A declining quality of play and inability to build roster depth are two of the reasons cited for wanting to change the limited practice rules that arrived in 2011. Here’s how the league is working to fix it. Plus more notes on the draft QBs, Tony Romo checkpoints and how Steve Kerr helped Dan Quinn
PHOENIX — Publicly, Tuesday’s getaway day at the owners meetings was about three things: 1) Voting on rules proposals; 2) Committee presentations; 3) Getting out of Dodge.
Quietly, the wheels were turning on something that’s just a little higher impact.
Early in the day, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Saints coach Sean Payton and Panthers coach Ron Rivera held preliminary discussions with league officials on the state of the NFL’s offseason, and its work rules. Later, in a larger session, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians and Browns coach Hue Jackson stood up and made their cases for more time with their players.
And if you polled the 32 coaches here at the Arizona Biltmore en masse, there’s a pretty good chance you’d get unanimous approval on their message. In the name of talent development and quality of play, the time has come, all these coaches believe, to take a hard look at how the NFL is setting up its quiet months.
“There are just simple topics in Phase I, Phase II (of the offseason program),” Payton told me Wednesday morning. “It’s in its early stages of discussion. Hey, these are some things that, if we can have everyone in the room agree, make more sense. It may be just starting training camp on time. Everyone ought to start training camp on the same exact day, except for the Hall of Fame game. Every team.
“And I can’t figure out why this other way is better, but we’re doing it. That’s not a union thing, or a league thing, it’s just not a benefit to anyone that way. But the climate is such now when one person brings it up, the other person says, ‘Well, what am I getting?’ And you’re like, ‘No, this doesn’t benefit anyone.’”
In this week’s Game Plan, coming off the league’s annual meeting, we’ll look at Dan Quinn’s plan for welcoming back his players from the Falcons’ Super Bowl collapse, the plans at quarterback in Houston and Cleveland, and we’ll check in again with the Redskins with the dust having settled from March’s messy breakup with GM Scot McCloughan.
But we’re starting with an issue that you’ll hear more about in the coming months and years, as we draw closer to the 2020 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. And while it’s one you might not think about, the coaches you watch every Sunday in the fall believe it’s beginning to affect the product you’re seeing between the white lines.
During the 2011 labor negotiation, one big give-back from the owners to players related to work rules. Each team’s offseason program was cut by five weeks, from 14 to nine, with only five of those weeks to include on-field work. The number of hours within that time was reduced. Summer two-a-days were eliminated. Allowable contact was reduced drastically.
The truth is, it really wasn’t much of a sacrifice for the owners—You mean, we get to shut off the lights for another five weeks?—but it flipped upside down the way coaches could run their programs. And while coaches could get creative—ex-Niners coach Jim Harbaugh used to run separate sessions on adjacent fields during camp to maximize reps—that time can’t be made up, which they found was good for no one.
“Our players like when we coach them,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “I had a kid come in the other day. Can I get my playbook? ‘No.’ Can you imagine that? I can’t give him his playbook. It doesn’t make any sense. I’m a firm believer that, and I’m stepping out of my lane a little bit, but I just think for this game to keep going the way it’s going, and it’s an awesome game, we need more time with the players.”
OK, so where is this felt?
The easiest place to start is in player development. Some coaches have groused that developing depth, especially at positions where backups don’t rotate into games (quarterback, offensive line) has gotten infinitely more difficult. Others have said that it’s kept them for finding more good players in the first place.
“I was fortunate, I had Brandon Moore with the New York Jets, and Brandon came in as a defensive lineman,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “He went out, played in the world league, was on our practice squad, we released him, came back on our practice squad, and we kept working with him, working with him. And all of a sudden, he’s a 10-year starter and a captain for the Jets.
“Brandon was an extremely hard worker, he was an outstanding player with the Jets. I don’t know if a Brandon Moore comes about today, because of a lot of different things at that development stage.”
“You go to training camp and you’ve got one practice and a walkthrough,” added Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, who played seven NFL seasons after going undrafted. “I never would’ve played in this league with one practice and a walkthrough, because I never would’ve been discovered. A lot of players today aren’t getting discovered. We don’t get to see them.
“You can’t evaluate someone in a walkthrough, and then you throw them in a preseason game with the half the reps they normally would’ve gotten. So not only is it affecting the players’ play, we’re missing out on talent. You think (Bronco legend) Terrell Davis would be here today? He was seventh on our depth chart.”
As O’Brien said, many players would rather be with their coaches. But failing that, they have to make up for it, which often costs them well into five figures in training costs (hiring skill-based coaches, renting fields, hiring strength and conditioning coaches, etc.)
“We’ve had guys ask, How come we can’t work out with you guys?” Rivera said. “Those are the rules. We have guys that have to hire people to work them out. We can’t. So they’re spending their money on people working with them, as opposed to working with us. That’s just the way it is.”
Lynn told me that, a few years ago, he went to former players Troy Vincent and Merton Hanks, both working for the league at the time, with notes on all the concerns he’d heard about the impact the work rules were having. Vincent and Hanks told him, in turn, to put a petition together to try and spark reform.
As Lynn recalls, “None of the veteran players wanted to sign it.” The reason? Relations between the players and league had deteriorated to where players were unwilling to put their trust in the clubs.
Conversely, the reason we’re here in the first place is in large part due to, you guessed it, the coaches. Some are even willing to admit it. “We screwed this up,” Marrone said. “Some people abused the time players were in the building.”
So fixing it will take trust. The players have to trust that coaches will stay within the spirit of the rules to back the coaches’ stance, which is necessary because the union will have to be on board with whichever changes do come. The players and league will have to trust one another—we’ve seen that doesn’t come easy—to try to create a mutual benefit here.
But the glimmer of good news here is that the effort is underway to be ready for changes in the next CBA, if not sooner as part of a CBA extension. And the belief is that those changes will mean opportunity for more players across the board, more prepared players on each team and, in the end, a better game.
“I understand all the politics behind it. There’s more than meets the eye, but it’s not American, it’s not common sense, it’s not right,” said Harbaugh. “The league has been great so far, the PA has been great, and I think in the next CBA it’ll get adjusted, I hope in a good way. If we can get past the bickering and the taking of sides—it’s not a poker game here, we’re not hoarding chips.
“Why don’t we just sit down and say, what’s good for everyone involved here? It’d probably take about an hour to figure the whole thing out, if everybody put agendas aside.”
That, of course, is easier said than done in these circles. But after this week, it’s clear they’re trying.
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FIRST AND 10
1. With the Raiders’ new Vegas home set to open in 2020, the next question is whether the team could go before then. But as I understand it, UNLV‘s Sam Boyd Stadium isn’t close to being NFL compliant. And its location isn’t ideal.
2. Another issue with UNLV’s home is in investing in the necessary improvements. The Rebels plan to move their home games to the Raiders’ stadium, so it’s fair to question the wisdom in pouring money into a venue that will be abandoned.
3. Another sidelight to the move? Its impact on G-3 and G-4 stadium funding, which was put in to encourage teams from larger markets not to leave for better deals in smaller markets. This move is the first case of that since the 1990s.
4. I understand the NFL has to keep its feet planted on gambling. But the fact is, it’s going to be legal eventually. As one owner said to me, better to get out in front of it and be part of the solution, so the league is ready for what’s coming.
5. Expect to hear about teams with QBs of advancing age drafting and stashing successors over the next few weeks. And expect to hear the raw-but-gifted Davis Webb (Cal) and Pat Mahomes (Texas Tech) called ideal redshirt candidates.
6. While we’re there, I had Jordan Palmer—Carson’s brother—on my podcast last week. Jordan told me DeShone Kizer, whom he’s worked with, is a strong fit to be an heir apparent in Arizona, with the body and arm for Bruce Arians’ scheme.
7. Look for lots of teams to explore trading down in the next few weeks. Why? This year’s class is deep at many positions (CB, S, DE, WR), and so some teams feel they might get a similar player at, say, 25 as they would at 10 or 15.
8. One thing Doug Marrone said that stuck out? He views a good running team as one that can run the ball, even if the opponent knows what’s coming. Which tells me the Jaguars better have their chin straps buckled when we get to August.
9. Giants WR Brandon Marshall impressed a lot of people in the room as he addressed the league and teams here in Arizona. The theme of his message: “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others lives forever.”
10. Rule change I like the most? Centralizing officiating calls. Getting it right every time should be the goal, and we have the technology to get it right every time. So not using it is just ridiculous.
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1. First steps back. In a little more than two weeks, the Falcons will welcome back their players to Flowery Branch for the first time since their Super Bowl collapse. And in case you’re wondering, coach Dan Quinn isn’t planning on tiptoeing past the elephant sitting on the Atlanta sidelines. When I asked him on Wednesday if the loss to the Patriots will be the first thing he brings up when he gathers his team on April 17 to open spring work, he answered succinctly: “Yeah, it will be.”
Sometimes in these situations, you hear of coaches either burying or accentuating a bad moment in its aftermath in an effort to either get players to move on or convince them to forget. As he explained it to me, Quinn plans to do neither. The team won’t be watching Super Bowl 51 as a group, and there won’t be quirky reminders of the blown lead strewn about the building. But they also won’t be avoiding it either. Quinn doesn’t plan to remove cutups of the game from the team’s film library for the coming classroom work. In essence, he wants to create a sense of normalcy in the building to help the team turn the page to 2017, while taking all the good of 2016 and growing it. And that is in part thanks to advice he got on moving past hard championship losses over the past two months from San Antonio Spurs GM R.C. Buford, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
“The first piece I took was, ‘Yeah, you gotta talk about it’,” Quinn said. “You have to talk about what happened, why it happened, and take ownership for it. … What I did learn from them, you go back and you battle again, and when you have a really tight team that helps. That’s the case in San Antonio. That’s the case in Golden State. And that’s the case in Cleveland. The players are so connected, there’s not a lot of ‘I’m the reason’ or ‘You’re the reason.’ It helps a lot. That’s the common thread between San Antonio, Golden State and why they’re playing so well now, and why I bet Cleveland plays well again this year too. It’s not like, ‘I played well, so I’m good.’ They want to battle for one another.”
We all saw the challenge ahead for the Falcons in how their division rival in Carolina struggled last year, after a 17-1 start to 2015 came apart in Super Bowl 50, and bled into a 6-10 season in 2016. We’ll see whether Atlanta can sidestep the issues the Panthers couldn’t, but this much is sure—Quinn’s done all he can to address whatever lies ahead.
2. Browns’ quarterback situation remains unsettled. As of right now, Cleveland has a quarterback it doesn’t intend to keep (Brock Osweiler) and two rising sophomore signal-callers (Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan) at the game’s most important position, which seems to imply that they have an addition coming over the next five weeks. So with most other quarterback situations around the league having crystallized, the picture is a little clearer on where the Browns could go.
You can’t start here without looking hard at Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots backup who I believe is the pick of the litter in the Browns’ minds. The problem is price tag. Other clubs who’ve inquired on Garoppolo’s availability have been left with the idea that the Patriots aren’t trading him. I mentioned last week the Bears’ decision to move forward on Mike Glennon is serving as an implicit signal to the rest of the league that Tom Brady’s No. 2 is either prohibitively expensive or off the block entirely. Cleveland coach Hue Jackson said at these meetings that the team won’t trade the No. 1 overall pick, so the likelihood is it’d cost the Browns the 12th and something else substantial to get the Patriots to even think about it.
If Garoppolo isn’t an option, eyes will turn to the draft, where the Browns are likely to take Myles Garrett first, with the looming potential of pouncing on local native/North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky at 12 (if he falls that far). But here’s one I wouldn’t rule out—Bengals backup AJ McCarron. Jackson and then-staffmate Ken Zampese were McCarron’s biggest champions inside that organization before the 2014 draft, and McCarron’s got size, better-than-you-think athleticism, good arm talent and a ton of big-game experience. He’s also got more NFL starts than Garoppolo, and was within a whisper of winning a playoff game just 15 months ago. And he entered the league with a blown throwing shoulder—one reason he fell to the fifth round—that’s since been fixed.
Is this to say McCarron’s a better option than Garoppolo? No, and I don’t think the Browns think he is. But he certainly may be a better buy, based on the expected prices.
3. Does Houston still have a problem? The next real checkpoint on Tony Romo’s calendar comes April 17, when the Cowboys open their offseason program. After that, it’s the draft. And when I asked Jerry Jones for a date he’d like a resolution, he simply said “before training camp,” while knowing he doesn’t owe Romo a dime (outside of stipends) until Week 1 of the regular season.
As for Romo’s suitors? Given that Denver has Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, it’s not exactly panic time for John Elway and Co. Is it possible the Texans feel similarly comfortable? Here’s the answer I got when I asked O’Brien about it: “I’m really excited about working with Tom Savage, and (Brandon) Weeden. Both those guys are good guys, they’re hard workers, they’re good in the meeting room, they’re good on the practice field. Tom was our starter until he had a concussion against Tennessee. So yeah, I’m excited to work with those guys.”
Now, the next question would be where the long-term answer at the position will come from for O’Brien, who’ll start his fourth opening-day quarterback in as many years on the second weekend in September. Does Savage have a shot at becoming that? “I really do believe he does,” O’Brien continued. “We’re all looking for stability at every position, we haven’t had that at quarterback. We understand that. We need to continue to try and figure it out. I think Tom Savage is a guy who can help us win.”
The Texans like a lot of things about Savage, who would’ve taken the first snap in OTAs, even if Osweiler remained on the roster. Savage has size, and arm talent, and there were people in the building who believed, had it been based on merit alone, he’d have been the starter from the beginning of last season. But the Texans don’t know if he can be a Top 20 NFL quarterback, and they don’t know if he can stay healthy. So if Romo’s released, the Texans will pursue him, because Romo would create a little more certainty. And if he signs, Savage is the backup. If Romo doesn’t land in Houston? I think the Texans would be curious to see how their 2014 fourth-round pick would perform in a starting role.
4. A growing trend? An Achilles injury to Washington cornerback and prospective first-round pick Sidney Jones has once again raised the question of what draft candidates should and shouldn’t do in the run-up to late April. Jones was injured during field work—a backpedal drill, to be specific—at his pro day in Seattle on March 11, and had surgery 10 days later. There’s question about whether or not he’ll have to take a redshirt year as a rookie, but little doubt that—in a historically deep year for corners—his draft stock took a major hit. The injury could, potentially, cost him millions.
Some of Jones’ draft classmates aren’t waiting to take precautions. As I understand it, at Houston’s Pro Day earlier this week, CB Howard Wilson did the 40-yard dash, the bench press, then told teams he wouldn’t take part in any position drills. It’s not unusual for likely first-round picks to be picky in what they will and won’t do, but Wilson is more of a mid-round prospect and so the circumstance stood out to those in attendance, who were buzzing about the link to Jones and told that Wilson was working on his agent’s advice.
So I reached out to that agent, Vince Taylor, who confirmed that Jones’ injury was a factor in the decision. He added that the combine being later this year, which meant less time for guys to recover before hitting the pro day/workout circuit, was a part of making that call too, as was the knowledge that Wilson’s first contract won’t have many guarantees. Alabama’s Marlon Humphery was another example, although one from before Jones’ injury, of a player standing on the results of his combine field drills. “I understand it,” said one scout who was at Wilson’s Pro Day. “They do all that stuff at the combine, why do you have to do it again? We were all there too. And with the combine pushed back, they’re all jumping straight into pro days. Alabama was on the Wednesday after the combine, so Humphrey would’ve been doing the same stuff two days after he did it in Indy. It doesn’t bother me he wouldn’t want to.”
It’ll be interesting to see if it affects Wilson, and how Jones’ injury may change things for others going forward.
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OFFSEASON LESSON TO LEAVE WITH YOU
The Redskins have spent much of this week trying to convince everyone who will listen that the wagon of their future is very much hitched to Kirk Cousins, and they’re going to do all they can to extend him ahead of the July 15 deadline.
So over coffee Monday morning, I asked team president Bruce Allen if he sees Cousins as the face of the franchise for the next five or six years, rather than just a for-now fix. He offered a little proof that the Redskins do.
“Well, since we’ve offered him a contract around that length, I’d say yes we do,” Allen said. “He has gotten better the last three years, and we see him getting better in the future, and that’s why we do want to sign him long-term. We like his role as our quarterback and our leader, we just have to work that out.
“We talked last year, we didn’t get it done long-term. We have him signed for this year, and an option for next year. But our goal is to get a long-term deal.”
As I understand it, the deal that’s been offered is a five-year extension over the $23.94 million franchise tag that would lock up Cousins through 2022. I also know that the sides aren’t close to getting something done now. And while Allen insisted to me that he didn’t see the high one-year price making the long-term talks any trickier, the road to getting a deal done certainly won’t be easy.
But it also got me thinking about something else, which leads to our offseason lesson for this week: How quickly we forget about things.
The Redskins have taken an old familiar look over the past few weeks, and that look isn’t pretty. That said, when I asked Allen about if he’s worried about where perception has gone, he answered that perception is based on results. And he’s right. If the team can get Cousins signed between now and mid-summer, and put together a solid draft class, the opportunity is there to put everything in the rearview.
Of course, if things go the other way, then the way former GM Scot McCloughan was ousted will be reprised plenty. And that makes the Redskins one of the most interesting teams in the league for 2017.
So to wrap up this week, here are five questions I asked Allen, and his answers:
MMQB: Will you replace Scot McCloughan or just shuffle things around in scouting?
ALLEN: That’ll be something we look at in May. No different than the coaching staff—I think we have some coaches who will advance in this league, and become coordinators and head coaches. I think we have some people in our college and pro (scouting) departments who in the future will advance to a vice president of player personnel or general manager positions. We’ll look at it as a group, and see what we need to do.
MMQB: Are you disappointed in how things ended with McCloughan?
ALLEN: I’m the one who brought Scot to the Redskins. I had a relationship with his father and his brother in Oakland, and we had a lot of success together. Obviously, this isn’t what I envisioned for Scot or the Redskins. Yeah, it’s disappointing, the way it ended. But in the NFL, you have to go forward, and everybody—everybody—is doing their job and is on the same page.
MMQB: What’s the climate like in the building after all that’s happened the past few weeks?
ALLEN: It’s been great. Once again, in free agency, you sign nine players, at least six of them are starters. We addressed some needs we had on the defensive line; we lost 2,000 yards in receivers and we signed 1,600 yards, and hope the other guys can pick up the slack. Really happy with what work the pro department did, and I love the work our coaching staff has done. Our players, when they come in for the offseason program, are going to see some new ideas and a new attitude.
MMQB: Why extend Jay Gruden with two years left on his deal?
ALLEN: The players have responded to Jay, they’ve responded to his directness, his honesty, his humor, his sarcasm, but he’s also a creative offensive coach. (Owner) Dan (Snyder), Jay and I met at the end of the season, and Dan said, ‘I like the direction you’re going.’ We talked about the changes he was thinking of making to the staff, and we felt very comfortable that he’s the right coach for us. I think he’s getting better every year. He’s the right coach for the Redskins.
MMQB: Last year, you were widely seen as an ascending team. Do you still think you guys are, after losing both coordinators, your top two receivers, and your GM?
ALLEN: We feel good. We think in free agency, we added some players that’ll help us. But you get what you earn in this league. Right now, everyone is 0-0, including Coach Belichick. But I feel good about where we’re headed. The head coach has done a good job, and we have a core of talent on our team that’s helped us get better, and we have some guys that need to step up and play better, and everyone needs to work a little harder.
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