As Tony Dungy sees it, in times like these, pro athletes do have a responsibility, and it’s one he learned about on the very first day that he became one.
That was 43 years ago. The ex-Bucs and Colts coach had made the Steelers roster as an undrafted free agent, transitioning from college quarterback to NFL defensive back, and he was about to go through what had become a rite of passage for Pittsburgh players, with owner Art Rooney addressing the fresh-faced group of first-year guys.
“Mr. [Art] Rooney Sr., that was his tradition, he’d always welcome the rookies when you made the team, and he’d talk about how excited he was to have you on the team,” Dungy recalled. “But he also told us our responsibility. He wanted us to be part of the community, he wanted us to make Pittsburgh a better place to live, that was part of the job—not just to play well on Sundays but to make Pittsburgh a better place to live. And I always remembered that.”
Dungy played two years as a Steeler, and in those years he followed Rooney’s directive. Monday was the players’ day off back then, and so the young safety would work with the Special Olympics and make visits to the Western Penitentiary, a jail located not far from the team’s offices at Three Rivers Stadium.
But more than just putting in the hours, Dungy took the work to heart.
Two decades later, he’d address his rookies in Tampa, and after that Indianapolis, with a similar message: Find your own way to make the city we’re in a better place to live. And that lesson weighed on him as he watched everything unfold over the last 10 days in Minneapolis, the city where he attended college (he’s a University of Minnesota alum), and the city he worked in, as Vikings defensive coordinator, from 1992-95.
So ask Dungy now what he’d like to see athletes do, and he’ll take you back not just to what Rooney told his rookie class to do in 1977, but more so the spirit behind it.
“To me, that means more than just doing great things on your off day. Visiting young people, all of that’s part of it, and we need to do that,” he said. “But it also is at times like this, when you see things that aren’t going right. And you’ve gotta use your voice and you gotta be part of the solution. I think it’s very important that our athletes do have a voice and they need to use it. And I’m proud of them for it.”
The next question, then, would be how Dungy best sees that executed. We’re going to dive into that with him.
We’ve got a good GamePlan for you. Inside, you’ll find …
• The start of a series in which I’ll handicap 2020 postseason awards.
• Drew Brees needing to win back the Saints' locker room.
• The possibility that the NFL could eliminate a week of preseason.
But we’re starting with one leader’s feelings on where NFL coaches and players should go from here.
Rooney’s advice from 1977 has certainly provided Dungy a tentpole in how he thinks players should be handling the coming days, weeks and months, as fallout over George Floyd's killing continues to surface. But it wasn’t the first one for him.
For Dungy, the foundation for his beliefs here was laid at home. Nine years before he became a Steeler, Dungy was a 12-year-old in Michigan, living through the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King in April 1968 and Robert F. Kennedy two months later. The country was a powder keg, and the Dungy family lived 80 miles from Detroit, an epicenter of the unrest.
“People think this has been tough, I mean, I don’t want to trivialize this, but you were worried for our country in 1968, it was terrible,” Dungy said. “And it didn’t look like it was gonna get better.”
And amidst what was on the TV, his father Wilbur took the opportunity to impart a lesson. That lesson is one he’s passed on over the last few days. Calls from coaches and players have come in, and Dungy has pointed right back to what his dad told him.
“My dad said, ‘First of all, there are people out there that don’t want other people to enjoy life, and they have things against other people, we can’t figure out why. But in our house, it’s not going to be like that. In our house, you’re going to treat people the right way, we’re gonna show love and respect for everybody,’” Dungy said. “And that was a lesson he taught everyone, and my mom taught the same thing. That’s the first thing you can do.
“And then the second thing, figure out where your sphere of influence is. Everybody’s got one, so try to reach out in that sphere of influence and make a difference. We got some players with a huge sphere of influence, and if that’s the case we’ve gotta utilize it in a productive way to make the situation better.”
On Wednesday on the site, we detailed how Lions coach Matt Patricia has handled this week with his players—their focus has been away from football, and Patricia told me he’s not sure when it’ll go back. Dungy said, for his part, every NFL coach he’s talked to has described their team’s handling of a very different week the same way.
“Nobody’s talking X’s and O’s, nobody’s talking assignments, everybody’s talking life,” Dungy said.
And as those coaches have described those scenes, they’ve also leaned on Dungy for counsel. His message to them has been consistent and fairly simple.
“Open up the lines of communication, do a lot of listening, hear people’s hearts, hear what’s on their minds and then give them the advice,” Dungy said. “What can we do to make the situation better? There’s a lot of things we can do. Let’s focus on what we can do as a team, what we can do as individuals, what you can do as a person to make the situation better. Make sure we keep that as the focus, and if we do that, we’ve got smart people, good-hearted people, we’ll get some good solutions.”
The player piece can be a little more complicated.
There’s no question there’s pressure on players right now to use their voices to make a difference. And Dungy applauds those who have. But he echoed what Richard Sherman said in the MMQB on Monday—it’s not the only way guys can have an impact. And if guys who don’t want to speak publicly have another way to do it, then that’s OK too.
“I don’t think everyone has to speak up in public,” Dungy said. “I don’t think everyone has to make a statement to the media. But you can speak up, you can speak up in the right way, you can speak up encouraging people to vote, you can speak up by doing the right thing, and you can speak up by showing love and concern for other people. So there are many ways to do it. It doesn’t have to be done publicly in the media.”
And Dungy’s felt a sense of pride as part of the fraternity of NFL players, seeing what some of those guys have done. Ravens RB Mark Ingram is one Dungy singled out as a guy he’s followed on social media over the last few days. Specifically, Dungy liked how Ingram mixed getting his message across and showing police and the community coming together to find solutions.
That gets to the crux of where Dungy stands here. As he says, “We gotta change hearts. … this isn’t going to be legislated out, it’s not going to be protested out. We gotta change some hearts in our country.”
How do you do that? Well, Dungy thinks it’s going to have to start with getting people to pay attention to how others feel, rather than just looking at what they’re doing—which gets back to the messages of both his dad and his old boss in Pittsburgh and, as the ex-coach himself has learned, isn’t the easiest thing to pull off.
“It’s a shame that we had some young men who were ahead of the curve, and they were on top of this, and they were saying, we want to point out what’s going on in some of these communities, we want to make a difference,” Dungy said. “We did a story for Football Night in America on Kenny Stills and Mike Thomas, and we went down to Miami, and we talked to them about what they were doing, and how they engaged the police department there and did ride-alongs and got policemen together with young people. And it was fantastic.
“But nobody wanted to see that part, all they wanted to focus on was the kneeling. And they tried to say, ‘This is not about the flag, this is not about the veterans, this is not about our military, this is not about first responders. This is about what’s going on in the Miami area.’ And it was beautiful. But nobody wanted to recognize it then.”
The positive? Well, the positive is, and Dungy sees this as Colin Kaepernick’s legacy, that there are more voices out there now, because guys like Kaepernick, Stills and Thomas worked to normalize the discussion. It’s OK to speak out now, because those guys did.
Dungy says he’s proud of those guys, even more so now than he was four years ago. And he’s hopeful, too, coming out of all this.
Because what he sees out there is a lot of guys carrying out something he learned a long, long time ago.
There’s no easy transition back to football here, but we’ll give it a shot. I’ve seen a lot of odds laid over the last couple weeks, so we’ll work through some of those in the coming weeks, and rank our top contenders for some 2020 postseason honors. And we’ll start today with my top five for Defensive Rookie of the Year (We’re gonna use Odds Shark for numbers) …
1) Washington DE Chase Young (+200): This is simple, and it’s not because I share an alma mater with Young. He’s a monstrous talent and going to a defensive line group, like his old teammate (and reigning DROY) Nick Bosa did last year, that has the horses to take the pressure off him.
2) Chargers LB Kenneth Murray (+1400): To me, this is a combination of who the guy is, the opportunity he’ll get and the scheme he’s going to. Murray’s known to be mature beyond his year and smart as a whip, he’s filling a hole for the team he’s going to (see: playing time available) and set to play in a relatively simple scheme that he should pick up quickly.
3) Ravens LB Patrick Queen (+900): The tiebreaker for me between Queen and Murray was that Baltimore’s scheme might take a little longer for a rookie to master. On the flip side, the Ravens are going to be on national TV a lot, and that never hurts.
4) Lions CB Jeff Okudah (+1200): I think Detroit’s got a chance to make a leap on defense, and if Patricia’s crew does, new additions will get credit. Okudah’s a rock-solid player, who played in multiple schemes in college, and has the versatility to fit what the Lions look for at the position like a glove.
5) Giants S Xavier McKinney (+2800): My dark horse! McKinney’s another guy whose football intelligence is off the charts and had really clean tape as a collegian.
And yes, I know I left Isaiah Simmons off the list—I think he’s going to be a dynamite pro, I just think it may take a little time for the new Cardinal to find his niche as an NFL player.
THE BIG QUESTION
Will Drew Brees be able to get the Saints locker room back?
Never figured that’d be a question that I’d ask, but here we are on June 4.
The answer to it is yes, so long as he’s sincere. And it’s not just because I once saw Riley Cooper have a 47-catch, 835-yard, 8-touchdown year months after hurling a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert; nor is it how I witnessed Richard Sherman passionately have the back of 49ers star Nick Bosa through Bosa’s rookie year, which followed social-media hysteria over some tweets from high school; nor is it how, similarly, player after player survives being put into the Twitter wayback machine around the draft every year.
It’s actually all of those things put together. Players are of varying education and of varying intelligence, but there’s one intellectual trait I’ve noticed a lot of them have in common. They’ve all got incredible B.S. radar. If you’re full of it, an NFL locker room is gonna sniff that out quickly, and it’s going to be a problem for you.
That goes for players. That goes for coaches.
Brees has lived in that environment for nearly two decades now. The locker room, for better or worse, will know who a guy is after that amount of time.
So did it gut some guys—like Malcolm Jenkins and Cam Jordan—to hear their quarterback take a subject that’s so important to them, and move the goal posts back to 2016 after it seemed like so much progress was coming? I’m sure it absolutely did. But Jordan’s going into his 10th season as Brees’s teammate, and Jenkins is returning to New Orleans after sharing a locker room with No. 9 for the first five years of his career.
This’ll sound harsh, but if Brees were to come to them with some B.S., those guys would be able to see right through it. If he’s sincere, and wants to listen to them, then I think the path back to level ground in that locker room for Brees won’t be that complicated.
And remember, these workplaces are like a lot of other workplaces. Not everyone likes each other, nor do they need to. The important thing is that they respect each other. Brees has a lot of equity built up with his teammates in that regard, after who he’s been in that place over the last 16 years.
Michael Thomas, who subtweeted his QB on Wednesday, has already tweeted: “One of my brothers made a public statement yesterday that I disagreed with. He apologized & I accept it because that’s what we are taught to do as Christians. Now back to the movement! #GeorgeFloyd”
So as long as Brees is genuine with all those guys in the coming days, I think it’s a pretty easy bet that he’ll be OK.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
It’s unlikely that the floodgates will open and all players will be able to return to work at first.
And so the discussion I’ve heard most recently on how camp will be handled involves allowing veterans to perhaps report a little earlier than normal, to go through testing, take physicals and get conditioning work ahead of an on-time start for training camp at the end of July. (Rookies normally report earlier, which will allow for another layer of guys gradually coming back to work.)
Another idea I’d heard was leaving the report dates as they are but canceling the first week of preseason games to reduce risk of soft-tissue injuries as players work their way back into shape, and limit August travel.
Obviously, all of it’s fluid and will require a sign off from the union, which is a big key. The idea of an early report date (which the NFL has floated to the players) cuts into players’ time off, and with lots of guys having family time and vacations scheduled for just before the start of camp, that figures to be a tough sell with new NFLPA president J.C. Tretter. On the flip side, a loss of a week or two of preseason games means more revenue gone in a year in which losses are expected, which wouldn’t be great for anyone.
And complicating everything is the advice the players and league have gotten from their joint committee on health and safety, which has advocated a plan for around three weeks of ramp up (implementation of protocols, testing, strength-and-conditioning work) that would bring players back in waves.
As the rules stand now, teams are permitted to open camp for rookies from July 13-24, with veterans allowed to start practice two weeks before their team’s first preseason game.
There’s still a lot to be sorted out, obviously. Stay tuned.
THE FINAL WORD
Next week would be the first week of veteran minicamps in a normal year. Showing, again, that 2020 is anything but one.
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