As the NFL heads into Thanksgiving week and approaches December, the business of football remains inescapable in the news cycle. Here are my thoughts on some stories in the news the last couple of weeks.
Biased against Baker
A practice squad signing by the Chiefs last week caught my eye.
Cornerback DeAndre Baker, a 2019 first-round pick by the Giants, was involved in an incident in May that dominated the offseason headlines for a week. He was allegedly part of an armed robbery holding up four men. And there were lawyers, including the alleged victims’ lawyer, who was arrested on extortion charges last week. Now, six months after the headlines, a time when Baker had been toxic to NFL teams, he has been cleared of all charges.
It strikes me that Baker was dealt an injustice here. The Giants, like everyone else, saw the salacious reports of a Scarface-like armed robbery, and, with the social media mobs circling, they submitted: Baker was sacrificed to those mobs and released.
This is not to impugn the Giants specifically; many—if not most—teams would have done the same thing. And Baker may have had other issues, although no team is going to give up on a first-round pick after one season without extenuating circumstances.
Speaking as a lawyer, it would be nice—with careers in the balance—to wait out these stories until resolution within the judicial system. However, the pace of the actual courts is far slower than that of the court of public opinion.
Now Baker joins the Chiefs, who have had their players see similar brushes with the law, with differing responses. When Kareem Hunt was caught on video physically assaulting a woman, the Chiefs cut him immediately. In contrast, when disturbing audio of Tyreek Hill threatening the mother of his children surfaced, the Chiefs waited out the social media firestorm that included many predicting Hill would never play in the NFL, let alone for the Chiefs, again. Hill was not only kept on the roster but soon thereafter rewarded with a top-of-market contract extension.
I get it; it is hard to stay the course when the pitchforks are out demanding blood, and the Giants succumbed with Baker. Now Baker, after significant reputational and financial damage, has been cleared of the alleged behavior that led to his release and has found refuge with the Chiefs. But it is fair to wonder how many similar cases, in this 24/7 world of social media, have led to players being released never to meaningfully return to NFL work again. As we approach Thanksgiving, some food for thought.
Packers stay on brand
Having sat in the chair of the Packers’ player contract negotiator for 10 years, I am keenly aware of the perception that the team is not aggressive enough in player acquisition and spending, failing to providing superstars like Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers the necessary weapons to win more than one Super Bowl apiece. I have heard these complaints for more than 20 years, whether as Packers vice president or since. And when I am constantly asked why the Packers didn’t get this guy or that guy, my response is always the same: “What part of the Packers do you not understand?”
The Packers have never been a team that “goes for it” with sexy moves such as marquee free agents, moves that push down the depth chart younger players in whom the team has invested draft picks and coaching. Having lived it for a decade, the Packers’ way is clear: drafting, developing and retaining.
The “retaining” part was on full display last week with a mega contract extension for left tackle David Bakhtiari. It was textbook Packers, something I tried to do every year around this time. To me, there is no better use of existing cap room than an in-season extension for a core player heading to free agency. And the timing of mid-November was perfect. Waiting until December is too late; the agent side of me knows that the player might as well play out the season and see what is behind Door No. 2 in free agency.
As to the steep price tag for Bakhtiari—a four-year, $92 million extension—the Packers have the Texans to thank for that. Houston traded two first-round picks for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and did not secure a simultaneous contract extension at the time of the trade, giving Tunsil extraordinary leverage to negotiate a contract that was player-friendly in terms of both the $22 million per year average and the three-year deal, ensuring he’ll get another huge contract before he turns 30. Faced with that fresh data point, the Packers were stuck and paid an extra million per year (a $23 million average) to secure Bakhtiari for a year longer than the Texans got Tunsil. I am certain that the Packers were cursing the Texans under their breath throughout the negotiation.
The Bakhtiari extension is another example of the Packers’ being aggressive in player spending; the players they spend on just happen to be their own. I lived it for 10 years. On brand.
Lose the fake crowd noise
And finally, an issue we have now seen—or, really, heard—for 11 weeks. Maybe it’s just me, but I still don’t get the fake crowd noise.
I get it that the NFL is trying to make these games—played in empty or sparsely populated stadiums—seem as “normal” as possible. But this seems like the league is trying too hard.
We heard before the season that the NFL was creating “league-curated audio” for the teams. While a pithy nickname for a band or a fantasy football team, it is unnecessary. Would anyone reading this stop watching the NFL or watch it less without this artificial noise? I doubt it.
What fans truly desire is access. And with media access severely restricted, why not—in this unique time—allow fans more, not less, access to the sounds of the game, giving a feeling of eavesdropping in on something we shouldn’t really be hearing? The lack of fans, even with fake crowd noise, has already allowed us to hear more from the field (including expletives), which is all a plus; more would be even better. Amplifying authentic audio over inauthentic audio would be a true value add.
All of this begs the question: Who actually wants fake noise? It is certainly not the players, nor the smattering of fans at the stadiums, who can’t even hear it. I don’t think it’s the millions of viewers who, I believe, either don’t need it or don’t want it. The only answer seems to be a combination of NFL and network executives, somehow convinced this artificial enhancement is important for the broadcast. And you know my mantra: The business of sports always wins.
Listen, we’re all adults here; we know there are few fans and little noise in these vast buildings. But we’d like to hear more of the real, not the fake, product. Lose the league-curated audio (translation: fake noise) … please.