If NFL Wants a War, Players Should Give It to Them
The personal reputations of Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and James Harrison are hanging in the balance as the league has turned up the temperature on the four active players named in the Al Jazeera report about performance-enhancing drugs.
But there’s even more at stake. If these four players are thinking about the other 1,900 members of the NFL Players Association, there’s only one way to respond to commissioner Roger Goodell’s demand that they answer to him by next Thursday.
Don’t show up. Don’t go to New York. Block Adolpho Birch’s number if you have to. Sit on your hands, dare the NFL to suspend you, and see what comes next.
After union losses in the cases of Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson, if these four players answer Goodell, there’s no way to conclude that the commissioner powers are going to change before 2021. It also wouldn’t bode well for what’s to come in the next round of labor talks, given that it would score another union-busting win for the NFL’s barons and another blow against player solidarity.
We’ll get to other matters in a few hundred words, including the NFL’s Los Angeles debut and where the Rams’ challenges remain; the Colts’ philosophical shift; John Fox’s Year 2 bounce; the Eagles/Titans trade; and much more. But we’re starting with Battle No. 43253425 between the league and union, because, in my mind, this one is critical.
Why? These aren’t rank-and-file guys who’ve spent their professional years looking over their shoulders for The Turk. If Matthews, Neal, Peppers and Harrison were struggling to make it to seven figures in career on-field earnings, then it’d be hard to blame any of them for acquiescing as a self-preservation tactic.
But that’s not these four. Peppers, Matthews and Harrison have combined to make more than $200 million collectively as pro football players. Neal’s earnings are more modest, but he survived a four-game suspension in 2012 and has cleared eight figures for his career. He is currently looking for a team.
So if these guys fold, it’ll get a lot harder to take grousing about the commissioner’s power from players seriously anymore. And that’s especially because these guys have a real case for stonewalling the powers of Park Ave.
For the NFL to investigate a player under the drug policy, either a positive test or credible evidence is needed. The league has told the union it has evidence beyond just what’s been reported publicly. The union responded, “Show us.” League: “That’s not how an investigation works.” Union: “Well, then how do we know you have credible evidence?”
That led to this week’s adversarial letter that informed Matthews, Harrison, Peppers and Neal that they need to submit to interviews by Aug. 25, or they’ll be suspended for failing to cooperate with the investigation, which the NFL considers conduct detrimental. And the blood pressure on both sides only rose from there.
From the players’ standpoint, there are two major problems here. One, they’ve viewed the gray area of “credible evidence” as a problem for a while.
According to a union source, the NFLPA has been present while players—without the cachet of the aforementioned four—have been interviewed on what they considered flimsy claims over the past few years. The consequences can be heavy. Open investigations can make it harder for players to find work, and the source said the league has been reluctant to clear lesser players in the way it cleared Peyton Manning.
That, obviously, can be pretty costly to a rank-and-file player’s career. A league source said the NFL always tries to get through these cases quickly. The union, on the other hand, is focused on the number of claims that are given teeth when the NFL opens such an investigation. The union’s fear is that every accusation on social media gets legs, even those lacking real evidence.
The second problem for the players involves two words from that letter: “conduct detrimental.” The Al Jazeera case falls under the drug policy, and the drug policy is actually one area where the league and union worked hard together to find common ground, got there and carved out a deal accordingly. Goodell’s power under under conduct detrimental is sweeping. His power under the drug policy is not.
And so the league moving Neal, Peppers, Harrison and Matthews from potential drug policy violators into conduct detrimental constitutes an act of war. That puts them into the same arena where Brady and Peterson found themselves losers this summer. You can imagine the dangerous precedent. In essence, Goodell is flexing his home-turf strength at a neutral site.
So if the four players show up to 345 Park Ave. over the next seven days, they are: A) widening the scope of cases the NFL can rightfully investigate; and B) broadening Goodell’s power into an area where there actually had been some measure of compromise between the league and union.
What the league has on the line is simpler. After the domestic-violence disaster of 2014, the NFL launched its own investigative arm, vowing to be less reliant on law enforcement after the Ray Rice debacle. The problem for the league is it lacks subpoena power. That’s why the example of dinging Brady for lack of cooperation was important, and why this is important too.
It just isn’t as important as it is to the union and its 1,900 members.
Maybe they’ll game this one, and send one player (Harrison?) into battle, while others get to make business decisions. Maybe they’ll all go at it in a unified front.
But if they really want something, anything, to change with the way the league and the commissioner do business as the second half of the 2011 CBA commences, now is the time to dig their cleats into the dirt and stand their ground. Or forever (or least until 2021) hold their peace.
Because if these four guys can’t pull it off, then who can?
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1. Challenges are in front of the Rams in Los Angeles. Rams COO Kevin Demoff isn’t under the illusion that the team can just swing open the gates to the Coliseum and expect what they got last Saturday night every week without working at it. But to him, even after you wipe away the novelty, there was plenty to take from the first-night experience. “What sticks out to me is that it’s rare you pay attention to crowds in the fourth quarter of a preseason game,” Demoff said Monday. “But we had a loud, passionate crowd that propelled a comeback. That wasn’t the casual fan there to see the pregame stuff and kickoff. That was an excited, passionate fan, there cheering on Sean Mannion, Nelson Spruce, Aaron Green and Ian Seau. That’s when you thought, This is really cool and there’s so much room to grow. … There was so much excitement and energy. Of course, kickoff gave you chills and it was emotional for all of us. But the true test was looking in the fourth quarter, and seeing 60-70,000 fans still on their feet cheering. There’s some thing special here; we have to find a way to sustain it.” Now, the challenge there is the three-year runway in front of the Rams to get their Inglewood palace. There’s a decent chance that the newness of it all carries the team through 2016. In 2018, it’ll be the Coliseum’s last hurrah as an NFL venue, and a lookahead to Inglewood. So 2017 figures to be the pivotal year, where the Rams aren’t brand new anymore and the new stadium is still away on the horizon. The club also acknowledges that—given the competition in a market with eight pro teams, two major colleges and an endless array of entertainment options—they’ll have to compete for the consumer’s dollar in a market full of people who’ve been conditioned for two decades to watch the NFL from their couch. But as they see it, the reward here, if they can find a way to do it right, is off the charts. As Demoff put it, “Modern-day Los Angeles and the modern-day NFL really have a chance to combine to create something spectacular.”
2. Colts going back to the basics. When Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano arrived in Indy in 2012, conventional wisdom held that a cap purge and staff overhaul would mean rebuilding around No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck. In fact, the disjointed state of the roster was one reason why Indy had to go with Luck, and discard franchise icon Peyton Manning. Then the Colts went 11-5. And so in the subsequent three offseasons, as they inched a step forward each year in the playoffs, they loaded up on vets, sacrificing cap space and draft capital in the process. Consider last year’s 8-8 a reason to reset. Both Grigson and Pagano came from places, in Philly and Baltimore, that won through drafting and developing talent. This offseason signified a return to those roots. Consider the five players they signed in March: Scott Tolzien, Robert Turbin, Jordan Todman, Patrick Robinson and Mike McFarland. The total cap commitment for those guys for 2016 is just $7.15 million, or 4.6 percent of the cap. Meanwhile, there’s optimism that the draft picks that they now are holding on to, rather than spinning off for vets, will bring the kind of return Indy struggled to find on the free-agent market. Yes, the two guys drafted in the Top 60—center Ryan Kelly and safety T.J. Green—have come as advertised, but everyone says nice things about their high picks this time of year. The difference here runs deeper in the rookie class. Fifth-round pick Joe Haeg has worked at every spot on the offensive line other than center this summer, and looks like he’ll be out there come September to fortify what has been a trouble spot for Indy. And the Colts gave tailback Josh Ferguson more guaranteed money ($35,000) than they ever have an undrafted free agent, and he’s been a revelation in camp. This, of course, isn’t a full rebuild—it really can’t be with a 26-year-old superstar at quarterback. But there is an ongoing shift in the composition of the roster, part of which is the changing math with Luck off his rookie deal and on a top-of-the-market contract. The rest will come down to hitting on the young guys.
3. The Cardinals’ next third-round hit. In the three years that Bruce Arians and Steve Keim have been together in Arizona, these have been their third-round picks: DB Tyrann Mathieu (first-team All-Pro), WR John Brown (1,000-yard receiver) and RB David Johnson (1,038 all-purpose yards, 12 TDs as a rookie). And if early indications are correct, it looks like they might have hit another grand slam this year with corner Brandon Williams, whom Arizona took with the 92nd pick. He’s showing ability that has the Cardinals hopeful the search for a bookend to Patrick Peterson is over. Williams’ story explains why he fell through the cracks. Williams was Rivals.com’s 14th-ranked prospect in the Class of 2011 as a tailback. He went to Oklahoma for a year, transferred to Texas A&M and, after sitting out 2012 (as transfer rules dictate), played on offense there in ’13 and ’14. It wasn’t until last season that he played corner collegiately. In a way, he’s similar to Richard Sherman in 2011. The Seahawks All-Pro was a freshman All-America receiver who only played defense in his final two seasons in Palo Alto. Both players have wild athleticism. Both came into the pros relatively new as defensive backs. Both quickly earned roles on their own teams. Now, it’ll be interesting to see if Williams can stay on the trail Sherman blazed five years ago.
Williams should know that, at the very least, he’s caught his Pro Bowl predecessor's attention and has a new fan. “I didn’t hear about him until recently,” Sherman texted Wednesday night. “I admire his desire and fight.”
4. What the Eagles are getting in Green-Beckham. If we turn the clock back three years, Dorial Green-Beckham was scoring four touchdowns in the SEC title game and being compared to Calvin Johnson and setting himself up to be a first-round pick in 2015. Even after being kicked off the Missouri team—the result of a domestic incident and continued issues with marijuana—and spending 2014 as a practice player at Oklahoma (as part of his transfer), then declaring, he went 40th overall. That should illustrate that there’s freakish ability here. He was once the top high school recruit in the country, and it was obvious why during his brief college career. And he flashed that last season—29 of his 32 catches went for either first downs or touchdowns. So why did the Titans cut the cord after just 15 months? As I understand it, the previous off-field issues did not in any way resurface in Nashville. This was, very much, about fit. Titans GM Jon Robinson, coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie want more cerebral receivers, and Green-Beckham hasn’t really ever been known as one. And there’s also been an emphasis on bringing in the right kind of guys, which goes a long way in explaining why Jack Conklin was the team’s pick at No. 8 overall over Laremy Tunsil. So Tennessee gets offensive tackle Dennis Kelly in return for a player who may have been gone soon anyway. The trade also serves the purpose of satisfying the charge ownership has given the new regime, which is to protect Marcus Mariota better. As for the Eagles, this is taking a shot at a player with a high ceiling, plain and simple. And the move of Allen Barbre to right tackle, along with the progress of rookies Isaac Seumalo and Halapoulivaati Vaitai, gave them the flexibility to deal Kelly.
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• Normally, a player with a higher salary has the edge in a position battle, because a team naturally would be more invested in that guy. In the San Francisco QB battle, the opposite dynamic might be at work. Colin Kaepernick’s injury history, combined with the heavy injury guarantees in his contract, would be a motivator to put him on ice for the year if the team isn’t sold that he’ll rebound in Chip Kelly’s offense. The Redskins pulled something similar last year—they knew Robert Griffin III wasn’t their guy, so they didn’t risk putting him on the field and triggering his 2016 injury guarantee.
• With Rex Ryan as coach, and trying to make up for some picks lost in the Sammy Watkins trade, the Bills have rolled the dice in the draft more than most the past couple years. Karlos Williams, Ronald Darby and Adolphus Washington were considered character risks, and Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland brought extensive injury history to the table. It’s not as if there hasn’t been payoff. Darby looks like a star, and Washington is flashing signs too. But the fact that Williams, Lawson and Ragland will be on the shelf to start the year (as will veteran star Marcel Dareus) makes it fair to ask if Buffalo has gone too far.
• Art Briles has been making the rounds, and in June we mentioned his desire to get into the NFL, and how people around him had made clear his interest to teams in the past. Since then, he’s done a tour of NFL camps and made himself available to the Texas press at both Cowboys and Texans practices. So what’s next? As I understand it, Briles would have an interest in being an NFL coach but probably not below the coordinator level. It’s hard to figure whether or not a team in the league would reciprocate that interest, given the post-2014 climate in the league. And at the college level, I could see him having his eyes on the SEC.
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TWO ROOKIES TO WATCH THIS WEEKEND
1. Bengals WR Tyler Boyd (at Lions, Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET). A.J. Green is still in Cincinnati, but Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones aren’t, and Tyler Eifert is still working his way back from ankle surgery, meaning the Bengals could really use another receiver emerging. And last week, Boyd showed signs he could be that guy. The rookie from Pitt scored a 40-yard touchdown last weekend against the Vikings, adding to his strong start in training camp. “He’s got good size and hands, and runs really polished routes,” said one rival college scouting director, who compared him to ex-Bengal T.J. Houshmandzadeh. “Average speed, but he’s pretty well-equipped from a learning standpoint, coming from a pro-style offense.” Given the Bengals’ recent history in developing young wideouts, Boyd’s certainly one worth monitoring. The coaches there are bullish on him too, so he shouldn’t lack opportunity.
2. Seahawks RBs Alex Collins and C.J. Prosise (vs. Vikings, Thursday, 10 p.m. ET). We’re cheating a little bit by giving you two-for-one, but both the 90th and 171st picks in April’s draft figure into the equation in replacing Marshawn Lynch’s production. Prosise is more likely to play an immediate role, because of his ability as a receiver, while Thomas Rawls’ violent style and injury history could make Collins just as big a factor down the line. “Prosise is a third-down type, good hands, good size/speed, and he can be used as a slot receiver,” said a rival NFC exec. “Collins is a slasher, runs a little erect and tight hipped, but he goes hard between the tackles. Both are backups for now, and role players. Prosise can help in the passing game, and provide versatility and special teams value. Collins will back up Rawls, who’s the Alpha.” To some degree, the offense found its stride last year when Lynch got hurt. But going into a season without him is a little different than that, which is good reason why the Seahawks made sure the cupboard was stocked.
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A big storyline in Bears camp has been the John Fox Year 2 bounce. The venerable coach took the Panthers to the Super Bowl in his second year in Carolina, and the Broncos went 13-3 in his second year in Denver. And 2016 is Fox’s second year in Chicago.
If you ask Fox about it, he’ll just give you a logical answer: Your team should be better in its second year under a new coach.
While that makes sense, the numbers don’t back up the idea. Over the first five years of this decade (2010-14), 33 head coaches were hired. Seven improved by two games or more in Year 2. Five regressed by two games or more. Seventeen improved or regressed by a game or stayed the same. And three were fired after Year 1, while a fourth was axed early in his second year.
Meanwhile, Fox went from 8-8 to 13-3 in Denver in 2012, and from 7-9 to 11-5 in Carolina in 2003. So what gives? Why is it natural to Fox that his teams would ascend like that?
My best guess, after spending some time around the Bears this week: Because the buy-in he gets from players is uncommon.
“The one thing that I think John Fox does a great job of, and he does it better than anyone I’ve ever been with, is he can relate to the players,” Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long told me. “He played football, he had an opportunity to play in the league, and he’s been around this game for so long. I mean, he knew my mom and dad when they were dating through football.
“He’s been around guys, he knows every type of person, and his wisdom, his knowledge of the game of football, it’s really great.”
Of course, that goes both ways, and that’s the other notion raised by the players. For better or worse, there’s been a mold for the type of person that Fox and GM Ryan Pace have welcomed into the building over the past 18 months, and a type of guy who’s been ushered out.
Looking at the 2016 free-agent class, Danny Trevethan won a Super Bowl in Denver, and Akiem Hicks (New England) and Jerrell Freeman (Indy) were a part of deep playoff runs. Super Bowl champions Pernell McPhee and Antrell Rolle were members of the Bears’ 2015 free-agent group.
Not all the signings have worked out but, as the dean of all Bears, kicker Robbie Gould, explains, they all do seem to fit. “The philosophy they have, from both a general manager’s and a head coach’s perspective, is bringing in a type of free agent,” Gould said. “They’re not going on a spending spree. They’re being picky about it and doing it the right way.”
Nine-year vet Willie Young describes it this way: “Guys with attitude. Guys that know how to be professional on and off the field. Guys that are willing to learn. Everyone that we have now, they’re eager to learn and get better every day.”
Does that mean the Bears are going to win 13 games or go to a Super Bowl? No. No, it doesn’t.
But based on that old Fox formula—getting players who will buy-in, and then keeping them engaged over time—it’s fair to think they should be better, like Fox’s Panthers and Broncos were, in his second year in town.
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