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Sunday Football Notes

NFL policy change more about PR than conscience

We’re not ready to pat Roger Goodell on the back and congratulate him for taking a tough stance on domestic violence just yet.

AP/File

We’re not ready to pat Roger Goodell on the back and congratulate him for taking a tough stance on domestic violence just yet.

If there’s one thing the NFL understands, it’s good public relations. Pete Rozelle, its first commissioner to last 30 years, had a background in PR, and Roger Goodell got his start in the NFL as a PR intern in 1984.

That’s why the Ray Rice two-game suspension seemed so bizarre — it was a rare case of bad PR from a league that is ever-conscious of its public image. And that’s why Goodell and the NFL announced changes to the personal conduct policy on Thursday. Goodell admitted he “didn’t get it right,” and needed to get back in the public’s good graces.

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“The public response reinforced my belief that the NFL is held to a higher standard, and properly so,” he wrote in a letter to league owners, obtained by the Globe. “Much of the criticism stemmed from a fundamental recognition that the NFL is a leader, that we do stand for important values, and that we can project those values in ways that have a positive impact beyond professional football. We embrace this role and the responsibility that comes with it.”

Countless stories Thursday touted the “sweeping” changes made to the NFL’s personal conduct policy. But make no mistake, while the policy does have a little more bite, this was mostly about good PR.

According to the letter, the NFL has established baseline punishments “regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force”: six games for a first offense, and an indefinite suspension of at least one year for a second offense. These punishments apply to all NFL personnel, not just players.

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These penalties, though, come with a big asterisk. The six games and one-year ban are not set in stone. Goodell said he will take consideration to “mitigating factors” in each case before deciding on a punishment, like he did in giving only a two-game suspension to Rice for hitting his fianceé (now wife). The six-game threshold is more like a starting point. Goodell still has the unilateral power to give more than six games, or fewer.

That’s all well and good, but there was nothing preventing Goodell from giving Rice a six-game suspension last month. Rice’s suspension will remain at two games, although the NFL declined to comment whether a second offense would subject him to a one-year minimum ban. The NFL also didn’t comment on whether Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, currently going through the legal process with his own domestic violence issue, will be subject to the new guidelines.

A few aspects of the policy remain unclear — namely, whether a conviction is necessary for a first offense, or simply an arrest or “incident.” The new policy seems like it is purposely murky, to give Goodell as much wiggle room as he needs on each individual case.

Still, plenty of good can come out of this new policy. For starters, the NFL is going to focus a lot more on education and prevention, not just punishment. There will be more services and resources available to families, to be available on a confidential basis. The league is going to “explore meaningful ways to incorporate domestic violence and sexual assault awareness and prevention into our public service work.”

There also will be enhanced training and education at the annual rookie symposium and rookie success program, as well as new programs for veteran players and other NFL personnel.

That said, we’re not ready to pat Goodell on the back and congratulate him for taking a tough stance on domestic violence just yet. Where was this toughness with Rice last month? Why does it take a public outcry for the NFL to come to its senses about stricter punishments for domestic violence?

These changes are only coming about because countless people have pointed out the absurdity and double standard of giving Rice a two-game suspension, and Josh Gordon getting a one-year ban for smoking marijuana. Yes, the drug punishments are spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement, and yes, Gordon is a four-time offender. But Rice’s punishment was at the sole discretion of the commissioner. Even though Rice was a first-time offender, Goodell sent a clear message with his punishment that he didn’t view domestic violence as a severe crime. He admitted in his letter that he messed up.

Plus, we’re worried about the chilling effect these new rules could have on girlfriends and wives reporting domestic violence, knowing that a six-game suspension or year-long ban is at stake. It was bizarre enough to see Rice’s now wife supporting Rice and pleading with Goodell to go easy on him. How many cases will now go unreported so that the NFL doesn’t get involved?

Still, these measures are at least a good first step for the league, and a good way to at least get the topic of domestic violence into the public stream — even if it is mostly a case of good PR for the NFL.

WRONG MAN FOR JOB

Gilbert wouldn’t be good choice to lead

Some NFL players and many agents are looking for new leadership inside the NFL Players Association after the current administration, led by executive director DeMaurice Smith, negotiated a CBA in 2011 that in hindsight is great for the owners but not so great for the players.

Former 11-year defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, better known as Darrelle Revis’s uncle, wants to run for the executive director’s job when a vote will be held among players in March.

Gilbert held a media conference call last week to reveal his platform and explain how he will make things right for the players again. Gilbert claims that more than $2.5 billion has shifted from the players to the owners in the last four years alone, citing the salary cap structure under the old CBA (negotiated by the late Gene Upshaw). Gilbert said that Roger Goodell’s compensation from the owners tells the story of how happy the owners are with the CBA. Goodell made $48 million in the five years prior to the new CBA, and $73 million in the first two years after it.

We applaud Gilbert for his efforts and his passion. His heart is in the right place, and it’s always good to see someone shake the tree branches and question current convention.

It’s just that Gilbert doesn’t quite seem like the man for the job. His platform is a little hard to accept at face value.

Gilbert wants a lot from the owners. He wants a $1 million minimum salary, rookie contracts to be cut from four years to three, the time to reach free agency from three years to one, roster size increased to 57 players, practice squad salary increased to $20,000, and a limit on Goodell’s power, among his many points.

To convince the owners to come to the negotiating table, Gilbert has a few “carrots”: He’d be willing to go to an 18-game schedule (and eliminate two preseason games), he’d push the season back a couple of weeks to hold the Super Bowl on President’s Day weekend, and he’d bid out the Super Bowl host city like the Olympics.

Sounds great and all, but that’s not nearly enough to convince the owners to rip up arguably the most owner-friendly CBA in pro sports. The NFL already does Olympic-style bidding for the Super Bowl, and it can move the game back to President’s Day weekend if it wants. The 18-game schedule hasn’t been a hot-button issue for the owners, either.

And Gilbert’s plan seems a little far-fetched. It is entirely contingent upon Gilbert and the NFLPA proving collusion and terminating the CBA.

The union did win an appeal of its current collusion case back in June, but we’re still a long ways away from ripping up the CBA and starting over.

I asked Gilbert if he is confident in being able to terminate the CBA and whether he has any proof of collusion.

“Extremely. And yes,” were his answers, without providing any more insight.

Again, we applaud Gilbert for having his mind and heart in the right place. This just doesn’t seem like a feasible plan.

DONE DEAL

Don’t be expecting Gonzalez to return

Bill Belichick has never been afraid to sign a veteran (such as Junior Seau) after the season begins if he thinks he can help the Patriots win a Super Bowl.

To that end, one player who has been on our watch list all offseason is Tony Gonzalez, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer who retired to the CBS studio this season but never won that elusive championship in his 17-year career.

The Patriots need a tight end (although Tim Wright seems like a good find), and Gonzalez still is one of the best pass catchers at the position.

There have been some rumblings that Gonzalez has been talking to teams, so we asked him during a conference call on Thursday: Have the Patriots contacted you, and would you be willing to chase a ring with them?

Gonzalez said he has been contacted by several teams — he declined to say which ones — but seemed to close the door on the idea of playing again.

“There is probably no chance of me coming back to play,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t even want to play anymore, to tell you the truth. I’ve had my fill.”

“It would be a good opportunity to go get a ring, but my thinking is if it didn’t happen from the beginning and hasn’t happened up to this point, it’s not going to happen now. I’m not going to keep chasing a ring. My body feels good.”

Gonzalez said he is looking forward to his role as a CBS studio analyst this fall, calling it a “chance to be honest.”

“When you get a microphone in your face asking about the other team, you always play the game, because you don’t want to be bulletin-board material,” he said. “So I’m looking forward to going out there and giving my true opinion now.”

That said, Gonzalez still hasn’t filed his retirement papers. And that “probably” in his first quote sticks out. Still, you probably shouldn’t buy a Gonzalez 88 Patriots jersey any time soon.

ETC.

Going from worst to first a real possibility

The first NFL Sunday is seven short days away and there is reason for optimism for fans of the Bills, Browns, Texans, Raiders, Redskins, Vikings, Buccaneers, and Rams. Recent history shows that one of last year’s last-place teams will make the playoffs.

The NFL has had at least one team per season go from worst to first for 11 straight years, a record.

Last year, four teams reached the playoffs that had finished in last place the previous season — Carolina (tied), New Orleans (tied), Philadelphia, and Kansas City.

The Vikings, Buccaneers, and maybe the Redskins look like the best bets this year.

Taken out of context

The Patriots have a rule for media about not reporting specific things said between players and coaches during training camp practices, and this is a good example why. The Bills were involved in a melee at camp two weeks ago, and one outlet reported that veteran center Eric Wood got into a “murderous rage,” telling one player, “I’ll [expletive] kill you!”

Wood was none too pleased with the report.

“Stuff gets said on the football field that doesn’t necessarily need to be reported to fans, to younger kids whose parents are looking to us as role models,” Wood told me last week when I visited Bills camp. “You can take anything out of context if you want to. All of a sudden it’s reported that I’m on a murderous rage. It’s like, really? We shook hands 15 minutes later. That makes me look really bad to young kids and parents that I’m trying to be a role in the community for.”

Welker should use his head

Can only shake my head at the report from ESPN’s Chris Mortensen Thursday night that Broncos receiver Wes Welker is already back catching passes from Peyton Manning. Welker sounds like someone who wants to get back on the field as soon as possible, which isn’t surprising given how tough he has proven to be in the past.

Someone needs to get Welker in front of Wayne Chrebet or any number of players suffering from the effects of head trauma in their post-football lives. Welker has had three concussions in 10 months, and he’s trying to treat them like an ACL tear. You’ve had a good career, Wes. Take your time getting back, or strongly consider hanging up the cleats. It’s not worth it.

Extra points

Commissioner Roger Goodell and several top NFL executives made their annual trip to Silicon Valley this summer to meet with tech companies about the future of technology and innovation. Among their stops were the offices of Facebook, Yahoo!, and Dropbox. Patriots president Jonathan Kraft usually accompanies the group but had other business to attend to this time. It was on this trip a half-decade ago that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs convinced the NFL that upgrading the wireless infrastructure in stadiums was going to be essential to keep up with the demands of the customers . . . Daniel Snyder is taking some heat for wanting a new stadium because FedEx Field “is 17 years old now,” but as someone who attended games there as a child, this is welcome news for any Redskins fan. The traffic is a mess at the current stadium, located just inside the Beltway, and it is sterile and lifeless inside (the team may have something to do with that, too). Snyder wants the new place to look and feel like RFK Stadium, which seated 35,000 fewer fans but was louder and more raucous. Plus, Jack Kent Cooke built the current stadium with more than 70 percent of private money, so it’s not like the team is hitting up the public twice . . . Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict cashed in on a new contract extension last week that will pay him almost $11 million over the next six months, proving once again that it’s better to be an undrafted rookie free agent than a low-round pick. UDFAs are allowed to renegotiate their contracts after two years, while all drafted players must wait until after their third, and most are locked into their low-cost four-year deals.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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