The latest buzz from the NFL owners meetings
The NFL’s annual owners meetings this past week at the Arizona Biltmore were a snoozer.
Robert Kraft’s legal issues weren’t addressed. Only one significant rule was passed. No teams threatened to move, the Colin Kaepernick issue has been settled, TV ratings are up, and there’s no fight with the president.
But a few interesting nuggets still came out of the meetings — mostly from the head coaches, who met with the media for an hour on Tuesday.
Bill Belichick’s session was a dud as usual, but the 31 other coaches had plenty to say:
■ Sean Payton was the big winner at the meetings, leading a successful coup against Rich McKay and other old-guard members of the Competition Committee to get his new rule passed. Payton can’t go back and reclaim the NFC Championship game, but he made sure that at least for the 2019 season, pass interference calls — and non-calls — will be subject to instant replay.
To convince the owners to vote for his proposal, Payton didn’t just harp on the missed pass interference call from his own game. He cited the Week 16 Steelers-Saints game in which a pass interference call benefited the Saints and contributed to their victory.
“There was a PI called against Pittsburgh against Alvin Kamara. It was an awful call,” Payton said. “If we’ve seen the play, it wasn’t interference. And it was a significant call in the second quarter, and we went on to win that game.
“That’s a huge call for Pittsburgh because if they win that game they probably get into the postseason.”
But Payton isn’t feeling Andy Reid’s gripes. After losing the AFC Championship game without touching the ball in overtime, the Chiefs submitted a proposal to change OT in two significant ways — eliminate the coin toss, and guarantee both teams a possession.
But Payton, one of eight members of the Competition Committee, likes the current system. The Chiefs’ proposal got tabled until the NFL’s next round of meetings in May. “If the numbers suggested that the team with the ball first was winning 60 percent of the games, we would clearly push it,” Payton said. But “there aren’t any numbers that suggest that winning the toss and having the ball first strongly favors one team or another.”
■ The coach with the most to answer to was the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin. Le’Veon Bell held out and is gone. Antonio Brown complained his way out of town. Ben Roethlisberger publicly ripped his teammates. The Steelers missed the playoffs last year, and have morphed from a perennial Super Bowl contender with the best collection of superstars to a discombobulated mess.
“Never a dull moment,” Tomlin said. “Change is a part of our business, and we’re comfortable with the talent that we have.”
Tomlin said that among the Steelers’ changes, he’s going to evaluate his own coaching style and whether he was responsible for letting the Bell and Brown situations get out of hand.
“We were a 9-6-1 football team last year. We all need to look in the mirror in terms of what we do and how we do it, starting with me,” Tomlin said. “Certainly I think that reflection is a part of this. Particularly when you have failure — and I consider last year a failure — the reflection and the analysis of how we operate and how I function within that is just a natural part of procedure.”
■ With dynamic young quarterback Baker Mayfield entering his second year, and now surrounded by a star-studded cast that includes Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, the Browns have quickly transformed from doormats to AFC North favorites. On paper, they may be the most talented team in the AFC. Since the Beckham trade, the Browns now are tied for the fifth-best Super Bowl odds in the NFL. The Browns.
All of which is to say, the pressure is big on Freddie Kitchens, last year’s interim head coach who surprisingly got the full-time gig this offseason. Kitchens had never been above the level of position coach in 12 NFL seasons prior to this promotion, and all eyes will be on him this fall.
Not that Kitchens seems to mind.
“Pressure is getting up in the morning, not having a job, having to feed a baby, your wife just left... That’s pressure. This ain’t pressure,” Kitchens said in his Alabama drawl. “I listen to country music for a reason. Most of all those songs it seems like was written for me.”
■ NFL rules allow Kyle Shanahan to converse with Jimmy Garoppolo when they run into each other at the 49ers’ practice facility this offseason, but they can’t talk football until the offseason program begins on April 15.
“And we don’t know much else to talk about, so it’s awkward,” Shanahan said.
But Shanahan is “very confident” that Garoppolo is progressing well and will be ready for Week 1, less than a year after tearing his ACL.
“He’s right where they say he should be, and I look out my window, and it looks like he can play,” Shanahan said.
Garoppolo was in a dark place in the weeks after tearing his ACL and ruining his debut season with the 49ers. But Shanahan said Garoppolo was fortunate to have teammate Jerick McKinnon also recovering from a torn ACL at the same time.
“You’ve got two upbeat guys who are very confident and believe in themselves,” Shanahan said. “It’s tough. It’s something you never want to go through. But I think both are trying to find the good in it. They’re studying more tape.”
■ Jon Gruden is thrilled to have Trent Brown anchoring his offensive line in Oakland, after signing him to a record contract. But Gruden wishes he could have had Brown a year ago, when Brown instead was traded to the Patriots.
“I liked Trent Brown when he was a 49er. Personally, I did not know he was on the trade market,” Gruden said. “Trent didn’t even know he was on the trade market. And I think he went to New England basically for the equivalent of a fourth-round pick. No one knew he was on the market except the Patriots and Shanahan, probably.”
Gruden wouldn’t commit to Brown playing left tackle, as he did last year. The Raiders also have last year’s first-round pick, Kolton Miller.
“There’s not many 26-year-old guys that have proven they can play at right tackle and left tackle in this league, so it’s great to have him,” Gruden said. “A lot of teams flip their tackles. We might just have them break the huddle and look for Von Miller.”
■ Can Kyler Murray overcome his small stature and succeed in the NFL? Reid is a believer, and considering Reid’s track record with quarterbacks, that’s good enough for me. “I think he’s a heck of a player,” Reid said of Murray, the Heisman Trophy winner and potential No. 1 overall pick. “Where football is today, he’ll be great. I’ve never been a guy with the size thing. Russell [Wilson] had the same thing coming out. Everybody questioned that. I don’t think it will be a factor with this kid. You really don’t throw over people. You throw through people. As long as he can move a little bit and he can see, that’s the important thing.”
■ As for Reid’s current quarterback, he hopes Patrick Mahomes takes a lot of self-scouting to heart this offseason, even though he won the MVP in his first season as a starter. “When you step away from it, whether it’s four days or four months, you step back, it’s a little clearer picture,” Reid said. “And then we condense it down by play. So he can look at all of his Z-in routes, and go, ‘You know what, I can do this better right here.’ He’s wired the right way to handle that. You want to be a great player, that’s what you do.”
■ The AFC East will have even more familiarity than usual this year. The Dolphins’ head coach is former Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores. And the Jets’ head coach is former Dolphins head coach Adam Gase.
Flores spent 14 years with the Patriots trying to stop Tom Brady and Julian Edelman in practice. Now he gets to plan against them and see how it unfolds in a real game setting.
“Yeah, it’ll be fun to compete against those guys and we’re looking forward to it. I’m sure they feel the same,” Flores said.
And Gase is watching old Jets practice tapes to see how they prepared for him when he was the Dolphins’ coach from 2016-18.
“We went back and kind of watched some of the stuff [the Jets] were practicing against us. That was interesting,” he said. “It’s a different perspective to see if they were on us, or if we were tipping some things off.”
■ Ravens coach John Harbaugh always has interesting ideas about ways the NFL could improve its offseason program and player development, so I asked him to name one thing about the pre-draft process he would change.
“I think the draft should be earlier, sooner,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t need to be so involved where we need three months to watch the players ourselves. Let’s draft these guys, let’s get them to us.
“And let’s be honest, they’re all coming. Nobody’s taking their last semester of school. You want to get in the real world here? Let’s understand that that’s how it works. Because they end up graduating a high percentage of the time we get them, anyway, because we make sure they do. Let’s help them, but let’s not have them worried about running 40 times. Let’s get them working on football so they can contribute their first couple of years.”
Gronkowski left an indelible mark
Three of Rob Gronkowski’s former coaches were at the owners meetings as head coaches for other teams, and shared some memories of coaching the fun-loving tight end.
“All of my Gronk stories end in a spike,” Brian Flores said. “He was just such a great practice player. I think that’s the one thing that people — there’s no way to know about that. The way this guy blocked, that’s kind of a lost art at the tight end position now. Just his toughness and ability to want to go into the trenches and do those things. That’s the one thing — there’s no story, but he did a great job in practice on a day-to-day basis.”
Texans coach Bill O’Brien raved about coaching Gronkowski when O’Brien was the Patriots’ offensive coordinator for Gronk’s first two NFL seasons.
“Great guy. He had an awesome energy about him,” O’Brien said. “Really talented guy. Very instinctive, very football smart. He learned fast, had an excellent instinct for the game, instinct for coverages. Learned how to be a really good run blocker, too.”
And Lions coach Matt Patricia shared a funny story about almost hurting Gronkowski in practice (year unknown).
“We’d do a goal line, 7-on-7 period every Friday practice,” Patricia said. “We put the trash cans out there as the O-line, and they’d be running crossing routes. Being a defensive coach, I was trying to make it as difficult as possible.
“So Rob is running a crossing route behind me and I knew he was. So I took the garbage can and I just slung it backwards and I caught him right in between the legs. He goes down hard, and he’s laying on the ground, he’s not getting up. And I’m like — this is Friday before a game — I’m like, ‘This is it, I’m done.’ And he’s playing it off. He was fine. But I was like, ‘Get up right now before I get fired. Like, what are you doing?’ ”
Among the tributes from Gronkowski’s former teammates, two of my favorites were from Rob Ninkovich and Patrick Chung. Ninkovich revealed that he and Gronk used to conduct practice like savvy veterans, “acting like we were going hard.” And Chung said he and Gronk used to bet $100 each day on whoever won their battles in practice.
Casual fans still enjoy full game
Learned a couple of interesting facts from Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s executive VP of media (and who some say could be the next commissioner):
■ If you’re like me, you watch the RedZone Channel on Sundays instead of the full broadcasts. It’s the best of all worlds — all of the action and none of the fluff or commercials of a typical broadcast. Everyone, it seems, watches RedZone now.
But the channel siphons away less viewership than I expected. Rolapp said that the NFL estimates about 1 million people watch RedZone each Sunday, compared with 10 million viewers watching the full network broadcasts at 1 p.m., and “much more” viewers in the 4 p.m. window. The hard-core fans watch RedZone, but the NFL’s casual fan base is its majority.
“When you meet people, they don’t really believe that, because it’s such a wonderful product and people who have it love it,” Rolapp said. “But the reality is it’s designed for the really, really ardent fans who enjoy it. Most people by far watch the full game on television, and that hasn’t changed much substantially over the last handful of years.”
Packers-Bears to kick it off
For the first time since the 2003 season, the defending Super Bowl champions won’t be hosting the regular-season kickoff game. Instead of opening the season in Foxborough, the NFL announced that the kickoff game will be Packers at Bears as part of the league’s season-long celebration of its 100th season.
Another case of the NFL sticking it to the Patriots? Not so, per Rolapp. He said the league instituted a rule last offseason that allows it to schedule any game it wants for the kickoff game. Basically, the TV executives felt boxed in by having the Super Bowl champion opening the season every year, and wanted more flexibility.
Family comes first
Greg Schiano surprisingly stepped down from the Patriots this past week, saying in a statement, “This is not the result of any one event, but rather a realization that I need to spend more time on my faith and family.”
Maybe there is more to it, but from everything I know about the coach, the decision really was about family. A league source has said that Schiano doesn’t want to move his family until his daughter, a high school sophomore in Columbus, Ohio, graduates. Schiano basically had an open invitation to join Bill Belichick’s staff for several years, and only took it now because he was let go from Ohio State in January.
Even though Schiano agreed to join the Patriots and was at the Combine last month, my hunch is he discovered pretty quickly that being a long-distance father wasn’t going to work. And it’s better for Schiano to acknowledge this now, five months before the Patriots’ first snap of the season, than to realize it in August.