NFL players and fans have been complaining for several years that the league’s justice system is broken and that commissioner Roger Goodell has far too much power.
But when an NFL owner finally suggests that the system needs to be changed, and another owner endorses him, it’s time to pay attention.
The comments from Patriots president Jonathan Kraft on the team’s pregame radio show Aug. 22 were interesting, to say the least. Some around the NFL may roll their eyes at Kraft being the one to suggest that the commissioner should have less authority — and they wouldn’t be wrong to do so — but his opinion was spot-on, Deflategate or no.
Jed York, owner of the 49ers, seemed to think so, as he gave Kraft’s comments his tacit approval with a retweet on Twitter.
“I think the world has changed and the complexity of some of the situations — things that I don’t think we ever thought we would be dealing with, we’re dealing with,” Kraft said, referring mostly to the domestic violence situations that Goodell and the NFL botched in 2014. “There probably needs to be a rethinking so that the league office and the commissioner aren’t put in a spotlight in a way that detracts from the league’s image and the game — even if the league office is doing the right thing, or the wrong thing, or whatever you think.
“I think there needs to be a prescribed process for how certain parts of the discipline process are going to work, especially probably the appeals, so that the spotlight and the attention doesn’t all have to fall on Park Avenue.”
That sound you hear is most of the other owners telling Kraft, “Shhhh!” Commissioner discipline is going to be a major negotiating point with the NFL Players Association at the next collective bargaining agreement talks in 2021, and the owners can use it as a chip to gain something else at the bargaining table.
But no matter what the owners say over the next six years, the reality is it would benefit both the NFL and the union to reduce commissioner powers and formalize the league’s discipline processes, and to do it jointly.
The NFL likes to brag that the commissioner has the broad governing powers spelled out by the CBA, but it’s been nothing but a headache.
“They need an entirely new system,” one high-ranking NFC team executive said. “The goal is to protect the integrity of the game, and now it’s the system that is the primary cause of people questioning the integrity of the game.”
The issues of the last year — including Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and Deflategate — have exposed the NFL and Goodell as reactionary and vindictive, severely damaging their image and credibility. In an effort to display strong leadership, Goodell and the NFL have trampled over the players’ rights, and soon might go 0 for 3 in a courtroom setting, if Tom Brady’s attorneys can close out the win in his lawsuit.
Having to hire Ted Wells or Robert Mueller every six months, and meekly pretending that the multimillion-dollar investigations are “independent,” is bad for the league all the way around. It’s costly, it detracts from the on-field product, and it hurts the images of Goodell and the players involved.
In Minnesota federal court last week, judge David Doty, who vacated Peterson’s suspension in February, commented that he’s “not sure the commissioner understands there is a CBA.”
“I don’t want to keep pointing fingers at the league office, but that’s really what it is in the sense of running these rogue investigations that are clearly against the CBA,” NFLPA president Eric Winston told USA Today. “A lot of people can say, ‘Oh, well, that’s just a partisan union hack.’ But don’t take my word for it. Take their word for it. Take federal judge David Doty recently questioning whether they know what the CBA says, because it’s clear to everybody but them that they’re not following it.”
The best move would be to have more of an independent process, and to allow the NFLPA to have a voice and to split the costs. One popular suggestion is to have a panel of, say, six arbitrators — three submitted by the NFL, three by the union — and randomly draw an arbitrator for each hearing.
This would allow the NFL to effectively govern the conduct of its players in a fair and balanced process that also removes the public relations burden off of the commissioner, who no longer has to be the face of these tricky issues.
And on the few issues where the NFL and NFLPA have worked together, they usually turn out pretty well. The new drug policies that were amended last fall — the ones that call for softer penalties against marijuana but harsher penalties for HGH use and drunk-driving incidents — were made jointly between the NFL and the union.
When a player appeals a fine for on-field conduct, it is heard by an independent arbitrator. When he appeals a drug suspension, it is heard by an independent arbitrator.
It’s clearly time to do the same for appeals of the personal conduct policy and integrity-of-the-game matters. And if not now, then certainly in the next CBA in six years.
“I look at the other things we’ve fixed,” Winston said. “We fixed on-field fines. They can be appealed to a neutral arbitrator. Under the changes we made to the drug policy, there are appeals to a neutral arbitrator. I look at other sports, and it hardly gets any publicity because everyone knows the next step and knows the finality of it . . . I just look at it and say, ‘How many of these do they have to get wrong before the owners ask what’s going on here?’ ”
NOT WORTH IT
Preseason games are taking a toll
Packers receiver Jordy Nelson has proven himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL, with three 1,000-yard seasons and a Pro Bowl on his résumé. Yet there he was running routes for some reason in the first quarter of last Sunday’s Packers-Steelers exhibition game, when he crumpled to the ground with a torn ACL.
Now Nelson is out for the year before it even began, and the Packers have to figure out how to replace 98 catches, 1,519 yards, and 13 touchdowns.
Aaron Rodgers couldn’t hide his disdain.
“It’s difficult to lose a guy like that in a meaningless game,” Rodgers said.
But what about that 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive the Packers put together?
“This game doesn’t mean anything,” Rodgers responded.
NFL players and coaches can list the positives gained with preseason games — a chance to get valuable reps, to get timing down, to work out the kinks before the season, and so on. But Rodgers is right. The positives are grossly outweighed by the negatives — namely, that injuries can strike at any time.
Nelson is one of nine legitimate NFL starters to already suffer season-ending injuries, and there is still one week to go. The Panthers have no idea what they’re going to do at wide receiver now that budding superstar Kelvin Benjamin is out for the year with a torn ACL. The Broncos lost left tackle Ryan Clady, the Cowboys lost cornerback Orlando Scandrick, and the Redskins lost pass rusher Junior Galette, among other injuries.
According to numbers compiled by Football Outsiders, the NFL has averaged 10 season-ending injuries to starters since 2011, the first year of the new rules limiting full contact in practices and eliminating two-a-days. In the previous 10 years, the NFL averaged 6.2 season-ending injuries.
Football is a violent game, of course, and injuries happen. If an injury happens during the course of practice, there’s nothing much you can do — particularly during joint practices, which are much more beneficial toward regular-season preparation than the exhibition games. And perhaps the recent injuries are a statistical anomaly.
But for an injury to happen in an exhibition game is bad for the league and a waste of a player’s talents.
NFL owners won’t simply eliminate preseason games, because they shamelessly charge full prices for the tickets and force season ticket-holders to buy them as part of their package. But the NFL and the NFLPA should seriously consider the 18-game regular season, two-game preseason split.
Since players train year-round, they don’t need four exhibition games to get ready. And if they’re going to get hurt, it might as well be in a legitimate contest, not the farce that is the NFL preseason.
MONEY NOT WELL SPENT?
Patriots may regret signing
The Patriots liked what they got out of defensive tackle Alan Branch last year. They signed him off the street in October, and while he didn’t make many flashy plays, he clogged the middle of the defensive line for 20-25 snaps per game and was a key contributor on a Super Bowl team.
They liked him so much that they decided not to keep Vince Wilfork in free agency, and instead signed Branch to a two-year deal that can pay him as much as $6.6 million if he reaches all of his incentives.
But I’m starting to wonder if the Patriots are feeling a little buyer’s remorse with Branch, much like the Bills did in 2014.
After signing his contract in March, Branch skipped the offseason workout program, choosing to stay at home in Arizona. It’s not the worst offense in the world, but the Patriots surely would have rather seen Branch being a part of the team instead of doing his own thing.
Then he arrived to training camp overweight and out of shape, and it took him two weeks to pass his conditioning test and join his teammates on the field.
It wouldn’t be such a troubling sign if Branch didn’t have a history of doing exactly this. In December 2013, the Bills signed Branch to a three-year, $9.3 million contract with $3.1 million guaranteed, but they cut him before he ever played a down.
Branch also skipped the Bills’ voluntary workouts in 2014, showed up to training camp grossly overweight, and got buried on the depth chart. Then the Bills cut him after he was arrested for driving under the influence during training camp.
We have Branch penciled in for one of 53 roster spots on the Patriots. But they have depth at the position, with Sealver Siliga, Dominique Easley, rookie Malcom Brown, and Chris Jones, who is currently injured. And the Patriots only gave Branch $700,000 guaranteed, in the form of a signing bonus. If the Patriots aren’t thrilled with his attitude and performance, it won’t be hard to move on.
Clearly, Belichick got off lightly
The NFL reinstated Falcons president Rich McKay as chairman of the Competition Committee on Thursday, nearly five months since he was suspended because of the team getting busted for pumping fake crowd noise into the Georgia Dome for two years.
Going back and reading the NFL’s discipline statement on March 30 is interesting, given everything that’s happened in Deflategate. The NFL fined the Falcons $350,000 and docked them a fifth-round pick for the transgression, and also suspended McKay from the Competition Committee for at least three months, even though the NFL determined that McKay had nothing to do with it.
“However, Mr. McKay, as the senior club executive overseeing game operations, bears some responsibility for ensuring that team employees comply with league rules,” the NFL’s Troy Vincent wrote at the time.
It only adds fuel to the fire that the NFL went out of its way not to punish Patriots coach Bill Belichick in Deflategate, for some reason. No one here doubts that Belichick had little to nothing to do with any alleged scheme to deflate footballs, but why did McKay get punished for the actions of his employees, yet Belichick was cleared of all wrongdoing and barely even got a mention in the Wells Report? It doesn’t add up.
Gronk obviously a marketing major
Rob Gronkowski boasted of his fiscal responsibility in his autobiography, writing he hasn’t “touched one dime of my signing bonus or NFL contract money. I live off my marketing money.”
Gronkowski has made about $20 million (and counting) on the field, but as we’ve seen this offseason, Gronk does just fine for himself with his marketing deals.
Since winning the Super Bowl in February, Gronk has . . . sung two Dunkin’ Donuts jingles with David Ortiz ; helped save the world in the new Madden 16 commercial; released an autobiography; acted like a big kid in a Kids Foot Locker commercial; played ’80s wrestler Gronkasaurus in a BodyArmor sports drink commercial; appeared with his brothers on “Family Feud”; shot a “Football is family” commercial for the NFL; showed off his new Super Bowl ring for a “SportsCenter” commercial; appeared in the “Entourage” movie; scheduled a women’s football camp for September; and scheduled a Gronk Party Cruise for February.
Yet, does anyone doubt that Gronk still got his work in this offseason and will be ready to dominate on the field come September? Didn’t think so.
Cool gesture by the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year, allowing all members of the Hall to have pregame field access to every stadium and every game, regular season and postseason . . . Feel better, Jonathan Martin . The former Dolphins, 49ers, and Panthers offensive tackle probably didn’t handle his issues with Richie Incognito and his Dolphins teammates in the best way, but your heart aches for the young man after reading his Twitter post this past week in which he described his insecurities and fears, and revealed that he drank and smoked too much, and that he tried to kill himself on multiple occasions. Here’s hoping Martin, who retired this training camp because of a recurring back issue, can find peace with himself in his next stage in life
. . . Anyone still eligible to play in the Patriots-Steelers kickoff game? Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant has become the fourth player suspended for that game, joining Tom Brady, LeGarrette Blount, and Le’Veon Bell. This game might end up looking like an extension of the preseason.
The loss of wide receivers Jordy Nelson (Packers) and Kelvin Benjamin (Panthers) to season-ending torn ACLs severely hampers their teams’ offensive attacks. While both Green Bay (WR Randall Cobb) and Carolina (TE Greg Olsen) have players that can step into the No. 1 role, the receivers behind them are unproven or mediocre at best. Here’s how the losses of Nelson and Benjamin affect their teams’ wide receiver corps: