IRVING, Texas — Sports gambling may be making its way into the mainstream, but that doesn’t make it the most comfortable discussion subject for those in the NFL’s inner circle. One owner, as he was leaving this Dallas-area Four Seasons, declined to get into the issue—while doing his best to illustrate how fast change is coming.
“When they were vetting me,” he said, “they’d have wanted to know if I was involved in a Friday night poker game.”
That was then. This is now.
Then, in this case, could be seen as less than 21 months ago, the point at which commissioner Roger Goodell finished the 2017 annual meeting by declaring to the press that “we still strongly oppose sports gambling.” That was even as it was becoming increasingly clear that this kind of resistance would be futile.
This week, for our purposes, represents now. At the annual one-day December meeting, the 2020 NFL draft was awarded to Las Vegas, and just how to handle sports gambling was top-of-the-agenda subject matter. Some owners, as we said, were a little uncomfortable talking about it. But no one was treating gambling as the kind of dark-alley dealing that it had forever been regarded by the league.
Concern still exists. Rejection does not.
“You start with the integrity of the game, and that’s number one through one-hundred,” said Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. “And I think the big opportunity then is in the demographic of 18-to-34 [year-old] males, they’re the demographic most interested in gambling, they’re the ones that are particularly online and digitally most interested in gambling, and I think it’s an opportunity to increase the viewership of the NFL.
“And to get even bigger numbers than we have now.”
And you know that the pursuit of those numbers something everyone in a place like this can get on board with.
This week’s Game Plan will include a look-ahead at a big NFL weekend, identify a couple Group of Five draft prospects and, as always, respond to a whole bunch of your mail. But we’ll start where I’m wrapping up right now in North Texas, at a winter powwow that had a little less punch than last year—when the anthem controversy was still raging, as was Jerry Jones’s feud with the league office.
This year the media crowd was smaller—limited to those who cover football for a living. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty to talk about on the way out. And here, it seemed the first thing that those in attendance wanted to discuss was sports gambling. The major points:
Where the NFL stands on gambling. The league has quietly loosened its grip. At first, clubs weren’t permitted to have any relationships with casinos. Then they were allowed to do sponsorship deals only with local casinos that didn’t have sports books. And earlier this year, more change—clubs can now do deals with any casino, including those with sports books, so long as the club isn’t promoting the sports book itself.
Discussed internally on Wednesday was the league’s pursuit of national sponsorship deals. Owners were presented with the gains made by the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, each of which now have national deals with MGM. The NBA is taking in $8 million per over three years, the NHL $7 million per over four years, and MLB between $7 million and $10 million per over four years.
The money is out there for the NFL, and those in Texas were given an overview of how the NHL, NBA and MLB set up national sponsorship deals, how the New Jersey Devils created a partnership with Caesar’s in a state where sports gambling is now legal, and how data and sports betting platform partnerships are taking shape.
“Fan engagement” is a buzz term. We detailed this in the spring—the owners aren’t as concerned with monetizing traditional sports betting (they believe the margins are low) as they are motivated to use gambling to drive a younger audience. In-stadium prop betting is one way they plan to do it, a way to allow the fan Haslam talked about to make NFL games an interactive experience.
The idea is pretty simple. The younger fan isn’t satisfied just to sit back and watch. He wants to feel involved. Or, to use the NFL’s word, engaged.
“I think in the short term, it’s a sponsorship opportunity, not only at the league level, but for each of the clubs,” Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt told me. “Longer term, I still think the greatest value is fan engagement. A lot of folks play fantasy right now—there’s a lot of betting that’s not legal right now. Much of that will move to legal platforms. I think overall that’ll just increase interest in the league, which benefits us all.”
The NFL isn’t compelled to play catch-up. And that’s mainly because the league doesn’t feel it has to. Hunt told me that he’d love for there to be uniform national legislation on sports gambling before the NFL gets more aggressive, but he knows that’s not likely. As it stands now, eight states have full-scale legalized sports betting, and only one, New Jersey, is home to an NFL team.
So the league can wait a little, and watch what works and doesn’t for the other leagues. This is the advantage of being king: The NFL knows that whenever it dives in, a robust appetite for gambling on its product will be there.
“We can afford to be patient, because it’s not legal in most places, so you want to do it right,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, a leader for the NFL in this area, said to me. “Who wants to jump? There’s no reason. You want to make better-considered decisions on this, rather than just jumping in and doing it.”
The Raiders remained in the news. And believe it or not, it wasn’t just because they fired GM Reggie McKenzie or because being Las Vegas’s (future) team puts them at the center of the sports gambling discussion. It was also because their current home city, Oakland, just filed a lawsuit against the team, and the Raiders just so happen to be without a lease for 2019, with their Vegas stadium not opening until 2020.
Going to Vegas early would be tough. UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium would require tens of millions of dollars in upgrades to become NFL-compliant. And with the school’s football team moving with the Raiders into the new stadium, sinking resources into Sam Boyd would benefit no one after next year.
Owner Mark Davis, for his part, left his options open for ’19. Another Bay Area venue, like the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium or Cal’s Memorial Stadium, could be in play if the Coliseum isn’t.
But I wouldn’t discount San Diego. The Raiders are one of the few teams that could draw crowds doing something like that (moving to a random city for a single year) because of their national fan base and strong Southern California ties. Also, one potential issue for other cities would be to have a practice facility for the Raiders. San Diego actually has one ready to go—the one the Chargers left behind.
Coaching search season is upon us. And that meant anyone who could be in the market to make big changes (or are already there) made themselves somewhat scarce in front of the media. But I did get to ask Haslam how he’d assess where his 23-year-old quarterback, Baker Mayfield, stands heading into the final three weeks of his rookie year.
“I think everybody understands that to win in the NFL, you have to have a quarterback,” Haslam said. “And when we drafted Baker, we felt very strongly that he, with both his playing ability and his leadership ability, was the right guy. And so far, that’s proven out. He’s got a long way to go, but so far, so good.”
The natural next question, to me, was whether or not the Browns felt Mayfield’s presence enhances the team’s attractiveness to prospective coaches. “We do,” Haslam said. “We do, because it starts with the quarterback.”
Helmet-rule back in the news. The amazing thing about the helmet rule has been how little you’ve heard about the helmet rule. Which competition committee chair Rich McKay warned on Wednesday could change. The Falcons exec says there’s “still quite a ramp” coming in how players and officials are adjusting to the rule.
Fifteen players have been flagged for the new ban on lowering the helmet, but McKay said “in excess of 100” warning letters have gone out, which would seemingly set the stage for the rule to be enforced more stringently in 2019.
NFL still in the investigation business. I’ve heard over the last couple years that a number of prominent owners would rather the league get out of the business of investigating cases like Kareem Hunt’s this year and Ezekiel Elliott’s last year. So I brought the idea to NFL general counsel Jeff Pash at the close of Wednesday’s meeting.
“First of all, I don’t know that there are very many owners who think that, and I don’t think there are any owners who think we should get out of it entirely,” Pash responded. “There are different views on when you do something and how you go about doing it. But every owner, regardless of how investigations are done, is adamant that we want to have high standards, and that we want to uphold those standards in a fair and even-handed way.
“There’s no owner who believes we should brush this stuff off, that’s for sure. So I think we’re going to continue doing it. We just have to recognize that we have really, really good people, we implemented every recommendation that Director [Robert] Mueller made, but we don’t and will never have subpoena power.” [The league commissioned former FBI director Robert Mueller to examine the NFL’s investigative process in the wake of the Ray Rice incident; his report was filed in January 2015.]
Along those lines, I asked Pash if he thought the Hunt case represented a failure of the system in place. “No. Absolutely not,” Pash said. “Because we asked for [the video]. We went to the police. We did everything the right way.”
And by the way, there’s great football tonight! When I caught Hunt, he was heading home (he lives in Dallas), planning to jet up to Kansas City in the morning for what might be the biggest game in the history of Thursday Night Football, between, by record, the two best teams in the AFC.
“It’s interesting, when the schedule came out and I saw that game, on Thursday night, late in the season against the Chargers, I had a sense it might be a really important game, a big game. And I completely underestimated it,” Hunt said. “I didn’t expect that both teams would have quite the seasons that they’ve had. So the fact that we have a national stage with the two top teams in the AFC playing each other, I think it’s great for the league, I think it’s great for the Chargers and the Chiefs.”
WATCH: ALBERT BREER BREAKS DOWN CHARGERS-CHIEFS
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Five players in the spotlight in Week 15.
Chargers S Derwin James. L.A. defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has used his rookie star on every level of the defense, and that could be key for a Chargers group that may be able to force a mistake or two from Patrick Mahomes. Last week the Ravens caught Mahomes throwing off-balance and across his body, with Chuck Clark registering the pick. This week it wouldn’t be a shocker to see Bradley using James to pressure Mahomes.
Chiefs RT Mitchell Schwartz: The K.C. vet has good history against elite pass-rushers (hello, Von Miller), but also had the good fortune of dodging Joey Bosa (who was injured) in the season-opener. The Chargers phenom is back now, and playing like, well, Joey Bosa, so Schwartz will have one of the most pivotal assignments of anyone in the TNF showdown.
Steelers S Terrell Edmunds. At least on paper, this is the guy who’d draw notorious Steeler killer Rob Gronkowski. And if the Steelers are like other teams in 2018, they won’t be overly compelled to give whoever’s covering Gronkowski a lot of help. Which would make the role of Pittsburgh’s first-round pick pretty important.
Eagles QB Nick Foles. Here’s why I’m interested to see Foles go on Sunday night—It should give us a window into how much Philly misses ex-OC Frank Reich and QBs coach John DeFilippo. I’ve heard that things haven’t been entirely smooth for Philly in replacing those two. And if Foles really struggles down the stretch, with Carson Wentz banged up, that’d serve as more evidence of it.
Panthers LB Luke Kuechly: I remember talking to Kuechly a few years back about the idea that the Carolina defense could become like a Pittsburgh or a Baltimore, where there’s a tradition passed down year to year. And it was like that for a while. It hasn’t been this season, and so it’ll be interesting to see how Kuechly’s crew plays the next three weeks, with the Saints (twice) and the Falcons on tap.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
Note: We’re keeping this section going through bowl season AND keeping the name of it, because Saturday IS college football. So here you go …
Northern Illinois OT Max Scharping (vs. UAB, Boca Raton Bowl, Dec. 18, 7 p.m., ESPN). Scharping is immense—6’6”, 320-pounds—and played right tackle and right guard as a freshman and sophomore, respectively, before settling in at left tackle the last two years. He has made 49 consecutive starts, and has the makeup and frame to play in the NFL for a long time, even if he probably won’t go in the first couple rounds. “Big dude with decent athleticism,” said one AFC exec. “He could be a starter in the right scheme. And he’s a great kid.”
South Florida TE Mitchell Wilcox (vs. Marshall, Gasparilla Bowl, Dec. 20, 8 p.m., ESPN). A big target (6’4”, 236 pounds) who broke out this year, catching 40 balls for 506 yards and two touchdowns, Wilcox is likely in the mid-round discussion, but could go a tad higher given how NFL teams, now more than ever, are looking for chess pieces at his position. “He’s athletic and catches the ball well,” said one AFC evaluator. “He’s more of a move tight end—had a nice year for them. Good athlete, smart and tries hard as a blocker, just isn’t good at it.” Full disclosure: I’m a little biased on this one—Wilcox was coached in high school by my old fraternity brother Ron Hawn.
Answering your Twitter questions:
From Michael Pollack (@PMikePollack): Will David Carr be in a Raiders uniform next season?
Yes, I believe he will, Michael. And if you listen to people in Oakland, he’s gotten a lot better over the last three months, thanks to a coaching infrastructure led by Jon Gruden. The old staff believed that Carr benefited from then-OC Bill Musgrave’s tough-love approach in 2015 and ’16, and regressed last year without it. And this year, between Gruden, OC Greg Olson and QBs coach Brian Callahan, he’s gotten coached hard again, and he’s right back on track.
Carr is play efficient now. He’s playing smart. And he’s learning to balance that while taking his shots. The results? Since Oakland’s Week 7 bye, here are his game-by-game passer ratings:
Bottom line, I don’t think Jon Gruden forgot how to coach. And speaking of the Raiders…
From Srikar (@thatkidsrikar): Really, how attractive is the Raiders GM job to prospective candidates? I have to imagine working with a coach with seemingly unilateral and far-reaching control like Jon Gruden might scare off quality candidates from other teams. This seems like a job that’s full of risks.
OK, Srikar, I’m going to tell you what I’ve been told, which is that the Raiders are going to pursue an exec with the chops to push back on Gruden, something that ex-GM Reggie McKenzie didn’t do much, mostly because he wasn’t empowered to. And if they can get that guy—I’d love someone like New England’s Nick Caserio, long shot as it may be, here—I think it can work, because Gruden has a vision for a program but wasn’t seen as the best talent evaluator in his years in Tampa.
So here’s where your point comes into play. Without the power actually written into a contract, will a seasoned candidate trust that he’ll have a modicum of control? It’d be a leap of faith, to be sure, and may even require a previous relationship with Gruden. If that’s the case, ex-Redskins and 49ers GM Scot McCloughan, who was with Gruden in Green Bay in the ’90s, would be a fun name to kick around.
From Andrew Fisher (@ColtsFisher): Any chance that Chris Ballard swings for the fences and tries trading for A.J. Green, Julio Jones or Keenan Allen this offseason?
Andrew, I think finding a bona fide No. 1 receiver would probably be No. 2 on Ballard’s offseason wish list, right behind getting his front seven a front-line pass-rusher. We know the latter will be available in free agency—Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford, Frank Clark, Ziggy Ansah, DeMarcus Lawrence and Tre Flowers are all up—and the draft is loaded with defensive linemen.
Getting the former will be tougher. So I like your idea to think a little outside the box. I’d just doubt that Keenan Allen would be available, and I’m not sure Jones or Green would be either, plus their age would be a concern given how much you’d have to invest. You could get crazy and ask the Saints about Michael Thomas—he’ll be going into a contract year, and New Orleans has never given a receiver eight figures per.
But … yeah, the likelihood of that would probably be pretty low too. Fact is, receiver is a tough spot to have a need in 2019.
From Michael Deagazio (@mdogt12) Do you think [Kyler] Murray will play baseball?
I don’t think, despite what he’s said, that he’s fully made up his mind yet—and our own Kalyn Kahler will have more on that on the site soon. Murray grew up in a football-mad environment, and I think the idea of giving that up, especially after winning the Heisman, has to be pretty tough. Which means that, ultimately, this probably comes down to the numbers.
Murray’s baseball guarantee is $4.66 million, which is between what the 36th and 37th picks in last year’s NFL draft got in guarantees. Would he go much higher than that? I think he faces an uphill climb, which probably would test his feelings for both these games that he’s excellent at. Most scouts I’ve talked to have him somewhere between the second and fourth rounds.
Ultimately, I don’t know that being taken there would give him a good enough chance in football to walk away from what is waiting for him in baseball. The flip side? Lots of quarterbacks do wind up rising during the draft process, and Murray is the kind of special athlete someone could fall for in that way.
From Eric (@eric_shipley) Any truth to the rumor that the Vikings’ new OC was the real mind behind last season’s offensive success, more so than Pat Shurmur?
No, but Pat Shurmur really, really trusted Kevin Stefanski, so much so that Shurmur wanted to make him his offensive coordinator with the Giants. And the Vikings thought enough of Stefanski to block him from going, because they saw him, ultimately, as the successor to John DeFilippo. They didn’t see it playing out like this, but this is where we are now.
So yes, Eric, I think Mike Zimmer and the front office really trust Stefanski. I don’t know if they would’ve made the move anyway, but having someone on staff that they knew they could trust to run the offense made it easier to move on from DeFilippo when the philosophical divide grew untenable.
From Scott Jones (@SJonesy31): Bengals head coach in 2019 is _____?
I still think it’s Marvin Lewis. The Brown family, 83-year-old Mike Brown in particular, covets familiarity, and there’s no question that Lewis gives them that. Last year, when it looked like both Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson might come available, Brown seemingly had options. This year? Not so much.
And I’ll continue to give Lewis credit. Easy to forget what an absolute landfill that place was before he got there.
From Frank Romano (@Fromano24): How much of the Eagles season can be attributed to Frank Reich’s departure?
I’ve thought about this a bunch lately. Between the Eagles’ 2016-17 quarterback coaching triumvirate, Reich had the least fanfare by far. Doug Pederson was the boss, and DeFilippo the rising star, and it makes me wonder if Reich was a bigger piece to the puzzle than anyone knew.
This year’s evidence doesn’t hurt that argument. Reich’s Colts are 7-6, better than the 6-7 Eagles, who were nine games better than them last year. And better too than the 6-6-1 team that DeFilippo was dismissed from on Tuesday. Oh, and Reich’s Colts have also 6-1 in their last seven.
From Jason Doyle (@RabbitDoyle): Do the Jags sign a veteran place-holder for 2019 and draft a QB in rounds 1-2? Thinking they need to blow up their current QB room.
Yes, Jason, if I’m Jacksonville, I’m pulling both levers, maybe going and getting a Joe Flacco and positioning to draft someone like Oregon’s Justin Herbert or Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins (if they both come out). The trouble is, the going rate for even a bridge quarterback could hover around $20 million. Which means the Jags’ cap issue will make it difficult to be very aggressive at that position.
That, by the way, is what happens when you’re aggressive elsewhere, as Jacksonville was a few years back, in taking advantage of having a quarterback on a rookie deal. Now, they have around $208 million in commitments for ’19, with the cap projected to land between $187 million and $191.1 million, and a need for a quarterback, after they save about $11 million on that cap by cutting Blake Bortles.
I’m no capologist. But that’s not ideal.
From Robert Johnson (@BroncoRob): What are you hearing about the Broncos’ coaching situation?
The loss to the Niners was two steps back for Vance Joseph, and so my belief is he’s fighting for his job over the next three weeks—with the Browns, Raiders and Broncos on the horizon. Is it fair? No, not really. But Joseph understood John Elways’s expectations when he got there.
One interesting potential tell: I’m told Elway spent time on his school calls (to watch draft prospects play, practice, etc.) this fall, getting educated on what’s happening schematically on offense on the college level. Would he look for that sort coach, sooner or later? It’s a valid question to ask.
From Donald Alveshere (@wareagleboise): Did the person in front of you lean their chair back?
No. So shoutout to the guy in 18C tonight, flying from Dallas to Boston. I got to work right up until my computer died, which makes you my hero.
Enjoy the weekend, folks!
Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.