Plus, why Roger Goodell isn’t about to drop his ‘Corporate Commissioner’ persona, and remembering Michael Vick’s larger-than-life presence during his playing days
Before getting to the game behind the game, a thought on “The Game.” While the result will add to the lore of the Patriots and Tom Brady, my lingering memory from Super Bowl 51 will not be how the Patriots won, but how the Falcons lost. After Julio Jones’ miraculous catch late in the fourth quarter, Atlanta was up eight points with around four minutes left, with the ball inside the Patriots’ 25-yard line. Three kneel-downs and a field goal—to put them up eleven—would have effectively ended the game. As we now know, the Falcons mysteriously abandoned the run and moved backwards and then, of course, Brady happened. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, set to become the 49ers head coach, called a series of plays that will haunt him and Falcons players and fans for a long time to come.
Onto the game’s business…
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Commissioner Roger Goodell was true to form in his annual State of the League press conference during Super Bowl week. Goodell is forever guarded, unrevealing and on-script. Not only were the questions predictable, but the answers were as well, even on thorny topics such as the Chargers’ move (“relocation is painful”) and Deflategate (“I have to protect the integrity of the game”). This annual event, in this stage of Goodell’s tenure, may have outlived its usefulness.
I have often thought Goodell would benefit by showing a more endearing human side, a side I saw when I was with the Packers. I saw him show compassion towards a couple of our troubled players, even arranging a quiet visit with one of them away from cameras. The softer side of Goodell is there, we just do not see it (although he did conduct his press conference without a tie, so someone is thinking in these terms).
While we may want Goodell to be more of a “common man” to fans and media, those are not the target audience to whom he is speaking. Owners, league sponsors and networks want the stoic Goodell we see, an iron-jawed leader not prone to displays of weakness. Although a more human and vulnerable Goodell would help his image with fans and media, I doubt we will ever see Goodell as a less guarded and more vulnerable public face of the league. With a part of his job description requiring him to take the heat so owners don’t have to, he maintains a rigid presence.
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Speaking of popularity with fans and media, a thought about different treatment based on likability. When Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem and candidly spoke about controversial topics, he was not only criticized (even blamed for the NFL ratings decline) but also constantly queried for more detail about his political stance. In contrast, when Tom Brady, an acknowledged friend of President Trump (whose campaign hat was once prominently displayed in Brady’s locker), declines to comment on any aspect of Trump’s stewardship of the country, there seems nary a word spoken about his consistent refusal to engage? Don’t we want our athletes to be more than robotic cliché machines, especially for a friend of the most controversial man on the planet? I am not saying treatment of either player is right, just pointing out how disparate it is.
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Raiders’ Silver (and Black) Lining
Although news of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson pulling his $650 million out of the deal for the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas seems like a major blow to the franchise becoming the Las Vegas Raiders, there may be a silver lining in this for the team and league. While Adelson’s financing was critical, he is inextricably linked to casinos and gambling.
NFL owners have evolved in their views of gambling, evidenced by their embrace of (and investment in) Daily Fantasy Services and a willingness to enter the Vegas market. However, there are still pockets of ownership, as well as league executives, who draw the line with casinos. They will not allow casino “interests” to take financing positions in stadiums or equity interest in the team. And while it was unclear what Adelson would receive in exchange for his $650 million, those positions were certainly on the table. With Adelson now out of the picture, owner and league concerns in this area are soothed.
So what then for the Raiders? Well, as I often say, everything is negotiable. NFL owners are not likely to let a stadium deal with $750 million in public funding die on the vine. Reports of Goldman Sachs filling the funding gap were snuffed with reports that Goldman dropped out when Adelson dropped out. I still believe another funding source can be secured, and Goldman Sachs could return to the fold (NFL relocation point man Eric Grubman was a partner there). A better question is whether it can be found and buttoned up prior to the owners meeting in March, where a vote is expected. That may be prove quite difficult, meaning the Raiders-Vegas story could be put on hold for a year.
And what about Oakland? Well, the Adelson news provided renewed hope for keeping the team, although the financing there—from leaders including Ronnie Lott—has, to this point, left Grubman and owners underwhelmed. The Raiders may well play in Oakland for 2017, but Vegas will continue to circle. In my view, there is a stronger likelihood of filling the funding gap in Las Vegas than there is in Oakland. Stay tuned.
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As the Falcons prepared for the Super Bowl last week, their signature player for many years retired from football. Michael Vick was adored in Atlanta, an exhilarating talent that I witnessed stunning us in a playoff game at Lambeau Field. I not only saw Vick as a competitor but also witnessed the reaction of teammates in signing him.
After leaving the Packers, I did some consulting work for the Eagles in 2009 during the time when we signed Vick, recently released from Leavenworth federal prison after serving an 18-month term for dog fighting. Although Vick was signed as the third-string quarterback, when he walked into that locker room there was adoration bordering on genuflecting in his presence. I remember hearing players saying things like “We signed Vick?” and “Wow, we got Superman.” Players knew of his electricity and speed with the Falcons, and several felt that Vick was unfairly treated by the criminal justice system. I will never forget one of the Eagles most respected players telling me: “If that was Brett Favre fighting dogs, people would say ‘well that’s just a Mississippi thing’ and laugh and move on.” While I disagreed that people would just laugh and move on, I understood his point.
Michael Vick may never get his appropriate due from fans and media, but his peers know what a force he was, unlike anything the sport had seen before or since.
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