IRVING, Tex. — The NFL got what it wanted from Jerry Jones on Wednesday at the league’s winter meeting.
During a two-hour executive session—only owners and family members were allowed in—the Cowboys boss denied the membership the fireworks most of those who traveled into suburban Dallas expected. And he lined right up with the for-the-greater-good ethos of owners that’s been in pro football forever.
“Going forward,” Jones told his peers, “we’re one team.”
A rival owner described the feel in the room like this: “He got his ass spanked.”
Maybe. And you can believe Jones when he says he’s all-in again. But believe this, too—his fight is not yet complete, and his endgame is still very much in sight. Jones is nothing if not a pragmatist, and while he didn’t light the dynamite on Wednesday, as so many of us had expected, the explosives are still very much in hand.
In this week’s Game Plan we’re going to take you through the Eagles’ quarterback situation and why the timing of Carson Wentz’s surgery means something to the people there, look at what the Steelers learned from getting whupped in Foxboro last January, wonder why the NFL’s sanctions have been inconsistent over the last two weeks and examine the suddenly dangerous Cowboys and Packers.
We’ll start, though, with Jones’ goals away from his football team, and they were just as clear on Wednesday as they’ve ever been if you were really looking. As he was leaving the meeting, and the hotel, for the short drive home, he laid out the proposal he put in front of owners for me.
On paper it looks like a slight adjustment. He wants the owners to wrest the power of selecting the compensation committee chairman from the commissioner, and have the owners vote to select a new committee chair, then have the owner who’s selected appoint the rest of the committee.
Yes, Goodell’s five-year extension is done, and yes, its execution earlier this week was an act of war against Jones by the six owners currently on the committee. As ESPN’s Seth Wickersham reported early this week, Jones proposed a resolution that would table Goodell’s deal for six months and had continued to lobby other owners to slow the talks. The committee could have easily waited a week to finalize the contract. That it chose not to was an affront to Jones.
But the ink being dry doesn’t mean the committee’s work is done. Next for the group on the Goodell front is making determinations on whether he’s hitting contractual incentives, many of which are subjective. Jones’ logic is, simply, that the owners should control the ongoing process for how Goodell is paid.
“If the owners are setting that,” he told me, “then that’s accountability.”
Giants owner John Mara, a member of the current committee confirmed that much, saying that, “In March we’ll have a conversation about how to comprise the compensation committee going foward. The commissioner will be completely out of that.”
OK, so on its face, not a big deal?
Well, there’s a bigger picture to consider here, too, and Jones believes he has more support on this one than he might have on the subject of Goodell’s new contract. That’s the power of the league office, and how far the league’s mandate reaches now.
The belief across the NFL is that Jones is in favor of owners taking more control of the league itself. That fits in with who is. The business sense of most owners is to hire a CEO, pay him and empower him—which is in essence what’s happened with Goodell. Conversely, Jones’ background as an oilman and a team owner is to be far more hands on.
The truth is, he’s not alone in thinking that 345 Park Avenue has become bloated with staff with its hands in too many pots. There are, for instance, a good number of owners who are with Jones in believing that the NFL should get out of the investigation business. It also seemed like no accident that, when asked about the league’s $80 million social initiative, worked out with the Players Coalition, Jones said, “I haven’t been informed on that.”
The implication there, of course, was that the NFL pushed the initiative through, and did so at a time when TV ratings (by NFL standards) have sagged and empty seats on Sundays have become increasingly common, which has led some to wonder if the league is as worried about advancing its business as it is placating its critics.
“I think we have the greatest entertainment product in America,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. “We lost our focus a little bit, and weren’t focusing on what the real priorities are. Now that we can do that, that’s the most important thing, I think. I don’t think we’re talking enough on the game on the field, player safety, direct-to-consumer. How do we address the best way to build the business in the future doing what our fans want?
“Quality of the game on the field and safety are the priorities.”
Accordingly, a shakeup in the league office could be coming. Chief operating officer Tod Leiweke, chief marketing officer Dawn Hudson, special counsel Lisa Friel and EVP of health and safety Jeff Miller are among those whose roles could change significantly (if they’re not out). General counsel Jeff Pash is another figure some owners are disillusioned with, but his value on the labor front will likely protect him.
So yes, we’ll come out of 2017 knowing who the commissioner will be for all of 2018 and beyond. But how the rest of the league works, and how much power Goodell himself will wield, remains up for discussion, with much on the line in the coming years.
“We’ve got a lot of issues to deal with,” said another owner. “There’s a lot of unity in the room, and we’ve got to deal with those now. We have a CBA coming up, we’ve got a lot of off-the-field issues. We need a vision. Where are we going in the next five to 10 years? Everything’s changed. There’s a lot of work to be done. I think Roger’s the right guy to do it, and I think most of the people in the room believe that.”
Jones’ concession speech was an acknowledgement of that fact. And besides, what he really wants is still out there for him.
1. Here’s an amazing fact for you: When Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith went down and into the concussion protocol, then missed the game Sunday against Seattle, it marked the first starter game lost to injury by a Jacksonville defender all season. The Jags have been pretty damn good for most of the season. But being lucky doesn’t hurt.
2.The Patriots’ acquisition of Kenny Britt feels like a tire-kicking to me. The ex-Titan, Ram and Brown is really just like a big kid—immature, inconsistent and irresponsible. Jeff Fisher had a soft spot for him, and Britt played his best for Fisher with the Rams. But even then, Britt was tough to count on, and the Patriots aren’t really counting on anything. But the talent’s still there, so it’s worth a shot.
3. We’ve mentioned it before, and it bears repeating: The Bengals had given Marvin Lewis one-year extensions (to prevent lame-duck seasons) before the 2014, ’15 and ’16 seasons, but not this one. That tells you Cincinnati’s been kicking around the idea of pulling the plug, and what the team has done since that call was made (they’re 5-8) does seem like it’d be nearly enough to stem the tide.
4. While I’ve heard whispers about the job security of both Raiders coach Jack Del Rio and Redskins coach Jay Gruden, I think the fact that both signed new deals during this calendar year makes it unlikely that they’ll be out—barring one of the two teams trying to land a big fish. (If Jon Gruden is available, Oakland would almost certainly call him.) I don’t think either Mark Davis or Dan Snyder would be excited to pay those guys to go away.
5. My understanding is that ex-Panthers GM and Giants lieutenant Dave Gettleman is, indeed, the leader in the clubhouse for the Giants’ GM job. But I also don’t believe the Maras will predetermine the outcome of the search. So it’s not impossible to see this playing out like Pittsburgh’s 2007 coaching search, where everyone assumed it’d end with up with Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm succeeding Bill Cowher, before Mike Tomlin came in and stole the proverbial show.
6. Good measuring stick for the Rams on Sunday in Seattle. The interesting thing about this one is that, internally, the Los Angeles brass viewed its Week 5 loss to the Seahawks as a sign of how far the team had come. The Rams of the past won wild games against Seattle teams they had no business beating. That one, in early October, was different. L.A. went toe-to-toe with the Seawhawks, and even though the Rams lost, the players gained confidence that they could play with anyone.
7. There’s a widespread assumption in coaching circles that Bruce Arians is ready to retire after this season—he and his wife actually talked about it after last season too. When that was being bandied about, one name GM Steve Keim looked into was Sean McVay. That gives you an indication of what Keim might be looking for if he has to replace Arians.
8. Worth doubling back on our story from June on where it all went wrong for new Browns GM John Dorsey in Kansas City. The overarching problem Dorsey had there was in managing a staff and the attendant office politics, which are elements of the job that can be challenging for guys who cut their teeth as on-the-road scouts.
9. Early signs are good that the Niners have their long-term answer at quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo, and they’ll have four of the first 70 or so picks in April’s draft, plus $100 million in cap space going into 2018 to get him help. The future looks bright in San Francisco.
10. For all the grief Sean McDermott took for going to Nathan Peterman—who promptly won Player of the Game honors for the Chargers with his five picks in the first half—his Bills have come through it stronger. Part of that was how McDermott handled the decision, and its reversal, with the players, telling them he was accountable for the misstep and asking them to move forward with him.
What the Steelers are taking away from last year’s AFC title game. Starting with what Mike Tomlin told Tony Dungy two-plus weeks ago—“I’m going to address the elephant in the room, it’s going to be fireworks”—Steelers-Patriots has gotten all the hype it deserves leading into Sunday’s late-afternoon kickoff at Heinz. And while many coaches would try to normalize the situation, the Steelers staff, as Tomlin’s words indicate, hasn’t done that. At all. In fact, my understanding is that they’ve spoken to the players in the past few days about the importance of simply making plays in the big spots, the kind of thing the Steelers couldn’t do last January when New England eliminated them. In that AFC title game, Pittsburgh had drops on three of its first four third downs and failed to punch in a first-and-goal opportunity from the Patriots 1 at the end of the first half, settling for a chip-shot field goal again. The message was received: The Steelers have to seize on the big moments in what is an awfully big spot for both teams. “This is the game everyone has been waiting to see,” Le’Veon Bell said to the Pittsburgh press this week. “It’s the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the AFC going head-to-head. This is obviously a game that a lot of people, even before the season started, circled on the calendar. I’ll definitely embrace the game. The Patriots are a team that’s always in the hunt for the Super Bowl. … They’ve got players who can make plays, we have players who can make plays. It depends on who makes the plays and when they make them. I want to make sure I’m the guy always making a play when the opportunity presents itself.” Clearly, Bell—who left the title game in the second quarter because of a sprained MCL—got the message. We’ll see how the rest plays out in three days.
Eagles look at their own resilience. Carson Wentz, the darling of the 2017 season, before tearing his left ACL on Sunday, underwent reconstructive knee surgery in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. It’s hard to put a date on when he could be ready to play again, but it’s instructive to know where his head is at, and owner Jeffrey Lurie gave me some insight on that on Wednesday. “He wanted to do the surgery right away to speed up the timeline,” Lurie said. “He’s very aware of being ready to start the 2018 season.”
The rest of the Eagles, though, still have plenty of opportunity between now and then, starting with a trip on Sunday to the Meadowlands to play the Giants, with Nick Foles at quarterback. “What we lose is that special skill that [Wentz] has, and Nick has some special aspects to him too,” Lurie continued. “We’ve been through a lot. Lose our left tackle. Oh my god, how are we going to protect the quarterback? Lose our best running back blitz protector in Darren Sproles. How are we going to move the ball out of the running back position? Lose our defensive play-caller, Jordan Hicks. How are we going to recover? Oh, we’ve got good special teams? Now we lose our best special teams player, Chris Maragos. It’s a very resilient group. And now it’s taken to the next level—who’s the quarterback? But that’s why we invested in a very good backup. Minnesota’s done real well with Case [Keenum], right? We have to follow in their footsteps.”
Lurie pointed out that this situation is exactly why the organization has invested so heavily in backup quarterbacks over the years. Whether it was A.J. Feeley or Mike Vick or Kevin Kolb or, more recently, Chase Daniel, the Eagles have never been shy about paying (either through monetary or draft capital) for depth at the game’s most important spot. “We prioritized that position, and we always have,” Lurie said. Still, this is a pretty crushing blow for a really good team that will play at least one playoff home game.
Chiefs fixed? It’s easy to look at Alex Smith’s uneven performance against the Raiders on Sunday, and how the team struggled before that, and believe Smith’s holding the Chiefs back. I’ll just tell you this: The staff isn’t thinking that way. In fact, their belief is that Smith is playing as well as he ever has. And Sunday, as it turns out, was a good step forward to getting his numbers back where they should be. In that Raider game, while Smith himself posted his second worst passer rating of the season, the run game finally got back humming like it had been in September. At the half Kansas City had rushed for 70 yards on 15 carries, and the Chiefs wound up with 165 yards on 33 carries for the game, the kind of production the team wasn’t getting during its slide. “We could stay away from run/pass/pass on first, second and third down, which is huge,” said one team staffer. “We’re more unpredictable and less one-dimensional. The line is playing much better across the board, both in the run game and pass-pro, and that helps Alex, which helps the receivers and tight ends.” KC gets a much bigger test on Saturday night with the Chargers having pulled even with them and coming to town with sole possession of first in the AFC West on the line.
Bennett and Jefferson sanctions were weak. I’ve said a few times over the last 10 days that Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski deserved the one-game suspension he got, and served last Monday night, because the elbow he dropped on Tre’davious White was well after the whistle and done with malice. On the flip side, I didn’t think the actions of Steelers wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster or Bengals safety George Iloka rose to the level of a suspension, because both hits came within the context of a football play—but I also understand that the ugliness of that Monday-nighter forced the league’s hand. Adding those two together makes the NFL’s failure to suspend Seahawks defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Quinton Jefferson all the more baffling. Their run-ins came outside the context of play, and during an ugly piece of television for the league. Worse, Bennett offered up a flimsy excuse, saying he was swiping for the ball and not diving at Jags center Brandon Linder’s knees, even though Bennett spoke out against precisely this sort of thing when Greg Schiano coached him to do it in Tampa in 2012. “People just really hate it when you have to dive at people’s legs,” Bennett told Michael Silver in 2013. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to keep going and move on to the next game and try to make a living. Some of these [opponents] are our friends.”
Maybe Linder isn’t one? At any rate, the dive Bennett took would be seen as dirty and cheap by most players, same as Gronkowski’s hit, and while there’s no excuse for fans to being throwing things at players, there’s also no excuse for a player to be spoiling for a fight in Section 104. In both situations, messages needed to be sent, because a simple fine coming down at the end of the week won’t serve as much of a deterrent going forward—the kind of messages that actually were sent, oh, I don’t know, a week ago?
LESSON OF THE WEEK
Aaron Rodgers gets back this week, and Ezekiel Elliott comes back next week, and if—and it’s big if—the Packers and Cowboys make the NFC playoffs, both are threats to make a furious run out of wild-card weekend. Having had to go through a long stretch without those guys is a reason why.
So my Lesson for Week 15? The impact of an NFL season on the playoffs shouldn’t be measured by which teams won how many games—it should be defined more by what each team went through to get to January.
Last year Rob Gronkowski’s injury hastened the Patriots’ expanding the roles of James White and Malcolm Mitchell in the offense, and both were immense figures in the team’s Super Bowl comeback win against Atlanta. Two years ago Peyton Manning’s early-season decline forced the Denver defense to learn to win games almost single-handedly, and that’s just what that unit wound up doing in the playoffs.
Accordingly, Jerry Jones went on 105.3 radio in Dallas on Tuesday and acknowledged that Elliott’s absence has forced some changes, for the better. “It hurt us to miss Zeke, but as far as Dak [Prescott] is concerned, we’ve got a better player for having gone through this. I don’t recommend it for the Cowboys, of course, but we got a better player. We got a better future because he’s gone through this period [without] Zeke.”
The coaches and staff agree with Jones.
We wrote when Elliott went on the shelf that his ability as a down-and-distance machine made him Dallas’ engine on offense, and that was gigantic for Prescott in that staying out of long-yardage so regularly limited what defenses could do to him. Absent Elliott, Prescott struggled through much of November but learned and grew, and the steps he’s taken were obvious last Sunday.
The Cowboys’ first two scores against the Giants were set up by Prescott reacting to a zero blitz (man coverage, no safety) and getting the ball out quick—first to Dez Bryant in the second quarter for a 50-yard score, then to Cole Beasley in the fourth quarter for a 54-yard catch-and-run. Prescott’s 20-yard touchdown toss to Jason Witten following Beasley’s big one was the quarterback recognizing an opportunity similar to one that arose on Witten’s score against San Francisco in October.
Next came Rod Smith’s 81-yard touchdown, and another sign of Prescott showing growth on a critical third down. The Giants threw a two-man look (man with two safeties over the top) at Dallas, and Prescott saw the safety to the left cheating way over to double Bryant, leaving Rod Smith singled up down the seam. Seconds later, it was curtains for New York.
Throughout Elliott’s suspension, there was the implicit understanding that everyone has had to do a little extra—Smith’s emergence of late is something Dallas has long waited for, and Bryant and Beasley broke tackles to turn short catches into those long gains.
“Dak made really clean throws under pressure in those situations, especially against the blitzes,” one staffer explained. “And he made a few other throws with pressure in his face during the game, the 16-yarder to [James] Hanna, for example. It was a collective effort, everyone doing their part and executing. Dak, of course, is the catalyst of it all.”
Meanwhile, the Packers have benefitted from creative run concepts to take the burden off of Brett Hundley, which has led to rookie Jamaal Williams carving out a huge role in the offense. He’s had 135, 123 and 118 yards from scrimmage, respectively, in the last three weeks, and Green Bay has averaged 27 points per game over that stretch (since being shut out by Baltimore).
On top of that, Green Bay has found different ways to win. A 65-yard Trevor Davis punt return set up the game-tying touchdown in Cleveland last week, and rookie safety Josh Jones’s overtime pick put Green Bay in position to score the victory six plays later.
Like the Cowboys, the Packers have been trying to make the best of a bad situation. As a result, both teams may wind being better than they would have been otherwise.