The Rams-St. Louis police-Ferguson saga takes another turn, but bottom line: Players should be allowed to express themselves. Plus, answering questions about Mike Tomlin's job security, Jim Harbaugh rumors and playoff reseeding
Before I get to your email, a few words about the controversy of the day: Five St. Louis Rams coming out for Sunday’s game with their hands up. That seems to have become the universal symbol of those sympathizing with the Ferguson community and the protesters over Michael Brown’s death.
On Sunday night the St. Louis Police Officers Association issued a strongly worded statement objecting to the short demonstration and demanding an apology. On Monday, they said they got one. Small problem: The Rams said they never apologized. Late Monday night, Rams COO Kevin Demoff issued this reaction to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch regarding the St. Louis police statement: "At no time in any of the conversations did I apologize for the actions of our players." Demoff told me: "We believe it is possible to both support our players' right to free speech and support our local law enforcement. They shouldn't have to be mutually exclusive."
Here's where I land on this issue: Players are people. When they sign NFL contracts, it is stated nowhere that they have to give up the ability to voice their opinions or to act in sympathy with controversial causes. Too often players are silent when they see injustice or what they perceive to be injustice because it won’t be good for their brand or their team’s brand. Whatever you believe in this issue, whichever side you believe is right, it’s wrong to think that football players should not voice an opinion.
Now onto your emails.
PANIC IN PITTSBURGH. AGAIN. Is Mike Tomlin on the hot seat? If not, why not? It seems to me that he was handed a great team, and lived off the remnants of Bill Cowher's accomplishments for a long time, but has failed as a leader over the past 3-plus seasons. The AFC North is 11-2-1 against the NFC South this season with the only losses coming from the Steelers. When will the Rooneys and this once great franchise have enough?
—Rich, Tucson, Ariz.
I probably get three or four emails, minimum, every week about Tomlin and why his job should be in jeopardy. The thing about Steelers fans, for the most part, is that they are incredibly loyal. And it is difficult for them to see such a successful franchise struggle when it does. But one of the reasons why the Steelers have been so good over the years is because the Rooney family is patient to a fault with the coaching staff and front office. Most people think Dan Rooney waited two or three years too long to part ways with Chuck Noll. And I will never forget midway through Bill Cowher’s tenure how many Steelers fans wanted him gone. You might recall that in his seventh year in 1998, he went 7-9, followed by 6-10 in 1999. The Steelers, in a stunning show of support, chose to give Cowher a contract extension when there were cries to replace him. That’s just the way the Steelers are. And it has served them extremely well over the years. I know enough about this team and this organization and the players to know that Tomlin’s message is still being heard and I would be extremely surprised and a little disappointed if the Steelers decided to get rid of him. Which I absolutely do not expect.
SEED PLAYOFFS BY RECORD, PERIOD. I understand the talk about playoff reseeding, having watched New Orleans get the wrong end of the deal a few years ago in having to play a wild-card game at 7-9 Seattle. But everyone's commentary has focused on the injustice of a 6-10 team hosting an 11-5 team, but no one is talking about the closer cases. What if the division winner is 10-6 and the wild card team is 11-5, but plays in a clearly easier division? Does the 10-6 team still deserve to lose the home game? Perhaps the rule should say that only a team with a sub-.500 record gets re-seeded. It’s easy to say that it’s unfair it is for an 11-5 team to have to travel to a 6-10 team, but when one focuses on the nuts and bolts of how to implement playoff reseeding as a general rule, the difficulties involved explain why the owners are (and most fans should be) against the idea.
—Mark, New Orleans
I have been in favor for years of the playoffs in each conference being seeded by record. This is not a case of being shortsighted. It is a case of being consistent. But owners feel married to this concept because they believe that the reward for winning even a bad division should always be a home playoff game. I hope they will see the folly of their ways, and soon. But I’m not optimistic.
HARBAUGH TRADE. What about the trade rumors circulating regarding Jim Harbaugh and San Francisco. I've never heard of a coach being traded. Can you talk a bit about how that process works and how often that has happened in league history?
—Adam, Monrovia, Calif.
Usually it happens with a coach forcing his way out. The New York Jets traded Bill Belichick to New England in 2000. You may remember this. Belichick was the coach-in-waiting under Bill Parcells with the Jets in 1999. Parcells decided to quit; Belichick did not like club president Steve Gutman and the prospect of working for an owner he didn’t know. (Long-time Jets owner Leon Hess was in the process of selling the team.) Meanwhile, New England owner Robert Kraft had a thing for Belichick, so Kraft and Parcells worked out a deal: New England would send its first-round pick to the Jets in 2000 for Belichick, assuming he could be signed to a contract quickly. That’s what happened. I’d say the Patriots got the better of that deal.
As for Harbaugh, the book on him is he can be a difficult guy to get along with when you work with him. In my opinion, the 49ers eventually will regret letting him go. Carmen Policy, the former president of the 49ers, has told me how difficult it was to work with Bill Walsh back in the 80s. But he knew that the most important thing was winning, not necessarily front-office harmony. And so, with some difficulty, they made it work.
COPYCAT LEAGUE. I can appreciate how Marvin Lewis "lost his mind" and threw the challenge flag under two minutes, thereby forcing a timeout and getting the play reviewed. However, what do you think of the possibility that this will set a precedent for close plays that are not reviewed under two minutes? I'm worried some coaches will start doing this to get a review when they weren't going to get one in the first place. Coaches learn from each other on what works and start using it as soon as they can. Therefore, should there be some sort of other consequence for throwing a challenge flag under two minutes?
—John B., Fayetteville, N.C.
Remember: The reason Marvin Lewis did this in the first place is because he wasn’t sure that he could get the attention of referee Bill Leavy or one of his officials before the next snap was made. Your point is a valid one, but why wouldn’t the coach simply call a timeout instead of throwing a challenge flag? If he calls a timeout, the replay official upstairs is going to have an opportunity to see the play the same as he would have if the challenge flag had been thrown. So, I don’t really believe that this is precedent-setting.
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