Settle in for a Long Winter
This is both one of the busiest and loneliest weeks of the year for much of the NFL. For the twenty teams not participating in the postseason, it is a time for departures. Players disperse for their CBA-mandated three-month vacation—some eventually to be informed they need not return. And even for successful teams bringing back largely the same players and coaches, every year brings change and a different dynamic. The group will never be the same.
As for coaches, I have always compared them to submarine workers who go inside the sub for six months and then come out for six months. Those on the teams not in the playoffs now go back to “civilian” life. Of course, as every year, there are coaching staff casualties. This year includes a staff that was together for merely one year in San Francisco, and two that had just two years together: Cleveland (double the tenure of the Browns’ previous regime) and Tampa Bay (Lovie Smith was fired in an unexpected move last night.) With asset values of all franchises now exceeding $1 billion, patience among many owners is a lost virtue.
As discussion moves to “who’s next?” with these coaching vacancies, it is easy to lose sight of the ripple effects. Assistant coaches who have hitched their wagon to the fired coach sheepishly arrive at team facilities each day hoping the incoming head coach will keep them around, knowing it is unlikely, while coaches’ wives deal with uncertainty of kids’ schooling and real estate leases or sales.
In saying goodbye to the team at this time every year, I always felt like a teacher saying goodbye to students for summer vacation. The facility empties out, lockers become bare and a new and much quieter vibe dominates the building for the long winter months. When I was in Green Bay, there would always be a player or two that would look at me as he ventured to warmer climates and say, “Do you actually have to stay here?” I did; it was my job.
The longest offseason in all of major pro sports is upon us for most teams; buckle up.
Having not written a column over the holidays, here are my insights into some items in my purview over the past couple of weeks.
Having covered and followed the NFL’s policy and legal position on concussions the past few years, I eagerly anticipated Concussion; a film marketed as one “the NFL does not want you to see.” My initial reaction: I expected much more of an “attack” on the NFL. If League of Denial, the documentary about the same issues, was a fastball down the middle to the NFL, Concussion was a knuckleball low and outside. The movie to me is less anti-NFL and more pro-Bennet Omalu: a personal journey of a change agent fighting the system, disrupting the status quo and, of course, falling in love (a Hollywood staple).
The sum total of screen time for two primary forces of resistance to Dr. Bennet Omalu’s science at the time—former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and former head of the NFL’s mild traumatic brain injury committee Eliot Pellman—was less than two minutes, and the curiously cast Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell appeared for a sound bite. The NFL representative made to look the worst in Concussion? The late Dave Duerson, portrayed as a league apologist stonewalling both Omalu and the late Andre Waters in their search for the truth.
I expected more about league and team doctors ignoring, misrepresenting or concealing the science, allegations made by thousands of former players around the end of the movie’s timeline. That lawsuit, one I have covered closely, has now reached a global settlement—pending expected approval by the Court of Appeals—that 1) provides no coverage for CTE (except for those who died prior to the final approval date of April 22, 2015), and 2) includes no admission of liability by the NFL. Thus, the disease that Dr. Omalu found present in former NFL players is not one for which settlement funds will attach and for which the NFL, portrayed as hiding, manipulating and concealing the science, will have no legal liability.
After seeing Concussion, I am left with more questions than answers. What is Omalu’s ongoing role, if any, in the study of former NFL players and their brains? How does his work parallel the work—studying the brains of former NFL players for CTE—being done at Boston University by Chris Nowinski and Dr. Ann McKee?
As to the NFL, beyond public relations-speak about the game being safer than ever, what are its goals regarding CTE? How is grant money being used to help former and current players? And with no legal liability, what will force the NFL to answer concerns of players suffering from symptoms of CTE?
And what of the NFLPA? After granting Dr. Omalu a forum, what impact did his findings have? Was CTE coverage ever a collective-bargaining issue or will it become one? How much did the NFLPA advocate for its coverage in the settlement, brought by thousands of its former players, that ignores the disease?
Concussion is certainly not a good look for the NFL, but it is clearly a Hollywood production rather than a documentary shining a white-hot spotlight on the league. And there has and will be a chorus of lament about Dr. Omalu’s treatment and CTE which, of course, will pass. The league will continue to thrive despite this cinematic trial; they have done so with a real trial about the same issues.
I found the Al-Jazeera report on alleged shipments of HGH to Peyton Manning’s wife to be enlightening—not due to what Manning has denied, but what he has admitted. In rehabilitating his neck after multiple surgeries, Manning admitted to trying acupuncture, ECCP (enhanced external counterpulsation therapy), hyperbaric oxygen treatments, nutrient drips—all approved by the Colts, showing both the player and the team to be being open-minded about alternative therapies.
When I was at the Packers, the extent of outside treatments amounted to a chiropractor that came in a couple times a week. Players hired massage therapists and sought other treatments on their own, although the training staff was often skeptical and territorial. The clear preference of team trainers, especially older ones, is to not have players going “off campus” for treatment. This tension has been exacerbated since the 2011 CBA drastically reduced players’ offseason time at the facility, conversely increasing their time with personal training and recovery treatments. I have heard of several uncomfortable conversations at the start of training camp between a player (or his agent or trainer) and team in conflict about training and/or treatment.
Spinning back to Manning, we may never know if he was or wasn’t receiving HGH (not tested as an NFL banned substance until 2014) but we do know that one of the more “traditional” players in the NFL sought non-traditional therapies for healing, something more players than we know are doing. And to me, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Finally, putting on my lawyer hat, Manning has talked tough about a defamation lawsuit; I don’t see it for three reasons. First, the legal bar for a public figure—proving actual malice and recklessness—is a high one. Second, the discovery process would reveal documents and phone records that, while perhaps not showing guilt, may be uncomfortable for Manning and his wife’s privacy. Third, Manning’s first hire here was a publicist, Ari Fleisher, rather than a lawyer. His concern has been controlling the message, not legal grandstanding that would further the story.
As readers of this space know, I have been an unabashed fan of Chip Kelly, repeatedly referring to him as a change agent in a largely stagnant profession. After two 10-win seasons, he went 6-9 this year. His firing before Week 17 seemed to be a decision that had much more to do about personality, ego and hubris than it did football.
Kelly does not come from a coaching “tree” and his sleep tracking, sports science and other coaching methods—he refers to practice as “training”—drew critics, especially old-line coaches mocking Kelly with the but that’s not the way we’ve always done things around here! mentality. Even beyond the recent piling on, there was criticism of Kelly a year ago after he guided a 4-12 team to consecutive 10-win seasons. How many coaches, let alone ones coming from college, do that in their first two years? The Eagles second coaching choice in 2013, Gus Bradley, has gone 12-35 in Jacksonville during Kelly’s 26-21 tenure in Philadelphia; Bradley was told he is safe with the Jaguars. Although I understand the criticism for Kelly’s hubris, I think he continues to draw criticism from those resistant to change.
Finally, the Kelly legacy in Philadelphia is yet another reminder of the inherently incongruous model of coach/general manager. A coach must earn a player’s trust, respect and loyalty and his concern is largely short-term. A general manager must be unemotional and detached, worried much more about the future. When I worked in Green Bay with coach/general manager Mike Sherman, he would sometimes tell me, “Andrew, I’m going to make you the bad guy here” in dealing with a player’s earnings. I totally understood; he needed that player to go into battle for him. Yes, the model works for the dispassionate Bill Belichick, but as a model the dual position is innately flawed.
The “football guys” in Cleveland
Finally, speaking of resistance to change, there has been criticism of the Browns’ new approach. They have hired Paul DePodesta, a baseball analytics legend who will emphasize the use of predictive data. Again, much of the criticism speaks to the same resistance to change and a traditional stance that power should rest with “football guys.”
The same-old approach has clearly not worked in Cleveland; the move to a new plan—and one they can clearly articulate—can only help. And analytics is not mutually exclusive to game film or coaching “tendencies” all being part of the process. Indeed, virtually every NFL team has at least one employee crunching data; the issue is getting the culture to “buy in,” which there has been more in scouting than coaching. The NFL is the last bastion of resistance among the four major sports leagues to using predictive data, but the pushback is weakening. Any success from the Browns—things are all relative in Cleveland—will help break down barriers.
To the “football guys” and the coaches who would much rather listen to their (sometimes prodigious) guts rather than to the number guys, relax. It’s been part of the game all along, only now with more sophistication. Numbers are not only for nerds.
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