The NFL’s offseason program is now in full swing, an important time of the year for rookies and players on new teams. This is when teams begin installing their systems, and teaching newcomers the ins and outs of how they want to practice and how they expect them to be a professional.
A handful of important stories have unfolded through the first week:
▪ Star quarterbacks skipping the workouts — Aaron Rodgers is skipping the Packers’ voluntary practices, but that’s not much of a surprise. He’s 38, and everyone knows he is fully capable of preparing for the season. Plus, it’s a good opportunity to get Jordan Love some work.
But it is noteworthy that two young star quarterbacks also are staying away from their teams. One is Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is entering the final year of his contract that will pay him $23 million, about half the going rate for the top quarterbacks.
The Ravens are downplaying Jackson’s absence, with team president Sashi Brown telling WBAL radio, “I don’t think any reason for alarm,” and, “We’re pleased that’s he’s out there working and not going to make a big deal out of this.”
Brown is right — in a vacuum, it’s not a big deal that Jackson is skipping a few practices in May. But it’s never good to have your team leader skipping practices, and clearly Jackson is discontent with the impasse over his contract.
The other noteworthy star quarterback to skip workouts is Kyler Murray, who has gone back and forth with the Cardinals all offseason over his contract, which still has two years and $34 million left. One day Murray is upset with the team and threatening a holdout, the next he and the team have supposedly cleared the air, and now Murray is skipping workouts again. But Cardinals GM Steve Keim said Murray should eventually get a new deal.
“I feel like we’ll be able to get something done this summer,” Keim said via the team website. “I just think it’s a timing thing. Anyone who has done it before has done it anywhere from July to September. No different for us.”
▪ Trey Lance is taking over — The 49ers haven’t been able to trade Jimmy Garoppolo yet because of shoulder surgery that is keeping him out of the offseason program. But they are turning over the team to Lance, the No. 3 pick from 2021 who didn’t impress much in his rookie season.
In six games (two stars) he completed just 57.7 percent of his passes, and threw two interceptions against five touchdowns. But Lance is getting all of the reps in practice, and becoming more vocal behind the scenes.
“You can kind of tell that in meetings, he’ll talk. He’s assuming responsibility,” tight end George Kittle said.
Lance, who turned 22 this month, said his rookie season was beset by a finger injury.
“Towards the end of the season, I wasn’t the best version of myself,” he said. “I kind of had to learn to throw the ball differently without kind of using my pointer finger, I guess because of just where it was at throughout the year. But now, I feel like I’m in a great spot, health-wise, and throwing the ball wall, and feeling really good.”
▪ Bill Belichick working with offense — It might be just a sign of Belichick paying more attention to a side of the ball that has a new coaching staff and needs a little more cohesion. The Patriots’ defensive staff remains intact, and guys such as Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick certainly know what they’re doing.
But the fact Belichick spent the Patriots’ entire practice working with the offense, as they move on without Josh McDaniels for the first time in a decade, is definitely eyebrow-raising. The last time Belichick had an official job title working with the offense was 1977 as the Lions’ receivers coach. And the last time he had a significant hand in the offense on game days was with the Browns from 1991-95, when he also had a similar situation with no offensive coordinator. Belichick helped call plays during those years, and the Browns ranked in the bottom half of the league in points in four of five seasons.
Belichick always has worked closely with Tom Brady and the quarterbacks in New England, and he obviously knows offensive football. Now it looks as if he’s betting on himself to help replace McDaniels.
▪ QB competition — While a couple of quarterback positions aren’t totally decided yet — Carolina and Pittsburgh come to mind — it appears there is a true open competition in Seattle between newcomer Drew Lock and last year’s backup, Geno Smith.
It’s not the most exciting competition, but it’s rare to see in today’s NFL. Lock is “hanging with Geno throughout all of this. We’re not holding anything back,” coach Pete Carroll said.
▪ A new day for Kirk Cousins — He has experience working with new coach Kevin O’Connell, as O’Connell was Cousins’s quarterbacks coach in Washington in 2017. But Cousins, entering his 11th NFL season, said he is learning a new offense from “scratch.” O’Connell will be Cousins’s seventh play caller in as many seasons.
“You feel like an eighth-grader studying for a quiz in school the next day the way you go home each night and study,” he said.
▪ Skipping workouts — The players fought hard in labor negotiations to make the offseason practices voluntary (outside of a three-day mandatory minicamp), and players have every right to skip them. That said, it’s certainly noteworthy when star players stay away.
Among them are the 49ers’ Deebo Samuel, the Commanders’ Terry McLaurin, the Colts’ Kenny Moore, and the Bills’ Jordan Poyer, though all four could get new contracts this summer. Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is skipping workouts, but the Rams are not concerned. And the Browns are keeping Baker Mayfield far away from the practice field so he doesn’t get hurt as they attempt to trade him.
▪ Attending — On the flip side, two players caught my eye for attending offseason workouts. One was the Patriots’ Jonnu Smith, who had a horrible first season in New England (294 yards, one touchdown) after not participating in workouts last offseason. The other is Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who was called out by Sean Payton last season over a disagreement with how he handled a foot injury. But Payton is gone, and Thomas, who didn’t play in 2021, is attending the offseason program and continues to rehab with the team, though he hasn’t been cleared for practice yet.
League takes more steps to expand diversity
While the NFL battles the Brian Flores lawsuit in court, NFL executives and owners spent much of their two days in Atlanta last week finalizing a handful of initiatives aimed at boosting the league’s diversity.
One was expanding the Rooney Rule yet again to now require teams to interview at least one minority or female candidate for the position of quarterbacks coach. The top path to become a head coach is overwhelmingly via the quarterbacks coaches, yet as recently as 2020 there were only three Black QB coaches in the NFL.
“I think we’ve been pretty open that we feel where we need to work a little harder is on the offensive side of the ball,” commissioner Roger Goodell said of finding more minority coaches. “Because a lot of teams have stressed more the offensive coach who can develop the quarterback and develop the offensive system.”
Another initiative was the actual owners meetings themselves, which the NFL turned into a two-day Coach and Front Office Accelerator that served as a networking opportunity for 60 minority coaching and front office prospects.
“It’s an unprecedented opportunity for emerging leaders, owners, and team leadership to get to know each other better over these two days, and the relationships formed in this setting will be integral to future hiring cycles,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said.
And a third initiative approved by the NFL was to increase diversity in sports medicine. The league announced that 16 medical students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities will have an opportunity to complete a clinical rotation with an NFL club medical staff this season. The NFL Physicians Society said 86 percent of its members identify as white, and only 5 percent as Black.
“We have significant work to do to ensure that the NFLPS membership more closely mirrors the player population we treat every day,” NFLPS President and 49ers head team physician Timothy McAdams said in a statement. “It begins here — by broadening the pipeline and encouraging medical students from diverse backgrounds to consider the possibilities of a career in sports medicine.”
NFL in court
Lawsuits abound as Watson, Gruden cases linger
Seems like you need a law degree to follow the NFL these days, as the league is embroiled in one legal dust-up after another.
▪ The status of Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, facing 22 lawsuits for sexual harassment and assault, may get clarity soon. Goodell said Tuesday the NFL is wrapping up its investigation, and the matter will be handled by a disciplinary officer jointly appointed by the NFL and NFL Players Association. Watson won’t face criminal charges, but that didn’t stop the NFL from suspending Ezekiel Elliott six games in 2017.
▪ Wednesday in Las Vegas, a Nevada judge denied the NFL’s motion to dismiss the Jon Gruden lawsuit and a motion to move it to arbitration, meaning it will move forward in state court. The NFL immediately appealed the decision.
If it holds, Gruden’s legal team should be granted access to the 650,000 e-mails involved in the Washington Commanders case, and should be able to discover the source of the leak that led to Gruden’s firing last October. The NFL would desperately need to settle the case, but Gruden might be the league’s worst nightmare. He doesn’t need the money, and may be more motivated to see the lawsuit through than to settle.
▪ In Washington, owner Daniel Snyder somehow continues to avoid accountability for his gross allegations — sexual harassment, a culture of misogyny, stealing from league coffers, and more. While some owners may want Snyder out of the league, the notoriously litigious Snyder will sue the league and fight it in court to the bitter end. When Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was accused of similar workplace misdeeds, he simply decided the fight wasn’t worth it and cashed out for $2.3 billion.
▪ In another lawsuit, The Athletic reported that the NFL quietly deducted $7.5 million from each team to help cover the legal costs from the league’s $790 million settlement with the city of St. Louis over the Rams’ relocation. That amounts to $232.5 million, or about 30 percent of the total settlement. Rams owner Stan Kroenke was supposed to cover all legal costs due to an indemnification agreement he signed with the owners, but it was sloppily written and Kroenke threatened to take his league partners to court.
Building the trust
Jaguars trying to rid stench of Meyer
Urban Meyer sure did damage in his 11-plus months in Jacksonville. New coach Doug Pederson and a handful of players said this past week that the team has a long way to go to rid itself of Meyer’s stench.
“I do believe there has to be some kind of healing with the situation and everything that transpired last year, because it’s just there’s a lack of trust that was broken,” Pederson told the Associated Press. “They have to see the transparency, the honesty.”
Meyer’s biggest transgression was going 2-11 and putting forth minimal effort as far as game-planning, learning roster rules, and studying opponents. But his decision to not fly home with the team after a Thursday night loss to the Bengals, then get caught dancing with random women at his restaurant that weekend, depicted a coach with no leadership skills or character.
“I think the biggest thing in a team is just trusting each other,” star quarterback Trevor Lawrence said. “Trusting in the guys in the locker room, but also the staff. That’s something, clearly, we didn’t have a lot of last year.”
Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler have been bold in their first three months with the Raiders, trading for Davante Adams, giving big contracts to Adams and Chandler Jones, and signing Derek Carr to an extension, among several moves. Now the former Patriots duo became the first NFL officials to give Colin Kaepernick an official workout, doing so Wednesday in Las Vegas. Kudos to McDaniels and Ziegler for giving Kaepernick a long-deserved shot, and for not being afraid of any backlash. Kaepernick was certainly one of the top 40-50 quarterbacks when he was blackballed by the NFL in 2017, and considering how much he has been working out recently, it’s worth checking him out to see what he has left … The Steelers ended an exhaustive search for a general manager by landing on an internal candidate. After interviewing over a dozen candidates from several organizations, the Steelers decided to promote Omar Khan, 45, who has been with the team since 2001 and was the VP of football and business administration since 2016. Khan was long regarded as an up-and-coming GM prospect, and the Steelers were smart to retain him. But props to the Steelers for turning over as many rocks as possible before settling on Khan, who becomes the NFL’s eighth minority GM … Boy, there seems to be a lot of tire-pumping in Miami this offseason, all of it in regards to QB Tua Tagovailoa. Most recently, Dolphins GM Chris Grier said Tua’s “confidence level” stands out, coach Mike McDaniel said Tua is “attacking the moment,” and receiver Tyreek Hill said Tua “has one of the prettiest balls I’ve ever caught.” Of course, Hill also acknowledged that when he got to Miami, he thought Tua would be throwing the ball “all over the place,” and that he’s just trying to build confidence in his QB. “I just feel like if I’m able to help him get all the confidence in the world and push other guys to push that confidence into him, then the sky’s the limit for the guy.” … Per the Sports Business Journal, the NFL is expected to roll out a new “NFL Plus” streaming service this summer. For $5 per month, fans will be able to stream games that are available in their market, and the NFL will make other content available … The police report is out on Dwayne Haskins’s heartbreaking death, and it portrays a series of bad decisions. Haskins was driving his car while highly intoxicated (0.24 BAC per police), and made a tragic decision to leave his car and cross the highway in search of gas. It’s an important lesson to everyone, but especially athletes with means, to use ride sharing services when going out.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.