Midseason Business: Rough Year for Refs, Falls of Kaep and RG3, Browns’ Bad Deals, and More Football Coming to London and L.A.

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Here are 10 Things I Think I Think about the business of the NFL at the season’s midway point…

1. I think it seems the third team on the field, the officiating crew, continues to be a bigger part of the game than they ever have. There have been game-changing calls that appeared wrong at the time, and were later deemed to be errors, with an apology being the consolation prize for affected teams. These gaffes not only serve as fodder for discussion among fans and media, but affect bigger picture things such as team playoff possibilities and potential firings of coaching staffs. We expect NFL officiating crews to be the best and brightest in the field; it is an admittedly high standard but not an unreasonable one with the spotlight that shines on the NFL. In the league’s CBA negotiations with the officials in 2012—which included a lockout and replacement officials—the NFL was intent on improving the product and demanding accountability. Halfway through the 2015 season, they are still—and, it seems, increasingly—too often part of the game for the wrong reasons.

2. I think that Colin Kaepernick has become the poster child for (1) how quickly things can change in the NFL, even for star players, and (2) how illusory NFL contracts are, even for top players. As for his on-field decline—now benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert—the reasons are several but certainly the team around him is a shell of what it was in its recent successful run. That was due to players leaving in free agency, players retiring, injuries and internal discord that chased away most of a successful coaching staff. As for Kaepernick’s contract, reports of $120 million with $61 million guaranteed were, of course, folly. As I noted at the time, it was essentially a two-year, $25 million deal and then “we’ll see.” And we are almost at the “we’ll see” stage. The team has until April—three weeks into the free agency and trading period—to determine what to do, another element of a contract that shifts all risk to the player.

3. I think that, speaking of the rise and fall of young quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III represents an even steeper fall from grace, as the player for whom Washington mortgaged several future draft picks and significant coaching and marketing resources now languishes on the bench. The irony is that late in his magical run in 2012, Griffin was injured and now, of course, he is a healthy spectator. Griffin, whether through performance or attitude, has lost the confidence of two coaching staffs—the prior regime of Mike Shanahan and the current one under Jay Gruden—and appears on the roster only to justify owner Daniel Snyder’s investment. As to the future, Griffin’s $16 million salary in 2016 is only guaranteed for injury until March when, I suspect, the team will release him before the full guarantee activates. Until that time, the team seems intent on making sure he never sees the field to risk exposure on that guarantee.

• HOW THEY BROKE RG3:  Washington lavished Robert Griffin III with preferential treatment and risked putting him in harm’s way. Andrew Brandt draws comparisons between Green Bay’s handling of a young Brett Favre and Washington’s handling of RG3.

4. I think, speaking of option years and guarantees, the year’s two most troubling contracts come from the same team: the Cleveland Browns. The Browns released former first-round pick Phil Taylor after the March trigger date guaranteeing his option year salary of $5.48 million. The Browns paid Taylor a $967,000 injury settlement—three games worth of pay—for him to go away. And in free agency the Browns rewarded former Chief Dwayne Bowe with $6.2 million this year and $9 million guaranteed. Bowe has been a healthy scratch for all but four of the Browns games and has registered a grand total of three catches through half the season. I will say this for Bowe, one of the highest paid receivers in the league a few short years ago in Kansas City: He has won the business of football with not one, but two teams.

• FOUR FREE AGENT FAILS: Neil Hornsby of Pro Football Focus looks at four of the NFL’s worst offseason signings, according to PFF’s grades through Week 8.

5. I think the momentum for a full London home schedule is building. The NFL just inked a deal with a third London venue, Twickenham Stadium, to host games in coming years. I have predicted that by 2020 the NFL will be playing a full eight-game schedule in London, rotating half the NFL teams every year and ensuring each team plays there every other year. This would promote better competitive balance than the current model of a handful of teams playing there, while, of course, increasing new revenue streams from another continent. Further, the morning television—or streaming—window in the United States seems to work for fans (more football) and networks. London is calling.

6. I think that, for the first time in 20 years, the prospect of an NFL team (or teams) in Los Angeles is not only real but is certain. The Chargers have already announced they will apply for relocation in January, and I expect the Raiders and Rams to join as applicants. As for approval from the NFL and other owners, that is certainly trending as well. Although the home team markets still have time to step up their proposals, the NFL—not the Chargers, Rams or Raiders—appears to be checking the boxes towards relocation, recently doing the owners’ dirty work in holding tense town-hall meetings. My best guess is that either the Rams or Chargers, not both, will move to L.A. next year, with a political showdown for ownership votes looming between Stan Kroenke (Rams) and Dean Spanos (Chargers) coming in early 2016 (which, of course, is an election year).

• THE RACE FOR L.A. HEATS UP: Three teams have emerged as candidates to relocate to the nation’s second-largest market. Andrew Brandt’s breakdown of the proposals each team has received from its current home market, and the proposed locations for a move to Los Angeles.

Despite some promising early returns from Marcus Mariota, Whisenhunt ran out of time.

Despite some promising early returns from Marcus Mariota, Whisenhunt ran out of time.

7. I think the Titans’ firing of Ken Whisenhunt after a year and a half on the job illustrates a couple realities about the present business of the NFL. With franchise valuations in excess of $1 billion, there is increasingly less patience among ownership. This has been true of both new ownership, such as the Browns’ Jimmy Haslam (who fired a coaching staff and executive team after one season), and now “old guard” ownership, with the Adams family in Tennessee. Are these time frames enough of a sample of the coach’s ability to achieve sustained success? No, but the stakes have been raised. Now, in both Miami and Tennessee, coaching staffs will wait until January to find out their fate, with constant low rumbles of tension in their every day lives.

8. I think that, speaking of firings, some hit closer to home than others. Having competed against the Lions while I was with the Packers for 10 years, I knew now-dismissed team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew very well. Like many businesses, the world in which NFL front offices operate is a small one, dealing with the same group of people over and over again. Relationships matter, and there will be always be bumps in the road. While we were successful in Green Bay, we always knew that the pendulum could shift at any time and that good fortune played a role. Yes, the Lions’ moves were not shocking, but I feel for longtime colleagues who were professional and respectful throughout our decade of “competing” against each other.

9. I think the release of the pictures showing the results of Greg Hardy’s rage were just the latest chapter in a saga with a clear story line throughout: The Cowboys are blinded to Hardy’s character concerns due to his pass-rushing skills. As noted several times in this space, they have consistently been all in on Hardy, referring to him as a leader and even mentioning a contract extension. The Cowboys are not alone in signing players with histories of domestic violence; the Seahawks used their top draft pick this year on Michigan defensive end Frank Clark knowing of his disturbing incident a year ago. However, it is one thing to sign Hardy; it is another to continue to defend a player who has shown neither contrition nor an ounce of self-awareness of a problem. And, of course, this comes at a time where the NFL has invested significant resources in its stance against domestic violence with Charlotte Jones Anderson, Jerry Jones’ daughter, sitting prominently on the NFL’s Conduct Committee. The vicious cycle of enabling Hardy due to his pass-rushing skills continues.

• THE ENABLING OF GREG HARDY: In light of a shoving match with an assistant coach, Andrew Brandt on the damage Dallas is doing by not reeling in Hardy.

10. Finally, though not an NFL issue, I find the resignation of University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe striking in that it was highly influenced by the football team’s potential boycott of football-related activities. Collegiate athletes, as we know, have very few rights, and unionization efforts led by Northwestern football players recently fizzled with a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Knowing that, this group of players used the leverage of an upcoming game and the support of coach Gary Pinkel to change the status quo. There are many, both in professional and college sports, who support causes from a distance or when the timing is less impactful. Indeed, as admirable a stance as the one taken by Northwestern football players two years ago was, it was done largely through the leadership of players who were finished playing. This is a moment in time in college sports, with student-athletes becoming more empowered than ever. They can get coaches fired, cause university presidents to resign and, most importantly, effect social change.

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