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NFL History Is Bending Toward Safety. Better Get on Board

The new roughing the passer emphasis is just the latest effort by the stewards of football to make the game safer—and protect their own interests. Who wants to go back to the old days of broken players and dangers brushed under the rug? Plus, Le’Veon Bell’s baffling strategy and the reality of the Earl Thomas situation

I have some advice for those complaining about the controversial roughing the passer rule: Get over it. It is the same advice to those complaining about the “lowering of the head” rule, the ”leading with the head” rule, the targeting rule, the “defenseless player” rule and more. What many fail to realize about the NFL in this era is that we have exited a time where player safety was an afterthought. We have crossed the Rubicon on player safety in the NFL, and there is no turning back; the mantra is safety first, and the rest will follow. This is not your father’s NFL; and much of that is a good thing.

Business of the NFL

The NFL’s business interests in presenting its most marketable product and strongest brand are clearly in play here as well. The brand is stronger when players like Aaron Rodgers—injured on a play last year for which the new roughing the passer rule was designed to penalize—are upright. And while stars like Rodgers can be injured on any play, the NFL wants to deter one source of potential injury and unavailability.

The NFL is trying to protect quarterbacks with rules that lessen their vulnerability to injury, added “body weight” on top of them or otherwise. We can agree or disagree and lament that the same protections are not afforded defensive players. However, the business of the NFL is better with its brand-name quarterbacks playing. They move the meter on interest, viewership and fan and sponsor investment.

Protections for offensive players and restrictions for defensive players are nothing new. The NFL has been making it tougher for defenders for many years, promoting a more consumer-friendly game with lots of scoring and offense. What is relatively new, however, is the emphasis on safety that is now inextricably linked with the business of the NFL.

Protect the Head

The era depicted in the movie Concussion and the documentary League of Denial, when NFL executives covered their ears at any mention of a link between football and future brain trauma, was not a good look.  It was a time when a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee was commissioned and chaired by a rheumatologist. It was a time when concussions were seen as part of the game, a silent injury that many, if not most, players would simply play through.

The NFL has been trying to move past that era for nearly a decade since 2009 Congressional hearings comparing the league to the tobacco industry in ignoring the risks of its product. Concussion lawsuits circled for years, eventually combined into a class action settlement with former players or their surviving family members. Sidelines are now staffed with brain specialists and independent trainers specifically looking for signs of head trauma. Players must pass through methodical concussion protocols before returning to play. And the concessions gained by the NFL Players Association in the current collective bargaining agreement are largely safety-oriented, with reduced offseason commitment and a drastic reduction of in-season allowable padded practices (14).

The Roughing the Passer Rule and Football’s Unfixable Problem

When the Competition Committee presents something to ownership with the tag line of “in the name of player safety,” opposition to these measures is scant at best. It will pass, leaving it to coaches, players and officials to pay attention to the details.

Pick a side

Now, weekly videos of Clay Matthews or other defensive lineman sacking quarterbacks without, it would seem, excessive force, have fed a drumbeat of complaints and predictions about the ruination of the game. But the question must be asked, what do we want?

Here is my frustration: The same people complaining about these rules lament the brutality of the game and the findings of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) among brains of football players at all levels.

There are weekly articles and television segments about former NFL players facing mental challenges caused at least in part by playing in the NFL in previous eras, where player safety was less of a concern. The same fans and media criticizing the NFL for letting this happen are now railing against rules designed to protect players!

So ... what do we want? Do we want the NFL to prioritize player safety, as it seems to be doing, even if penalizing it means what has previously been allowable? Do we want to protect players in vulnerable positions, even if it results in mistaken penalties, over-officiating and even more game stoppages? Or do we want to revert to the era of “let ’em play,” without built-in player safety deterrents? Do we want officials to keep their flags in their pockets when there may be force that can needlessly endanger the player?

Listen, I know (1) officials can show more discretion in applying these rules, and (2) football, an inherently violent game, will never truly be safe. But if quarterbacks or other players are spared just one collision that could be a tiny factor towards future brain trauma, is that not worth it?

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Complaints about “putting skirts on quarterbacks,” playing “powder-puff football” and the “softening” of the game are natural, but we are in a different era regarding player safety in the NFL, especially when it comes to the head.

This is not your father’s NFL; the sooner we all deal with that, the better.

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The Folly of Le’Veon Bell’s “Usage” Strategy

Having spent a decade each on both the player and team side of the business of football, when it comes to Le’Veon Bell, I just don’t get it.

Bell has reportedly targeted Week 7 as his return date, in time for the Steelers’ bye and remaining 10 games of the season. He will thus forfeit more than $5 million with an apparent strategy of missing time to allow for reduced “usage.” I suppose the theory is that a team is going to pay him more than it otherwise would in 2019 because Bell is missed six games in 2018? Well, good luck with that.

I empathize with Bell and the harsh reality of NFL running backs being the one position where phrases like “usage” and “wear and tear” are commonly employed. And it is a legitimate question as to whether productivity early in a running back’s career actually helps future value or hurts it.

However, teams are too smart to be wooed by this notion of reduced usage. I sat in the chair negotiating NFL contracts for 10 years and heard dozens of agent arguments about players who missed time and therefore had less “wear and tear.” And I answered the same as every other team negotiator: Age is age, reduced wear and tear or not.  

As some of you know, I am a health and fitness nerd. I exercise daily and take care of my body with massage, acupuncture, cryotherapy, infrared sauna, etc. And despite my efforts to fight Father Time, my joints are a year older than they were this time last year. Bell will be a year older in 2019 than he was in 2018, reduced usage or not. Bell may be resting his legs while he forfeits millions, but it’s not helping his financial picture long term. And it may be hurting it.

Le’Veon Bell Is Ready to Return, But Should the Steelers Let Him?

As a former agent, I could not advise a client—especially a running back—to forego more than $5 million without a rock-solid guarantee that the sacrifice would be made up in the future. Here, of course, there is no such guarantee, only a theory. It is a wish and a hope; it is not a plan.

I’ve been wrong every week in predicting Bell’s return to the Steelers and was wrong again in predicting it for this week. And my son is still angry with me for advising him not to worry about drafting him first overall in his fantasy league. My prediction, however, was framed by 25 years in the business of football, though, and it makes no business sense to me. I just don’t get it.

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The Earl Thomas Dilemma

The searing image of Earl Thomas being carted off the field Sunday with middle finger raised towards his own team’s sideline illustrated the underbelly of the business of football. Thomas had reluctantly returned to the Seahawks after his efforts to extend his contract failed, and now he has suffered a serious injury damaging his future market value elsewhere.

I understand Thomas’s frustration, feeling that he should have drawn some future reward for all he’s done for the team. Having been on the team side, however, I understand the Seahawks position, as cold as it may seem.

I dealt with this a few times with the Packers, where veterans made it known, subtly or not so subtly, that they wanted a contract extension. And, for whatever reasons, we did not agree. It is one of a team executive’s hardest jobs—managing the waning years of a player who has sacrificed greatly for the organization. I had to be as professional and tactful as possible in relaying to the agent that we simply did not want to go forward with a contract extension.

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The Seahawks wanted Thomas on the team this last year of his contract. They did not, however, want to extend him. And they were willing to live with the uneasiness and rumbles of discontent in order to have his value for 2018. And now 2018 has ended in frustration and injury for Thomas.

I am honestly not sure what else could have been done with Thomas other than a parting of ways through trade or release, something the Seahawks did not want to do. The business of football is a cold one. Even for the best of the best, it rarely ends well.

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