ORLANDO — It’s 2021, and Browns quarterback Sam Darnold runs on the field, his offense given the ball at its own 25-yard line after Pittsburgh drove for a touchdown. As everyone does after the other team scores in the post-kickoff NFL, Cleveland has 75 yards to navigate and endless possibilities for how this will go, and a few for how it’ll end.
You’re sitting in Section 137 at FirstEnergy Stadium, a long throw away from the line of scrimmage, and what’s in your hand makes you feel even closer. Right there, on your phone, is the Browns Bets app presented by Caesars. You scroll down and see 3-to-1 odds on Cleveland getting a field goal out of the possession, 7-2 odds that the Browns will score a touchdown, and 3-2 odds they’ll wind up punting it away.
You put $50 on the field goal. Then, you throw down $75 on 5-1 odds that veteran kicker Zane Gonzalez will score the game’s next points. And so you settle in, having bet $125 to win $600.
This is how the NFL sees the future.
And this week, here at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, the process formally began of pulling the perfect sport for gambling—football—out of the shadows and into the brave, new, modern world of gaming. Owners and team executives have been quietly looking forward to this for years now. But it wasn’t until Monday that the formal discussion began.
They’re all taking baby steps for now. The gambling session, run by league EVP of business operations Eric Grubman, was to inform the owners on what’s out there, and what the NFL is doing to prepare for the new reality that just about everyone believes is inevitable.
“We’re so early on in this process. I don’t have a clear understanding as to where we’re going to go,” Giants co-owner John Mara said during a break the other day. “But we’re having discussions that we’ve never had before.”
The timing’s not a coincidence either. The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon, maybe next week, on whether or not to legalize sports betting in New Jersey. If it goes through, the floodgates could open nationwide. The NFL knows it has to be ready.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll cover everything from the league meeting—looking again at the new targeting-like rule; the Odell Beckham situation; the rebuild-on-the-fly in Miami; the coaches’ continued effort to flip the offseason work rules upside down; and what exactly to make of the Panthers sale.
We’re starting with a topic that many of the owners assembled here disagree on, but everyone knows is, as one league source put it, “a big f---ing deal.” Whether they regard it that way because of old integrity-of-the-game concerns or new business opportunities, there is no question that it was as compelling a topic as any the league put on the table this week.
“It’s a very complicated issue,” Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt told me. “We don’t know what the supreme court is going to do. They could kick it back to the states, and that’ll create another process. One thing that was raised to us is you might have some state laws that conflict with federal laws, which will make it really complicated. What the league is trying to do in preparation for it is figure out how to maintain the integrity of the game, because that’s the most important thing on many, many fronts.
“And so they’re beginning their work on that. Obviously, there’s legalized betting that goes on in Europe in the Premier League, and other soccer leagues, so there are models they’re trying to learn from.”
So with all this in mind, here are five things I learned about where the league intends to go:
• In-game prop betting is where it’s at. The Buccaneers (Manchester United) and Rams (Arsenal) were able to help the other 30 teams here this week, based on the in-stadium betting that goes on with their Premier League clubs. And it’s clear that traditional betting on games and odds doesn’t have near the upside for NFL teams as in-game props, like the one I cooked up above.
Not only is there great opportunity to turn a profit here, there’s also the reality that this sort of action is tailor-made for a younger generation that is less willing to sit there and just watch a game, with nothing else going on, for three hours.
• Foreign doors are open. There’s some dispute over whether in-game action would help the league globalize the game. I met skepticism at the notion that it would prompt anyone to start watching a sport he or she hadn’t watched before. That said, for the same reasons it could help the league appeal to young people domestically, it probably wouldn’t hurt in keeping the eSports generation abroad engaged.
“It has a chance to elevate interest in the sport, especially in markets where our game is on at the wrong time of day,” said Hunt. “If there’s increased sports betting, I think that could be one indirect positive for the league.”
• Watch the NBA. It was explained to me, by several owners, that going in and trying to monetize traditional betting on a point spread would be a low-margin business for the NFL. So while the NBA made waves by saying it’ll seek 1 percent of all basketball-related bets, its football counterpart is more likely to play it conservative there.
If the NBA succeeds? Well, then the NFL will play copycat. Really, as a couple owners I talked to see it, there’s no reason for the NFL to take the lead in this area, just as it didn’t see the need to be the first to put down stakes in Las Vegas. Let someone else do it first, then decide. If the league needs to go, it can use information from within its sport, like the NBA plans to leverage a favorable deal.
• Sponsorships.As the league’s rules read now, NFL teams can’t use the word “casino” in any deal, and can’t have a deal with any casino that has a sports book. Taking the rules off the books would create massive opportunities for teams, and proof, again, lies overseas with the soccer heavyweights of Europe who have partnered with online gambling companies and casinos.
What’s more, teams in the Premier League haven’t run into the integrity-of-the-game problems that have for decades scared NFL owners and teams from doing such deals.
• TV ratings. This goes back to the younger crowd that’s less likely to sit captive for three hours to watch sports. It works in the living room like it does in the stadium. That audience wants an interactive experience, and this gives it to them.
The theme for this set of meetings was, as set by the commissioner’s office, The Game, The Fans, The Media. The league clearly sees now, and it’s illustrated through those words, the need to modernize and focus on finding new ways to reach new people who aren’t as automatic to jump on board with pro football as they once might have been.
So in a way, legalized sports gambling could be coming along at just the right time. The way wagering lends itself perfectly to the NFL has forever been a driving force in the overwhelming popularity of the game. And for forever, the NFL has had to be a spectator.
Now it seems that could be coming to an end. And the NFL could have a powerful new lever to pull in the effort push its business forward.
“Our fans are involved, NFL fans are,” said Cowboys COO Stephen Jones. “And any time there’s a business opportunity out there, you have to educate yourself on it before you make decisions on whether we need to be a part of it. We certainly want our football fans to have the best experience. So if it’s something that we see as a positive for our fans, a positive for the league, and there’s no unintended consequences to it, then we’ll go further down the road.”
They’re just starting to set the course.
FIRST AND 10
1. Odell Beckham drew headlines this week, but the Giants star might not be the first playmaker out there I’d make a call on right now. Couldn’t hurt for teams to check where the Patriots are with Rob Gronkowski. New England doesn’t know for sure that the All-Pro tight end is coming back in 2018, and my sense is getting him back could require giving him a raise. Has Bill Belichick reached the point where he’s ready to deal Gronk? I’d look into it.
2. Speaking of Belichick, he brought up an interesting concern in the meeting room, while fighting against the institution of the so-called Josh McDaniels Rule, which would’ve allowed assistants in the playoffs to sign deals to become head coaches in new places. The Patriots coach was worried that if an assistant signs a deal to be someone else’s head coach, there’d be nothing stopping him from beginning to recruit looming free agents.
3. That said, I’m all for the rule. It works fine in college. We saw it with Tennessee’s new head coach (Jeremy Pruitt) serving as Alabama’s defensive coordinator in the college football playoffs. It’s simple. Have the new head coach name an acting head coach, and then tell that coach he can’t communicate with his new team until after his old team is eliminated.
4. The Jets already have workouts with UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield under their belts. I’m told they’re working out Wyoming’s Josh Allen early this week. Not on the books? A workout for USC’s Sam Darnold, which is a pretty good sign of how strong the feeling is in league circles that Darnold’s going to be gone quickly.
5. Why would the Jaguars trade for Cody Kessler, rather than just wait for him to be cut? Quarterback economics. He’s due $2.0 million over the next two years. For that reason, and because Kessler has starting experience, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t get to the Jags on waivers. Conversely, last year’s Jacksonville backup, Chad Henne, will make $6.7 million over the next two years there, and $4.5 million in 2018.
6. How Su’a Cravens’ change of scenery to Denver will affect him will be interesting. The question with Cravens has never had much to do with athletic ability. It’s more about how much the young strong safety loves football. The perception scouts had when he was coming out of USC was that he was more into the idea of being a star than a football player, and the Redskins certainly saw that in his two years there. We’ll find out if the time away has done anything to light a fire under him.
7. One significant rule change that flew under the radar—the ability for teams to trade players off injured reserve, with the players’ new team able to designate that player to return. It certainly could result in banged up players pushing to be dealt if their teams have already designated others to return, or have a number of players they’d need to decide between activating.
8. If I were Colin Kaepernick, I’d copycat what Johnny Manziel did, and find a pro day to go throw. It was a clever move by Manziel’s camp, and the former Heisman winner got a ton of exposure he never would have otherwise. Being able to go throw for and shake hands with on-the-ground scouts would help Kaepernick’s cause. What might make sense? Boise State’s pro day is next week, and the Broncos have a first-round prospect (Leighton Vander Esch) to draw a good NFL crowd. Plus, Boise’s QB, Brett Rypien, is returning to school. So …
9. The underrated hole the Rams will need to fill through all their offseason movement is the one left by Alec Ogletree, the leader. He was inconsistent as a player, but a major piece in a great locker room last year. L.A. will have a lot of big personalities on defense in 2018. If things go a little sideways? They’ll need someone like Ogletree. We’ll see if they can fill those shoes.
10. Word is the Texans and Jadeveon Clowney are making a lot of progress on a mega-extension. That one will set the floor for what Raiders edge rusher Khalil Mack gets, and who knows what it will do to Rams DT Aaron Donald’s earning power.
1. What can the Giants get for Odell Beckham? We wrote earlier in the week that New York should think about dealing the mercurial fifth-year phenom. And since the Giants haven’t completely shot the notion out of the sky, I figured it’d be interesting to ask around about what he might be worth. The consensus: A first-round pick and something else, which is an immense return for a player that only has one year left on his contract and a full file of problems from his early years in the league.
Five years ago, it’d be hard for the Giants to find that deal, but with the aggression teams have operated (hello, Rams) this offseason, I’m not ruling anything out. And as I see it, we’ll have some clues soon. The Giants drew their line in the sand this week three times over. First, GM Dave Gettleman declined to say a trade was out of the question. Second, it got out that the asking price was two first-round picks. Third, new coach Pat Shurmur said at Tuesday’s coaches breakfast that he expects Beckham to report for the team’s offseason program April 9. That now becomes the key date.
The only thing that’ll shut down speculation completely is a long-term deal, and I don’t see the Giants giving Beckham one before they see him in the building and with the new program. Should Beckham decide not to show up, and if he decides to actually carry a stay-away/holdout through the whole spring and into the summer (a big if, because of the associated fines) in order to get paid, then Shurmur and Gettleman won’t get to see how he fits into what they’re trying to build. In that circumstance, of course, it would be either pay the guy somewhat blindly, or trade him. And based on how Beckham’s handled himself over the past year-plus—remember, players pay close pay attention to who a team pays—it’d likely be tough to go through with a new contract. So yes, this is complicated. And April 9 is less than two weeks away.
2. Targeting? There’s been lots of debate over the impact that the targeting rule will have on the NFL. You’ve heard players asking a lot of questions, some of them very valid, on how it’ll be officiated, and the challenges it’ll present for those playing a professional sport that moves in short bursts at warp speed. So what’s interesting is that the reaction I got from coaches was sort of the opposite: Nothing’s changed. The point made by the half-dozen coaches I spoke with was that no one is coaching anyone to lead with their helmet anymore anyway, and the rules were already set up to punish those kinds of hits.
“I don’t think it’ll be that hard,” said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. “I don’t think targeting is right word either, it’s more about lowering your head. I don’t think it’ll be hard to teach. It’s a dangerous play and they’re trying to get it out. … There might be more flags. You look at [Ryan] Shazier, they’re going to understand, this is dangerous for them and dangerous for the other guy. They’ll adjust.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson, who played for over a decade in the league, chalked up player grousing to age, saying that he understands why players have a hard time understanding. “When you’re young, you don’t think about that stuff,” Pederson said. “And that’s why some of the old coaches in the room, I appreciate the stuff they’re talking about because they’ve been there, done that. They start looking at life after football, what it’s going to look llike. We have to make sure we’re educating the young players about that in this whole process.”
So in the end, I think we’ll probably have around a dozen ejections next season, but most players and teams won’t have to change much of what they do. This initiative has been moving towards this for quite some time. And while this change does broaden what can be penalized, it simplifies the guidelines for players. Just don’t use your helmet as a weapon.
3. Dolphins’ changes a year in the making. There were a lot of boilerplate answers that came out of the annual coaches breakfast, as usual. Which is probably why what Miami coach Adam Gase said really stuck out to me after the hour-long session shut down Tuesday morning. He was asked if he was hoping the culture in South Florida would improve after he and football czar Mike Tannenbaum flipped the leadership of the team over a three-week span.
“I’m not hoping,” he responded. “I know it’s going to be different. You have some alpha dogs who are not going to accept a lot of the bulls--- that has gone on. … I think you guys will notice it when we get going. There’s something about a lot of these guys we brought in.”
So what was the problem last year? The Dolphins of 2017 were presented with a lot of strange circumstances. And when things went sideways, the brass felt like the roster lacked the infrastructure to straighten much of anything out. There was the day Ryan Tannehill went down. There was the infamous video of line coach Chris Foerster, complete with cocaine and an escort. There was linebacker Lawrence Timmons’ strange disappearance. And that was all before Columbus Day. The problems metastasized because the staff lacked the foot soldiers in the locker room to keep everyone on board.
So Ndamukong Suh (who had a reputation for being worried about himself and not much else), Jarvis Landry (who was unpredictable day-to-day) and Jay Ayaji (traded in midseason and seen as another me-first guy) are gone, and in their place are players like Danny Amendola, Albert Wilson, Robert Quinn, Josh Sitton and Frank Gore, guys the Dolphins had solid background on and felt like they could count on. Was it a little expensive? Sure. Did some good talent walk out the door? Yup. But Miami feels strongly that if things go haywire in the fall, it’ll be in a better spot to manage that now, with guys who won’t stand for the, as Gase put it, bulls--- that last year’s Dolphins did.
4. Panthers sale drama.My belief is that if all bids were equal, the league would be preparing Steelers minority owner and hedge fund manager Dave Tepper to be voted into their club as the new Panthers owner in May. He’s already vetted, and widely respected, and those who know him think he’d be a tremendous asset not just on the club level, but the league level too. He’s also worth $11 billion, so he could just write a check—no financing needed—for the team, and have enough capital left to keep investing back into it. So what gives?
As we detailed the other day, Tepper has not been the most aggressive bidder, and I think I now have a more clear understanding of why. Tepper didn’t get rich by making shaky investments. He’s brilliant, and very analytical from a business standpoint. His bid was never going to be crazy. And my sense is that he may not be willing to go much past $2 billion, at least at this point. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is believed to be seeking in the range of $2.6 billion. So the guy most believe to be the best bidder may not wind up being the high bidder, and that could leave credit card mogul and South Carolina native Ben Navarro, who’s come under scrutiny for his business practices and is being vetted by the league now, as the favorite. Or maybe it’ll open the door for a darkhorse like Canadian steel magnate Alan Kestenbaum, who is visiting the Panthers’ offices this week. Either way, this process hasn’t been as clean as most owners would’ve liked.
LESSON OF THE WEEK
One of the interesting stories emerging from last year’s annual meeting was a group of coaches banding together to challenge the league’s work rules—and making an attempt to get more time with players during months between the playoffs and the draft.
Carolina’s Ron Rivera, New Orleans’ Sean Payton, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis were the four making the pitch in Arizona to the NFL’s management council in March 2017. And so my lesson this is something I learned a year later: It seems now that their voices are being heard. That’s a tremendously positive development for all coaches.
In 2011, as the owners and players neared a new collective bargaining agreement, the NFL’s football operations people in general, and the coaches in particular, were tossed under an 18-wheeler. The players wanted more time off in the offseason, and the owners’ reaction went pretty much like this: You mean we get to turn the lights off for another five weeks?
There was no one in the room to advocate for player development, or warn about the damage that losing that time could do, and so that part of the CBA, cutting offseason programs down from 14 to nine weeks and limiting contact and time in the summer and fall, was swiftly pushed through. Seven years later, the affect it’s had is clear, which is why the coaches mobilized last spring.
While change can’t come until a new CBA is negotiated, unless the players agree to amend parts of the existing CBA, work towards it is well underway.
“[NFL SVP of labor relations] Peter Ruocco’s led the charge on that in terms of gathering ideas, listening to the coaches, and giving us a voice,” Harbaugh said. “It’s good for the game. It’s really important. We want to have a safe game, an exciting game. We want to be able to protect our quarterbacks and do all those things. And if we want to present the NFL in a real positive way, we need time with our players.
“And the players recognize that too. As far as I can see, I’ve never heard a player say he doesn’t want to get better with the coaches on a voluntary basis. Hopefully, there’ll be some smart negotiations in this next CBA, and we’ll get that cleaned up.”
Harbaugh mentioned that the league sent out worksheets during the year to all 32 staffs to get feedback, and get better results on the field, and in developing players. Through the process, the league had it confirmed that more needs to be done with quarterbacks and offensive linemen in particular. Both sides have tried to look at ideas where players would have freedom to work, and teams wouldn’t abuse it.
Lewis acknowledged that part of the issue coaches have is self-inflicted. “People take it too far, and that’s why we are where we are,“ the Bengals coach said. “You have to be responsible as the head coach to keep it to what’s allowed, what’s reasonable.” So what is reasonable? As Lewis sees it, finding a way to let players drive how much they work.
“You see it in a guy as he moves into his second season, not having the opportunity to work on his craft,” Lewis said. “They could be getting coaching that could further their career. And they’re not necessarily looking for a coach when they’re doing these things outside. Hell, we don’t want to be around them. They need time away. But there are some guys who might say, ‘Hey, can I come tomorrow at 1 o’clock?’”
There are other ideas, too. Payton, for example, has advocated for fixing the schedule in camp to make sure every team gets the same amount of practices. Right now, the earlier a team has its first preseason game, the more practices it gets, creating an inequity.
But the general idea here is consistent. Coaches know what works and what doesn’t, because they’re on the ground. It makes sense that the league would tap into that.
“We’ve had discussions, looking ahead, on what are the things ahead,” Payton said. “And we’re constantly, as coaches and GMs, saying, ‘Hey, we can do this better.’”
And while they may have to wait a few more years to get the change they’ve wanted all along, it sure looks like they’re well on their way there.
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