No. 99: Rachel Nichols
The NFL has compartmentalized the offseason calendar rather neatly. February: Scouting Combine. March: Free Agency. April: Draft (and Draft Hype). May through mid-June: Draft (early), Minicamps/OTAs (later).
And from (mid-June to mid-July): the Dead Month.
There’s just not much going on in the month before training camps begin. This year at The MMQB, we bounced some ideas for something new, something different for the first few weeks of summer. One of our ace editors, Gary Gramling, came up with an idea: How about The MMQB 100… the 100 most influential people in the NFL, those who will shape the 2015 season? We liked it. Liked it a lot. We liked it so much that when the staff got together for 24 hours in New York to meet and greet sponsors, we strayed off-topic and spent a good chunk of our time arguing who should top The MMQB 100. Wouldn’t Roger Goodell always be No. 1 on such a list, being the commissioner? Executive editor Mark Mravic argued that it’s the players and coaches who decide the games, one of them would have to top the list. Robert Klemko surveyed his tweeps. Things started to get out of hand. And that’s how this The MMQB 100 was birthed.
I like it a lot. Yes, in part it’s a meant to fill the Dead Month. But our staff knows the ins and outs of the league well enough to do this list justice. Every year it’s going to be current; people who wouldn’t normally be on it—or maybe not be on it in another year—will be because of their importance to this season alone.
You wouldn’t normally have a line judge on the list, but Sarah Thomas is on it. She’s the first permanent female official in the 96-year history of the league.
You wouldn’t normally have the GM of the worst team in the league on the list, but here’s Jason Licht of the Bucs… because he’s risking his franchise’s future on a quarterback with promise, but a quarterback with a pockmarked background.
You wouldn’t normally have a college football coach on the list, but Jim Harbaugh made it. Because every time Maize and Blue wins and Jim Tomsula loses, Niner Nation will sweat bullets.
As we unveil the list between now and July 17, we’ll unveil spots for a U.K. native named Nigel, a retired linebacker, and a back-up quarterback and a Super Bowl contender’s fifth receiver… that last one’s going to be our little surprise.
And you wouldn’t normally have a CNN anchor on the list. But that’s where the 2015 edition of The MMQB 100 begins…
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At the NFL draft in Chicago April 30, commissioner Roger Goodell strode to the stage of a venerable old auditorium on Michigan Avenue.
The crowd was so vociferous it was startling. Two men a few rows from the stage stood on their seats and cupped their hands around their mouths to, presumably, boo louder.
Lots of commissioners get booed. They’re the big, bad control freaks. Bowie Kuhn was reviled in baseball, Bud Selig slightly less so. Gary Bettman is routinely booed at Stanley Cup games. Paul Tagliabue walking to the podium to announce first-round draft picks in New York… maybe 70-30 boos.
But this? Booing like Alex Rodriguez walking to the plate at Fenway Park. Or like LeBron James stepping onto the court in Miami this season. Or like Ben Roethlisberger jogging out of the tunnel in Baltimore.
The booing of Goodell in Chicago was a sign. Not a sign that his job is in jeopardy, because it almost certainly isn’t. There are no more than two or three owners today who are on the fence about Goodell’s ability to lead the NFL forward into a second decade (2015 is his 10th season as commissioner). Twenty-four owners voting Goodell out of office would be needed to end his tenure. But understand one thing about the football business. No owner likes to see the leader of the league booed like that. One owner who likes Goodell a lot was watching the telecast that night and said, “That’s embarrassing for our league. Totally embarrassing.”
It was a sign that the hatred for Goodell in many quarters is not going away. Should the NFL be concerned?
Those who work in the NFL close to Goodell are concerned; I can tell you that, because I have talked to several of them. But I don’t think the league is close to doing anything about it. They seem inclined to soldier on in 2015, believing that those who hate Goodell will continue to hate him regardless of any PR efforts the league makes.
In this list of 100 most influential people in the NFL in 2015, the editors and writers at The MMQB have taken many things into account. In some cases, we've made some people on the list metaphors for what they stand for. And in this rendering of numbers 91 through 100, we have put one of Goodell’s pointed questioners in the media, Rachel Nichols of CNN, at No. 99. We could have put Goodell archenemy Bill Simmons on the list too. (In fact, it well could have been Simmons tweeting instructions to his 4 million followers to boo Goodell lustily the night of the draft that contributed to the venomous atmosphere in Chicago.) Simmons is immensely popular, and he is influential to a huge number of fans—young and old, establishment and counter-culture.
Nichols is different. She has covered the league up-close for two decades, most notably for ESPN, and she has dealt with Goodell often since he became commissioner. It’s one thing for a new-media columnist such as Simmons—or many other columnists and analysts who have piled on Goodell in the wake of the league’s domestic-violence mistakes and other missteps—to rip into the NFL and its commissioner. It’s another for a veteran reporter to stand up and say, “There’s some indifference and inattention here that just isn’t right.”
In talking to Nichols, one thing she makes clear is that she likes Goodell and understands the difficulties he has in his job. But since 11 months ago, when Goodell made the decision to suspend Ray Rice for only two games after knocking his fiancée unconscious in a casino elevator, she has been pointed in her criticism and questioning of the league on domestic violence, and on other issues as well. And the image of the league, and of Goodell, has remained awful in many public venues.
It didn’t improve at the commissioner’s annual Super Bowl press conference in January. Goodell had made a few right moves at that point—admitting his mistake in the short sanction of Rice, adopting a tougher domestic violence policy, sitting Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy for the year after embarrassing family-violence issues. But they looked like so much window dressing when he practically sneered at Nichols for asking a reasonable question in front of a national TV audience about a possible conflict of interest in the investigation into Patriots’ deflated footballs at the AFC title game.
“When you do something like hire an outside investigator like Ted Wells into the Patriots investigation, you’re still paying him, and Robert Kraft who owns the Patriots is paying you,” Nichols said. “What steps can you guys take in the future to mitigate some of those conflict-of-interest issues?”
You can argue about the question itself; Goodell was within his rights, most thought, in having a lawyer with investigative experience look into the Patriots’ case, and if the league was going to have a team look into the case, of course they were going to have to pay the team. But the principle of the question was justifiable: Why didn’t you get an outside counsel with no ties whatever to the NFL, instead of one that previously worked for the league in the Dolphins’ investigation last year, to look into the case?
Goodell’s answer seemed to belittle Nichols: “Well, Rachel, I don’t agree with you in a lot of the assumptions you make in your question. I think we have had people who have had uncompromising integrity. I think we have done an excellent job of bringing outside consultants in. Somebody has to pay [the investigators], Rachel. So unless you’re volunteering, which I don’t think you are, we will do that.”
America wasn’t inclined to like Goodell before the press conference. That response made things worse. At a time when the league needed to show its compassionate and understanding side, particularly to women, Goodell chose snark. As Nichols traveled around the country on her sports beat over the last few months, she got tremendous support from fans and viewers. “What's been notable,” Nichols told me, “more than any one exchange has been that it's such a wide range of people who have said something to me: the guy next to me on the plane to Atlanta, the gas station guy in Boston, a mom at the toddler story-time hour at the public library. And what's struck me from those conversations is just how deep the lifelong relationships are that people form with their [favorite NFL] teams, and how badly they want in return is to just be heard and have their concerns taken seriously.”
And, Nichols said, as the NFL has grown, so has the expectations that the league will be a barometer for public morality. That may be totally unfair, asking a commissioner to do what people in pulpits are supposed to do. But it’s reality.
“The NFL has become our national sport,” said Nichols. “That's not an accident. The league has worked very hard over the years to weave itself into the fabric of American life. But when you take on that position, that public trust, we're all going to hold you to a higher standard. That's what's behind the questions I've been asking, and why I think those questions have resonated with so many football fans. Bottom line: If you want the poster on the bedroom wall of every kid in this country to be an NFL poster, you need to be a league worthy of that. And that process may sometimes be uncomfortable, but ultimately, it's a good and important one."
You don’t hear Nichols ripping Goodell on CNN. She just wants him to answer questions in a civil way, and, more than that, she wants him to respond to the fans of the NFL in a civil and compassionate way. It’s a laudable goal, one the NFL should hear.
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Originally, we were going to put NFL executive vice president Paul Hicks on this list. His office on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan is just steps away from Goodell’s, and you can see the graying, sharply dressed Hicks, a former University of Virginia lacrosse player and Washington lobbyist, in the background at many of Goodell’s photo ops. Hicks travels to most events with Goodell, and advises him frankly on how to make hot situations much less hot. Others in the Goodell advisory stable also could be here—including vice president of social responsibility Anna Isaacson, senior vice president of communications Greg Aiello, vice president of communications Brian McCarthy and special assistant to the commissioner and veteran NFL PR man Pete Abitante.
But we chose not to because as one person close to Goodell told me: “Roger crafts his own image.”
To that point: It was Goodell who chose to not do the customary Super Bowl interview with NBC’s Bob Costas last January, though it was a natural for the Super Bowl pregame show. President Obama did an interview for the pregame and the NFL commissioner didn’t? Strange. But Goodell obviously figured he had nothing to gain, and the league, more importantly, had nothing to gain by rehashing the same Rice and Hardy and Peterson issues that has dogged the NFL all season. And it was Goodell, in the spring, who chose to do an interview about his late mother with writer Suzanne Pollack—even agreeing to Pollack’s second request to a special AOL live-stream interview in front of a Manhattan audience about his mom.
The NFL is tight-lipped about Goodell and his image, but it’s clear the league has accepted Goodell’s mode of addressing the negative reaction to him and his policies. Just keep putting one foot ahead of the other. Just keep on keepin’ on. Make the right decisions. Commissioners aren’t supposed to win popularity contests. Of course the fans of the teams you rule against aren’t going to like you.
“The issues and decisions create the image for him and the league,’’ Aiello said last week. “Our challenge is to get people to better understand in nearly 10 years on the job how good he has been for the game and why people who know him well respect him so much. He has driven so many positive changes for the game and league.”
Recently, Goodell was asked by one of the league domestic violence advisers, Jane Randel, what has been the most difficult moment of the last year or so. “I think it's hard to get to any particular moment,” he said. “When we were in the thrusts of all the issues last year, it was getting back to a focus on doing the right thing. This wasn't a PR issue. This was a challenge to have the right policy in place, the right decisions, the right people at the table… We made changes to our policy. Then more controversy followed that. We had to make sure we dealt with that, but the core was that we were doing the right thing. Ultimately that's what counts. I don't think you solve this by better PR or people. You solve it by doing the right thing.”
True. But doing it in a kindler and gentler way would help the man not get booed out of every stadium he enters this fall. And it would help his 32 bosses not cringe when the big boss shows up in the public eye.
100. Justin Houston, Linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs
Every year, there are a number of notable contract disputes working themselves out during training camp. This season, one of the most interesting ones will be in Kansas City, where Justin Houston, coming off a league-leading 22 sacks, currently sits in franchise tag purgatory. The Chiefs drafted pass rusher Dee Ford in the first round last year not to eventually replace Houston, but rather the 31-year-old Tamba Hali. If they want to make Ford part of an explosive edge-rushing tandem, they’ll first have to make Houston the highest-paid pass rusher in the game. Houston isn’t quite at this level, but given his stats and the rising salary cap, that’s where his agent should be aiming. Not only has Houston improved precipitously throughout his career—10 sacks in 2012, 11 in ’13, 22 in ’14 —he has also become a superb run defender, capable of setting the edge or chasing in space. Without Houston, this Chiefs defense is average. With him, it’s playoff-caliber.
—Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit)
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99. Rachel Nichols, Journalist, CNN
One of the most respected reporters in the industry, she has been a thorn in the commissioner’s side over the past year. She has good reason to be. FULL STORY
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98. Blake Bortles, Quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars
As far as young quarterbacks go, it’s an age of instant gratification. Since the NFL expanded to 32 teams and the eight-division alignment in 2002, nine rookie quarterbacks have gone to the playoffs in Year One. When the Jaguars selected Blake Bortles with the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft they knew he was a different breed, a raw talent with the emphasis on raw. Despite his physical gifts, Bortles’ mechanics were so out-of-whack that the Jaguars were leaning toward a redshirt year. He ended up debuting last September, compiling a few brilliant moments but typically looking overwhelmed over the course of a three-win season. The Jaguars have spent two seasons loading up on passing-game weapons, spending big on walking mismatch Julius Thomas and burning top-75 picks on Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee in the ’14 draft. Bortles doesn’t have to be Mark Brunell. He doesn’t even have to be David Garrard. But this is a fan base wearing the scars of four straight double-digit-loss seasons, and a fan base that just watched this year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, the long-awaited edge rushing monster, crumple to the ground with a torn ACL while practicing in shorts. What Bortles has to do is show enough progress as a passer—particularly functionality within the pocket—to show that he won’t be the next Blaine Gabbert. He has to become proof positive of hope in Jacksonville.
—Gary Gramling (@GGramling_SI)
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97. Richie Incognito, Guard, Buffalo Bills
The Bills desperately needed to upgrade an offensive line that ranked among the worst in the NFL last season, especially in order to field the kind of run-driven offense new head coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman prefer. They went out-of-the-box with part of their solution: Richie Incognito, who had been out of football since Nov. 2013 after being implicated in the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal. Before signing in Buffalo, Incognito met with new owners Terry and Kim Pegula. “We want to be a tough physical team, and that’s his game,” Bills GM Doug Whaley said this spring. “We had Terry and Kim talk to him, and after that conversation, we knew he accepted responsibility. He has some failsafes in his life so he doesn’t go there, and he realizes this might be his chance to have a platform to institute change.”
—Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas)
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96. John Fox, Head Coach, Chicago Bears
The first public salvo in the mission to light a fire under Jay Cutler came in March, from coach John Fox: “It’s all an open competition. Obviously you’ve got to start somewhere and my experience in football, really in anything, it’s not where you start a competition; it’s where you finish it.” Will David Fales start over Cutler in the season opener? Don’t bet on it. But you can bet on the Chicago staff—including highly regarded coordinator Adam Gase—to make it very clear to Cutler he is at a career crossroads. And yet it’s not in Fox’s character to put the screws to a quarterback. As a Chuck Noll disciple (the only member of Chuck Noll’s coaching tree still leading an NFL team), Fox has a noted happy-go-lucky way of doing things. Among the things Fox has said he admired most about Noll: “He was not a screamer. He wasn’t up or down.” That’s just what Chicago fans didn’t like about former head coach Marc Trestman: his perceived lack of emotion. But if Fox can squeeze a bounce back season out of Cutler—and if he and Vic Fangio can work some magic with an undermanned, overwhelmed defense—Bears fans will give him a pass.
—Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko)
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95. Le’Veon Bell, Running Back, Pittsburgh Steelers
Before his brilliant 2014 season got underway, Bell made a boneheaded move that could cost the Steelers this season. The first-team All-Pro back will miss the first three games of the 2015 season due to a marijuana possession and DUI arrest last August. Bell emerged as arguably the best all-around back in the NFL last season, making game-changing plays as a runner and receiver and proving capable of grinding the clock late (see road wins at Cincinnati and Tennessee). His absence was felt after a Week 17 knee injury forced him to miss a home playoff loss to the Ravens. As the Steelers try to navigate a tough early-season schedule (Bell’s suspension is three games, pending appeal: at New England, vs. San Francisco and at St. Louis), his absence will be just as significant as his presence was last season.
—Andy DeGory (@Degatron7)
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94. Eliot Wolf, Director of Player Personnel, Green Bay Packers
Eliot Wolf is a football savant. The 33-year-old will be a sought-after general manager this fall, probably more than veteran football front-office men with longer résumés. Why? The pedigree, in large part. In August, Ron Wolf and Bill Polian will become the second and third full-time general managers to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame—Eliot will take a break from his job as the Packers’ director of player personnel to see his father honored in Canton. Eliot was a football brat, moving with the family as Ron worked for the Raiders and the Jets and, in 1991, for the Packers. Eliot was 9 when his father traded for Brett Favre, 11 when his father shocked the football world by winning the bidding for free-agent defensive end Reggie White. And Eliot was a sponge. He learned what his father taught, often by simply watching. He learned that you had to have an eye for talent; you simply couldn’t rely on the words of longtime scouts. Ron Wolf hated scouts who sat in the back of the room and waited to see what the consensus was in the room before giving an opinion. Eliot Wolf learned that, and that’s why current Green Bay GM Ted Thompson promoted him at such a young age (32) to be his second-in-command. It’s one of the reasons why Chip Kelly wanted to interview Eliot Wolf to be his personnel czar last January. Interesting, too, that Wolf has his father’s bullishness. After promising 49ers linebacker Chris Borland abruptly retired at age 24 last spring, setting off alarm bells by people who thought it might be a harbinger of doom for the NFL, football-loving Wolf had a message for the doomsayers on Twitter: “Anyone worried about the future of football should see the amount of calls & emails we get from kids literally begging to get into pro days.” When December rolls around, and general manager season is on, the bad teams in the NFL will be asking the Packers for permission to talk to this precocious son of a Hall of Famer.
—Peter King (@SI_PeterKing)
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93. Marcus Mariota, Quarterback, Tennessee Titans
Roger Goodell may say Marioto, but the rest of America seems to have no problem learning Mariota’s name: The Titans rookie quarterback led the NFL in jersey sales in May. This season, Mariota will aim to become the first spread college quarterback to flourish in a traditional NFL drop back system. Tennessee coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Ruston Webster at least gave his rookie some young talent to grow with, spending six of his next eight draft picks on offensive players, including a potential go-to target in deep threat wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. If it doesn’t work out? Goodell will have to pronounce another top pick for Tennessee soon—chosen by Whisenhunt and Webster’s successors.
—Emily Kaplan (@EmilyMKaplan)
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92. Ray Rice, Running Back, Free Agent
By September, it will be 20 months since Ray Rice played his last meaningful football. There are two major factors keeping him out of the NFL: (1) A white-hot spotlight for whoever signs him. For a player who is no longer considered a top-of-the-pack back at age 28, and who may well be a backup at this point in his career, the distraction may be more trouble than it’s worth. No team signing Rice would be credited for its valor in giving him a chance to resuscitate his career, either. (2) He may well have been declining by the end of the 2013 season. His per-carry rushing average fell from 4.4 yards in ’12 to 3.1 yards in ’13. And his average yards per catch fell off a cliff too, from 7.8 to 5.5. So what kind of player exactly would his new team be getting? It doesn’t help that he continues to chafe at the mess he created, and how he’s perceived by the media and public. “I understand the seriousness of what I did,’’ Rice told New York magazine earlier this year. “But I’m like, ‘Man, they just don’t know who I am.’ ” Rice was probably the Ravens’ leading community outreach player, and he figures that all the goodwill he had in the bank should be remembered now. Maybe it should. Without question it contributed to the light sentence originally handed down by commissioner Roger Goodell. But getting criticized harshly comes with the stain of domestic violence, and Rice doesn’t do himself any favors when he complains about it. He’d be best served in a camp with high-profile players, on a team that has proven it can win without him (Seattle, New Orleans, Indianapolis).
—Peter King (@SI_PeterKing)
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91. John Elway, General Manager, Denver Broncos
The Hall of Fame quarterback has been phenomenal in his five seasons heading Denver’s football operations. A big part of that success stems from having convinced another Hall of Fame QB—we feel safe saying Canton is in Peyton Manning’s future—to come aboard. In Denver, Manning has had statistically the best three-year run of his career. But because the Broncos only reached the divisional round a year after their humiliating Super Bowl 48 defeat, Elway, who has spent hundreds of millions on free-agent acquisitions (many of them on the defensive side of the ball) made his biggest gamble to date this past offseason: parting ways with head coach John Fox, and declining to promote offensive coordinator (and Manning compatriot) Adam Gase to head coach. Instead, Elway brought in his former backup QB from the 80’s Gary Kubiak, who runs a zone-based scheme that is antithetical to the one Manning has grown comfortable in over his 17-year career. Kubiak might be a great long-term solution for the Broncos, but bringing him at this moment is a boom-or-bust approach for a GM who has positioned his team to win now.
—Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit)