NEW YORK — At this time last year, the NFL’s fall league meetings were chaotic and controversial. When owners and club representatives gathered in lower Manhattan in October 2017, just a few weeks after the President of the United States chided players who demonstrated during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, the hotel was swarmed with protesters and media. Team owners and league executives were fractured, as the debate over how the league and its players were handling the anthem gripped the NFL.
This year the anthem wasn’t on the agenda. “The focus has been on the efforts that our players have continually brought as their issues in their communities and how can we make our communities better,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. The meeting overall was mostly league business as usual, which hasn’t often been the case over the last several years. But there were some significant points of discussions.
Here are five takeaways from this week’s quarterly league meeting:
1. Concern in L.A.? After two decades without a team in Los Angeles, the NFL returned with not one, but two clubs, in 2017. ESPN’s Seth Wickersham reported Wednesday that there was a lot of private chatter among owners at this meeting about the Chargers’ viability in L.A. and their struggles to build a fan base after relocating from San Diego. They’re currently playing in the 27,000-seat StubHub Center until they move into the new stadium the Rams are building in Inglewood in 2020. Goodell acknowledged “there is some work that needs to be done” since the NFL was out of the market for a long time and needs to earn its way back with fans. “Both teams are committed to that,” he said.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who helped spearhead the deal that brought the NFL back to L.A., said he’s not concerned about the Chargers establishing a foothold there. “No, no. We are fortunate because both teams are playing at a high level, but no, I don’t share any concern there,” Jones said. “It’s just a part of two teams that are part of a new stadium and the acclimation and reshuffling of logistics of the fans, and those kinds of things. So I don’t think the word would be ‘concerned’ as much as just they are working the problem, working the challenge.”
2. A concussion “intervention.” Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, issued a “call to action” earlier this year in response to the rising concussion numbers across the league in 2017. One prong of that plan, in addition to getting players into better-performing helmets and rule changes in the name of player safety, was what Sills called a “ targeted intervention” with seven clubs that had a higher incidence of practice concussions in 2017. According to Sills, six of those seven teams had a decrease in preseason practice concussions from 2017 to 2018. Overall, according to the NFL, concussions decreased in the preseason from 91 in 2017 to 79 in 2018, both practices and games included. The NFL also said there were zero concussions sustained on kickoffs in the preseason, down from three last preseason, after the kickoff was redesigned in an attempt to make the game’s most dangerous play safer.
3. Seahawks staying in Seattle. Seahawks owner Paul Allen, also the co-founder of Microsoft, died on Monday from complications with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Several owners expressed that they have no doubt the Seahawks will stay in Seattle, though Goodell said what happens next with Seahawks’ ownership was not discussed at this meeting. Allen never married and had no children, and a succession plan hasn’t been made public; there was a sense among some owners, however, that the team might be sold. (We’ll have more on this later). Also on the West Coast, Goodell said there was no update on where the Raiders will play in 2019; the team is currently in negotiations with the city of Oakland to continue to play there until their new home in Las Vegas is built.
4. Officiating woes abating. One of the reasons you know the NFL isn’t facing any major current crisis is that officiating has been the biggest point of discussion so far this season. From the rash of lowering-the-helmet calls in the preseason to the furor over the body-weight emphasis on roughing the passer calls, there was plenty of criticism about the frequency and consistency of flags being thrown. Officiating was discussed at this week’s meeting, but club owners sounded pleased with the adjustments the competition committee and officials have made on how both rules are being called. Jones said he was “encouraged” by the league’s willingness to assess the enforcement of these rules and the adjustments that were made league-wide.
“They always want consistency in officiating, but you’re going to have calls that aren’t always going to be clear,” Goodell said. “But I think the focus of trying to protect defenseless players, and that includes quarterbacks, when they are in exposed positions, is something that is very important and there is a strong commitment to do that.
5. Goodell-Jones kumbaya. Jones was bullish on everything NFL, including Goodell. Yes, you read that right. Just a year ago the Cowboys owner was locked in a battle royale with Goodell, clashing with him over Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension after Elliott’s ex-girlfriend said he abused her, and later threatening to sue other owners during negotiations for Goodell’s contract extension. But Jones was standing firmly in Goodell’s corner this week, “because it’s my corner.”
“Under Roger Goodell’s leadership, we really are the best I’ve ever seen in the NFL, as far as transparency, as far as how we’re addressing the issues, the timeliness of it,” Jones said. “I know that’s ironic since we’ve had some criticism, too but I think that’s healthy. … All of this really has me … looking at the NFL at the top of its game.”
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