The Fourth of July holiday is a time for joy and merriment for millions of Americans. But in the NFL, it’s a time for coaches and executives to hold their breath and pray that nothing bad happens.
Sadly, tragedy struck the NFL this year. Dolphins defensive tackle Kendrick Norton suffered multiple injuries, including the amputation of his left arm, in a car accident in South Florida early in the morning on July 4. As of Friday, he remained hospitalized, though his injuries are not considered life-threatening.
Norton was a seventh-round pick last year of the Panthers, and spent most of the 2018 season on Carolina’s practice squad. The Dolphins signed him to their active roster for two games at the end of the season, and Norton was expected to fight for a backup spot this year. Now his football career is likely over.
Offseason accidents are a sad but inevitable part of the NFL, particularly before offseason programs begin in April and during the six weeks between spring practices and training camp. In 2015, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and Buccaneers cornerback C.J. Wilson each lost fingers in Fourth of July fireworks accidents. In 2009, former Titans quarterback Steve McNair was killed on July 4 in an apparent murder-suicide.
Norton’s accident also brings to mind two other offseason tragedies. Patriots defensive end Marquise Hill drowned in a jet ski accident over Memorial Day weekend in 2007. And in March 2009, Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper was one of three people to drown in the Gulf of Mexico when their boat capsized.
Norton’s accident is part of a familiar refrain during the NFL offseason — all news is bad news. This past week was a slow one in the NFL world, but there were still several not-so-flattering headlines.
One was that the NFL investigator Lisa Friel, a former New York City sex crimes prosecutor, finally met with Tyreek Hill to question him about the incident involving his 3-year-old son ending up with a broken arm. Hill won’t be charged criminally, but now the NFL is investigating to determine if Hill violated the league’s personal conduct policy. While the Chiefs didn’t allow Hill to practice this offseason, and the NFL placed him on the commissioner’s exempt list, the Chiefs noticeably haven’t cut Hill yet. The Chiefs may be happy to let Roger Goodell suspend Hill for a certain amount of games (six is usually the baseline), then welcome him back in the fold for the stretch run.
Also this past week, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott once again was called into the league’s New York headquarters for his behavior, this time for a confrontation with a security guard at a Las Vegas music festival in May. Elliott was lucky to avoid a suspension this time, but Goodell basically put Elliott on double secret probation. Any other slip-up — the NFL first suspended Elliott six games in 2017 for allegedly groping a woman — will result in a major punishment.
And former Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent, who was found guilty of intoxicated manslaughter for a 2012 car accident that killed teammate Jerry Brown, is in legal trouble again. Brent, a Cowboys scout for the last four years, was arrested last weekend for public intoxication and resisting arrest. This arrest led to another arrest for violating the terms of his parole.
The NFL will generate plenty of positive headlines in the next few weeks when training camps get underway and the teams get back to football. But sadly, the Fourth of July holiday is often a time for tragedy and other bad news.
Hall of Fame is making news
The Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement is still a month away, but the Hall was in the news this past week for two reasons.
One, the organization announced that recently deceased Broncos owner Pat Bowlen will, in fact, be honored with a gold jacket and Hall of Fame ring at the August induction ceremony.
The decision is the right one, but goes against past Hall policy to not award gold jackets or rings to deceased Hall of Famers. The Hall stuck to its principles in recent years, refusing to award a jacket or ring to the family members of Junior Seau or Ken Stabler.
Hall of Fame spokesman Pete Fierle told Denver’s 9News that Bowlen’s case was different.
“Pat Bowlen is the first individual to pass away between the time he was elected and formally enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Fierle said. “The process was underway to create his Hall of Fame gold jacket and Hall of Fame ring of excellence. As previously planned prior to his death, the gold jacket and ring of excellence will be presented to the Pat Bowlen estate to be displayed in the front lobby of the UC Health Training Center [in Denver].”
But it’s hard not to be cynical and believe that the only reason the Hall found this loophole is because Bowlen was an owner. The Hall needs to do the right thing and award gold jackets and rings to the families of Seau, Stabler, and other deceased Hall of Famers.
“There’s no reason I should have my father’s ring and Bruce Allen does not have his [father, George Allen’s],” Raiders owner Mark Davis (son of Al Davis) said. “As a new member of the NFL owners Hall of Fame committee, I’ll continue to advocate for the families.”
The other news was the tentative announcement of what has been previously reported in this space — that the Hall of Fame will have a giant class for 2020 to help celebrate the league’s 100 years and help many contributors and old-timers get enshrinement.
The final plan will be voted upon Aug. 2, but the 2020 class will likely have its usual five modern-era candidates, plus three contributors (owners, general managers, scouts), two coaches, and 10 senior candidates.
“We have several guys who are on all-decade teams who aren’t in the Hall of Fame, so this is an opportunity with the centennial coming up,” Hall of Fame CEO David Baker said on SiriusXM.
Having three “contributor” slots next year, as opposed to one, should give Patriots owner Robert Kraft a good shot at earning enshrinement, as a source close to the process said Kraft is at the top of a short list of candidates (along with former Giants GM George Young and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue).
The more interesting and heated discussion should come with regard to the two coaching spots. The ballot will include several worthy candidates, including Jimmy Johnson, Mike Holmgren, Don Coryell, Dick Vermeil, Tom Flores, and Mike Shanahan. The vote here goes for Johnson and Coryell, but all are worthy.
Union may have bit more leverage
When the owners and NFL Players Association battled in 2011, the union’s lack of negotiating power was on full display.
The owners were hell-bent on fixing the rookie wage system and getting a larger slice of overall revenue, and didn’t care if it meant locking out the players or missing part of the preseason. The owners had the upper hand — billionaires can always outlast millionaires in a labor battle, and a majority of NFL players are more like hundred-thousandaires — and they knew it. The players folded quickly, signing an owner-friendly collective bargaining agreement in late July, even though there were still six weeks away from missing their first paycheck.
But there’s reason to think the NFLPA has a little bit more leverage this time. Most notably, the owners want labor peace to help them negotiate their next round of TV contracts, which expire in 2022.
While the CBA doesn’t expire until 2021, the owners are pushing the NFLPA to agree to a new deal as soon as before or during the 2019 season. The sides have met in each of the last three months, and have a three-day session planned for July 19-21.
The owners are hammering the theme that labor peace is good for both sides — that with 10 years of labor peace locked in, the NFL can negotiate for more money in the next round of TV contracts, which will trickle down and enrich the players.
But everything has a price, and if the owners want a deal so quickly, they will have to concede in other areas — whether it’s changing the formula for the franchise tag, or reducing the number of years in rookie contracts, or giving the players an additional percentage point or two of revenue, or reducing penalties for marijuana, or reducing Roger Goodell’s disciplinary powers.
The NFLPA also has some bargaining power over what the NFL calls “stadium credits,” in which the owners take money out of the revenue pile and use it for new stadiums or renovations. The owners have run out of their stadium credits in this current CBA, and reportedly are making them one of their big issues in the next CBA, to help with stadiums in Carolina, Washington, Jacksonville, and Buffalo.
Again, the NFLPA will surely be willing to help the owners get their stadium credits. But everything comes at a price.
Shutting out fans not a good look
Be careful, NFL owners. Remember Mark Cuban’s words: “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.”
The Raiders announced their training camp schedule this past week and became the latest team to shut out the average fan. While we’ll all get an up-close (and extremely sanitized) view of the Raiders on “Hard Knocks,” the team won’t open any of its Napa Valley practices to the general public, instead inviting only season ticket-holders and sponsors.
This is a troubling trend. The Eagles will have just one practice open to the general public, and getting in will cost $12. And the Jets are opening just four practices and a scrimmage to the public.
Free training camp practices are one of the best things going in the NFL — it allows fans, especially kids, who can’t afford to go to games to get an up-close view of their team. It generates good will and, as the Patriots have discovered, fans still spend plenty of money on hot dogs, waters, jerseys, and other paraphernalia.
Shutting out the average fan and giving private access to sponsors and luxury-box holders is not a good look for the league.
Veldheer listened to his body
The Patriots thought they had shored up their offensive line by signing nine-year veteran tackle Jared Veldheer to a one-year deal for between $3.5 million and $6.5 million. But Veldheer lasted just one, non-padded practice in May before telling Bill Belichick that his body couldn’t do it anymore.
“It was easy because of knowing what my body was telling me, but it was hard because I was leaving a very good situation being with the Patriots,” Veldheer recently told MLive.
While the Patriots have last year’s first-round pick, Isaiah Wynn, penciled in at left tackle, Veldheer seemed to think he had a good shot at winning the starting job. His contract included up to $3 million in play-time guarantees.
But one practice was enough to let Veldheer know it was time to move on from football.
“My hips, particularly my left one, was in pretty bad shape [after the season],” he said. “But I got some stem-cell therapy, some other treatments, and started to feel better and I thought the things I was doing were going to help.
“When March rolled around I thought I could give it a go, but once I went out there to do actual football stuff, the hip felt exactly how it did at the end of the season. There was just no way I was going to put my body through that. I couldn’t conceive even trying to make my body do that.”
The Patriots have an open spot on their 90-man roster, and probably need to add another veteran tackle to replace Veldheer.
Bengals have been snakebitten
The Bengals might want to consider trading next year’s first-round pick for a proven, veteran player. The team is snakebitten in the first round.
The Bengals went the safe route with the 11th overall pick, taking Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams. But Williams won’t suit up as a rookie — the team announced he is done for the season after recently undergoing surgery for a torn labrum suffered in a practice in early June.
The injury is a tough blow for first-year coach Zac Taylor, who now has to move Cordy Glenn back to left tackle and John Jerry to left guard. Williams’s injury is also a bit of a head-scratcher, as Williams didn’t have it at draft time, and offseason practices are non-contact and non-padded. Offensive linemen shouldn’t be tearing their labrums in this environment.
It continues an awful trend for Bengals first-round picks. In 2018, center Billy Price missed six games with a foot injury. In 2017, receiver John Ross played in just three games and didn’t have a catch because of various injuries. In 2016, cornerback William Jackson missed the season with a torn pectoral. And in 2015, offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi missed 11 games as he returned from a torn ACL.
A handful of noteworthy veterans remain available, particularly on offense. At quarterback, teams in search of a veteran backup could take a look at Sam Bradford, Brock Osweiler, Geno Smith, and Matt Cassel. At running back, Jay Ajayi, Darren Sproles, LeGarrette Blount, and Alex Collins (who was released in March following an arrest) are available. Several veteran receivers are on the market, including Michael Crabtree, Dez Bryant (coming off a torn Achilles’), Pierre Garcon, Kelvin Benjamin, and Mike Wallace. And among the offensive tackles available are four intriguing veteran options for the Patriots to consider: Jermey Parnell, Donald Penn, Jermon Bushrod, and Andre Smith . . . Interesting comments this past week from Michael Lombardi about Nick Caserio and the Texans’ GM job on the “Pro Football Doc” podcast: “At the end of the day, Nick obviously knew he had that clause in his contract, he knew he had another year, but he wanted to leave. And I think that that will end up still being the case. The Texans aren’t hiring anybody. They want Nick.” Lombardi is one of Bill Belichick’s confidants and spent the 2014-15 seasons with the Patriots, so he knows the dynamic with Caserio as well as anyone . . . Time for the folks at EA Sports to reconsider their player rating system for “Madden NFL.” They gave Giants rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, the No. 6 overall pick, a 63 rating — lower than second-round pick Drew Lock, lower than third-round pick Will Grier, lower than seven of the other eight rookies on the Giants (including a fifth-round pick), and, absurdly, lower than undrafted rookie quarterback Tyree Jackson. I realize that not everyone is a Jones fan, but he still would have been a first-round pick had the Giants not taken him.