Jeffrey Lurie was home on Friday night, watching CNN like so many other Americans. And on came the moment that hit so many of us like a swift punch to the gut, with anchor Erin Burnett interviewing a young mother of three from Long Island named Maura Lewinger.
Lewinger’s 42-year-old husband, Joe, died from complications with the coronavirus a little over a week ago, and Maura described having to say goodbye over FaceTime, playing him their wedding song as he died. She explained how it began with mild symptoms, how Joe’s fever spiked over St. Patrick’s Day, how his breathing kept getting worse, how she “begged him not to leave us and told him we all need him” over the phone.
Burnett broke down on live TV. As she did, the whole thing hit Lurie in a very personal way.
“He was a basketball coach and just a very popular teacher,” the Eagles owner said on Saturday. “She described what it was like the last two weeks with her husband, getting worse and worse, but trying different things, different therapeutics that they were using. And it just wasn't working. And listening to her, dealing with her husband who had this at age 42, it just reminded me of my mom.
“My dad got kidney cancer and died at age 42, with three kids as well. And I was picturing my mother being interviewed on CNN at that age. She was 32 and … oh, my God. That's not the reason to do this. But it's just …”
Lurie paused for a second.
“I think every night you feel the personal tragedy. It's not about me. I can talk about data and numbers. But we're talking about the emotional tragedies, and if you incorporate it and bring that to your heart, then you have no choice but to try to help in any way possible—if you're in a grocery store and somebody seems to need something more than you, or you can help that food-delivery person, keep them healthy, whatever.”
Then, he added, “And it's nice to see so many people risk their lives to try to help.”
Being an NFL owner, Lurie can help with resources. And hours before that scene unfolded in his living room, that’s just what he did.
On Friday, Lurie gave $1 million to Penn Medicine to establish the COVID-19 Immunology Defense Fund. And for him, this was about more than just writing a check. Lurie’s been looking for a way to make an impact on this front for longer than most people in this country realized we had a serious problem on our hands.
The donation was personal to Lurie, just like that moment in his living room became.
We do have football to discuss in the MMQB this week, and we’re going to get there, because I know there are a lot of you who really, really want that. Among the things you’ll see further down in the column…
• A rundown of draft nuggets to help reset you for the next 17 days.
• An ex-Patriots team doctor explaining the trouble with Tua Tagovailoa and Cam Newton.
• An ex-college scout on running pro days for non-combine invitees.
• The offseason programs that are supposed to start today.
But we’re starting with one of the big contributions from the NFL world to get in front of the worst pandemic to hit the planet in a century.
As I’m writing this—at about 6 p.m. ET on Sunday night—the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide has climbed past 1.2 million, and the number domestically has passed 330,000. Nearly 70,000 are dead, about 9,500 of them Americans. And by the time you read this, those figures will have changed, probably significantly, again.
For a lot of us, it seems like this has all happened overnight. But Lurie had his concerns pretty early, going back to when he heard where the virus originated, in Wuhan, a Chinese city of 11 million.
“This is not an unknown small place in China,” Lurie said. “This is as if it’s happening in Chicago. And so right away, I thought, ‘Well, there's a lot of flights from China and the Wuhan area to the United States and all over the planet. So why should this be limited to a particular very large metropolitan area in China?’ No one could estimate the extent of it. But to have it leave China certainly was on my mind.”
And then, a few weeks later, it hit home.
Carl Goldman is an old tennis buddy of Lurie’s, a close friend of four decades or so, and he was aboard the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was quarantined for two weeks off the coast of Japan in early February. Lurie was texting daily with Goldman at the time, and their wives were texting too. The Goldmans’ trip was to celebrate his completion of chemotherapy, which only made what was unfolding scarier.
About 700 passengers wound up diagnosed with the virus, and Goldman got his bad news as cargo planes took the 300 Americans who were on board back to the U.S. He was quarantined in Nebraska, apart from his wife, who was quarantined in California. And yes, he made it through—he’s back in L.A. healthy. But getting the blow-by-blow gave Lurie a pretty good illustration of what the U.S. would soon be up against.
“What he was telling me was that everybody was quarantined, but they absolutely would have no way of protecting themselves from the food delivery, from having their cabins cleaned or whatever,” Lurie said. “They weren't allowed to really go out and get some fresh air. They were in their room.”
Which sort of explains where America is now: The risk is everywhere, even if you take the precautions that are being recommended.
For Lurie, the next obvious step was figuring out what he wanted to do about it. So he started calling around to doctors on the ground and epidemiologists with a pretty simple question in his head: What could I do in my small way?
“I talked to multiple infectious disease experts and epidemiologists around the country and other doctors as well, on the front lines,” Lurie said. “And they mainly were in agreement that we need healthy health personnel, doctors and nurses, because there's no way the hospitals were going to be able to withstand the numbers of people that are going to need urgent care, intensive care. So testing became the crucial aspect, because if you don't know who's healthy, how do you protect the health care personnel, and how do you protect patients?
“So it became the crux of the matter. And our level of antibody testing was very, very, very low. We hadn't even identified early on what the antibodies are. And it became really clear to me that immunology is so crucial here.”
That way, as he saw it, he could help in the short term and the long term. It would help with the immediate need to get reliable tests to the patients and doctors in the tall grass dealing with this virus, so “we can get them both immune and able to work safely.” And identifying the antibodies would help in the longer term in transferring immunity to others, in creating therapeutics and developing a vaccine.
Eventually, we’ll get there. Lurie’s goal is to speed up the process.
“So this contribution, and what the what they're doing at Penn and some other places around the world, it is for short- and long-term,” Lurie said. “But that's a little misleading because it's to try to shorten the time that we can provide therapeutics and hopefully a vaccine to save an unbelievable number of lives. We're in a race. We're in a race. And we want to win this race.
“And in a way, sometimes you could say having a great offense is our best defense, or having a great defense is our best offense. In this case, we need both simultaneously to be hitting on all cylinders and early. And now, O.K., it hasn't been early, and that's a key problem. So we've got to make up for the lack of early testing and early tracing and the lack of early antibody testing to be able to now make up for all that.”
To further the football analogy, Lurie added: “We’re in our own territory, we’re not in the red zone.” And the clock’s working against us, too, as the death toll rises. So as he sees it, the idea was to get the resources in the hands of the people best qualified to drive the field as fast as possible—our smartest scientists, epidemiologists and immunologists.
That, by the way, didn’t have to be in Philadelphia. But it so happened that Lurie had one of the best immunology centers in the country, in Penn Health, right down the street, which allowed him to accomplish two goals (he also wanted to help the health care workers in Philly) at once.
Which is what led to last week’s contribution.
That takes us back to Lurie’s living room, what he saw on CNN, the connection to his now-elderly mother and how this pandemic becomes personal for everyone—with so many of us seeing different stories and tying them to things in our own lives. And how that has prompted so many people to do something.
“Whatever the small things you can do,” Lurie said, “I talked about the scientific weapons, but the people weapons, the people's hearts, that's the biggest weaponry of all. … It’s emotional, all this, and you just want to feel like you're doing any little thing that you can do, you know? And I respect the person that's simply bringing bananas to an elderly couple, as much as giving a million dollars for this. It's just whatever one can do.”
Lurie has felt it from inside the Eagles’ building, too. Players and coaches alike have reached out—and were doing so well before his large donation—asking what they could do to help, or where they should give or who they could call to pitch in. “That’s been 100% of [the conversation],” he said. “Nobody's asked us if we're gonna make changes in our offense or defense.”
And his hope is that with his gift, and what other owners are doing too, that the idea of everyone doing something will only spread, using that one kind of weaponry to fuel the other kind.
“In terms of this particular contribution, I hope it does inspire others that can afford to give to focus on the science and the urgency of it right now to test antibodies and create therapeutics and vaccines, and help the health care workers on the frontlines right away,” he said. “I hope it does inspire those who can help to appreciate what the scientists are trying to do.
“Because as I said, besides the people and everyone's hearts, scientists are our best weapons right now, and we've got to listen to them.”
And hopefully, if we do, their actions will soon speak as loud as their words.
THE DRAFT IS COMING
All right, to the football we go. Here are nuggets with the draft now just two and a half weeks away …
• My belief is that, really, 11 players are sort of hovering around the top of the class—three quarterbacks (Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert), four defensive players (Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Derrick Brown and Isaiah Simmons) and four tackles (Mekhi Becton, Tristan Wirfs, Andrew Thomas and Jedrick Wills). South Carolina DL Javon Kinlaw or one of the top two receivers might sneak into that crowd on draft day, based on different teams’ preferences, but that’s what I see as the top group.
• Also, my feeling is that a lot of teams would have Burrow and the four defensive guys as the top five players in the class. Young is the best non-quarterback—and for some, it’s not close. But I did get at least one piece of pushback on that the last couple of days, from one college scouting director who sees something pretty cool in Simmons: “He’s dynamic, but he’s also safe. Great character, he’s smart, and does everything and he’s a freak athlete. He’s damn close to Chase Young for me. And I would take him before Okudah. Depending on your scheme, he could be as impactful as anyone on your team. He can do so much. He can cover, rush, run and hit. I love him.” One thing there’s agreement on with Simmons is that he needs to go to a defense that will move him around like the coaches at Clemson did. The interesting thing about that? That would be a Patriots-type of defense, and there are three of those picking in the top five (Lions at 3, Giants at 4, Dolphins at 5). Okudah will probably go somewhere in that range, too, and all four could be gone by 7, with the Panthers lurking as a possibility to snap Brown up.
• The tackles could all be gone by 11, with the Jets and Browns both having needs and sitting right there on the fringe of the top 10. What’s interesting is how they’re each bringing something different to the table. Becton’s a freakish left-side type, with what one scout called “Jason Peters potential.” Thomas is solid, and also projects to play on the left, but is unspectacular. Wills is a prototype right tackle who can swing left. And Wirfs is a very good athlete who everyone sees a little differently (some like him as a guard), and is probably a little more scheme-specific (he’d be best with a zone team) than the others.
• Burrow is clearly the cleanest quarterback. And based on all the Bengals’ actions, I’d expect him to be the pick at No. 1 (which isn’t exactly breaking news). Tagovailoa’s status is more uncertain, and teams are plenty uneasy about his durability (we have more on that lower in the column). Miami’s widely been seen as his landing spot, in part because owner Stephen Ross was at LSU-Alabama to see him play and went with CEO Tom Garfinkel and GM Chris Grier to Bama’s bowl game, a game Tagovailoa didn’t even play in, to see him. But there’s a flip side to all that due diligence—it didn’t necessarily lead them to the conclusion that Tua’s the right pick. In fact, all the work may have taken them the other way. We’ll find out soon enough.
• Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy have emerged as the top two receivers in the class, in some order. But as we’ve said a bunch the last few weeks, neither guy is Julio Jones, and the depth of the overall group could wind up hurting them on Day 1. Why? Teams will figure they can come back and get a good receiver on Day 2, and the recent history of second-rounders at the position (Michael Thomas, D.J. Chark, D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown) may be better than what we’ve seen in the first round.
• The corner position is stronger than I thought it was a month ago—and maybe I just needed to catch up on what scouts think. Despite a so-so performance in Indy (and those at Ohio State swear he’s capable of running 4.3), Okudah is easily the top guy at the position. But there are a half-dozen good ones after that, in Florida’s C.J. Henderson, LSU’s Kristian Fulton, Clemson’s A.J. Terrell, Ohio State’s Damon Arnette, TCU’s Jeff Gladney and Alabama’s Trevon Diggs. So if you need a good corner, you can get one. But you probably should take one earlier, because there is a drop-off after those seven.
• One player who got more love than I expected when I was calling around this week: Alabama S Xavier McKinney. I got an Earl Thomas comp out of one of the NFL’s most respected evaluators, and not a lot of disagreement when I ran that by a couple of other veteran evaluators. Another called him “premium … one of the best safeties I’ve ever watched.” Teams love his athleticism and his versatility to play up, back or in the slot. LSU’s Grant Delpit came into the season considered the class’s best safety by a healthy amount, but McKinney has flown by him (part of that, of course, is that Delpit had a shaky final season with the Tigers).
• The COVID-19 effect? One director told me he thinks teams will play it safer this year, and playing it safer, in his mind, means taking big people. That, he continued, should open the door for USC’s Austin Jackson and Houston’s Josh Jones to sneak into the first round. Louisiana’s Robert Hunt is another guy who might go earlier than expected. And it’s possible the top center/guards, LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry and Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz, merit consideration at the bottom of the round as well.
• Weaknesses? If you’re looking for a traditional middle linebacker, there aren’t a lot of them. Simmons could play there (but you probably wouldn’t be getting the most out of him there), and Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and LSU’s Patrick Queen might wind up there too. But after that, the ranks are sparse. And tight end is the other place where there aren’t a lot of answers for teams. Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet is the top guy but has had injury issues.
• It’s no secret that the Lions are open for business with the third pick. And they’re not alone. Early word is this year’s draft is no different than most—with more teams near the top willing to move down than up. The Jaguars have also kicked around the idea of moving down. The Raiders, too, a team that could well be looking to replace the second-rounder they lost this year, with the last pieces in the Khalil Mack trade finally in play.
A DOCTOR CHECKS IN
Thomas Gill can relate to where NFL team doctors are right now with the draft class. Partly because he was one (he served as Patriots team doctor from 1998-2014) and partly because he’s been an MLB team doctor too (he was the Red Sox' doc from 2003-13). And when we talked on Friday, it was the baseball experience that he brought up to explain how a doctor might make the best of a tough situation.
To set the scene, this was Gill’s first assignment with the Sox: The team was asking him how many years it should offer Pedro Martinez on a new deal. And, of course, we’re paraphrasing here:
“Let me examine him,” Gill said.
“His agent won’t let anyone examine him,” the team responded.
“OK, let’s get an updated MRI,” Gill said.
“Agent won’t let anyone get an MRI either,” the team responded.
“So how do you want me to give you a good answer?” Gill asked.
“Well, you just have to give us an answer,” the team said.
Gill then huddled with the pitching coach and the trainer. They broke down his mechanics, and as they were doing that, it came up that Martinez would take a long time to warm up and get loose—a strong sign that there was a rotator cuff problem. Based on that, Gill recommended the Sox offer Martinez no more than a two-year deal. So Martinez went to free agency after the championship 2004 season, the Mets gave him four years, and an iconic figure was gone.
“That does not make me the most popular guy in the Boston,” Gill said. “And if I was wrong, that’s a problem. And I’m not happy I was right, but after two years he tore his rotator cuff and he was never the same again. That’s your job, to take whatever data you have and give the best opinion you can. It’s not up to the coaching staff to figure out if a guy’s medically healthy. So yeah, it’s a tough time to be a team doctor. A really tough time.
“But you gotta take all the data you can, and I think teams will have to understand, we did the best we can with the data we have.”
NFL teams have done what they can this offseason. Some free agents still haven’t had physicals, and none that hit the market in mid-March and switched teams were able to take a physical the conventional way. The combine did give teams the chance to put most of the guys who’ll be drafted in two and a half weeks thorough physicals, but guys who were still hurt at that point won’t have the annual recheck, nor will teams be able to bring guys in, as they normally would, to have their own doctors kick the tires.
That’s left GMs and coaches with minefields of risk to navigate. But, as Gill said, while this may be a new challenge for NFL teams, it’s not unheard of in sports. And that’s why I figured we’d enlist him to go through a few of the facts facing the decision-makers.
It’s harder on banged-up vets than it is on rookies. And that’s for two reasons. One, because, at the very least, the NFL does have physicals on the 337 guys who came through Indy. Two, because older guys, of course, have more miles on their bodies. That means they inherently come with more risk—risk that’s compounded with injury history and price. And that’s where a case like Cam Newton’s gets highlighted.
Newton has had multiple procedures on his throwing shoulder and is coming off surgery on his left foot. Add to that the magnitude of making him your starting quarterback, and there’d be enough to make Gill, a shoulder specialist himself, uneasy.
“There’s no way I could trust a shoulder exam [from someone else], based on strength, stability, motion, because of what might be important to me,” Gill said. “And I know just based on my track record, knowing how I evaluate people, what’s worked well versus someone else maybe saying that’s not as big a deal. … There’s no way I could sign off on a guy like that if I didn’t examine him personally.”’
And given Jadeveon Clowney’s previous knee troubles (and microfracture surgery), the free agent pass rusher would be another player that Gill would need more info on. “Clowney’s a guy you absolutely have to examine, see how much swelling he’s had, see what his updated X-ray looks like, see what his stability looks like. Guys like that, it’d be really important to see them.” Which makes it easy to see why Clowney and Newton are still unsigned.
Risk on rookies is on a sliding scale. Tagovailoa is obviously the big one here, and part of his situation, Gill and others have told me, made him a risk even before the coronavirus changed so many things about our offseason.
One, while it is true that he’s in about as good a spot as he could be six months out from surgery, he wouldn’t be out of the woods on AVN (Bo Jackson’s old condition that causes death of bone tissue due to lack of blood supply) until 9-12 months post-op at the earliest, and it really takes two years to be completely in the clear. Two, the tightrope surgeries he had on his ankles are new procedures, leaving questions as to how they’ll hold up over time.
“He would be a guy, as a team physician, that I would absolutely wanna examine myself,” Gill said. “That’s definitely a guy you want to see progress, because those surgeries, especially a hip surgery, the problems, if they’re gonna come up, they come up six months, nine months, two years down the line. … And so I think if you’re gonna invest that much in him, you’d sure like to have as late a data point as possible.
“And I’m sure that’s a guy that even if you had an MRI in February, if you were able to see him again in April, you’d want an MRI, if you’re talking about that kind of investment.”
The scoring system is the same. This is something I didn’t know, and I’ve been covering the NFL for 15 years: There’s a universal scoring system among NFL doctors. Gill detailed that for me.
1: “Someone who’s never had a medical problem. They’re clean as can be, it’s usually just kickers basically.”
2: “Somebody who had maybe some torn cartilage in their knee, a sprain, some soft tissue injuries that are never gonna be a problem again. They’re fine.”
3: “Maybe they had an ACL reconstruction, a shoulder stabilization, so they had a significant problem but it ended up healing well, and they examined well at the combine. They’re playing well, so we expect they’ll be fine.”
4: “Somebody that maybe has some arthritis. Their knee is still unstable, their shoulder’s still unstable, they’re probably not gonna be able to play very long. Maybe they’ll only be able to last a year or two before they start breaking down.”
5: “A black ball. It’s basically, ‘Do not draft,’ they have severe problems.”
Gill added that many players in his Patriot days landed in a subcategory: “3/discuss.” That’s where Rob Gronkowski was, and he’d suspect teams will have Tagovailoa there too. In many cases, those would be the players teams would want to bring to their facilities on top-30 visits so their doctors could get a second look at them. So those guys are hurt this year, as are players who weren’t in Indy and thus lack a score from team doctors.
Relationships matter. Because of the number of players being processed, it’s impossible for any one team to get its own doctor’s hands-on assessment with everyone. So physicians help one another. They share scores at the combine. They pull on relationships at the college level. And so, for example, a team looking at Tagovailoa would be well-served to have a team doctor with connections at Alabama.
“A lot of teams will share their rank list,” Gill said. “And I’ll look at the rank list of a guy I like and respect, and someone we’ve given a 4, someone else had given a 2, because maybe there’s stuff that I had thought, as a team physician, was a bigger deal for the longevity of that player than someone else did. You don’t always grade people the same way. But we’re always complete with the data itself. What you do with the data is up to each team.”
Is having the same score as another team's doctor the same as putting a guy through a full exam? Of course not. But it’s a lot better than nothing. And it can help doctors put checks and balances on their own process with players.
Gill’s most memorable draft case came in 2010. Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski had missed his junior year due to back surgery, but was seen by the Patriots as a high-end prospect who absolutely merited more examination. New England had him as a “3/discuss” coming out of the combine, and brought him in for a visit. Unlike some other coaches, Bill Belichick wouldn’t ask Gill what round he’d be comfortable drafting an injured player in. Instead, it was yes or no, and the visit was vital to Gill formulating his answer.
“He’s a guy you’d want to take a deeper dive on, get a really close exam, talk to him for a period of time. He’d have to spend a lot of time in the training room: How’d you do with strengthening? Your squatting? Did you miss many practices?” Gill said he’d ask. “And also on a psychological level, is this a guy that can follow your team’s workout plans and guidelines? So is [losing the rest of the spring evaluation] a problem? Yeah, it can be a problem.”
And it may lead, again, to more risk aversion from teams in a couple weeks.
A MAKESHIFT PRO DAY IN NASHVILLE
The coronavirus pandemic has made for some weird scenes across the country—and there were a couple of those in the Nashville area at the end of March. Ex-Titans college scouting director Blake Beddingfield, who lives in the area, was thrust into the middle of them after the NFL canceled all remaining pro days on March 13.
“I just had a number of agents calling wanting me to time their kids,” Beddingfield said on Friday. “A lot of the workout facilities here in Tennessee are shut down. Park access is gone, and there’s almost nowhere else to do them. But they’re necessary. NFL teams need times. Some were combine guys—the D-end from Ole Miss [Qaadir Sheppard], [Purdue TE Brycen] Hopkins—that needed to finish up, whether it was the vertical, the broad jump. Others weren’t. So they were trying to figure it out.”
Beddingfield was given one large group of 26, sent to him by trainer Jordan Luallen from Boost Performance, and then had a list of five others that needed help. They came from programs as big as Notre Dame and Michigan State, and small as Ferris State and Missouri S&T, and all with the same goal of making the best of a bad situation. And the truth is, if they wanted teams to trust the results, they needed an NFL scouting type to run the show as a way of verifying them, which is where Beddingfield came in. Finding a place to stage them, though, wasn’t easy.
As such, much of the first pro day, held on March 25, actually took place in the outfield of Belmont University’s baseball facility—Rose Park. It took about six hours, but the 26 players from Boost got through all the combine testing and measurements they needed (height, weight, wingspan, hand, 40-yard dash, vertical, broad jump, short shuttle, bench, etc.)
The second group, which happened to be made up completely of receivers and DBs (SMU WR C.J. Sanders and Louisville CB Cornelius Stughill among them), worked out on March 26 at a local high school, Montgomery Bell Academy. They did the testing and also got field work in (largely because it was easy to do with the position groups matching up), with a college quarterback who lives in the area coming over to throw for them.
“It went really smooth,” Beddingfield said. “There were some fast times. These guys have been training, and some in that second workout ran really well, we had some fast guys out there. It was good to give them the opportunity to get a legit 40, that’s good for them. It shows they’re in shape and that they’re healthy. That’s a big key—whether they had injuries or not, it shows they’re healthy enough to run, jump and do drills.”
And obviously, there was great benefit for NFL teams too. Beddingfield sent the results to scouting directors with all 32 teams, and probably had a couple dozen teams call him to follow up. Also, both workouts were taped and the film is available for teams, and all of this reminded the ex-scouting director—who was helping run the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks—of a couple cases where these sorts of things were game-changers with the Titans.
One was in the drafting of Kevin Byard, who blazed 4.41 and 4.40 in the 40 at his pro day, after not being invited to the combine. Beddingfield said he may have been a sixth-rounder before that. But that time sent teams back to the tape, and added to a mountain of college production. Tennessee took him with the first pick of the third round, and he’s now one of the NFL’s best safeties.
Another was in the evaluation of Jason McCourty. His 4.30 at Rutgers’ pro day factored in the Titans' decision to take a flier on him in the sixth round in 2009. The corner wound up spending eight years, seven as a starter, in Tennessee and, now with the Patriots, is heading into his 12th NFL season. And stories like his made what Beddingfield was able to pull off pretty rewarding.
“It really is,” he said. “You feel almost obligated to do it. So many kids trained so hard for this. They’ve been training since their seasons ended at these facilities for pro days that’ll never happen. There are hundreds of kids like these, that would love to set it up anywhere, even in someone’s back yard. I felt bad for the trainers, the kids, the agents, so I was very happy to do it. I wish we could do more, but I’m not sure how that’ll happen now.”
Beddingfield, by the way, wasn’t the only ex-scout doing this. Ex-Raiders scout Raleigh McKenzie ran one in the D.C. area, ex-Browns scout Bob Morris held one in Dallas and ex-Titans scout Richard Shelton put one together in South Florida. Good on each of those guys for making these things happen, and fighting through complications to get these kids a fair shot at their dreams.
1) Give a ton of credit to the Kraft family for what they’ve done over the last few weeks to fund and expedite the delivery of 1.2 million N95 masks from China. Patriots president Jonathan Kraft went on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston with my buddies Toucher & Rich on Friday to explain a process that sounded like it’d take James Bond to complete. It started with Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker reaching out to Kraft, a close friend of his, and explaining he’d secured the masks through a third party (a guy named Brian Danza brokered the deal) but had no way of getting them home from Asia, because supply chains had been shut down, as had most air travel. Baker was way ahead of other governors in seeking reinforcements independently, so Kraft wanted to help him but figured it didn’t make sense to send smaller private planes over. And after some thought about his connections to people with cargo planes, it dawned on him that they could just send one of the 767s the Patriots bought as team planes last year. From there, it took the help of a D.C. law firm (Hogan Lovells), an ex-Goldman Sachs Asia exec (Mark Schwartz), the former president of the World Bank (Jim Yong Kim), the Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent and the FAA to get clearance take the plane to China and take the masks where they needed to be. And it took a layover for the 11-man crew in Alaska, on both sides of the trip, to work around a pretty unique circumstance: The plane could only be on the ground in China for three hours, just about all of which it took to load the masks into the cargo. So the plane flew to Ohio to get the software it needed for the trip, then seven hours to Alaska, then another 12 to China after a night’s sleep, spent three hours on the ground in Shenzhen, flew nine hours back to Alaska, and then back to Massachusetts from there after another night’s sleep.
All the way around, this was an absolutely remarkable effort to protect the heroes in our healthcare system. And in that audio, you’ll hear a lot of interesting detail. This one was pretty great too: 300,000 of the 1.2 million masks went to New York, because Robert Kraft was watching Governor Andrew Cuomo, and asked Jonathan if they could help, at which point Jonathan set up a three-way call with Baker to get it done. The Krafts wound up spending $2 million on the masks, splitting a $3 million bill with the state of Massachusetts, and adding $500,000 for the ones that went to New York; and there are still a half-million more masks coming. Anyway, this went well beyond some billionaires writing a check, and I can tell you, having healthcare professionals in my own family (including my wife), that it’s going to make a big, big difference. And it was also personal for Jonathan Kraft, who serves as chairman of the board at Mass. General Hospital (Schwartz is on the board too), a hospital with a very prestigious reputation globally.
2) While we’re there, all our best to the family of longtime NFL agent Buddy Baker. I think I can speak for a lot of people in my generation when I say that my biggest concern in these trying weeks goes back to the health of my parents. And so what Baker went through the last few weeks represents a worst case scenario—his parents died within six minutes of one another on March 29. Be sure to check out our Greg Bishop’s piece on the site today. Here’s an excerpt that really hit home with me: The Bakers were healthy when March started. No fevers. No coughing. No colds, even. Eventually, both felt ill enough to visit their doctor, and they received matching diagnoses, slight cases of pneumonia, nothing to worry about, or so they thought. Stuart, though, continued to feel worse, until on March 19 he checked into the local hospital, with a high fever and a pre-existing asthma condition. Doctors affixed a breathing mask to his face immediately. Forty-eight hours later, they placed him in intensive care. Even then, they lowered the amount of oxygen that he required, signaling that his health was improving. “We were concerned, but my dad was a tough guy, we figured he’d get through it,” Buddy says. “We never imagined this was going to be life-threatening.”
3) Today would otherwise be the first day teams with new coaches could start offseason programs, so, for Carolina, Washington, Dallas, Cleveland and the Giants, work is officially being lost now. I was told, as of Sunday afternoon, that the NFL Management Council and the NFLPA were still working through rules for virtual offseason programs. So everyone remains in a holding pattern. As it is, all teams are allowed to distribute playbooks to their players, and coaches can send teaching tapes (video with instructions voiced over) along too. Under normal circumstances, we’d be entering Phase I (which lasts three weeks for teams with new coaches, two for those without) for the new coaches. During that time, players can meet with coaches and do strength-and-conditioning work with strength coaches on the field (for up to 90 minutes) but balls are only allowed out of the JUGS machine (for catching the ball and fielding kicks). The team can only specify two hours for players to be at the facility, and the players can spend up to four hours there, with a limit of four days per week for that work. Which is to say, at this point, the work they’d be getting done would be fairly limited anyway. So what’s the holdup with the rules? Triggers for workout bonuses would be one. The thought I’ve heard is that while taking attendance for meetings would be fairly simple, doing full-scale workouts under supervision would not—and so maybe, for this year only, players would only need to attend meetings to get their bonus money, which is triggered in most deals (under the new CBA) by attendance just under 90%. The most affected guys here? Well, Packers OLBs Za’Darius Smith ($750K) and Preston Smith ($650K), and QB Aaron Rodgers and S Adrian Amos ($500K each) are all among the top six, joining 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo and Panthers S Juston Burris ($500K apiece). The reason for so many Packers? Pretty simple: an enticement to spend the spring in Green Bay.
4) The memo that went out last week informing teams that the league would either allow teams to use their facilities for the draft, or make everyone work from home was, I’m told, suggested by teams in states that are currently under stricter restrictions. And it makes sense, in leveling the playing field for everyone—being at your facility when others couldn’t would constitute a pretty sizable competitive advantage for a team. And this edict probably means that the teams will be working from home on draft weekend. It’s pretty difficult to see stay-at-home orders being lifted in every state. As far as I can tell, the Chiefs are the only ones that are not under one right now.
5) This was raised to me on Sunday, and I think it’s another illustration of the new complexity in trying to run the football world like business-as-usual in the fall: What happens to the road scouts? A few handfuls of guys working for every team spend a good part of football season on the road, visiting schools and going to practices and games, as part of the college scouting process. Area scouts, national scouts, college scouting directors, and in some organizations directors of player personnel, assistant GMs and the GMs themselves get involved in the process. If things are back to normal come September, those guys will be crisscrossing the country again, and coming into contact with a wide cross-section of people who all run in different circles. So, the point was raised to me: Does it seem possible, even if we make great progress between now and then, that it will be a good idea five or six months from now to be conducting business that way? A lot of different industries that require travel will be facing that reality at some point down the line, and pro football is no different.
6) Here was Texans coach Bill O’Brien, from a town hall with season ticket holders, on the trade of DeAndre Hopkins: “He had three years left on his deal and he wanted a raise. And we weren't going to be able to go in that direction. We felt like we had a great offer from Arizona that involved picks. That involved an excellent three-down running back who is hungry and humble and just can't wait to get started. David Johnson is going to be a great addition to our football team. There's a lot of things that go into trades. Lot of thoughts that go in. How much are you going to take on contractually? How much does it take to buy that second-round pick, that No. 40 pick? What type of player are you bringing in? What type of player are you losing and what is in the best interest of the team?” O’Brien covered a lot of it there. We covered more in the March 23 MMQB. And I’d bring that all together by asking people to take a hard look at the idea of not extending Hopkins, but ripping up his contract and giving him more than $20 million per year. The Falcons did something like that for Julio Jones. Why did Atlanta feel comfortable with it? A big part was that Jones embodied what Atlanta wanted in a player. And as we’ve been over, Hopkins didn’t do that for Houston. Which is to say it’s one thing to keep a guy like that around, it’s another to go extraordinary lengths to reward him.
7) It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore. New England needs cap space—and Gilmore has an $18.67 million cap hit for this year and a $19.67 million cap hit for next year, after a 2019 restructure. But he’s only taking home $11 million in cash this year, $12 million next year, and, after that, he’s up. Gilmore’s deal, at $13 million per year, was near the top of the corner market when he signed it. Since then, he’s gotten better, and the market for defensive players has exploded. He’s now around $10 million per year short of fellow DPOYs Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald. And it stands to reason that if the Pats went to him looking for cap relief, he’d want something in return—and he might want a correction anyway. He’s New England’s best player. He turns 30 in September. The Patriots are retooling. If you’re a corner-needy team, you might want to give them a call just to check in.
8) The Chiefs started to wiggle out of their own cap crunch this week by getting Sammy Watkins to agree to a pretty significant pay cut. His base gets knocked down from $14 million to $9 million, though he has the chance to get himself all the way to $16 million if he hits on all his incentives. So why was Watkins willing to do this? Well, for one, the receiver market’s been tough—plenty of teams are eyeing a draft class that might go three rounds deep with starting-level talent at the position, and balking at paying veterans as a result. Guys like Nelson Agholor and Breshad Perriman did one-year deals as a result of that. And then, there’s the discount the Chiefs might now get that teams like the Patriots and Saints have enjoyed for years, where a great coach and quarterback can make a player willing to come in (or, in this case, back) at a discounted rate. For Watkins, it makes sense, too. He’ll hit the market next year at 27, and it stands to reason that another year with Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes gives him the best shot at hitting big then.
9) Another trend to keep an eye on? Teams now looking at, potentially, bringing back veteran free agents of theirs who might be lingering out there on the market. A couple personnel chiefs mentioned it to me, with pretty solid logic backing the idea up. It’s now becoming clear the offseason program will be canceled. Add to that the fact that training camp restrictions are going to be more stringent under the new CBA (16 padded practices, down from 28), and you can see why there might be value for teams in having players who wouldn’t come in with a huge learning curve. There also might be a benefit for those players, in that doing a one-year prove-it deal (Clowney could be one case of this) in a place you know would be appealing as a way to maximize what you can get in 2021.
10) And as an addendum to that point, experience with past coaches will help too. That was part of the motivation for the Bears to deal for Nick Foles—he played for Matt Nagy in Kansas City and QBs coach John DeFilippo in Philly—even if the move wasn’t for pandemic reasons at the time (it was more getting him up to speed quickly, while splitting reps with Mitch Trubisky). Buffalo adding defensive linemen Mario Addison and Vernon Butler makes for another example. Another one I thought could happen but hasn’t gotten a ton of traction? Andy Dalton to Jacksonville. I figured it might happen because of the Jay Gruden connection (the Jags’ new OC was Dalton’s first NFL coordinator). But my sense is the Jags haven’t moved much to make that happen, even if Dalton would make a lot of sense as a Gardner Minshew insurance policy. So Dalton’s still a Bengal, and the Bengals are keeping their options open with him.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) As we consider where all sports are going, this came up in conversation: If college football has a truncated season (say, 6-8 games), and you’re someone like Trevor Lawrence, do you play? I think it’s a fair question. You might not have the normal ramp up to the season that you otherwise would, which could expose you injury-wise. And in that particular case, you’d be that much closer to a life-changing pay day.
2) Good story from my buddy Chris Mannix over the weekend, on the NBA giving thought to the idea of finishing its season with everyone in one place—that place being Las Vegas. That’d be fun, of course, and I hope it happens. It’s just hard to see it right now, based on where we are in early April.
3) If you’d asked me what sports league worldwide would be hit with a scandal involving a party with sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, I don’t know that would have answered English Premier League.
4) I’m halfway through The Scandal on HBO, and it’s fantastic and not the least bit surprising. It also made me wonder if all the lost revenue in college sports over these months will be what finally pushes some fundamental changes over the goal line.
5) Good to see Sabres star Jack Eichel, the son of a nurse, making a sizable contribution of personal protective equipment to our health-care workers.
6) My heart sank when I saw this:
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Good video of Gov. Baker thanking the Krafts here—where the emotion is pretty visible.
Having snacks in close proximity 24/7 definitely tests your willpower.
It seems impossible that it was five weeks ago that we got back from the combine. And how we were all thinking back then.
I think Irsay’s heart’s always been in the right place—and this is all proof of it.
So this is chilling for all of us. But it’s also the sort of attitude that’ll get us through it faster, and healthier.
And this is why. Giving people false hope will only work to make those who don’t understand the problem ignore warnings and blow through stop signs. Which is, ultimately, the last thing we need right now.
Follow Jane’s story here.
Nor would I.
Good on Rams COO Kevin Demoff for using the shots everyone’s taken at his team’s new marks to support a really good cause in its time of need.
I have no idea what the WWE 24/7 title is, but Gronk holds it now. Which gives him four championships as a pro athlete.
God bless the niece of ex-Giants QB Danny Kanell.
Click through for the story of ex-Jaguars LT Tony Boselli.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Hate to finish the column on a downer, but really tough hearing about the death of Tom Dempsey, the most prominent NFL-connected person felled by the pandemic thus far. The Saints announced his passing on Sunday morning. He was 73 and had been battling dementia and Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade.
And if you didn’t know: For a generation of football fans, he was a pretty memorable figure in the sport. He was born without toes on his right foot or fingers on his right hand, and overcame that to kick what stood alone as the longest field goal in NFL history for 28 years, a 63-yarder at the buzzer to beat the Lions 19-17 in 1970. For decades, we’d all see the grainy footage of Dempsey on NFL broadcasts as kickers lined up for 60-something yard kicks.
Jason Elam matched his record in 1998, and Matt Prater bested it in 2013, but its iconic nature—the booming kick coming off the square-toed shoe—will always stand.
Best to his family, and those with the Saints that knew him.
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