Beyond the Super Bowl
Super Bowl week is one giant set of meetings and celebrity-studded parties attended by the stakeholders of the game: owners, players, networks, sponsors and so forth. By the end of the week I always find myself thinking, Wait, there’s actually a game? By the weekend, the on-field business seems secondary.
Here are some thoughts about the two teams as well as the surrounding news at Super Bowl 51:
General manager Thomas Dimitroff has surrounded himself with other former GMs—Scott Pioli (Patriots, Chiefs), Phil Emory (Bears), and Ruston Webster (Titans)—and shown himself to be secure and unworried about where credit is given in a business known for territorialism and insecurity.
The Falcons will open a new stadium next year (that will host the Super Bowl in two years) featuring concession pricing as low as any previously seen around the league. Although some hassles of going to an NFL game cannot be easily improved— traffic, unruly fans, crowds, parking—the Falcons are at least addressing the perennially fan-unfriendly item: bloated concession prices.
What stands out to me most about the business of the Patriots is that they don’t pay anyone, with the possible exception of Rob Gronkowski, at the top of their positional market. Their roster is littered with bargains, starting with Tom Brady (see below), and they anticipate player leverage points and get return on their limited investment (see Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins). Further, while notoriously frugal in player spending, they pay Bill Belichick at the top of the coaching market.
Belichick’s brilliance gives the Patriots a discernible competitive edge outside the salary cap and allows the Patriots to take advantage of inefficiencies among the NFL’s competitive balance priorities. And he has proven himself to ably handle the difficult dual role of coach and general manager, a place on the Venn diagram where others have failed. It is an inherently conflicted role. Coaches must get players to trust them while general managers must be future-focused and willing to cut the purse strings for even the most popular players. Belichick’s dispassionate management style actually works to his advantage here.
The most common rationalizations about Tom Brady’s perennially undervalued contracts are that Brady 1) always puts the team first; 2) makes substantial earnings from endorsements; and 3) has a supermodel wife making tens of millions. These reasons suggest that Brady, who we know on the field to be as competitive and cutthroat as anyone, becomes submissive and docile in contract negotiations. That’s naïve. Do we really think Brady and his agent, Don Yee, approach contract negotiations saying, “This is less than what inferior quarterbacks make, but, hey, we’ve got an Ugg deal, so where do we sign?”
Thus, we are always left with the question as to why Brady continually takes less than the market for top quarterbacks. There are always those who suggest side deals and/or future promises, but no one has shown any such proof, making those suggestions irresponsible. Whatever the reason, the Krafts are the beneficiary, able to allocate salary cap and cash resources elsewhere as one of the transcendent players of our generation plays below market value.
For years I have answered questions about the Packers avoidance of going “all-in” on free agency. They’re asked by fans, media and even players. (Aaron Rodgers has recently raised the issue, saying the team needs to “reload” in free agency; Brett Favre and I would have these discussions every year when we were together in Green Bay.) My response is always the same: “What part of Ted Thompson do you not understand?” The Packers have not wavered from a philosophy—one that I practiced and agree with—that free-agency waters are usually rife with many more failures than successes. While the Packers have signed free agents who have been among their best players—Charles Woodson, Julius Peppers and Jared Cook to name a few—they were all players who were not being “run” by other teams and therefore signed more team-friendly deals. While the Packers may be active in secondary waves, they will always sit out the “stupid money” phase of free agency.
Pro Bowl Problem
As a team executive, I hated the Pro Bowl. Almost every year, like clockwork, I would receive a call from an agent of a player just back from the Pro Bowl who—after spending a week around other players, agents and various members of the “whisper crew”—felt underpaid and underappreciated. The combustible combination of stars, egos and loose conversation always has players wondering, Why doesn’t my team treat me like that team treats him? I counted down the hours after the Pro Bowl when I would receive those calls; I could set my clock by it.
Big Ben’s Big Decision
Having lived the “will he or won’t he return” game with Brett Favre for several years, Ben Roethlisberger’s comment “if there’s a next season” resonated with me. Like Favre, we can chalk up his comments to the emotion of a completed season, certain to change in the long offseason. However, this is a different time and place than with Brett. The awareness about future brain health issues, his concussion history, $158 million in career earnings and young family make us take Roethlisberger seriously. I do not discount Roethlisberger’s comments as much as some people have.
Protocol vs. Competition
Speaking of concussions, the NFL and NFLPA statement that the Dolphins did not “strictly” follow protocol regarding Matt Moore’s return to their playoff game was not a surprise in a year that started off with a similar inquiry into Cam Newton’s treatment (or lack thereof) in the season opener. Here’s the problem of in-game concussion protocol: the game gets in the way.
Were Newton or Moore a “civilian” and fell on their head walking into a doctor’s office, they would not be released back into normal life, let alone a contact sports, within minutes if not hours. If the NFL is serious about their stated priority of player safety—they proudly said last week that concussions were down—the return to play decisions must be consistent no matter the player or the magnitude of the game.
The 49ers’ Unexpected GM Pick
No one knows if longtime FOX analyst John Lynch will be successful as the 49ers’ new general manager, but the hire has received a (predictable) negative response in the scouting community. Much like the territorialism when general managers with salary cap backgrounds are hired—such as Mike Tannenbaum and Howie Roseman—there is bias against Lynch because he didn’t “come through the ranks” as a scout. In my opinion, that is antiquated view of the template for a general manager. One thing we know Lynch to be from his broadcast analysis is a good communicator. Ultimately, a general manager’s role is to put good people in place in the three phases of football operations—coaching, player evaluation and cap management—and foster open and honest communication between them. The 49ers, based in an area known for innovative thinking, have shown admirable outside-the-box thinking.
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