Late May. Calm after the storm. In the last 15 months, the NFL has navigated a bargaining agreement with the players union through the 2030 season, signed TV/media deals with the networks through the 2033 season, and became the only American sports league to play a full schedule through the minefield of COVID-19.
The Next Big Thing for the NFL is not one thing. It’s a few. Inside the walls of the league, commissioner Roger Goodell is aggressively cautioning against complacency, stressing that there are many issues the league needs to focus on while the runway for the next decade is placid.
The issue that interests me the most: Roger Goodell.
The Lead: Future
There was a sense in recent years around NFL ownership that Goodell would shepherd the NFL through the CBA and media negotiations of 2020 and early 2021 and then, with his contract winding down at the end of the 2023 season, work long enough to groom his successor, then fade off into some new life by age 65.
Not so fast. Looking into the future of Goodell, 62, in the past few days, two things are apparent. He hasn’t decided yet if he will leave the league when his current contract expires in three years. There’s a sense from associates that he could stay for a year or years beyond that. Also, a clear majority of owners want him to stay beyond 2023, pointing to the recent accomplishments of the Goodell-led league office—labor peace for the next nine seasons and the $113-billion media deal that’s the envy of every sport in America. If the league isn’t broke, they posit, why try to fix it?
Goodell is approaching his 15-year anniversary as commissioner (Sept. 1), continuing a major run of continuity for the league at commissioner. He’s the third in the last 61 years; Pete Rozelle took over in early 1960, Paul Tagliabue in November 1989, and Goodell in 2006. That’s continuity on a Steelers-coach level. Digging into this over the past few days, I’ve found three reasons why Goodell is likely to stay on the job for three or more seasons:
1. Goodell doesn’t have anything else he’s dying to do. Some people who have built $17-billion businesses might have a hankering to get into the private-equity business, or cryptocurrency, or some niche thing like owning a business far from football. But Goodell isn’t that guy. He doesn’t have a big hobby, other than golf, and he has no interest in doing that every day.
2. Goodell still loves football. Solving football issues, going to games, staying on top of the changing sports landscape . . . Those are things he relishes. I’m told one of the things that gave him big-time juice was figuring a way to run the league through the craziness of 2020—the draft from his basement, the daily testing of players and staffers around the league, getting the train to run on time. He’s still into the job. As one associate told me: “There’s a lot of new avenues available for the NFL to grow—international, sports betting, growing the game. That’s more interesting to Roger than just doing something to make money. That’s never been his thing.”
3. There’s no logical successor. Three successor candidates internally, all age 50 or younger, loom: chief media and business officer Brian Rolapp (point man on the mega-media deals), EVP of Football Operations Troy Vincent (runs officiating and helped keep the game on the field in 2020), and chief strategy officer Chris Halpin (eyes on the future, including international expansion). But Goodell has been such a domineering presence that most of the league candidates have been laboring in the shadows. Vincent’s well known as a former player. Owners and executives know Rolapp and Halpin, but they’re anonymous to coaches, players and fans. It would serve Goodell well to put them more in the public eye, and to put more on each of their plates—and less on his own—to judge their worthiness for the job.
None of the four major sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) has gone outside its own game to hire a commissioner for the last 28 years, since Gary Bettman moved from being an NBA executive to NHL commissioner in 1993. A struggling league might look to an Amazon or Google for an outside-the-box, new-age commissioner candidate. But the NFL’s the king of the hill, and it’s unlikely the league would look outside for a non-football candidate.
Other names the league could consider: Falcons CEO Rich McKay, whose age, 62, would hurt him but who has been an invaluable asset on the Competition Committee; and Rams COO Kevin Demoff, 44, who has won raves for his work with the L.A. stadium project and the hiring of Sean McVay, and has a deep internal knowledge of league affairs. Chiefs owner Clark Hunt would be a good candidate, but I don’t think he’s interested. I’m told owners, overwhelmingly, want an NFL person, likely from inside the league office, to succeed Goodell.
So I’d look for Goodell to stay on through 2024 or ’25, maybe grooming a successor in the last couple of years. Goodell has been the quarterback and head coach on virtually every decision of substance in the league for almost 15 years—which is his job—and so how would anyone know if a Rolapp has the leadership qualities to run a multi-billion-dollar business? No one else has had to do it since 2006. “Roger’s got to get some people inside the league to touch the football,” said one league insider.
Whoever succeeds Goodell is going to have another job to do. The bell will continue to toll on health and safety, and the NFL’s ramrodding of the 17-game schedule this year leads most observers to think 18 games is on the way. How can a league that professes to care about the long-term health of its players subject them to 17 games (in 2021) and maybe 18 (by 2025 or ’26) without imaginatively pursuing ways to assure players they’re not going to be guinea pigs for the NFL’s almighty dollar? The owners have dollar signs dancing in their heads over more inventory; the players should have a roadblock dancing in theirs. That may be the first major issue for the NFL’s fourth commissioner since the Kennedy Administration.
When I thought about the NFL and the future, I thought how boring it would be to have only business topics. So I’m going to intersperse real football things among some issues facing the NFL in the near future. Goodell is number one. A few more:
A few years ago, the league was bullish on putting a team or teams in London or Europe. That sentiment has cooled now; too many logistical problems that ownership feels are off-putting and potentially competitively unfair. Instead, the league wants to conquer non-U.S. markets in two ways—giving each team the chance to be the “home team” for a foreign market. The Steelers and the Rooney family as the NFL team in marketing and business ventures, say, in Dublin. Jacksonville and London, say. And expanding the schedule overseas by mandating every team play at least one game every eight years outside the United States.
I asked Chris Halpin on Friday what an ideal NFL schedule might look like in five years, in the 2026 season. “Maybe four games in London—two from the inventory of games teams voted on this year, maybe two with teams [such as Jacksonville] volunteering for games there. And maybe one in Germany and one in Mexico,” Halpin said. So six in all. That’s one more than the most the NFL has played outside the country; in 2017 and 2019, the league had four games in London and one in Mexico City. The fast-riser in international circles: Germany. The NFL is bullish on playing one game a season, starting either in 2022 or 2023, in Germany. The likely first venue would be nearly NFL-ready Allianz Stadium in Munich, home grounds for Bayern Munich. Frankfurt, Berlin and Cologne/Dusseldorf could also host.
This year, the NFL had 2.2 million people in Germany watching as an average-minute audience (that’s the way Nielsen rates NFL games here) at least part of the Super Bowl—and the game was on there in the early hours of Monday. Plus, subscriptions to the NFL’s big pay-TV model, NFL GamePass, were up 30 percent worldwide last year. That is a huge revenue stream.
The Future Of Belichick
Bill Belichick turned 69 in April. Twelve years ago, he said he wouldn’t be coaching in his seventies. Two years ago, he said on WEEI in Boston: “When I said it, maybe I didn’t know what 70 felt like.” So how much longer will he coach? Belichick’s not one to talk openly about his plans, or even privately about them. Maybe he doesn’t know. But I get four feelings about him:
• This probably won’t be his last year, and I doubt that 2022 will be. He’s a young 69, maybe not in the effervescent way of fellow 69er Pete Carroll (seven months older than Belichick).
• The way Belichick is, I doubt sincerely he’d leave the Patriots with a dim future. He’ll view as part of his legacy the shape he left the franchise. That’s why Mac Jones falling to New England at 15 this year was so important to New England’s long-term future—it allows Belichick to feel like there’s a good chance the team now has its quarterback for the post-Brady period.
• I don’t think he hangs on just to break Don Shula’s all-time record for coaching victories if he thinks it’s time to go after, say, 2023 or ’24. On the all-time coaching wins list (including playoffs), Shula is first with 347, George Halas second with 324, Belichick third with 311. It may take Belichick four years to get those 37 wins. Maybe three or five—who knows? It’s certainly within reach, but I don’t see it being Belichick’s end-game.
• I’m sure, as a dad, Belichick wanted to help his kids on career paths if they wanted the help. Amanda is a lacrosse coach at Holy Cross. Steve, 34, is a Patriots defensive assistant with rising importance. Brian is the team’s safeties coach. Steve’s married, Brian’s slated to get married this summer. The kids are on their way, with helpful assistance from their father.
What it all means: Belichick can walk away on his terms, when he wants. And if the team progresses the way he thinks it will, he can walk away feeling good about the future of what he leaves behind.
Women In Football
On Thursday, the Eagles promoted two women to major jobs: Catherine Raiche to VP of Football Operations, the highest scouting post a women has ever had in the NFL; and Ameena Soliman to pro scout. Soliman is believed to be the be the first Muslim woman to hold a full-time scouting position in NFL history. Jori Epstein wrote about the meteoric rise of women last week in USA Today and quoted Raiche as saying: “If you’re a student of the game, you’re a student of the game, regardless who you are. And that’s who I am. For the longest time, I feel like we’ve picked out of 50 percent of the pool. But if you open the pool to 100 percent, you may get really, really qualified candidates.”
The NFL’s senior director for diversity, equity and inclusion, Sam Rapoport, told Epstein there are now 135 women in in football operations league-wide. That’s an average of four per team working on the football side—either in scouting, coaching or analytics. Soliman and Raiche founded a group called NFL Women in Football Operations, and now 87 women share a WhatsApp messaging group, providing support and advice for all women in the pool.
I wrote recently that there are qualified women—I named NFL executive Dawn Aponte and former Raiders executive Amy Trask—who could (and should) be interviewed for NFL GM jobs. Now that Kim Ng has broken the ceiling by being named the Miami Marlins GM this year, I think it’s only a matter of time before real interviews and not fake ones take place with women. The rise of women will be something to watch in the next decade. Epstein’s story is worth your time.
Quarterbacks Wielding Power
Great line from one coach when I told him I was seeking ideas for a story on the near future of football. “Quarterback power,” he said. “Who is the next quarterback to piss his way out of town?”
In the past 15 months, we’ve seen Tom Brady (granted, as a free agent) press to leave New England; Carson Wentz force his way out of Philadelphia; Matthew Stafford politely but firmly say he wanted out of Detroit; Deshaun Watson demand a trade from Houston; Russell Wilson push back at the Seattle status quo; and Aaron Rodgers passive-aggressively try to shoot his way out of Green Bay.
Who’s next? Anybody’s guess. Maybe Derek Carr gets tired of Jon Gruden’s wandering quarterback eye, or Wilson gets no more power in the Seahawks quarterback game-planning and pushes for a trade. Players and agents in the NFL watched as James Harden practically mandated a trade from Houston to Brooklyn and poof—it happened. Why not us? NFL players will monitor Rodgers and Watson, in particular, in the next six or eight months. If their power plays work and they get moved, an unsettling trend particularly for the underachieving teams—Detroit, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, etc.—could sweep the sport.
Let’s take a moment to address Julio Jones, another player who has asked to be traded. The Falcons are entertaining offers for the 32-year-old receiver, who has $38-million coming over the next three seasons, mostly for salary-cap reasons, and could trade him as early as Wednesday, when teams are allowed to divide a departing player’s cap hit between 2021 and ’22. Three things about this story:
• The Falcons are pushing hard to pay nothing of his future compensation, while inquiring teams want some relief on a player entering his 11th year who might be starting to break down. Can the Falcons’ rookie GM, Terry Fontenot, stay firm on that?
• ESPN reported last week the Falcons have been offered a first-round pick for Jones. I’m skeptical of that, but we’ll see. “If Atlanta had that offer,” one GM with interest in Jones told me last week, “they’d have made the deal and just said we’ll announce it next week.” It could be that the Falcons may end up with a first-round pick in a future draft beyond 2022, but I believe they have not been offered that yet.
• I was told a while ago by a source I trust that the Falcons would accept a hard second-round pick in 2022 (no condition on Jones’ playing time) with no responsibility to pay Jones any of the $38 million he has coming. That seems like the most logical outcome, and my guess is a hard second-rounder is already on the table from some team. Pro Football Talk reported Sunday that people around the league feel Tennessee is the most likely candidate to get Jones, and I could see that. The Titans would have to move money around this year, but they’re in good shape to handle Jones’ contract in 2022 and ’23.
The Future Of The Packers
Speaking of Rodgers . . . So it’s May 31, and I’d say this little staredown between the quarterback and the team that swears it won’t trade him is 60 days from getting real. It’s unlikely Rodgers will attend the June 15-17 mandatory minicamp. He’d incur a $95,877 fine for that boycott. It’s one thing to be rock-solid in your position on May 31, with the season three months away. But it’s another thing when the reality of the stances—both by Rodgers and the team that insists there will not be a trade—reach the real time of training camp, and the season. I don’t know how this turns out. No one does. What I’d do if I were president Mark Murphy and GM Brian Gutekunst: set up a half-hour every week for Gutekunst and/or Murphy to clear calendars for Rodgers and perhaps other team leaders to bring grievances/concerns to them. Or just simply to get to know them better.
Beyond Rodgers, I think this should be about Rodgers’ concerns. If, as has been reported, the Packers never notified Rodgers they were drafting Jordan Love and he found out on TV, shame on them. Even if you’re not going to seek Rodgers’ input on team decisions (that’s a tricky subject, and I’m not sure I’d want to open that window either), you can hear him out about concerns. The NFL used to be a league in which GMs pick the players, coaches coach the players and players simply play. But if smart players want more than that, and the alternative is that smart players (Russell Wilson, Rodgers and who knows in the future) want out if they’re ignored, why not allow players to give input? If the alternative is alienating great players to the point where they want out, wouldn’t you consider a different way of doing things? The Packers should.
Licensed Sports Betting
Legalized gambling is spreading fast; within a few years, it could add $1 billion a year, at least, to the NFL’s bottom line. According to industry forecasts, half the adults in America will be able to place a legal bet on NFL games on their mobile devices by the Super Bowl. Per Halpin, 28 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized sports gambling, 22 are operational now, and heavily populated Florida and New York are likely to be on-line for sports gambling by the Super Bowl.
Halpin thinks the NFL’s progress in advanced analytics could help bring betting on more complex prop bets to a higher level. If, for instance, you knew that Alvin Kamara was 10 percent better than any back in football in third-down production, you might be more likely to place a quick bet on a third-and-eight play for the Saints. It’s all uncharted territory, but expect gambling to increasingly be a part of the NFL landscape. Also: Expect places like DraftKings and FanDuel and even individual casinos to try to pick off NFL insiders in the next year or two. Gambling could change the media radically as well.
Owning The Calendar
I expect the NFL to announce soon its latest attempt to commandeer the sports calendar 24/7/365. The NFL is strongly considering an all-day football-fest on Saturday, July 31. That’s a day every team will be in training camp (most will report on July 27). Even though it will likely be “acclimation period” football—no contact, no helmets, and mostly conditioning and walking through Xs and Os—the NFL would look for ways to dress it up into an all-day TV and digital-media football show. (The NFL had very light work in the early days of Covid camp last summer, and I’d expect something fairly similar, if for a shorter period, this year.)
Imagine this template on the last Saturday in July, a dead time in the sports calendar: NFL Network going live from 9 a.m. ET to 11 p.m. ET, hopscotching in and out of 32 training camp practices. From Foxboro, with Mac Jones throwing deep to Jonnu Smith . . . to upstate New York, to see first-round pass-rusher Gregory Rousseau start his quest to be the much-needed edge-rush puzzle piece in the Buffalo defense . . . to the Carolinas, to see how Sam Darnold looks in Carolina blue . . . to Jacksonville, to see Tim Tebow run routes in number 85 and hopefully catch a ball from Trevor Lawrence . . . to Tampa, to see Tom Brady start to try to repeat history … to Kansas City, to see Patrick Mahomes do anything … to Arizona, to see J.J. Watt in red . . . yada, yada, yada. None of this is set, but it’s something the league wants to do in some form: 12 or however many hours of “Back to Football” swamping digital space and cable TV.
Maybe ESPN is involved too, but as of this weekend, the NFL and ESPN hadn’t spoken about it. I doubt ESPN would have the same wall-to-wall coverage, but all of that is TBD—as is this made-for-TV event.
That’s where the NFL is on a few fronts. One last thing, regarding Covid. As I have mentioned this spring, the NFL is likely to push for a rule this year that allows teams with Tier 1 and 2 employees (those who touch players, like coaches, trainers, equipment staff, etc.) that have X percent vaccinated, and, separately, X percent of players vaccinated to be able to return to 2019 protocols. Freedom, in other words. It could be 85 percent for each group; I’ve heard it could be higher for non-players and then 85 percent for players.
I asked one coach over the weekend about his team’s Covid situation. He was encouraging about it. He said 100 percent of his team’s Tier 1 and 2 staff had been vaccinated. And 65 of his 90 players have been vaccinated. That’s already 72 percent of the 90-man roster, and it’s only the end of May. He said what I’ve thought: Once players realize that being vaccinated will allow them the freedom to move around without masks, to be able to dine out with teammates and to not have to wake up early every morning to be tested, he thinks his team has a very good chance to be at 85 percent. This team would need 12 more players of the 25 currently not vaccinated to take the shot—and there’s seven weeks to get that done before training camp begins.
Two coaches mentioned this to me in the last couple of weeks: One very big motivator for players could be if the league keeps the 2020 rules in place for non-vaccinated players—to have to stay in the team’s city during the bye week and get up early each day to be tested, as they were in 2020. That’s likely to be a factor for players to take the shot.
Quotes of the Week10
“I didn’t actually know the playbook, necessarily, really, really good, and that’s no one’s fault but my fault.”
—Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, on his rookie-year knowledge.
Sounds worse than it probably was, but that’s not a good look for the franchise quarterback, particularly one that had the shakiest rookie season of the top three quarterbacks draft in 2020.
“Obviously, I opted out because of Covid, so why come back and get Covid? That would just be pretty silly. I felt it was the right thing to do, so I went and got vaccinated.”
—Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley, who chose not to play in 2020 after signing a rich free-agent contract with the Jets in 2019, on why he chose to be vaccinated.
“Even with 22 [starters returning], it’s still a different team. We have to re-jell, re-do our chemistry and everything else to try to get better from there and start from the bottom up. I think if you go into the season saying that we’re top dog, we’ve already lost.”
—Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, on the unprecedented retention of players on the Super Bowl champions.
“I would love to be here forever.”
—Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, on his hope that he can sign a long-term contract extension with the Ravens.
“I’m still running around here, beating everybody’s ass.”
—Von Miller of the Broncos. He’ll play this season at 32.
The early betting lines on Houston Texans games show them to be every bit the expansion team they are. The lines set by Westgate Las Vegas for the 17 regular-season games of the Texans show the wise guys think Houston could go 0-17. Game-by-game:
September: Jacksonville by 3 over Houston, Cleveland by 13.5, Carolina by 4.
October: Buffalo by 14, New England by 6, Indianapolis by 11.5, Arizona by 10.5, L.A. Rams by 8.5.
November: Miami by 7.5, Tennessee by 8.5, N.Y. Jets by 1.
December: Indianapolis by 7, Seattle by 7, Jacksonville by 4, L.A. Chargers by 4.5.
January: San Francisco by 13.5, Tennessee by 6.
Average line: Foes by 7.8 points per game over Houston.
Lines can change and certainly will change as the season goes on. But imagine the precipitous drop your team has taken if, in the span of one short offseason, you’re posted as the underdog twice to a 1-15 team.
Quite a comedown for a team that has won the AFC South in four of the last six years. Reminds me of that classic NFL Films line by the former Houston Oilers head coach, Jerry Glanville, when he said to an official he thought had just blown a call: “You know what NFL stands for? Not For Long, if you keep making calls like that.” This is probably the most precipitous drop in recent memory by a franchise to rock-bottomville.
Major-league baseball issued caps for each franchise the other day with the area codes, theoretically, of the major fan base for the team.
The Royals play in Kansas City, Mo. The team’s Area Code cap has four area codes on the front: 316, 620, 785 and 913. The area code of Kansas City, Mo., 816, was omitted, as were all Missouri area codes. Those four area codes on the front of the cap are all Kansas area codes.
Now, Kansas, and particular the areas of Kansas that abut the Missouri line and are Kansas City suburbs, contain hotbeds of Royals fans. But if you live in the city neighborhoods of Kansas City, or the Missouri suburbs around the ballpark, your area code, 816, was not on the hat. Say you live in Richfield, Kans., a seven-hour drive from Kaufman Stadium, 450 miles from the ballpark. Richfield is in the 620 area code. Richfield is represented on the cap. Downtown Kansas City is not.
New Era took these hats off its website within 24 hours.
The baseball season is two months old. Colorado has won four road games.
Rox are 4-22 on the road. They’ve been shut out away from Denver seven times in the last 24 days: 5-0 and 2-0 at St. Louis, 7-0 and 3-0 at San Diego, 1-0 at the Mets, and, in a twinbill Saturday, 7-0 and 3-0 at Pittsburgh.
What a smart decision, trading Arenado.
King of the Road
Please be nice to flight attendants. Having just come off three flights in 11 days, I can see the stress they’re under. If they tell you to put the mask on, just put it on and shut up. They didn’t make the rules—they’re just enforcing them for the good of everyone on board. Who knows who’s been vaccinated and who hasn’t? Seeing the sight of the bloodied Southwest flight attendant after getting two of her teeth punched out by an angry flier was awful, as have been the other confrontations on board, many caused by the mask mandate. It’s simple: Don’t book a flight if you’re going to balk at wearing a mask in the airport and on the plane.
I love the fact that American and Southwest have both banned alcohol in coach. Until they get the scourge of unruly behavior under some control, a no-alcohol policy certainly won’t hurt.
Tweets of the Week30
Way harder then people make it out to be.. https://t.co/80LKM01Q8p
— Ronnie Stanley (@megatronnie) May 29, 2021
Stanley is the starting left tackle for the Ravens.
Brady CRUSHES ONE into right-center!!!!
Her 12th of the season.
1-0 Bruins, T2.
📺 ESPN#GoBruins pic.twitter.com/8UeVRWZyxk
— UCLA Softball (@UCLASoftball) May 29, 2021
Maya Brady, Tom Brady’s niece, crushed a big home run Friday in the NCAA Tournament against Virginia Tech.
In a pro football context, this is why locker room access matters, and why @PFWAwriters will continue to push for a return to pre-COVID policies. It's about us and our jobs, sure, but it's about the athletes and people we cover.
— Lindsay Jones (@bylindsayhjones) May 27, 2021
Jones, who covers the NFL for The Athletic, is the president of the Pro Football Writers of America. She was responding to women’s tennis star Naomi Osaka said she would not talk to the press at the French Open this year.
C.J. Mosley describes Zach Wilson as "composed."
— Brian Costello (@BrianCoz) May 27, 2021
Costello covers the Jets for the New York Post.
That is one heaping load of praise right there.
In a call with Shannon Sharpe, Julio Jones commented on his future in Atlanta. https://t.co/i3622KR4fp
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) May 24, 2021
Amazed that a team website would post that. Impressed because it’s real. But probably not the PR spin I’d expect from a team feed.
Thanks so much for all the email to email@example.com advising me on coaching tips for my grandson Freddy. In all, I got 113 suggestions, many like Stephon Bagner of Birmingham, Mich. He wrote:
One of the greatest days of parenting is when baseball fetch turns into baseball catch.
I would start him with his body turned, left shoulder facing the target, and left foot pointed to the target in what will eventually be the landing position. Just worry about the arm action. Hip rotation should come naturally including rising up to his right toe. When the arm action and hip rotation is there, then add stepping into the throw to get into the plant location that he has already been practicing.
I want to say thanks to everyone who took time to write—lawyers, a firefighter, stay-at-home dads, two high-school coaches. I truly appreciate it, and I will use some of what I’ve learned with Freddy this summer. Now onto other email of the week:
On Adam Vinatieri and the HoF class of 2025. From Tim Wick, of St. Paul, Minn.: “There’s been much talk that he is a first ballot Hall-of-Famer and I’ll leave that to the electors to decide. My question is this: Vinatieri announced his retirement last week but he did not play for a team during the 2020 season. Does his hall eligibility begin five years after his announced retirement (last week) or five years after he was last paid to play football?”
He’ll be eligible first in February 2025, after last playing in the 2019 season and being off the field for five full years. I don’t know if he’ll be first-ballot. I always tell people, “How can you know if he’ll be first-ballot until you see who else is in the field in that particular year?” As of now (and not including carryover from previous years), the 2025 first-time-eligible class is a pretty good one. I’d rank them in this order: Vinatieri, Luke Kuechly, Eli Manning, Marshal Yanda, Joe Staley, Eric Weddle, Darren Sproles. Every one of those players will get consideration. Plus, there are always two or three candidates from the previous year who have momentum heading into the current year. So we’ll see.
Mad about me ranking the Seahawks 12th. From Mark Indrebo: “I wonder if your friendship with the front office of the 49ers is getting in the way of your objectivity? Since they took over, they have only one season with more than six wins. Yet each year, they get ranked above Seattle. Since Pete Carroll arrived in Seattle, you know how many teams have won more games? Just one. The Patriots. Yet Seattle, a consistently good, occasionally great team under Carroll, is somehow always ranked lower than the consistently bad, occasionally good 49er team. It really doesn’t make a lot of sense. As a long-time Seattle fan, this is what really irks me about national coverage.”
When I do these ratings, Mark, I have to ask myself what every team is going to look like on Sept. 1 of this year, not the previous year or years. Last year, coming off being up 10 in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback the key player on the offense and Nick Bosa at defensive end the key player on the defense, I had the Niners rated fourth entering the season. And in the first half of the second game of the season, Bosa and Garoppolo both got hurt and those injuries wrecked their seasons. Now they’re back, with a new QB on the horizon, and I like their chances to be more like the 2019 team than the 2020 team. You could be right about the Seahawks. I worry about their defense.
Mad about me ranking the Vikings 24th. From Cory Dage of Bloomington, Ill.: “You have officially lost it. Not enough done to shore up the defense?? Just having Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr back healthy makes this a top 15 defense. Add in Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods and others will make them even better. The offensive line has been solidified with the Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis picks. You can slam Kirk Cousins all you want, but check the stats over the last five years. He is right up there. I have read your column for 20-plus years and am thoroughly disappointed by your lack of research on this one.”
You could be right, Cory. Minnesota did have a top-10 scoring defense in 2018 and 2019, but they won only 18 games in those two years. One of their top three players, free safety Anthony Harris, was lost in free agency and replaced by Woods, PFF’s 45th-rated safety (out of 64) among players who played 50 percent of their team’s snaps last year. Patrick Peterson plays this year at 31, and he didn’t have a good year last year. So we’ll see whether Woods and/or Peterson are much help. I don’t know how Danielle Hunter’s contract situation will impact his season. Having said that, this team will score a lot, as long as Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook stay healthy. I may be eating crow by December.
Please, enough with Tebow. From Fred Jordan, of Chicago: “Totally sick of the media’s obsession—including you—with Tim Tebow. He’s washed up, but you guys keep him alive by continually writing and talking about him.”
Last week, following the Jaguars signing Tebow to try to make their team in his age-34 season after being out of football for nine years, I wrote 404 words of my 11,400-word column on Tebow. That is 3.5 percent of my column. I’m satisfied with my news judgment on it. Thanks for your feedback. He’s a lightning-rod person, but I don’t think ignoring him is the right call.
On Tampa Bay’s continuity. From Yves Lachance, of Montreal: “I always believed that bringing your good players back was of great importance and the Bucs did that, but I wonder if maybe they did too much of it in bringing back all their 22 starters from last year. I heard several times from football coaches and GMs that a team just cannot stay static and hope to be as good as the previous year, because everybody else is doing changes, adjustments, upgrades and adapt to a new reality and if you stay were you are you will not get better and maybe you’ll regress a little and your opponents will catch up to you. Should the Bucs have been more pro-active in bringing new blood to the team?”
Good point, Yves. The thing is, we just don’t know, because in modern football, I don’t think a team has brought back the 27 players who played the most at season’s end (including one who didn’t, O.J. Howard, but I count him because he was hurt but would have been in that group) plus specialists plus GM and all key coaches. It’s an incredible job by GM Jason Licht, super-glueing the team together for one more Super Bowl run. I tend to think you need a little new blood to freshen things up . . . but that can be a cliché too. This will be a fascinating chemistry experiment to follow this year.
I got about 20 of these emails. From Preston Hertzler, of Hamilton, Va.: “Regarding the vaccine and people choosing not to take it, all vaccines are currently under emergency use authorization. If you read the fact sheets about each one, it states in some way, “The [Insert name] COVID-19 Vaccine is an unapproved vaccine.” The reason it is not approved is there is no data on long-term effects of the vaccines. The decision to take the vaccine is not just about what is good for society in this case. We are asking people to take a risk on their long-term health. Considering many football players watch everything they put into their body, it would seem appropriate that they may have concerns and not just jump on the bandwagon.”
What would you guess is the bigger risk: taking the vaccine or getting COVID? The long-term effect of people who took the polio vaccine in the fifties or the measles vaccine in later years is that they didn’t get polio or the measles. I’ll take my chances following the advice of scientists who study these vaccines, and if others won’t, I strongly disagree, but that’s life in America today.
10 Things I Think I Think40
1. I think it’s wonderful to commemorate Memorial Day today in some way, to pay tribute to all of those who have served our country in the military, protecting us, for years. I love the tribute Steve Hartman of CBS News started last year: Taps Across America. At 3 p.m. ET today, all over the country, Hartman wants musicians to play Taps, a tribute to those who gave their lives in service to the country. It’s a lovely, touching idea, a thing he started to great fanfare (no pun intended) last year. It is spreading, as Hartman found with one grandfather whose voice wavered when explaining why he’s joining the musicians this year with a new trumpet:
Bob Drews of Mobile, Ala., has never played an instrument before. But after seeing what happened last year, he felt compelled to take part this year. He has been practicing every day.
“So I have a house full of critics. But I’m still motivated because it means a lot to me.”
That’s some great TV.
2. I think that was one weird retirement by Adam Vinatieri, who seemed like he surprised Pat McAfee on his show last week by saying he was submitting his paperwork for retirement. No announcement from the team. Just . . . odd. I know retiring is tough for a player, particularly a player who played great well into his forties and had some of the greatest clutch kicks of all time, and will waltz into Canton as the third kicker to be elected. I reached out to the Colts to see if I could speak with Vinatieri about his career, and he declined. No issue there. But for Adam Vinatieri to fade away with no formal announcement is strange.
3. I think when I think of Vinatieri, I’ll think of the time we spoke for a long time about the rocky start to his NFL career, in New England in 1996. Coach Bill Parcells had a short leash for kickers, and as a rookie, Vinatieri knew it. He missed four of his first seven field-goal tries, and entered a game against Jacksonville knowing that a bad day could mean unemployment. “Early on,” Vinatieri said, “I thought I was one bad game away, maybe one kick away, from the end of my football career. I felt the hot breath of Parcells from the first day of training camp. I was very close to going home to South Dakota, and probably going to medical school.” Luckily, he made five of six field-goal tries that day, including the game-winner. Later that year, he saved a touchdown by tackling Herschel Walker on a kickoff return, and after that, he had a home with Parcells.
4. I think, for the record, Adam Vinatieri is the best kicker in NFL history. I present one factoid, something that shows greatness not just in the snow globe game, twice, to beat the Raiders, and then the winning field goal as time expired to beat the Rams and make the Patriots’ first Super Bowl victory a reality. This is about greatness for a long, long career. I consider Baltimore’s Justin Tucker the best kicker of today. With a 90.7-percent career average in nine career seasons, he’s on his way to being an all-timer. So consider this, which I find to be a mind-boggling testimonial for Vinatieri:
• In the five seasons from age 42 to 46, Vinatieri converted 89.2 percent of his field goals (134 of 150).
• In his age-31 season last year, Tucker made 89.7 percent of his kicks (26 of 29).
5. I think kudos are in order for Alex Smith, who plays midfield for the Maryland men’s lacrosse team. Alex, the son of NFLPA executive director De Smith, was part of the third-seeded Terps’ 14-5 win over second-seeded Duke in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday in East Hartford, Conn. Maryland plays Virginia in the finals today at 1 p.m.
6. I think this was interesting, from a person with good knowledge of the Rams, on coach Sean McVay: “I haven’t seen Sean so happy, so engaged, probably since 2017. He’s really excited about working with Matthew Stafford. You can feel he’s confident that Stafford’s a great fit for what Sean wants to do. And he really likes the energy of [new defensive coordinator] Raheem Morris. He brings it every day.”
7. I think every time I see Texans coach David Culley in one of those Zoom press conferences, I think, “Poor David Culley.”
8. I think Culley looks like he’s in a hostage video every time he’s asked about Deshaun Watson.
9. I think I love the respect and admiration Tyrann Mathieu showed for Hall of Fame DB Charles Woodson last week. Mathieu implied he will changed his jersey number 32 to 21—Woodson’s number in Green Bay, when he won NFL Defensive Player of the Year at age 33—because he wants to emulate Woodson, a man who played at a high level till age 39. Woodson played 16-game seasons for the Raiders at age 37, 38 and 39. In 2009, his DPOY year, Woodson had an NFL-high nine interceptions (three returned for TDs), four forced fumbles, two sacks and nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Mathieu will play his ninth season this year at 30, and it sounds like he wants to play nine more after this one. “It really was the back-end of his career that he really excelled and he won Defensive Player of the Year and won the Super Bowl,” Mathieu said of Woodson. “So, for me that’s motivation. I think a lot of people are saying I’m getting old . . . I think just his story is giving me motivation to continue going forward.” Interesting. Mathieu seems like too much of a physical player to last 10 more years. But who’d have thought Tom Brady would be defending a Super Bowl title at 44?
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. RIP, Gavin McLeod. I may be one of the few who remembers him more for Murray the TV writer on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” than as the captain on “Love Boat.”
b. If you’re a person of a certain age (or half a certain age), the name “Samuel Wright” likely is unfamiliar to you. But there’s a chance, a very good chance, that if you are either a parent or a child of the eighties and nineties, a song Sam Wright sang got stuck in your head, and when he died at 72 last week, it came back, again and again.
c. “Under the Sea,” the unforgettable song from “The Little Mermaid,” had Wright singing the part of Jamaican crustacean Sebastian, and urging the Little Mermaid to stay in the water instead of chasing her mad crush on land.
The seaweed is always greener, in somebody else’s lake.
You dream about going up there, but that is a big mistake
Just look at the world around you …
Right here on the ocean floor.
Such wonderful things surround you …
What more is you lookin’ for?
Under the sea … under the sea …
d. See? I got it in your head now. It’s in my head as I write these words. Sam Wright is going to stay there all day, I bet.
e. “Under the Sea” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1990. Sam Wright acted in eight Broadway shows, including as Mufasa in “The Lion King,” and it is this jaunty little song that brought him the most fame. “I do want to make my little mark on the world,” Wright told the Los Angeles Times three decades ago. “An actor’s worst nightmare is to hear, 10 years from now, ‘Sam Wright? Who was Sam Wright?’ “
f. We know. And we’re glad Wright was put on this earth for 72 years.
g. Story of the Week: Tim Graham of The Athletic, on the benching of a 15-year-old girls basketball and soccer player, a victim of sexual assault in western New York, and how the school bureaucracy prevented her from playing the sports she loved.
h. Classic story of adults messing up kids’ games. Writes Graham:
HOLLAND, N.Y. — As she had all season, Kierra Kline took the seat between her coach and the scorer’s table.
It was the opening tip of the playoffs. Holland High, Kierra’s team, had lost only twice and was favored in the postseason, especially with home-court advantage throughout the bracket. The rural school about 35 miles southeast of Buffalo had won 19 straight at its gym.
Holland won last year’s Section 6 Class C championship when Kierra, then merely an eighth-grader, coolly head faked New York’s No. 2 all-time scorer, Dani Haskell, and made a 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left to beat Franklinville by one. Holland coach Sam Arnold calls Kierra “a program cornerstone.”
Still, Kierra’s right foot bounced nervously as she sat by her coach last March, sitting there in a long-sleeved “Won Not Done” warmup shirt over her jersey.
The jimmy leg was Kierra’s only exertion. She never checked in.
Why was “a program cornerstone” anchored to the bench?
i. So disconcerting why she didn’t check in, and why she is banned from playing sports for now. Excellent piece by Graham. I hope it helps get her eligible to play.
j. Congrats, Joe West, for breaking the MLB record for most games umped in history. West did his 5,376th game last Tuesday, working the plate, in a Cardinals-White Sox game that featured no players who were alive when he did his first game. I’m not the biggest Joe West fan—it’s always a little too much about him—but I recognize the consistent work he put in.
k. First game: Tuesday, Sept. 14, 1976, working third base in game one of a Houston-Atlanta twinbill at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
l. Attendance that evening: 970 . . . I’m sure the crowd was down because folks wanted to stay home and watch “Happy Days” at 8 on ABC and “M*A*S*H” at 9 on CBS . . . On the way back to the hotel from the ballpark, the umpiring crew probably listened to “Dancing Queen” by Abba, or “Shake Your Booty,” by K.C. and the Sunshine Band . . . The nation’s 200th birthday happened 10 weeks earlier . . . A young child named Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, later known as rapper/songwriter Nas, had his third birthday that day.
m. First game behind the dish: Sept. 16, 1976, Houston at Atlanta. Phil Niekro pitched to Dale Murphy. (Remember Murphy the wayward catcher?) Country Joe, 23, moved the game along pretty well. Time of game: 1:54. Attendance: 3,990.
n. West threw out Mets manager Joe Torre in 1977 (balls and strikes), Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn in 1988 (balls and strikes), Reds manager Pete Rose in 1988 (call at first base), Cards manager Joe Torre in 1992 (call at third base), Reds center fielder Deion Sanders in 1997 (call at first base). He threw out Cards manager Tony LaRussa in 1998, 2002 and 2010. He threw out three Dodgers in the span of two innings in 2003 for arguing balls and strikes—including pinch-hitter Jeromy Burnitz after the last out of the game. Incensed, Burnitz followed West off the field, screaming at him. “You’re tossed,” West said. Burnitz said: “How? The game’s over!”
o. But the greatest Joe West ejection of all time happened on the final day of the 1993 season. In Cincinnati, in the top of the first inning, Reds bench coach Jose Cardenal asked to be ejected so he could catch an early flight home for the offseason; West, working second base that day, obliged him, throwing him out at the end of the half-inning.
p. Looking forward to seeing the updated Alex Smith story from Stephania Bell (“Project 11—Alex Smith’s Final Drive”) on ESPN Tuesday at 7 p.m. You’ll remember the first Smith story from Bell—such a memorable doc about one of the worst injuries ever on an NFL field. This show will focus on Smith’s comeback and then his retirement.
q. Beernerdness: On my trip West, I had a gem from Laughing Monk Brewery (San Francisco), Irreverent Wit, a classic Witbier. My daughter Laura had it in her fridge (she’s more of a hazy IPA person, and humors me with Wits and pale ales when I’m around) on our recent visit to California. It’s a milder Allagash White is how I’d describe it—not quite the coriander vibe you get with Allagash. But Irreverent Wit, right out of the can, has the classic yeasty and faintly citrusy taste of a good wheat beer. Really enjoyed it.
r. NBA neophyte alert! (That’s me.) Trae Young has a little Steph Curry to him, with his fearlessness to pull up three steps past half-court and let fly a very long three-pointer. Fun player to watch.
s. Not cool: A Madison Square Garden fan spat on Young, and was banned from the building indefinitely. “I think we’re living in a society where really people just don’t have respect anymore,” said Atlanta coach Nate McMillan. There’s little doubt about that. Also: The “F— Trae Young” chants at the Garden are awful. Bush league.
t. Is there some good reason, after the mother of Capitol Police officer (and Donald Trump supporter) Brian Sicknick, who died in the Jan. 6 insurrection, came to Washington to urge legislators to appoint a non-partisan group to investigate the riot that caused her son to die, that Republican senators would not vote for such a committee to be appointed?
u. No. I didn’t think there was.
v. It’s disgusting. Every senator who voted against the formation of such an investigation should have to explain to Gladys Sicknick why they are so feckless—and why her son’s life means so little to them.
w. Letter to the Editor of the Week: Mary Heller, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in the New York Times: “During a conversation with a friend regarding those who are reluctant to be vaccinated, we referred to the resistance to the polio vaccine when it was first introduced. Her 14-year-old then queried: ‘What’s polio?’ What a wonderful question. We long for the day when the question will be, ‘What’s Covid?’ “
x. Jeff Van Gundy’s outrage at the BS foul calls in the NBA playoffs and players flopping is tremendous. And so true.
y. So next week in my column, I do pre-summer things that I’ve been doing for a long time: My Father’s Day book review section (I have my book recommendations ready), and a collection of segments of Graduation Speeches nationwide. I could use your help on those. Seen or heard any good ones this year with meaning for us all? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and send me the link to the speech, or simply the person and place it happened if you don’t have the link. Thanks. Always enjoy this column every year, and you can help with it in a big way.
The Adieu Haiku
To draft attendees:
You should have Roger Goodell
to boo for a while.