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Why Roger Goodell and NFL owners won’t simply cede their power

If you think the owners are simply going to relinquish their commissioner powers to the NFLPA and agree to a truly neutral arbitration system of discipline, well, I’ve got a bridge at Gillette Stadium to sell you.

The only ones who can strip Roger Goodell of his powers are the 32 NFL owners.
The only ones who can strip Roger Goodell of his powers are the 32 NFL owners.Mike Lawrie/Getty Images/File 2016

Sorry, Patriots fans and Roger Goodell haters. It’s time to burst some bubbles, and we’re not talking about March Madness.

The giddiness from those camps was palpable last week after the Wall Street Journal published an article blaring a most welcome headline in New England: “NFL, Union Closer to Deal Stripping Roger Goodell of Discipline Power.”

The word “strip” is what catches everyone’s attention.

Could it be? Has Goodell finally gone so far off the deep end with Deflategate and player discipline that he’s now getting the heave-ho?

Well, no, not really.

The crux of the Journal article is true: “League officials and the union are moving closer to a deal that would involve commissioner Roger Goodell giving up power over off-the-field player discipline.” Goodell himself even acknowledged last October, “We’re open to that. We always have been.” The article also mentions a deal between the NFL and NFL Players Association to finally end Deflategate once and for all.

But there’s a difference between Goodell recusing himself from the proceedings and the league office ceding the power to discipline players.


The only ones who can strip Goodell of his powers are the 32 NFL owners. The commissioner has been “judge, jury, and executioner” of player discipline since the league’s first collective bargaining agreement was signed in 1968.

And if you think the owners are simply going to relinquish their commissioner powers to the NFL Players Association and agree to a truly neutral arbitration system of discipline because it’s the right thing to do, well, I’ve got a bridge at Gillette Stadium to sell you.

Goodell’s record as the discipline czar isn’t good in recent years. Paul Tagliabue overturned Goodell’s player penalties in Bountygate. The suspensions of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson were overturned — one by a neutral arbitrator, one by a federal judge. Goodell’s suspension of Tom Brady also was overturned by a federal judge, although the NFL can still win on appeal.


All the while, Goodell’s image and reputation takes a pounding from players, media, and fans. No one seems to like Goodell much these days.

But being the league’s punching bag is part of Goodell’s job description. It’s why the owners paid Goodell $34 million in 2014. He takes the heat for the league’s issues, not the owners.

DeMaurice Smith has been optimistic about restructing the discipline process for a while.
DeMaurice Smith has been optimistic about restructing the discipline process for a while.David J. Phillip/Associated Press/File 2015

Still, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith expressed optimism about the NFL and NFLPA reaching some sort of accord about reducing Goodell’s powers.

“We’ve been talking about changes to the personal conduct policy since October and have traded proposals,” Smith said. “We looked at the league’s proposal for neutral arbitration. There is a common ground for us to get something done.”

This was viewed by many as a big development, but Smith said the same thing at the Super Bowl.

“We’ve had a number of conversations, and those conversations are ongoing,” Smith said then. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we can reach a resolution on both those issues, and I think the frame continues to be the same. We believe that a collectively bargained change to the system is good for everyone, and if we’re unable to reach a change, then our job as a union is to simply protect the player like the cases we’ve done in the past.”

And Goodell mentioned in December that these discussions about how to handle player discipline are nothing new.


“We’ve been having substantive conversations on discipline since 2012, and if you want to go back to the CBA, 2011,” Goodell said. “These are not new discussions. We still are continuing to find solutions for it. I’m not going to get into the details of the negotiation, but I think people are bringing new thoughts to the table and new ideas that can hopefully bridge our differences.”

So, what’s really going on? Believe it or not, the owners want to strip Goodell of his powers, too. Except, not because Goodell has done a bad job. Because Goodell’s role as arbitrator and the NFL’s handling of those aforementioned cases has brought a lot of negative publicity to Goodell and the NFL that can be avoided.

“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,” Patriots president Jonathan Kraft said back in August. “It probably needs to be rethought for the modern era that we’re in and the different things that are coming up that I don’t think people anticipated and how the public wants to see them treated.”

The shadow of Roger Goodell is cast on a backdrop during a news conference last fall.
The shadow of Roger Goodell is cast on a backdrop during a news conference last fall.Julie Jacobson/Associated Press/File 2015

Will Goodell eventually cede his role as the arbiter of player discipline? Probably. The likeliest solution is to have one appeals officer, or perhaps a panel of three officers, hear all appeals in a swift, efficient manner.

“I think the league office, with the business of football, there is so much to handle day to day, and so much to do,” Kraft said. “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.”


But don’t think for a second that the owners are simply going to give away their powers for nothing. Those appeals officers will most likely be designated by Goodell or someone from his office. If the NFLPA wants to have a say in the process, it will have to give something big in return — an extension of the current owner-friendly CBA, or concessions pertaining to league revenue.

“We recognize that there are different ways of administering the discipline,” Goodell said in October. “We are not in favor of third-party arbitration with people that have no involvement or understanding of our policies or, frankly, a stake in the future of the NFL. So we’ve been very clear about that. But there are other alternatives and we’ve continued those discussions.”

And the notion that the NFL and NFLPA will settle Deflategate before it reaches a decision in federal appeals court? Don’t hold your breath. The time for that was last summer, but the NFL, NFLPA, and the Patriots have stubbornly butted heads for the last 10 months. A settlement would also mean the Brady side is conceding involvement in Deflategate, which he and has camp have steadfastly denied.


So take any news of Goodell giving up his power with a grain of salt. He might step down, but the owners and league office will still very much maintain control of the league’s disciplinary process.


A closer look at recent contracts

Free agency is a week and a half old, and it’s just about time to close the books. There will certainly be plenty of signings over the next several weeks, but the primary wave of free agency is complete, and almost all of the top players have been signed.

To take a more in-depth look at how money has been spent across the league, we got our hands on as many contracts as were available by Friday afternoon. Not all of them are official, but we were able to evaluate 199 contracts that have been signed over the last few weeks.

We included any contract that required ink to paper — free agency signings, contract restructures, and franchise tags. But we didn’t include trades. So, Tom Brady and Von Miller are accounted for in our numbers, but Chandler Jones and Jonathan Cooper are not.

Here is what we found:

■  The total value of the 199 contracts is approximately $2.39 billion. But only $1.02 billion is fully guaranteed at signing. So, only 42.7 percent of the money signed for is truly guaranteed, while 57.3 percent is funny money, or at least money that players have to earn with good performances and good health.

Spending spree
A look at the guaranteed money each team has spent in free agency so far, and the percentage of league-wide spending.
Team Guaranteed money spent Percent of league-wide spending
NYG $99,650,000 9.80%
HOU $68,910,000 6.78%
JAX $64,400,000 6.34%
OAK $57,650,000 5.67%
PHI $53,130,000 5.23%
CHI $51,774,000 5.09%
KC $51,026,000 5.02%
ATL $48,040,000 4.73%
LA $44,452,000 4.37%
TB $42,750,000 4.21%
SD $42,380,000 4.17%
NE $38,330,000 3.77%
DET $31,560,000 3.10%
NYJ $31,011,000 3.05%
TEN $29,700,000 2.92%
BAL $28,782,000 2.83%
WAS $28,468,000 2.80%
SEA $25,550,000 2.51%
MIN $21,850,000 2.15%
DEN $20,129,000 1.98%
BUF $19,156,000 1.88%
MIA $18,110,000 1.78%
NO $17,490,000 1.72%
CAR $15,302,000 1.51%
IND $14,000,000 1.38%
ARZ $12,750,000 1.25%
DAL $11,500,000 1.13%
PIT $11,050,000 1.09%
CIN $9,330,000 0.92%
CLE $4,400,000 0.43%
GB $2,100,000 0.21%
SF $1,760,000 0.17%
Total $1,016,490,000

■  The highest guarantees belong to Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon ($40 million), followed by Houston’s Brock Osweiler ($37 million), Jacksonville’s Malik Jackson ($31.5 million), and Brady ($30 million). Twelve players signed contracts with $0 guaranteed, led curiously by new Broncos left tackle Russell Okung (more on him later). Thirty-three players got less than $100,000 guaranteed. Seventy-four players signed one-year deals.

■  It’s OK if your team didn’t “win” free agency. It probably was in the playoffs last year.

Among the top 10 spending teams, only Houston and Kansas City made the playoffs. And only three teams in the top 15 made the playoffs (New England, most of whose money was spent on Brady).

The Giants had the friendliest wallet in the NFL, spending $99.65 million guaranteed on players, representing almost 10 percent of league-wide spending (9.88 percent). Houston, Jacksonville, Oakland, and Philadelphia round out the top five, combining for $343.74 million, or 33.82 percent of all guaranteed money spent.

Rounding out the top 10 are the Bears, Chiefs, Falcons, Rams, and Buccaneers. Those 10 teams account for 57.2 percent of spending, and went 72-78 last year (the Chiefs spent a majority of their money on re-signing their own players).

■  Here’s where the playoff teams rank among the spenders: Houston (second), Kansas City (seventh), New England (12th), Washington (17th), Seattle (18th), Minnesota (19th), Denver (20th), Carolina (24th), Arizona (26th), Pittsburgh (28th), Cincinnati (29th), and Green Bay (31st). And the Patriots’ number is misleading, as they spent $30 million of their $38 million on Brady’s new contract.

■  It has been interesting to see a few teams basically sit out free agency. The 49ers, with new coach Chip Kelly, have only signed two players for $1.76 million guaranteed — kicker Phil Dawson and quarterback Thad Lewis. The Browns have also sat on the sidelines, spending $4.4 million guaranteed, third lowest in the league. The Bills, Dolphins, Saints, Panthers, Colts, Cardinals, Cowboys, Steelers, and Bengals are the other teams to have spent less than $20 million so far.


Okung’s decision may prove costly

Russell Okung got $0 guaranteed in his five-year deal with the Broncos.
Russell Okung got $0 guaranteed in his five-year deal with the Broncos.Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press/File

Russell Okung, the Seahawks’ left tackle for the last six years, chose to represent himself during free agency.

“Did I, entering the final year of my rookie contract and what I believe will be the prime of my career, really need someone else to tell me my worth and not only ‘find me a deal’ but take a cut of it?” Okung wrote on The Players’ Tribune in July.

Predictably, that answer turned out to be “yes.”

Okung, a former first-round pick who started 72 games in Seattle, signed a five-year, $53 million with the Broncos last week. Sounds good, right?

But look closer at the details, and Okung gave away most of his leverage without getting a ton in return.

Okung got $0 guaranteed, which is rare for a player of his caliber. In 2016, he gets a $1 million workout bonus, a $2 million base salary, and a $2 million bonus if he appears on the Broncos’ roster for one game. So, if he’s a disaster, the Broncos can cut him at the end of training camp after paying him just $1 million. More likely, he will play 2016 for $5 million.

His contract has an option bonus before the 2017 season that pays him $23.5 million ($19.5 million guaranteed) over the next two years. The final two years of the contract are worth $24.5 million, with nothing guaranteed.

So, Okung got nothing up front, has to have a great season for the Broncos to pick up his option, and could be a free agent again next year if he doesn’t. It’s also a contract that could mess up the NFLPA’s salary structure for high-end offensive tackles.

Okung is partly right: NFL rookies don’t need agents as much anymore now that rookie contracts are mostly slotted. But for veterans hitting the free agent market, that 2-3 percent agent fee is money well spent.

Extra point

Good story by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert this past week about the mountain of data that will be given to all 32 teams this offseason. For the past two years, the NFL and Zebra Technologies have tracked and recorded real-time positioning and movement of players using a chip embedded in the shoulder pads. The NFL has kept the data mostly to itself but will be giving it to teams in May to do with it what each team pleases. It will be interesting to see how teams find various uses for the data, and how useful it is in game planning and in-game adjustments. The data could also be used for and against players in free agency. “Instead of them telling you that you’ve slowed down,” Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins said, “they can hand you a piece of paper showing you that you’re slower. That’s tough.” . . .

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the Rams released defensive end Chris Long a few weeks ago (he since has signed with the Patriots). Long’s agent is Marvin Demoff, the 30-plus-year agent who represented players such as John Elway and Jonathan Ogden. And Demoff’s son is Kevin Demoff, who happens to be the Rams’ executive vice president of football operations. Here’s guessing that Long knew the release was coming after two injury-plagued seasons . . . The Patriots acquired a couple of players who already had a special place in their heart for the franchise. Receiver Chris Hogan played his first game against the Patriots (Week 1 in 2013) and scored his first touchdown against them (Week 6 of 2014). And Long’s first two-sack game came against the Patriots (Week 7 of 2008) . . . Bill Belichick will be at West End Johnnie’s in downtown Boston on March 31 for a fundraiser for the Bill Belichick Foundation, which supports student-athletes and organizations through grants and scholarship programs. Belichick will speak at the event, which will also have complimentary bites, music, and raffle prizes. Tickets cost $45 and are available at billbelichickfoundation.org.

Cash isn’t king

The New York Giants splurged in free agency, spending more than $200 million in the first week to shore up their defense. However, the team should temper expectations for the upcoming season as few big spenders have seen immediate success. Here’s how past teams fared after their hefty payouts:

Compiled by Michael Grossi

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.