The year in football is almost over, which means that, despite the oncoming playoffs and Super Bowl, so much of the league is already in the planning phase for 2020. Two weeks ago, we gave you the NFL’s storylines to watch in 2020. As a partner to that piece, here is a look at the people who will be behind some of the most pressing issues of the year ahead.
• NFL head of officiating Al Riveron
I think that referees were handed a raw deal in 2019 with the advent of reviewable pass interference. The hastily installed guidelines were made to please the masses, instead of function smoothly for the modern officiating crew.
While this is the fault of log-jamming league bureaucracy, the public-facing head of officiating takes the fire for the broken system. Over the last calendar year, failures in officiating pass interference have caused outcome changes in the NFC Conference Championship Game last year and the NFC West title game, not to mention a dozen or so other consequential regular season games along the way.
Riveron will have the impossible task of explaining why his large crew of officials was unable to get on the same page during the sport’s most visible time. Of course, the answer is that it’s impossible to get a group of people to see a subjective moment the exact same way at light speed.
The NFL will need to confront one of its most obvious issues head on this offseason. Whether they finally give in and start experimenting with Sky Judge technology or abandon reviewable pass interference and forge on, it’s going to take a strong performance from the officiating department to forge through more uncertainty.
NFL Media’s Judy Battista reported this winter that the league was planning a top-down review of the entire process. In their eyes, that begins with Riveron.
• Patriots QB Tom Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick
There is a legitimate feeling that Brady may be playing some of his final home games in these next few weeks.
Should he return to New England despite the mounting circumstantial evidence to the contrary, the parameters by which he decides to come back will be fascinating. How long will the contract be? How much will be take given that he is eligible to test the open market? Will Belichick, the coach who made a legacy out of avoiding sentimentality, keep putting up with the relationship when every instinct he has might tell him to let the greatest quarterback of all time walk away?
Should he hit the open market, we could see a short-term bidding war from a pack of teams both desperate for a situational upgrade and momentary relevance the likes of which the league has never seen.
Should he retire, it will be the end of the road for the most decorated player in league history. Selecting Brady’s successor from a projected field of strong veteran quarterbacks (and the Patriots’ current crop of quarterbacks, and the incoming rookie class) will be fascinating in itself. For the first time in 20 years, the greatest head coach in NFL history could take us through the process of finding his next quarterback.
• New York Giants GM Dave Gettleman
This isn’t about Gettleman in particular, but what he represents. In recent weeks, the Giants’ highest-ranking football executive stumbled his way through a reluctant acceptance of modern scouting practices and attempted to sidestep numerous past remarks about the popularization of analytics in football decision-making. That was followed by a series of radio interviews in which he said the team is still hell-bent on running the ball first because that’s what good teams do, even though there is an obvious correlation between the best teams in the NFL right now and passing efficiency.
This is not a shot at Gettleman, but a recognition that there are still a handful of general managers who think exactly like he does. We are at the point in football’s evolution that baseball was at about 16 years ago, when teams were forced to embrace a new way of thinking or double down on the aging platitudes that made up the league’s foundation for almost 100 years.
Here’s what happened in baseball: The clubs who failed to get on board lost about a decade of forward movement to stubbornness, while the rest of the league sprinted to the nation’s most prestigious economics schools to poach bright minds. Football is not a 1:1 swap given how individual baseball is and how scheme-dependent the NFL is, but realizing what makes a team uniquely successful is an evolving art in the NFL. Gettleman and his contemporaries are at risk of falling behind. Some of them will change because they have to; the rest will draft more running backs in the first round.
• Los Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay
What do these three coaches have in common? They will all be patrolling the sidelines of brand-new, chaotically financed NFL mega-stadiums.
The new projects come at a bizarre time for all three franchises—the Rams missed the playoffs after a run to Super Bowl LIII, the Chargers floundering in a temporary micro-stadium in Los Angeles and the Raiders abandoning their loyal base on the heels of two straight losing seasons under one of the highest-paid coaches in American sports.
If you think any of these three owners (save maybe for the lovestruck Mark Davis) are going to tolerate mediocrity and the optics of an empty showpiece, then perhaps you need to rethink the motivation nearly all NFL owners have for buying a franchise in the first place. Why are we putting the coach here and not the owners or the general managers or the star players?
The coach is the one responsible for creating a culture. They are the most public-facing members of a franchise. There is the most direct line between them and team performance. And, they are the easiest figures for owners to reprimand and blame when things are going awry. McVay recently reached a Super Bowl and is one of the brightest minds in the sport. Gruden was on TV for a decade. Both will be difficult to uproot, which is also what makes the prospect of struggling in their new homes daunting for those who ultimately control decision-making.
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