NFL teams may be hitting the dog days of training camp, but the league dropped two bombshells last week with the announced punishments for Deshaun Watson and the Miami Dolphins.
Watson was handed a six-game suspension from an independent arbitrator Monday, but the NFL appealed Wednesday and has the opportunity to increase the punishment.
The Dolphins were stripped of first- and third-round picks for tampering with Tom Brady, and owner Stephen Ross was fined $1.5 million and suspended six games but was not punished by the NFL for allegations of tanking.
Let’s take a deeper look at both situations:
▪ The NFL had to appeal Watson’s punishment. It was an easy public relations layup.
It seems few people other than Watson and the NFL Players Association are satisfied with the suspension handed down by former federal judge Sue L. Robinson. The NFL received criticism from several women’s organizations that the punishment was far too light. Many people, including yours truly, don’t agree with Robinson’s determination that Watson’s sexual assault was “nonviolent.” Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam released a statement that Watson is “remorseful,” but Robinson wrote that Watson “categorically denied” all accusations and had a “lack of expressed remorse.”
The NFL argued for a full-year suspension, plus other conditions. Not appealing, and letting the initial punishment stand, would have been a self-inflicted and unnecessary wound.
▪ At this point, it feels as if Watson will be lucky to play in 2022. The NFL is still arguing for a year-long suspension, and commissioner Roger Goodell appointed a pro-NFL, pro-Goodell hearing officer in Peter C. Harvey. He is a former federal prosecutor and New Jersey Attorney General who advised the NFL when it created its personal conduct policy nearly a decade ago. And Goodell has used Harvey for other arbitrations. Bottom line: Goodell isn’t appointing Harvey if he isn’t confident Harvey will rule in Goodell’s favor.
▪ A settlement remains possible, and Watson’s best hope to play this season may be to accept a 12-game suspension. The NFL also wants Watson to seek professional evaluation and treatment determined by medical experts, and noticeably, “an appropriate fine.” Watson only would lose a maximum of $1.035 million if he is suspended for the 2022 season, while pocketing a $45 million signing bonus. The NFL wants to fine Watson several million more, while also forcing him to sit out a large chunk of games.
▪ If Watson doesn’t accept a settlement, then a year-long suspension is definitely in the cards. In that case, his contract would toll (or push back) a year. So Watson would make $45 million to sit on his couch this year, and $1 million to play in 2023. His contract would then resume in 2024, with Watson set to make $46 million per year for four years.
▪ The appeal doesn’t have an in-person hearing, only written briefs, and only the punishment is argued, not the facts of the case. That works in the NFL’s favor. Robinson sided with the NFL, finding Watson “guilty” of three violations of the personal conduct policy, including sexual assault and “conduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person.” Robinson just disagreed with the NFL on the severity of the punishment. But she gave Goodell everything he needs to increase Watson’s suspension.
▪ Watson can sue the NFL, but it carries a lot of risk. First, the CBA expressly allows the NFL to do everything it is doing — appeal the suspension, for Goodell to pick the hearing officer, and for the league to potentially increase the punishment. There also is a binding decision in the Second Circuit thanks to Brady that the CBA affords Goodell broad discretion to punish players.
If Watson files a lawsuit and wins an injunction against a year-long suspension, he’s still not getting on the field for Week 1. At best, he would be on the field for Week 7, as he would still have to serve the six games.
And delaying the suspension has financial risks. This year, because his base salary is $1.035 million, Watson loses just $57,500 per game he is suspended. If his suspension is delayed until next year, his base salary balloons to $46 million, and he would lose $2.55 million per game.
Watson, 26, is probably best off trying to get his punishment out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible. If it means cutting a deal for 12 games and paying an $8 million fine, so be it. If it entails being suspended all of 2022, so be it. He doesn’t appear to have a strong legal position, and delaying the punishment will only make things worse.
The NFL did a good job of dressing up the Dolphins’ punishments for “unprecedented” tampering as significant and severe — the loss of two high draft picks, a suspension and fines for owners Ross and Bruce Beal Jr., and the loss of committee status for the owners.
But the more this story sinks in, the more obvious it is that the NFL is covering for Ross and the tanking allegations. There is more than enough smoke to bring the hammer down on Ross, but the NFL ostensibly doesn’t want to expose itself to legal liability as far as the integrity of the game.
The NFL practically admitted it caught Ross asking former coach Brian Flores to tank: “On a number of occasions during the 2019 season, Mr. Ross expressed his belief that the Dolphins’ position in the upcoming 2020 draft should take priority over the team’s win-loss record.”
It might not have been an express “code red” order from Ross, but if that’s not tanking, then what is? Flores was so concerned he took the extraordinary step of putting it in writing and taking it to the top.
The NFL also acknowledges that Ross may have claimed to offer $100,000 to lose games, but “such a comment was not intended or taken to be a serious offer.”
The boss tells you he’ll pay you extra to lose games, and you’re not supposed to take it seriously? Uh, OK. Even if it was just a joke, there’s truth behind it. Ross clearly wanted the Dolphins to get the No. 1 pick, and Flores is the only reason it didn’t happen.
Ross called the tanking allegations “false, malicious, and defamatory,” and said he “strongly disagreed with the conclusions” of the tampering penalties even though the NFL had conclusive evidence.
What a dope. Ross clearly tried to get his team to tank. In a fair world, Ross would get stripped of his ownership.
Brady and the Dolphins
Two other thoughts from the Dolphins story:
▪ One nagging question — if Brady and the Dolphins’ owners were having “numerous and detailed” conversations throughout the 2019 season, why didn’t he join them in 2020? Brady went to the Bucs, had interest from the Bears, Chargers and Saints, and didn’t seem to seriously consider the Dolphins.
After speaking with a couple of league sources, the best answer I can come up with is that the Dolphins just weren’t a good fit for Brady. They were coming off a 5-11 season and entering Year 2 of a rebuild. They had receiver DeVante Parker and tight end Mike Gesicki, and not much else. They also had the No. 5 pick and the potential to pick Tua Tagovailoa, whom Ross believed would be a superstar. The Dolphins were not a team ready to win like the Bucs were.
▪ Finally, team owners would be wise to consider Flores in next year’s head coaching cycle. Filing the racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL seemed to hurt his coaching prospects this year, but Flores was totally validated by the NFL’s findings of tampering and tanking.
Which player wouldn’t want to run through a brick wall for Flores after hearing how hard he fought his owner’s wishes to tank? And he continues to prove himself as a strong leader and a man of good character as he takes an important stand against the NFL and its history of racial discrimination.
If I ran an NFL team, Flores would be at the top of my list for head coach.
Five questions with Sean McDermott
A walk-and-talk interview with Bills head coach Sean McDermott before last Monday’s training camp practice:
Why was Ken Dorsey the right person to elevate as offensive coordinator after Brian Daboll left?
“He’s had a great relationship with Josh [Allen] since Year 1 when he came in, and certainly that was a big ingredient to picking him. Their comfort level with each other — Ken’s smart, he’s played the game at a high level, for a number of years college and pro. I think his ability to see the game through the eyes of the player, through the eyes of the helmet is unique.”
And what has new QB coach Joe Brady added to the equation?
“Joe’s another smart, young coach that works hard. And I think the symmetry it appears between Joe and Ken, Joe and the QB room, Josh in particular, is off to a real good start.”
What kind of impact has Von Miller, 33, had so far?
“Von’s rèsumè speaks for itself. Is he a little bit older? Yes. Can he still do it? We believe so. And that’s really what matters the most. How we use him remains to be seen, in order to account for keeping him as healthy as we can and playing at as high a level as we can for the duration of the season and beyond, hopefully.”
How have you moved on from the disappointment of last year’s ending?
“I think by all accounts it was a great year. We don’t let outside people say it wasn’t just because the last 13 seconds didn’t go the way we wanted it to. I think we learn from that, but by all accounts that was a successful season. You make it to where we made it to, and the record we did, I don’t want anybody, particularly inside our program, to say it was a disappointment or a failure. We didn’t get to where we wanted to get to, and accomplish our ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl. But the momentum is there and it should be there, because we did a lot of good things last season.”
Do you feel that the AFC East is yours at this point?
“No, I mean there’s good teams. You watch what New England did in terms of reloading last year, the Dolphins and the Jets have done with their draft picks and free agency. It’s a competitive division.”
Super Bowl hangover?
The Rams seem to be experiencing one of the few downsides of winning a Super Bowl — the players take more of a beating, and have less of an offseason to heal.
Star cornerback Jalen Ramsey is not close to being 100 percent as he returns from shoulder surgery in June. No. 3 receiver Van Jefferson is out several weeks after undergoing knee surgery.
And, most importantly, the Rams’ quarterback can barely throw. Coach Sean McVay acknowledged that Matthew Stafford is battling “abnormal” pain in his throwing elbow, and the team is mostly keeping him on ice to make sure he’s ready for the regular season.
Stafford, 34, didn’t throw this spring after undergoing a minor procedure. And now at camp, he is doing individual and 7-on-7 work but not team drills. He’ll likely be on a pitch count at practice for much of the season.
“I don’t know that I would feel as comfortable taking that approach if it wasn’t for the experience that he’s accumulated,” McVay said.
The Cardinals took the “homework clause” out of Kyler Murray’s contract, but they’re still looking to test him mentally. In last Saturday’s practice, Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury had Murray call plays into the headset for the backup quarterbacks. In telling a lighthearted story, Kingsbury perhaps inadvertently revealed how difficult Murray can be to work with. “I just wanted him to know that, hey, this ain’t easy,” Kingsbury said. “Every now and then, he starts shaking his head when I’m calling [plays] in there. I’m like, ‘All right big dog.’” … Meanwhile, Murray and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll offered important reminders last week that COVID-19 is still a disruption in the NFL, even if the league dropped most of its protocols. Anyone who tests positive this year, regardless of vaccination status, has to sit out at least five days. Murray and Carroll missed all of camp last week as they reportedly dealt with mild symptoms … The Steelers’ Diontae Johnson became the latest receiver from 2019 to get paid when he signed a two-year, $36 million extension last week. It’s not quite the big dollars paid to Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, and Terry McLaurin, each of whom got in the $23 million-$25 million per year range. But these five have changed the financial landscape for receivers, and will help many others get big paydays in the future. … NFL teams average about 1.5 ACL tears per season, but the Broncos had two on the same day last week: Backup running back Damarea Crockett and receiver Tim Patrick, who led the Broncos with five touchdowns last season and was second with 734 yards. Patrick was in line to be a big target for Russell Wilson … Although the NFL only has one non-white owner in the Jaguars’ Shad Khan, the Broncos’ new ownership group, headed by Walmart heir Rob Walton, continues to add diversity with Condoleezza Rice and now Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton joining the group. It’s a small investment for Rice and Hamilton that doesn’t come with much power, but it’s a foot in the door for a future ownership opportunity. Panthers owner David Tepper was a Steelers limited partner, and already vetted and approved by the NFL, when the Panthers came on the market … The NFL supports recent bids to make flag football an Olympic sport, and NFL executive VP Troy Vincent is campaigning that “flag football is the future.” There’s no question it’s a safer sport, but it is yet another sport that highlights only the fastest and fittest kids. High school football, for all its issues, has a place for everyone — big, little, fast, slow, etc. Flag football isn’t designed for the kids who play offensive and defensive line.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.