Having reached the quarter pole, here are 10 thoughts on the season in progress…
1. Business is booming as all of the NFL’s key metrics continue to point north. After an offseason of allegations of deflation, obfuscation of investigation and the frustration of litigation, all is well. A league-friendly CBA is not even halfway through its term and franchise asset values continue to soar. Broadcast rating numbers seem to set records each week, whether on Thursday, Sunday or Monday. The business of the NFL is flourishing in spite of an offseason dominated by the Deflategate “crisis.” I say this facetiously (I think): The NFL’s Deflategate marketing plan worked perfectly.
2. The NFL schedule, to me, is less about which opponents a team is playing than when they are playing them. We would always look for teams with a new head coach or coordinators in the first quarter block of the schedule, where we thought an early matchup was favorable with a new system still ramping up. And, of course, the injury situation of opponent at the time of playing them is paramount. Playing the Cowboys without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, or playing the Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger, gives opponents a decided advantage compared to teams playing them with those players, especially when it’s a division rival.
• THE NFLPA WON THE BRADY BATTLE; CAN THEY WIN THE WAR?: The union has taken a victory lap in the wake of Tom Brady’s Deflategate victory. But can they parlay the win into a meaningful reduction of Roger Goodell’s power?
3. Many lament the poor quality of offensive line play during the early part of the season. The reduced offseason seems a catchall for complaints about the state of the game; there is some validity here as offensive linemen, especially young ones, need more coaching than other positions. CBA negotiations involved concerns of owners and players; coaches were not consulted. In my opinion, a better model to address both union concerns and coaching concerns would be a two-tiered NFL offseason program consisting of (1) existing extended time away for veterans with four or more years of experience, and (2) increased practice and coaching sessions for players with three or fewer years of experience.
4. Aaron Rodgers continues to be the (green and) gold standard at the game’s most important position. I have recounted before about the first round of the 2005 draft, when the NFL’s now-best player dropped into the Packers’ lap. When our pick arrived at No. 24, there was one name left with a first-round grade: Rodgers. After waiting an excruciating—for Aaron more than for us—10 minutes to see if we received an offer we couldn’t refuse (we didn’t), we picked him. Sometimes, franchise-defining moments happen in large part due fortune, circumstance and inaction of others.
5. The fact that a healthy Robert Griffin III pines away on the pine for the Redskins—a team desperate for quality quarterback play—continues to be the most surprising personnel note in the NFL. Beyond the financial investment (roughly $22 million over four years with a pending fifth-year option) there has been substantial organizational investments in scouting (multiple future picks), coaching, team infrastructure and marketing investments associated with Griffin, expenses that cannot simply be written off as “sunk costs.” It is a poignant twist that a healthy Griffin now sits with legitimate doubt as to whether he will ever be the player he was in 2012 while playing on a compromised leg (which was the start of his downfall).
• NO MORE HOPE: In a span of 32 months, Robert Griffin III went from rookie of the year to being demoted. As Washington mulls severing ties with RG3, here’s a look back at where it all went wrong and which team he could play for next.
6. Much to the NFL’s chagrin, the third team on the field—the officials—has been more a part of the game than ever. The incessant stoppages in play and ever-increasing on-field conferences detract from the consumer experience and bring the focus on a group that shouldn’t have it. Having covered the 2012 NFL lockout of the referees, I vividly recall the NFL trying to eliminate the officials’ perceived sense of entitlement and, as one team owner told me, to “make them realize they’re not part of the game.” In the early part of 2015, however, they clearly are. And a pet peeve: We live in a world where we can get a wireless signal in an aluminum tube at 30,000 feet; can we not ask “the NFL scoreboard operator to put four seconds back on the game clock” without including a national audience in that request? The NFL can do better.
7. The Los Angeles situation continues approach a crescendo towards a deadline that will spur action perhaps at the league’s December meeting. There is the real possibility of franchise relocation—and perhaps more than one—by season’s end. Today in New York, owners gather to assess the situation as politics and relationships will be paramount in this process. Of the three ownership situations involved, Stan Kroenke (Rams) has the greatest wealth but is an enigma among ownership; Dean Spanos (Chargers) has the most support from the room; and Mark Davis (Raiders) is, well, Mark Davis. It is hard to handicap at this point, but my sense is there is the most sentiment for the Chargers, whether as a team relocating or one blocking the Rams from doing so. More clarity should hopefully come out of this week’s meeting.
8. It should be no surprise that a couple of the biggest splashes in free agency have not had the teams’ desired impact. Ndamokung Suh (Dolphins) and Byron Maxwell (Eagles) benefited greatly from reaching free agency with scarce free agent talent available at their premium positions. Suh is not paid dramatically more than J.J. Watt because he is “better” than Watt; Suh reached free agency while Watt re-signed with the Texans with an undervalued year left on his deal. And Maxwell received $25 million guaranteed and $63 million overall—most of which he will likely never see—by eschewing an opportunity with the Seahawks for an early “discount deal,” such as the one given to former teammate Kam Chancellor. The track record of first-day free agents has served as a cautionary tale for many teams, but there are always a few willing to pay full retail prices.
9. In moving the PAT try back 15 yards, if the NFL’s desire was to make the kick less automatic and more suspenseful, it has certainly succeeded in this first quarter sample of the season. Not only are extra points being missed, but also it seems to be contagious on a broader level, with an alarming number of missed field goals. It is still too early to call this a trend, but certainly an early signal. If the corresponding goal of the NFL was to encourage two-point attempts instead of the longer PAT, the data does not seem to suggest that yet but let’s hope it does. Any two-point attempt is more exciting than a PAT, whether at the old or new distance. For now, we will probably continue to see more out-of-work kickers trying out on Tuesdays across the league. Finally on this topic, I leave with my Twitterism that never loses its truth: kickers are like lawyers (and dentists): never fully appreciated until you need a good one.
10. And for some final thoughts...
Teams that I would be surprised if they are not in the Super Bowl: Packers and Patriots
Teams that forever seem a year away from being a year away: Dolphins, Browns and Texans
Teams that will confound their fans the most with schizophrenic performances: Bills, Giants and Chargers
Teams that would be scary if they only had a (near-elite) quarterback: Rams and Jets
Teams that would be scary if they only had a (near-elite) receiver: Panthers and Seahawks
Team that's 1-3 that most will think I'm crazy for picking to win their division: Eagles
Player making 10 times more from the Bears than the Panthers (who he now plays for) this season: Jared Allen
Players making 1/4 of what Russell Wilson is making this season ($8 million v. $31.7 million): Tom Brady
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