Ray Rice hasn't played a down of football in two years and has been essentially banished from the NFL. But he's still having a significant impact on the league, to the detriment of his fellow players.
Rice's domestic violence incident, and the fallout from TMZ's release of that Atlantic City video, was a seminal moment for commissioner Roger Goodell and the league office. Never again would the NFL be caught underinvestigating.
And so we have Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy taken off the field for an entire season in an unprecedented move for their alleged domestic violence incidents. We have a full-scale investigation for Deflategate, and a four-game suspension for Tom Brady for being "generally aware" of it. And now we have the league office threatening to suspend James Harrison, Clay Matthews, and Julius Peppers if they refuse to submit to interviews concerning allegations of performance-enhancing drug use in a report from Al-Jazeera.
The players initially resisted. Lots of people called for them to decline and fight the NFL in court.
But Thursday, all three players made the smart decision to cooperate with the NFL. And that's all that Goodell and his honchos want — cooperation.
Fighting the request would have been risky and costly for both the players and the NFL Players Association. The union was handed two decisive defeats in court this summer, strengthening and expanding Goodell's powers to discipline players based on the integrity of the game.
Another court battle probably wouldn't have ended well for the NFLPA. The league's Policy on Performance Enhancing Substances mentions the word "integrity" twice in its opening General Statement.
"The NFL Player Contract and the League's Constitution and Bylaws require each Player to avoid conduct detrimental to the NFL and professional football or to public confidence in the game or its Players. The use of Prohibited Substances violates both these provisions," the policy reads. "In addition, the Commissioner is authorized to protect the integrity of and public confidence in the game. This authorization includes the authority to forbid use of the substances prohibited by this Policy."
Goodell's insistence on hearing from Harrison, Matthews, and Peppers about the Al-Jazeera report isn't a witch hunt. It does the league no good to have three of its bigger names taken off the field and shrouded in a cloud of PED scandal.
The NFL just wants cooperation, to give teeth to its investigatory process, and give the appearance that it takes all allegations seriously. And if you cooperate, the league will play ball.
Look at Rice. He cooperated fully with Goodell, apologized profusely, and was originally given a meager two-game suspension for his gross misdeeds. When Peyton Manning was cleared by the NFL of this same PED scandal last month, the NFL announced in a big, bold headline, "Mannings Fully Cooperated with League Investigation into Allegations in Documentary." Kicker Josh Brown and the Giants notified the league immediately about his domestic violence arrest in May of 2015 (charges were dropped five days later). And while the league's new personal conduct policy calls for a baseline suspension of six games for domestic violence, Brown's suspension, handed down this week, was knocked down to one game because Brown cooperated with the NFL, but his wife and local law enforcement didn't.
Then look at Brady. He didn't provide the relevant information from his cellphone, and didn't tell anyone from the NFL that he had destroyed his cellphone until three months after the fact. His four-game suspension is more about his perceived noncooperation than it is football deflation. The Patriots' $1 million in fines and loss of first- and fourth-round picks were also weighted heavily by the team's refusal to provide follow-up interviews with John Jastremski and Jim McNally.
So Harrison, Matthews, and Peppers probably had no choice but to agree to interviews. But they also need to choose their words very carefully, because Goodell and the NFL have a well-documented history of twisting words to fit their agenda.
Goodell mischaracterized Brady's testimony in an attempt to sway public sentiment against him. He did the same with Rice, trying to claim that Rice misled the NFL about the severity of the incident, when in fact Rice was forthright about it from the beginning.
NFLPA attorney Heather McPhee made it very clear in her letter to the league office on Thursday that Harrison will only interview "about the only remarks about him in the Al-Jazeera report, which are transcribed below." Harrison also suggested that his interview with Goodell be aired on live television, for transparency's sake.
"I've been prosecuted and persecuted, you know, publicly in the media by them for something I didn't do," Harrison told reporters on Thursday. "So I don't see why we couldn't have the media there and do a live interview. They can ask whatever questions they want and I can answer them. You all can see whatever evidence they say they've got."
He's 100 percent correct, but don't hold your breath. Transparency has not been Goodell's forte.
Goodell and his henchmen also better be careful about the precedent this Al-Jazeera incident will set. If all it takes is one retracted, unsubstantiated claim for a player to be subject to an investigation, then it will be open season on all players to be blackmailed by an aggrieved fan, girlfriend, family member, or business associate.
The NFL cleared Manning of the Al-Jazeera allegations, and likely wants to do the same for Harrison, Matthews, and Peppers. They just have to play ball.
Patriots didn’t keep composure
The Patriots' joint practices with the Saints didn't go as well as hoped because the teams only had one real practice together, and didn't get in as much work as both coaches would have liked. The Patriots' joint practices against the Bears last week didn't go exactly according to plan, either, for a different reason.
The two full-padded practices against Chicago were useful evaluation tools for the Patriots' coaching staff, including lots of good 1-on-1 reps. But those practices were more than anything a test of the Patriots' patience and composure, and they didn't exactly ace it.
It was apparent to most media observers that the Bears came to Foxborough looking to make a statement. This is a team that has finished 5-11 and 6-10 the last two years and needed a spark after getting shut out, 22-0, by Denver in its preseason opener. The Bears set an aggressive tone in practice, telling themselves that they weren't going to be pushed around by the big, bad Patriots.
Harold Jones-Quartey knocked Julian Edelman on his butt well after the play with a borderline cheap shot. Alshon Jeffery jabbered with Malcolm Butler all day long. Lamarr Houston got into it with Martellus Bennett two days in a row. The Bears' sideline celebrated big plays like it was the Super Bowl. It was, in all frankness, a little bush league.
The Patriots were baited, and didn't always keep their composure. Bill Belichick tossed a player out of each practice for fighting — Butler on the first day, Bryan Stork on the second.
Not a big deal, you say? It's good to develop an attitude on the field? Maybe, but the Patriots are always a marked team, and the players need to do a better job of maintaining their composure, particularly with the NFL's new rule this year requiring an automatic ejection of a player who earns two personal fouls for fighting or taunting.
As for the Bears, they've been picking fights throughout training camp, with the largest brawl coming during Bears Family Fest at Soldier Field. The fights have been so frequent in camp that Jay Cutler remarked on Aug. 9, "Now we're getting to the point where we're just kind of being a dumb team."
Coach John Fox seems to be encouraging the fighting, or at least tolerating it.
"Those weren't fights, those were just pushing matches," he said Wednesday.
Fox has taken both of his previous teams to the Super Bowl, so he seems to know what he's doing. But we'll see if the Bears' new bully mentality translates to wins on the field.
Video: Ben Volin analyzes Patriots-Bears
Bills are losing the preseason
Back on June 16, Bills coach Rex Ryan declared, "We won the offseason. I would challenge any team. I think we've won the offseason."
It only took a little more than two months for Ryan to stick his proverbial foot in his mouth.
The Bills have lost second-round draft pick Reggie Ragland for the season after he tore his ACL in training camp. Backup linebacker IK Enemkpali also suffered a knee injury and is done for the year. Star defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was notified that he will serve a four-game suspension to start the season for violating the NFL's policy on substances of abuse. And first-round pick Shaq Lawson, expected to be an immediate-impact pass rusher, instead could miss anywhere from half to the entire season after undergoing shoulder surgery in May.
The Ragland and Enemkpali injuries are simply cases of bad luck, and the Bills are hardly the only team to suffer major injuries in the preseason. The Dareus suspension — which Ryan knew about when he made the "win the offseason" comments, according to the Buffalo News — is costly in two ways. The Bills won't have their run-plugger for four tough games to start the season against the Ravens, Jets, Cardinals, and Patriots, and the suspension will cost Dareus $3.35 million in game checks and signing bonus prorations he must return.
Add in a four-game substance-abuse suspension for running back Karlos Williams and a potential one-game suspension for linebacker Manny Lawson and the Bills could be facing a $250,000 fine from the NFL for having three suspended players.
And the Shaq Lawson situation is just weird. Lawson comes from Clemson, where Ryan knows the coaching staff intimately, since his son also plays on the team. Either Ryan ignored the intel on Lawson's shoulder, or drafted him knowing that he wouldn't play much as a rookie, which could be viewed as a sign that Ryan's future is safe beyond this year.
The Bills have done many things this offseason, but "winning" isn't one of them.
Early prediction on Garoppolo
When watching the Patriots-Bears practices last week, we couldn't help but think that the Bears make a logical landing spot for Jimmy Garoppolo if and when the Patriots decide to trade him (his contract runs out after 2017, so the Patriots would trade him next offseason or franchise tag and trade him in 2018, similar to what they did with Matt Cassel).
The 2016 season is probably the Bears' last with Jay Cutler, as this is the final year of his contract that has guaranteed money. When the Bears need to find Cutler's replacement, trading for Garoppolo — a Chicago native who spent three years learning under Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and Josh McDaniels and will likely have four NFL starts under his belt — would look a lot more attractive than gambling on a rookie draft pick.
The Bears are no threat to the Patriots, tucked away in the opposite conference, and the Patriots wouldn't have to worry about Garoppolo thwarting their Super Bowl hopes every year. As such, the Patriots and Bears already have consummated three trades since Ryan Pace was hired as Bears general manager in January of 2015, involving Martellus Bennett, Jon Bostic, and Ryan Groy.
And on top of all of that, Pace played football at Eastern Illinois a decade and a half before Garoppolo did.
So we're pointing to the left-center bleachers and calling our shot now — Garoppolo to the Bears, eventually.
In the wake of Brady's thumb injury on Thursday night, it got me thinking about what would happen if Brady were to suffer a real injury during the preseason and needed to rehab during Weeks 1-4 when he is suspended. League spokesman Brian McCarthy said that, per NFL rules, Brady would still not be allowed to appear at the team facility or have much contact with team medical personnel. "The player may not have contact with any club personnel, except to arrange off-site medical treatment or rehabilitation. The team trainers and medical staff could coordinate with medical staff at the off-site facility to discuss treatment and progress." Yes, Brady's TB12 Sports Therapy Center at Patriot Place would constitute "off-site" treatment . . . During the preseason and early portion of the regular season, pay close attention to the center and whether he moves the football before the snap. The officials certainly will be. The NFL has made it a "point of emphasis" for officials this year to monitor any sort of presnap ball movement by the center and to flag him for a false start. Someone who recently sat in on an officials' pregame meeting said that this rule was discussed thoroughly by the zebras, and don't be surprised to see the league call this rule extra closely in the first few weeks, to set the tone for the season . . . Don't understand the logic by the Pro Football Hall of Fame contributor committee to nominate Jerry Jones and Paul Tagliabue as finalists for the 2017 class over the Broncos' Pat Bowlen, who has been a team owner since 1984. Bowlen, 72, has been a great ambassador for the NFL, has overseen seven AFC championships and three Super Bowl titles, and is in failing health after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's. With Jones and Tagliabue in good health, it makes little sense to put them in the Hall ahead of Bowlen. The Hall of Fame just inducted Kenny Stabler a year after his death, and shouldn't make the same mistake with Bowlen. Let him enjoy the honor while he is still alive . . . The depth of the Broncos' ferocious defense will be tested early this season. They lost end Malik Jackson in free agency to Jacksonville and linebacker Danny Trevathan to the Bears, then end Derek Wolfe was carted off the field last week with an ankle injury (though he reportedly avoided major injury). Second-round pick Adam Gotsis will have big shoes to fill.
Stuck in neutral
Chargers defensive lineman Joey Bosa is engaged in the longest holdout since new rookie contract scaling went into effect in 2011. However, long rookie holdouts aren't a new experience for San Diego. Here's a look at some of the impasses and their early effects: