NEW YORK — Last October, on the morning of the NFL fall meeting, I went for a run a little before 6 a.m. And because the league hotel was close to my route through lower Manhattan, I decided to jog past it along the way to see if there was any action yet.
There was more than a little. Right there on North End Ave. sat at least a dozen satellite trucks with live shots already beamed up, and everyone in place to cover a day that would start with a gaggle of owners and players meeting at the league’s Park Avenue office, and end here with the owners convening to sort out how to manage a tidal wave of controversy over players demonstrating during the national anthem.
That morning, Texans owner Bob McNair made his “inmates running the prison” comment. It was a few weeks removed from Donald Trump calling the players “sons of bitches.” Things couldn’t have been much worse.
Now, fast-forward a year. I watched as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who slipped out a back door and didn’t speak publicly last year, do a number of interviews on his way to the exit Wednesday, before quietly jumping into black car—parked right where those satellite trucks were in 2017—to head to the airport.
Has the NFL been perfect on the anthem? No. Far from it. But for now, the league is riding a two-pronged solution that was so simple and grounded in common sense that … somehow it worked. And those two prongs can be laid out in nine words.
Work with the players.
Leave the anthem policy alone.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to sort through your questions, like we always do, and set you up with some players to watch this weekend. But we’re going to start with the difference a year has made in the league’s handling of its anthem issue, by taking you through how the owners and players have collectively found a way to calm the problem.
And really, the effective end of talks that began in late July—when the Dolphins’ filing of their club policy to the league set off a firestorm of criticism of an overarching league policy put in place in May—set the stage for what came next.
Sources say the last in a series of formal meetings between the players and league happened on Aug. 27 at the Giants’ facility in East Rutherford, N.J. There, the sides agreed to go forward as many thought they should in May—without touching the old policy, which meant having no policy requiring players to stand. And that plan, believe it or not, was founded on a raft of analytical media data.
On a regular basis, the NFL and NFLPA were trading information on how Trump was impacting the national football conversation. What the numbers said, according to a source, was that, in essence, “the Trump tweets were the Trump tweets,” which is to say they didn’t have a huge impact on how football was being discussed across America.
So what caused the issue? According to the data, owners speaking publicly about Trump’s comments or tweets in their aftermath made things much worse. To their credit, the owners accepted the data for what it was, which is why you haven’t heard much of anything from either the league office or any owner’s corner office about the President.
Conversely, the owners sought no quid pro quo, according to those on both sides. They only emphasized their desire to move the conversation from “protest to progress,” as two separate owners said to me. Yes, that’s a talking point, but the clubs have followed through on the promise.
In mid-September the Bears announced a joint initiative with their players that pledged more than $500,000 towards social-justice causes. The Bucs followed soon after with a similar program, and the team’s owners pledged up to $1 million in matching funds to what was designed to be a player-led effort.
Atlanta’s Arthur Blank, Philadelphia’s Jeffrey Lurie and Carolina’s David Tepper took part in on-the-ground work. Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith deserve credit too, for handling the matter quietly, and for managing their constituents through the process. And over the final sets of talks, the Giants’ John Mara, Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney and New England’s Robert Kraft, as well as NFLPA president Eric Winston and Giants safety Mike Thomas were important voices.
“The league has done a good job in terms of talking to players and letting this be a discussion,” 49ers CEO Jed York said, in a quiet moment after the fall meeting. “And the more, on any issue, that you can just have a discussion and let people’s voices be heard, and try. You see different teams doing different things in terms of social justice, because social justice means different things to different people.
“Players, if they want to have their voices heard, you have to give them that platform and that opportunity, and I think a lot of teams are doing that in their own way. I do think we’ve come a long way from where we were two or three years ago, to players and owners having a better understanding of each other.”
Again, there’s no quid pro quo attached to this. But that there are just three players left that are kneeling—Carolina’s Eric Reid, and Miami’s Albert Wilson and Kenny Stills—is a reflection of how much progress has been made since the league adopted the ill-fated half-measure policy it did in May, and rushed to repeal it in July.
Here’s another: Per multiple people in the room, the anthem policy wasn’t raised once to the larger group in the two days the owners spent together in New York.
That’s not to say that anyone’s completely comfortable, given the political climate of the United States in 2018. More than one team official cautioned to me that another flashpoint could move everything back to zero. And while Eric Reid was signed by Carolina, his collusion case and Colin Kaepernick’s are still out there.
For now, though, the sides have accomplished what they wanted last October, even if took everyone almost a year to get a clue.
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Five NFL figures in the spotlight in Week 7:
Giants WR Odell Beckham: Just because with another week of back-and-forth with management, and another national spotlight game coming, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect. Whatever it is, we’ll all see it Monday night from Atlanta.
Texans OLB Jadeveon Clowney: The Houston star could be head up on the Jaguars’ third left tackle, Josh Walker, or even Giants castoff Ereck Flowers. What’s clear is that there should be opportunities for Clowney coming off the right edge of the Houston defensive front.
Bengals WR AJ Green: New OC Bill Lazor has been a wizard at getting Green matched up, and this week he’ll have his choice of moving his star on to Kendall Fuller or Orlando Scandrick, and game-planning against an injury ravaged crew of Chiefs safeties. Look out.
Ravens DT Willie Henry: Henry returned to the lineup in Week 5, and Baltimore has posted 16 sacks in the two games since. It’s not all him, of course, but the third-year man has been a disrupter and could be a key to the Ravens finding a way to throw off the timing of the New Orleans offense.
Patriots RT LaAdrian Waddle: Marcus Cannon is in the concussion protocol, for now, and so either he or Waddle will draw Khalil Mack, who’s fighting through a sprained ankle. Worth noting, too: Mack struggled with New England last yeah when the Raiders visited the Patriots in Mexico City.
And a pair of college players to keep an NFL eye on:
NC State QB Ryan Finley (at Clemson, ESPN, 3:30 p.m.): In midseason last year, there was some buzz that Finley would come out and go higher than people expected. That discussion calmed down, and this year Finley has had a really solid year fly under the radar. He’s completing 70 percent of his passes, with 10 touchdowns, three picks and 1,621 yards for the 5-0 Wolfpack. This week, things get really interesting with a trip to Death Valley. One exec I talked to said he believed Finley’s stock cooled because of arm strength concerns, and another exec confirmed that assessment: “Accurate, smart dude, good size, but average arm.” With 6-0 Clemson having been a little up and down this year, this one should be great to watch.
Mississippi State DL Jeffrey Simmons (at LSU, ESPN, 7 p.m.): You may remember Simmons from 2016, when a video surfaced of him punching a woman involved in an altercation with his sister while he was in high school. Mississippi State took a ton of heat for sticking with Simmons, understandably, but the coaches there have raved to scouts about his growth since then. And on the field, Simmons can play all over the line, and at 6’4” and 300 pounds he has 21.5 tackles for losses and five sacks between last year and this year. “Big, explosive, good at everything,” said one AFC college scouting director. “Starter in the NFL. He never has to leave the field. He’d start at Clemson.” This week he faces an accomplished offensive line and the nation’s fifth-ranked team, so this is a good chance to check out Simmons and his linemate Montez Sweat, with both holding solid shots at being among the top 20 picks in April.
Episode 1 available now: An exclusive narrative podcast series from SI, re-examining the murder of Titans great Steve McNair. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you download your podcasts.
From Olly T-M (@ollytm): With the Wembley sale to Shad Khan falling through, and the slow PSL sale news from L.A., might Sunday mark the first of many London games for the Chargers?
I really don’t think there’s any turning back now, Olly. I know there’s been speculation about the Chargers going back to San Diego. There was sentiment in the league that they should have explored the well-heeled North/East Bay area around Oakland after the Raiders announced their move. But once the Chargers started selling their inventory in Inglewood earlier this year, that sort of did it for them.
Now, that said, I will say it seems like the team is aware of its place in Los Angeles, and that it has to do more to attract fans. The Chargers announced yesterday that 75 percent of the seats in Inglewood will be priced between $50 and $90, and 26,000 of those will have stadium seat licenses that cost just $100. And they’re putting a good team on the field. They’re trying, and they know they have an uphill battle.
From WentzBurnerAccount (@Phillyfan4lfe): [Le’Veon] Bell to the Eagles—is the risk worth the reward if the Eagles can sign long term?
Well, Wentzy, you hit one problem right there. They can’t, by rule, sign Bell long-term. At this point, by definition, he’d be a 10-game rental. Then, there’s his suspension history, his injury history and the question of how long it would take him to get in game shape. Those are problems not just for the Eagles but for any team that’d consider Bell.
Yes, the Eagles call on everyone. And yes, the Fletcher Cox restructure created the kind of breathing room under the salary cap that Philly needed if it’s to make any sort of move ahead of the trade deadline. But I’d be surprised to see this one happen. Internally, Philly believes it has bigger needs (mainly in the secondary). And the Eagles weren’t willing to go into the second-round range to get Shady McCoy. So it seems pretty unlikely they’d take on and give up what would be needed to land Bell.
From Sam Mest (@SMest_78): Will Derek Anderson be like Kyle Orton was for the Bills?
No, I don’t think it’ll be like that, Sam. (Orton took the job outright from EJ Manuel in 2014 under Doug Marrone.) For this one, I think you want to look more to the way the Jets have it set up with Josh McCown backing up Sam Darnold—McCown being an experienced and willing mentor who can step in and start if needed.
That’s what Anderson is. Both coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane know him well from their Carolina days, and one reason Anderson lasted so long in Charlotte (2011-17) was because Cam Newton wanted him there. He was that valuable a sounding board for the Panthers’ franchise, and the hope is that he can have the same sort of impact on Josh Allen.
If he has to start, fine. If Allen, as he said on Wednesday, can learn from watching Anderson while he’s injured, great. But the idea here isn’t bringing in Anderson to jump-start anything. It’s to give the team a player it can believe in behind Allen (apologies to Nate Peterman), and give Allen a valuable resource.
From Brick by Brick (@BrickbyBrick49): What do you think is the price if the Cardinals try to trade Patrick Peterson?
I know why there’s speculation about every big-name Cardinal, this side of Josh Rosen anyway, being traded. I don’t think they’re all on the block. And I’d be stunned if Peterson or Larry Fitzgerald were dealt, unless they went to the powers-that-be and asked to go. Those two have been faces of the franchises, and those are valuable while you’re in the middle of a rebuild.
Now, do I think they’d move former first-round picks Haasan Reddick and Deone Bucannon? I could absolutely see that. But Peterson and Fitzgerald are in a completely different category, in my mind, than those two.
From DefaultPosition (@Josh_Coblentz): Why can’t Colts receivers catch the ball?
On Sunday against the Jets, Indy started a 2016 undrafted free agent (Chester Rogers), a 2017 UDFA (Chester Rogers) and a second-tier veteran free agent on a one-year deal (Ryan Grant). So that’s got a lot to do with it, as does T.Y. Hilton’s injury woes and the season-ender suffered by promising rookie Deon Cain over the summer.
And much of this is by design. If you look at how Chris Ballard helped build the Chiefs under John Dorsey, it was done mostly inside-out, with big people brought in to lay the foundation. So the Indy offensive line and defensive front, once everyone gets healthy especially, should continue to improve. The Colts will get to receiver eventually, and getting Hilton back—he returned to practice Wednesday—should help now.
From Alonso (@AlonsoNFL): Why wouldn’t a team overpay for [Amari] Cooper? Helps now, and if a team is wary about giving up picks/extending him, they could deal him after the season and probably get something similar back (assets for Cooper at the deadline, Cooper for assets in the offseason). Similar(ish) to NE/Cooks.
Well, for one thing, Amari Cooper isn’t trending in a great direction. The Raiders wideout went for 1,153 yards and five touchdowns on 83 catches in 2016. Since, he’s played in 20 games, and has 70 catches for 960 yards and eight touchdowns. And this year, he’s had two huge games (against Denver and Cleveland) and has been largely invisible since. Maybe you attribute some of that to Jon Gruden’s decisions. But it’s clearly less than what he’s capable of.
And if you give up, say, what you think would be a top-50 pick, he either works out and you keep him, or deal off, like you said, as New England did with Cooks, to get back what you gave; or he can’t pick it up much, and then you have a distressed asset. I think that makes it a dice roll for any team that’d consider him.
That said, Cooper has shown he has potential All-Pro talent, so this probably boils down to each team’s belief it can get the most out of him.
From OS (@Indy88_87): Why does @Andy_Benoitinsist on Ty Montgomery having to change his jersey number?
Because it is jarring seeing a running back wear 88, that’s why. It’s like when Devin Gardner wore 98 as a Michigan quarterback. If he’d done that once (and yes, I know why he did it), then fine. But any more than that is obnoxious.
I’m totally with Andy on that one.
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