• In the background of the meeting with players about the anthem protests was the issue of a potentially shrinking audience and what could be done to solve it
  • Other sections include: Adrian Peterson’s fit in Arizona; Brett Hundley’s turn in Green Bay; the players and owners building trust together; and much more
By Albert Breer
October 19, 2017

NEW YORK – “If we are disrespecting the flag, then we won’t play. Period.”

Those words from Jerry Jones on Oct. 8 were widely taken as a salvo delivered from an owner to all the players using the national anthem as a platform for protest.

But as I see it, that was no declaration of war on guys kneeling. I don’t think the Cowboys boss was even talking to players. My feeling: he was talking through the players, and hoping his message would land in living rooms from El Paso to Wichita Falls.

And to explain why, I’ll give you the three words that should serve as your guidepost in explaining almost everything NFL: Follow the money.

The Cowboys need those people in West Texas and on the Oklahoma border to watch. The NFL needs those people tune in too. And the proof came in the ratings not that you read about this week, but rather the ones that were privately presented to the owners over the league’s two-day meetings in lower Manhattan.

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The focus Tuesday and Wednesday was on the players’ desire to have a stage to address social causes, and the associated protests during the anthem that resulted. But in the background loomed the reality that the discord of the past few weeks wasn’t good for anyone’s bottom line, and the ratings might just be the first proof.

“There’s no question this had an impact on the business,” said Giants owner John Mara. “But this is an important social issue. And sometimes you have to put the interests of the business behind the interest of issues that are more important than that.”

It’s an admirable thought. It’s also not exactly the NFL’s endgame here.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has seen the league’s television ratings decline in various categories over the past two years.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll look at the fit in Arizona for Adrian Peterson; Brett Hundley’s past and future in Green Bay; what’s ahead for the Jets; and the players finding an arena where they can be partners with the owners.

But we’re starting with the NFL’s ratings issue and how the protests during the national anthem have played into it. And there’s a nice jumping off point here in the numbers that were presented to the general assembly in Manhattan this week, and that The MMQB obtained. You may have already seen the figures from Nielsen that show an overall decline of 7.5 percent in total viewership, comparing this year’s ratings to last year’s, which the NFL believed were down from 2015 because of the election.

What you didn’t see is consistency in how the numbers sunk across the board, something the owners showed concern over inside those meetings rooms. Consider these:

• There are six time-related viewing windows the NFL measures every week. Through six weeks, the NFL’s ratings were down in 22 of 36 windows.

• The NFL’s average household rating is currently 25.1, down from 26.9 over the same period last year, and the 28.1-28.7 range where it sat from 2013-15.

• Twenty-five of 31 teams (excluding the Chargers, because of the move) are drawing lower local numbers than they did in 2016. Nineteen have dropped 5 percent or more, including brand name teams like the Cowboys (7% drop), Patriots (8%) and Steelers (6%), and both New York clubs (the Giants are down 7%, the Jets are down 37%).  Conversely, only three teams (Chiefs, Bucs, Lions) have improved by more than 5 percent.

• Digital streaming numbers are improving, but not at the rate that TV numbers are falling. ESPN counts the stream crowd as 3 percent of its viewership of Monday Night Football, which is the best of all the game-carrying networks.

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Now, it’s also important to understand that TV ratings across the board—not just sports—are dropping for a large number of reasons, mostly related to technology, the amount of options people have, and cord cutting.

In fact, one team executive looked at the numbers, and actually didn’t see them as all bad. He said, “I took away that compared to TV, the NFL is actually stronger year over year, compared to other programming. But the league does need to better understand how change in habits will affect ratings long-term.”

That said, this is an NFL that has grown used to having everything it touches land on a permanent upward trajectory in both profitability and popularity, so seeing any sort of decline is jarring to some of the guys in that room. And one of those people is Jones, who is nothing if not a master at understanding how to monetize anything you could possibly put in front of him.

That’s why when Jones spoke to his own players eight days ago, in the wake of what he said Oct. 8, his message was clear. We’re partners, and over 90 percent of our audience will never set foot in the stadiums you play, and we have to be cognizant of how easy it is for any of them to tune you out, and work to address your causes without burning the business.

Again, no one is claiming that fights with the White House’s social media wing and players kneeling during the anthem are even close to the only reasons for the professional football model being shaken up a bit. But the fact is, that model has been shaken up a bit, and the league doesn’t sit on its hands waiting for situations like this to steady themselves.

Continuing the discussion on ratings and being proactive in finding answers won’t solve the league’s problems. But as Jones, and others see it, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Adrian Peterson
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

1. Cardinals give Adrian Peterson a home. It’s fair to question the sustainability of what Peterson did in his Arizona debut. After all, he went for 134 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, after picking up just 81 yards on 27 carries in his four previous games as a Saint. And he’s 32 and closing in on 2,500 career carries. But it’s important to remember the situations in New Orleans and Arizona are different.

At the end of his time in Minnesota, Peterson’s limitations in the passing game were noticeable to the point where the coaches felt like they could open up the offense when he went down last season. When he was in his prime, he was so great at what he could do—running downhill like few ever have—that it didn’t matter. Eventually it would, and that came last year. And those limitations mattered in New Orleans, where Sean Payton treasures versatility in all his skill players, all the same. But even if the fit wasn’t perfect, I won’t soon forget how his Saints teammates talked about his physical ability last spring. “You watch him and you’re like, Wow, I don’t see how anybody tackles that guy,” is how Drew Brees explained it. The Vikings people echoed that, even as Peterson walked out the door over last winter, and so maybe all he really did need was fit.

So how do the Cardinals give him that? Well, the offense was built to feature a big, downhill back in David Johnson, and with Johnson out of the equation (for now) with a dislocated wrist, swapping in Peterson actually made plenty of sense. “He’s a downhill, physical runner,” said one Arizona staffer of Peterson. “A one-cut, get-north type guy who can break tackles. And most of our big plays in the passing game are schemed off play-action, so he fits well.” In short, the hope is that Peterson can be the ideal bridge to Johnson, allowing the Cardinals to play as they were built, with the run game helping a work-in-progress offensive line and 37-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer. So we’ll see if this all keeps working like it did on Sunday. At the very least, there’s a better shot of it happening for Peterson than he ever had in New Orleans.

2. Green Bay’s new gunslinger. The Packers’ new starter, Brett Hundley, didn’t necessarily fall in the 2015 draft. Yes, there was hype around the then-UCLA star during the 2014 college season, and talk of him being a high pick. But the truth was that was all it really was—talk.

“Yeah, the media hypes guys up, and then the scouts evaluate them,” said one AFC college scouting director. “His decision-making was an issue, as was his accuracy at times. He’s big, strong and athletic with arm strength, he’s just inconsistent in those two areas.” Another evaluator compared him in talent, and rawness coming out, to Browns rookie DeShone Kizer.

All of this is to say that the man who will replace Aaron Rodgers, out indefinitely with a broken right collarbone, does have some potential. Beyond that, we just don’t have a ton of answers yet on where he is as a player after spending two-plus seasons developing behind Rodgers and under Mike McCarthy and Co. What we do know is that Hundley seized the No. 2 job last year, and was good enough this year to where the Packers felt comfortable going into the year with just two quarterbacks on the active roster. (Joe Callahan wound up on the practice squad.) And from what I can tell, there’s confidence in Hundley now. One Green Bay staffer said Wednesday, “He’ll be fine. He’s an extremely hard worker, he knows the offense, He’s a good leader and the players like him. They’ll play hard for him and believe in him.”

At quarterback, there’s an element of the unknown that can’t be erased until you see the player in honest-to-god game action. Hundley will get that Sunday, and we’ll learn more over the next few weeks. Remember, the Packers have been masters at developing backups behind a star—Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks, Mark Brunell, Ty Detmer and Rodgers himself came up behind Brett Favre. Time will tell if we’re talking the same way about Hundley down the line.

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3. Jets flying steady. No one wants to lose, but in the long run, the Jets brass (if you got them drunk on truth serum) would probably take 10 more of what they got Sunday against New England—a strong, feisty effort, and a defeat that puts them a step closer in positioning to get the long-term quarterback they need. But the Patriots game was about more than keeping it close.

As those inside the building saw it, the Jets clearly brought more energy than New England early and didn’t back down after a swoon late in the second quarter that extended into the second half. More than just that, there was more proof that the front office and coaching staff are collaborating effectively in acquiring young talent, maybe most notably in the way rookies Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye are proving to be the kind of interchangeable safeties (think of what he had in Arizona in Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson) that Todd Bowles has always looked for in that position.

Now, the roster itself is still a year or two away. They need help everywhere on offense. They need the right quarterback. But this year has represented a pretty good page-turning, given the roster detonation they went through in the spring. And as of now, they look to have $70 million in cap space and seven picks in the first five rounds of the draft.

4. True test coming for the Falcons. So isn’t it interesting that Atlanta is heading into its big return match with the defending champion Patriots, and just so happens to be coming off a loss punctuated by a big blown lead (the Falcons were up 17-0 before falling to the Dolphins last week)? Will it have a psychological effect? Obviously, that’s possible. And it doesn’t look great that the Falcons blew a lead against Buffalo in Week 4, or that they almost did in Detroit the week before that, before Golden Tate’s go-ahead touchdown was overturned and a 10-second runoff to follow ended the game. So we’ll see how they handle all of the ghosts here.

But based on how Dan Quinn approached the Super Bowl collapse during the offseason, and how the Falcons came flying out of the gate, I’d bet they’ll be OK. On the advice of San Antonio Spurs GM R.C. Buford, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, who all recently had been through meltdowns of their own, Quinn went right after it with his team, and addressed it on Day 1 of the offseason program. The Falcons never shied from the subject, and won three straight to start the season.

“You gotta talk about it,” Quinn told me in the spring. “You have to talk about what happened, why it happened, and take ownership for it. … What I did learn from them, you go back and you battle again, and when you have a really tight team that helps. That’s the case in San Antonio. That’s the case in Golden State. And that’s the case in Cleveland. The players are so connected, there’s not a lot of ‘I’m the reason’ or ‘You’re the reason.’ It helps a lot. That’s the common thread between San Antonio, Golden State and why they’re playing so well now, and why I bet Cleveland plays well again this year too. It’s not like, ‘I played well, so I’m good.’ They want to battle for one another.”

So maybe the Falcons lose on Sunday at Gillette. I just don’t think it’ll be because blowing that lead to Miami winds up beating them twice.

NaVorro Bowman signed with the Raiders this week after being released by the 49ers.
Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. A big part of the release of NaVorro Bowman, as I understand it, was the 49ers’ confidence in Reuben Foster as an every-down linebacker. Foster has even impressed with his diligence in rehabbing an ankle injury. The Alabama product had some off-field questions going into the draft, but as one source there explained it, “We haven’t seen any of that. He’s a leader.”

2. The Raiders signing Bowman makes plenty of sense. Internally, they’ve long viewed linebacker as the biggest hole on the roster. And the word on the street back in April was that they were looking hard at taking Florida’s Jarrad Davis in the first round of the draft to take care of it. Unfortunately for them, the Lions snapped Davis before they’d get the chance, and so that void remained for Bowman to fill.

3. The news of Jonathan Allen’s season-ending foot injury is a real bummer. The Redskins rookie was borderline unblockable in the final game of his first season, causing trouble all night for the then-unbeaten Chiefs two Sundays ago.

4. If you want to see the potential of Eagles QB Carson Wentz, check out his off-balance, 20-yard strike to Mack Hollins to convert a third quarter third-and-16 against the Panthers in Week 6. The Philly sophomore was off balance and under duress, his eyes remained downfield, and there aren’t many quarterbacks who could get that ball where he did in that situation.

5. The Giants were able to contain the fire that their season’s become in Denver last Sunday night. And Ben McAdoo deserves credit for that, given that it was another crazy week in Jersey, with all the injuries and the Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie suspension.

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6. I’ve said here a few times that the Colts aren’t going to put Andrew Luck back on the field until he’s 100 percent, but this week’s development is different. Not only is the soreness an issue enough to shut him down, but this is the week he would have been eligible to come off the PUP list. The Colts chose to not put him on that list just before Week 1, which tells you they expected him back before now. And given the optimism that he’d be ready for the opener back in camp, this makes it twice.

7. The Saints coaches believed that much of their progress defensively would hinge on the success of rookies Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams in the secondary. The two played all but three snaps between them in Sunday’s win over Detroit (Williams played 80, Lattimore played 79), and Lattimore registered a pick-six.

8. It shouldn’t be undersold what kind of comeback Teddy Bridgewater has made. When I asked Vikings coach Mike Zimmer about the quarterback’s recovery over the summer, here’s what he said: “If you asked me that last August, I might have said, ‘I don’t know if he’ll ever play again.’ But now I think he’ll play.” There’s still a fair amount of uncertainty, but getting back to practice was a pretty big step for Bridgewater.

9. It’s worth asking questions now about where Joe Flacco is in his career. He posted passer ratings just north of 83 the past two years, and that number has dipped to 66.1 this season. Now, there’s certainly been moving parts around him, and the offensive line’s attrition hasn’t helped. But his start, coming off an injury-marred summer, hasn’t been pretty.

10. How could you not be looking forward to the Steelers and the Bengals dropping gloves late Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field?

The anthem protest issue could be doing more to bring owners and players together, rather than dividing them.
Getty Images

The headline coming out of this week’s meetings was that the NFL would not consider changes to its policy on the anthem, and that the current rules language—that players should stand for the anthem—will remain in place. But the further-reaching result of the players’ meeting with owners and NFL execs might be that the group found its voice and forum in the room, and is now in position to continue to be heard.

Several players, in fact, communicated to the owners how much they enjoyed the conversation and that they wanted more players to have an open line of communication to the league’s highest levels. And I think what we learned is: mutual interest can be a powerful agent for change.

It’s been almost four weeks now since President Trump went after the players at a rally in Alabama, and backed not just the players or the owners or the coaches, but everyone into a corner. All those guys have rallied out of it together, and that’s led to what Roger Goodell called “unprecedented dialogue” between owners and players.

Remember, just a month ago, these groups couldn’t agree on which direction the sun rises, with trust fractured through the 2011 lockout, Bountygate, Deflategate, and a cadre of other botched disciplinary proceedings. For now, at least, it looks like they’ll keep working together, with the owners set to grant the players the access to continue these discussions directly with their highest-ranking bosses.

Here’s how three owners who were at Tuesday’s meeting saw it:

• Arthur Blank, Falcons: “They view the owners as individuals that have the deepest roots, the deepest foundation. Coaches, sadly, come and go. General managers, sadly, come and go. Even players come and go. But they understand the owner is a person with resources, and not just financial resources, but with relationships and contacts that can help on these social issues, with knowledge and input and involvement. And that’s really what they’re asking for. Owners understand where they’re coming from. Be good listeners, be good responders, and be involved on an ongoing basis. And I think that’s not unreasonable. That’s more than reasonable.”

• Shad Khan, Jaguars: “There’s always benefit to having that line of communication open. There are times—like, for example, when the union contract comes up—when lines have to be crossed and it can be counterproductive. But as a rule, day in and day out, they are a part of the club, they’re a key asset, and the more you can communicate, the better. … I have a good relationship with the Jaguars players. I normally wouldn’t have a relationship with players on other teams. The big difference now, whatever the head count was at the meeting, that many more players, I now know their viewpoint, and they know us. And that’s good. I think our focus has to be on the players.”

• Jeffrey Lurie, Eagles: “I think it’s great when players get together with owners, whether it’s their own team or a group of owners. The communication’s great, you really learn where everyone is coming from, and you get to understand these are human issues.”

This is all good for now, of course, with the league getting its efforts going on the social causes that are important to players. And with three years and change left on the current collective bargaining agreement, it could be even more meaningful down the line. 

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