The NFL attendance situation for the Rams and Chargers is about perception, which matters in Los Angeles. Plus notes on Bengals, NFLPA, more.

By Albert Breer
September 21, 2017
The 90,000-seat Coliseum was around half-full for the Redskins-Rams game in Week 2.
Jae C. Hong/AP

1. Does the NFL have an L.A. problem? The grisly stat from last weekend was out there—Texas at USC outdrew Redskins at Rams and Dolphins at Chargers combined—so let’s separate the optics from the reality of the attendance situation in Los Angeles.

Last year at the Coliseum, USC and the Rams played back-to-back home games twice. Each time, the Rams outdrew USC. The Rams had more for their game against Buffalo (83,679) than USC had for its game against Colorado (68,302) on the first weekend of October. And the Rams had more for their game against Carolina (86,109) than USC had for its game against Oregon (74,625) on the first weekend of November. And this year the Rams’ expectation internally was that their attendance figures would level off into the 60,000-70,000 range. So while they weren’t happy they fell short of that Sunday (56,612), no one was surprised that USC would beat them at the gate (84,714) against Texas in a Saturday night showdown.

Separately, the Chargers’ issues were apparent in the preseason. And while it is embarrassing to fail to sell out a 27,000-seat venue, that wasn’t altogether unexpected. Bottom line: This wasn’t a good look in the NFL’s second year back in L.A., or for its first Sunday with two games there since 1994. And appearances matter more there than they do in other places. 

“The optics and the media fallout since, it’s actually a bigger issue there, because of the way the L.A. market perceives sports events,” said Marc Ganis, who co-founded the consulting firm Sportscorp and has history with the league’s L.A. dealings going all the way back to the departures of the Rams and Raiders in the 90s. “If perception in L.A. is that you’re hot, they’ll show up and price is no object. If perception is that you’re cold, you can’t give tickets away. And that’s not just football. That’s this market. So the perception and media fallout, that needs to be repaired. … It’s not something to panic over. But maybe more than any other market in the country, perception matters in L.A.”

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Ganis added that the important thing for the league’s long-term health in the nation’s second biggest market is where things are when Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s $2.6 billion palace opens in 2020, and whether the teams can sustain attendance there. Still, last weekend wasn’t a great one for the NFL’s second life in L.A.

2. Three more years (at least) for DeMaurice Smith. The NFLPA extinguished any anticipated drama forecast for next spring when it effectively called off its 2018 executive director election, a result of the union’s selection committee voting 14-0 on Tuesday to keep Smith for a minimum of another three years. So how is it that Smith won’t have to run against burgeoning candidate Cyrus Mehri or anyone else to keep the office he’s held since 2009? NFLPA president Eric Winston took me through it Wednesday.

As it turns out, after Smith was reelected in March 2015, the union passed a resolution to examine its election procedures. A year later, in March 2016, another resolution was approved to empower the selection committee—made up of the 10 executive committee members, the president and the three longest serving player reps—to vote to keep the sitting executive director ahead of an election. The catch was that it would require a unanimous 14-0 vote. Failing that, the entire board, to include all 32 player reps, would then vote. And if the sitting executive director failed to get a two-thirds majority of that vote, then the selection committee would hire a search firm to vet potential candidates. Smith got the 14-0 vote, which rendered the rest moot.

So now, the selection committee will open negotiations on an extension with Smith, whose current deal ends next March. It’ll run a minimum of three years and a maximum of five years, meaning it will at least go up to the March 2021 expiration of the current CBA. “This wasn’t just one call or one vote,” Winston told me. “We spent a lot of time going over things, there were self evaluations of De, we went over strategy, how we’re going to move forward over next two to four years, and how we’re going to accomplish some of the objectives that we’ve already set. When guys looked at the total picture, saw what was going on and asked how we were going to get to where we want to be in four years, that’s why they voted the way they voted. I’m not going to stick words in their mouth, but that’s what I believe. … So how are we gonna accomplish our goals, and who shares that vision? When we looked at our current executive, he shared a way of how to accomplish the goals of the executive committee. It not what De wants for us, it’s what we want for ourselves. We want specific things for ourselves, and he presented us with ways we can accomplish that.”

And as for the potential for a work stoppage, something Smith called a “virtual certainty” to me last month, in 2021, Winston reminded me that the union czar has had good instincts for these things. “I remember being a third- or fourth-year player, he was elected executive director, and he immediately came around to every team, and said, ‘Hey, we’re about to get locked out, you guys need to save up and do these things to get ready,’” Winston said. “And a lot of guys looked at him and said, ‘No way, they’re not gonna really take away our health insurance and do the things you’re saying they’re gonna do.’ And what happened? They did exactly what he said they were gonna do.” We’ll see if they can prevent it from happening again.

3. Falcons flying again. Atlanta is 2-0, and seemingly sidestepping the residue of their Super Bowl LI meltdown. I think the explanation is easy: They haven’t changed the course of a program that, up until that 28-3 lead was blown, was clearly ascending. And that was made most apparent in how they handled their coordinator switch.

Head coach Dan Quinn and the Atlanta brass’ most pertinent question to candidates to replace Kyle Shanahan was “can you run Kyle Shanahan’s system?” The idea to resist fixing was what wasn’t broken also sent a nice side message to the team, basically implying, We’re good. Steve Sarkisian, a guy with background in a Quinn-like program (having cut his teeth under Pete Carroll), wound up being the pick, and the transition has been fairly seamless. And the potential for great results was on display on Sunday night, as Atlanta tore through the Packers defense for 257 yards (7.3 yards per play) and 24 points in the first half alone. Within those 30 minutes, it was that very start that had the players feeling like 2016 again, after a opening-day win in Chicago that’d left them wanting for more.

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“We didn’t have the game we wanted against Chicago, and we really tried to focus in this last week, and get everyone more on the same page,” center Alex Mack told me after practice Wednesday. “It was a good jump to Week 2, coming out playing fast, having a lot of big plays, it’s exactly what we wanted to do. … I’d say the first drive of the game, we were a little backed up and we went right down the field with a fast pace and a lot of different plays. It felt very similar to last year.” And that was, in large part, because it is like last year, and by design. “Very similar,” Mack continued. “It’s important to stay similar, so we can start further ahead than we were the year before. Start of OTAs, everyone knew the terms, everyone knew the plays. … [Sarkisian’s] done a good job adapting. In terms of how we’re doing stuff, it feels really similar, but he’s also done a good job of mixing it up.”

Last year was pretty solid for the Falcons, and one bad night doesn’t change all the good it brought. The continuity fuels the players’ confidence. By the looks of the convincing win over Aaron Rodgers and crew, it fuels their production too.

4. Bengals will dumb it down. So in three words, here’s what I heard the problem was with now-fired Cincinnati offensive coordinator Ken Zampese: Too much volume. In other words, he built too much complexity into the offense which, in turn, slowed the players down. And the fact that Zampese wasn’t particular strong in relating with those players only exacerbated the problem. When I asked a staffer there about it the other day, I was pointed to what second-year receiver Tyler Boyd said after the move. Here are those comments from Boyd (to Local 12 in Cincinnati):

“There were times where I just felt like [Zampese] would overwhelm me with things to do out there in terms of details and what to do and what not to do—just making me think too much. In certain plays I felt like I should just go out there and just play—get my route and get my depth and be the guy. He’s a smart coach; he’s a great offensive coordinator. He put us in a lot of good positions to win. I can’t really say much about it. I’ve been here for a year [two now actually]. I thought he was a great coach. I didn’t really see a negative he was doing wrong. We just have to find our momentum. We have to find us again that’s all.”

So the plan now, with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor assuming the coordinator role, is to pare down the offense and get the players playing fast. It’s a style Lazor watched run at a high level as Chip Kelly’s quarterbacks coach in Philly, and one he employed as offensive coordinator in Miami. The hope, too, is that it can help young players like Cedric Ogbeuhi, Jake Fisher, Joe Mixon and John Ross ascend. 

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