The NFL is unsure what to expect from players during the national anthem before Week 1 games.
1. Anthem protests. There were rumblings in league circles about larger scale efforts to organize players kneeling on the opening Sunday, and that was before Michael Bennett went public with his accusation of being unfairly pinned down and held at gunpoint by Las Vegas police. So what’s the expectation for what will happen in three days?
“I honestly don’t have any expectation, one way or the other,” said NFL EVP of communications Joe Lockhart, who will be with commissioner Roger Goodell at the opener Thursday night. “This is a player-by-player and club-by-club thing, but it’s not like some other things where we have contingency plans in place. And I honestly don’t know what the impact of the Bennett situation will be.”
The interesting thing is that, a year later, there may be more focus on how players will handle the anthem than there was for Week 1 of 2016, when Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest was still fresh. So he doesn’t have a job, but the impact of what Kaepernick did certainly still resonates in pro football, even if the next steps are uncertain.
Looking back, there were other big topics I wanted to cover with Lockhart on this. The first was how he’d respond to the protest outside 345 Park Ave. in support of Kaepernick last week. “We certainly recognize the right of people to come forward and express their views,” he said. “And there was a group out there that did it.” And the second thing was the idea that Kaepernick is being blackballed. “I would say that I don’t have much to add to what Roger’s said. He’s addressed it three times a week for the last four weeks. We’ve been doing 3-4 press conferences a week at these fan forums, and it comes up and he’s addressed it.”
Goodell has told fans that there’s been no effort to keep Kaepernick out, and his hope is that the focus can go from the protests to progress in addressing the issues the players are attacking. Certainly, there are players, and Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins is one, who’ve done work to make it happen while they continue with their quiet on-field statements.
2. Dolphins adjusting with Irma coming. In the 9 a.m. hour Wednesday, Miami coach Adam Gase gathered his staff and players and essentially told them: This is a normal bye week, and you can go home, get out of town, or do whatever you need to do to be ready for the arrival of Hurricane Irma. He could do it, in part, because of how the Dolphins set up Week 1, which was not typical of a normal week. Gase and his staff treated Monday as a Wednesday (which is the heavy work day of an NFL practice week), and Tuesday as a Thursday, with plans to make Wednesday like a Friday (walkthrough and light practice), have meetings and no practice on Thursday, then have a normal Friday after that. Given that the players got two full days of work in before reporting to work on Wednesday morning, Gase saw fit to call off the noon walkthrough and practice to follow.
The expectation is that everyone will report to work for Chargers week on Monday, provided conditions allow it. And from there, the Dolphins will jump into the gauntlet. Their first three games: at Los Angeles, at the Jets, and in London vs. the Saints. On top of that, what would’ve been their bye week now becomes a short week, with the Bucs game coming six days after a Monday night game in Carolina. And erased now is the bye that was fronting a three-game stretch in which Miami will play New England twice. And remember, this is a team that lost its quarterback for the year in training camp, and watched a starting lineman (Ted Larsen) go down on the same day.
Now, this is Miami, and so it’s not like hurricane contingencies are new for the team. In fact, last year, before a November game against Tennessee and with the threat of Hurricane Matthew bearing down, the Dolphins closed their facility and cancelled a Thursday practice—and coaches adjusted by working out of The Bonaventure hotel further inland in Weston. The difference here is the potential for a further-ranging impact of the team’s season. That, of course, pales in comparison to the larger challenges ahead for the entire South Florida community. But it is there.
3. Keep an early eye on Cam Newton. There’s reason for the Panthers staff to be a little on edge going into Sunday’s season-opener, and it’s got nothing to do with what they know about Cam Newton’s readiness for the trip to San Francisco. It’s what they don’t know.
Coming off surgery for a torn labrum, Newton was on a pitch count all summer, and threw a grand total of two passes in preseason games. That, of course, was a necessary part of the process in getting him back after what they hope was a procedure that will have him right physically for the next decade. But it also kept Newton from testing the shoulder and getting conclusive results on where he’ll be in live game action. Yes, he’s made the more difficult, high-velocity throws in practice that have been a staple of his game since he came into the league. What he hasn’t done is truly cut it loose. He hasn’t had to make a lot of those sorts of throws consecutively under duress. He hasn’t had to make them off-platform. And so that’ll be a little bit of an unknown going into Sunday.
The good news is that Newton’s been great otherwise, following a plan to keep him engaged with the rest of the offense as he got himself back to where he needed to be physically. But my feeling is, until Newton is throwing deep comebacks during the fourth quarter on Sunday, at the end of a full day’s work, Carolina’s moderate concerns won’t be truly eased. And then there’s the matter of his offensive line, which will need Matt Kalil to get comfortable quickly playing two spots over from his older brother Ryan on Newton’s blindside.
4. Rosen up the charts. On Sunday night, America got to fall for Josh Rosen all over again. The UCLA blue-chipper seemed to be a lock to become the first pick in the 2018 NFL draft during his star freshman season of 2015, but off-field hiccups and a shoulder injury left him chasing the quarterback, Sam Darnold, of his school’s crosstown rival going into this season. Time for Rosen to rebound? So far, so good.
Rosen completed 35 of his 59 throws for 491 yards—going 19-of-26 for 292 yards and four touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone—in leading the Bruins’ incomprehensible comeback from a 44-10 deficit to stun Texas A&M 45-44. The thing, though, is that all the people who will decide where Rosen goes in April knew what he was capable of.
“Going into the year, I had two things I my head,” said an AFC college scouting director. “One, what happened last year? Could he have played through? He chose to have the surgery. And the other thing is, when saw I him live, ‘holy s---, he’s talented.’ He’s shown that, going back. He was very talented as a freshman. So now you just let him go through the process and see where he is when he comes out. … But as a pocket passer, he was really efficient as a freshman. If you watch his delivery and mechanics, he just seems to be very advanced at a young age, in how he handles himself and plays.”
Another AFC exec added, “Anytime someone makes a comeback like that, you have to take notice. He got away with some bad mistakes but made plays under pressure when he had to, and dind’t flinch.” At any rate, it should be a fun fall following these guys. Darnold and USC get Stanford on Saturday, while Rosen’s Bruins host Hawaii.