Raiders owner Mark Davis was in a friendly mood a couple of Monday evenings ago at the NFL owners’ meetings in Minnesota. Sitting over a charcuterie plate in the hotel lobby restaurant, Davis expressed excitement over Tom Brady’s pending deal to join the team’s ownership group, conveyed total confidence in coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler, and shared a few Raider stories from over the years.
Yet Davis was surprisingly squirrelly when asked if he was excited about Jimmy Garoppolo. I chalked it up to Davis not wanting to create any outsized expectations for his new quarterback, but now we know what’s really going on: Las Vegas doesn’t truly know if Garoppolo is going to be its QB this fall.
McDaniels and Ziegler are entering a critical Year 2, and their plan at quarterback has hit a major snag. Garoppolo, signed to replace Derek Carr as the starter, has surprisingly been watching the Raiders’ offseason workouts from the sideline.
Garoppolo broke his left foot Dec. 4, but it didn’t heal to the Raiders’ liking, and they required him to undergo surgery in March as a condition of signing. Garoppolo won’t practice with his new teammates until training camp in July and August. The Raiders also required Garoppolo to sign an amended contract that could allow them to release him before the regular season without owing a penny.
McDaniels and the Raiders are trying to put on a good face.
“I have no anxiety,” McDaniels told reporters Thursday. “This is football. There’s definitely going to be players that miss time. I mean, Josh Jacobs wasn’t able to do a whole lot last year either and [he had] a decent year.”
But there’s a big difference between a running back missing offseason workouts and a new starting quarterback doing it. Garoppolo is the leader of the offense and has to learn new teammates, new linemen, and a new scheme that will be significantly different than the one he ran in San Francisco the last six years.
Even the best QBs know they need as much work as they can get with a new team. Aaron Rodgers is participating in voluntary workouts as he joins the Jets. Brady broke COVID rules in the spring of 2020 to work with his new Buccaneers receivers. With no on-field work this spring, Garoppolo and the Raiders’ offense will be behind the rest of the league when they get to training camp.
There’s also a chance that Garoppolo never suits up for the Raiders.
When they signed Garoppolo in March, the news conference was pushed back a day without explanation. Now we know it had to do with his foot injury. As first reported by Pro Football Talk, the Raiders required Garoppolo to sign the amended contract with an injury waiver that gives them the right to release him with no money owed if he can’t pass a preseason physical.
Garoppolo originally agreed to a three-year, maximum $75 million deal with $22.5 million fully guaranteed in 2023 — an $11.25 million signing bonus and $11.25 million salary. The deal also called for $11.25 million in fully guaranteed salary in 2024.
The amended contract has the same financial payouts, but shifted all of the risk to Garoppolo. The Raiders converted the $11.25 million signing bonus into guaranteed base salary, which doesn’t get earned until Week 1, whereas a signing bonus is earned immediately. And all guarantees “shall not be effective unless and until and is expressly conditioned upon Player passing the Club’s 2023 physical examination.”
The contract also has an Addendum G in which Garoppolo “acknowledges that in the absence of this waiver he would not pass the Club’s physical examination because of a preexisting” injury in his left foot, “and that the Club would not enter into an NFL Player Contract with Player.”
McDaniels projected calm Thursday and said he expects Garoppolo to be ready for training camp.
“Like I said, I have very good information that would tell me that we’re going to be fine,” McDaniels said. “Nothing has happened that would’ve changed that. That’s why I feel that way.”
But the bottom line is if the Raiders don’t like what they see with Garoppolo’s foot during preseason, they can flunk his physical and release him with no penalty.
The episode also exposes a major issue with NFL free agency: That teams and top players agree to significant contracts before meeting face to face or scheduling a medical exam.
Garoppolo and the Raiders agreed to their initial contract March 13, the first day of the negotiating window and two days before free agency officially began. As far as the Raiders knew, Garoppolo’s foot had healed to the point that he had a chance to play in the Super Bowl, as the 49ers intimated throughout the postseason. On March 16, the Raiders’ doctors discovered otherwise.
The Raiders were able to adjust the contract and shift the risk to Garoppolo. But they were also stuck — they had moved on from Carr, and had already put their eggs in the Garoppolo basket. There was no real Plan B, other than maybe signing Jacoby Brissett or trying to get one of the top rookies in the draft. So the Raiders bit their lip and still signed Garoppolo, bad foot and all.
“I’m not going to put a timeline on it or a day or anything,” McDaniels said. “But like I said, I have no anxiety. Feel pretty good about it.”
Even if Garoppolo is fine for camp, this is still a disastrous turn of events for a Raiders team and coaching staff that desperately needs to get off to a good start after last year’s 6-11 season. The Raiders’ only other quarterbacks are journeyman Brian Hoyer, fourth-round rookie Aidan O’Connell, and practice squadder Chase Garbers.
Despite his positivity, there’s no way for McDaniels to really know what Garoppolo’s foot will look like in August. He’ll just have to hope for the best, and hope Garoppolo and his receivers will somehow make up for lost time during training camp.
NO SURE BET
What are odds of Brady playing for Las Vegas?
Meanwhile, as Tom Brady’s deal to buy a small slice of the Raiders makes its way through the NFL’s vetting process, he went on a media tour this past week and reiterated that he is retired from playing quarterback.
“I’m certain I’m not playing again, so I’ve tried to make that clear,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I’m looking forward to my broadcasting job with Fox next year, I’m looking forward to the opportunity I have with the Raiders . . . and just spending as much time with my kids that I can.”
The only problem is not too many people believe Brady is truly done playing, or that he’s going to follow through on his 10-year deal with Fox, which was supposed to begin this fall but was pushed back to 2024.
Troy Aikman was the latest to cast doubt on Brady’s retirement, telling TMZ this past week, “I would bet that just nothing is off the table, as far as what may occur during the season or what Tom’s role may be.”
Longtime “Sunday Night Football” producer Fred Gaudelli told the New York Post that he was “really surprised” that Brady signed up for a traditional TV job.
“I’ve been in meetings with Tom for over 20 years. And while he definitely knew our team, I never heard him express any interest in being an analyst,” Gaudelli said. “I never got the impression once that being in a booth and doing what we were doing was something that appealed to him.”
Brady, who will turn 46 in August, may say he’s done playing, but even he doesn’t know how he’s going to feel this summer when he’s not out there for the first time in more than 30 years.
There’s also the reality that the team he’s buying into — the Raiders — have a tricky quarterback situation, as written above. Should Jimmy Garoppolo not make it to the regular season, or should he suffer another midseason injury, do coach Josh McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler really want to entrust their season — and potentially their careers — to Brian Hoyer, Aidan O’Connell, or Chase Garbers? Or is the plan to have Brady descend from the owners’ box to save the day?
For a minority owner such as Brady to play for the Raiders, an NFL source confirmed that it would take a vote of 24 of 32 owners, and the owners would have to decide what to do with Brady’s share of the team or whether his profits should be accounted for on the salary cap. A simpler solution would be for Brady and the Raiders to slow down the vetting process and just give Brady an honorary front office job before the ownership stake becomes official.
It sounds hare-brained, except that Brady had a similar setup with the Dolphins locked and loaded last year before it was blown up by Brian Flores’s lawsuit and subsequent tampering accusations.
So Brady can say all he wants that he is done playing. But not too many people will believe him.
Colts’ most-hated foe is still Patriots
The Patriots and Colts have played each other in conference championship games, prime-time showdowns, and many a nationally televised game. Now in 2023, the rivalry will ship over to Germany when the teams play in Frankfurt in November.
Colts owner Jim Irsay feels a little nervous about the matchup, but loves the idea of spreading the Patriots-Colts rivalry to Europe.
“I think it’s a bit unfair to put a rookie quarterback against [Bill] Belichick in Germany. That’s a little tough for Anthony Richardson,” Irsay told me at the owners’ meetings two weeks ago. “But the fact that we get a chance to play in Germany is really cool and will just add another chapter to our rivalry. There’s still people there — Reggie Wayne is coaching, and, of course, Bill Belichick and the Krafts. It’s a lot of fun having a chance to play a game there against them.”
The Patriots-Colts rivalry has simmered in recent years, with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning gone, the memories of Deflategate and Josh McDaniels fading, and both teams struggling to find their footing. The Patriots’ top rivals today are probably the three teams in the AFC East, but Irsay, who is bringing a concert and memorabilia collection to TD Garden in July, said the Patriots are still the No. 1 enemy for the Colts, who haven’t built meaningful rivalries against the AFC South teams.
“People ask us all the time, ‘Who’s your biggest rival?’ I say it’s still kind of the Patriots, because in our division we don’t have a blood feud with anyone,” Irsay said. “It’s always kind of been the Patriots, and it seems like it will for a long time. Colts fans always want to talk about Colts-Patriots, No. 1. Nothing like that memory.”
A special bond in Michigan
This year’s NFL Draft saw six specialists get drafted — three kickers and three punters — and four were connected to the Wolverine state: Michigan kicker Jake Moody (49ers), Michigan punter Brad Robbins (Bengals), Michigan State punter Bryce Baringer (Patriots), and former Eastern Michigan kicker Chad Ryland (Patriots), who spent four years at EMU and one at Maryland.
The four specialists appeared to develop a special bond during the predraft process.
“They hung out together and worked out all offseason together,” said Bruce Baringer, the father of the Patriots’ new punter. “They had a road trip back from the Combine. Jake and Brad were at Ann Arbor, Chad was in Ypsilanti, and Bryce was up in East Lansing. They had an indoor place to go to, and they were kicking together, punting together, holding for one another. I thought that was really cool that they all have developed a friendship.”
Watchdogs on the prowl in offseason
A noteworthy attendee at the Patriots’ voluntary practice Wednesday was former NFL linebacker Andy Studebaker, who now serves as a player director for the NFL Players Association. Studebaker is one of the union’s watchdogs who monitors offseason workouts to ensure that teams are abiding by a lengthy and precise list of rules.
Studebaker’s presence was noteworthy because the Patriots were just punished by the NFL for keeping players too long in the facility on three occasions last month. But Studebaker’s presence Wednesday may have been just part of his typical rounds.
“It’s common. Our guy was here yesterday,” one NFC coach said of having the NFLPA watchdog at practice. “Very common. They come during each phase,” one AFC executive said.
An executive from a different AFC team provided more detail about how the NFLPA watchdogs work: “They will watch practice live. Usually they’ll just observe the whole day’s session, and maybe talk to some players or staff. If they see something they think is a violation of the rules, they’ll usually discuss with the team staff or, in rare instances, it may move up to the union and league getting involved.”
One of the best things the NFL has done off the field in years is their educational and awareness programs around the importance of automatic electronic defibrillators in the wake of the Damar Hamlin situation. It paid major dividends this past week when Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris helped save a boy who was drowning in a Las Vegas hotel pool thanks to recent training he received. “My first question was, ’Where is the AED?’ ” Morris told ESPN. “When I got back, we had a doctor on site that was able to start the compressions. I was able to hand the AED to him, get it open for him, put the pads on the child, and he ended up being OK. I’m just thankful I knew what to do.” . . . Among the many great points that Matthew Slater made Wednesday against the new kickoff rule was this one: “They said they’re making the play safer, but the reality is they haven’t done a single thing to make the play safer. They haven’t changed the rules. They haven’t changed the techniques. There are still going to be collisions that occur if the ball’s not fair caught.” The NFL estimates that by allowing for touchbacks on fair catches, the number of kickoff returns will decrease from 38 percent to 31 percent. “We did that with the idea of — it wasn’t rocket science — it was just, ‘Let’s get fewer returns,’ ” the NFL’s Rich McKay said on SiriusXM. But that’s just reducing the raw number of concussions, not making the play any safer . . . After a shaky rookie season, Titans receiver Treylon Burks really wants to impress his coaches this year. So when his flight from Dallas was delayed, meaning he would be late getting to Nashville for voluntary practices, Burks’s agent found a private pilot willing to squeeze Burks into his tiny Cessna. “I mean, you got to do what you got to do,” Burks said.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.