While there’s only one football story of consequence in New England these days, the rest of the NFL was much more concerned last week at the owners’ meetings about a different topic with far-ranging consequences for the league in general, and four cities in particular.
“I think one thing for certain is there’s going to be an NFL team in Los Angeles in the next couple years,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said Wednesday as he walked out the door at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco. “The question isn’t if, but how many, I guess.”
The meetings didn’t produce many significant updates on the situation, but the return of the NFL to LA — possibly as soon as the 2016 season — is a foregone conclusion.
And the politics and dynamics get more fascinating by the day, as the Rams, Chargers, and Raiders jockey for position. The situation has turned two longtime rivals into best of friends, and a team that couldn’t get one stadium built for years now might have two legitimate options, one of which it doesn’t really want.
Let’s take a look at where things stand for the three teams involved:
The Rams have been the prohibitive favorite to return to LA for a while, especially with the team on a year-to-year lease with the OK-but-outdated Edward Jones Dome. Owner Stan Kroenke has been the most aggressive with his LA plans, buying 60 acres of land in Inglewood and being the first to reveal his dazzling $1.8 billion stadium project back in January.
The problem is that Missouri and St. Louis civic leaders are now stepping up and getting serious about a $1 billion downtown stadium plan that could thwart Kroenke’s plans to move.
The NFL has taken notice of the St. Louis project, though financing plans need to be hammered out.
“There is tremendous progress going on there,” commissioner Roger Goodell said on Wednesday. “We’re going to make sure we give [St. Louis] full evaluation and full consideration.”
If St. Louis can come up with a feasible plan, how can Kroenke justify moving the team? The NFL has consistently maintained that its preference is to keep each team in its current market.
“I feel like our responsibilities are best discharged by giving the home markets the best possible chance to put up a proposal which enables them to keep their team,” said Eric Grubman, an NFL executive vice president in charge of the LA project.
Kroenke might have to accept St. Louis’s proposal. The NFL is also wary of Kroenke going rogue and moving the Rams to LA, anyway, and has stated several times that approval of at least 24 owners is necessary to move a team.
After striking out on a new publicly funded stadium for two decades, Chargers owner Dean Spanos has teamed with Raiders owner Mark Davis, his longtime rival, on a $1.7 billion stadium project in the LA suburb of Carson that would be shared by the teams.
“Dean and I were very competitive because of our teams, and we rarely talked,” Davis said. “And it’s just been amazing the last three or four months we’ve gotten to know each other, like each other.”
Spanos and Davis were practically inseparable for three days in San Francisco, and their stadium plan made up significant ground on the Kroenke project last week after the duo closed on 168 acres of land on Monday and hired former 49ers executive Carmen Policy to spearhead their project.
San Diego city leaders finally unveiled a $1.1 billion stadium project last week, but many questions remain about the financing and viability of a project that could include almost $1 billion in contributions from the Chargers over the life of the deal.
“I’ve maintained the fact that we want to stay in San Diego. We’re committed to keep trying to see if there’s a viable solution,” Spanos said Wednesday. “It’s now come down to the financing plan. I’m interested to see what the city puts forth.”
Spanos has control of Los Angeles as a secondary market and claims that more than 25 percent of his ticket base comes from LA. He’s not particularly thrilled to see Kroenke infringe on his turf — hence the partnership with Davis.
NFL executives refused to speculate over what would happen if the Rams and Chargers both move to Los Angeles but not the Raiders — whether the Chargers would still build their own stadium or move in with the Rams. It was also interesting to hear that NFL has not ruled out three teams playing in Southern California — two in Los Angeles and one in San Diego — or even all three teams moving to LA, although that seems unlikely.
The Raiders likely have to wait to see how the chips fall with the Rams and Chargers, as Davis doesn’t have the funds to move to LA on his own. The city of Oakland has also made little to no progress on a stadium, with vague reports of a $900 million plan, far too low to be realistic.
Davis reiterated several times that he wants to remain in Oakland, but if a feasible stadium plan doesn’t emerge, his first choice is teaming up with the Chargers in Carson. A backup plan hasn’t been mentioned but could include joining Kroenke’s project in Inglewood.
Davis rejected the idea of staying in the Bay Area and playing at the 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium, claiming he could fly to LA in the time it would take to drive down to Santa Clara, and also rejected the idea of moving the Raiders to St. Louis if the Rams abandon that market.
Complicating matters for the Raiders is a tricky ownership situation for Davis. He assumed controlling ownership of the team when his father, Al Davis, died in 2011. But he hasn’t had to pay a hefty estate tax bill yet, which will come due when his elderly mother, Carol Davis, dies.
The Raiders maintain that a succession plan for Davis to keep the team has been in place for a long time, but many believe he doesn’t have the funds to pay the tax bill on a franchise that will be valued from $1 billion-$2 billion. The St. Louis stadium task force floated the idea of Kroenke selling the Rams to another owner who will keep them in St. Louis, then buying the Raiders to move to LA. But Davis is steadfast in remaining the Raiders’ owner “for the rest of my life.”
“They were my father’s life, and it means a lot to me to perpetuate his legacy and bring this organization back to greatness,” Davis said.
Tannehill contract has outs for Dolphins
Fans across New England and much of the country were scratching their heads last week.
“Ninety-six million for Ryan Tannehill? Are you kidding?”
The Dolphins certainly committed to Tannehill last week by signing him to a new six-year contract. But before freaking out about a quarterback with a career record of 23-25 getting almost $100 million, just remember that NFL contracts are never what they seem.
The deal contains $77 million in new money given that Tannehill was previously under contract in 2015 and had a lucrative fifth-year option in place for 2016. But even that number is misleading, as the contract has more than $38 million of funny money tacked on to 2019 and 2020 and almost certainly will be restructured following the 2017 season.
Realistically, Tannehill and the Dolphins agreed to a three-year deal worth $39.475 million, an average of $13.16 million per year. The contract contains an $11.5 million signing bonus, $21.5 million fully guaranteed over two years, and a third season that will tack on an additional $18 million in 2017 assuming Tannehill is still on the roster.
So, while the numbers appear big, Tannehill is getting paid in the Jay Cutler-Philip Rivers-Ben Roethlisberger-Colin Kaepernick tier of quarterbacks. Tannehill isn’t as accomplished as those quarterbacks (Cutler aside), but the Dolphins are betting (praying) that Tannehill, entering his fourth season, will continue to develop into a top-10-caliber quarterback. Tannehill threw 27 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions last year, and should progress further in 2015 in his second year with offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
Tannehill’s deal also sets the floor for Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson, who should land much richer contracts.
Given the scarcity of quality quarterbacks, the Dolphins were obligated to keep building around Tannehill, but did a good job of giving themselves outs and not breaking the bank for him.
“I fully believe, and I’ve told them this, we may end up regretting this deal one day,” said Pat Dye, Tannehill’s agent. “Because this guy has all the ingredients to be an elite player.”
Owners have little sympathy for Patriots
Few across the NFL have any sympathy for the Patriots. That much has become clear in the wake of the Deflategate penalties.
Robert Kraft bowed out of the fight on Wednesday, angering many Patriots fans, but his decision has more to do with commissioner Roger Goodell and the 31 other owners than it is about putting the NFL shield above the Flying Elvis.
Why else do you think Kraft came out with fiery bluster with Peter King last Monday, then abruptly changed his tune. He polled fellow owners, found little support, begrudgingly bit his lip, and took his punishments before making it any worse. It was a fight Kraft simply could not win.
Colleague Dan Shaughnessy wrote as much after speaking with three different teams last week. One owner told him that “there isn’t much support for the Patriots,” and after re-reading the Wells Report, “the league has enough on them.’’
Giants owner John Mara reiterated a similar sentiment in an interview with the New York Post on Thursday.
“I believe [Kraft] ultimately accepted the penalties because he knew he didn’t have anywhere to go,” Mara said. “I’m sure everybody believes there were certain things that maybe could have been done better, but overall the league did what it was supposed to do.”
What’s interesting is how no one outside of the Colts and the NFL office seems to care too much about this issue. The pregame football custody procedures were not brought up once in any league meeting in San Francisco (Goodell said the league will address it later this offseason). Four owners I spoke with acknowledged they hadn’t read a word of the Wells Report. Woody Johnson said he glanced at it. No one seemingly asked Goodell for updates or had too many questions about how Wells went about his work.
“I don’t think anybody was following [the investigation] particularly closely, as far as I know,” Johnson said.
Goodell said he scrutinized the report when Wells handed it in, but acknowledged — boasted, even — that “I got a chance to read the report just shortly before you did.” With as many holes as the Patriots and their fans poked in the science and logic of the report in the two weeks since its release, it is impossible to believe Goodell took a neutral eye to the report and scrutinized his conclusions in the short amount of time he had it before it was released.
The Patriots and Kraft have a right to be upset that there aren’t any “checks and balances” to the NFL’s justice system. Just add it to the list of grievances.
Coaches the focus of painkiller lawsuit
Legendary Dolphins coach Don Shula perhaps learned a lesson last week about glass houses and throwing stones. Shula, who has not been shy about calling the Patriots coach “Beli-cheat” and tweaking the Patriots over Deflategate, was one of several former head coaches named in a lawsuit filed by ex-players last week over the NFL’s abuse of prescription drugs.
The lawsuit, filed in Baltimore on behalf of hundreds of former players, claims that all 32 teams, their doctors, trainers, and medical staffs, illegally obtained and provided painkillers to players to keep them on the field and withhold information about their long-term consequences.
The lawsuit claims that several former coaches — Shula, Mike Holmgren, Howard Schnellenberger, Mike Tice, and Wayne Fontes among them — threatened to cut players unless they took painkillers and played through injuries. The lawsuit also claims that prescriptions were filled out in players’ names without their knowledge.
“This lawsuit alleges intentional activity by the teams, not negligence,” plaintiffs’ attorney Steve Silverman told the AP. “It’s another part of a unified effort to provide health care and compensation to the thousands of former players who have been permanently injured or died as a result of playing professional football.”
‘Hard’ choice hasn’t been easy
The Houston Texans might end up being this summer’s participant on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” but only because no other team seems to want to do it.
The Houston Chronicle reported Friday that the Texans are one of three finalists for “Hard Knocks.” The other two are not known, but the NFL has resorted to forcing teams to participate in the reality-style show if one doesn’t step up. The NFL can force a team to participate as long as: 1. It hasn’t participated in the past 10 years; 2. It has a new head coach; 3. It made the playoffs in either of the last two seasons.
From this perspective, Tennessee (Marcus Mariota), Tampa Bay (Jameis Winston), and Washington (Robert Griffin III) would offer the most intriguing television.
Phase III of the offseason program begins on Monday for the Patriots and most teams. This final phase lasts four weeks and permits teams to conduct 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills during practice, but with no pads or contact. Teams can hold up to 10 OTA practices plus a three-day mandatory minicamp over the next four weeks . . . Interesting that Bill Belichick and the Patriots have been driving the bus to change the extra point for several years, but didn’t receive much, if any, credit for it last week when the changes were announced at the owners meetings. The league officially approved the plan submitted by the Competition Committee, which piggybacked off the Patriots’ proposal to move the line of scrimmage back to the 15, but added a provision to allow the defensive team to score 2 points. Don’t think it was a coincidence that the Competition Committee, a longtime nemesis of Belichick’s that has changed several rules in recent years in direct response to the Patriots (including the eligible-ineligible tactics last year), chose its own proposal over the Patriots’.
Two of the starting quarterbacks from the last two college football national championship games will try to make their mark in the NFL at different positions.
Nick Marshall, who led Auburn against Florida State in 2014, will suit up at cornerback for the Jaguars, while Blake Sims, who guided Alabama against Ohio State in 2015, is an undrafted free agent hoping to try his hand at running back.
While switching positions doesn’t guarantee a roster spot, some players were able to make successful transitions.