Rob Leiter/Getty Images; Frederick Breedon/Getty Images; Paul Spinelli/AP

The controversial return of Josh Brown, and why we never should expect the NFL to “get it right” on domestic violence. Plus, why the Greg Roman offense wasn’t working in Buffalo, all eyes on the Vikings, the Cardinals’ Achilles heel and more heading into Week 2

By Gary Gramling
September 17, 2016

NOTE: An unpleasant topic to start off this week’s column. If you came here to read football and only football, skip to No. 2.

1a. Giants kicker Josh Brown returns on Sunday after serving a clumsily administered one-game suspension for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy. I assume there will be some level of outrage when he takes the field, some of it directed at Brown, some of it directed at the NFL.

If we’ve learned one thing about Roger Goodell’s NFL, it’s that they’re motivated pretty much exclusively by the “grow the business” mantra. The personal conduct policy is in place primarily to take the heat off the owners so that folks feel better about pouring money into the coffers of their favorite team. (It’s not the Ravens’ responsibility to punish Ray Rice, it’s the league’s.) At its heart, the policy is a PR mechanism.

So when it comes to the domestic violence policy, I’d like to say the NFL’s heart is in the right place, but I doubt it. It seems to exist in large part to draw women into consuming all things NFL. (Because at some point the NFL figured out that women have money, they don’t spend very much of it on the NFL, and the league’s got a warehouse full of pink jerseys to move every October.) The mishandling of the Ray Rice case was the ultimate in administration via public reaction. Goodell was like a contestant in a Price is Right Showcase Showdown, haplessly sorting through the crowd’s screams and hand gestures before finally turning to Bob Barker and saying “two games,” eliciting a disappointed groan from the crowd. (And, just like a Price is Right contestant, Goodell learned that once you’ve announced your number you can’t change it… though you can prolong the process through a series of half-hearted court filings.)

Fast-forward two years, and we have Brown receiving a one-game ban despite the mandate that the minimum for domestic violence would be six games. But when you step back from it all, it’s more than just a little bit odd. If Brown’s ex-wife were my daughter, or sister, or mother, it’s unlikely my reaction would be “you sonofabitch, I hope you’re suspended from work for six weeks.” I’d want him incarcerated. The King County (Wash.) prosecutor’s office dropped the charges against Brown (his ex-wife had told police that he was physically violent with her more than 20 times, the prosecutor felt the case couldn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt). As far as the government is concerned, Josh Brown is free, and free enough to pursue any line of work he chooses, whether it be night manager at an Arby’s, manufacturing those little colored pieces of cellophane that go atop toothpicks, or kicking a leather prolate spheroid between two sticks, a job for which the New York Giants have chosen to continue his employment.

But instead of a discussion of how the judicial system might better handle domestic violence cases, all eyes turn to Park Avenue and an organization that lacks the authority to compel witnesses to cooperate (which is what happened in Brown’s case), a huge hindrance to any investigation. And at times, the NFL is barely capable of enforcing its own rulebook; the Deflategate sting operation was essentially a Police Academy sequel, sans the charm of Steve Guttenberg (the man is a national treasure). This is who we’ve charged with solving one of the most complicated law and policy issues facing society at large? 

The one positive that came out of the Ray Rice incident was that it sparked a conversation about domestic violence. That wasn’t the league’s doing; it was a result of one of their stars being caught on camera. Whether the league acted or not, the issue was going to be front and center. But back then, Goodell vowed the league would “get it right” on domestic violence. Two years later, they’re not really close. They probably never will be, it’s too complex for them to handle.

Charges against Josh Brown were dropped. Greg Hardy’s charges, stemming from this, were dismissed. Ray Rice avoided jail time due to pretrial intervention. If you think the consequences for domestic violence are too light, a football league shouldn’t be your primary target, especially considering the millions of instances of domestic violence that occur every year that don’t involve a professional football player. It’s time to stop focusing on the NFL for answers on a problem that it isn’t capable of fixing, especially since there might be someone who can.

1b. As Deadspin reported earlier this week, more troubling than the suspension numbers that grab the headlines when it comes to the league’s dealings with domestic violence: The support services promised in the wake of incidents have been woefully inadequate.

I always thought it was glaringly obvious that teams should be held accountable if they choose to employ players (or coaches, or front-office personnel) accused or convicted of crimes. I think they should also be the ones responsible for making sure the necessary counseling, treatment, and support are delivered. In his sit-down with Emily Kaplan a few weeks back, Nick Saban talked about how he tried to install a drug-treatment program with the Miami Dolphins, rather than letting the league’s drug-testing policy handle it. This would be in the same vein. Having the NFL or PA oversee this feels like the manager you see on a daily basis passing it off to HR at the national office, and expecting it to get done.

1c. I touched on this briefly when writing about Greg Hardy a year ago, but in light of the emotions they stir up it’s easy to lose sight of how difficult it is to investigate and administer punishments in domestic violence cases.

For those of us in the industry, Twitter is usually the place we go to take the unofficial temperature of the audience. Of course, Twitter is where nuance and intelligent discussion usually go to die, and instead you get a race to see who in the mob can prove they are the most outraged. (ONLY 20 GAMES FOR RAY RICE?! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?! HE SHOULD BE PUT INTO A ROCKET AND SHOT INTO THE SUN!!!!)

A couple episodes ago on the This American Life podcast, they had the story of a high-school student who was being physically abused by her live-in, adult boyfriend. It’s a well-done but very difficult episode to listen to—while driving home on the Merritt I nearly punched through the driver’s side window. In once part, the girl had come home bruised and beaten, at which point her mother and brother called the police. The girl, wanting to protect her boyfriend, locked herself in the bathroom. The cops told her, through the door, that all she has to say is “yes,” and they’d go get her boyfriend. But she didn’t. So the police couldn’t do anything.

1d. There are 32 owners in the league, each with their own moral compass, and it’s up to them whether or not they think an individual player is worth employing. And sometimes they collectively happen to do the right thing. For instance, a year ago Greg Hardy had only one suitor. This year, he has none. That’s certainly better than Major League Baseball, which has seen two of its most popular teams, the Yankees and Cubs, employ one-inning reliever Aroldis Chapman in 2016. (Could you imagine the backlash if, say, the Broncos had struck a deal for Hardy at last year’s trade deadline?)

1e. I can see from our traffic numbers that not a lot of you read this piece from a year ago: Robert Klemko spoke to a woman who was a victim of domestic violence at the hands of an active NFL player, then her boyfriend. (Perhaps few read it because it didn’t have pictures?)

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Now the awkward transition to the football stuff…

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2. I have been shouted down by podcast co-host Andy Benoit and his minions. But I still believe in my theory that last week, Bill Belichick held back Rob Gronkowski and Nate Solder in large part because he didn’t expect to win in Arizona and wanted to optimize his team for Weeks 2-4. (However, I was just a tad off in my assumption that the Patriots would get blown out in the desert.)

There’s something to be said for facing a quarterback in his first-ever start. You just don’t know what you’re going to see. I think that was an edge for the Patriots on Sunday night, as well as the Broncos on Thursday night.

Which brings us to the Cowboys. (Did you enjoy that segue?) I thought we’d see something fresh from them last week, especially considering both quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott were operating in zone-read offenses 10 months ago. That’s the kind of wrinkle that can catch a team off-guard in an opener. Instead, the Cowboys ran out an incredibly vanilla offense. Part of the problem was that they thought they could run the ball on the Giants, which did not end up being the case. But if I were to write a country music hit about the Cowboys’ passing offense in Week 1, which I just might do if I can find the time, I would title it “Check Down City (For the Love of Cole Beasley).”

The thing is: Last week’s formula might work in Washington on Sunday. Dallas might be able to run the ball more effectively than they did against an improved Giants front. But for all the bragging over landing Dak Prescott (and there was a lot of it), and considering they still have the element of surprise, you’d just expect them to try something a little bit bolder with the QB.

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3. Off the top of my head, the most disappointing single-game performance of 2015 was the Vikings, when they hosted the Packers in Week 11. Not the worst game (I’m sure that would go to the Titans or Browns or something, even the Vikings were really bad at San Fran and Seattle), but the most disappointing. At the time, Minnesota was poised to establish itself as the new king of the NFC North (correction from earlier version: if the Packers had won, they would have hosted Minnesota, not Seattle, in the Wild-Card round; I still stand by my claim that they were better off going to Washington). That afternoon, they were so… un-Viking-y(?). They allowed a 100-yard rushing game to Eddie Lacy while getting only 13 carries for Adrian Peterson. They committed 110 yards worth of penalties, the only time they’ve crossed 100 penalty yards in the Mike Zimmer era. They gave up six sacks.

On Sunday night, they’ll be hosting the Packers in front of a primetime audience in their brand-new building. That’s a big stage. Aside from last year’s no, really, you take it regular-season finale, They’re 1-9 against Aaron Rodgers since 2010. If the Vikings are truly ready to take the next step to Super Bowl contender level, they have to play a clean game on Sunday night. They don’t necessarily have to win it—after all, their best quarterback just got into the building two weeks ago—but they have to show that they can win it.

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4. I couldn’t tell you exactly why Greg Roman got the axe in Buffalo. But I can say that, despite what has been bounced around Twitter the past 48 hours, over the past season-plus this offense has been mediocre on its best days. And on its worst they look like Rams East.

Roman is a good offensive mind. A very good offensive mind. And perhaps he was hamstrung by the lack of talent Buffalo has on offense. Tyrod Taylor remains an enormous question mark, Sammy Watkins is hobbled, they don’t have another wide receiver on the roster that would be in an average unit’s top-four, and Charles Clay continues to look like a JAG (just a guy).

Just my opinion (in case the byline didn’t make that clear), but I couldn’t disagree more with anyone claiming that Taylor looked like a top-10 or 12 or 15 quarterback under Roman. He looked a lot like Robert Griffin III did in Washington. His ability to scramble has allowed him to sporadically make big plays outside the design, skewing the Bills’ offensive ranks. But Taylor has not looked like a quarterback who can consistently move an offense. And through two games this year, that offense has been exposed even more than Buffalo’s undermanned defense. They were unacceptably bad in Baltimore in Week 1. And they really weren’t much better on Thursday night.

The narrative, because people don’t like looking too much deeper than the final score, is that the Bills scored 31 on Thursday night. That’s a big number! Their four touchdowns:

1) An 84-yard bomb from Taylor to return specialist-turned-wideout Marquise Goodwin

2) A broken-play scramble-turned 71-yard TD pass to Greg Salas

3) A scoop-and-score by the defense

4) A final drive during which the Jets had 10 defenders playing with their heels on the goal line

The defense was also really bad, no doubt. Especially the cornerback play, which is particularly disturbing because the Stephon Gilmore-Ronald Darby pairing is supposed to be one of the Bills’ strengths. The front seven is atrocious, in part due to bad luck (Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland injuries) and in part due to the Bills’ own negligence (signing the unreliable Marcell Dareus to a huge deal). On Thursday night, that defense was on the field for nearly 40 minutes. Buffalo twice started drives with the lead, and both times went three-and-out. A year ago the Bills went three-and-out on 26.9% of their drives; only Tennessee was worse. Through two games this year, they’re at 36.8%.

Maybe a shakeup should have come on the defensive side as well, but (1) Rex Ryan isn’t firing himself (or his brother after two games, one of which was a good performance by the defense), and (2) If the corners struggle like they have, the Bills are doomed anyway because they don’t have the talent anywhere else on defense. Make no mistake though: The offense wasn’t working. Waiting on Taylor to run in circles and improvise a big play a couple times a game is no longer a winning formula (if it ever was a formula). Ryan insisted on Taylor, so this is on his head too. But they have to figure out how to make their passing game a more consistent threat, and to convert a couple third downs.

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5. For my ninth birthday, what I wanted more than anything in the world was a replica No. 59 jersey of my favorite field judge, Phil Luckett. I begged and pleaded for it, but I got a Nintendo Entertainment System instead. I have never forgiven my parents for that.

I love watching officials, and nothing is better than seeing a game potentially swing when a middle-aged man perfectly executes a rulebook citation on a post-play incident that has literally no bearing on the game. So you could imagine my excitement last Sunday when umpire Shawn Smith threw a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct flag on Gerald McCoy and the Bucs. McCoy was smiling. And then he danced a little bit, and then pointed. And then his teammates pointed a little bit. (I can’t find the video anywhere outside of Game Rewind, presumably because it was so offensive that whomever runs the internet decreed it be banned forever.)

So kudos to Smith, and to the NFL for doubling down and fining McCoy. And rather than clarifying “a catch” or addressing any of the truly archaic parts of the rulebook (five-yard holding penalty on third-and-18 is an automatic first down? Makes sense), let’s hope that this offseason the competition committee can take another brave step to further legislate emotion out of the game.

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6. In all seriousness, my favorite penalty of all time will probably be Sheldon Richardson on Thursday night, picking up a 15-yard taunting penalty after his team gave up an 84-yard touchdown. Can you get flagged for taunting your teammates? (I saw, he was jumping up and down in front of Richie Incognito and presumably saying something.)

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7. I supposed I should have some kind of take on Bengals-Steelers, but I really don’t. So I’m going to share two good reads on the subject:

First, friend of the show Ben Baskin on the shift of the Bengals-Steelers rivalry.

And second, if you want to know just who was at fault for last January’s incident, pick this up at your local library.

(I know, I know, Week 2 and I’m already recycling last year’s jokes. And they’re not even good jokes! But that terrible photoshop job did take me a solid three days.)

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8. I wondered about Carson Palmer coming into the year, seeing as his postseason performance was the football equivalent of the sinking of the Andrea Doria. He seemed fine on Sunday night. However, there is a serious flaw on this Cardinals team, and it’s in the secondary.

Rookie Brandon Williams got the start against the Patriots. I nearly spit out my RC Cola when I saw that, but of course I didn’t because I wouldn’t want to waste a single drop of the perfectly sweetened taste. (If anyone at Royal Crown Cola is interested in native advertising opportunities with The MMQB, please contact our sales team.)

Two years ago, Williams was playing running back full-time at Texas A&M. In the loss to New England, he played all 71 snaps at cornerback. Stats Inc. had Williams targeted seven times, allowing four catches for 74 yards and a touchdown. The TD was the 37-yarder to Chris Hogan, on which the Cardinals had clearly checked to man coverage with safety Tony Jefferson sliding to a single-high position, but the rookie still tried to hand Hogan off to a safety who, of course, wasn’t there.

In the long run that’s a correctable mistake, and Williams should obviously improve as the year goes on. But the Cardinals used an uncharacteristically safe approach on Sunday night, going light on the kind of blitzes that might have otherwise overwhelmed Jimmy Garoppolo in his first start. You have to think that a lack of trust in their rookie corner had a lot to do with that. It will be interesting to see what they roll out for Jameis Winston on Sunday afternoon, and going forward. Without those exotic blitzes, this Cardinals defense is a little more ordinary.

Last season, Arizona’s defensive play was as refreshing as an RC Cola on a crisp autumn afternoon. They’re hoping this season doesn’t turn flat, like some of those other soft drinks. (Again, if you’re a representative of RC Cola and are interested in partnering with our brand, please let us know.)

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9. This is normally the spot for The MMQB Read of the Week. Yet, for a second straight week, I’m going to make it about literally my favorite subject to write about, myself. It will include a Read of the Week though, so indulge me.

Before I delve into this story, I want to make one thing clear: I had the softest of soft upper-middle class upbringings in northern Connecticut. I’m so soft that I played two years of varsity basketball without even once stepping inside the three-point line because I DON’T LIKE TO BE TOUCHED.

But I got my start in this industry by begging my way into an entry-level, minimum-wage clerk job, doing the agate page and working a catch-all local sports beat at the Hartford Courant. I worked my ass off and was thankful to do it; the Courant is a wonderful paper that has produced and continues to produce high-end journalists (if you follow the NBA, you might be familiar with a Courant alumnus who works at Yahoo now). But there were nights when… well, when you’re 22 years old and leave the office at 2:30 a.m. nightly to step out into a not-very-nice section of Hartford… The feeling of desolation is just overwhelming. There were dozens of times that I figured, Hey, I’m a sharp guy who’s good with a spreadsheet, I could make millions in finance, right?

Long, uninteresting story made slightly shorter: I stuck with it (mostly because I met my future wife at the Courant), I lucked my way into a job at Sports Illustrated Kids (a wonderful publication that I now read with my daughter, cover-to-cover every issue), and continued to stumble into good fortune. I’ve gotten to do work that (1) allowed me to support my family, an increasingly difficult goal to achieve in sports journalism right now, and (2) allowed me to work on stories that satiated me emotionally. Some nice people have given me trophies, including this one, and a chance meeting led to me being hired by Peter King at The MMQB, where I’ve worked for the past 30 months or so. They could’ve fired my ass a few months ago, and considering what I’ve gotten to do in my career, I wouldn’t have any right to complain.

So, had you told the 22-year-old me that, one day, I’d get to serve as a managing editor for an issue of Sports Illustrated, I would have nodded politely, waited until you had turned around and then punched you in the back of the head and cursed you for toying with my fragile emotions. And yet, last week it happened. I got to serve as tri-managing editor (along with MMQB cohorts Mark Mravic and Matt Gagne) on the MMQB takeover issue of Sports Illustrated.

Robert Beck

So, there you go, my reading recommendation. It was an arduous, months-long journey that required many all-nighters along the way, including last Friday and again on Sunday night, but I couldn’t be happier with the issue we put out. (And yes, I was weirdly overwhelmed with emotion when I picked an issue up on Wednesday.)

If you have a chance, pick it up on the newsstand, or in the dentist’s office, or in the library (or check out the tablet edition). We ran a couple stories from the issue on our site, but believe me, there’s nothing like the one that you can hold in your hand.

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10. I think, at 12:58 p.m. ET, you should turn your volume all the way up and press play…


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