The NFL’s crisis with domestic violence and credibility issues is the story that not only won’t go away, but after two weeks of dominating the news cycle is picking up even more steam, like a hurricane strengthening toward Category 5.
The storm has engulfed commissioner Roger Goodell, who did little at his news conference on Friday to help his battered image or soothe the doubters who believe he bungled and/or covered up the Ray Rice investigation and suspension. The storm ensnared the Vikings, Panthers, and 49ers, who are facing scrutiny over their handling of recent players involved with domestic violence or child abuse incidents.
And the storm has now swallowed the Ravens’ entire leadership structure — owner Steve Bisciotti, president Dick Cass, general manager Ozzie Newsome, and coach John Harbaugh. ESPN released an explosive investigative piece on Friday that alleged a cover-up of the initial Rice incident in February by team leadership, and then a scapegoating of Rice when things went sour two weeks ago.
Seemingly forgotten in the madness is that the NFL has made several changes to its rules and procedures over the last month. Many only came to pass following extreme public pressure, but they are changes nonetheless:
■ A new drug policy. The league announced last week that Wes Welker, Orlando Scandrick, and Stedman Bailey had their suspensions lifted immediately, and Josh Gordon and LaVon Brazill will have their one-year suspensions reduced to 10 games, and it wasn’t out of the goodness of the NFL’s heart. The league and the Players Association jointly announced “a wide-ranging series of improvements” to the league’s policies on recreational and performance-enhancing drugs, which were then applied retroactively to March.
Without getting into every detail, the new policy increases the threshold to fail a marijuana test, lightens the punishment for marijuana violations, and adds two layers of punishment before a player is suspended for one season.
Amphetamines such as Adderall are now treated as recreational drugs and not PEDs in the offseason, with lighter punishments. The new policy includes automatic suspensions for DUI convictions — two games for a first offense, eight games for a second.
And the NFL will test for human growth hormone starting in the next month. The punishments for testing positive are 4-6-game suspension, 10-game suspension, two-year suspension.
■ New punishments for domestic violence. Really, it is increased punishments for any sort of assault or physical violence, but domestic violence is obviously the hot-button issue and the impetus for these new rules.
On Aug. 28, after admitting he “got it wrong” with Rice’s initial two-game suspension, Goodell announced widespread changes to the league’s personal conduct policy regarding physical violence, as well as improving league educational and outreach efforts with domestic violence.
Anyone involved in an “assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force” is subject to a six-game suspension, although Goodell has latitude to go more or less based on “mitigating factors . . . when circumstances warrant.” A second offense results in banishment from the NFL for at least one year. These rules apply to all NFL personnel — players, coaches, employees, management, and owners.
■ Reduction of Goodell’s power. This is a big one. No longer will Goodell be the sole decider on appeals and punishments. Appeals of positive drug tests will now be heard by third-party arbitrators jointly selected and retained by the NFL and NFLPA. The NFL also vowed that “appeals will be processed more expeditiously under uniform rules and procedures.”
Goodell said he will not hear Rice’s appeal of his indefinite suspension.
■ A new personal conduct policy. This is another big one. Goodell wants to establish “a set of clear and transparent rules” to replace the current system, where he has full authority to adjudicate as he sees fit. Goodell said the new policy won’t be completed until the Super Bowl in early February, which to me says that he wants to take his time and get it right. In the last week he partnered with four domestic violence advocacy leaders, and will include them in a soon-to-be-formed Conduct Committee that will oversee the creation of the new policy.
Goodell hopes the new policy will help the NFL better deal with situations like the ones involving Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy. Goodell gave the Vikings and Panthers permission to place each player on the little-used Exempt/Commissioner’s Permission list, a loophole that removed the players from the active roster but allowed them to keep collecting their weekly salary — paid administrative leave, more or less.
Goodell hopes the new personal conduct policy will better account for “all of the issues that are arising.”
■ New domestic violence training. Domestic violence resources, education, and awareness are going to be major points of emphasis this fall. Within the next 30 days, all league personnel — players, coaches, executives, and employees — will participate in education sessions on domestic violence and assault. The league office is providing comprehensive information to the teams about domestic violence resources in their communities, and more awareness programs will be developed over the next several months.
O’Brien has Texans off to impressive start
Texans coach Bill O’Brien couldn’t believe his ears last Monday when a reporter asked him if Sunday’s game against the Giants is a trap game.
“A trap game?” O’Brien asked incredulously. “For the Houston Texans?”
It was only nine months ago that the Texans wrapped up the worst season in franchise history with a 2-14 record, earning the No. 1 overall pick and forcing a housecleaning of the coaching staff.
But the Texans are one of the NFL’s surprise teams out of the gates, jumping out to a 2-0 record and first place in a weak AFC South.
It’s true, they’ve played a couple of soft opponents, beating Washington at home and thumping Oakland on the road. But the Texans are playing smart football under O’Brien, the former Patriots offensive coordinator — they are fourth in the league in average time of possession (33:51), they’re plus-5 in turnover margin, Arian Foster led all running backs with 55 carries through two weeks, and Ryan Fitzpatrick threw just 41 times, completing 28.
O’Brien’s hyperactive style seems to have reenergized his players.
“He’s an exciting coach,” said star receiver Andre Johnson, who had a contract dispute this offseason but has come around on O’Brien. “He interacts more with the team. He comes through the locker room, jokes with the guys a little bit. He keeps it competitive and I think that keeps it fun.”
The Texans are even doing it with Patriot-like flair. Their defensive coordinator is Romeo Crennel, their quarterbacks coach is George Godsey, and their linebackers coach is Mike Vrabel. Of course, in last week’s 30-14 win over Oakland, defensive end J.J. Watt lined up as a tight end on the goal line and caught an easy 1-yard touchdown pass, a la Vrabel with the Patriots.
“Oh, I’m aware he was 10 of 10,” Watt said about Vrabel. “I think he was a little upset with me because I didn’t spike the ball.”
O’Brien said that he’d like to use Watt even more in goal-line packages this year.
“There’s a lot of coaching that goes into telling a 6-foot-7-inch, 290-pound guy with a fantastic reach how to jump up and catch the ball,” O’Brien said sarcastically. “I think we should just thank J.J.’s parents, is what we should do.”
The Texans have been down this road before, so they’re not celebrating anything yet. Last year they started 2-0, and lost their final 14 games.
“We by no means have any visions of grandeur here,” a front office source said last week. “We have a lot of work to do.”
SOURCES OF PRIDE
Christensen’s pupils were taught well
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio was excited for three of his former pupils each earning a victory last Sunday — Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins, and Drew Stanton.
But another person was just as excited, at least for Cousins and Stanton — former NFL quarterback Jeff Christensen, now working as a private QB coach in the Chicago area. Christensen’s top pupil is Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo, but he also worked with Cousins and Stanton a few times over the summer, stressing footwork, hip movement, and staying “narrow” up top, or limiting unnecessary movements.
Stanton, playing in place of an injured Carson Palmer last week, led the Cardinals to a 25-14 road victory over the Giants. Cousins, meanwhile, looked good enough in camp that it caused a quarterback controversy with Robert Griffin III, and he had a great game last Sunday in relief of Griffin — 22 of 33 for 250 yards and two touchdowns in the Redskins’ blowout win over the Jaguars.
“They were both very, very dependent on their arm on certain throws,” Christensen said of Stanton and Cousins. “And then I educated them on how they set their feet and hips, and how it affects your accuracy. And with less moving parts, they both started throwing everything a lot better.”
The common denominator between Stanton and Cousins last week — no interceptions. In fact, it wasn’t just them. For the first time in NFL history last Sunday, none of the 15 winning quarterbacks threw an interception (Nick Foles ruined the perfect streak on Monday night).
Christensen stresses to his students that yards per attempt and interceptions are the most important stats for a quarterback, not completion percentage.
As for Garoppolo, he struggled early in training camp but showed significant improvement over the final four weeks, allowing the Patriots to make him the backup and trade Ryan Mallett. In four preseason games, Garoppolo threw five touchdown passes and one interception in 86 dropbacks.
Christensen’s advice for him was simple, don’t try to be a hero.
“As you’re trying to search out the right guys at the right time and the timing and the progressions and the defenses, don’t overreact, don’t panic and think you have to throw it in there,” Christensen told him. “The speed of the game mentally and physically will come to you. But don’t panic and start throwing balls late, taking shots you shouldn’t take. Make sure you’re not throwing picks.”
Length of suspension may be a perfect 10
Interesting to see the league introduce a 10-game suspension into the equation for violations of the drug policy. A fifth failed test for recreational drugs will now result in a 10-game suspension, as will a second violation of the steroid/PED policy. Why interesting? Because a 10-game suspension still allows a player to play in six games during the regular season. Per the collective bargaining agreement, a player needs to appear in six games to earn an accrued season toward free agency (otherwise the contract tolls a year). Players on injured reserve get credit for a year of service.
It looks like the NFL did the union and Josh Gordon a solid by reducing his yearlong suspension to 10 games, and not including an additional two games for his DUI arrest. Had he been suspended 11 or more games, he would have lost an accrued season and would have lost his unrestricted free agent rights after 2016, instead making him restricted. But assuming he plays six games this year, Gordon can become an unrestricted free agent in 2016 as originally planned.
Broadcasting their opinions
The website change.org is home to two petitions calling for CBS to stop assigning Phil Simms to broadcast Washington and Denver games.
The Washington-area petition from Save The Redskins, which as of noon Friday had 7,819 signatures, doesn’t want Simms to call any Redskins games (not that he does often as an AFC-affiliated broadcaster) because he said he won’t use the team’s nickname out of respect for Native American groups. And in Denver, 42,507 Broncos fans and counting are tired of hearing Simms, partnered with Jim Nantz as CBS’s No. 1 broadcast team, call their games — even though, as pointed out by CBS Denver, the Broncos have won 10 straight with Simms in the booth.
Let them play
If the league wants to keep up with current trends, it might have to instruct officials to get up to speed with NFL offenses. Falcons coach Mike Smith complained last week that in their loss to the Bengals, the officials stood over the ball too often while both teams were trying to run no-huddle offenses, whether for TV timeouts or simply to let both teams set.
“There were plays where both teams wanted to get out there and play but there was a stoppage by the officials,” Smith said. “They stood over the ball a lot more in this game than they had in other games.”
Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles certainly will have to earn his money this season. Last year’s defense finished No. 6 in yards, No. 7 and points, and No. 1 against the run, but with John Abraham being placed on injured reserve Friday because of concussions, the Cardinals have now lost several key players from last year’s defense — Daryl Washington (one-year suspension), Karlos Dansby (free agency), Darnell Dockett (ACL), and Abraham, while safety Tyrann Mathieu is returning from a torn ACL in December . . . Rob Astorino has an uphill battle in the New York gubernatorial race against incumbent Andrew Cuomo. The Democratic party recently ran a TV ad in Western New York showing a photo of Astorino wearing a Dolphins jersey, his favorite team. “This November, when Rob Astorino comes looking for your vote, let’s remember who was on our team,” the ad says, while also showing Cuomo and a Bills jersey.
Quote of the week
“I think right now the only thing that can mess up the NFL is ownership.”
That was Patriots owner Robert Kraft in an interview with this reporter on July 27. His answer was to a question about the importance of finding the right ownership group for the Bills. But it seems sadly appropriate now, given the events of the last two weeks and questionable leadership exhibited in Baltimore, Carolina, Minnesota, and the NFL.