlton just off the French Quarter, I watched the Saints’ Saturday night offensive meeting before a game against the Eagles. The final 40 minutes of the night was Brees sitting with the offensive coaches, quarterback telling play-caller what he wanted to run. By my count, Brees okayed 46 plays that night, 46 plays that he liked a lot out of the 18 sections of Payton’s playsheet. When I asked Payton later how many of those 46 plays he hoped to call the next day, the coach said, “All of them.”
I remember Bloodhound 21, a call in the tight red zone to take advantage of a young Philadelphia secondary, a quick call to try to catch the defense swimming. Brees loved it. Payton called it, and it resulted in a three-yard touchdown laser from Brees to newbie Austin Carr. “Sean’s okay when Drew says, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ “ Carr said. “They’ve found the sweet spot in dealing with each other.”
Brees was always a prep nerd. He and Tom Brady, so similar. And Peyton Manning. I remember asking Brees a couple of years ago about advice he’d have for young quarterbacks. “So much of our league is about results, right?” he said. “We’re in a results-driven business. But truly, it is about the process. If you focus on the process, the result will take care of itself. So, simply that: Develop what your process is. Focus on that process. Too many times, we get frustrated because the result didn’t match up with the process. But if you just focus on the process, eventually you get to the point where good process will consistently equal good result.”
Good process on the field led to an amazing career. Good process off the field led to contributing to New Orleans coming out of its Katrina funk. Brees will be missed by New Orleans the city and New Orleans the football team. But he’ll be forever a beacon for what’s good about football, and what’s good about what football players can do for a city.
BREES POSTSCRIPT, Monday, 7:45 a.m. ET: As suspected, Brees announced today on NBC’s “Today” show that he’s joining the network as a football announcer. He’ll work in the booth as analyst at Notre Dame games alongside Mike Tirico this fall, and also work in the NBC studio Sunday night on “Football Night in America.” In addition, he’s expected to work on other sports programming in the NBC family, such as the Olympics and the Kentucky Derby. NBC has been after Brees for the last couple of years. One thing I’ve seen in my years at NBC is how the network works with new broadcasters to be sure they’re put in position to succeed, and so Brees will get the support from the Sunday night team that he needs. “My first thought on Drew and TV is he’ll be successful because he is so meticulous and he prepares so well,” Loomis said. That’s the feeling around football for sure. The shift from field to booth is tougher than it looks. Brees will learn that being good on TV is not just studying the teams and knowing everything about them. It’s also having that down-home way of communicating with an audience. Brees ought to be able to figure that part out too.
Free Agency Primer10
What you need to know entering the murky waters of the next two days:
• The market is worse than you think. Last week, I used a chart in this column comparing the average cap space available this year entering free agency per team ($13.06 million) to last year’s cap space per team ($43.33 million). But I should have used an asterisk. That doesn’t include the rookie pool that teams have to budget for, which averages between $7 million and $10 million per team. So you see Kansas City firing both starting tackles and you think, “They’re $12 million under the cap—they can buy one this week in a depressed market.” Budgeting for the rookie pool, though, would leave KC somewhere near $5 million under the cap in reality. But overall, teams last year entered the league year with about $1.3 billion to spend on free agents and rookies; this year the number is about $420 million. So it’s no exaggeration to think you’ll see one-third of the early action as you did last year.
• Money spent on the top end of free agency is usually wasteful. “Usually” is being charitable. In the last three free-agency seasons, the Jets guaranteed six imports more than $10 million: linebacker C.J. Mosley ($43 million), cornerback Trumaine Johnson ($34 million), running back Le’Veon Bell ($27 million), center Connor McGovern ($18 million), wideout Jamison Crowder ($17 million), and linebacker Avery Williamson ($16 million). Out of that $155 million in guarantees, the Jets got one good player—Crowder. The rest are either long gone or major disappointments. Check out the biggest contracts in free agency over the past three years, all those for $70 million or more, and what has become of each player:
- Trey Flowers, Detroit ($90 million). Nine sacks in two years for an edge rusher.
- Nick Foles, Jacksonville ($88 million). Made $38 million in two Jacksonville/Chicago years while going 2-9.
- C.J. Mosley, Jets ($85 million). Two years, one opt-out, 121 snaps, earned $29 million.
- Kirk Cousins, Minnesota ($84 million). Good NFL starting quarterback.
- Byron Jones, Miami ($82.5 million). Per Pro Football Focus, allowed a passer rating of 117.0 in 2020, second-worst among corners who played 500 snaps or more.
- Trumaine Johnson, Jets ($72.5 million). Benched for good in second Jet season. Cut after the year. One of the worst free-agent signings in history.
- Robert Quinn, Chicago ($70 million). Two sacks in 15 games in first Bear season, 2020.
I know—most of these players won’t be around to earn the full contract, except for Cousins. But it gives you an idea of how bad an idea it is to jump into the market and overpay stars who are not stars.
• They will be paid. Some players will get big money early. Those who I think get good money this week: Giants DT Dalvin Tomlinson, Bucs edge-rusher Shaq Barrett, Lions wideout Kenny Golladay, Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, Niners left tackle Trent Williams, Pats guard Joe Thuney, Titans TE Jonnu Smith.
• Wait out the spenders. The market is so deep this year, with good players on the street (Trai Turner, Kevin Zeitler, Bud Dupree, Casey Hayward) who have either been released or are free agents. After two weeks, my bet is you could pick from this list of players with good football left and buy for one year, $3 million or less: tight end Jared Cook; wideouts John Brown, Demarcus Robinson, Willie Snead; running back Mike Davis; and a slew of pass-rushers.
There never have been so many tempting rushers in a free-agency class. Aldon Smith could have multiple double-digit-sack seasons left after rising in Dallas last year; Bud Dupree was on his way to a career year last year in Pittsburgh before getting hurt; Carl Lawson is terminally underrated; Melvin Ingram should be due for a rebound; and Haason Reddick, Matthew Judon and Trey Hendrickson all are intriguing. A month from now, two or three of those players will be unsigned and have massive chips on their shoulder, almost certain to be smart one-year buys while they re-establish a market for 2022.
• Buy what you know. The Bengals should attack the offensive line. They lost out on one desired target Kevin Zeitler, 31, a top 15 guard who played his first five years in Cincinnati; he signed a three-year deal with Baltimore. With the Bengals looking to find some Joe Burrow protection and $41.3 million to spend under the cap, another familiar face they could target is Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, though he will be in demand in a weak left-tackle market. Burrow’s too important for Cincinnati to not make the line a priority this year.
So you still think teams will dig into the couch cushions to find money to buy people this year? Consider this: In 2018, when the cap was $177 million, the rookie minimum salary was $480,000. This year, with the cap at $182.5 million and practice squads swollen because of COVID (though no one knows the size of the squad yet this year), the minimum is $660,000. Just another way to chip away at the diminishing space available.
Over the weekend, there were hopeful voices that teams will find a way to get deals done. Agent of the stars Drew Rosenhaus told me: “We just saw the Bucs save $19 million by restructuring Tom Brady. Follow the champions’ lead—let’s do voidable years, let’s do more guarantees so you can spread out the proration. I encourage teams to be creative. We know the cap’s going to explode in ’23 and ’24, so I truly believe we can find the vehicle to pay players fairly and be fair to teams as well.”
In the next breath, though, Rosenhaus said: “This is a year when we, as agents, have to be brutally honest with our clients.”
Interesting few hours ahead. I’ll update the column later today. Maybe I’ll be wrong, but I think there’s going to be a lot of disappointed players by midnight.
Five Quick Things
1. Mandatory vaccinations? The league and union are discussing whether to try to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for players before the season begins, but I’m dubious that players would agree to such a forced ordinance in order to be eligible to play in 2021. Talking to some in the know in recent days, a protocol of mandatory vaccinations is not likely. The big reason is it’s naïve to think the full body of players will be open to being vaccinated, and it’s a fight the league probably won’t want to pick with players. If the average team has 53 active players, 12 practice-squad players and 10 on injured-reserve (no idea how many will be on practice squads this year; 12 is a guess), that’s 2,400 players. Calling around in recent days, I found three GMs who think the league would find major problems in regards to the players taking the COVID-19 vaccine. One GM told me last year the league sent out a memo asking teams to urge players to get the flu shot, and asking teams to make the flu shot available at their facility. This GM asked me to guess how many players on his team then voluntarily got the flu shot. Don’t know, I said. He said, “Ten.” I suppose it depends partially on the level of trust players have in their training and medical staffs as to whether they’d take the COVID vaccine. But my expectation is that a divided country on the topic would be mirrored in a divided league.
2. Time is on league’s side. Why not make the vaccine a mandatory part of the 2021 work rules? Imagine Superstar X saying he’s not taking a vaccine, or imagine a position group for Team Y refusing to be vaccinated. Then what? Is it worth making one of the best players in football miss the year? And what happens if some players on a team take the vaccine and some don’t—what will those protocols be? All TBD. “Time is on our side,” one league voice said. He’s right. This is not a call that has to be made now. And maybe two months from now we’ll be in a different place in our country, and there will be more trust as the nation gets closer to normal. We’ll see.
3. 2021 COVID protocols. If there is no universal player vaccine, expect another season of some form of COVID protocols. The league confirmed to teams Friday that they would be able to gather for the April 29-May 1 draft at either a team facility or other large meeting room, with COVID protocols to be determined, and each team being required to submit draft-room protocol plans by March 26 to NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills. As for training camp and the season, it’s likely the league and union will wait to see the level of COVID in the country, and the percentage of players who have been vaccinated, before deciding on precise protocols.
4. NFL meetings. The league meetings will be virtual for the second straight year, held March 30 and 31 via videoconference from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. each day. Not very lengthy, you say? “The owners have Zoom fatigue,” one league source told me. Don’t we all?
5. New TV deals. There’s hope the league finishes up the TV deals this week, in advance of the virtual league meetings. Still hearing the Thursday night package is likely to be largely an Amazon streaming package, and hearing the percentage increase in right fees are likely to be somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent.
The Dak Assist20
Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make. The Dak Prescott deal brought that home the other day, along with this quote on the $40-million-a-year Dak deal from owner Jerry Jones: “Most anything that I’ve ever been involved in that ended up being special, I overpaid for. Any time I’ve tried to get a bargain, it was just that. It was a bargain in a lot of ways and not up to standard.”
I’ve got an interesting perspective on that. I covered the Cowboys draft room in 2016, when Prescott was Dallas’ fourth-round pick, and I had impeccable sources for what happened in the Cowboys’ room that weekend. The story:
With starting quarterback Tony Romo 36 and coming off an injury, Dallas wanted to draft his successor. The Cowboys hoped that would be Paxton Lynch of Memphis, but to do that, they’d have to trade back into the first round from overall pick number 34 to get him. For 67 minutes beginning in mid-round, VP Stephen Jones worked the phones with nine teams trying to get a mid- to late-round pick so they could acquire Lynch. Seattle was interested, but wanted Dallas’ second- and third-round picks, 34th and 67th overall, in exchange for the Seahawks’ 26th overall pick. Dallas offered a second and fourth, 34th and 101st overall. Much angst in the room. “No way with Seattle,” Stephen Jones said, turning to his father in the room after his second call with Seahawks GM John Schneider. “They want our two and three. Thoughts?”
Silence. Dallas didn’t up the offer, and so Seattle traded with Denver for a slightly better package of picks. And the Broncos chose Paxton Lynch.
Jerry Jones looked tormented. Crestfallen. The next afternoon, I met Jones in his office. He was glum. “When I got up this morning,” he said, “I second-guessed the hell out of myself for not giving the three. I have always paid a premium for a premium. So many times my bargains have let me down. I’m not gonna go jump from Dallas’s tallest, so let’s put this in perspective. But if I had to do it all over again? I’d give the three.”
That’s not the end of the pre-Dak story. At the start of day three, Dallas had two quarterbacks atop its draft board. In order: 1) Connor Cook, Michigan State. 2) Dak Prescott, Mississippi State. To open the fourth round, Cleveland had picks 99 and 100. Dallas sat at 101. The Cowboys, to get Cook, offered Cleveland their pick at 101 plus their 2017 sixth-round pick. Browns said no. Then the Cowboys offered their two sixth-round picks this year. Browns said no. Incredibly, the Raiders jumped Dallas, trading with Cleveland for pick number 100 and choosing Cook. Again, Dallas got trumped. And so with their lower fourth-round pick, the Cowboys settled for Prescott.
Lynch started four games for Denver before being released in September 2018.
Cook last played professional football for the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks last spring, serving as the backup quarterback before the league folded.
Neither quarterback threw a pass in professional football in the last three years, and neither was on an NFL roster last year.
And now Prescott, next to Patrick Mahomes, has the richest contract in the history of the NFL. Prescott has started all 72 Dallas games for which he’s been healthy since being picked 135th by the Cowboys, with 106 touchdowns and 40 interceptions. He’s a top 10 quarterback in the NFL and a top five leader, and without question the most popular athlete in the state of Texas.
Moral of the story? Jerry Jones is very glad he did not give the three.
There is a postscript to the story of the Prescott marriage with the Dallas Cowboys. The Paxton Lynch coronation in the team’s draft room was not unanimous.
In 2016, the Cowboys quarterback coach was former NFL QB Wade Wilson, who, sadly, died in 2019 of complications from Type 1 diabetes. Inside the Dallas scouting world, Wilson was a notoriously tough quarterback grader. Many times in his 17 pre-draft seasons as an NFL quarterbacks coach, the available quarterbacks weren’t good enough. They had some problem that Wilson considered disqualifying. But in 2016, after the Dak Prescott workout, Wilson told head coach Jason Garrett, “This guy can play. This is a guy we’d like.” Garrett’s ears perked up. And when Prescott was tabbed to make one of the team’s few pre-draft visits to Cowboys headquarters in 2016, Garrett quizzed him on a few plays and on his recent DUI in Mississippi. When Garrett met with players before the draft, he liked to ask the questions fast and intersperse them with character questions, so the player might not have time to give what might be a polished answer to something troubling on his résumé. Prescott answered everything right. He picked up the plays from this foreign offense with photographic-memory proficiency. He took full accountability for the DUI, blaming no one but himself.
Prescott’s grade, in Garrett’s world, shot way up. So on day three of the draft, when Prescott’s name came off the board, Garrett was very good with that. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan liked Prescott too. And Wilson was over the moon, in his reserved way; he’d gotten his man.
Wilson died on his 60th birthday, Feb. 1, 2019. After the funeral, which Garrett and Prescott attended, Prescott told Garrett something he’d never planned to tell him. Remember my pre-draft visit to the facility? Remember how you quizzed me about those plays and my off-the-field stuff? Garrett said of course he recalled it.
Well, Prescott told him, before that meeting, Wilson had briefed him in great detail on the plays Garrett would be quizzing him about, and told him he’d be pressing him on the DUI also. Prescott aced the test, it turns out, because Wilson had given him the questions and the answers before he walked into his Dallas Cowboys final exam.
So now, if you’re a Cowboys fan and you love Dak Prescott, know that the late Wade Wilson—a man who’d never have advertised that he’d been the biggest Prescott cheerleader in the building—might deserve a quiet but important assist in making him the long-term Cowboys quarterback.
Quotes of the Week
“I played every game I possibly could in college. I was anticipating to win another national championship in January … but it didn’t work out that way. Everyone got cheated out of something with COVID.”
—North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, after his Pro Day workout Friday in front of NFL scouts and coaches and GMs.
“I thought the signing bonus would be bigger.”
—Retiring NFL tight end Greg Olsen, upon signing his one-day contract to retire as a Carolina Panther.
“If there’s a human breathing that I’ve ever met that I’m proud took advantage of me financially, I’m proud it’s the one sitting to my right.”
—Dallas owner Jerry Jones, sitting next to Dak Prescott at the news conference announcing Prescott’s four-year, $160-million contract with the team.”
“This says it all. This is putting your words on it.”
—Jerry Jones, on what the $40-million-a-year contract with Dak Prescott says about the team’s feelings about Prescott, and about Prescott’s rehab from a major injury last year.
“If you go to the Bentley dealership or the Range Rover dealership, you know what the cars are going to cost. You’re not going to get much of a discount. They all cost about the same, and you go in there with the idea that you’re either going to buy the car or you’re not going to buy the car.”
—Ravens GM Eric DeCosta, asked if the Dak Prescott deal would affect how much he’d have to pay quarterback Lamar Jackson on a long-term deal.
Mega-contracts are often laughed at as agent-driven, publicity-seeking deals, with so many having fake years at the end to fluff up the optics of the deal. I looked at the mile-markers of the megadeals this century—the first contracts to hit $10 million, $20 million, $30 million and $40 million—to see what happened in each one over time. It’s also interesting to note this month is the 20th anniversary of the first two $10-million-a-year deals, signed by Brett Favre and Drew Bledsoe six days apart in March 2001.
Interesting upshot: In terms of average compensation per year, the biggest NFL contracts have quadrupled in 20 years.
March 1, 2001
Brett Favre: 10 years, $101 million
NFL salary cap: $67.4 million
QB’s percent of cap: 15.0%
Favre played seven more years with the Packers and made $62.5 million, or $8.93 million per year.
March 4, 2013
Joe Flacco: 6 years, $120.6 million
NFL salary cap: $123 million
QB’s percent of cap: 16.3%
Great deal for Flacco and agent Joe Linta, including a 2016 restructure. In the six Ravens seasons from 2013-18, Flacco earned $124 million.
May 3, 2018
Matt Ryan: 5 years, $150 million
NFL salary cap: $177.2 million
QB’s percent of cap: 16.9%
All good for Ryan so far. He’s earned $94 million in the first three years of the contract.
July 6, 2020
Patrick Mahomes: 10 years, $450 million
NFL salary cap: $198.2 million
QB’s percent of cap: 22.7%
A difficult contract to peg like the others, with team-friendly cap numbers of $5.3 million and $24.8 million in years one and two.
March 8, 2021
Dak Prescott: 4 years, $160 million
NFL salary cap: $182.5 million
QB’s percent of cap: 21.9%
Cowboys should have done this deal earlier, but the cap’s expected to be in the $220-million range by 2023.
Per Nielsen, including out-of-home viewing numbers, the Oprah Winfrey interview of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry attracted a CBS TV audience of 17.8 million.
Some 10.5 percent of all NFL regular-season games last season (27 of 256) got a bigger audience. Cowboys-Rams, Titans-Packers, Texans-Lions (on Thanksgiving afternoon) all attracted more eyes than Oprah-Meghan.
The Super Bowl-winning bookend pass-rushers for Tampa Bay, Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett, have never been on the losing side in 15 total playoff games.
Pierre-Paul’s teams are 8-0 in playoff games, and Barrett’s are 7-0 in the postseason.
Tweets of the Week40
Congratulations on an unbelievable career @drewbrees!! Thank you for inspiring a kid from Austin to chase his dreams.
— Baker Mayfield (@bakermayfield) March 14, 2021
We thank you, @drewbrees.
But, we won't miss you. pic.twitter.com/MkA0W9ak9o
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) March 14, 2021
Patrick Mahomes next season pic.twitter.com/AYt6vw4POp
— NFL Memes (@NFL_Memes) March 11, 2021
NFL Memes is hilarious.
Gruden, from 2019: "If we came up with the money to make the (Khalil Mack) contract happen, we wouldn’t have Trent Brown, we wouldn't have Antonio Brown, Lamarcus Joyner, and Vontaze Burfict, we wouldn’t have Tyrell Williams" …
Raiders did also get two 1st rounders for a 2nd.
— Vic Tafur (@VicTafur) March 9, 2021
Postscript to this tweet, less than two years old, from Tafur: Mack is still a Chicago Bear. Trent Brown, Antonio Brown, Lamarcus Joyner, Vontaze Burfict and Tyrell Williams are not Raiders.
Regarding quotes that did not age well, this Jon Gruden one stands alone.
In 1989, Jerry Jones paid $154M to buy the Cowboys and lease to operate Texas Stadium. In 2021, Jones signed Dak Prescott to a 4-yr $160M deal. In perspective: Dak cost $6M more than the team and stadium. The Cowboys, by the way, are now valued at $5.7 billion by Forbes.
— Gary Myers (@GaryMyersNY) March 9, 2021
Myers is a veteran NFL reporter and columnist.
My kids: “can I have a snack?!?”
Me: “no it’ll ruin your dinner. Just wait 15 minutes please.”
My kids: “you’re mean I’m hungry!”
…15 minutes later:
Me: “GIRLS DINNER IS READY!!”
Kids: “I’m not hungry.”
— George Atallah (@GeorgeAtallah) March 10, 2021
Atallah is an executive with the NFL Players Association . . . and a dad.
50 years ago I listened to Ali-Frazier I while on guard duty in Viet Nam. Armed Forces Viet Nam Network carried the broadcast, with Burt Lancaster the anslyst. Most in our unit (20th Engineer Brigade) rooted for Ali and were upset that he lost. Magic moment.
— Mike O'Hara (@MikeOHaraNFL) March 8, 2021
O’Hara, proud veteran and longtime Lions beat writer, now works for the Lions website and posted this on the 50-year anniversary of the Ali-Frazier fight March 8, 1971.
King of the Road
March 12, 2020: The last supper in Manhattan. On the cusp of the world shutting down, my wife and I were joined by friend and my former co-worker Jenny Vrentas at a restaurant in New York for dinner—after a should-we-or-shouldn’t-we phone call that landed on the side of “we should.” Nice meal, in a half-full restaurant downtown.
April 1, 2020: Give or take a few days, when I started wearing a mask every time I left our apartment in Brooklyn.
March 10, 2021: The day New York State opened vaccinations for all citizens older than 60, I got one shortly after the online signups started at 8 a.m. (I am 63.) I got my appointment at 11:20 a.m. at Martin Van Buren High School in eastern Queens, a 48-minute Uber trip from my place in Brooklyn. What a smooth process, walking into the MVBHS gym, checking in, and being shuttled quickly to Nurse Myrna in a little booth near one of the free-throw lines on the basketball court. “How many of the shots have you given?” I asked. She said she had no idea—and maybe she should ask. “You should!” I said. “Think how many people’s lives you’re getting back on track.” I got the Pfizer vaccine, shot one. (I would have preferred the Johnson & Johnson vax, because it seems to have a better erasing factor on the new variants, but I was euphoric to get any one.) She jabbed my upper right arm, and I know it’s a cliché, but I really felt such a great sense of relief and happiness—and I thanked Myrna about 16 times. I made a reservation for the second shot in late March. Walking out, I thought: Now I’m one of the Van Buren Boys.
But I also thought how incredible it was that I’d be fully vaccinated by the end of March. Think of what the expectation was for the vast majority of the country a couple of months ago. I thought I’d be lucky to have the vaccine by mid-summer. Thanks to all those who expedited the process, in Washington and in New York.
The mask stays on for the foreseeable future, by the way. And I can’t wait, wherever it may be, to sit outside at a ballgame this spring, with a beer (or three).
You can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter. And many of you commented on my tweet that “there is a benefit to being 63,” about finally being in an age bracket in New York to be able to get the COVID vaccine.
Vaccine skepticism. From @JWesterholt on Twitter: “What are the long-term effects of the vaccine? No one seems to be able to answer that.”
I don’t know. How could anyone know? The vaccine just started going into arms in the last three months. The question is: If scientists around the world believe that there is a vaccine that will either eliminate the chance to get COVID-19 or minimize the illness if a person gets the virus, isn’t that better than not taking the vaccine and taking the risk that you’ll get the virus but recover? It’s good to be skeptical and to ask questions about the vaccine, but I’ll trust the scientists who have spent most of their waking hours finding a vaccine with efficacy against the virus over anyone else. We live in a time when institutions like the CDC that have been trusted in our society are being doubted. I don’t know why that’s happened, but I’m not in that group.
Chris Simms is getting too much credit. From Kevin Layman: “Chris Simms may well turn out to be right on his QB takes, but isn’t it a bit soon to be crowing about Justin Herbert over Tua Tagovailoa? It’s been 1 year. Likewise, Baker Mayfield could very well end up having a better career than Lamar Jackson, even though Jackson has an MVP already. There’s so much time left to dissect these careers. Instant analysis of quarterbacks seems to be folly. Patience, please.”
Good point, Kevin. But the larger point is that when an analyst goes against the grain the way Simms did in picking Zach Wilson over Trevor Lawrence in his 2021 quarterback rankings, the immediate reaction is: Simms is an idiot! Who possibly could think that? My point is that Simms has a track record of going against the grain, and the recent examples of that look pretty good one, two and three years later. So it’s impossible to have a conclusion about their careers now, but think how many people thought Simms was out to lunch on Herbert over Tua, and Jackson over Darnold, and being down on Josh Rosen. We don’t know with finality how those predictions look, but his track record shows he’s got a decent chance of being right.
Interesting OT suggestion. From G.S. Mager: “In the light of concerns about player health and safety, as well as it’s rarity in the playoffs, the NFL should have no overtime in the regular season but play full quarters for overtime in the playoffs.”
I bet the players union would sign off on that. I wouldn’t think it folly to end games with ties in the regular season. Actually, ties would eliminate some tiebreakers because there would so relatively few of them. And it would decrease the number of teams ending the season with like records.
10 Things I Think I Think
1. I think the most curious franchise-tag decision was made by Tampa Bay, tagging wide receiver Chris Godwin (at $15.98 million for the 2021 season) despite the embarrassment of riches at wide receiver for the Bucs, and not tagging pass-rusher Shaq Barrett (at $20.64 million). That allowed Barrett to enter unrestricted free agency at age 28, at the top of an important positional market. If I were Bucs GM Jason Licht, I’d have much preferred Barrett on my opening-day roster than Godwin. Digging deep into why it happened:
• If the Bucs franchised Barrett and tried to negotiate a multi-year deal with him—which would have been their aim—the floor of the deal would have been $20.6 million, high for the edge-rusher market this year. I expect they’ll still try to re-sign Barrett, but only at a lower number.
• There’s a chance—maybe a good one—that one of the cash-rich teams (Jacksonville? Cincinnati?) will target Barrett. Why not? He has 31.5 sacks in 35 regular-season and playoff games in Tampa Bay in his two years there, and that’s the most sacks in the league over the past two years. But if he’s gone, look for a fairly deep (relatively speaking) pass-rusher market emerging. Tampa could scotch-tape the pass-rush together with a Bud Dupree, Leonard Floyd, Melvin Ingram or Haason Reddick for a year or two.
• One veteran agent told me he thought the secondary pass-rush market (Carlos Dunlap, Reddick, Olivier Vernon, Ryan Kerrigan) could produce quality rushers on one-year deal for around $4 million to $5 million a year, depending on desperation.
• Regarding Godwin, if he’s willing to do a long-term deal at a team-friendly price, the Bucs might be able to sign him for, say, three years at $45 million. If he wants to play on the tag, he can hit the market next year. Tampa Bay doubts there will be more than one or two free-agent receivers (Kenny Golladay, JuJu Smith-Schuster) who will make more than $10-12 million a year, so that could put the team in better position to sign Godwin long-term.
• Even if Tampa has Godwin for just 2021, that’s one more year of experience for likely future heir Tyler Johnson, the 2020 fifth-round pick from Minnesota who is highly regarded in the organization and by quarterback Tom Brady. Scotty Miller, the 2019 sixth-round from Bowling Green, is another trusted and reasonably priced option.
2. I think this is why the Tom Brady contract means something to the Bucs. It’s not just about Brady not maxing out his earning potential in Tampa. As he’s told the Bucs, he doesn’t care so much about the money as he does in keeping the band together for another run (or two) at a Super Bowl. Brady is basically content to make $15 million per year under market value (Brady $25 million per year, Deshaun Watson $39 million, Dak Prescott $40 million) as long as his team scratches and claws to keep a highly competitive team on the field. And this year, the only vital player who might be lost is Shaq Barrett after the Bucs won Super Bowl 55.
Let’s project for a moment that Brady plays two more NFL seasons with the Bucs and plays out the contract he signed last week . . . and then retires. His cap number this year is $9.075 million, and $16.925 million next year, and then, in retirement, the Bucs would have $24 million in Brady dead money to account for. Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht could choose to take the entire $24-million cap hit in 2023 (doubtful), or he could assign Brady’s retirement to June 2, 2023 (a post-June 1 retirement allows the Bucs to pro-rate the cap hit over two years), meaning Brady would count $8 million against the Tampa cap in 2023 and $16 million in 2024. Why does that matter? Because by 2024, the cap should be climbing out of the pandemic doldrums and be in the $230-million or so range, and hiding a $14-million cap charge would be more tolerable. However it unfolds, the ability to push Brady’s cap burden as far as possible is best for the Bucs trying to capitalize on this championship window.
3. I think one of the best things I read over the weekend was Bills safety Jordan Poyer’s Instagram post admitting he is an alcoholic, and has been sober for one year. That took guts.
4. I think the vaccination efforts of many teams around the NFL deserve credit, and great for them. The Cardinals, in particular, have been terrific. Today, the 500,000th vaccination at the Cards’ State Farm Stadium is scheduled to be put into a citizen’s arm—which, as team PR czar Mark Dalton points out, is more than 50 countries have administered.
5. I think the free-agent market at cornerback just got its best player late Saturday, with the Chargers whacking Casey Hayward. Now, Heyward will be 32 opening day, entering his 10th year, but he’s still lithe and quick and very good in coverage. In the last four seasons, among corners who had at least 400 defensive snaps in coverage, Hayward ranked third, third, third and 16th in pass-coverage by Pro Football Focus. Along with Richard Sherman (33 this season), these are two best wise owls in the secondary who will be available.
6. I think I’d like to have Michael Irvin’s optimism about Dak Prescott. “We have the closest thing in the National Football League to Tom Brady . . . Dak Prescott has the ability to do what Tom does, and he has the leadership like Tom.” Great hashtag by former Cowboy Tony Casillas: #calmdown88. Couldn’t have said it better—and I like Prescott a lot.
7. I think the playoff-victories scoreboard reads: Brady 34, Prescott 1. Prescott will play his age-28 season this year, and so has plenty of time to build a great career résumé. But the closest thing to Brady? In very long-term potential, I suppose.
8. I think this Football Story of the Week, from Rick Maese of the Washington Post, is such a good read about the late life and times of Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Wood. It is sad and compelling at the same time. Wood was found to have acute CTE, the brain trauma that many former football players have after years of playing the game. Listen to his son, Willie Wood Jr., talk about the Stage 4 CTE diagnosis—and yet how he doubts his father has regrets about playing football:
“He was afflicted for so long, I guess you kind of get over that initial pain. But the first year or two was incredibly painful,” Willie Jr. said. “We’d do this thing where he would ask if I was Andre. ‘No, no. I’m Willie Jr., your youngest son.’ ‘Okay, is your momma Sheila? How’s she doing?’ ‘Yeah, Sheila was your wife but she passed away back in ’88.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.’ And then he’d ask about Andre again.”
His decline coincided with the emergence of science around brain trauma in football. “It was very startling,” Wood Jr. said of learning the Stage 4 diagnosis. “There is an extreme price to pay. And it’s not just by the individual. Every single person in my family suffered right along with him.”
Wood lived out his final years in a Washington assisted-living center, helped by his pension and benefits provided by the 88 Plan, a program jointly administered by the NFL and the NFL Players Association aiding former players suffering from ALS, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. His son says Wood’s claim in the NFL concussion settlement has not yet been paid out.
As difficult as the final years were, Willie Jr. said, his father voiced few misgivings about the game. It gave him a chance to touch other people, and his family is hopeful the Stage 4 CTE diagnosis will similarly help others. “Football provided things in his life that he may not have been able to achieve otherwise,” Wood Jr. said.
9. I think that’s a perfect example of the impact of football, good and bad, on so many lives. Bruce Smith told me once that because of all the financial benefits he got from playing football, and because of all the high points in his life football helped him create, that he knew there might be bad days coming for him down the road. He understood the tradeoff. I do think many players get the risks. But, and this is a big but, so many of the players from the sixties and seventies who didn’t know the first thing about long-term effects of the game, or were told that concussions or ringing headaches from big hits were no big deal — those are the ones I feel for.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Go you mighty, mighty Bobcats. Ohio University (you mean you didn’t know that was my alma?) is about to wreak havoc on the NCAA Tournament, baby.
b. Sports Story of the Week: Emily Kaplan of ESPN.com, on the toll the NHL season is having on the mental health of players. Wrote Kaplan:
More than a dozen players interviewed by ESPN over the past six weeks describe experiencing more anxiety than usual and expressed an overwhelming sentiment of loneliness. “I was never someone who experienced mental health issues,” Player X says. “But this season . . . I have a hard time describing it, I don’t really know how to explain it. I just don’t feel like myself.”
In order to play through the pandemic, nearly every member of every NHL organization has made sacrifices. They’ve also agreed to a stringent set of rules that have already been enhanced twice after several teams experienced COVID-19 outbreaks last month. Besides arriving early for daily coronavirus testing, shifting to all-virtual meetings and staying socially distant even in the locker room, players, coaches and their family members have been asked to limit all social interactions away from home.
. . . One player said he typically brings CBD tinctures on road trips, “for when I’m stressed.” He went through two bottles all of last season; in 2021, he already is on his fourth.
c. Podcast of the Week: “Capital Gazette,” from Kelly McEvers and Chris Benderev of the NPR Embedded series of podcasts. A four-episode series, from the day of the shooting to the current-day prospects of the newspaper’s very survival.
d. Remember when a gunman broke into the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., in 2018, angry about a seven-year-old story about him in the Gazette, and murdered five people indiscriminately in the newsroom? This is a terrific and thoughtful series about the aftermath—printing the paper the day after the attack, and the lives led through trauma by the survivors, amid the precipitous decline of newspapers. The night of the murders, reporter Selene San Felice, just 22, was on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show and cut through the sympathetic banter hours after she hid under a desk to survive the killing spree. “This is going to be a story for how many days? Less than a week,” San Felice said to Cooper. “People are going to forget about us after a week . . . I’m going to need more than a couple days of news coverage and some thoughts and prayers. Because our whole lives have been shattered.”
e. McEvers on the pod: “What happens after the news coverage ends? How do you live with some that’s not normal at all? . . . Surviving is one thing. But how do you survive the survival? How do you go back to work, when work was the target?”
f. Benderev tells a great story about Danielle Ohl, who covered city government for the paper, and was at a public meeting in the weeks after the murders. A local businessman didn’t like how he was quoted in a story, and he came back to talk to Ohl about it, and the man was angry. Ohl said: “He said something along the lines of, ‘I understand freedom of the press, but you see what happened to you guys.’ . . . He said, ‘Oh, I’m not threatening you.’ “
g. Imagine how you’d feel if a guy murdered five people in your place of work, upset about how he was portrayed by this business. (The murderer, by the way, sued the paper for defamation and lost the case.) Five people dead. And a reporter from the paper that enraged the killer goes out to cover a city meeting and a person says to the reporter that he disagreed with her story and “you see what happened to you guys.” And oh, by the way, “I’m not threatening you.” Who does something like that? Anyway, whatever your view of the press, this pod is such a good long-haul story of what happens to people who survived a mass shooting and what they go through.
h. Editor’s Column of the Week: Chris Quinn, editor of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and Cleveland.com, on how to cover an incendiary candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio. Writes Quinn about candidate Josh Mandel:
Just because he makes outrageous, dangerous statements doesn’t mean it is news.
He remains desperate for attention. Last week, he challenged our columnist Leila Atassi to a point-by-point debate — to be published on our platforms — about coronavirus restrictions. Leila was eager to give it a go, knowing that she could use facts and science to obliterate Mandel in that debate.
I told her to decline. We are proud of our role as a center of discourse, with a diversity of viewpoints you can find nowhere else in the state. But we do not knowingly publish ridiculous and idiotic claims. Mandel did not want to have a debate with our columnist as much as he wanted to use our platform to get attention with demonstrably false claims about the virus.
I predict this column will bring more email responses than usual, some of it angry, but I’ve promised you transparency about newsroom decisions.
i. News Tease of the Week: WNBC-TV in New York, reporting a story about the New York Times claiming a bagel store in Berkeley, Calif., made better bagels than New York shops, called it a “Schmear Campaign.”
j. Radio Story of the Week: Elizabeth Blair of NPR on the life of Laraine Newman, the former “Saturday Night Live” star.
k. What’s great about this story is that Newman was a big star—a Bill Murray-sized star—at SNL. And as life buffeted her and a drug addiction nearly capsized her career, she began a new life: voicing characters in animated films and shows. From Blair’s story:
Newman was pregnant with her second child — and ready to work. Adler thought it took guts for someone who’d been a star on Saturday Night Live to show the kind of vulnerability you need to learn a new skill. “I just thought it was miraculous — and I still do — that Laraine has that capacity,” Adler says. “Her ego had nothing to do with anything. She was just wanting to learn something that was important to her, very important to her.”
Adler hired Newman to be the voice of the mother in the Nickelodeon series As Told by Ginger. “I couldn’t believe what was coming out of her,” Adler says. “She blew everybody away.”
“She has so many different voices in her,” says Andrea Romano, a recently retired casting director of animated movies and TV shows. Newman has voiced dozens of different characters for her projects over the years.
In The Adventures of Puss in Boots for DreamWorks, Newman was cast as a talking cow. The producers wanted Newman to give the cow a Scottish accent — and it wasn’t coming easily. “So she went off and worked with a dialect coach week, after week, after week …” Romano says. “Her Scottish accent is totally believable and something she can just kind of fall into now.”
l. I love that, not allowing her ego to rule the rest of her life but rather realizing she needed to change and work at something new with vigor. Newman didn’t complain about it—she just did it.
m. Story of the Week: “A Shooter in the Hills,” by Dana Goodyear of the New Yorker.
n. The story is not neat, nor tidy. It has no satisfactory conclusion. But it’s an excellent deep dive into what seems to be a maniacal shooter in a beautiful part of California, terrorizing an area that had never been terrorized—and that the authorities tried to hide was being terrorized. Very strange. Good reporting by Goodyear.
As far as the public could tell, Malibu was being terrorized by an elusive killer, the Canyon Shooter, who already had a string of victims, including one murder of a Tristan Beaudette, shot in a tent with his two daughters sleeping by his side. But law enforcement seemed, almost willfully, to resist that interpretation. Press releases from the sheriff’s department hewed to a strict narrative, which seemed to justify the decision not to warn the public before the murder: “Homicide detectives are advising, at this time there is no evidence to suggest the past shootings are related to the June 22, 2018 homicide.”
Inside Lost Hills Station, the faction that had long believed there was a sniper at large was frustrated. On the morning of the murder, Manwell reported to the campground. “When we found out that Mr. Beaudette was killed, I can tell you I was angry as hell,” he said. “My belief was, we should have warned the public, giving them a choice of whether they wanted to drive through the canyon, stay at the campground, or anything else.” He went on, “I felt very much like we had failed this family.”
o. RIP, Roger Mudd, the longtime backup to Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. A great and trusted voice.
p. Par for the course in 2021, I guess: Duke and Kentucky went 22-27 in the basketball season and both missed the NCAA tournament. That has to be one of the biggest oddities of the sporting world in the past year.
q. Beernerdness: (Sorry for the recent beer lull. Been a wine person recently.) Fortunate enough to have a nice outdoor meal in Brooklyn the other night with my buddy Tim Rohan, my former co-worker at The MMQB. Started the meal with a Folksbier Spectral Hare (who thinks of these crazy names?) Wheat Beer from Folksbier Brewery (Brooklyn, N.Y.). In the tradition of Allagash White, it’s got a light and citrusy taste, without the overly tangy Allagash mouth feel. It’s good, and worth your trial.
r. Coffeenerdness: When you haven’t had a four-shot Starbucks caramel macchiato in six weeks, and you decide to take the trip to the Starbucks post-vaccination to get one, I’ll just say it tasted pretty good.
s. TV Story of the Week: The wondrous work of CBS’ Steve Hartman, on the road again for the CBS Evening News, this time connecting with the most unlikely Grammy nominee, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes in Bentonia, Miss. Unlikely because he plays in front of a gas station, often, and never with many people watching.
t. Holmes never does the same blues tune the same way twice. And man, does he sound good. He was nominated for the best traditional blues album.
Hartman: “If you win this Grammy, are you worried it’s gonna go to your head?”
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes: “My head is like a concrete floor. It don’t swell. Can’t swell it . . . when you got something you can share, that’s an honor.”
u. Happy trails, Dale Arnold. I’ve been talking to the WEEI talkmeister in Boston for years (decades?) and Friday was his last radio show. Always loved being on the air with him, and we had some good times. A total pro.
v. With a h/t to my former employer Sports Illustrated, here is This Week’s Sign That Idiocy Is Upon Us: Dictionary.com on Thursday added 600 new words, including “supposably,” which the site defined as “as may be assumed, imagined or supposed.” No. No. No. Stop it. Just stop it. Just because one cannot pronounce “supposedly,” you cannot make up a new word based on the mispronunciation of it. Well, you can make it up, but we in the real world are allowed to tell you how stupid that is.
w. RIP, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, a hurricane of boxing vengeance. Fights: 67. Knockouts: 52.
The Adieu Haiku40
If I’m asked how to
max out one’s talent, I’d say:
Just study Drew Brees.