The #RemakeRoger campaign is in full swing.
No one at 345 Park Avenue will come out and say it, but that’s exactly what’s happening as part of the NFL’s $100 million “Play Smart, Play Safe” player-safety initiative. Whether it ends up making a difference for the NFL’s embattled commissioner Roger Goodell remains to be seen.
There is no doubt that part of the effort is what it claims: a campaign to improve player safety at all levels of football, from youth leagues to the NFL. The NFL really had no choice. Too much information out there says that football is dangerous, and more and more parents are opting to keep their children out all together—or taking the flag-football route. If the NFL is going to continue to rule the roost among professional leagues, it needs to do everything it can to make the game safer now and going forward. So allocating $60 million to equipment research, and another $40 million to the medical fields is not only prudent, but it’s smart business. The NFL had to be proactive in this area to keep its lifeline—players—intact. Perhaps it will make a difference.
But there’s another side to this campaign as well: the restoration of Goodell’s reputation and rebuilding what will be his legacy.
There’s little doubt that among hardcore football fans and players that Goodell’s approval ratings are at all-time lows. The constant stumbling and bumbling by Goodell and the NFL office in recent years (CTE, bounty scandal, Ray Rice, domestic violence and deflategate) has eroded any confidence that passionate fans and its players have in Goodell.
But he’s not going anywhere. He’s been too good at increasing profits, the most important part of his job according to his 32 bosses, and they love having him around. What a coincidence that in the same week that Goodell has emerged publicly to tout his player-safety program, Forbes unveiled its annual list of team valuations. Even though those numbers represent a somewhat educated guess at the bottom line for each team, people will run with the headline that teams values rose an average of 19% in the past year to $2.34 billion. That’s very good for Goodell. And with the courts backing his vast power thanks to the Tom Brady case, Goodell has never been a stronger commissioner.
But Goodell is extremely unpopular, and for good reason. His standing is not going to change much among core NFL fans (especially in New England) and players, but it can be improved among casual fans, and those are the most important to the bottom line. Fans that love the NFL are never going to go away, no matter what they say, and it’s people outside that circle that push ratings to new heights and purchase merchandise and other products that push the coffers for the owners.
That’s where Team Goodell—which includes league public relations wonks Joe Lockhart, Greg Aiello, Brian McCarthy and some outside consultants—is aiming to #RemakeRoger. Let’s break it down.
Step 1: Get Goodell out of the public eye. Every time he opened his mouth it seemed like Goodell was saying something that made him look badly. A lightning rod for criticism, the commissioner came off too stiff and cold to help himself, so the smart move was to take him off the stage.
Step 2: This player-safety initiative. After entering office as the discipline commissioner and having that blow up in his face, it’s now time to #RemakeRoger as the player-safety commissioner. It’s the greatest danger to the gravy train. If Goodell can become the player-safety commissioner and save football for the long term, he can leave office in 10–20 years, impressively leaving that behind as his legacy.
Step 3: His media blitz. It started with an interview with (football lightweight) Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today Show. The NFL simultaneously published Goodell’s letter touting the player-safety initiatives in the Wall Street Journal. It continued with an interview with the Washington Post. Those outlets weren’t picked at random. On the Today Show, Goodell can appeal to stay-at-home moms and other important casual fans, putting their minds at ease. The WSJ takes direct aim at Madison Avenue and advertisers, and important corporate partners. And the Washington Post is read at all levels of government, including Congress, which pushed Goodell and the NFL towards player-safety in 2009.
Step 4: Following through on the initiatives. He needs to improve game safety—eliminating the kickoff is a real possibility—and continue to soften his public relations image by honing his message and doing targeted appearances.
The hope is that this is a successful plan to #RemakeRoger and turn the tide on what has been a turbulent last five years in office. What you saw and heard today is part of that effort. It remains to be seen if it will be successful.
Slow your roll
Wait on the Raiders: Oakland’s 35–34 win over the Saints was thrilling and coach Jack Del Rio’s decision to go for the win was tremendous theater. The Raiders should be a legitimate playoff contender, but nobody should go wild after the win over the Saints, and what should be a 3-0 start after games against the Titans and Falcons. All three of teams will struggle to challenge .500, and winning at New Orleans is no longer the feather in the cap it used to be: the Saints are now 7-10 the past two-plus seasons in the Superdome. Oakland can achieve contender status when it faces Baltimore, San Diego and Kansas City during Weeks 4-6.
Lay off Norman: There’s been a lot of chatter (including from Giants players) about how Redskins CB Josh Norman didn’t matchup against Steelers WR Antonio Brown on Monday night, like somehow Norman was afraid of Brown. Norman serves at the pleasure of his defensive coordinator, Joe Barry, who hasn’t exactly been known as a creative thinker during his coaching career. Plus, if you’re going to travel Norman (or any other corner) with a receiver, that usually means that everyone on defense has to play man-to-man (and that’s not even taking into account how the Steelers do so many different things with Brown). Considering the Redskins have two new safeties (David Bruton, DeAngelo Hall) and are weak at corner behind Norman and Bashaud Breeland with Dashaun Phillips and Greg Toler, maybe having Norman travel with Brown wasn’t the best idea in the first game of the season.
Go crazy, folks
Head drama: Some of the head shots we’ve seen during the first week (Cam Newton, for four) are vicious and fines are going to do nothing to alleviate the problem. If the NFL is ever going to get serious about helmet-to-helmet blows, it needs to adopt the college system on targeting: replay officials can stop the game and enforce a targeting foul (even ejection) where an egregious action occurred and was missed by on-field officials. You want players to get serious about changing their strike zones? Start tossing them from games.
Fisher’s tenure: Despite the Rams’ embarrassing 28–0 loss to the 49ers in the opener, the word out of Los Angeles is that coach Jeff Fisher is still in line for a contract extension, if you can believe it. Fisher hasn’t won a playoff game since 2003 and been just twice in those 13 years.
Ten thoughts on Week 2
1. When teams have the entire offseason to dissect opponents, sometimes those studies can result in weak spots being found in schemes, and the Patriots might have exposed one in the Cardinals. New England constantly tried to get advantageous matchups in the slot against linebacker Deone Bucannon and cornerback Tyvon Branch, mostly out of 3x1 alignments (three receivers to one side, one to the other). They’d run clear-out routes up the field on the outside, and then run the inside slot out toward the sideline and it was easy money. The Cardinals’ defense is stronger up the middle against the pass, and the Patriots countered that by staying away from the middle and beating them with speed to the outside. That approach also makes the reads much more defined for a young quarterback by Garoppolo.
2. Speaking of the Cardinals, not sure if it was by design or injury, but star cornerback Patrick Peterson was seldom if ever in press coverage against the Patriots, even in man schemes. That’s odd. The entire Cardinals defensive scheme was very conservative. You’d think they were playing a fully stocked Patriots offense instead of the B team, which beat them anyway.
3. If the Dolphins are to upset the Patriots on Sunday, they’re going to need better coverage than the Cardinals. Jimmy Garoppolo got rid of his passes in an average of 2.34 seconds for the game, and he was even quicker on his first 26 passes (2.02). That was enabled by the Cardinals’ soft coverage. To take advantage of the inexperience of Garoppolo and the offensive line, the Dolphins must mix in more press man. With they do that? Tough to tell because first-year defensive coordinator Vance Joseph doesn’t have much of a track record. Also, Miami’s cornerbacks may be the weakest part of their team. The Dolphins shouldn’t expect the Patriots to use the same gameplan as the 2015 season finale, which Miami won 20-10. New England ran (17 times) or threw to running backs (twice) on the first 19 plays. In the past, Bill Belichick has been known to tell his staff not to throw until a benchmark is passed to teach an unknown lesson.
4. The Giants’ defense featured probably one of the most impressive debuts as a unit against the Cowboys. New additions Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison meshed extremely well with holdovers Johnathan Hankins and Jason Pierre-Paul, and the unit was physical and swarming; it felt like defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo never left. The Saints will be a much stiffer test, however.
5. Despite Cam Newton taking three questionable head shots during the Thursday night opener, there was no added emphasis on quarterback protection to league officiating crews in advance of the Sunday and Monday games, according to sources.
6. The Texans lost Brian Cushing to injury early against the Bears, but you wouldn’t have noticed thanks to the job done by Max Bullough, who was outstanding against the run and the pass. It appears the Texans have shifted Jadeveon Clowney from outside linebacker to end permanently (that’s where he played most of the time against Chicago) in an effort to get John Simon, who showed great playmaking ability thanks to his speed, in the preseason. Houston’s other outside linebacker, Whitney Mercilus, continued his string of outstanding play that goes back to the middle of last season.
7. The Vikings paid a steep price to acquire quarterback Sam Bradford, so reports that he’s getting the first-team reps in preparation for the Packers is not surprising in one respect. But considering the vast experience Shaun Hill has against Green Bay and the scheme of coordinator Dom Capers from Hill’s time with the Lions, the Vikings could have waited a week. Hill is 2-3 vs. Green Bay in his career.
8. The matchup of the week is the bad-blood feud in the AFC North: Bengals at Steelers. The last time we saw these two teams face off was in the wild-card round when Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict knocked Antonio Brown from the game with a headshot, and then Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter came on the field and said something that set Bengals CB Adam Jones off. He threw a punch and the flag resulted in an easy field goal for the Steelers to advance to the next round. A more pressing concern this time around is how the Steelers’ patchwork secondary slows down Bengals WR A.J. Green.
9. With first-round pick Germain Ifedi likely to miss his second-straight game, J’Marcus Webb will likely start against vs. the Rams and matchup against standout Rams DT Aaron Donald. That could be very bad news for Seattle. Donald is just six feet tall and taller offensive linemen have trouble getting down low enough to get leverage on him. Webb, at 6' 7", is among the tallest linemen in the NFL.
10. Get your popcorn matchup of the week: One of the best player-on-player matchups this weekend should be Jets WRs Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, against Bills CBs Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby. Both sets of players are among the best at their positions and they should be seeing a lot of one-on-one coverage against each other. And, of course, you have Bills coach Rex Ryan going against the team that fired him. That always adds to the matchup