The NFL had a pretty good year in 2018. Exciting new stars emerged such as Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff. Scoring and offense went through the roof. TV ratings went up, there were no fights with the president, and the league didn’t mess up with concussions or domestic violence or other issues it usually trips over.
The NFL was hoping to ride this positive wave into this season. It developed an NFL100 marketing campaign in honor of the league’s 100th season, and hoped to celebrate everything America loves about football — the history, culture, and excitement of the game that have made pro football America’s new favorite pastime.
Instead, the start of the 2019 season has been a nightmare.
The Patriots are still dominating, Mahomes is still lighting up scoreboards, and Lamar Jackson looks like he could be the league’s newest breakout star. But those story lines are being drowned by a deluge of negative publicity that is reflecting poorly on everyone — the sport, the teams, and the players.
Off the field, the NFL is taking a beating. The predominant story of the last two weeks has been one of the league’s star players, Antonio Brown, facing rape and sexual assault allegations in a civil lawsuit in Florida. Nike said it dropped Brown, and the Patriots finally released him on Friday.
And the 2019 season has been defined so far by players complaining their way off their teams. Brown and Le’Veon Bell did it last year with the Steelers. Brown did it again this summer, making himself a nuisance for the Raiders. Jadeveon Clowney got himself traded to the Seahawks (though it was mostly a contractual dispute). The Dolphins held a mini-revolt after the team traded Laremy Tunsil right before the season. Minkah Fitzpatrick complained the loudest and earned a trade to Pittsburgh this past week. Jalen Ramsey is trying to get himself traded out of Jacksonville.
It’s one thing to have this type of player movement in the offseason, which helps generate publicity for the league during slow times. But having these trade demands and public squabbles during the season detracts from the on-field product.
And this year’s on-field product hasn’t been compelling enough to overshadow the off-field stuff. The two prevailing stories are overwhelmingly negative — quarterback injuries and tanking. And both have led to a rash of noncompetitive games.
Quarterbacks are being protected by safety rules like never before, yet there has been a flood of injuries and unexpected quarterback movement through the first two weeks.
Andrew Luck jump-started the bad news in August with his surprise retirement, once again putting a spotlight on the physical toll that football can put on a body and mind. Then the Jaguars had the excitement of their season sucked out in the first quarter of the first game when Nick Foles broke his collarbone, sidelining him indefinitely.
Two of the game’s biggest stars were put on the shelf last week — Ben Roethlisberger for the season with an elbow injury, Drew Brees for about six weeks with an injured thumb ligament. That takes the Steelers, one of the league’s iconic franchises, out of circulation this year.
The Jets lost their quarterback for a few weeks because of a case of mononucleosis. And Cam Newton, another player who should just be entering his prime, will miss this week’s game at Arizona after looking like a broken, old man the last two weeks, with shoulder and ankle injuries. Newton looks like someone who needs to take a long time off to get his body right.
Actual starting quarterbacks this week: Kyle Allen, Luke Falk, Gardner Minshew, and Mason Rudolph, along with Teddy Bridgewater. All five are, or in Minshew’s case were, underdogs.
The NFL has a competitiveness problem. For the first time ever, this week’s games will have two teams favored by more than 20 points (Patriots 21 points over the Jets, Cowboys 22 points over the Dolphins). The Jets were feckless on offense last Monday night against the Browns. We’ll see how the other backups do this weekend.
And we haven’t even gotten to the NFL’s biggest joke in years, the Dolphins, who are tanking like no football team before. The Dolphins have lost their first two games by a combined score of 102-10, are trading all of their young players, and are not even pretending to be competitive. The Dolphins are already promoting a big celebration at next April’s draft in Las Vegas, with exclusive perks for season ticket-holders. The games this fall are just the filler.
The Dolphins’ strategy makes sense for the organization. They have three first-round picks next year and are in a prime position to land a top quarterback they so desperately need.
But their games so far are a sham. The competition isn’t authentic. And that’s a major problem from the league’s perspective, which has been able to charge billions for rights fees because the games are supposed to the best reality show on television (the whole “any given Sunday” thing). Fewer fans will tune in if they know every Dolphins game will be a blowout.
But if the Dolphins continue to get blown out each Sunday, the NFL may have to consider instituting an NBA-style draft lottery to disincentivize tanking.
And if none of these backup quarterbacks can keep their teams afloat, the NFL will have to take some drastic measures to improve quarterback play. Whether it’s giving quarterbacks extra practice time with the coaching staff in the spring, or expanding rosters to allow for more quarterbacks (most teams only keep two now), the NFL needs to figure out how to develop more quality players at the position.
And the NFL badly needs to get everyone’s attention back on the games and the product on the field.
Not the Patriots we’re used to
The Patriots really are abandoning their principles this season. It’s hard to believe what they’re doing with their roster.
No, I’m not talking about Antonio Brown. The Patriots are going against all of their old beliefs when it comes to salary-cap management:
■ They enter Sunday’s game with approximately $1.26 million in cap space after accounting for Brown’s signing and release, and offensive lineman Caleb Benenoch. The Patriots of the past would always have at least $4 million-$5 million in cap reserves to make moves during the season.
■ Everyone knows the cap is easy to manipulate. But adding a high-caliber player — say, left tackle Trent Williams ($9.25 million left in salary this year) or tight end Rob Gronkowski ($7.41 million) — has become a lot more complicated with the Patriots being so tight against the cap.
First, the Patriots would have to restructure some of their current deals. And there aren’t many options left — Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Stephon Gilmore, and several others already have restructured this year.
The three candidates are Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, and Dont’a Hightower. McCourty ($9 million salary) and Van Noy ($4.25 million) are in their contract years, and the Patriots could create several million dollars in cap space with an extension and signing bonus in lieu of base salary. Hightower has two years left, and the Patriots could create cap space by turning some of his $7 million salary into signing bonus.
The Patriots’ current cap space won’t preclude them from adding players throughout the season, but it makes it significantly more complicated, and potentially not worth it.
■ The Patriots’ moves this season also remind me of a 2013 Robert Kraft quote to Peter King: “Look at our track record. We don’t do fake deals.” The Patriots have now become the king of the fake deal. It’s a tactic that has become more common to help spread cap hits across multiple years, and the Patriots are fully on board.
Brady’s new contract in August came with a pay raise this year, and two dummy years that automatically void. Darrelle Revis in 2014 and Brown each came for one year, but agreed to a second, option year that the team knew it was going to decline.
Now that Brown has been released, the Patriots still have to take a $5.75 million cap hit this year, plus $4.75 million in 2020. But assuming the Patriots are withholding all of the payments, they may be able to get close to a full $10.5 million credit next year. If the Patriots win a potential grievance against Brown, or if Brown decides not to file one, the Patriots would get the credit on the 2020 cap. But until the matter is settled, the Patriots have to carry Brown’s $5.75 million this year.
If (when) Brady’s contract voids in March, he will account for $13.5 million dead money on next year’s cap. And Brown could cost $4.75 million. That’s more than $18 million for two players, which would be unheard of for the old Patriots. By comparison, this year’s Patriots have $10 million in dead money from 13 players.
■ The dead money hits are softened by the fact that the salary cap increases by about $10 million each year. It certainly is much easier today than it used to be for teams to “kick the can down the road” with their contracts because the cap keeps increasing by so much.
The Patriots will also get cap credits of $1.51 million for Brian Hoyer and $1.406 million for Demaryius Thomas next year. And maybe Kraft knows something about new TV deals coming, which could add even more cap money to the pool.
Murray, Allen on opposite sides
One person who will probably be intrigued by Sunday’s Cardinals-Panthers game is University of Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin.
Sumlin was the coach at Texas A&M when his quarterback room included Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen. Both eventually transferred, contributing to Sumlin’s downfall. Murray and Allen will reunite on Sunday as opposing starting quarterbacks — Murray as the face of the Cardinals, and Allen as a former undrafted rookie filling in for an injured Cam Newton.
“Seeing his career and seeing my career — totally different paths, you know what I mean?” Allen said this past week via the Panthers’ website.
Sumlin went back and forth between Murray and Allen in the 2015 season, never settling on one. And both decided to transfer after the season — Allen landed at Houston and Murray at Oklahoma.
“It was an interesting year for both of us,” Allen said. “When we split ways, we both had some time off and grew from it a lot.”
Allen has several other unique ties to Sunday’s game, his first NFL start. It will come in front of his hometown friends and family, as he is a Scottsdale, Ariz., native. And he’ll be playing against his childhood best friend, Cardinals receiver Christian Kirk, also a Scottsdale native who went to Texas A&M. Allen also got recruited in high school by current Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury.
“He probably threw all our letters away and red-buttoned me every time I called him,” Kingsbury said.
Teams being held accountable
The NFL told teams right before training camp that offensive holding would be a point of emphasis this season. And the league wasn’t kidding.
Offensive holding penalties are up a whopping 67 percent through two weeks, according to data from NFLPenalties.com There were 107 calls through two weeks last year (including offsetting and declined penalties), and there were 179 calls through the first two weeks this year (plus another 10 offensive in Thursday night’s Jaguars-Titans game).
Last year, the NFL had 903 holding penalties. This year’s pace: 1,522.
The NFL will surely have officials cut back on holding penalties as the season progresses, as often happens when the league puts a “point of emphasis” on a rule. But games are now seeing an average of two additional holding calls, and it is hurting the flow and entertainment value of the sport.
Riding on the high road
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan took a page out of Bill Belichick’s book as his team opened the season with games at Tampa Bay and Cincinnati. Instead of flying cross-country four times, Shanahan kept the Niners in the Eastern time zone after their Week 1 game, bringing them to Youngstown, Ohio (hometown of 49ers owner Jed York) to practice for the week.
Belichick often does the same when the Patriots have long back-to-back road trips. In 2017, the Patriots stayed in Colorado Springs between games at Denver and Mexico City.
The tactic certainly worked for the 49ers, who shellacked the Bengals, 41-17. It worked so well that the Niners will likely stay in Youngstown again in December, between games at Baltimore and New Orleans.
“I definitely felt like we felt different when we woke up Sunday. We felt like East Coasters, and we were for 10 days,” Shanahan said.
The NFL a few years ago introduced the concept of “cross-flexing” games between networks to ensure that some of the most compelling games are played in the top time slots. This tactic has usually been reserved for late-season games, but the NFL is getting started early this season. CBS’s top announcing team of Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, and Tracy Wolfson will be calling two NFC games in a row, that traditionally would be on Fox — Saints-Seahawks this week and Bears-Vikings next week. The NFL’s TV ratings have become a big story line the past few years, and the league is making sure that the 4:25 p.m. window has a popular game. Coincidentally, the NFL should have just put Sunday’s Chiefs-Ravens game at 4:25 on CBS . . . The decision by Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert to trade a first-round pick for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick seemed a bit dubious in light of the season-ending injury to Ben Roethlisberger — especially since that could be a top-10 or top-five pick if the Steelers tank without Big Ben. But Colbert is also playing out the final year of his contract, and if he does get an extension, it won’t come until after this year. I get the sense that Colbert was willing to roll the dice on this trade, because if it doesn’t work out this year, Colbert might not be the Steelers’ GM come draft time . . . The Colts are sticking with Adam Vinatieri for now, even after he has missed five of his eight kicks this season (including three extra points). “Adam will figure it out,” coach Frank Reich said. “It’s far from catastrophic.” But the Colts brought six kickers in for workouts on Tuesday, just in case.