Ravens coach John Harbaugh didn’t mean to get political, but he just couldn’t help himself.
“It’s just about time we start thinking about others,” Harbaugh said Tuesday morning in Phoenix at the NFL owners meetings. “Let’s start with Congress, and the executive and the judicial branch, of thinking about the people who are here, the citizens of this country, and making the world a better place, as opposed to which party gets elected in the next term. Who cares? We just want to have good, common-sense legislation that’s good for everybody. I think selfish agendas get in the way.”
But Harbaugh wasn’t just railing on the current climate inside the Beltway. He had a point that related to the NFL. And it was a good one.
“That’s my segue back into, we can do the same thing with the [collective bargaining agreement],” he said.
The 2011 CBA negotiations between the owners and the NFL Players Association were contentious, and the bickering between the sides hasn’t stopped.
The owners eventually got what they wanted — getting player costs under control. The union got what it wanted — more time off for veterans and strict contact limitations in practice.
But while serving their constituents, neither side necessarily had the best interests of the NFL in mind. And several coaches at the owners meetings, including Harbaugh, agreed with our premise — the current CBA, which runs through the 2020 season, is hurting the product.
We’ve written before that the NFL is getting younger and younger, due to the incredible value now provided by rookie contracts. The veterans are getting squeezed out of the league earlier than ever, and the game is increasingly being played not by the best football players, but by the most cost-effective.
And the strict rules that govern offseason workouts and training camp practices are making it increasingly difficult to develop players. In this CBA, players can’t wear pads or have any sort of contact during offseason workouts, rendering practices fairly useless for offensive and defensive linemen. Two-a-days have also been banned in training camp, and the number of full-contact practices are strictly regulated.
The union fought for these rules to better preserve the bodies of older players, and to combat overzealous coaches. But as Cardinals coach Bruce Arians noted, his players will only have seven or eight full-padded practices in 2017 before suiting up for their first preseason game.
“The injuries are higher because we never practice football. We practice soccer,” Arians lamented. “Guys, especially on lines of scrimmage, are going to get hurt if they don’t practice what they do. And especially the big guys, you can only do so many pass sets and jump through bags. They’ve got to block each other.”
The 2016 season was marred by sloppy play, and Harbaugh doesn’t think that was an accident. The NFL has no developmental or minor league, college schemes on both sides of the ball aren’t preparing the athletes for the pros, and NFL coaches are getting just a fraction of the time they once had to work with young players.
“Our ability to put a good football game on the field has to do with our ability to train our players,” Harbaugh said. “I think young players need to practice their craft and learn the game. You want good quarterback play, they need to study being a quarterback. To me, that’s just common sense.
“We’ve got the greatest coaches, we’ve got the greatest trainers, we’ve got the greatest support system in the whole world in the history of sport. Expand rosters, expand practice squad rosters, let us develop these guys, let us bring them in under our wing and let us build them up.”
That led Harbaugh into his next point — that teams need to have more year-round contact with players. The current rules bar coaches from having contact with their players from the end of the season until the start of the offseason program (April 17 for most teams this year), plus during the six weeks each summer between minicamp and training camp.
This forces players to spend thousands of dollars to train on their own, while also keeping them away from the team structure. Harbaugh said the issue hits close to home, as former Ravens cornerback Tray Walker died in a dirt bike accident last March.
“The football facility becomes their new home, so why are we kicking them out of the house for the whole offseason?” Harbaugh said. “We give them all these lessons and teach them about finances and everything else, and then when the season’s over we go, ‘Oh, can’t talk to you, can’t give you a phone call.’ It makes absolutely no sense. If you come into the building we can’t say, ‘How’s your training going?’ What are we doing?”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin agreed with Harbaugh.
“It would be nice to have more formal interaction with the guys over the course of the 12-month calendar — not with an emphasis on football, but an emphasis of helping life,” Tomlin said.
Arians echoed the same.
“I think you’ll hear every coach say we want to be with our players more, whether it’s on the practice field or life-skill sessions,” he said. “I think that’s the one thing [with] the last CBA we’ve lost. Coaches are being held accountable for guys they don’t get to see for four months.”
Any changes to the practice rules won’t be made until the next CBA negotiations in 2021. But when the owners and NFLPA sit down at the table, hopefully they keep the best interests of the game in mind.
“Certainly you should have rules, just common-sense type of things,” Harbaugh said of offseason practices. “[But] just get past the bickering, and come to an agreement about what’s best for the sport and what’s best for the players, especially the young players.
“It should be easy. But like anything in our society, coming to a common-sense decision that’s good for the people, as we see obviously every single day when we watch the news, is not so easy, because everybody’s got their own selfish agenda.”
Ross’s nay vote a shot at system
NFL owners don’t say “no” to free money, and they certainly got a lot of it from Las Vegas — $750 million from an increase in a Clark County hotel tax for a new stadium for the Raiders, plus $200 million for capital improvements. With no concrete plan coming from Oakland leaders, the owners swiftly ratified the Raiders’ application to move to Vegas, 31-1, last Monday.
That one dissent is interesting, though. It came from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who said in a statement that the NFL owes it to fans to do everything it can to stay in its communities until all options have been exhausted.
“A deal could’ve been done there,” Ross said of Oakland shortly after the vote. “You can only make a deal when the owner wants to make a deal. Who are you going to negotiate with? How’s it going to happen? There needs to be a driving force.”
There is more behind Ross’s dissent, however. After failing to receive public funds from the Florida legislature in 2013, Ross ponied up $400 million of his own money to upgrade Hard Rock Stadium, with the promise that Miami would become a regular part of the Super Bowl rotation, potentially every three or four years.
But now in the last 15 months he has seen the NFL approve two new mega-stadiums, in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, which will now compete directly for Super Bowls. So, he’s a little miffed.
Which led to an eye-popping answer when Ross was asked if private money should be an NFL requirement for stadiums.
“I think so,” he said. “I think when you own a team you should have the deep pockets to deliver. Now, you need some public money — infrastructure and things like that. But the cost of stadiums today, our country can’t really afford to put all the money in that kind of place.”
Ross isn’t the only sports owner taking issue with the amount of public funds being handed over to the Raiders. Bill Foley, the owner of the NHL expansion Vegas Golden Knights, spoke out last week on the radio show Vegas Hockey Hotline. The New York Times pointed out last week that Las Vegas decided to increase class sizes in public schools because it couldn’t come up with $14 million in the budget.
“I felt like there were a lot better ways to spend $750 million than bringing the Raiders to Las Vegas,” he said. “We could spend it on police, firefighters, and teachers and have them all be the best in the country. But I guess we’re going to spend it on the Raiders.”
Jaguars handed a delay of game
Notorious rules stickler Tom Coughlin has been back on the job for less than three months as the executive vice president of football operations in Jacksonville, and already he is pushing the envelope and catching the ire of the NFLPA.
Coughlin required Jaguars players to come to town for physicals in March, which the NFLPA believes violates the CBA. Coughlin also tried to start the team’s offseason program a week early, on April 10, the date when teams with first-year head coaches can begin.
But new coach Doug Marrone was the interim coach for the final two games of last season, and the NFLPA filed a grievance against the Jaguars preventing them from starting on April 10. On Wednesday, the Jaguars announced that they would start on April 17.
“We are glad to now know our reporting date, although we had planned to begin on April 10, and we had already invited our players to come in on that date,” Coughlin said in a statement.
Dolphins may tone it down
Dolphins coach Adam Gase was a little embarrassed last week when the NFL showed a video to the league’s head coaches reinforcing what are considered illegal celebrations and taunting penalties.
“We’re watching the celebration tape and we’re on there like five times for the taunting and I’m going, ‘God, this is not good.’ ” Gase said. “Everybody’s probably looking at me like we’re the most undisciplined team in football.”
He’s not wrong. Per NFLPenalties.com, the Dolphins were flagged for a league-high 11 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties last season, with the Jaguars second with eight. The Dolphins also led the NFL with four taunting penalties.
But Gase put a good face on the Dolphins’ lack of discipline.
“I wanted our guys to be who we were, and I wanted people and our guys to make sure that they played with everything they possibly had,” Gase said. “If that meant we got a 15-yard penalty because Jarvis [Landry] got some kind of celebration penalty or taunting penalty, we’re going to live with it. And I wasn’t going to say anything because I wanted to make sure our guys played with every ounce of passion.”
Jones saw the moving picture
Jerry Jones’s meddling in football matters has been one reason the Cowboys haven’t won a Super Bowl in 21 years, but he certainly has proven his Hall of Fame chops as an owner and deal-maker.
Jones was the driving force behind the Rams’ move to Los Angeles, convincing owners that Stan Kroenke’s mega-project was better for the league than giving the market to the cash-poor Raiders and Chargers. And when casino magnet Sheldon Adelson dropped out of the Raiders’ stadium project in Vegas, Jones was the one who brought in Bank of America to replace the $650 million in funding to get the deal completed.
Not surprisingly, both the LA and Vegas stadiums have hired hospitality firm Legends, of which Jones is part owner, to sell its corporate suites, naming rights, and marketing.
Not only did 80-year-old Panthers owner Jerry Richardson skip the owners meetings for the second year in a row — the team said he wasn’t up for two cross-country flights — but Richardson is no longer on the league’s powerful compensation committee, which determines Roger Goodell’s pay. For years the committee consisted only of Richardson, Robert Kraft, and Arthur Blank, but this year the committee consisted of Clark Hunt, John Mara, Art Rooney, Bob McNair, Kraft, and Blank . . . Bill Belichick was the first person to recommend that coaches should be allowed to challenge any play via instant replay at the 2014 meetings, and a similar proposal has been made at each of the last three meetings. It still hasn’t passed. “Last year it was gaining speed. This year it did not catch any momentum at all,” said Bruce Arians, a new member of the competition committee . . . The Patriots lost $4.5 million in salary-cap space last week, but not for anything they did this offseason. The new CBA allowed teams to borrow $3 million of cap space in 2011 and $1.5 million in 2012, and they didn’t have to pay it back until 2017 . . . The sense we got from the owners meetings was that the NFL is waiting to see if Tony Romo goes to Houston before making a final decision on the Patriots’ opponent for the opening kickoff game Sept. 7. The Texans would be the likely opponent if Romo is the quarterback, and the Chiefs and Panthers appear to be the leaders if he doesn’t make up his mind before the schedule is released in a couple of weeks . . . Great work by the people at Fox Sports to identify former Mexican newspaper executive Mauricio Ortega as the thief of Tom Brady’s Super Bowl jersey. But cameras from Kraft Sports Productions positioned all over the locker room were also instrumental in helping Houston police and the FBI identify Ortega. The Patriots actually had Ortega identified not long after the Super Bowl, but it took authorities several weeks to double- and triple-check everything and track down the jerseys in Mexico . . . Los Angeles isn’t exactly feeling the passion for the Chargers. While the Rams sold all 70,000 of their season tickets within six hours of announcing their move last year, it took the Chargers two months to finally sell all 30,000 season tickets at the StubHub Center . . . One head coach was busting my chops Monday night in Phoenix because Belichick was skipping the AFC coaches’ breakfast Tuesday morning for a scouting trip. “Don’t get any ideas,” I told the coach. “We need you guys to show up and cooperate.” Replied the coach: “Don’t worry, I don’t have five rings.”
The Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi put on a show in 2016, rushing for more than 200 yards three times. He did it in back-to-back October games, compiling 204 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries against Pittsburgh and 214 yards and one score on 28 carries against Buffalo. His third such outing came two months later when he ran for 206 yards and a TD on 32 carries, again against Buffalo. The second-year running back is just the fourth player with three or more 200-yard games in a season.