• The ongoing feud between the league and the union spilled onto social media Wednesday as the two sides argued about leaks in the Ezekiel Elliott case
  • Also in Albert Breer’s notebook: items on the Bears quarterback battle, Leonard Fournette’s comments, the Jags’ new practice philosophy and much more
By Albert Breer
August 17, 2017

OXNARD, Calif. — When it comes to the unending Ezekiel Elliott saga, there’s plenty of reason for both the NFL and NFLPA to operate as if they’re walking on eggshells.

For the league, there’s the ugly history of the past few years on domestic violence, and most notably the botching of the Ray Rice case in 2014, and the Josh Brown mess last fall. And the resulting reality that moving forward, if the guys at 345 Park Ave. are going to mess up on discipline, it’s going to have to be for being too harsh.

Conversely, the union’s function is to defend those accused of pretty heinous crimes. Just as they are tasked with defending the well-regarded Tom Bradys of the world, it’s their responsibility to serve the Greg Hardys of the sport. They can’t be selective.

So what did we figure out Wednesday? Put the NFL and NFLPA together in that awkward spot, and they’ll just take their fight onto those eggshells.

The Ezekiel Elliott suspension and subsequent appeal has pitted familiar adversaries—Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith—against each other again.
Getty Images (3)

This one started with a series of news stories following Friday’s decision to suspend Elliott for six games (most recently from Charles Robinson of Yahoo) excerpting parts of the NFL’s 160-page report to display what the reigning rushing champion’s strategy on appeal would be—showing a pattern of harassment from the accuser.

That prompted this statement from NFL executive vice president Joe Lockhart: “Over the past few days, we’ve received multiple reports of the NFLPA spreading derogatory information to the media about the victim in Ezekiel Elliott discipline case. It’s a common tactic to attempt to prove the innocent of the accused by the discrediting the victim—in this case Ms. (Tiffany) Thompson—when coming forward to report such abuse. Common or not, these tactics are shameful. Efforts to shame and blame victims are often what prevent people from coming forward to report violence and/or seek help in the first place.”

As you might imagine, the union didn’t take it lying down. They quickly retorted with their own statement: “The public statement issued on behalf of every owner is a lie. The NFLPA categorically denies the accusations made in this statement. We know the league office has a history of being exposed for its lack of credibility. This is another example of the NFL’s hypocrisy on display and an attempt to create a sideshow to distract from their own failings in dealing with such serious issues. They should be ashamed for stooping to new lows.”

This wasn’t just tweet beef. It’s proof of another common theme. This is no longer about the player or his case, so much as it is about the league and the union.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going take a swing around camps and get a quick progress check on rookies like Leonard Fournette and Deshaun Watson, we’ll go a little deeper on the Bears QB situation after Mitch Trubisky’s big Friday night, and we’ll kick the tires on Eli Manning wanting to celebrate his 40th in uniform, how a tougher camp is affecting the Jaguars, and so much more.

We start here in Oxnard, as the Cowboys gear up to wrap camp and head back to Texas. And you might think that this would be Ground Zero for all things Elliott on the heels of last week’s bombshell. But you’d be wrong.

Center stage is on the opposite coast, the I-95 corridor that connects the league (NYC) and union offices (D.C). And it’s not so much about the conflicting stories given to the authorities and NFL investigators by Elliott and Thompson anymore. It’s now about process and public relations.

So how did this one start? That slew of news stories sprung loose, and the league knew that only a few parties were privy to the 160-page report that took over a year to complete—its own people, the union’s, the Cowboys, and Elliott and his lawyers and reps.

In those pieces, based on the totality of what was in the reports, the NFL felt like facts had been cherry-picked to paint Thompson as the villain. One such example came with the omission, as I understand it, of Thompson testimony stating that she realized it would be “crazy” to blackmail Elliott with a sex tape.

Based on years of work and research in the wake of the 2014 disaster (i.e. Rice, Hardy, Adrian Peterson), the league felt compelled to take action, because it believed the smearing of a victim could serve as a motivator for women to stay quiet in the future. And it clearly suspected—one source said it was explicitly told—that the union was responsible for the leaks.

The NFLPA, as you might imagine, was not pleased with the damning accusation that appeared on NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy’s Twitter account, and aggressively pushed back against the notion it was responsible for demonizing the alleged victim.

When I talked with union chief DeMaurice Smith on Friday, right after the decision came down, he made it clear that the he was still gathering information. But his initial reaction? Well, as you might imagine, he questioned (again) the process.

"I do know that the Ezekiel Elliot investigation now has to be over a year old," Smith says. "I know that it resulted in a 165-page report and probably hundreds of thousands of billable hours by league personnel. I just have a hard time understanding how come an investigation takes a year, results in a 165-page report and takes so long and so many person hours.

“As a homicide prosecutor and violent crimes prosecutor, I had to try a violent offender or a murderer 100 days after arrest or the person goes free. I know there's a couple of prosecutors that are working with the league on these personal conduct issues but I gotta tell you there's a whole group of prosecutors and law enforcement folks laughing at them going, 'Why does it take so long?’”

To that one, some in the NFL privately and forcefully responded that the union dragged its feet in getting key information over to the investigators.

And round and round we go.

You’ll hear a lot more, as Elliott’s Aug. 29 hearing approaches, about the process and Roger Goodell’s power under Article 46, and the affect all of that will have on whether or not the Cowboys will have their sophomore stud dotting the I on Sept. 10, or at any point before late October.

In the background? The fact that in the six years since the league and union agreed to the current collective bargaining agreement, this has happened over and over and over again. This gives any reasonable person enough evidence to believe that not much will change over the next four years.

And you know that means another work stoppage could be coming in 2021.

Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette made some eyebrow-raising comments about the speed of the NFL.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

1. This weekend’s preseason games will be interesting in light of what’s going on in our country, and what happened in Charlottesville. I’ll be curious to see if more players take the lead of Colin Kaepernick and kneel, sit or have some sort of display ready for the national anthem.

2. So Jaguars rookie Leonard Fournette made news last week, telling my buddy James Palmer at NFL Network that the NFL is “slower than I thought.” That might have been a little much. But per his teammates, Fournette should feel ready physically. “When you watch him, you say, ‘There’s no way a kid at 240 should be running that fast,’” Jacksonville safety Tashaun Gipson told me. “I thought Adrian Peterson … I mean, I would never compare anyone to Adrian Peterson but a guy that big moving that fast, it’s gonna be scary.” More on the Jags in a bit.

3. The release of Roberto Aguayo in Tampa reminds me of what people around him told me last summer—when he misses, it’s a technical issue, and not mental. And there was evidence from a national-title season at Florida State to back that up. That makes Aguayo’s whole circumstance fascinating to me. Maybe this was just the first time he ever had to ask himself if he was good enough.

4. What if Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is cleared in, say, November? I asked Mike Zimmer. His response: “I’ve thought about all that stuff. I’m hoping Sam (Bradford’s) playing well.” So if he’s playing well, there’s no decision to make? “Not really,” Zimmer responded. “I wouldn’t think there would be.” And that is, as much as anything, about being fair to the team.

5. Sammie Coates has become the forgotten receiver in Pittsburgh, but I wouldn’t totally discount him yet. Plenty of wideouts take time, he came from a pure college spread, and his physical ability has never been in question. His health has. He came off the PUP Wednesday. So the first step is just staying available.

6. The Chargers’ failure to fill the StubHub Center on Sunday—especially when juxtaposed again last summer’s Rams preseason debut—is proof positive of the team’s L.A. reality. The only sure-fire way to relevance is through winning.

7. Best thing that Deshaun Watson had going for him coming out of his preseason debut, and maybe the reason he’s gotten some first-team reps this week, is that he avoided turnovers and ran the offense smoothly. If Watson’s to wrest the Texans job from Tom Savage, continued success in those areas will be critical.

8. Given the Lions’ injury issues on the offensive line, people in Detroit could probably use some better training-camp news, and I’ll give it to them here. Jarrad Davis looks like he’s the real deal, and not just as a linebacker, but as a leader. The Lions are pretty optimistic about their first-round pick’s future.

9. We mentioned a couple weeks back that, among a handful of pivotal questions, wide receiver John Brown’s injury situation would loom large over Arizona’s 2017 season. Bruce Arians’ apparent frustration with Brown’s absence was good evidence. Arizona needs him to take some of the burden off still-effective-but-also-33-year-old franchise icon Larry Fitzgerald.

10. We’ll get more into the Bills’ trades in a minute, but from the Rams’ perspective, an important point—GM Les Snead and his largely still-intact personnel staff loved Sammy Watkins coming out two years ago. My understanding is Watkins was under consideration at 2 (that wound up being Greg Robinson) for them.

Mitch Trubisky played well in his Bears debut, but the rookie quarterback still has a lot to learn and show before earning the starting quarterback job.

1. Tru love? On the surface, it sure looked last Thursday night like Mitch Trubisky took the Bears quarterback plan and turned it into a competition. He hit on his first 10 throws, and finished 18 of 25 for 166 yards and a touchdown. He showed accuracy on the move, poise, and plenty of growth having come from a point, in the spring, when the offensive coaches had to drill him on taking snaps from center and spitting a play out in the huddle. And when I talked to Trubisky, it’s clear he’s comfortable in those areas, and has moved past the remedial stuff. “It’s so much better than Day 1,” he said. “Now I’m in the huddle and I can visualize the play as I’m saying it to the guys. And they can tell by the way I’m saying it that I know what I’m doing. And I’ve been rotating centers a lot, so the more reps I can get with them, the better the snaps will be. The more reps the better. I’ve been watching a lot of film, working really hard and feel like I’m progressing every day.”

So time to pump the brakes? Yes. For one, Trubisky entered the game just after the two-minute warning in the second quarter, so he was playing with backups and against backups. All 25 of Trubisky’s throws came either from the shotgun or off play-action, meaning he never had to set up off a traditional dropback. And it’s understandable why coordinator Dowell Loggains and Co. did it this way, of course. The idea was to get Trubisky’s feet wet, and get him some confidence and comfort. The Bears got more than that, so now they can test the rookie in different ways in Arizona on Saturday.

The other half to this story, of course, concerns Mike Glennon, and the unsightly 0.0 passer rating he posted against the Broncos. As of right now, it’d still be an upset if the fifth-year vet was on the bench to start the opener, if for no other reason than the Bears need to figure out what he is after throwing low-level-starter financials at him.  And the truth is, they’ll find out more about him now that the pressure’s on to perform. Glennon said to me last week, “I realized going into this, it was essentially a one-year, prove-it deal, and it’s no different now. Most guys in the NFL are playing on a year-to-year basis, to stay with that team. I’m no different.”

As for the Bears? Guess what? If they got it right on Trubisky, no one will remember the cash they threw at Glennon. So the rookie’s play is turning up the heat? I think they’d tell you: Good.

“I haven’t been anywhere where we’ve done this,” coach John Fox said, as we talked about the quarterback investment. “But you have to throw currency at it. People argue it’s the most important position in sports, let alone football. And they all have ability.” Fox is including Mark Sanchez in his assessment too, which underscores the reality. The Bears only really have to be right on one of them.

2. Eli joins the crowd. Earlier this week, Eli Manning became just the latest quarterback to come out and say that he wants to play into his 40s, telling ESPN’s Ian O’Connor that “sitting here right now, I think I can play another four years.” Tom Brady’s been talking that way for almost a decade—and is now backing it up with his play—and guys like Aaron Rodgers and Andy Dalton have chimed in with similar goals more recently. So is it realistic for that sort of career to become more the norm?

I think it’s no coincidence that Manning would talk that assuredly, knowing that he’s been working with Tom House and Adam Dedeaux, the renowned QB gurus who have worked with about half of the NFL’s 32 starting quarterbacks.  We mentioned those guys last week in discussing Matthew Stafford, and it’s worth mentioning them again here because of House’s belief that quarterbacks should be able to play until their 45.

“Who proved that you can go into your 40s productively?” House asked me. “Nolan Ryan. Guess who’s got that metric? You just have to spend the time—you prepare, you compete, you repair or recover. There are certain things that go as you get old. You keep your strength, but you lose your flexibility and your speed, your nerve system so you start training more intently for that, pay more attention to recovery. Our research says there’s no reason at all why you can’t do at 45 what you did at 25 if your process supports it. I’m really proud that I’m hearing that from a couple guys, (Drew) Brees) and (Tom) Brady, that both literally want to play until they’re 45. It’s been proven. Nolan Ryan threw his seventh no-hitter when he was 45. He didn’t go out because he couldn’t play anymore, he went out because he couldn’t recover anymore. He didn’t stop pitching because he couldn’t throw hard anymore, he stopped pitching because he couldn’t recover in a five-day timeframe. So it’s possible (to get to 45).”

Of course, football isn’t baseball, and serious injury can foul up even the best laid plans. But with the protections given to quarterbacks, and players harboring these kinds of aspirations, it’ll be fun to see if someone can actually get there as a starting quarterback.

3. Bill-ding for the future. In the immediate aftermath of GM Doug Whaley’s termination in April, one source that was inside the Bills’ war room described their just-concluded draft week to me in a pretty succinct way: “The weirdest three days.” There was a lot going on, to be sure, but there’s one anecdote I got then that sticks out now in the wake of the team’s decisions to move Sammy Watkins to the Rams and Ronald Darby to the Eagles. It was that Sean McDermott had carte blanche to pull players off the board for character reasons. 

The bottom line is that McDermott arrived in Buffalo with a vision for what he wanted in a program, and who would and wouldn’t fit that. And just as clear was that Darby and Watkins had baggage. In Darby’s case, much of it was self-inflicted. Character flags dropped him to the second round of the 2015 draft and, after a stellar rookie year, he underachieved badly last year, eventually getting benched for a half in November. Watkins’ problems were not really of his own doing. His foot issue was so bad in September that teammates noticed he was barely making it through walkthroughs, and yet no one stopped him before the injury worsened and the team had to shut him down for two months. Add that to the draft capital the team yielded to draft Watkins in 2014, and the fact that he’s in a contract year, and it’s pretty clear that the club/player relationship had become incredibly complicated. And when all this is considered, it was unlikely either player would be in Buffalo past the terms of their rookie deals, while trading the two of them gave McDermott a better shot at avoiding bumps in building over the next few months.

So the fact that new GM Brandon Beane was able to replace Watkins and Darby on the roster (albeit with less-talented guys, in wide receiver Jordan Matthews and corner EJ Gaines) and pick up second-round and third-round picks for next spring in the process is a big win for the franchise. As for the idea the Bills are tanking? It seems foolish to me. Darby wasn’t very good last year, and Watkins had 28 catches. So you tell me how much they’re actually losing from what they were a week ago.

4. Niners’ early returns show sound approach. Time will tell if John Lynch is the right general manager for the 49ers, but one thing is pretty clear: Jed York’s unconventional hire has put together a draft class that is already showing signs it could provide a nice foundation for the future.

There’s a real good chance that Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster are starting on opening day, and Foster looks like he could be a legitimate candidate for defensive rookie of the year. On offense, the only thing keeping explosive tailback Joe Williams (who, as Peter King detailed in April, coach Kyle Shanahan loved) from grabbing a significant role is that incumbent Carlos Hyde has had a dynamite summer; and quarterback CJ Beathard has wedged his way into a battle with Matt Barkley to back up Brian Hoyer.

OK, so that’s nice for now. But what I think is significant is how Lynch, top lieutenant Adam Peters and the personnel staff have put together a team for their coaches, rather than just picking players and letting the coaches figure it out. Lynch told me back in February that Shanahan gave a detailed, and lengthy, presentation to the scouts on what he wanted in each position. Lynch told me then, “We have a very similar vision for what we want.” And that vision seems to be coming to life now. The Niners have a long way to go, but I’m guessing you’ll see some positive signs of where they’re headed before the season’s out.

The Jaguars are moving at a different speed in training camp than they have in previous seasons.
David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Here’s a crazy stat: the Jaguars haven’t finished Top 20 in the NFL in rushing since 2011, which was the final season of Jack Del Rio’s nine-year run.

You almost have to be trying to be that consistently below average to have that kind of streak.

And maybe that’s why I saw the Jaguars doing up-downs at the end of stretching following their joint practice with the Patriots last week. For most of us who played high school football, up-downs were either punishment or a way to toughen up a team, or both. But I can’t remember the last time I saw it at an NFL practice, and I told Jaguars veteran safety Tashaun Gipson that I wasn’t sure I’d encountered it in 12 years covering the league.

“It’s probably been longer than that!” Gipson responded. “I think it was new for everybody, when it was first sprung on us, the whole up-down thing.”

It doesn’t take the Junction Boys to see what this is about.

New football czar Tom Coughlin, and new coach Doug Marrone, are working now to give an edge to a team that got a little too country club under the last regime. And the kind of long, grinding practices the Jags are having weren’t rare during the first swing of my training-camp trip. I saw more contact and longer work across the board than I remember at any point since the new collective bargaining agreement went into effect in 2011.

Which brings me to my training camp lesson for the week. I was asked on TV a couple weeks ago what Bill Belichick’s next innovation might be. And the more I thought about it, the next zag to a league-wide zig coming was pretty clear: Some teams will be getting bigger and more physical to combat the smaller and faster rosters that have sparked the passing game’s explosion.

Last year, we saw it in Tennessee, with new GM Jon Robinson drafting jackhammers Jack Conklin and Derrick Henry as part of an image makeover. This year, it’s Jacksonville, and Coughlin and Marrone, guiding a similar philosophical shift with rookies Leonard Fournette and tackle Cam Robinson serving as hood ornaments for the drive. And so you have up-downs as post-practice gassers.

“I just think when you’re talking about trying to be a physical team, it’s all in the mindset,” Marrone said, in a quiet moment after practice. “So we’re gonna practice that way, with a lot of 1-on-1 run blocking, 9-on-7, combination blocking drills, things of that nature in the teaching progression. And the up-downs are something I’ve always done since I was a player, so for me, why should it end now?”

The answer is that, at least in Jacksonville, it won’t end now. And it’s hard to argue that the holdovers from last year have any sort of break.

So breakfast, which is mandatory (as are lunch and dinner), has been served from 5-7 a.m. every morning during camp. Practice runs from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., right in the middle of those Florida summer days. And the players aren’t done until the walkthrough wraps up, normally just before 9 a.m.

“I wouldn’t say they’re trying to break you, but in this game, you want the most mentally and physically tough guys out there,” Gipson said. “And I think this is a way of seeing who’s tough and who’s ready to go to bat and help run this (team) the way they want it run.”

Asked if there was a particularly tough day, Gipson smiled and said, “I promise you, man, every day I go out there I say, ‘This is the toughest day I’ve been a part of.”

Gipson’s bought in, because he thinks it’ll pay off in September when the team is being tested, both mentally and physically. As for the rest of the team?

“I always get that question,” Marrone said. “I don’t really ask the players, so I really can’t respond for them. I don’t ask, ‘Hey, how’s practice?’ or ‘What do you think?’ because the last time I checked, none of them have coached. What does happen is the players have to trust what you’re doing and what you’re trying to tell them, and I always tell them the reason why we’re doing things.

“I think that’s important. But how they feel? It’s better to ask them.”

I’m guessing that “tired” would be part of the answer.

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