The NFL is in trouble without Dan Rooney and Gene Upshaw running these CBA negotiations.
Two scenes from the league meetings I'll remember for a while:
• Tuesday night, Mozambique restaurant, Laguna Beach, Calif.: Every year at the meetings, the Rooney family invites a select group of Steelers club officials, league officials and media to dinner in a private room. It's a low-key affair with a toast, stories and an early exit because this isn't a wild crowd; everyone wants to be up early the next day.
A few of the guests christened this one "The Last Supper'' because Rooney has been nominated by President Obama to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. At one table, Roger Goodell and wife, Jane Skinner, sat across from Rooney and his wife, Pat. "Dan, I'm going to miss those 9 a.m. phone calls,'' Goodell said, referring to the agenda-setting advisory phone calls Rooney's been making to Goodell every weekday for the past 20 months, since he took the reins as commissioner. Rooney has been Goodell's mentor, his bench coach.
• Wednesday afternoon, outside the meeting room at the Dana Point, Calif., hotel where the NFL was about to adjourn. Rooney took out his cell phone and played a message he'd kept from the late Upshaw for three years, a message that was meaningful to him because it conveyed the art of the deal and the mutual trust the two men had. I listened, and there was Upshaw talking about what it was going to take to get the deal done, spoken like a man who'd been through this 100 times before.
I'm not saying we're on a collision course for a job action in 2011, though I do think some work stoppage is more likely than not. Goodell is smart, and everyone says DeMaurice Smith, the new head of the NFLPA, is smart, too. But I think Goodell was sorely disappointed when Troy Vincent wasn't elected executive director, because he knew Vincent and felt he could find common ground to make a deal with him. But the player reps elected Smith because they wanted him to take a tough stand with the league and not give anything back in the wake of the owners opting out of the current collective bargaining agreement.
Upshaw died last August. Rooney is all but certain to be confirmed for the Ireland post. So last week, everyone in the league was trying to take the temperature of what it all meant. And no one thought it was good. There's no natural mediator available in the league right now. Surely one can, and probably will, emerge. But will it be one the players know and trust the way many of them trust Rooney, who tries to see their side of the story as clearly as he sees the owners' side?
One of the issues in the negotiations will be the amount of debt the owners have built up over the past few years. I'm told the 32 teams owe a combined $8 billion for money they've borrowed for stadium construction and other infrastructure improvements and practice-facility costs. That's about $250 million per team. And the players have always had the attitude -- which I can see too -- that, yes, the owners do have massive debt issues, but at the end of the day, that debt, once it's paid, is going to make the owners' franchises worth all that much more.
The owners are going to have the attitude that they've got this huge debt service per year, and they're incurring this debt service to grow the game, and so this debt has to be taken into account when figuring the total salary cap and salary floor per year. I know it's complicated, but that's the nut issue here. I think Rooney would have been the best man to tell the players that compromise is essential on this issue or there's not going to be a deal.
There was talk at the meetings that Rooney would still be a big factor in the negotiations. But I'm told if Rooney is approved, he's going to be more than just a glad-handing diplomat; he's actually going to live primarily in Ireland (many ambassadors split time nearly equally between America and their posts) and devote his time to the job. In his absence, I think Rooney will be available to advise the league, but Goodell's going to need another Kissinger to be a shuttle diplomat between owners and players.
Maybe it'll be New England owner Bob Kraft. I think it's a job Kraft would love. Maybe it's Rooney's son and successor with the Steelers, Art Rooney II, a quiet consigliere devoted to the league. It could be Houston owner Bob McNair, an even-tempered deal-maker, or John Mara of the Giants. Kraft has the deal-making power. Art Rooney, McNair and Mara might have the long-haul calm to broker a deal in what could likely be contentious negotiations.
"I'm not willing to say they're going to be contentious,'' Rooney said as the meetings wrapped up. "Difficult, yes, but we have a chance to do a deal that's going to last a long time.''
As for who will become the mediator to replace him, Rooney himself said: "Someone will step up. Someone always steps up.'' That's the hope of this $7-billion-a-year business.
The league isn't leveling with fans on the idea of a 17- or 18-game schedule.
Roger Goodell keeps saying the idea of 17 regular-season games with three in the preseason, or 18 and two exhibitions, is just another way of playing the 20 games that are already scheduled. Wrong. It's wrong because starters would be playing the full game in the 17th and 18th regular-season games, and now they play, on average, a quarter of each preseason game.
I looked up how much two big stars, Adrian Peterson and Carson Palmer, played in the preseason. (I looked up Tom Brady, too. Remember how he was supposed to have a bad foot that kept him out of the Patriots' four preseason games, while, coincidentally, the Patriots were trying to make final decision on what roles, if any, Matt Cassel and Matt Gutierrez would have with the team? Anyway, Brady never played a snap in the preseason, though I saw him practice full bore and competitively one day in August during training camp.)
Peterson didn't play in the Vikings' first and fourth preseason games. In the middle two, he combined to carry the ball 20 times and play a series longer than four quarters. That's exactly how long Palmer played in four Cincinnati games -- 70 minutes, covering 14 series. He skipped the fourth game, as most regulars do.
So Peterson played the equivalent of 17 games before the playoffs. The reason Brad Childress doesn't play him more, obviously, is the risk of injury. If the schedule is expanded to 17 real games, Peterson would likely play the equivalent of 18 games. If it's jacked up to 18 games, then maybe Peterson plays those 18 plus a half or three quarters in the two preseason games.
No matter how the league throws it out there, there's no doubt players would be exposing themselves to another four quarters of injury risk if the regular season is expanded to 17 games. Add two more games, and most veterans would be playing an extra six or eight quarters.
By the way, if you think players are just going to rubber-stamp a 17th game, or 17th and 18th games, you're wrong. The players who consulted with the Competition Committee and were unanimous in their approval of the current overtime system were adamant about one thing: They didn't want an increase in the number of plays they'd have to play.
"Anytime you have change, there is some reluctance," Goodell said at the meetings. "But it's clear we don't need four preseason games anymore. Fans don't believe preseason games are up to our standards. A key point is the fans also recognize players they want to see are not in those preseason games.''
How about if players they want to see are not in the postseason games, because their bodies can't take the added wear and tear?
Mike Tomlin's got a point.
A few people I know in the business were stunned to see Steelers coach Mike Tomlin get angry in the couple of hours after the Super Bowl, after the greatest win of his young life. I knew why, and at the meetings, he explained. He was shocked at the thing I've always found stupid about the postgame Super Bowl stuff, and I say it's stupid even though I'm part of the monster that has created the demand that angered Tomlin.
Winning coaches ping-pong from one media obligation to another in the 90 minutes after the game, and they never get a chance to talk to their team. It's incomprehensible to me that a coach would stand in front of his team after every game he ever coaches, and then, in the biggest game of his life and his players' lives, the game ends without the coach ever saying a word to them.
It is 57 days after the Super Bowl this morning, and Tomlin has still not talked to his team.
"It's a shame,'' Tomlin said. "When you have an opportunity to be a part of something like that, you appreciate the selflessness of the group and you would love an opportunity to bask in the collective achievement of the group. I wanted to go into the locker room and share the experience with the people and players who matter most. And I think that's lost under the current setup. By the time I got into the locker room about an hour and a half after the game, the vast majority of the players were gone. There's got to be a way to retain that element of it and at the same time give the fans of the game what they need.''
Solution: The winning network gets the celebration on the field and three or four interviews, including with the coach and MVP, in a 15-minute on-field show. Then the coach and all players get whisked back to their locker room so he can tell them whatever he wants to tell them. Then, no more than 30 minutes after the game, every key player is at a series of postgame podiums set up in the bowels of the stadium.
Our deadlines are important, obviously. The public's right to know details about the game is very important, obviously. But it's inexcusable the coach cannot talk to his players and share with them the thrill of their greatest win of their lives.
Norv Turner just might run LaDainian Tomlinson until the wheels fall off.
Of all the conversations I had at the league meetings, the one with San Diego coach Norv Turner surprised me the most. "I think LT's got a hell of a chance to win the rushing title,'' Turner told me. He said Tomlinson had "fluky injuries'' last year, and he expects him to get well over the number of carries -- 292 -- he had last year. "Maybe in the 320, 330 range,'' Turner said.
Well, Tomlinson, who struggled to a 3.9-yards-per-carry average last year, would have to put his career in overdrive at age 30 this fall to compete for a rushing title with 320 carries. Last year, Adrian Peterson won the title with 1,760 yards on 363 carries. Michael Turner of the Falcons was second with 1,699 yards on 376 carries. For Tomlinson to hit 1,760 yards on 320 carries, he'd have to rush for 5.5 yards per carry, which is seven-tenths of a yard better than the terrific Peterson managed last year.
I don't see it. No one does. But if that's going to be Turner's attitude with Tomlinson, it's obviously being done to tell Tomlinson: We don't see you in a steep decline, and we don't see you in a time-share with Darren Sproles. You're still our guy. Now, we'll see if Tomlinson has it in him.
Tom Coughlin and Rex Ryan are going to team up to help Paul Zimmerman on May 18.
In a dual act of selflessness that humbles me, the Giants and Jets head coaches will come together in a fundraiser to help the ailing Dr. Z try to kick-start his long road to recovery from a series of three strokes. Coughlin and Ryan will appear at a dinner and silent auction on that Monday night in West Orange, N.J., with the proceeds from the $225-a-plate evening to benefit some aggressive therapy and home-outfitting costs for Zimmerman, who is trying to come back from strokes that have left him unable to speak, read and write.
The highlight of the evening (or lowlight, depending on your opinion of the moderator) will be a 40-minute football roundtable discussion with Ryan and Coughlin, hosted by me. You'll have the chance to fire away at the two coaches, too.
What this all comes down to is this: Zim doesn't want to sit quietly in the corner, smiling and not understanding much of what is happening to him, while he lives out the rest of his life. He wants to be the smartest pro football writer on earth again. For that to happen, he needs intense intervention. Now. And so many of you have written to ask, "What can we do to help?'' This is what you can do -- you can come to this dinner, and have a great football night out, and know you're helping Dr. Z be Dr. Z again.
"Paul doesn't want to settle for just a partial recovery,'' his wife, Linda, said. "He wants to be back working, and to do that, he needs intensive therapy.'' Therapy like the intensive and innovative (and expensive) six-week University of Michigan Aphasia Program, where he'll get 23 hours of challenging speech therapy a week ... and which isn't covered by insurance.
One of the reasons we want to do something to try to help is because Zim's trying so hard to help himself. In the morning, Linda picks up the newspapers, and he'll stare at the pages he's become so familiar with over the years, sometimes for hours. "He's seeing something, and he's fighting so hard to be able to read again,'' she says. "He'll look at the agate type of the sports section for hours, trying to comprehend. It's amazing to watch. It just drives me to try to help him as much as we can.''
I'm so impressed that it took about six minutes to arrange this. Ryan has a calendar already stuffed with all the things a rookie head coach must do, and Coughlin's football and charity dockets (he is one of the most charity-conscious coaches I've ever met) are chock-full.
I'll have more details, particularly on the auction items, on Mondays to come. But we've got some good ones for you. Some unique opportunities. You'll love them.
This is about as bad a time for a fundraiser as we could have, but in the immortal words of Coughlin, Ryan and every coach alive, the economy is what it is. Tickets (again, $225 apiece, or $1,500 for a table of eight, and come on you businesses, I know you've got it in you) can be had by sending a check, payable to "Dr. Z/Nothing is Impossible Foundation'' to:
Dr. Z/Nothing is Impossible Foundation21 Pine St.Suite 202Rockaway, N.J. 07866
For further information, please email Barbara Neibart at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact me at email@example.com. Also, if you're interested in volunteering on the night of the event, please indicate that, and we'll be in touch with you as we get closer to May 18.
I know many of you who have loved reading Zim over the years will not be able to attend because you live far away from New Jersey, and maybe in a different continent. You'll have the chance to bid on some of the auction items through this column, as I'll explain as we get closer to the event.
Our goal is to have Zim haranguing coaches and commissioners and broadcasters and quarterbacks as soon as possible. Thanks for helping, if you can, and thanks for thinking of Zim.
"I think that in order to change this, we better get real about why it's going on and stop putting Band-Aids on it and let's cut to the core and see what the real issue is. To put lip service to it and continually push it over in the corner, the monster keeps growing. So, deal with it. [The monster is] selfishness. 'It's all about me.' But I'm excited because I don't feel like that about this football team anymore."
-- Oakland coach Tom Cable, on the change he's felt come over the Raiders since he took over as interim head coach last fall, then was named the full-time coach for 2009.
"Do I think the officiating was bad? No. But we had some train wrecks, and train wrecks hurt you.''
-- NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, who says the officials were correct on 98.1 percent of their calls in 2008, down from 98.3 percent in 2007.
-- Denver coach Josh McDaniels, asked if he felt there might come an opportune time for the Broncos to consider trading Jay Cutler.
Rich Get Richer Dept.:
There are 100 picks in the first three rounds of the 2009 draft -- 96 regular choices and four compensatory picks for teams suffering significant losses in the 2008 free-agency market. As if they need the extra help, the two teams that met in Super Bowl XLII, the Giants and the Patriots, have the most choices in the first three rounds. Between them, New York and New England have 11 of the first 100 picks. Seeing that the two franchises have a total of three playoff appearances over the past two years and have averaged 12 wins per season, it's almost overkill to see them with such great draft positions.
Here are the draft choices in the top 100 of all teams that won 10 or more games last year -- in essence, a rundown of which teams are going to be in position to continue to create distance between their teams and the lagging field when the draft kicks off April 25:
Team (Top 100 picks) Overall choices.
1. New England (6) 23, 34, 47, 58, 89, 97.Strategy: Look for the Pats to trade one of their three second-rounders -- and, if need be, a later pick -- for some team's 2010 first-rounder.
2. New York Giants (5) 29, 45, 60, 91, 100.Strategy: Unless they can deal for either Braylon Edwards or Anquan Boldin, the Jints will use one of the first three picks on a receiver.
3. Miami (4) 25, 44, 56, 87.Strategy:Bill Parcells went to see North Carolina wideout Hakeem Nicks the other day, underscoring how desperate they are to get a Ted Ginn bookend.
4. Minnesota (3) 22, 54, 86.Strategy: The right side of the offensive line is a concern, as is receiver and youth on the defensive line.
5. Atlanta (3) 24, 55, 90.Strategy: His freshman draft shows GM Thomas Dimitroff will make a trade to chase a player he really wants. If only Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo were gettable.
6. Baltimore (3) 26, 57, 88Strategy: Corner, receiver. Receiver, corner. Ozzie Newsome's getting the best of both available at some time in the first three rounds.
7. Indianapolis (3) 27, 61, 92Strategy: Colts always go by the book and take the best player at need positions. There's a slot receiver with Bill Polian's name on him: Ohio State's Brian Hartline.
8. Tennessee (3) 30, 62, 94Strategy: If the Titans don't get Torry Holt in bargain-basement free-agency, they'll join the club of good teams yearning for a receiver in the first or second round.
9. Pittsburgh (3) 32, 64, 96Strategy:Bryant McFadden took his physical cover skills to Arizona, and the Steelers will want a cover guy with the first or second pick.
10. Carolina (2) 59, 93Strategy:Jeff Otah is this year's first-rounder; that's how the Panthers have to look at their '09 draft. Don't be surprised if the Patriots and Panthers deal.
When Al Davis returned home from the NFL meetings last Wednesday, he flew Southwest Airlines from Orange County to Oakland, conversing warmly with passengers and flight attendants. A buddy of mine on the flight said he had lots to say about women's basketball -- and if you know Al, you know he knows the starting five for Geno Auriemma's Connecticut team as well as he knows the starting five on the offensive line for USC.
Seven of them:
1. The Marriott in Dana Point, Calif., responding to my kvetching about no coffee anywhere in the hotel on weekends 'til 7 a.m., made a great call, starting this weekend. They've begun making coffee available in the lobby at 5 a.m. Good to see you improving, Marriott.
2. The stuffy St. Regis, however, is still making its beach restaurant a hotel-guests only deal. Someday I'm going to be good enough, and rich enough, to eat there.
3. Why I'll Probably Never Live In L.A. Dept.: Driving on the 5 in Orange County on Wednesday afternoon around 2, I was in a 35-minute combination dead-stop and crawl. Volume. No accident, just volume ... Friday morning, on the 10 near downtown around 11:15, another very thick 20 minutes of traffic ... On the way back to our hotel Friday night around 10:25, another 15-minute snarl on the 101. I love L.A. Every visit I have there is too short. Great city, so much to do, superb sports/entertainment complex with the Staples Center nucleus downtown (terrific, comfortable arena, by the way). But living there -- I don't know. Transportation, I fear, would be a major issue.
4. The weather might make up for it.
5. Drove past the Viper Room, where River Phoenix died of a drug overdose, in West Hollywood. It's a hole in the wall! Looks like some dive head shop from college days.
6. Daughter Laura -- flourishing and happy in L.A. -- is what I would call, charitably, a competitive driver. I did notice our friends the Normans, out to see the World Figure Championships on Friday night at Staples Center, kiss the road and thank the Lord for safe passage when Laura dropped them off after the skating Friday. I believe Mike Norman, a Vietnam vet, puts that commute in his five most harrowing drives of all time.
7. US Airways home from LAX Sunday ... $15 to move from a center seat to an aisle with a few more inches of leg room ... $40 to check three bags ... $7 for a salad. Welcome to 2009 air travel, America.
1. I think I hear and believe what the Cardinals are saying -- and Ken Whisenhunt said it to me again last week, that he is determined to keep Anquan Boldin on his team. But I've seen too many of the guerrilla tactics by agent Drew Rosenhaus to think it's going to go down that way. The Eagles are sitting there at 21 and 28, frothing for a receiver. So is Miami at 25, Baltimore at 26, the Giants at 29 and Tennessee at 30. If the Cards think it's going to be tense with Boldin, with more problems at training camp like last year, they're going to have to think seriously of auctioning Boldin and spending the money on Karlos Dansby long-term.
2. I think one of the reasons I like Jim Schwartz's chances to succeed in Detroit (and don't ask me what the word "success'' means in Detroit, because nine wins there is a Super Bowl-winning season somewhere else) is because he thinks. It's nothing revolutionary, maybe, but it's just smart. He won't be cowed into drafting Georgia's Matthew Stafford just because he's a good quarterback. If Schwartz has sincere doubts about any aspect of Stafford's game, he'll take someone better at his position, like Baylor tackle Jason Smith or Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry.
Schwartz was interesting when we spoke the other day about Curry. I told him how Curry played the outside, yet had one sack per four games at Wake. "Not that significant,'' he said. "Here's a guy who would fit perfectly for us in the middle and never come off the field. In college, he played the run, he covered, he did everything linebackers at every position would do. For us, he'd be perfect going sideline to sideline.''
3. I think, if I had to guess right now, Detroit will take Jason Smith No. 1. He's a pure football player who loves football, and he's athletic enough to step in at left tackle in either year one or year two ... plus, the Lions' selfless left tackle, Jeff Backus, has already told the Lions he'll do what's best for the team, and if that's moving inside to left guard or to the other side at right tackle, that's what he'll do.
4. I think, if I were Stafford, I'd be ready for some funny business when the Lions show up at Georgia to work him out. I don't mean ha-ha funny. I mean Schwartz is going to put Stafford in some uncomfortable spots and force him out of his comfort zone. If it's windy, you can be sure Stafford will be throwing his fastball into the wind, for instance.
5. I think the moment I'll remember from these league meetings, other than the Rooney things, happened just before the owners scattered at midday Wednesday. "Peter King!'' boomed Al Davis, and he wasn't smiling. "You haven't written a good thing about the Raiders in 10 years!'' That's not entirely true. I did like the Robert Gallery-Jake Grove draft (oops!), and I praised the Lane Kiffin hire in his rookie summer (nice honeymoon). But Al's right. I haven't liked much about the losingest team in football over the last half-decade.
6. I think, just to tease tomorrow's column, I'm going to examine the cases of the two men Davis is passionate about for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Hint: They both wore the silver and black.
7. I think if the NFL begins to seriously discuss expanding the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams -- and believe me, the expansionist orators are preparing their speeches to fellow owners -- I'm going to be prepared to argue against that absurd, watering-down-the-game-for-TV notion.
8. I think, still, that a division winner should not be guaranteed a home playoff game. Why the 12-win Colts had to travel to face the eight-win Chargers is still an injustice that too few people got exercised about. The solution is simple: Excellent teams should not be penalized for being in a division with a superb team, so the playoffs should be seeded, per conference, on the basis of record alone.
9. I think I admire Vince Young's moxie -- he said to Jeff Fisher recently, "What do I have to do to win my job back?'' -- but in this league, it's about what you do, not how passionate you seem. The Titans are Kerry Collins' team, unmistakably, for at least the next few years.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I've had pizza, like many 51-year-old old males who travel a lot, in many cities in this country and others. The best I've had is from Pizzeria Mozza here in West Hollywood. Good luck trying to get in, but if you do, the thin crust and perfect blend of natural ingredients will make you plead, "Don't make me give up my table. Let me just sit here 'til I'm hungry again.''
b. Amazing how many movie billboards there are in L.A. You'd think they made movies there or something.
c. There's something wrong in America when you go on the road, need a prescription filled and have to pay full price because you have your HMO card and your prescription card to show the pharmacist but don't have the approval for a clearly approved medication on the prescription bottle.
d. Coffeenerdness: Very, very interesting coffee choice in Laura's neighborhood. Peet's, Coffee Bean and Starbucks, all within about 1,000 yards. That's a reason to live somewhere.
e. Hey, spring! Opening Day's a week from last night. You available?
f. Don't ask me about my bracket. I liked Siena, Syracuse and Washington too much.
g. What more does Clay Buchholz have to do to win a spot in the rotation?
h. It's official: There are more dogs than people in the South End of Boston.