I've got a bit of a different column for you this week. Because of the ever-shifting sands of this labor story,
First, I have three things to tease:
Garber knows the NFL people involved very well, because he was a career NFL executive before becoming MLS commissioner in 1999, and he thinks Cohen will be a big factor, in a positive way, this week. One of the player reps in the talks, U.S. superstar Landon Donovan, said last night: "The moment we -- me and some of the guys in the league who were a part of the negotiations last year -- saw George was going to be the mediator for the NFL, we all said basically the same thing: that we think the league and the players will get a deal done.''
Matthews goes out to the field and, in the vital series, tells a teammate the ball's coming his way -- he can feel it. And here came Rashard Mendenhall, with Matthews sprinting at him. Big collision. Fumble. Packer ball. Momentum stemmed. "I read that!'' Matthews yells coming off the field. "I knew it was coming!'' Pretty good stuff in this DVD, but what else would you expect from NFL Films at the Super Bowl?
I'll be back with more detail on all three items, but first ...
WASHINGTON -- After extending the negotiating deadline twice in as many days last week, the NFL's owners and players will restart collective bargaining talks Monday afternoon in the downtown offices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. While some consider this to be the most positive development in some time, the reality is the sides remain far apart when it comes to deciding how to slice a financial pie that generated $9.3 billion in revenues last season.
Before looking ahead to this week's negotiations and the new March 11 deadline, it's worth reflecting on what took place last week and how the sides were mere minutes from having the negotiations blow up. Consider:
With only five minutes to go before the union's deadline to decertify last Thursday -- a move that might have obliterated the NFL as we know it today -- a player walked into the negotiating room that included commissioner Roger Goodell, league attorney Jeff Pash, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and union president Kevin Mawae and declared: "We're done! We're decertifying."
It had been three years since the league announced its intentions to void the current labor pact, yet 66 formal negotiating sessions had failed to bring the sides significantly closer. And as the decertification deadline ticked closer, members of the union's executive committee began to feel the owners were stringing them along in hopes that the players would miss the deadline. The players believed their only real leverage was to decertify because it would allow the players to sue the league for alleged antitrust violations if the owners locked them out, as expected. With the window to file closing fast, union officials and executive committee members sat in a room one floor beneath where the power brokers were meeting and weighed their options one last time. Then they decided it was time to act.
At that point the aforementioned player -- whose name is being withheld because of the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations -- walked into the room upstairs, tapped Mawae on the shoulder and made a quick hand-across-the-throat gesture while making his decertification declaration.
According to sources, the union had a member of its legal team on the phone with the clerk of the court in Minneapolis, where U.S. District Judge David Doty presides over the case. Cooler heads ultimately prevailed, and the league agreed to the first of two extensions. Still, if anything could be taken from that brief glimpse behind the curtains, it's that the players know the issues and are prepared to stand up to the men who run the country's most powerful sports league.
On Tuesday of last week, two days before the initial deadline, three player reps for the Kansas City Chiefs e-mailed teammates to ask if they were still comfortable with decertification. Like every other team in the league, the Chiefs had unanimously authorized such a move in a vote during the 2010 season. Still, the threat of decertification was a speck on the horizon back then. Now it was a potentially foreboding monster. Within 24 hours, the reps received 35 responses. Each of them supported the move. By Thursday morning, eight more players reaffirmed their votes. Forty-three players, all with the same response.
"I don't know that guys were itching for a fight, but we have been preparing for this so we're not at all nervous about pulling the trigger or stepping into that world," says one player familiar with the negotiations. "We all agree that if we can get a deal done that is fair, then it's best to do it between the two sides. But we're prepared to do it through the courts if we have to. We've been stalled by them for so long. For two years they've been jerking us around, to be honest with you. On Wednesday their owners came to a meeting and said they were going to go to Dulles and have another meeting among themselves, then we would get back together that night to discuss things. Then they all got on planes and all went home and didn't tell us anything. They left us sitting in the mediation room for the second time.''
Adds the player: "It just feels like we're always coming up with a new way to please them. It feels from our side like we've bent over backwards and made a number of creative proposals to them, all without getting the financial justification that they need a new system. Then they do things like hop on a plane and leave without telling us that they're leaving. We're not overanxious to pull the trigger on decertification, but we're definitely not hesitant."
Clearly the league views the proceedings differently. One NFL source said the owners have been "fully engaged and fully responsive for almost two years" and have made "numerous proposals and counterproposals." The players believe otherwise, and their willingness to go toe-to-toe with the owners stems largely from their belief that they are better educated about the issues than at any point in the past three decades.
Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard who led the union for 25 years before dying of pancreatic cancer in 2008, liked to centralize information and power. He was focused on the end result and believed it was best for the players to only know so much, partly because he feared information leaks could be used by the other side during negotiations.
Smith, his successor, ran on a platform of transparency. He told the players that if they weren't committed to taking responsibility for their careers and futures, then someone other than him needed to be the executive director. Smith has refused to participate in any formal negotiating session without at least one player by his side, and he has consistently pushed his player advocates and player reps to keep the membership informed.
His mission statement has helped create a one-for-all attitude that's illuminated by the selfless acts of veterans such as star quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. The three are among the league's highest-paid players, yet they have agreed to be the lead plaintiffs if there is a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the league. Also, veteran Chiefs guard Brian Waters suggested creating a pool in which higher-paid veterans could anonymously contribute funds that could help struggling young players meet their living expenses during a lockout.
"It's something that had been on my mind for months," Waters says. "I was thinking about which group would be the most vulnerable if there was a lockout, and I thought it would be the guys who had more to lose because they had fewer resources to pay things like healthcare and day-to-day expenses. Most of those guys really need the money that comes from the offseason workout checks, as well as the checks that come from training camp. I used to be one of those guys. I was a college free agent who was cut and played in the World League, and coming into that second season that money was an integral part of paying my bills. I knew there were a number of guys who didn't have the medical savings and reimbursement accounts, and I knew there were a number of guys who weren't high draft picks, but I also knew this number as a whole was a small number on every team's roster."
It's often said that the character of a man is how he performs in times of adversity. That reality is not lost on NFLPA executive committee members, some of whom have discussed possibly being blackballed by the league for standing up and being vocal about what they feel is right.
"I wasn't involved in the union early in my career, partly because my dad was a player rep and I saw how he got discriminated against," Seahawks co-alternate Matt Hasselbeck told
The pressure on both sides is enormous at the moment. Revenues and ratings hit all-time highs in 2010, and even in the second-worst economy in this country's history the league negotiated lucrative new TV deals, and, according to Judge Doty, strong-armed some companies into deals that included lockout protection for the owners.
A player familiar with the negotiations reiterated over the weekend that the union isn't looking for a fight, but fairness and financial transparency. However absent that, the players are willing to decertify and try their hand in court.
"We're ready to go," the anonymous player said. "If this is what it's going to take for them to negotiate fairly and take us seriously as partners, then let's do it. Honestly, most players come from the background where if their backs are being pushed against the wall they're going to fight back. They're not going to turn and cower. That's just the DNA of most NFL players, because that's what got us here. It's that survival skill and that ability to fight in pressure situations that has got us to this level. That's what you're seeing right now and will continue to see as we go forward."
So the two sides have until Friday to get at least the framework of a deal done. It's possible that by Friday the players will choose to decertify the union and take their chances in court, which likely would be followed by the league locking players out of their facilities. In court, with Doty the first line of litigious defense, the players would have the edge, to be sure. But the NFL would appeal every verdict. Weeks would pass. Months would pass. There's a very good chance that the season would be compromised and tens of millions of dollars (maybe hundreds of millions) would be lost forever.
Roger Goodell knows he has some owners who don't want to share any more financial information, and he knows he has some owners who'd be willing to take a shot at the players collapsing before the season became a total lost cause.
I remember, as I wrote the other day, Goodell saying to me that the March deadline was important, even though it came six months before the league would miss a single game. Season-ticket payments, many of them, wouldn't get made in March if the games were in doubt. Ad agencies would funnel money to other sports for the fall campaign. That's what Goodell has been telling his owners, anyway; believe it if you wish.
But it makes sense to me that he'll make his push this week. And it makes sense too that he'll give more financial information to the players. Wouldn't it make sense that if the players sue the owners that the owners would have to give up more financial data than they'd want anyway?
I was a little surprised that the players agreed to extend the deadline twice. That says to me they think they can move toward a deal, if not get one outright. I didn't think there would be that first extension, because the players know they have the edge in litigation now. When the two sides agreed to extend for a week on Friday, I felt strongly that the players were saying,
It was interesting talking to Garber and two MLS stars Sunday night, Donovan of the Los Angeles franchise and Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller. They're two of the most respected players in the league, and they, along with Garber, thought Cohen was invaluable in the process. "In most labor fights,'' said Garber, "both sides tend not to accept what the other side says at face value. I found George to be rational, calm and focused, with no vested interest except in trying to find a resolution. He ensured that all voices were heard, and I think led us to an agreement that could help us grow the sport.''
"Sometimes,'' said Keller, "it takes a third party to hear an argument for the first time and say, 'Look gentlemen, this is what I think is fair.' In our case, neither of us was flinching first. He gave both parties the sense that it was the other side giving in, and he was suggesting what was fairest to all. I can tell you that we all thought he was phenomenal.''
In particular, one of the final sticking points for Cohen was to bridge the gap on minimum salaries -- both for rostered players and for the MLS' version of practice-squad players, the developmental players. Minimum salary for active players rose from $34,000 to $40,000; developmental salaries went from $20,100 to $31,250. Cohen looked at ownership and said, in effect,
Makes the football discussions seem sort of ridiculous, doesn't it?
There's pressure on both sides this week to accept Cohen's suggestions. There's pressure on both sides to move more than they want. I can imagine what Goodell has said to more than one owner, and it's something like this:
And now for just a little bit of football. Mind if I sneak some of that in?
Last year, the Saints Super Bowl video had more of the inside, funny sideline stuff than this year's Packer DVD. You remember Sean Payton getting mad when he couldn't get the kind of gum he wanted. Well, I'll gladly trade Juicy Fruit for juicy stuff. There's a good bit of that in the NFL Films-produced "NFL Super Bowl XLV Champions: Green Bay Packers,'' to be released Tuesday by Warner Home Video.
My five favorite takeaways from the DVD:
In the Super Bowl, on third-and-10 with six minutes to go and the Pack nursing a 28-25 lead, Rodgers ducked into the huddle and said, "We're gonna be champions tonight.'' He got the playcall on this third-down play from McCarthy, and zipped it about 30 yards in the air -- amazingly, barely touched by an outstretched fingertip of cornerback Ike Taylor. It landed right in Greg Jennings chest, and Green Bay drove to an insurance field goal. Beautiful throw. Quite literally, had it been one inch closer to Taylor, the ball would have been knocked away, and the Packers would have punted from their 25 with plenty of time for the Steelers to drive.
And let's say Pittsburgh would have taken over at their 35 with 5:45 left ... needing only a field goal to tie and send it to overtime. Instead of having to go 87 yards in two minutes for the win, Pittsburgh would have had to go 35 yards in five-plus minutes to force OT. Big difference there. Rodgers, over and over again, showed what a great difference-maker he was in the four postseason games.
That wasn't the best of it for Jennings. In the second half, with the Packers nursing a 21-17 lead, Jennings went to coach and play-caller Mike McCarthy and begged him to call the corner route in the end zone, because the Steelers weren't being consistent with their coverages in the corner. McCarthy, with 12 minutes left in the game and the ball at the Steelers 8, called it. And just like Jennings said, he was wide open, and it was an easy touchdown for Rodgers. When Jennings got back to the sideline, he found receivers coach Jimmy Robinson, who said to him: "God bless you, my friend! That's what a champion does -- he makes a play we gotta have.''
"When someone like Carson, someone quiet that grows a random beard now and then, when he speaks you listen, especially when it's out of character. What we call it, where I'm from, is he's pulling a power move.''
But the power-move thing ... that's the point. He is pulling a power move. Or trying to.
"Everyone is not privy to the information. I talked to [Bill] Cowher and I talked to [Jon] Gruden and they're friends of mine. Of course Jon worked for me. There were a lot of reasons why that didn't happen. In Bill's case he wasn't ready to come back and he was very honest about it and we had a very candid conversation. In Jon's case, he said he would come back for me, but I said I needed a little more than that. You shouldn't just come back for me, you should want to do this ... He really enjoys TV and he's good at it.''
You know what I find amazing about that statement? You'll see down in number four, of the Ten Things I Think I Think.
"Well, after this phone call I have to clean the floors with the wife and do some laundry.''
We are 185 days away from the scheduled Sept. 8 opening game of the NFL season, at Green Bay. Six months from tomorrow.
When I pointed that out to a lawyer friend over the weekend, he said, "That sounds like plenty of time to get to court and get a resolution so the league won't miss any games. Not so. When you start to get into the federal court system, everybody thinks their case is the most important one in the system. If the players sue to try to overturn the league's antitrust exemption, I bet the decision will take months. Not just the original decision, but the appeal in front of a three-judge panel. That could take two or three months. I could see each side not wanting to go to court. Could the players stay solid losing paychecks in the millions while some court case very few of them will take the time to understand is argued?''
And, I said, could the owners stay solid knowing they'd be taking not only a multi-billion-dollar financial hit, but also knowing there was no way they would win the PR battle either?
This week, and perhaps one more extension after this, is vitally important.
How ridiculous is this? There's a chance (how good, who knows) that quarterbacks Cam Newton of Auburn and Ryan Mallett of Arkansas will both be picked in the top half of the first round of the NFL draft on April 28. Both players will have very important days on the same day this week. Auburn and Arkansas both have their Pro Days on Tuesday.
Florida State's Christian Ponder has his Pro Day March 16 in Tallahassee, Missouri's Blaine Gabbert his in Columbia March 17, Washington's Jake Locker in Seattle March 30. With the exception of Delaware's Pat Devlin on Gabbert's date, the lesser guys don't conflict with the competition either -- Andy Dalton of TCU March 11, Colin Kaepernick of Nevada March 22, Ricky Stanzi of Iowa March 21, Greg McElroy of Alabama March 10 and latecomer Scott Tolzien of Wisconsin March 9.
"Really drives me nuts,'' one top college scout told me Sunday. Not that there aren't going to be conflicts. But to see so many big schools loading up on such a small number of days. Today, one major school (Tulsa) has its Pro Day; next Monday, there are two (Central Michigan, LSU). Thursday, 13 major schools have Pro Days. Who plans this stuff?
I understand coaches and scouts want the weekend off.... And to get to Baton Rouge you'd have to travel on Sunday unless you were flying private. But for nobody to have noticed Mallett and Newton working out on the same day? Not good.
Now, teams thinking of taking a quarterback that high are going to try for a private workout with the guy anyway, most likely. But teams want as many exposures to a kid as they can get. (Maybe with the exception of Mike Shanahan, who hid his interest in Jay Cutler so well that no one, until he made the pick, including Cutler himself, had any idea what he was going to do.)
I'll be very interested to see where Chan Gailey, Jim Harbaugh, the Panthers and the Tennessee contingent led by Mike Munchak will be on Tuesday.
Had a swell time on my first trip to Atlantic City since 1982 (covering an Aaron Pryor fight for the
Anyway, I hadn't been to any of these newfangled casinos in Atlantic City, nor to the city, in some time. A few things struck me. To be downtown on the streets of the Monopoly game was fun. But time has not been kind to many of those streets. Oriental Avenue, for instance, mostly doesn't exist.
We stopped for a sandwich Saturday on the way out of town at the White House Sub Shop, which has survived every economic downturn in the city for 65 years, and still has traffic in and out at all hours. I commented to the cashier behind the counter about the photos of the Beatles in the place in 1963 and how cool that must have been. "I was at the concert,'' she said.
One of the sandwich-makers, just before noon Saturday, had been making sandwiches there for 50 years. Fifty! I'd recommend the cheesesteak, if you're interested. The large one, for $15.30. You won't eat again for three days.
One other thing about Harrah's: In the valet parking area, where you wait for your car, there's a vending machine. I found one row in the machine interesting: Skittles, Golden Oreos, Lance Peanut Bars, Goetze's Caramels, 5-Hour ENERGY. That's right. They don't want you to fall asleep in the casino, apparently.
It's $4.50 for the energy shot, or 90 cents an hour.
"The only way there could be a lockout this year is if it was needed. All that leaves our lives does so because the Father deems it necessary.''
1. I think the one thing I'm starting to hear teams be concerned about -- if they can't keep in touch with players or monitor their offseason workout regimen -- is a sort of withholding of aerobic conditioning by some players -- something that in the event of a long job action could affect the preparedness of players early in a new season.
"I would think big guys are a big concern, especially,'' said Andrew Brandt, the former Packer executive now with nationalfootballpost.com. "Without the constant contact and workouts, how do you know what kind of shape they'll be in when they come back? And I can tell you that medical people at the Scouting Combine were scared about their players doing rehab. Now players won't rehab in their facilities or with their team doctors. They'll rehab locally, maybe in their Y, without the supervision they should have in many cases.''
Could be especially interesting in a place like Green Bay, where players don't often stay throughout the offseason. "I included clauses in lots of contracts when I was there that would tether the players to our workout program," Brandt said. "You know where they're at, and you can also build the camaraderie that teams need.''
Interesting things that are also at stake this week with the events in Washington.
2. I think this is
3. I think it's nice that the Chargers signed Bob Sanders. Nice. Nothing more. For all the Chargers fans who've gotten excited about it, don't. If he adds something to your team -- a physical presence in the secondary 15 snaps a game would be an incredible bonus -- that's good. But understand that a safety who will be 30 opening day and has missed 39 of the past 48 regular-season games due to injury is, at best, a marginally interesting prospect to help a good team get better. I hope Norv Turner institutes what the Colts should have instituted years ago for Sanders -- a pitch count, essentially. Go into the season with the idea that he'll play no more than 15 plays a game until the postseason, no matter how good or healthy or eager he looks.
4. I think what really surprised me about Mike Holmgren discussing Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher as legitimate candidates for the Browns coaching job was this: He said Cowher "wasn't ready to come back and he was very honest about it.'' I find that very, very illuminating. Think of it. Cowher turns 54 in May. That is not only not too old to coach; it's almost prime time to coach. There are four big-time coaches half-a-decade older or more. Tom Coughlin is 64, Pete Carroll 59, Mike Shanahan 58, Bill Belichick 58. This will be Cowher's fifth year out of coaching. If he's not eager to get back in now, when will he be? Now it could be that since he is only seven months removed from his wife Kaye's death that is part of the reason for his reluctance to return. Or maybe it was simply that he didn't want to coach the Browns, because he sees them far away from being a winning team, and if a good team had an opening, he'd be interested.
But when a trusted guy like Holmgren says Cowher's not ready, my first impression is this: Maybe he's done for good. Maybe if he ever goes back, he'll actually be talking himself into something just because everyone around him says it's the right thing to do, not because he actually is burning to do it. When Jimmy Johnson went back to coach the Dolphins, I could tell he wasn't burning to do it. The results showed that too.
If I were an owner, and I looked at the pros and cons of Cowher in the future, I'd ask myself, and him, some serious questions about why he's going back into it. He has, by any reasonable estimate, a good $30 million to $40 million put away from his coaching and broadcast career. Will he ever be as hungry? Understand I'm not saying he won't be. It's just something I'd need to have answered satisfactorily before I give him $7 million a year and the keys to my franchise.
5. I think I'd give Plaxico Burress, who turns 34 in August and is a year-and-a-half younger than Hines Ward, a shot in my training camp. Any day of the week. Burress is likely to be hungrier and more focused than in his prime. And remember how great he was just 38 months ago.
6. I think it was good to have a chance to spend time with Patrick Peterson at the Maxwell event in Atlantic City. Very nice kid. Honored to be at such a cool event, and determined to be good. Also had a brief and pleasant conversation with Cam Newton (didn't mention either "icon'' or "entertainer'') and said I looked forward to chatting with him further down the road. Both handled themselves well, and with class, in front of the fervent Philly-area fans.
7. I think Paul Zimmerman's on the road to recovery after having Wednesday surgery to ameliorate his spinal stenosis. The first few days are always the hardest. That's what his lunch partner, Matt Millen, told Zim the day before, when he, Zim, me and our spouses met at Café Gourmet in Parsippany, N.J., not far from La Maison Zimmy. For the scores who have asked, Dr. Z has been waylaid by this spinal stenosis for several months. It has sapped the ability of his right leg to work effectively, and so his rehab from his three 2008 strokes has been hampered severely. He's still not speaking coherently, and he's not able to totally comprehend everything he sees in a football game. So we're all holding out hope -- as is he, I can guarantee you -- of returning to write someday, but there are life's very basics that he'll have to re-master first.
I have to tell you what a wonderful person his wife, Linda, has been throughout all of this. Those of you who got to know her as "The Flaming Redhead'' I know got to really like and respect her. Now you can envision her as "The Flaming Nightengale,'' because she has been one of the great caregivers I've ever seen of a person put in this difficult position. If you pray, a few good words for the two of them tonight would be quite welcome. And I have to tell you: All of you who have sent well-wishes to Paul and Linda have warmed their hearts. When I told Paul about all the tweets and e-mails of support, he smiled and sort of blushed. That's big for him. Thank you.
8. I think this'll be a momentous week for Millen, Anthony Munoz and Merril Hoge as they head into the war zone to visit the troops in the Persian Gulf. Millen is hoping to see Airborne Ranger son Marcus, serving in Afghanistan. "I feel like I'm representing all of the parents who'd like so much to be in my place,'' said Millen. "There are 1,000 people who'd like to be in my place.''
I asked Millen how he deals daily with his boy being in harm's way; the Rangers don't sit behind a desk. They're out in the field, doing the tough stuff. "I trust his training, his instincts, and I trust the fact that he's my son, and I know what a tough kid he is,' Millen said. "But the whole thing, really, is buoyed by prayer. [Wife] Pat and I pray for him every day.''
9. I think this is the week to get it done, owners and players. And Roger Goodell.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Sure seems to be a lot of people rooting against the Heat.
b. I'm thrilled to not care about Charlie Sheen.
c. The women's Atlantic 10 title game, tonight, in Lowell, Mass.: Xavier-Dayton. The closest campus of an A-10 school to Lowell is 99 miles away (UMass, in Amherst). Saw a photo of the Xavier-Charlotte semifinal Sunday, and it looked like the empty seats outnumbered the people 100 to 1. Someone explain the logic of playing the Atlantic 10 women's tournament in a Boston suburb when there are no A-10 teams in the Boston area.
d. You go, Liverpool.
e. There must be something wrong with me. I'm a 53-year-old man, just spent 20 hours in a casino in Atlantic City, and never once said, "Hey, let's go play some blackjack!'' Never even put a quarter in a slot machine. Just seems so fruitless. Do you ever really win? I mean, win and then walk away without the temptation to go back and turn your winnings into the big score?
f. Go you mighty Devils (20-2-2 in their last 24). I don't know if they can jump four teams in the last month of the season, but it'll be fun to watch.
g. Coffeenerdness: Atlantic City has its problems, economic and otherwise. But right there in the middle of a renewal area downtown, with all kinds of trendy outlets stores, is a Starbucks. Pretty surprised at that, and pleased.
h. Beernerdness: You're got to make more of that St. Botolph's Town Rustic Dark Ale, Pretty Things Brewery. You can't make my favorite beer, then have the neighborhood run out of it.
i. Proud of both King girls for getting jobs in this economy, Laura in ad sales in San Francisco, Mary Beth in PR in the business world in Seattle. Life takes funny turns, but we love the West Coast, and we love having great places to visit.
j. Doesn't seem like Libya is going to have a happy ending, that's for sure.
k. Saw a gracious Joe Paterno give a coach of the year award to Frank Beamer Friday night in Atlantic City, and he reminded me of seeing Frank Sinatra near the end of his career. Very classy. Very old. And you cannot look away.