Why the NFL is upset with the Titans and why teams are mad at the league office - Sports Illustrated

Why the League Is Upset With the Titans and Why Teams Are Mad at the League Office

Inside the messaging the NFL has given to its teams before and after the outbreak in Tennessee, and the reasons some teams aren't happy either. Plus, why is everyone so bad at defense this year, where do the Texans go from here, power rankings and Tom Brady in prime time.
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With concerns rising last weekend about the viability of playing the 2020 season in a pandemic, the NFL set a conference call for Monday and invited executives, GMs and head coaches from all 32 teams.

There was a data dump, information was shared and then came a presentation.

On the call, league officials showed pictures of coaches breaking mask protocol on the sideline. They showed pictures of Raiders players unmasked at tight end Darren Waller’s charity event last week in Henderson, Nev. And they showed something else that hadn’t been seen publicly—pictures of Titans players and staffers inside the team’s practice facility without masks on.

“Ninety percent compliance is failure,” Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, told the group.

There’s little question left that what we’re seeing in Tennessee right now constitutes failure. On Thursday morning, the Titans had positive tests returned for the eighth time in 10 days, and the 10th time in their last 13 rounds of testing. Over that time, going back two weeks, they’ve had 23 positive tests, 13 from players.

By comparison, over the first two weeks of the season, there were two positive tests from players leaguewide, and one was from Titans practice-squad corner Greg Mabin, whose test was the first of those 13 player positives. The fact is, while we’ve seen other cases since—Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore in New England, and Maurice Hurst in Las Vegas­—a huge majority continues to come out of Nashville.

Add that to the pictures the league presented to its teams on Monday, and the news of player-led workouts at local fields, and it’s pretty easy to draw some conclusions and point some fingers.

Yes, some are furious with the Titans over their alleged handling of the protocols, which, the thinking goes, opened the door for all of this. But others saw what the NFL did the other day as, in the words of one executive, “shaming” Tennessee in an effort to distance the league office from the outbreak.

“It’s easy to sit at Park Ave. and cast stones,” said another exec. “Teams are working really hard—and that’s not in all cases, because [some] teams didn’t do the right things. But they wanted to take credit when things were going well and are quick to blame when things went awry.”

Now that things have gone awry, this is the new battleground. After months of teams, players and the league working in concert, the first cracks in the foundation of the NFL’s coronavirus plan have surfaced, and center on two questions.

Is this an NFL problem? Or just a Titans problem?

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Week 5 feels a lot different from the first four. At this point a week ago, the Titans’ outbreak was a curiosity, Newton’s positive test was two days away and things still were relatively normal. A lot’s changed, of course. But we’ll still get to some football in this week’s GamePlan. In the column, you’ll get …

• Under-the-radar reasons for the NFL’s 2020 defensive deficiencies.

• The road forward for the Houston Texans.

• Power rankings!

But we’re starting with the news of the day, which was also the news of yesterday and the day before, and really the news of the last two weeks.

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The message the league delivered to the teams on Monday was that everyone had to turn the clocks back to July and August—and put their guard back up with so much now on the line. And along those lines, one league official presented this quote from back then to reinforce the line Sills gave the group on the call.

It was Steelers coach Mike Tomlin who said on July 30, “If one fails, we all fail in this environment.”

Therein is where the NFL sees its path out. The league wants everyone to batten down the hatches once again, with a focus on ensuring there’s no ongoing transmission. And to illustrate what that means, one league executive gave me an analogy.

Say, for argument’s sake, everyone went to a picnic, and the potato salad was bad. People then got sick off the potato salad. In that case, you’d throw out the leftovers and say, “O.K., that sucks, but that was what it was and it’s taken care of now.” You’d be pretty sure it wasn’t an ongoing thing from there. And so the league now is trying to impress on its teams how vital it is to keep isolating and getting rid of the proverbial bad potato salad on a daily basis.

Obviously, there are reasons why people may have been willing to risk it with the bad batch again the last couple of weeks, when they wouldn’t have back in July or August, even though being more vigilant gave teams impressive results: Of the 84 player positives since the end of July, more than 60 were isolated. Those reasons are pretty human.

“We’ve all been spoiled a bit by how easy all of this seemed,” said the exec. “So there’s an exaggerated faith in testing. … Testing doesn’t make us completely safe.”

And I’ll admit that I was in that camp, too—thinking that daily testing was something of a silver bullet, in that it ensured a COVID-19-free environment. The truth, it turns out, is that the incubation period of the virus was going to present problems somewhere, and it did in Tennessee. Mabin’s positive test came back on a Friday morning; outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen’s returned on a Saturday. Those two didn’t travel to Minnesota for the Sept. 27 game, but the rest of the team did.

What’s more, the entire traveling party tested negative Sunday morning, hours before the Titans’ win over the Vikings. Two days later, all hell broke loose with eight positive tests. Which raises a ton of questions.

Since then, more questions have arisen on Tennessee’s handling of it, and that’s why the NFL and NFLPA review of the Titans’ behavior is now in its seventh day.

But even teams the NFL has found to be responsible haven’t been immune. The Patriots’ game against Kansas City was pushed back from Sunday to Monday not just because of Newton’s positive test, but because Newton had an abnormally high number of close contacts. But, per sources, the NFL’s review of New England’s COVID-19 practices has shown that most (if not all) of his close contacts weren’t high-risk (e.g. outdoor vs. indoor), and surveillance of the team facility showed very solid adherence, both by Newton and others, to mask protocols.

And that brings us to the flip side of this—where teams aren’t pleased with the league.

The questions are fair.

How can the league be preachy when it forced New England to travel and play the same day they flew, then travel back with so many potentially infected people? And to travel when Air COVID (a second plane carrying Newton’s close contacts) was necessary? And where is the evidence that the league’s priority is anything other than making sure the television networks get as much of their inventory as possible?

That, of course, is before you get to the real challenges teams are facing day-to-day that the league isn’t, which is why plenty of people working for those teams have gotten sideways with the league office as the finger-wagging has commenced over the last few days.

Now, as the NFL would like, let’s turn the clocks back to the summer. The parties involved were able to work through such a thorny situation in July and August largely because everyone’s goals were aligned. Players wanted to get paid. Teams wanted to make money. The league wanted to keep its revenue-generating freight train on the tracks.

Everyone still wants all those things. The pursuit of them just got more difficult over the last couple of weeks. It might get even tougher going forward. It might not. But the tension resulting from these realities has laid bare the pressure everyone is facing to get this right.

The league wants compliance. The teams want understanding. Everyone wants a season.

Yes, what happens in Nashville in the coming days is important to getting a season completed. But maybe more important is that what’s going on there now happens nowhere else.

And to be clear, I have no idea whether this will be the only teamwide outbreak that we’ll see this season.

What I do know is that who that result proves right isn’t even close to the most relevant thing.

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POWER RANKINGS

Our official MMQB power rankings have moved from our old poll to a rotating system this year, and it was my turn this week. So in addition to my weekly top five here, you can also see how I feel about the other 27 teams this week. But to keep with tradition …

1) Kansas City Chiefs (4–0): This is an obvious pick, for now. But there is one thing I’ve noticed that could change the equation: In three of the team’s last five games (vs. the 49ers in the Super Bowl, and against the Chargers and Patriots this year), the offensive line has had its issues. And, yes, I think they’ll be O.K. I’m just not going to ignore it.

2) Green Bay Packers (4–0): Remember when everyone made fun of the teams pursuing Friends of Sean McVay in coaching searches? Matt LaFleur is now 17–3 (18–4 including playoffs), and the Packers look like they’re getting better on a week-to-week basis. And the offense looks like a good fit for Aaron Rodgers, after all.

3) Seattle Seahawks (4–0): Russell Wilson probably had his worst performance of the season (360 yards, 2 TDs, an INT, 112.4 rating)—and that gave the defense a shot to show some signs of life on the road against Miami.

4) Buffalo Bills (4–0): If the Titans game gets canceled/postponed, the Bills will go into next Thursday off a de facto bye, facing a Chiefs team playing its third game in 11 days. And that one could potentially be for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Welcome to 2020.

5) Pittsburgh Steelers (3–0): Coming out of a disjointed bye week and into this week’s game against Philly presents an interesting test, especially with the Eagles pretty desperate for a signature win.

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THE BIG QUESTION

Where do the Texans go from here?

Starting with the here and now, I think the Texans are very lucky to have Romeo Crennel in house to lead the team for the rest of the year. Crennel, you’ll remember, stepped into a volatile situation in Kansas City in December 2011—the 5–8 Chiefs had just fired Todd Haley—and calmed the waters to the point where the team hired him full-time as head coach in the aftermath.

Tensions most certainly rose in Houston leading into the team’s Week 3 trip to Pittsburgh, and Crennel should be able to calm those and keep the team competitive going forward.

After that? Well, just as important as EVP of football operations Jack Easterby having owner Cal McNair’s ear will be to his role going forward, will be how the reporting structure works. Will the new coach and GM report to Easterby? Or will the coach report to the GM? Or will all three report to the owner? Ultimately, who has a direct line to the owner, and who is reporting to who, is important.

And it will be in the search, too. Top GM and coach candidates are acutely aware that titles can be cosmetic, and so the Texans’ willingness (or lack or willingness) to empower certain roles will absolutely affect whether certain guys find certain jobs attractive.

Miami is a good example of that. From 2016–18, Adam Gase was the head coach and Chris Grier was the GM, and both reported to EVP of football operations Mike Tannenbaum. Since then, Grier’s title has remained GM, but with Tannenbaum gone, the context of his job is different. So if the new Texans GM and coach report to Easterby, that’d make the GM like Grier from 2016–18. If they report to the owner, the GM would be like Grier from 2019–present.

Anyway, it could come into play with big-name candidates. It’s hard to see Josh McDaniels or Nick Caserio going there, long as they’ve waited to take their shots, if they’d be reporting to Easterby, no matter how close they were with him in New England. Same goes for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who also has a strong relationship with Easterby.

Then, there’s the question of how attractive the job is otherwise. Deshaun Watson hasn’t played particularly well through four weeks but would still be a major draw. The offensive line, which has played better than some people think, is one, too, given the youth and contract situations the team has lined up. Also, ownership has shown patience in the past in allowing coaches to build, and that’s a plus as well.

The negatives? The defense needs significant work, with linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham and safety Justin Reid as pieces to build around. And the guys at the skill positions are aging.

The good news, for the Texans’ brass, is they’ve got plenty of time to get this one right.

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WHAT NO ONE’S TALKING ABOUT

Some of the real reasons behind all the bad defense being played.

I dug in on this over the last few days—full disclosure, it was going to lead this column until the COVID bleepstorm ramped back up—and made calls to try to find reasons for the explosion of offense and the decline of defense through four weeks. At this point, and it’s still early, 22 teams are averaging 24 points per game or more, and 3,233 points have been scored, which is the most ever for the first month of an NFL season.

Here’s some of what gives, per people paid to evaluate this stuff …

How the game is officiated. False starts and holding calls are way down, and that means offenses are staying on schedule more—fewer first-and-20s, etc. That, on the surface alone, adds up to fewer punts and more yards and points. But beyond just that, it also helps in how offenses are able to protect their quarterbacks, which is no small thing.

“Protection’s better because of it,” said one AFC exec. “I’ve seen numerous cases in our games where there are blatant holds, the umpire seems to see it, and he just doesn’t call it.”

If you want numbers, here are a few: Pro Football Reference has penalty numbers tracked back to 1994, and the rate of false starts per game (1.84) and holding calls per game (1.62) this season are pacing to be the lowest, by far, over that period. In fact, if you go back over the 26 seasons previous to this one, holding calls per game were under 2.0 only three times (2006-08, for some reason), and false starts per game have never been under 2.0.

For reference, here’s the last six years (including 2020) in both categories:

Holding/game (2014-20): 2.46, 2.77, 2.75, 2.59, 2.77, 2.83, 1.62.

False starts/game (2014-20): 2.30, 2.21, 2.30, 2.00, 2.21, 2.14, 1.84.

The stands are empty. That, of course, contributes to the false start number being low. But it goes beyond just that—it also allows for better offensive communication, which helps in sorting stuff out both with lineman and receivers. And that goes to yet another level, too.

I was talking to an NFC offensive coordinator about this, and his theory was straight forward. In his opinion, on the whole, NFL receivers are better than NFL defensive backs, and NFL defensive linemen are better than NFL offensive linemen. The crowd, generally, can help the defense with that. With offenses on silent counts, pass rushers get off the ball faster, which mitigates the gap between the corners and the receivers they’re covering.

With no crowd added to the lack of holding calls? Defensive linemen are having a harder time getting to the quarterback, magnifying the difference between receivers and corners.

“The issues with DBs doesn’t show up as much normally,” he said. “It doesn’t get to that because the quarterback’s getting sacked.”

Instead, now the quarterback can use his cadence as a weapon, communicate with his teammates, keep his own jersey clean and put get the ball where he wants to.

Offseason programs. Remember in April, May and June, when we told you about all those player-led camps to make up for the lack of OTAs? Guess who was running them.

“[Our quarterback] would meet with our guys, and they’d find a park or high school to run plays at,” said another AFC exec. “Our defensive guys weren’t doing that nearly as much. Where you’d normally have OTAs, a lot of offensive guys across the league worked out together a lot. Some were at these high schools every day.”

So when offensive skill guys got to camp, they hit the ground running and were progressively ahead of the defensive guys. And that edge may still be holding up now.

It also plays into what another exec raised to me—offensive rookies are contributing more right now than defensive rookies are. Which, if those guys were taking part in those spring camps right after they were drafted, makes sense.

Lack of preseason. You don’t learn much from preseason tape. But there’s at least something there. If there’s a new coordinator, you can get a feel for their system. If a team’s tweaking its scheme, you might be able to identify it.

And this year, there was none of that, which meant offensive coordinators had leeway to create and innovate completely behind closed doors, and spring new things on opponents without any warning (which might contribute to the number of coverage busts we’ve seen). Coaches being more aggressive on early downs and more creative with presnap motion and movement only adds to that edge.

Eventually, the thought is, things will settle down, defensive players will get their sea legs and defensive coaches will catch up to what offenses are doing.

Until then? Enjoy the show.

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FINAL WORD

With O.J. Howard out for the season, Chris Godwin out Thursday night and the Bears’ defense on a short week, Tom Brady’s got his work cut out for him in Chicago. The Bucs have looked great the last couple of weeks, and this will be a good test of how real the progress they’ve made is.