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  • A look at the why and how behind the league’s controversial new policy, and what looks to be an early and obvious mistake. Plus, notes from around the league on Kirk Cousins’ start in Minnesota, Ryan Tannehill’s return, Zack Martin’s upcoming and likely market-setting deal, a lesson to remember as Manziel tries to make it back and much more
By Albert Breer
May 24, 2018

This story has been updated.

ATLANTA — The owners had been locked in discussion for almost three hours, and momentum was starting to build toward a resolution to be voted on. This, in certain circumstances, would be when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would take command of the room. But not this time. The national anthem has been the most sensitive issue the league has dealt with over the past two years; so instead, Goodell stopped the open forum and called for the owners to go around the room and, one by one, make their points. This is where the league’s anthem policy was born, amid two common themes consistent among the 32 takes.

1) The NFL needed an enforceable policy on the anthem.

2) The NFL needed to respect players who weren’t comfortable standing for it.

Everything would have to fall around those two things, as the owners saw it. And as that consensus became clear, NFL EVP Jeff Pash was scribbling out a five-point plan, which Goodell read to the room after the “All 32” exercise was complete to cap the meeting. Another privileged session (primary owners and family only; or one executive in the owner’s stead) was set for Wednesday to cull the language.

The owners agreed at that morning meeting to add the word “stand” to be specific to a couple points, and added a sixth line—“The commissioner will impose appropriate discipline on league personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem”—to make clear the policy didn’t just apply to players. Then, Goodell asked if the room would vote for it.

49ers CEO Jed York stood and said, “I can’t vote for it, but I won’t vote against it.” And that was it. The measure got 31 votes, with San Francisco abstaining. And so the stage is set for … I’m not sure any of us know, not yet. (UPDATE Friday: I’ve been told since this story published that the vote, as ESPN reported, was indeed informal. Commissioner Roger Goodell simply asked the room, “Do we have any no’s or abstentions?” And that’s when York stood up.)

In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll dive into Kirk Cousins’ progress as a Viking, the changing process of picking Super Bowl sites, some history on when the rookie quarterbacks will play, the significance of Cowboys All-Pro Zack Martin’s contract situation, Johnny Manziel’s past and future, and much, much more.

But we start here with the subject that engulfed this week’s news cycle: where the NFL is going with its national anthem problem. In case you missed it, the league’s new policy will allow players to choose whether or not they come out for the anthem, but require them to stand for it if they’re on the field when it plays.

The NFL will fine teams—not players—for violations of the new rule. And the league will allow for teams to set their own workplace rules, putting player-specific sanctions in the hands of each club. This, of course, will keep the league away from what could be a raft of grievances. The idea of imposing 15-yard penalties was there, in part, because those can’t be grieved by players. Team fines won’t be either.

So that’s the middle ground the NFL found, telling players they can skip the anthem, but they can’t use it as the kind of platform some have in the past. My biggest question digesting all of this was pretty simple: Considering this wasn’t exactly a hot topic in December or January, and the number of guys kneeling had dwindled to single digits, why not leave it alone? I was told some owners considered that, but the concern was that would leave the NFL flat-footed again if another incident like Donald Trump calling players “sons of bitches” arose this fall.

After talking to a bunch of owners and execs, here are a few other points I gathered/would like to make:

Donald Trump did come up. “Oh yeah,” Packers president Mark Murphy said, laughing, when I asked him. “It was more how [Trump] might react, anticipating that. Also, how the fans will react, how the media will react. That’s what we tried to think through. … No matter what we did, [Trump] would probably try to get involved one way or the other—either criticizing us or taking credit for the change.”

The point, though, wasn’t belabored. One owner recalled Trump’s name coming up three times, and never for any extended time. As Cowboys owner Jerry Jones explained it to me, “[Trump] certainly initiated some of the thinking, and was a part of the entire picture. But all of that was given consideration.”

Goodell largely served as moderator. My sense is that Goodell largely stayed out of the way because everyone had a different viewpoint, influenced by a ton of different factors from politics to geography to the business impact the anthem debate had on each individual owner’s team. This was very much the owners’ show.

“He did a great job of taking 32 different opinions coming in, because this has been divisive in our country, it’s been divisive in our league,” York said in a quiet moment after the meetings. “He did a really good job of trying to work with everybody to reflect, essentially, all 32 teams’ opinions and their values. And again, that’s never gonna hit everybody equally. He did a great job of trying to bring things together.”

Everything was on the table on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. There were around 15 different ideas for elements of the policy that Goodell and Pash had the owners working from. Some came off the table. “There wasn’t a whole lot of support for having a 15-yard penalty on the field, when that was discussed,” said Murphy. “We also talked about having the home team make the policy, and that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”

Others were adjusted. And then there were two that an owner pointed to as the “driving tenets.” One was having the fines levied against teams, which would put the ball in the court of the individual clubs and make this, officially, a workplace rules issue, like some owners believed it always should have been. And the other was allowing players the freedom to choose to stay in the locker room.

This was largely a response to the customers. It’s smart to follow the money when you’re talking about the NFL, and the owners clearly felt—right or wrong—that this was impacting its relationships with fans and in the business community. In fact, in the meeting, Colts vice chair Carlie Irsay raised complaints she’d fielded from suite holders who said they weren’t upset with the team, they were angry with the league.

“You know how many letters I got last fall?” Steelers owner Art Rooney said. “Yeah, the fans’ point of view on this was definitely a factor. We heard from a lot of fans over the last six months. No question that was part of the decision-making. [Those] people expect the players to be respectful during the anthem. Pretty simple.”

“People come to our games to get away from everything,” Cowboys COO Stephen Jones told me. “They don’t want to worry about their finances, they don’t want to worry about their job, they don’t want to worry about what’s in the news. They want to get away and relax for three or four hours.”

York added, “At the end of the day, we are an entertainment property. You tune into football on Sunday or Monday or Thursday to get away from everything else. And I think people have had enough of the political fights. I think people do want to get back to football. But our players also have the ability, and the right to champion their causes and bring attention to those causes.”

The NFL should have involved the players. The NFLPA’s statement reflected how a lot of players felt on Wednesday—like they were frozen out of this process, which certainly caused some to push back on the new policy. The union directly called out Goodell and Giants owner John Mara for breaking their word. I’m told that stems from those two telling players at an October meeting that the rules wouldn’t change.

There’s definitely a piece of the last couple days that felt rushed, right down to a couple typos in a slide presented to owners with the policy on Wednesday. And it’s easy to see why players felt like the policy was hustled right by them. I don’t think it needed to be.

• NEW ANTHEM POLICY IS NOT A COMPROMISE: NFL owners ignored the reason the protests started in the first place: social justice.


Obviously, perfect this is not. I argued to a couple owners that this is likely to create a new news cycle that might not have existed otherwise—you’d expect media to be taking anthem attendance then like they do at a training camp practice. It’ll be discussed in August and September, for sure.

And the team-by-team element will be interesting, too. Jets owner Christopher Johnson already said he’d pay the fine for players who want to kneel, and it’s not hard to see other owners, like York, doing the same. On the flip side, there are others who will make the expectation that players stand very clear.

I have no clue how this will work out. Maybe it vanishes by late September. Maybe Trump shoots his mouth off again. Maybe there are more societal reasons that steel the players’ resolve to use their platform as they see fit, then it becomes a season-long topic of discussion.

What I do know is that there really was no easy answer to this. And I also know that if you try to please everyone, oftentimes, you wind up pissing everyone off. The good news? At the very least, the owners worked together on this, and are moving forward with a plan. This wasn’t one of those meetings where one or two owners took charge. Some (York, Arizona’s Michael Bidwill) might have been a little more vocal than others (Jerry Jones was quieter than usual), but everyone was heard.

“Probably one of the better jobs I’ve seen done—from the membership, the commissioner,” Stephen Jones said. “There wasn’t a lot of staff in there, but our membership and commissioner worked together to come up with a consensus that was done in a civil and efficient way. Everyone verbalized their views and thoughts. And everybody was respectful. We came up with something that should be good.”

That, of course, remains to be seen.

• NFL VS. NFLPA: Legal expert Michael McCann on how the new anthem policy deepens a divide and prolongs a controversy.


FIRST-AND-10

1. Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill is off to a fast start in OTAs, from what I’m hearing. That’s great news for a guy coming off a torn ACL. It also might be a sign that Miami’s flirtation with draft prospects at his position this spring lit a little fire underneath him.

2. Anthony Barr skipping Vikings OTAs underscores the tricky contract dance that Minnesota will have to play into this summer. Three of Minnesota’s best young players (Barr, DE Danielle Hunter, WR Stefon Diggs) are set to be 2019 free agents, and it’ll be tough to keep all three. Barr actually might be the easiest to do of the three, given what receivers and pass-rushers are making these days.

3. The anthem and gambling were supposed to be major topics of conversation this week. The former, obviously, has been. The latter has not. According to those in the room, the owners just got an update saying the league is monitoring the situation, which illustrates how they want to slow-play this one.

4. The Chargers’ injury luck hasn’t been good the last few years, but that doesn’t make it any easier to take the hits, and L.A. got a big one this week with burgeoning young tight end Hunter Henry’s torn ACL. Tight end has always been a position Philip Rivers leans on; losing a trusted guy at that spot is a big blow.

5. Your friendly reminder that when you read this, Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski will be eligible to get a fat raise from the team. If he’d signed something before May 24, rules making it more difficult to renegotiate within a year of your last renegotiation would’ve created a whole bunch of hoops that the player and team would need to jump through.

6. Every contract can affect the next one, and that’s why the Rams face a little bit of a tricky situation with two offensive stars: receiver Brandin Cooks and tailback Todd Gurley. Cooks is operating in a world where Sammy Watkins, the man he’ll replace, is making $16 million per. And if you give Cooks that, then what is Gurley worth at a position where the premiums are normally much cheaper?

7. While we’re there, it might be worth it for Le’Veon Bell to wait and see if Gurley gets a contract before July 15, the deadline for him to do a long-term deal with Pittsburgh.

8. I don’t mind the flyer the Raiders took on Christian Hackenberg, but I’d temper any sort of expectation there. He just got done working with a pretty damn good quarterbacks guy in Jets offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. Fixing Hackenberg was among Bates’ first tasks after being hired two Februarys ago, and he couldn’t even get the former second-rounder into a single real game.

9. Panthers owner-to-be David Tepper looked more than comfortable with his surroundings this week. It’s worth mentioning again that Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and, of course, Rooney were big advocates of his over the last couple months.

10. Speaking of the process, it’s interesting to see the NFL doing a deal to have Fanatics manufacture uniforms for the next decade (they’ll still carry the Nike swoosh on them). Fanatics’ executive chairman is Michael Rubin, the Philadelphia 76ers co-owner who’s also close with Kraft and led a bidding group for the Panthers. I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear about him trying to get a team again down the line.

• NEW TARGETING RULE ABOUT TO CAUSE A WORLD OF CHAOS: Given limited tackling in practices, the NFL will have little time to adjust to the new rule.


FOUR DOWNS

Kirk Cousins blending in with his new surroundings. The conclusion of the years-long saga between the Redskins and Cousins means, for the first time in his career, the 29-year-old can actually settle in as the starting quarterback knowing he’ll be in place for a while. And the early word I’ve gotten indicates the Vikings are pleased with the return on their three-year, $84 million investment. The coaches have seen a quarterback who’s working to move his feet faster, and showing great accuracy on the run and feel for the game.

That’s not to say, of course, there hasn’t been an adjustment. This is the first big scheme change of his career. He’s learning the run-pass option game that new coordinator John DeFilippo is bringing with him from Philadelphia, and to shoulder more responsibility pre-snap. In the West Coast-based system that’s he ran in Washington, much of the mental load of setting protections and adjusting pre-snap fall on the center, which is part of an effort to make the quarterback’s job easier. DeFilippo’s scheme will put more on Cousins to set protections, and there’ll be more sight adjustments (where the receiver and quarterback adjust based on what they see) than he’s ever had to handle before. The thought here is that it should, in the long run, make Cousins more effective and tap into his football intelligence.

All of that is coming along, as is Cousins’ place in the locker room. Remember, because of all the uncertainty over the last few years, it was hard for the quarterback ever to truly take the head seat at the table among players. Now, he can do that, and he’s been proactive in trying to establish himself there in bringing teammates out to dinner, or Wild or Timberwolves games. And all of that makes this situation pretty different than the one Cousins had been in.

Super Bowl rotation. You might have been caught off-guard by the change in how Super Bowls are rewarded—it just became public this week that Arizona and New Orleans would be voted on as the sites for Super Bowls LVII and LVIII, respectively, without any bid process to speak of. Why? As I understand it, part of this resulted from New Orleans losing out on Super Bowl LII, which was just staged in Minnesota. In order to put together a bid, and badly wanting to get the game to coincide with the city’s tricentennial, officials there poured resources into the effort and spent a ton of political capital. Because of that, not getting the game made it infinitely more difficult to turn around and bid again, and as it turns out the game they would wind up landing was six years after the last one they bid on, and 11 years after they last hosted one.

Remember, this is New Orleans we’re talking about. This is a change to clean that up, with hopes that all that goes into a bid won’t be wasted. Now, it will be up to the Super Bowl and Major Events Advisory Committee, chaired by Cincinnati’s Katie Blackburn (Oakland’s Mark Davis, Indianapolis’ Jim Irsay, Jacksonville’s Mark Lamping, Philadelphia’s Jeffrey Lurie, Chicago’s George McCaskey, Seattle’s Peter McLoughlin, Buffalo’s Kim Pegula and Minnesota’s Mark Wilf also serve) to pick sites, then give those sites time to set up logistics before presenting them to the league for vote. Which means, basically, cities putting together what previously would encompass a bid are now planning with the knowledge that if they check all the boxes, they’ll get the game. Seems like a pretty common-sense solution that’ll save a lot of time and money.

On rookies being redshirted. The Browns have Tyrod Taylor, the Jets have Josh McCown, the Bills have AJ McCarron and the Cardinals have Sam Bradford, which gives each the flexibility to leave a Top 10 pick at the game’s most important position on the shelf for 2018. Accordingly, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen will have to make their way up the depth chart. History tells us the chances they will are pretty good.

I keep a chart that I update every year that details how long it’s taken every first-round quarterback this century to start his first game. Twenty-seven quarterbacks were drafted in Round 1 in the 10 drafts between 2008 and 2017. Only one—Tennessee’s Jake Locker—failed to start a game as a rookie. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes has the next longest wait, only playing in Week 17 last year with the Chiefs’ playoff position locked in. Those are the only true “redshirts,” and they did have something in common: Both played for contenders. The 2011 Titans nearly made the playoffs, finishing 9-7, while the 2017 Chiefs won their division, which would’ve made it difficult for either team to pull the veteran who got the group there.

Three other quarterbacks of the 27 came close to redshirting: Denver’s Tim Tebow (2010), Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel (2014) and Denver’s Paxton Lynch (2016). The tie binding those three? The first two weren’t very good, and time is running out on the third to prove he’s any better. Conversely, 13 of the 27 guys on this list started for their teams in Week 1.

Add it up, and you can surmise that if the above rookies (and you can add Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson too) are just decent, and their teams fall out of contention, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll see them before too long. That’s, of course, if we don’t see them right away.

Zack Martin’s about to get rich. The Cowboys’ fifth-year All-Pro guard is staying out of OTAs for the time being—and this doesn’t seem to be a very contentious situation at all—in an effort to cash in on the four years of domination he’s given the NFL’s most imposing front. Will it work? It should.

My sense is that the Dallas brass is confident they’ll work something out before the season starts, and it’s a safe bet that he’s going to wind up as, at minimum, the second-highest paid offensive lineman in the league. The team’s expectation is he’ll land north of $13 million per (only five linemen are there now), making him a good bet to get past the $13.3 million average that new Jaguars guard Andrew Norwell got in March, to become the NFL’s highest-paid guard.

Is Martin worth it? The Cowboys would tell you he is, and the reason why is because they believe he’s easily the best pass-protecting guard in football, and is right there in the run game too. His athleticism makes him unbelievable in space and pulling, with excellent feet to anchor and recover. He basically has left-tackle traits, just with arms too short to play the position. So chances are, he pushes the guard market north a little, which will only make tackles more expensive, especially in an era when there’s a scarcity of great linemen. The result is more of them will get paid, and Norwell and new Giants left tackle Nate Solder will not be seen as exceptions to the rule.

• DEZ BRYANT WILL REGRET PASSING ON RAVENS’ OFFER: Why the receiver should have signed the three-year deal and headed to Baltimore.


LESSON OF THE WEEK

There’s a funny thing you figure out about Johnny Manziel when you ask the guys who coached him and played with him about him: They all seem to like him.

That doesn’t absolve him from the way he handled the first two years of his NFL career. It’s certainly not to trivialize the domestic situation involving an ex-girlfriend. But it is a window into the kind of chance he’ll have of eventually getting back to the NFL, since his ability to win over people will matter.

And here’s the other thing: A lot of guys seem to think he’ll make it back there. Which brings us to our Lesson of the Week, which is that in the NFL your second chances are a function of talent. Part of the equation in Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy getting another shot was that both were still at an elite level, just as part of Ray Rice never getting back into the league was that he wasn’t nearly the player he had been. The first thing Manziel will have to do in Canada is show talent, and the guys I know that have worked with him believe that piece is in place.

“He was way smarter than people give him credit for, in terms of football knowledge,” said one of those guys. “He gets the ball out of his hand, he can extend plays, all those things you’re looking for in an NFL quarterback, he has. … I have no qualms about Johnny Manziel the player. I have qualms about Johnny Manziel the person.”

And that’s where we’ll put together the pieces that it will take for him to find his path back into the NFL after he serves out his two-year commitment in Canada. The stuff I heard in calling around this week mirrored a conversation I had with ex-Browns coach Mike Pettine during Manziel’s final weeks as a player in 2015. This was in the wake after the incident with his then-girlfriend, and ahead of his first start that year.

“What happened off the field is unfortunate,” Pettine said. “It’s still lingering, we’re waiting to hear from the league. But from the standpoint where I can evaluate him, from the moment he steps in the building to the moment he leaves, he’s very professional. He’s all about football.”

And that was just it. Manziel had found ways, at times, to fool those around him that he was past his problems by being the good soldier in the building. You’d hear them, like you do now in asking about it, say that they weren’t totally sure about what was happening afterhours, but that Manziel was great when he was clocked in to the team’s facility.

• GIVE MANZIEL CREDIT: In signing with a CFL team when other QBs would not, he’s showing he’s willing to do anything to get back into the NFL.

This is all also why I’d proceed with caution in assuming he’s vanquished his demons. We have heard it before, which is why there are still plenty of people in the NFL who don’t trust he’s changed. Later in that conversation with Pettine, he explained that Manziel was a different person coming out of rehab.

“This year, he’s into it,” Pettine said then. “I think he knows. He said all the right things when he got out of rehab and talked about it, how he felt like he let everybody down. He knows he has a long way to go and it’s a process, but he said that. That was always our thing with Johnny: He said the right things, but then he didn’t necessarily do them. Now, that’s different.”

It turned out it wasn’t different. Will it be this time around? Manziel’s has to prove diligent in studying for, say, the Montreal Alouettes like he would the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he has to keep his nose clean. And he has to demonstrate that this isn’t the same old story off the field, which will be tougher for him to pull off since he’s fooled people before.

As for the on-field piece, I think there’s still a little something there. His ability to show that will go a long way to dictating how far #ComebackSZN takes him.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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