NFL, Deshaun Watson settlement remains possible, but still not likely (for now)

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Six days ago, the hearing regarding potential discipline for Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson ended. Five days from now, the two sides will submit written paperwork to Judge Sue L. Robinson arguing their respective positions. In the interim, a negotiated compromise can be reached. In theory.

Arguments have been made as to the wisdom of a settlement. And it would make sense. Legal disputes become finalized without a formal ruling all the time. The best outcome results in both sides being a little pissed off at the final decision. But it eliminates the prospect of one side ending up extremely pissed off over the clear and conclusive loss.

The problem for the league is P.R. The NFL, and specifically Commissioner Roger Goodell, can’t afford to be perceived as being too lenient with Watson, despite the potential flaws in the case that was presented to Judge Robinson. That’s why the league wants a minimum suspension of one year, and why the limited updates from the three days of the hearing consisted of largely of reminders that, yes, the league still wants him to be suspended for at least a year.

How could the league sell the idea of something less than that? It wouldn’t be easy. Although plenty of cases like this are indeed resolved by agreement, the mere suggestion from the week before the hearing began that Watson could be actively involved in the determination of his suspension drew confusion and criticism. Even if the league leaks its reasoning to reporters who will present it to the public without skepticism or Goodell conducts a press conference explaining it without the usual stream of non-answers, it will be hard for the league to sell something like a four-game or six-game or even eight-game suspension.

For now.

A settlement could make much more sense for the NFL after Judge Robinson announces a decision. As long as she imposes any discipline whatsoever, the league can appeal to Goodell, who would have final say. He could, if he wanted, impose a full-season suspension, or longer. It becomes much easier for the league to negotiate with Watson once someone other than the league issues a decision as to whether the Personal Conduct Policy was violated and the punishment that should ensue.

Let’s say Judge Robinson suspends Watson four games. That’s her decision, one that ideally will be communicated through a carefully-written decision that will be understandable to anyone who is inclined to believe at first blush that the discipline isn’t sufficient. Then, with Goodell holding the hammer that would allow him to increase the punishment to a full year, the settlement talks could happen — and a suspension that ends up being longer than the one Judge Robinson imposed would be viewed as the league pushing successfully to get a stronger punishment.

Some would say that, with Goodell holding all the cards if/when Judge Robinson imposes any discipline at all on Watson, why should he do anything less than use the full extent of his power? That would avoid the possibility, slim as it may be, of losing in court. If it ever gets to that point.

The league isn’t in the habit of going easy on players, especially not after the Ray Rice fiasco of 2014. This is the first case handled under a process aimed at minimizing Goodell’s influence. And his influence is indeed minimized, until the time comes for an appeal.

Someone from the league floated last week the idea of the NFL not appealing at all, if Judge Robinson suspends Watson for six or eight games. Maybe, if she suspends him for something less than that, the league would appeal the case and accept six or eight games as a negotiated compromise. Maybe there’s a way to use the fact that Watson missed all of 2021 as time served, since he absolutely would have been traded to another team and would have played the full season if the 24 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints hadn’t been pending.

He’d have to give up the $10 million in salary that he made for not playing last year, if a full season of de facto paid leave becomes an after-the-fact suspension. Maybe he’d do it, if it meant getting on the field sooner than later. If the choice comes down to risking a suspension on appeal for all of 2022 or giving up his 2021 pay while missing four or six or eight games in 2022, maybe he would do it.

Regardless, it will become easier for the league to sell something like that to the media and the fans after Judge Robinson issues a ruling that explains, from the perspective of a true outsider, why the Personal Conduct Policy as applied to the facts of the case possibly don’t justify anything close to what the league wants. At that point, it would make plenty of sense for the two sides to work something out, especially since the league could choose to hold firm. To suspend him for a year. And then to take their chances in court.

The biggest risk the league assumes by waiting for Judge Robinson’s decision is that, if she imposes no discipline at all, there’s nothing that can be done at that point. The NFL will have lost conclusively, and Watson will be completely free to suit up for Week One.

They could still settle all of it at any time. Again, without Judge Robinson’s decision, it would be very difficult for the league to avoid creating the impression that it didn’t go far enough in punishing Watson.

Reports sharply conflict on whether Seahawks want Baker Mayfield

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The truth regarding Seattle’s interest in Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield remains muddled, And that may be exactly how the Seahawks and/or the Browns want it.

On Tuesday afternoon, Ian Rapoport of NFL Media said the Seahawks have never had strong interest in Baker Mayfield. On Tuesday evening, Josina Anderson of CBS Sports, who recently reported that the Seahawks continues to have a high level of interest in Mayfield, took issue with Rapoport’s characterization, calling it “inaccurate.”

If the Seahawks are interested, they’re doing a great job of keeping it from becoming as obvious as, say, the Panthers’ interest in Mayfield. Carolina and Cleveland had trade talks during the draft. The negotiations fell apart over the respective portions of Mayfield’s $18.8 million salary that the Browns and Panthers would pay. More recent reporting indicated that the interest isn’t dead, even after the Panthers pulled the plug during the draft and picked Matt Corral.

Seattle, which did its best to misdirect everyone for months on whether Russell Wilson would be traded, possibly is doing the same thing here, working to create the impression that they aren’t interested despite being interested in upgrading from Geno Smith and the U.S. Open’s new favorite punching bag, Drew Lock. It makes sense to keep it quiet, for multiple reasons. They want to get Mayfield as cheaply as possible, both as to draft picks and compensation. With no one else poised to pull the trigger, and with the chances of the Browns and Mayfield coexisting somewhere south of slim and none, the Browns need two viable suitors in order to get the best possible deal that they can.

Over the weekend, we tried to identify the full universe of teams that could or should be interested in Mayfield, as a better option to the best they currently have at the top of the depth chart. Including the Browns, who absolutely should want to keep Mayfield if they lose Deshaun Watson for the full season, 11 teams should at least be thinking about it.

It’s a combination of chess, checkers, and chicken. Someone will eventually make the move. The Seahawks may simply be waiting for the right time to do so, while maintaining plausible deniability in the event that it doesn’t happen. In their first season post-Russ, they can’t afford to create the impression that they don’t believe in Smith or Lock, if they can’t get Mayfield. But they still don’t want Mayfield badly enough to just get it done and move on.

As the clock ticks toward the start of training camp, something needs to happen. Mayfield doesn’t seem to be inclined to take an excused absence from camp while the Browns wait for a quarterback to get injured and for someone to cough up a first-round pick and more, like the Vikings did for Sam Bradford in 2016, when Teddy Bridgewater suddenly was lost for the season in late August. Mayfield wants to get it done, so that he can commence the process of learning a new offense and a new team and a new coaching staff and a new everything, in order to have the kind of season that will set him up for a new contract.

Will it be Seattle? Will it be some other team that has spent the slow time studying game film and OTA tape and wondering whether Mayfield gives them a better chance to win as many games as possible in 2022?

It can happen at any time. It needs to happen soon, or an awkward situation between the Browns and Mayfield could get downright acrimonious.

That could be what the Seahawks are counting on. That the Browns will cut and run in order to avoid another distraction in an offseason featuring more than a few of them.

Regardless, if someone else truly believes in Mayfield, and if Mayfield is all-in with that team, they should just go ahead and do it. If it works, the extra stuff they have to surrender via trade compensation or salary won’t matter. If they wait too long, it will become harder to make it work — and they may not get him at all.

Yes, Detroit Lions, I’m talking directly to you.

Cowboys have nothing to say about controversial coffee sponsorship

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Cowboys owner Jerry Jones thinks bad news is good for business. If so, Tuesday was a pretty good day for business.

The Cowboys are facing criticism for unveiling on Twitter a partnership with Black Rifle Coffee Company. Via the Associated Press, the company’s products include AK-47 Espresso, Silencer Smooth, and Murdered Out.

The Cowboys posted the tweet after another day of multiple mass shootings in America, including a massacre at a parade in Highland Park, Illinois.

The Cowboys had no comment to the AP. The coffee company crowed about the partnership. And for good reason; the relationship with the Cowboys and the inevitable controversy elevate its profile and brand. Anyone uncomfortable with the connection to the Cowboys wouldn’t have bought the coffee anyway; this makes those inclined to support the coffeemaker more aware of it — and perhaps more likely to buy its products.

The company claims that it “supports veterans, first responders, and America’s men and women in uniform.” That prompted this strange remark from the author of the AP story: “Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ steadfast support of the military was best illustrated when he was one of the most outspoken NFL owners against players kneeling during The Star-Spangled Banner before games to protest racial injustice and police brutality.”

Folks, for the umpteenth time plus one, the anthem protests weren’t an assault on the military. And Jones wasn’t supporting the military by cajoling players to stand. He was preserving his ability to buy and maintain a superyacht, along with all his other holdings. Jones and the league deliberately pandered to those who refused then (and now) to see that the gesture wasn’t about the military. And it’s hard to imagine how Tuesday’s tone-deaf gesture by the Cowboys is about supporting the military.

It also would be interesting to know how much the Cowboys are making in this deal. Whatever it is, it arguably isn’t worth it. Unless America’s Team wants to saturate the portion of America that was repelled by anthem kneeling and that, in turn, will embrace a line of coffee products dripping with pro-gun messaging, even if it’s announced the day after guns were once again used to create more havoc in America.

Are the Steelers destined to lose Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool to free agency?

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In the early years of free agency, the Steelers seemingly had a great outside linebacker every year. In many of those years, the great outside linebacker had to go elsewhere to get paid.

And the Steelers just kept on cranking out great outside linebackers.

In recent years, the Steelers have mastered the art of drafting and developing receivers. This year, James Washington left via free agency. Next year, Diontae Johnson likely will be following Washington.

Mark Kaboly of TheAthletic.com suggests in a mailbag column that the Steelers won’t pay Johnson $20 million per year. This means that they won’t re-sign him. He won’t take $20 million per year, not as the market is moving toward $30 million.

Why should he? The market is what it is. The cap is what it is, and it will keep going up. He needs to get paid while he can, because he has only so many years to get paid.

The Steelers don’t care, because they know they can replace Johnson via the draft. They drafted two more receivers this year, possibly planning for Johnson to leave. And for Chase Claypool, who considers himself to be one of the top three receivers in the league, to be next.

A decade ago, the Steelers made an offer to receiver Mike Wallace. When he didn’t take it, they basically offered the same deal to receiver Antonio Brown. Brown accepted. If the Steelers won’t go north of $20 million per year, neither Johnson nor Claypool will accept — and both will be gone.

Just like the revolving door the Steelers once had at outside linebacker, they’ll be drafting and developing receivers who become good enough to get paid big money elsewhere. And then the Steelers will do it al over again.

College football chaos to continue

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The looming departure of USC and UCLA for the Big 10 has simply become the latest domino to fall in the cash-driven realignment of college football. From the ability of larger markets to generate more NIL money (and in turn attract better players) to the undue influence of ESPN on the process of pulling strings and stuffing coffers, the money is, as always, making things happen.

Tuesday’s Sports Business Daily is riddled with articles regarding the enigma that college football has become. But it’s no Rubik’s cube. The path to solving it is paved with dollars and cents. The best conferences will attract the teams best positioned to generate more TV money, because they are best positioned to lure the best players in this new age of players being paid by alumni and boosters.

Notre Dame reportedly plans to stay independent, but the moment it believes it has no path to the playoff or the sport has boiled down to two conferences (SEC and Big 10) and everyone else, the Irish will whisk themselves away from football independence.

The Big 10 and the SEC will both continue to pick over the other conferences for the most attractive schools, and the other conferences will struggle to assemble the scraps. The Big XII, for example, is reportedly exploring a quartet of Pac-12 schools (Utah, Arizona, Arizona State, and Colorado).

It’s obvious that a tiered system will emerge. The Big 10 and SEC will have the top spots. Of the Big XII, the Pac-12, and the ACC, two could make up the second tier. The third tier will consist of whoever doesn’t land on the second tier plus another conference or two. Maybe Conference USA. Maybe the Mountain West. Then there will be a fourth tier. And a fifth. And so on.

College football isn’t dying; it’s too big to die. But the networks will do what the networks do. The rich will get richer. The monstrous field of FBS schools will whittle itself down to, as a practical matter, a finite universe of potential contenders.

Of course, that’s pretty much where it already is. For the Alabamas of the world, the risk is that some of the schools with greater indirect access to more NIL money will start getting better and better players, potentially knocking the Crimson Tide out of the green tsunami after Nick Saban moves on.

Yes, it’s chaos. As I’ve said before, it’s the chaos that college football deserves. For far too many years, the system exploited the players. The reckoning, however, arrived not through the front door in the form of paying players directly but through the back door of NIL payments. It will change everything. It already has. And it will continue, eventually wiping out any hope that one of 50 to 70 programs could catch lightning in a bottle in a given year, and ride it all the way to a national championship.

Those days are over. The only good news is that, once the Big 10 and the SEC have evolved into whatever they will be (and that surely will result in a few of the schools currently in these conferences getting kicked to the second tier or lower), there will be maybe 20 or 30 teams that reasonably could thread the needle to a championship. Which would be a lot better than having the sport controlled by a handful of teams.

Which is precisely why Saban has been whining so much about NIL. His team’s position at the top of the mountain is in the process of getting more crowded.

Although the end result will essentially disqualify plenty of teams from ever having even a slight chance of competing for a championship, it will hopefully lead to a greater sense of parity among the best programs.

Legendary handicapper Hank Goldberg dies at 82

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Hank Goldberg lived a charmed life. That life ended on Monday, his 82nd birthday, due to complications from a long battle with kidney disease.

Best known nationally for his handicapping work with ESPN, Goldberg did much more than that. As a youth, he served as a batboy for the Yankees and became personal friends with Joe DiMaggio.

In his mid-20s, Goldberg moved from New Jersey to South Florida and eventually took over Miami. He had a P.R. job with the Dolphins. He worked for Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. In 1978, Goldberg became the color commentator for the Dolphins’ radio broadcasts. He hosted talk radio in Miami. He eventually joined ESPN in the 1990s, after his run with the Dolphins ended in 1992.

According to a lengthy and detailed obituary posted by Gene Menez of CBSSports.com, Goldberg dated Katie Couric. He had Clint Eastwood in his black book.

As one person with longstanding ties to the league explained it, for many decades NFL owners and P.R. executives would not go to Miami without first checking in with Goldberg.

We extend our condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.

When, if ever, will Dan Snyder show up and testify before the Oversight Committee?

House Hearing Examines NFL's Handling Of Washington Commanders' Workplace Misconduct
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As Commanders owner Daniel Snyder continues to not be served a subpoena for testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight & Reform, he has more than a yacht floating in international waters to potentially insulate him from a process server. He’s also got a small army of lawyers.

Bloomberg.com has taken a careful look at the legal team that is helping Snyder fend off his reckoning. The latest addition is Karen Patton Seymour. She’s the former legal chief at Goldman Sachs. She returned to the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell in 2021.

The Reed Smith firm also have four lawyers on the case, per Bloomberg.

Currently hovering over the entire situation is whether and when Snyder will appear for a deposition before the Oversight Committee. A spokesperson reiterated to Bloomberg.com that Snyder “has not refused to appear” and he “looks forward to fining a path forward.”

For now, that path could be to find a way to run out the clock until the Republicans re-take the House of Representatives in November, since that would end the investigation of the Commanders as of January 1. But that’s a long time to give the finger to the Oversight Committee.

That’s really what he’s doing. And the league seems to be fine with it.

Think about that one. A team owner is, per a Committee statement issued last week, defying efforts to serve him with a subpoena. (He says he hasn’t refused to testify; the Committee says he’s refused to accept the subpoena to testify.) The NFL shrugs at this behavior. Or maybe it’s not even a shrug. The NFL just completely ignores it.

It points to a fair conclusion that the league office is afraid of Snyder. It’s afraid to take him on in court. It’s afraid of what else could be leaked from the trove of emails that took down Jon Gruden. It’s afraid of engaging with a guy who quite possibly will fight dirty and relentlessly and expose any and all dirty laundry of which he’s aware.

So they just ignore him. And, for the most part, the fans and media are ignoring the fact that the NFL has opted to stick its Shield in the sand over Snyder, because the league quite possibly fears what Snyder will do to them if they try to do anything to him.

Demaryius Thomas had stage 2 CTE

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The family of former Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas allowed Boston University to study his brain, following his December 2021 death. The examination concluded that Thomas suffered from stage 2 CTE.

“Once I became aware of CTE and began to familiarize myself with the symptoms, I noticed that Demaryius was isolating himself and I saw other changes in him,” Katina Smith, Demaryius’s mother, said in a statement released by the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “He was just so young, and it was horrible to see him struggle. His father and I hope all families learn the risks of playing football. We don’t want other parents to have to lose their children like we did.”

Although this implies the epileptic seizure that ended his life at 33 was tied to CTE, the release from the Concussion Legacy Foundation acknowledges that, despite speculation that late-stage CTE can be associated with epilepsy, “it is far more likely that he developed post-traumatic epilepsy after a motor vehicle accident and fall he experienced several years before his death.”

That continues to be the biggest issue with CTE. What does it mean to have it? It remains unclear, more than a decade after it first became a discussion point. And it creates real fear for former players who wonder whether they are walking around with a ticking time bomb inside their skulls.

That said, we know that more than just football players get it. Just last week, it was announced that former MLS player Scott Vermillion had stage 2 CTE. He died of an accidental overdose in 2020.

Soccer has been associated with head trauma for nearly as long as football. Other sports put the brain at risk for injury, from hockey to rugby to lacrosse to auto racing to boxing to MMA, an endeavor that at times becomes far more brutal than any other sport can ever be.

The bottom line is that everyone at this point knows the risks of head trauma, in whichever endeavor it may happen. Although some seem to be actively rooting for CTE to bring down the NFL, no professional player other than Chris Borland — who retired from football seven years ago after one NFL season — has quit playing due to these concerns.

Bears issue statement after Highland Park July 4th parade massacre

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Another day in the life of America. Another mass shooting. Another mass murder. This time, it happened at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois. A gunman climbed an unsecured ladder to an unsecured roof and shot 30 unsuspecting people, killing six of them.

After being at large for most of the day, the murderer has been caught.

The Bears have issued a statement regarding the latest tragedy involving guns and human beings far too troubled and evil to ever own them. It’s what’s done at times like this, even if it doesn’t do anything.

Thoughts and prayers. At this point, it’s more caricature than cliche. And yet that worn out phrase has made its way into the team’s statement. What else, really, can be said?

The problem is simply beyond our ability to properly diagnose and repair. We just can’t do it. We can try. We can make minor strides. But it’s never going to be conclusively solved because we lack the political will to do it. The people may want it, but the politicians we’ve elected will not do it. And those who think it’s simple to replace the politicians who resist meaningful safety laws that don’t prevent responsible gun ownership don’t understand how a toxically-flawed two-party system truly works.

Here’s the reality. If you’re going to live here, you need to accept getting shot to death in a public place as one of the daily risks of leaving your house. Go to the grocery store, parade, church, school, wherever, and you could be shot and killed. Someone who has no business having a gun possibly will have gotten a gun and possibly will show up and take aim at you or those you have a solemn duty to protect but can’t.

You can’t do it because we are broken. Fundamentally and, by all appearances, irretrievably. Those who are supposed to be the best among us are the worst, selling out the lives of Americans for political support and acting like they have done no such thing even though everyone knows it.

Anyway, this is who we are as a people. As a nation. It’s not changing. Some like to say, America, love it or leave it. Plenty of Americans love it, but they will only ever feel truly safe if they pack up and leave it.

Drew Lock playfully acknowledges U.S. Open’s gratuitous shot

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The U.S. Open (tennis version) and the Seahawks added some spice to a slow news weekend.

It started when the SportsCenter account tweeted a video from the Wimbledon tournament. A Seahawks fan responded with this three-word pleasantry: “not a sport.”

Enter the U.S. Open’s Twitter account: “not a sport says the person about to watch 17 games of Drew Lock at QB.”

The banter continued with the Open account posting a graphic of the Simms top-40 quarterback countdown. Lock finished dead last. Said the U.S. Open account: “aren’t there only 32 teams?

Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf tried to take some of the steam out of the situation, eventually explaining “we get the point.”

Lock stayed silent until Monday, when he wished a happy Fourth of July “to all but especially to the intern at the @usopen.”

By the way, tennis is definitely a sport. If it isn’t, there are plenty of other sports that need to be exposed as not sports. (I’ll keep that list to myself, for a variety of reasons up to and including my wish to remain gainfully employed.)

Also, there’s no guarantee Lock will even play this year. Geno Smith is leading the competition, through the offseason program. Smith could be the Week One starter. Which, of course, often means in situations like this that he’ll win the privilege of being the first one benched.

NFL Network’s America’s Game marathon skips the Jon Gruden, Rich Dalrymple years

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In a weekend devoid of much NFL news, NFL Network has made a little news, thanks to an interesting broadcasting decision.

The league-owned and league-operated broadcast channel televised a marathon of the America’s Game series, documentaries delving into the various Super Bowl champions, all the way back to the inaugural AFL-NFL World Championship Game. From the first through the 55th (the latest one, featuring the 2021 Rams, will likely debut in September), every single episode aired — with two notable exceptions.

The 2002 Buccaneers and the 1995 Cowboys ended up in the “do not play” pile.

The folks at JoeBucsFan.com strenuously objected to the Tampa Bay omission. Our guess is that it traces directly to the fact that Jon Gruden, the first-year coach of the Super Bowl XXXVII champions at the time, currently has active litigation against the league — and because he was forced out of his job as coach of the Raiders after someone (he claims in his lawsuit that it was the league office and the Commissioner) leaked emails Gruden had sent to former Washington executive Bruce Allen in 2011.

Tyler Dunne of GoLongTD.com points out that the 1995 Cowboys also weren’t included. As Dunne speculates (likely accurately), that episode was leapfrogged because it includes extensive narration from former Cowboys P.R. executive Rich Dalrymple, who abruptly retired not long before ESPN.com reported that Dalrymple allegedly had videotaped cheerleaders while they were changing clothes in 2015, and that the team eventually paid out $2.4 million to settle any potential legal claims.

That situation remains conspicuously unresolved, as it relates to possible league discipline. The Cowboys investigated it on their own. The NFL has not responded to past inquiries regarding whether the Cowboys notified the league office of the potential Personal Conduct Policy violation arising from the claims. Amazingly, even though the situation involves the highest-profile team in the league, the issue essentially disappeared nearly as quickly as it had surfaced.

Fifty-five episodes. Two omissions. Plausible reasons exist for the league to refuse to surrender its platform to a pair of men it currently regards as scoundrels. In other words, this was no boating accident.

And, of course, by not just including the two episodes, the league has made it into a bigger issue than it would have been.

Meanwhile, if you’re now sufficiently intrigued to watch the omitted episodes, the 1995 Cowboys can be seen here. And the 2002 Buccaneers can be seen here.

Neither will be seen anywhere on NFL Network, any time soon.

Taking a closer look at the NFL’s case against Deshaun Watson

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The NFL and the NFL Players Association spent three days last week submitting evidence and argument regarding the question of whether Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson should be suspended to start the 2022 season and, if so, the number of games he’ll miss. Judge Sue L. Robinson eventually will issue a decision, subject to an appeal by either party (unless she finds that no discipline should be imposed at all).

So what was the NFL’s actual case against Watson? It’s one thing to repeatedly insist on a suspension of at least one year. It’s another to have the evidence that, when combined with the Personal Conduct Policy, will justify that kind of a punishment.

When considering the sheer number of accusations against Watson, it’s hard not to think something happened that would justify a suspension. With 24 lawsuits filed (20 have been settled) and, per the New York Times, at least 66 different women hired via social media for private massages — and given the admission that Watson had sexual encounters with at least three of the women who sued him — it seems reasonable to conclude that Watson had a habit of arranging private massages with strangers and trying to steer the massages toward consensual sexual encounters.

But that apparently wasn’t the evidence the league presented. After interviewing only 12 of the women who have made allegations against Watson, the league presented evidence as to five persons who provided massages to Watson. The 24 lawsuits, the 66 or more strangers who were retained for private massages, and the allegation made in at least one of the lawsuits that the actual number exceeds 100 apparently weren’t part of the case against him.

The NFL’s case focused on five people. And, as PFT reported last week, that evidence included no proof of violence or threats or any type of physical conduct that would constitute actual assault.

The Personal Conduct Policy expressly prohibits “assault and/or battery, including sexual assault or other sex offenses.” If there’s no sexual assault, that specific provision of the policy hasn’t been violated.

And that’s the provision that creates a baseline suspension of six games per offense. Here’s the key language of the policy: “With regard to violations of the Policy that involve: (i) criminal assault or battery (felony); (ii) domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse and other forms of family violence; or (iii) sexual assault involving physical force or committed against someone incapable of giving consent, a first violation will subject the violator to a baseline suspension without pay of six games, with possible upward or downward adjustments based on any aggravating or mitigating factors.”

Without proof of “sexual assault involving physical force or committed against someone incapable of giving consent,” there’s no violation of that specific provision. (It’s possible that the league will try to argue that the circumstances suggest that the persons were not capable of giving consent, but that typically refers to someone who is underage or incapacitated in some way, for example, someone who is unconscious due to alcohol or drug consumption.)

Absent evidence of an actual sexual assault, the league’s case rests on two catch-all provisions at the bottom of a list of bullet points in the policy: (1) “conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person”; and (2) “conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL personnel.” The argument would be that Watson’s habit of trying to steer massages toward sexual encounters falls within either or both of these prohibitions.

But that’s where the lack of discipline for Patriots owner Robert Kraft complicates the league’s case. If no action was taken against Kraft for having a massage that allegedly became a sexual encounter, how can the league discipline Watson for the same thing?

The difference, of course, is that the evidence against Watson ultimately centers on the fact that he allegedly tried, repeatedly, to make massages into sexual encounters. Kraft was never accused of doing that, by anyone.

For the NFL, that may be the best, strongest argument to present to Judge Robinson in the written briefs due next week. Watson, they’ll argue, posed a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another and/or undermined or put at risk the integrity of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL personnel by repeatedly arranging private massages and trying to make them into sexual encounters.

It’s unclear whether this practice was firmly established in the evidence submitted at last week’s hearing. Although the NFL focused on five women, Watson could have been questioned at length on the full extent of his habit. Did he admit that he tried to make massages into sexual encounters? If he denied it, was his testimony credible?

Then there’s the question of whether the NFL may have deliberately scaled back the effort to create the impression that Watson’s behavior extended so broadly in light of the lawsuit filed Monday (the timing may have been not coincidental) against the Texans for allegedly knowing about Watson’s alleged habit and taking no steps to protect the women who eventually found out during the massages that he would try to make it something else.

While it’s impossible to know the specific extent of the league’s argument based on an alleged habit of making massages into something other than massages without seeing the full transcript of the hearing, that could be the key to determining whether Judge Robinson would have a way to distinguish Watson’s behavior from Kraft’s and to impose discipline based not on any actual assault but on the alleged practice of trying to make massages into sexual encounters.

The answers will appear in Judge Robinson’s written decision. She’ll need to craft a ruling that clearly explains her factual findings and that outlines in basic terms the way the Personal Conduct Policy applies to those facts to result in discipline. Absent proof of sexual assaults and given that the Kraft precedent makes it very difficult to punish Watson for engaging in massages that became consensual sexual encounters, Judge Robinson likely will be able to discipline Watson only if she finds that he was engaged in a habit of trying to make massages into sexual encounters, and if she believes that this behavior runs afoul of either or both of the two catch-all prohibitions of the Personal Conduct Policy.

That’s why the NFL’s effort to discipline Watson is so different from the criminal process (which resulted in no indictments) and the civil lawsuits that are still pending. For the league, the controlling principles appear in the Personal Conduct Policy. The facts will be determined by Judge Robinson, based on the evidence that was presented to her.

She’ll make the decision. If she chooses to impose any discipline at all, the league will have to decide whether to appeal to the Commissioner for a greater punishment. But the factual findings made by Judge Robinson are, by rule, binding on the Commissioner.

Whatever the final outcome, it will need to be explained in a way that that will be understandable and satisfactory to those who may have a hard time reconciling the 24 lawsuits and the evidence suggesting that Watson had a habit of arranging manages and trying to make them into sexual encounters with something less than a one-year suspension.

Robert Griffin III says he’s ready ready to play, and will remain ready

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens
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Robert Griffin III, drafted in the same year that Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins entered the NFL, was out the league in 2021. He’s ready to get back in, at any given moment.

Griffin tells Christopher Williams of KWTX in Waco, Texas that the second overall pick in the 2012 draft still wants to play — and is still prepared to do so.

I am ready to go right now,” Griffin told Williams. “I train every day. I throw and work out. I know what it takes to get my body ready and I am doing those things. Yes, it is a little bit tougher when you are flying around everywhere doing stuff for TV, but when you really want something, you make it work. So, if I get that call this year, next year, or five years from now, I will be ready to play.”

Griffin is 32 years old, which for quarterbacks is downright young. And he ran an unofficial 4.48-second 40-yard dash earlier this year, as part of Rich Eisen’s charity event.

Griffin said at the time that the showing actually resulted in a few teams calling him. To date, he has not had any workouts or offers.

It could still happen. Teams need four quarterbacks for camp. Many still carry three on the active roster. Those that go with two have a third on the practice squad.

Griffin spent four years in Washington (he didn’t play in his final year with the team) and one with the Browns. After going unsigned in 2017, Griffin spent three years as a backup in Baltimore.

Here’s a thought. If Griffin, who currently works for ESPN, doesn’t get a chance to play for an NFL team in 2022, why not consider the XFL? With an exclusive ABC/ESPN broadcast deal, it could make plenty of sense for Griffin to create some film of something other than running in a straight line.

Few quarterbacks who believe that they have NFL chops, and who have performed at a high level in the highest level of football, seem to be inclined to show what they can do in a minor league. Whether it’s Griffin or Tim Tebow or Colin Kaepernick (or even Cam Newton), quarterbacks who have had their NFL careers end sooner than they wanted simply aren’t willing to take a step back — even if it could mean doing enough to take a step forward.

Maybe the money isn’t good enough. Maybe they don’t want to find out the hard way that they aren’t as good as they used to be. Regardless, the XFL or the USFL surely would love to have Griffin if they could get him. It would definitely make either league a lot more interesting to watch.

Birmingham Stallions win USFL championship, 33-30

USFL Championship - Birmingham Stallions v Philadelphia Stars
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With 10 minutes to play, the Philadelphia Stars led the USFL title game by three points. Fueled by a touchdown drive led by backup quarterback Alex McGough and a pick six from linebacker Scooby Wright, the Birmingham Stallions turned the tables and emerged with the victory, 33-30.

Both teams lost their starting quarterbacks to injury during. Stallions quarterback J’Mar Smith exited with cramps. Stars starter Case Cookus suffered a broken fibula on a third-down play while Philly was clinging to a 23-20 lead.

A pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns put Birmingham up by 10. The Stars answered with a touchdown. They opted for a fourth-and-12 play in an attempt to keep possession. The effort just failed, with the pass landing incomplete.

Birmingham still had to run out the clock. Facing fourth down in Philly territory with under a minute to play, coach Skip Holtz opted to punt. The Stallions barely missed a chance to down the ball near the goal line, giving the Stars a first down on the 20. Two plays later, however, another interception sealed the win for the Stallions.

Birmingham finished the year 11-1. The Stars went 7-5, including the postseason.

Victor Bolden, with six catches for 64 yards and the go-ahead touchdown, was named the MVP of the championship game.

The game was played before a noticeably large crowd in Canton. Fox has announced that the USFL will return next April for a second season, with the same eight teams that competed in 2022.

Which teams should be thinking about making a run at Baker Mayfield?

Oklahoma Spring Game
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For weeks, two teams have been linked to Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield — the Panthers and the Seahawks. With all teams in position to study film from offseason workouts and with plenty of teams perhaps not having clear answers at the position, which teams should be at least pondering the possibility of a potential upgrade from their current projected starter to Mayfield?

On this weekend featuring not much actual news, now is as good a time as any to try to identify the universe of teams that should at least be thinking about Mayfield. Here they are, in no particular order.

The Browns.

If Judge Sue L. Robinson decides that Deshaun Watson should miss the entire season, or if on appeal the Commissioner makes that ruling, the Browns will need a quarterback for all of 2022. Mayfield makes the most sense, on paper. Unfortunately, the bridge between Baker and the Browns has been obliterated. The only way to mend fences would be for the Browns to offer him more money and an unimpeded path to the open market in 2023. Even then, it’s probably not enough.

The Steelers.

When the Steelers made quarterback Kenny Pickett the 20th overall pick in the draft, the door seemingly slammed on the possibility of Mayfield making a beeline to the ‘Burgh if he’s ultimately cut by the Browns. But with Pickett by all appearances not ready to play, isn’t Mayfield (if healthy) a better option than Mitch Trubisky? Mayfield definitely is. And while that would be an intriguing answer for 2022, it could throw a wrench in the plans for 2023, if the Steelers have a great year with Mayfield. Some would call that a good problem to have.

The Panthers.

They’re reportedly still haggling with the Browns over the amount of money the two teams would pay toward Mayfield’s 2022 guaranteed salary of $18.8 million. At some point, the logjam needs to be broken. If the Panthers wait too long, one of these other teams may snatch him.

The Falcons.

Baker Mayfield is a better option than Marcus Mariota. Maybe the Falcons will come to terms with that during the slow weeks. Maybe they’ll realize that it won’t get any easier to get people to buy tickets and attend games absent a quarterback who plays well enough to make an NFC South also-ran into a potential contender.

The Seahawks.

Despite periodic reports of significant interest, they’ve done nothing to demonstrate it clearly and conclusively. Maybe they’re simply playing the cards close to the vest in the hopes that he’ll eventually be released. Regardless, the Seahawks are doing a good job of selling the idea that they’re comfortable with Geno Smith or that new darling of the U.S. Open, Drew Lock.

The Saints.

They were one of the teams pursuing Deshaun Watson. That necessarily makes them a potential contender for Mayfield, despite the presence of Jameis Winston. Maybe the Saints genuinely believe that Winston when healthy is better than Mayfield when healthy. Reasonable minds definitely would differ on that point.

The Lions.

Those familiar with this specific web destination may remember that I’ve been trying to type this one into existence. Mayfield is better than Jared Goff. Period. And Mayfield much better fits the current vibe that coach Dan Campbell is trying to create than the California kid who landed in what must feel to him like Bizarro Oz.

The Giants.

The new power structure didn’t pick up the fifth-year option on Daniel Jones. Although they refuse to explain it this way, they basically are betting that he won’t be good enough to make them want to apply the much pricier franchise tag in 2023. Isn’t Mayfield better and more accomplished than Jones? Yes and yes. If the Giants aren’t sold that Jones will be the guy for 2023, why not grab Mayfield now and see if he can become the future for a team that is still trying to adequately replace Eli Manning?

The Texans.

They claim to be all in with Davis Mills. And, in fairness to Mills, he’s possibly working his way toward a fairly high ceiling. Still, if the goal is to win now, Mayfield is the better option. And while they could have had him as part of the Watson trade, the Browns likely would have placed too much value on Mayfield at the time. As part of a separate transaction, the Texans possibly could get him for a lot less.

The 49ers.

Could the best bridge to the Trey Lance era not be Jimmy G. but Baker Mayfield? Maybe. But they’ll be far better off letting Lance commence the process of becoming the best version of himself that he eventually will be.

The Dolphins.

I know I said I’d list the teams in no particular order, but I saved this one for last. TuAnon won’t like this, one bit. But let’s be fair. Mayfield, when healthy, can do much more than Tua has ever done. And with Mike McDaniel drawing up the plays, Mayfield could be exactly what the Dolphins need to hit their full potential in 2022 and beyond. If they can get him for cheap, they definitely should consider it. Even if they won’t.

That’s the full list. It probably means he’ll end up with a team that didn’t make the cut. Regardless, if he’s healthy, Mayfield has the ability to be very good. He could be the difference between making the playoffs and not qualifying. He could be the difference between one-and-out and winning a playoff game or two. Don’t let a 2021 season marred by a nasty Week Two shoulder injury cloud that reality.