• Dallas Cowboys owner’s hand hovers over the nuclear button as league sources explain why the powerful Jones is ‘crossing the Rubicon’ with lawsuit warning
  • Other sections include: an overlooked part of the Rams’ turnaround; why Ben McAdoo has lost grip on the Giants; the re-energizing of Sean Payton in New Orleans
By Albert Breer
November 08, 2017

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ final day as an ad hoc, non-voting member of the NFL’s compensation committee was an eventful one.

That was last Thursday, and it was then that Jones advised the six voting members—Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, Kansas City’s Clark Hunt, New England’s Robert Kraft, Houston’s Bob McNair, the Giants’ John Mara, Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney—that he had retained powerful attorney David Boies and had papers drawn up. And if they wouldn’t listen to him on commissioner Roger Goodell’s extension, he’d sue them.

Jones was vague about what the basis of his suit would be, but clear that he planned to challenged the committee’s authority. And so it was that the NFL’s most powerful owner declared war on the league’s chief executive, via legal action against the committee empowered to extend Goodell’s reign.

“When it came to league (office) staff, or Roger’s compensation, he had some other owners saying that he was right,” said one source connected to the committee and the commissioner. “Or when he said ‘the deal shouldn’t be structured that way’ or that the league had gone beyond its mandate as a sports league on off-field issues, there were people agreeing. But when he sues the owners, that’s crossing the Rubicon.”

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The rest of the owners were informed on Friday and Saturday of Jones’ intent to sue, and Jones was informed by the committee that he’d no longer have any role in Goodell’s contract negotiation.

“He’s threatened to sue us before, so it’s not like we haven’t been down this road,” said an owner, speaking on the condition of anonymity, on Wednesday night. “I can think of two other occasions off the top of my head.”

This owner said there was the case in the ’90s over licensing and another, “more recently,” and he declined to elaborate. Still, this wasn’t expected. “It was a surprise,” said the owner.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to go deep into the Saints’ rookies, and how they could affect Sean Payton’s future in New Orleans; examine Ben McAdoo’s tenuous hold on the Giants; look at Jimmy Garoppolo’s arrival in San Francisco; explore the overlooked renovation the Rams have completed; check on Josh Gordon, and so much more. But we’ll start with the bomb that dropped Wednesday afternoon.

How did we get here? Back in May, Jones was one of the owners leading the charge in empowering the compensation committee to go forward with a new deal for Goodell, whose current deal expires in 2019. And Jones was among those voting through the resolution, by a 32-0 count, to grant the committee full authority to do a deal.

That in effect was Goodell’s re-election. At the point, Jones was asked to join the process in the aforementioned ad hoc role. Typically the rest is logistical, with the committee charged with negotiating the terms and structure of the contract.

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What’s followed has been far from normal. Two sources informed of the negotiation indicated that Jones was supportive in moving the deal forward, but pointed to the Aug. 11 suspension of Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott as the turning point. After that, the sources said, Jones began raising concerns with the power of the league office, the commissioner’s compensation, and staffing within 345 Park.

On Oct. 18, on the second day of the league’s fall meeting, Falcons owner Blank spoke for roughly 10 minutes during a special privileged session to update the owners on the talks with Goodell. Then, Jones seized the floor and spoke for 10 minutes, and was impassioned on the subject.

“But you have to understand, he’s a grandstander, he can be over-the-top passionate,” said another ownership source. “So it can be hard to differentiate.”

A week later, on Oct. 26, Jones convened a conference call of 17 owners, none of whom were on the compensation committee, to discuss Goodell’s contract situation and options if a deal they didn’t like were pushed through. And it was a week after that, on Nov. 2, that Jones dropped his threat of the lawsuit to the six owners on the committee.

To be sure, there has been growing sentiment that Jones has become too powerful over the past few years, and that his forcefulness in pushing through franchise relocations to Los Angeles and Las Vegas served as a breaking point. Five members of the compensation committee (Hunt, Kraft, Mara, McNair and Rooney) also served on the league’s six-man Los Angeles committee.

Conversely, there’s a feeling among some that Jones’ anger is rooted in not getting his way—after winning on L.A. and Vegas—on the issues of players standing for the anthem and the Elliott situation. Some of the challenges the league faces business-wise (both with the in-stadium and broadcast product) have only exacerbated that.

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A source familiar with Jones’ thinking countered by insisting Jones’ resistance is focused on the compensation and structure of Goodell’s contract, and has nothing to do with Elliott. The source added that Jones viewed his role as an ad hoc member of the committee to be the voice of the 26 other owners, and that, based on the Oct. 26 call, he’s confident he has support and is no lone wolf hijacking the process.

Both Blank and Jones declined to comment, when we reached out to them. As for Goodell, the latest word was estate issues were being worked through in his contract negotiations, and Blank said publicly at the fall meeting that he and the committee—again, fully authorized now to do a deal—were moving forward.

Now? It seems like everyone’s waiting for Jones’ next move. And with the promise out there that the lawsuit is coming at week’s end, it would seem that his finger is hovering over the nuclear button.

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1. Jimmy G. is on schedule. From the 49ers perspective, the availability of Jimmy Garoppolo did come out of nowhere. But their interest in him didn’t. It was there in March when they asked the Patriots and were quickly shot down. And even before then, the guys running the football operation had No. 10 clearly on their radar.

Right after the Super Bowl, and days after Kyle Shanahan first arrived for work, the new coach was given the floor before new GM John Lynch and the scouts. “Kyle was in our draft meeting and giving a long presentation on ‘this is what I’m looking for at every position,’” Lynch told me in the days to follow. Shanahan used cutups, and the idea was for the scouts to take the skills the players on the screen were showing, and project whether potential acquisitions were capable of similar things. But during one position presentation, one player kept showing up. It was Garoppolo, and this was despite the fact that Garoppolo was playing in a totally different offense. That’s why Lynch first made a run at him, and why he never gave up on the idea. Shanahan, in those presentations, planted the seed, and now the Niners have their fit for the position. 

So where is Garoppolo now? To this point, he’s lived up to the reputation he had coming out of New England, and that was of a hard-driving worker with an easy leadership style who’s popular with his teammates. The football part is coming along. While there is some Patriot/Niner carryover in the dropback passing game, the terminology, checks, play-action and run scheme in Shanahan’s system are wholly different than what Garoppolo’s accustomed. Could the coaches put him in position to be functional out there now? Sure. The real problem is that the Niners offense is ravaged with injuries, and so putting the new QB out there early probably wouldn’t put him in much of a position to grow out there. That’s why giving the team the bye to get healthier, and Garoppolo the extra time to learn, makes sense now. As Shanahan said last week, he’s not there to save this season.

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2. Rams receivers coming together quickly. Quarterback Jared Goff and coach Sean McVay are getting most of the credit for the Rams’ 6-2 start, and rightfully so. They deserve it. But the job the team has done completely blowing up its receiver room—and getting the new guys ready to go right way—may be just as impressive and impactful.

Gone are Kenny Britt and Brian Quick. And in are Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins and Cooper Kupp. All three of the new guys are producing on a whole new level, averaging better than 14 yards per catch, with eight touchdown catches between them. Their presence has given McVay and the coaches the opening to use Tavon Austin—who has 31 carries and just 7 catches—in a much different way. And the Rams, to be clear, knew they’d have to do this coming out of 2016, even before they hired McVay.

When the new coach, and his staff, arrived, GM Les Snead sat down with McVay, coordinator Matt LaFleur, receivers coach Eric Yarber and assistant receivers coach Zac Taylor, and went through the strict parameters that McVay’s system required of receivers. As much as anything else, the coaches wanted guys with sure hands and the head to be in the right spot consistently, and also players who complemented each other. Snead has likened it to putting together a basketball team in making the pieces fit together. So in Woods, they got their crafty route-runner with deceptive speed who could play inside and out. In Kupp, they got the bigger slot who could run after the catch. And that left the last piece: a height/weight/speed threat who could track the ball downfield. That one’s harder to find, and why the Rams had to be patient before pouncing on Watkins early on in training camp.

Before those pieces even fell into place, all the way back in minicamp, McVay was telling people in the building, “We’re gonna be able to score.” Even with all the new additions, because football IQ was a priority, absorbing a challenging offense quickly was possible. The proof is in the 6-2 start. And yes, part of it is Goff and how McVay’s made everyone more efficient. But getting the right guys to play those receivers spots, while swapping out Britt and Quick, has been a major factor.

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3. Gordon back in Cleveland. Will he stick? If you haven’t read the GQ interview with Josh Gordon, go … now. It’s a pretty chilling, vivid look at how off the idea was that he was just a dumb pothead. Can Gordon stay clean this time around? He’s been suspended for 51 of 56 games since finishing 2013 with 87 catches, 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in just 14 games, and so it’s more than fair to be skeptical. And the truth is, this may come down to the support system around him.

Four years ago, during that breakout year, the Browns put just about every failsafe you could imagine around him. Cleveland’s brass, headed by Joe Banner, brought in performance psychologist James Bell and Cleveland Clinic psychiatrist Mayur Pandya that year to work with a number of the team’s troubled players. And those two, plus offensive coordinator Norv Turner, receivers coach Scott Turner, and head athletic trainer Joe Sheehan were able to build trust with Gordon. So how’d they do it? They were clear, and they created a level of accountability. And they stayed on top of him, constantly making sure he was on time and ready to go. If that sounds like babysitting, well, then maybe that’s what it was. But none of this was done because Cleveland management thought he was a bad guy; it was because they thought there was a good guy in there who was lost.

As it turned out, he stayed lost for quite a while longer. Gordon will tell you now that he’s finally found himself. The above should tell you that it’ll be important for the Browns to put the right infrastructure around him to keep it that way.

4. Giant missteps. ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported Wednesday on what it seemed we could all see plainly in the Giants’ unsightly loss to the Rams last Sunday: Ben McAdoo is losing his team. She’s right. One source called him a “hall monitor”, and the scene at MetLife on Sunday told the rest of the story. The stands were well under half-full, the weather was dreary, and the players, coming off their bye, packed it in quickly when it became apparent that a Rams team traveling cross-country to play a 10 a.m. body-clock game was coming with the thunder. And all of that was just a symptom of the full-blown sickness that has overcome the program.

I’ve made my point here on Odell Beckham. McAdoo was permissive of him gallivanting off to South Florida during a playoff game week, taking his receiver room with him, and waving it in everyone’s face on social media—before vanishing in the game itself. The coach made excuses for him when he missed the entire offseason program, and flaunted it in the staff’s face on Twitter. And when the fall came, things only got worse. McAdoo took Eli Manning to task for taking a dumb penalty in a Monday night loss to the Lions in September, trying to draw the line and send the message that everyone’s accountable. And six days later, McAdoo said he wished everyone would focus on the plays Beckham was making when he was asked about the dog-peeing celebration, completely undermining the message he was trying to get across post-Detroit.

So it makes sense that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins stepped out of line and got suspended, the same way it did when owner John Mara had to be the one to give Beckham a talking to after the Eagles loss. Those in the building have taken note of all this, of course, and the fact that McAdoo doesn’t have relationships with his players or the ability to command the program has become increasingly obvious as the ship has gone careening into an iceberg. It’s hard to see the Giants, based on their history, firing a coach after just two seasons. But it’s becoming harder to see them going forward with the current leadership in place.

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1. The Eagles have indeed used some spread concepts (they’ve built in run/pass options) to get Carson Wentz playing faster, and one advantage is being harvested on the offensive line. Second-year tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai is starting in place of injured left tackle Jason Peters. Vaitai came from the TCU spread, and so the Eagles get Lane Johnson’s new bookend playing pretty competently.

2. Lions LT Taylor Decker’s return to the lineup, whether it happens this week or next, will fly under the radar. But it shouldn’t. Detroit believes its 2016 first-rounder, injury-permitting, is an All-Pro waiting to happen, and his presence will change the dynamic for the other four guys on the line. With each of the other NFC North teams having QB issues, Detroit’s in a pretty good spot.

3. As Teddy Bridgewater nears his return, I’m reminded how Vikings GM Rick Spielman described the comeback to me: “It wasn’t just a regular ACL, it was potentially, we thought, a career-ending injury. But his demeanor never changed. I’m sure he had his up days and his down days going through the process. But his demeanor never changed.” That, it seems, has served Bridgewater well.

4. For three years, we’ve been arguing what level of good Redskins QB Kirk Cousins is. And the truth is, it doesn’t get much better than the two throws he made to beat the Seahawks in Seattle last Sunday inside the final two minutes of the game—first a 31-yarder to Brian Quick, then a 38-yarder to Josh Doctson. Both were downfield, and difficult with the rush coming, and Cousins nailed each.

5. Ezekiel Elliott’s status is still up in the air, so it’s worth repeating the tentative plan should his suspension be enforced—Alfred Morris would become the lead back, with Darren McFadden rotating in, and Rod Smith chipping in on third down.

6. Things remain imperfect for the Falcons offense, and the closer we get to the end of the season, the more questions will be raised on the team’s future. Based on the 2017 struggles, and the fine details/depth that ex-coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme has, it feels like Dan Quinn and Co. may be tempted to choose between letting current coordinator Steve Sarkisian run his own system next year, or just hiring a new coordinator.

7. Dion Jordan gets back on the field tonight, presumably, and he’ll be wearing a Seahawks jersey. Long forgotten, Jordan was the third overall pick in 2013, and uber-talented. And now, he’s up from 250 pounds to 280.

8. The #JetsDanceToAnything hashtag was pretty big last week, but the way that all went down is bigger than just some stunt. New York focused on acquiring guys this offseason who love football and wear that on their sleeves, and so the impromptu on-field party was an illustration of it.

9. The hope in Buffalo is that Kelvin Benjamin gives Tyrod Taylor just what he gave Cam Newton—a supersized wideout who knows how to use his body to get the ball. As was the case with Newton, Taylor now has a big target to aim for downfield when plays break down around him.

10. When Ryan Fitzpatrick starts for the Bucs on Sunday, it’ll mark the 10th consecutive year in which he’s drawn at least one start. Which is great for him, not so much for the players who got injured to keep that streak going.

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Sean Payton has had reminders over the past few months that he’s not the young up-and-comer he once was. And it’s not just seeing guys he’s coached forever, like Drew Brees and Thomas Morstead morph into NFL greybeards.

“You bring up a reference or a story or an artist, a TV show, and they look at you like … Then you start looking at birthdates, and you realize it,” Payton said the other day, from his office. “We were talking about Fats Domino’s death. Now, I didn’t expect them to know, but I was making the analogy that he was considered, even ahead of Elvis, the father of rock ’n roll.  And I don’t know that everyone knew who Elvis was. So there’s a communication barrier every once in a while.”

The results have made navigating those differences well worth it. The Saints go to Buffalo on Sunday riding a six-game winning streak and, at least for now, it feels like the arrow could be pointing up on Payton’s program for a while. It’s been a while since that’s been the case. New Orleans is coming off three straight 7-9 seasons, and its most recent contenders had veteran foundations.

And the reason for it doubles as our lesson of the week. The answer to fix any NFL mess is easy to explain, and hard to pull off: Just draft well. The impact in New Orleans? Well, Payton’s future has been subject of much speculation the past few years. So in his 11th season, I asked him if this new crop of rookies makes him want to stay well into his second decade in New Orleans. He didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s good.” And as for whether he’s thought about this being the same sort of launching point that his first draft class was for the last generation of Saints, Payton was just as quick on the draw. “Yes, indeed,” he responded.

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I’ll be honest. I didn’t see this renaissance coming, and I especially didn’t expect it when the Saints started 0-2. But Payton has seen it since summer. And it started with the acknowledgment that the staff needed to hit a grand slam in April.

“First thing, and this was critical—man, we needed to have a good draft,” Payton said. “And (assistant GM) Jeff Ireland, the scouting department, everyone involved in that process as we looked closely this year, and even a year ago, was trying to find the right fits and the right guys.  … It absolutely had to be (a good class). And we made the (Brandin) Cooks trade so we’d have more ammo.”

The fit part is important. We mentioned Payton’s first group of Saints rookies, coming in the 2006 draft, and it’s easy to see the production there. Six of the team’s eight picks—Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Rob Ninkovich, Zach Strief and Marques Colston—played at least a decade in the NFL, which is staggering.

What’s tougher to find, for those of us on the outside, is the common thread tying a running back, safety, linebacker, receiver and two offensive linemen together. And so that’s part of what Payton, Ireland and GM Mickey Loomis went back in the files to study before this year’s draft.

“The football makeup of that class, those guys all played 10 years,” Payton said. “The football makeup, the intelligence, the grit, those key factors in trying to measure success, it was important that we were clear. We weren’t being hard on each evaluation, but we need that type of foundation again—of smart, tough football players that we had a clear vision for.”

The Saints also needed luck, which they got. Their top-ranked defensive back (Marshon Lattimore) and tackle (Ryan Ramcyzk) fell to them at 11 and 32 (the Cooks slot), because each had injury flags. A deep safety group allowed Utah’s Marcus Williams to slide to 42, and ditto for the running back class pushing Alvin Kamara into the 60s, before the Saints got aggressive and traded up for him at 67.

New Orleans had first-round grades on all four of those guys, so coming out of Friday night of draft weekend, the Saints were ecstatic. “Those were highly-graded, smart guys,” Payton says. Even better, by the second week of camp, the signs were there that New Orleans wouldn’t have to wait long to collect a return.

The big, long, fast Lattimore is already a top-shelf corner and leader for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Ramczyk has been a godsend, playing every snap and drawing starts at both left and right tackle, in the wake of injuries to Terron Armstead and Strief. Williams is the heady, traffic controller in centerfield the Saints envisioned, and has played in 99 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. And Kamara is a legit Swiss Army knife, averaging 6.0 yards on 52 rushes, and 9.2 on 37 catches.

On top of that, third-rounder Alex Anzalone started the first four games, playing about three-quarters of the snaps on defense before going down with an injury in London. And third-round edge rusher Trey Hendrickson has chipped in with two sacks.

“Now, all that’s not because we wished them to,” Payton says. “There’s times where you finish the draft and you think it went well and you get here, and realize, man, these guys need more work. The significance of this year’s draft class can’t be overstated. It was significant to what we’re beginning to build.”

And Payton opened up numbers the Saints keep to illustrate it. Their rookies rank first in the NFL in games played and games started by draft picks, and the team has the most draft picks to play 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 percent of the snaps. The coaches get credit, too, and not just for developing them, but also knowing, after the team fell to 0-2, that it was time to make it work for them.

“You gotta be careful because some of the group is on pre-calc and the rest is just wanting basic algebra,” Payton said. “It was trying to do the things that they do best. … And look, confidence, you talk about it all the time, but it’s only born out of proven accomplishment. You can’t think it. You can’t wish for confidence. It comes from demonstrated ability.”

Which is exactly what the Saints have gotten. Three of the six wins in a row have come by 20-point margins, and they held four of those opponents to 13 or fewer points, which wasn’t exactly normal before this year in New Orleans. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen deserves credit for that.

And if all this goes how it should, it stands to reason Payton’s young team should get better as they keep picking up experience. Maybe the most amazing thing is that we’ve gotten this deep into a story about the Saints, and Brees’ name has only come up once, and that was to illustrate how long the head coach has been around.

For the record, Payton acknowledges that Brees is good for the rookies, while saying, “They’re good for him, too,” reminding him of all the lessons he needs to keep learning. Playing well helps there, and Brees is on pace for his highest passer rating in six years. He’s also on pace for his lowest yardage total in eight years, and that’s good too, because it dates to 2009, which ended pretty well.

Add it up, and Brees, with free agency on the horizon, looks re-energized as a Saint. And he’s not the only one. His coach is with him on that.

Payton says, “Look, we have to be passionate about what we do, because if you don’t enjoy it, man, it’s hard to do it well. The hours, the grind. I think absolutely, I am [re-energized].”

Like I said, drafting well fixes everything. Easy, right?

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