Just as I wrapped up a half-hour conversation with former Ravens and Jaguars tackle Eugene Monroe, the Washington Post published a story by veteran NFL writer Mark Maske. The first sentence of this broader piece on the NFL’s labor talks with NFLPA laid out the owners’ enduring desire for an 18-game schedule, even after all the league’s been through, player safety-wise, this decade. The second read, “Many owners also seem willing to make concessions to the union on the commissioner’s disciplinary authority and the sport’s marijuana policy.”
I texted a screenshot of the paragraph over to Monroe, which validated the suspicions he’d told me he held. And he responded with a colorful emoji illustrating how he might regurgitate what he’d just read.
“The NFL owners shouldn’t hang a cannabis policy in the face of players in exchange for two additional games full of injury and concussions,” Monroe typed in his next text. “There should be no negotiating here, and the players certainly shouldn’t have to subject themselves to more punishment just to heal with legal medicine. This was expected.”
There will come a time when marijuana is no longer on the NFL’s list of banned substances, whether that’s this year or five years from now. A quarter of the league’s 32 teams play in states where recreational weed is legal. Only the Panthers play in a state where some form of medicinal marijuana hasn’t been legalized. The question is when and, maybe poignantly, how.
The NFL and the NFLPA announced an initiative earlier in the month that will mandate clubs hire a behavioral health clinician by the start of training camp, and a pain management specialist by Week 1, with committees in both areas formed jointly by the league and union. As part of the announcement, the NFL openly conceded that reforming the marijuana policy would be part of the discussion.
“I'm hopeful, understanding a little bit about how contracts work, knowing this thing does not need to go to a negotiation to change,” Monroe said, just before the Post story was published. “I mean, look, remove cannabis from the policy. You don't have to remove it from testing. You don't have to create new testing, where cannabis isn’t on there. You simply don't have to punish anybody when it shows up, period.
“It's simple. But they’d like people to believe it's something that needs to be collectively bargained. It already is collectively bargained. You guys know that this is something you need to do, and the players know they need it. Get it f---ing done.”
Monroe, for his part, knows it’s coming too. Every indication is, to the question of when, the answer is soon. Just the same, you can see he’s skeptical on the how. As the Washington Post confirmed he should be.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re getting you through the slow part of the NFL calendar by answering your questions on …
• Potential 2020 hot seats
• The 49ers’ spot in 2019
• Guaranteed contracts
• The Lions’ quarterback situation
• The Raiders’ veteran risks
• My breakout players
• The Jets GM search
But we’re going to start with the league’s marijuana policy, and one pretty powerful voice on it.
Monroe, the eighth pick in the 2008 NFL draft, retired at 29 years old after eight years as a left tackle in a league that’s increasingly desperate for good offensive linemen. He had concussion issues. He had shoulder surgery following the 2015 season. And prior to that, he’d never broken the league’s rules on marijuana, mainly because he wasn’t fully aware of how cannabis could help him.
But he had seen how taking painkillers, in order to deal with the realities of professional football, had sent friends and teammates into a downward spiral. As he sat in the hospital post-op, that final December of his career, he got to see the risk personally in a pretty scary way.
“When I had my surgery I can remember sitting in my chair with my arm in my sling, watching my daughter walk down the hallway towards me, and I was kind of looking at her like ‘who's this kid?’” Monroe says now. “So I knew there was a problem. I don't know how I was able to just put the [pill] bottle down. Luckily I wasn't addicted, and CBD really kicked in and mitigated a lot of that pain for me.”
CBD is a cannabis oil, and it’s one form of the drug that players could potentially use as a substitute for dangerous opioids. There are others too, but that’s the one that gave Monroe insight into an alternative. He spoke out as a result, writing a column for The Players’ Tribune in May 2016. He believes that’s the reason the Ravens shopped him, and subsequently cut him that June. He decided to retire about a month after that, because, again, of all the pain that football had inflicted on him.
But if marijuana was legal under NFL rules, would that have extended Monroe’s career? Because of the concussion issue, he’s not sure if it’d have made a difference. What he does know is that once he was freed of NFL testing, using it had an affect on his life—one that continues to this day.
“Really, what that looks like now for me is using it on a daily basis,” he said. “It's really focused around my workouts, where my body’s still messed up. But I use cannabis to relieve a lot of those issues and I'm able to train. And once I retired, I dropped a ton of weight. At one point, I got down to 235, going from being an offensive lineman to walking around with rock hard abs.
“And there's no sign of cannabis removing my motivation or making me lazy. In fact, I'm more productive than I've ever been.”
Marijuana continues to impact Monroe personally. Today, he’s deeply invested as the owner of a company called Green Thumb Industries, which produces, distributes and dispenses marijuana. He also had plenty of thoughts on what it can do for guys now in the league, and why the league should be welcoming the shift in attitude on marijuana that’s happened nationally.
It’s better than the alternative.Monroe saw things with his teammates on painkillers that so many other players see, and that make the episode he had in the hospital with his daughter, while on oxycodone, seem like a hiccup.
“It's really a combination of the stories that I've heard,” Monroe said. “I really just can't fathom it. I remember taking oxycodone after my surgery. The bottle might have said to take one every 4-6 hours and I've talked to guys who've said they've taken 100 pills in a day. I mean, how do you even take 100 vitamin pills in a day, let alone let alone painkillers? That's got to be a bad place to be.”
And it wasn’t rare either—“I'm witnessing friends that I played with that are currently dealing with opioid addiction, which started while they were playing. These are guys that didn't consume any other drugs. They didn't smoke marijuana or do anything else. And here it is just a few years removed from ball and they're still struggling, addicted to those pills. And it's a continual problem.”
The negatives we know of are manageable. The smoking aspect of it isn’t great for you, if that’s how these guys are using, so that’d be one negative. But there are more ways around that now than ever, as there most of the perceived negatives.
“People’s concern with an athlete using cannabis is usually a misplaced statement being concerned with athletes being stoned,” Monroe said. “But team doctors are already getting athletes stoned by prescribing them Vicodin, which is also a mind-altering substance, that creates a level of addiction that exists wide-spread throughout our country. …
“Enough is enough. We're past that. We can see that, across the country, as cannabis is legalized for both recreational and medical usage, we're not seeing any of these scary stories, and all the detriments that we've heard Roger Goodell talk about in the past.”
The government has led the way.Again, it’s legal in a lot of places, and will be in more as time passes. So it’s pretty fair to argue that players should be able to make the choice for themselves, which is where the idea that they’d have to give something up to get that seems a little crazy to Monroe.
“I hope they don't have to give up something to get better health care, to get freedom as adults to choose a healthier option,” Monroe said. “Players don't need Roger Goodell to tell them that smoking a joint makes them feel better after getting their head knocked around in a game. They can go home and have a good evening with their family, feel better, get a good night's sleep and actually recover and get ready for the next day of work.
“We don't need Roger Goodell or [NFL CMO Dr. Allen] Sills to tell us that.”
This doesn’t need to be complicated.The league’s got a painkiller problem and it’s no secret that it’s existed for a long time. Marijuana may be an alternative. Monroe came with facts, when we talked about that—“We do know that in states that have implemented cannabis, we see a reduction of 25% in opioid-related deaths. That's a staggering statistic. Twenty-five percent is a lot of people to save.”
And even if there aren’t scientific reasons for it, if taking pot off the banned list stops a couple handfuls of guys from messing with opioids, it’s not hard to argue, again, that the NFL will be better for it.
“It's far past the time where these rules need to be changed,” Monroe said. “We don't need to wait for a collective bargaining agreement to change the cannabis laws. The NFL changes the rules all the time. When the issues with domestic violence came out, the NFL changed everything. They didn't wait for the collective bargaining agreement to crack down on issues of domestic violence. They made a change instantly.
“There’s no reason that can’t happen now but they're probably waiting to negotiate it, so they can get something they want from the players, when this is something that they should offer the players with open arms.”
Which gets us right back to where we started.
Monroe applauded Chris Long, his good friend and former teammate at Virginia, for speaking up like he did—“Now we have a white Super Bowl champion speaking about his cannabis usage, and people open their eyes.” And he mentioned having a white quarterback advocate for change would amplify it to another level.
Maybe that happens. Maybe it won’t. Either way, Monroe’s gonna keep fighting.
“Here's where my passion comes from—it comes from having friends who are f---ing suffering right now,” he said. “And when you look at cannabis prohibition in itself and who's been most heavily impacted, it's black people, it's minorities. You look at the NFL, it's 70% African-American. When you look across the sports that penalize its players for cannabis, the ones that don't are the ones that are not made up of mostly minorities.
“So there's something there too. I mean these athletes also come from a place where their families, including mine, have experienced socio-economic ruin behind cannabis prohibition. And you're telling adults that they can't consume it when it's good for them.”
Monroe’s made all these points already as part of the NFLPA’s pain-management committee, and he’ll continue to make them to anyone who’ll listen. And based on how Wednesday went, he’s really not sure the NFL is truly ready to quite yet.
On to your mail …
From Party At The Moon Tower (@AM_Colts): Better future? Colts or Chiefs?
Fun question, Party—both teams have plenty of reason for optimism. Kansas City has a 23-year-old Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and his coaching staff and a young core that still hasn’t peaked yet (and part of that is obviously pending the outcome of Tyreek Hill’s criminal investigation following accusations of child abuse). The Colts have GM Chris Ballard, an off-the-charts sophomore class, Andrew Luck and pretty suddenly, a top-five offensive line.
I think we have to reverse engineer the question, and ask what each team’s issues are. The Chiefs, I think, have concerns all over the map on defense, and it may be a year or two before they get that right. And while the Colts are already living in a world with a big-money quarterback, the Chiefs’ reality will change a bit when Mahomes gets his next contract.
The Colts, meanwhile, still need edge-rush help (it might come from this year’s rookie class), and could use a young No. 1 receiver. They also may have their staff picked apart soon (VP Ed Dodds and DC Matt Eberflus are very highly regarded), and we haven’t seen this iteration of Indy endure that, like K.C. has.
Gun to my head, I’d go with the Colts, because I think their issues are easier to work through. It’s close, though—the future in both places is bright.
From Mr. Jake (@shermostat): Which management groups have the most pressure to succeed this year? (Whose seats are the most uncomfortable?)
Because only three teams have turned over the top of their scouting operations in the last 17 months (Jets, Dolphins, Raiders), there’s an assumption in the league that there may be a lot of GM openings in 2020. Maybe there will be, maybe there won’t.
The two management groups on the hottest seats are in Tampa (Jason Licht) and Arizona (Steve Keim). Both GMs just survived head coach firings, as Mike Maccagnan had in New York for four months or so. But outside of those two, there aren’t any obvious places where just the GM is in trouble.
As for those where changes could come in general (coaching or scouting) absent progress, I’d put Jacksonville, Detroit, Atlanta, and Washington in that category. And in Dallas, of course, the pressure is squarely on the head coach.
From Robert Fox (@rob_j_fox): 49ers over/under wins this season; 8.5?
Would it surprise you if I said over? Because I’m going to say over.
I think the Niners are a nine- or 10-win team. I believe their defensive front is going to be a terror with Nick Bosa and Dee Ford in the mix, Richard Sherman will be much better a year removed from his Achilles injury, and Jimmy Garoppolo is plenty good enough to make Kyle Shanahan’s offense fly, even in Year 1 post-ACL.
My bet is on Shanahan, who I still believe is one of the four or five best offensive football coaches on the planet.
From John Clancey (@clankwise): Do you think the Patriots will lobby to allow sports betting in Massachusetts?
John, I’d tell you that the Patriots are uniformly out front on things like this, and have very little doubt that this will be no exception. Team president Jonathan Kraft has long been a leader for the league in the digital space, and I know New England is going to be more than prepared when in-stadium prop betting—which teams and the league see as one area of sports gambling where the margins are—hits the NFL.
So will they lobby for legalized sports betting in Massachusetts to enable all that? I don’t know how public they’ll be about it, but I’d think that once the NFL starts to move the ball forward in this area, ownership there will be anxious to help the process at home along to create the business opportunity for the team.
From Michael Daly (@STP43FAN): Why aren’t more players pushing against guaranteed contracts since all they do is enable laziness?
I’m not sure what you’re getting at here, Michael—I think anyone would want their money guaranteed, especially when your job requires what being an NFL player does. Likewise, most employers would want to guarantee as little as possible, partly because of the dynamic you referenced, where job security can lead to complacency, and because the added risk that comes with commitment.
But while we’re here, I would say that it’s really on individual players and their agents to spur change. A lot of people had to hope that other quarterbacks would hold out for fully guaranteed deals after Kirk Cousins got one 15 months ago. That hasn’t happened, partly because teams have been willing to push the raw dollar numbers (the top of the QB market has moved 25% since Cousins’ deal) into the stratosphere to avoid setting the precedent of doing such a deal.
One other thing that would help would be the union pushing in the next CBA negotiation to have the funding rule abolished. We wrote about that after Cousins signed his deal with the Vikings, and the NFLPA getting it done would kick out one big reason (excuse) teams have for not guaranteeing deals.
From Kirk Ford (@LIONSCJ11): Why do the Lions refuse to give Stafford any competition ever?? Hes put up good stats in his 10 yrs, but no division titles, no playoff wins. Its time for Lions to move on from Stafford.
Kirk, I think you’re being harsh—and I do believe that Stafford can be a very, very good starting quarterback on a serious contender. He just hasn’t had that yet consistently in Detroit. But if you want to know, the Lions did do their homework on this year’s class, and that included the top guys.
In fact, they were one team that the Giants were worried about taking a quarterback with the eighth pick. I don’t know that they would have taken Duke’s Daniel Jones there. I tend to think they wouldn’t have. But teams looking for QBs in the first round at least had their radar up for it. And a good team should always be investigating potential upgrades at any position, especially coming off a year like the Lions had.
That said, I think Stafford’s a better option for Detroit right now than any of the quarterbacks in this year’s draft were for them.
From Steve (@StevenDoodnauth): Who gets fined first? Antonio Brown, Burfict, or Incognito?
I’m seeing a lot of people group these three Raiders together, and I actually think it’s kind of silly to do that. To me, Richie Incognito and Vontaze Burfict are two players that have had a host of issues; the team is buying low on them, and the players can be ditched at the first sign of trouble. Both guys meet new GM Mike Mayock’s requirement for football character, and will have prove their human character the next few months.
Brown is different. His issues are more isolated than Burfict’s or Incognito’s and the Raiders are not buying low on him. He’s the second-highest paid player on the roster behind the quarterback, and brings a boatload of star power – which means he’s going to have pull in the locker room from Day 1. Which means the Raiders really do need him to be, at least, a leader by example.
The good news that Brown, for a lot of his time in Pittsburgh, was that. I’ve had more than one Steelers official tell me he was the team’s hardest worker and there was no close second the last few years. If you get that, and a little less of the drama you had, he doesn’t need to be Mr. Vocal. As long as he sets the right example, that’s enough.
From Chris Walker (@WeRetaliate1st): Name your breakout offensive skill position players of 2019—QB, RB and WR, please and thanks.
QB: Baker Mayfield. I love the combination of Freddie Kitchens and Todd Monken working with Mayfield. I like having Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry pushing each other. The line is good. Tight end David Njoku and tailback Nick Chubb have star potential. Kareem Hunt’s an interesting add. A quarterback is, in part, a product of his environment. I think Mayfield’s got a good one, setting him up for a Carson Wentz-in-2017 type of leap.
RB: Aaron Jones. Call this a hunch. Matt LaFleur was good for Derrick Henry last year in Tennessee. He was OC for Todd Gurley’s huge 2017 season. And he was there for the rise of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Atlanta. That Shanahan-family offense is good for tailbacks, and Jones has flashed reason to believe that, given the right opportunity, he can be a really good one.
WR: James Washington. He struggled early last year, and got called out by Ben Roethlisberger in November. By December, he showed signs of what he might become, and he’s lost weight this offseason (15 pounds or so) to try and get faster. Let’s call this one a bet on the Steelers’ ability to develop receivers, which should also be good for rookie Diontae Johnson.
From Louie (@Louie_Rock): Who’s gonna get the Jets GM gig??
I’m gonna say, if he wants it, Joe Douglas. And if it is Douglas, that’d be a gigantic win for the Jets in what’s been a very, very weird offseason.
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