It might be five years from now, it might be 10, but the day is coming when one household will be made up entirely of people who digest an NFL Sunday each in their own unique way.
This family might have a younger kid consuming the sport on a Nickelodeon broadcast, a teenager only watching highlights on his phone, a mom keeping track of her office fantasy team through an app and a dad flipping over to a sports gambling show on a Megacast presentation. And then maybe grandpa sitting on the couch watching it the old-fashioned way—from start to finish on an over-the-air network.
How we get there over the next decade is unpredictable. When we get there is unpredictable. What it’ll look like after we get there is unpredictable, too.
But over the last couple months, the NFL made a rather handsome bet that we will get there. You can slice up the NFL’s 11-year, $113 billion set of media rights contracts that were announced last week a bunch of different ways—and we will in the column—but the overriding thing within their details isn’t hard to understand.
The NFL believes the world is going to keep changing.
These new deals allow the league to keep changing with it.
“We know how the market is changing, especially with young people and how they’re just on their phone or their iPad,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said from his office on Friday. “I think that is the biggest difference in what we’ve done. And it’s interesting, if you look at it, your next big thing will be more interactivity and customization of the product that hadn’t been possible. ESPN has done a customized alternative viewing experience, which was really focused on sports betting. CBS used Nickelodeon to provide a youth-oriented game experience, which was, I don’t know if you saw that, but I watched it, I thought it was great.
“NBC pushed the Next Gen stats to really new levels and Fox has led the way in free-to-play ancillary games that attracted millions of casual fans. And then on Thursday, Amazon experimented with multiple alternative streams of the game, which included a Twitch-like EA Sports environment for those fans who love esports. … Building in these alternatives for the future, it’s pretty cool that we’re able to do this.”
Now, like a lot of you, I’m cool with how it is now.
But I also know my kids might not be. And that’s why these deals are the way they are.
The world of media has never evolved or changed faster than it has over the last 20 years and, with these contracts, the NFL’s telling you to buckle up, because they’re planning to be a part of accelerating what’s already changed the way most people watch games.
Our first post-free agency MMQB column is here, and we’ve got a lot to get to. Inside this week’s column, you’ll find …
• A look at the Patriots’ cannonball into a pool in which they usually detest swimming.
• Frank Reich on the Carson Wentz trade.
• Matthew Stafford on the deal that brought him west.
• All kinds of news and nuggets from a pretty wild week in the NFL transaction world.
But we’re starting with how you watch the games and what’s about to change.
Kraft used to own the CBS affiliate in Boston, WHDH, so when he bought the Patriots in 1994, commissioner Paul Tagliabue asked him to join the league’s broadcast committee. At the time, the NFL had just done the groundbreaking set of contracts that brought Fox into the fold—a sea-change development at the time—and those had a total windfall of $4.4 billion over four years.
Which means that over 28 years, the value of the NFL on TV has increased tenfold.
“When I started in the role, it was pretty simple. We just conducted an auction for the fixed packages for the two conferences, and Sunday and Monday [nights],” said Kraft, who now chairs the committee. “And over the last decade and a half, it’s become a much more detailed, customized project, so that we’re looking at each game window, and not just how it is good for us, but how we’re presenting it to the changing tastes of our fans.”
The meat and potatoes of the new deal reflects that. Each legacy network is connected to a streaming service in the deal—Disney to ESPN+, NBC to Peacock, CBS to Paramount+ and Fox to Tubi—and those streaming services will be able to broadcast games, and in some cases do so exclusively (ESPN will have the option to put an international game on ESPN+). Also, as part of this, for the first time in nearly two decades, ABC will get back in the Super Bowl rotation, something Disney had been looking for.
Then, there’s Jeff Bezos’s behemoth, Amazon Prime, entering a room that’s pretty much had the same cast of characters, save for that 1993 addition of Fox, since the NFL first went on television, with Prime becoming the initial streaming-only partner to land an exclusive-rights deal (Thursday Night football).
So that’s the black-and-white, and there is, to be sure, a lot of grey area in the contracts. The NFL held back its gambling rights, because it’s trying to be judicious with those. There are contingencies baked into the deals that’ll allow for change as they go. And for obvious reasons, all of that’s by design—creating the sort of malleability the NFL’s giving itself with the games themselves (with the added ability to flex games to Monday night).
“It’s about being additive in those distribution models,” said Hans Schroeder, COO for NFL Media. “The one thing we know is the world’s going to continue to change. It’s gonna continue to evolve. For the fan and consumer that’s a great opportunity. For a content owner, we think it’s really exciting. And I look at a partnership like Disney and what they’ve done, and how quickly they’ve pivoted and grown their business. …
“[ESPN and ABC] are still really big, really broad, really scaled networks, but look at what they’ve done to add new models, what they’ve done with ESPN+, Disney+ has been incredible. For us, in the near-to-medium term, it’s about not being an either/or, but finding ways to add distribution.”
With that in mind, and after I dug around a little the last couple days, here are a bunch of elements that’ll change (or be added) under the new contracts that I figured would matter to all of you who watch the games at home.
• More Monday night doubleheaders are coming, though they can’t quite be called doubleheaders. There will likely be staggered starts to accommodate ABC’s primetime window (likely at 8 p.m. ET). I’m told the contract calls for three of them each season, including the traditional pair of Monday nighters in Week 1. ESPN will get 17 Monday night games, and ABC will broadcast the three additional ones on the nights there are two games.
• There will also be two games on the Saturday of Week 18, ABC will have them, and those games will be flexed in to ensure solid, relevant matchups get into those windows, which will give ABC a total of five regular season games.
• Amazon’s contract was negotiated to start in 2023, but I’m told there have already been talks to move that up year with Fox having signaled it’d be O.K. getting out of the TNF package a year early. So there’s a real possibility Amazon got TNF exclusively starting in 2022.
• The league also has the option to give Amazon a “Black Friday” game—probably some pretty good tie-ins there for them—since Amazon won’t get the Thanksgiving night game that traditionally goes to NBC.
• ESPN will also now get not just a wild-card round game, but a divisional round game as well, and Amazon can earn a wild-card game if it hits certain ratings markers over a period of years, which is a way of the NFL ensuring the audience is coming with it to Prime before a postseason matchup goes there.
• The NFL has maintained a level of flexibility here, too, with an out after seven years (after the 2029 season) in the deal.
The upshot of all this, again, goes back to Schroeder’s word: additive. More games, more screens, more ways to watch the NFL. “It builds on a very wide and broad distribution model that’s been really good to us over a long period of time with broadcast television,” he said. “Across all our partners, they’re adding meaningful digital reach and distribution on top of that.”
So all of this should be interesting on a macro level. And Kraft and Schroeder made a few other points on more specific pieces of this that I thought were worth sharing here.
The future of sports gambling. We all know it’s coming, and the NFL—not far separated from a time in which point spreads were the equivalent of four-letter words on the air—is readying to monetize it. Which will, of course, likely wind up being incorporated into the way the game is presented on television.
But both Kraft and Schroeder emphasized the league needs to make sure it’s done right.
“We’re planning because it’s going to come,” Kraft said. “There’s over 20 states that have legalized gaming and we’d like that to be maximized. But it’ll help so much [for that to continue], first of all, as we all know there’s a big illegal market going on. So why shouldn’t the states take advantage and generate revenue? I think the governor of New Hampshire loves Massachusetts residents because they come up to do their gaming across the border, generating terrific revenue. So eventually it will happen everywhere.
“But I think what it means, especially for younger people, for the interactivity [in game presentation], someone can post some modest amount of money up front and, the first play, is Cam Newton gonna throw or run? Who’s going to catch the first ball? … And then, of course, fantasy football and with the expansion of that, how people view that. We have to be creative but tasteful. And I think that’s what’s important.”
That interactivity is another big key. Kraft owns an esports team in the Overwatch League, so he’s keenly aware of how the younger generation isn’t so content to plop down on the couch and just … watch. So, as he sees it, adding to what people can do while taking in the games is another way the NFL can capitalize (in this case, the upcoming digital deals figure to be an important element).
“My grandkids are pretty much on their phones all the time, they do everything that way,” said Kraft. “The world of TikTok can be consuming. We just have to be hip to that and be able to adjust and make our product viable in the change. Part of it is social media and the access of our players to it. … Look how many followers we have between Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, it’s how we get our messaging out, it’s how we adapt to this new world.
“You’ll see in the next five to seven years how your kids’ tastes evolve in how they consume what they consume, and how people generally will. I think interactivity and gaming coming in with people under 45, they’re always doing something while they’re watching or doing whatever they do. And I think that we will give certain interactivity and gaming alternatives in the future, which should just help to keep our audience.”
The Monday Night flex. Schroder gave me an interesting fact—only 2.5 games per year have been flexed into Sunday night, which he says is a credit to the job Howard Katz and Mike North have done putting the schedule together. But the truth is, flexing a game within a day is not the same as flexing it to a different day. And the league knows that, and it’s part of the reason why it took a while to come around on allowing Monday flexes.
That said, they have experimented some with the late-season Saturday packages. And that’s given them confidence it’ll be manageable.
“This is just more of an evolution,” Schroder said. “A lot of credit goes to the commissioner, a lot of credit goes to Robert as the chair of our media committee, and the work they did with the work we did up front, well in advance of when we even got in the deal cycle, to think about how to evolve our deals in a way that’s better for our fans, better for our partners and better for the league. The commissioner and Robert were particularly focused on taking a longer-term view, pushing us to think about the right model longer term for us.
“And as we thought about that, there was an openness and a recognition that taking an element like flexing Monday night is an opportunity to create that win-win-win for our fans, for our partner, in this case Disney, and then for us, too, making sure the best games every week are getting the best exposure.”
In a lot of ways, this deal reflects one principle that has marked the commissionership of Roger Goodell, who was originally earmarked for the job because of how creative he always has been in generating revenue. Goodell’s focused on growing the league out (adding inventory) with little room left to grow up (with the domestic audience), and you can see that with the return to L.A., London and other international markets, the 17th game and expanded playoffs.
It also reflects Kraft’s vision for the NFL to stay ahead of where media’s going, something that was happening just as he joined the league, with Fox, and now is happening again, with Amazon.
So the two guys who led the deal most certainly have their fingerprints on it, as do league office folks like Schroeder, Brian Rolapp, Kevin LaForce, Will Deng, Janet Nova and Lee Goldsmith, who were in the trenches over the last few months getting a deal in place.
This was not all easy. But in the end, the NFL was able to land the plane with two years left on the existing deals, and plenty of time to turn the focus to ancillary elements like the digital contracts and the future of Sunday Ticket (DirecTV has two years left).
“I’m really happy,” said Kraft. “We worked very hard to have all of the deals land at the same time and come in at the same time. It was really hard to do that. And you think of five major companies. And I’m really happy we were able to keep our four traditional partners and each of them have a package that they deemed to be the most important content to them. And then bringing Amazon in with all its entrepreneurial ways. And they understand.
“A lot of these tech companies, they’ve grown so fast and gotten so much power sometimes, I’m not sure they respect some of the traditional ways of operating. And I think in this case Amazon really sees this as a great opportunity for them and a way for them to be out front and ahead of everyone, the way they’ve been in so many other ways. So I guess for me, I’m proudest that we could keep everyone in and add Amazon.”
And, in the process, give the rest of us a whole lot of football to look forward to.
THE PATRIOTS' SPLURGE
While I had Kraft on the line, I had to ask about what Bill Belichick and his football operation had just pulled off: committing more than $130 million guaranteed to eight new players coming in (Matthew Judon, Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, Jalen Mills, Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson and Kendrick Bourne). And Kraft confirmed to me that he took in the same way a lot of people on the outside did.
“It was very exciting,” Kraft said. “Look, we want to win. We’re spoiled. We got used to winning all the time. And that’s our objective. It’s a very competitive sport, it’s all geared to having every team be 8–8 over a long balance of time, the way the draft is, the way we all have a salary cap. This was a unique year in the sense that the cap came down, and because we had so many players opt out last year, then have a non-continuation of the quarterback salary at the higher level, it created uniquely a big cap opportunity.
“It was a chance for us to recharge. We’ve never done anything like this in all the years I’ve owned the team. So what we did, as we were competing for new players, normally in free agency, you’ll have 10 or 12 teams going after it. Here, we had two or three. I just want to compliment our staff, our organization, Bill, all the scouting and personnel people, for a real team effort. Look, we’re not going to know till the fall—we always used to make fun of the people who won the headlines in March—but here I believe we really improved our team.”
Now, of course, part of this is the result of a hole in Belichick’s draft history—without a lot of guys to pay from three and four years ago on the roster, there was a vacuum created that the Patriots spent this week filling. Ideally, they would’ve hit on more of their 2017 and ’18 picks, and that cap space would’ve been used paying them.
But Kraft’s right that a unique dynamic arose of the pandemic, which happened to coincide with all that cap space coming free for the Patriots. And it allowed Belichick to build what almost looks like an entirely new team.
• The Patriots saw in Judon a disruptive, three-down player who, most importantly, could add to a flagging pass-rush. Judon’s not the most natural pass-rusher. But he’s a physically imposing and versatile athlete who gives the team a guy that can win one-on-one off the edge, in a way no Patriot since Chandler Jones has been able to.
• Smith is a guy the Patriots can run the ball behind at tight end, who is also capable of lining up all over the formation. Like Judon, he may not be great at any one thing, but he’s good at everything, and he addresses a major issue the team had last year—helping to improve the Patriots’ team speed.
• Henry, like Smith, is still young and ascending, and the two tight ends were sold on playing together by the example of how the Patriots used Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in tandem for three years. Henry’s value on third down and in the red zone was a big plus here, too.
• The Patriots wound up getting the receivers they wanted, in Agholor and Bourne. Agholor, who’s stylistically different from what New England generally looks for at the position, again, addressed the need for team speed. And Bourne is exactly the kind of receiver that New England has always had—a smart, crafty, route-runner type who they saw as a hidden gem.
• Most of the other additions were more fits. Godchaux gives a team that struggled with the run a space-eater. Anderson adds another defensive line piece with Adam Butler off to Miami. Mills should be a versatile piece to soften the blow of Patrick Chung’s retirement and bring corner depth, and could eventually settle in at safety.
So like Kraft said, the idea of doing all this at once is, indeed, new for him. And this wasn’t the sort of bargain hunting the Patriots have done in the past in free agency—these eight players alone are on the books for $89.75 million this calendar year.
“We gotta win,” Kraft said. “And I think we’re in a better position than we were two weeks ago to do that. But we’ll let things play out. I’ve never had to come up with as much capital this fast, if you total the numbers, but we’re happy to do it and we hope it has the right outcome.”
And of course, under the surface of all of this is what happened a year ago, when Tom Brady exited after two decades in Foxboro, and the two sides went in different directions—the Patriots having their worst season since before Brady became starter as Brady won a seventh Super Bowl in new colors.
When I asked Kraft about it, I was left with two takeaways. One, it’s easy to see how he values his relationship with his old quarterback. And two, he really wants to get back to where that quarterback took him so many times.
“Well, I was really happy for him,” Kraft said. “He’s a great guy and he gave us 20 wonderful years, and he made the choice to do what he wanted to do. Look, I wasn’t that happy to see him leave, but we gave him that opportunity to do it. And I want to say if we’re not going to win, and someone’s got to do it, I’m happy for him. He deserves it.”
Kraft then laughed, and said, “I’m not normally that polite.”
And judging by his team’s actions, he really didn’t like going 7–9.
WHAT REICH SEES IN WENTZ
The whole NFL has been connecting the Carson Wentz-to-Indy dots since the moment ex-Eagles coach Doug Pederson benched Wentz last December, so it’s not like the idea of the star-crossed 27-year-old landing there was some stroke of genius by the Colts. But Frank Reich—one big reason those dots were being connected in the first place—is here to tell you that this wasn’t a matter of him marching down to GM Chris Ballard’s office and saying, Go get my guy.
It was, in fact, a whole lot more detailed than that. And finally free to talk about the Wentz deal, with it having become formalized last week, Reich painted that picture for me on Thursday night of the moment that Ballard informed him that he was on board.
“I do remember him coming out of the draft room one time and coming into my office, kind of in that moment of, O.K., this is it, if we can get him, we’re going to get him,” Reich recalled. “I don’t remember the exact words. But I knew he had spent the whole day watching the tape again. And when I say that—again—that’s not just going to watch two or three games. This is him watching probably half of the ’17 season, half of the ’18 season and half the ’19 season all in a day, and saying, Alright, I’m a believer, I’m ready to go. I’m all in.”
It took a while yet after that—you will recall that from the Wentz column we wrote a few weeks back, where Ballard had to go to the Eagles and tell them he wouldn’t wait forever. But the result was what Reich and Ballard were hoping for on that February evening.
Wentz is a Colt.
And here, with the help of Reich, we’re going to take you through why that was really about more than just the unique relationship that the quarterback and coach have. The Colts did homework on top of homework to make sure they were getting this one right.
The past was a factor, to be clear. Reich was in Philly for the 2016 and ’17 seasons. He saw the flashes of a phenom in the former and the MVP-level flourish in the latter. And there were things to take away from that stretch—mostly involving what Reich knew for sure Wentz was capable of.
“Where he was really distinguishing himself was in situational football, on third down and in the red zone,” Reich said. “In the first 13 weeks of the  season, while he was in there, we were one, two or three on third down. So we had three weeks to go and we were ranked very highly on third down and in the red zone, and the last three weeks of the season we ended up clinching home-field advantage so we didn’t play all of our starters in the last game.
“And it was a team effort. But a big part of it was how he was playing. If you’re gonna be a top 10 quarterback, I just think there’s several places you’ve gotta prove it, and that’s a primary place.”
That said, Reich was also cognizant that he hadn’t coached Wentz in three years, and a lot had changed in Philly. That’s why, beyond Ballard’s extensive work—and the GM watched every NFL snap Wentz has taken multiple times—Reich was going to go in and do his own study. And that really started right away, after Ballard told him that a Wentz deal could be on the table. “When the season ended, my mind was not thinking that getting Carson was gonna be a possibility,” he said, “especially when Nick Sirianni got the job there.”
And after grinding through all the evidence that Wentz had put on tape, there really was one season that stood out: And it was neither 2017 nor 2020.
“I wasn’t just saying, ‘Well, O.K., in 2017, he was having an MVP type of year,’ ” Reich said.
“All you had to do, for me, was turn on the film in 2019, and with four games to go the Eagles needed to win out. And not only did they need to win out, but in each of those games, as I recall, looking at the film, Carson had to play great in the second half, and play a major role in that team winning those games in the second half.
“Now, they were team wins, they were team efforts, it wasn’t a one-man show. But Carson made the plays that a quarterback needs to make when you need to win four games in a row to make the playoffs. He did that, and that wasn’t 2017. That was 2019. So in my mind, that just confirmed to me this guy still has it.”
That allowed Reich and Ballard to take a sober look at 2020. And to illustrate how, Reich pointed out a number he saw in a story from Indy Star beat writer Joel Erickson—that Wentz’s TD-to-INT ratio from 2017 to ’19 was 83-to-21. “That’s a four-to-one TD-to-INT ratio over a three-year span,” Reich said. “That’s hard to do.” So, really, that made 2020 the statistical outlier, and gave Reich and Ballard a simple question to answer.
What went wrong?
Having ex-Eagles coordinators Mike Groh and Press Taylor on staff helped in the fact-finding process, but the truth, to Reich, was right there on the tape. The injuries around Wentz, to both his line and his skill group, were a piece of it, as was Wentz’s reaction to the injuries.
“When you have superpowers, quote-unquote, and in ’17, it was like he did have superpowers, he made so many plays, ridiculous plays, you just can’t do that all the time,” Reich said. “And then in ’20, the protection wasn’t as good as it was in ’17, and so it required him to do more with less, because they had so many guys hurt and because of the other dynamics that were there.
“So, yeah, some of it’s him—just get rid of the ball, help your offensive line out, it’s not just the protection isn’t good. The quarterback can help the protection, just getting rid of the ball. But it’s not all Carson’s fault either. It’s everybody’s fault.”
And in putting these puzzle pieces together, Reich not only evaluated Wentz, along with Ballard, as best, and as coldly, as he could. He also started to gather the elements he’d need to position Wentz to rebound.
The first element is one even the casual football fans can understand: Wentz needs to stop playing hero ball when things aren’t going his way.
“Just get in a rhythm as a quarterback,” Reich said. “There’s a rhythm to the game, just get in the rhythm, drop back, hitch, throw. I mean, just feel the rhythm. Let’s get the ball out of our hands. Let’s not put the team in a bad position. Second-and-10 is O.K. We don’t have to try to make the great escape on a play where something doesn’t come open. Let’s go through the progression, get rid of the ball, take the check down, throw it away.
“And then occasionally we’ll make the wow play that he’s able to make. But let’s just get more back in the rhythm of things.”
Then, there’s the mental element, which is a little more abstract.
Wentz’s entry point in Indy is much different than it was in Philly, where he came in as the second pick, who the team traded up twice for, and was naturally positioned as a savior. He arrives in the Midwest seen as something of reclamation project, and it’s clear Reich believes that can help sell Wentz on what’s central to getting him back where he needs to be.
Reich’s made it clear he doesn’t want Wentz to think he’s arriving as a quarterbacking messiah. Rather, he’s coming to play for a team that has one of the best young cores in football, and one that’s made the playoffs in two of the last three years, with different quarterbacks having served as the starter three years running. Point is, it’s all there for him, and Wentz just has to come in and play his role.
That means, yes, Reich and the offensive staff will work with him on throwing mechanics, footwork and all that, but no one is going to position it as any different than what’s happening fundamentally with everyone on the roster. In essence, Reich’s asking Wentz to be a Colt, not be the Colts.
“I’ve already had a conversation with Carson, to say, ‘O.K., everybody’s throwing the word fix around and I get it,’” Reich said. “I wanted to get that off the table with Carson, because as a coach, you’re not trying to make it all about you. I’m not the fixer. We work together. It’s collaborative. Our whole staff works together in partnership with the player. And we all have the same objective, we’re all working to get better.
“So are we going to work to get better? Yeah, we’re going to work to get better. Do I have certain things in mind that I think need to improve? Yeah, I do. And we’ve talked about those things. And we talked about them again today. After his press conference, we sat in my office for a little bit talking about a couple of things. But I’m not saying anything that Carson isn’t already saying himself. He knows.”
And the cool thing, as Reich sees it, is if Wentz can just settle down and get back to playing football as part of a team, a lot of what the NFL saw earlier in his career should come back to Wentz.
If that happens? Well, then the Colts may finally have the answer to a question that’s been asked constantly since Andrew Luck retired two summers ago.
“There’s no doubt Chris and I talked about that, and Mr. [Jim] Irsay, the three of us have talked about that together,” Reich said. “That’s what you shoot for. So that’s the vision. When Andrew retired, we were looking for that long-term vision, what’s the next answer? First, was it going to be Jacoby [Brissett]? Jacoby did a nice job, and ultimately as highly as we thought about Jacoby, we didn’t feel like that was the long-term answer. And then, obviously, Philip [Rivers] was a great answer, but just the short answer. And then he retired.
“Was it going to be a draft pick? Honestly, I think Chris and I were thinking, somehow we were going to figure out how we were going to be able to draft the quarterback of our future. And then this thing came with Carson and it fell into our laps. And that’s the great thing about it, when it works that way, it almost makes you feel like it’s more meant to be because you can’t make this stuff up and you can’t manufacture it. “
Reich then paused and, again, put it on everyone, not just Wentz, to make it happen, saying, “Now it’s our job as a team, as an organization to make it work. And so, yeah, there’s no doubt we feel like Carson can be the long-term answer.”
Which is an idea, of course, we all had when those dots were connected in the first place.
STAFFORD IS PINCHING HIMSELF
While we’re on the subject of things written in the stars, let’s take a look now at how Matthew Stafford’s offseason has gone.
Coming off a slog of a 5–11 season in Detroit, and with another organizational overhaul in the offing, Stafford decided, finally, to ask for a trade. The Lions were receptive. He and the team worked together. It got done, without incident, and Stafford wound up landing where he most wanted to go. And when the deal was actually agreed to? He just so happened to be at the same resort in Cabo as the head coach of the team trading for him, Sean McVay.
So he got to toast the trade with his new boss in Mexico.
“It was one of those deals where you’re kind of down there pinching yourself, like this was meant to be,” Stafford said over the phone Friday night. “Whether it was or it wasn’t, that’s kind of how it felt. It was a really cool experience, something I know Kelly and myself will never forget. It was really cool to be able to celebrate it with him and [McVay’s fiancé] Veronika. It was one of those things I’ll never forget.
“And hopefully it’s one of those things we can look back on after winning a bunch of games, and hopefully a couple championships, and say that was a pretty cool moment in time.”
Stafford’s fit with the Rams, as I see it, best comes to life with how the trade came together.
On the team side, McVay’s personal drive to land Stafford—who he’d identified as his target right after the Rams’ season ended at Lambeau in January—drove the process. And that was because in Stafford, McVay saw an ideal triggerman for his scheme, with the 33-year-old’s ability to process, his pocket movement, his play urgency, his toughness and his ability to throw off platform the reasons why. McVay felt strongly enough about it to sign off at the franchise’s highest level, with owner Stan Kroenke, on giving up a lot to get him.
As for Stafford’s end of it, the Lions’ quarterback spent time in January studying different offenses to see where he might fit in, and because he had a casual relationship with McVay through his wife—Kelly Stafford’s brother, Chad Hall, and McVay were both star high school quarterbacks in Atlanta, and knew each other fairly well from that time—the Rams were of interest. He’d always liked the scheme from afar, and the tape only backed up his feeling that it would work for him.
“He does a great job of mixing tempos, mixing personnels, mixing formations,” Stafford said. “If I was playing defense against the Rams, it’d be a lot to look at, a lot to see, a bunch of different formations and some similar formations that you run a bunch of different plays out of. There’s quite a few ways to attack a defense. In the NFL, everybody runs similar schemes, but how you build them and call them is important and something that separates the good ones from the great ones.”
And when he and McVay talked through it, Stafford also got a pretty good look at how he’d fit into the program there.
“That was great,” Stafford said. “I hadn’t really spent a whole bunch of time with him before, and I got a chance to talk to him a little bit, loved his passion, loved his energy, really liked the way he talked about the game. We had a bunch of battles, whether he was in Washington, or here in L.A. over the past years, getting to rehash some of those games was fun.
“I just think it was one of those things where our personalities clicked, and that was exciting for me as a quarterback, knowing that I’m gonna be working with a guy that’s calling the plays and building the offense as closely as I am at the quarterback position.”
So what’s next for Stafford? With uncertainty surrounding the state of the Rams’, and every teams’, offseason program, the quarterback’s been in touch with his new teammates like Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. And while they haven’t gone out and thrown yet, Stafford promised that there are plans in place to “get a little creative to get out there and get some work done.”
Until then, his goal is to build up relationships like he did over 12 years in Detroit, and not overdramatize his arrival in L.A.
“I’m a piece to the puzzle like everybody else is,” he said. “Am I excited to be on a team that has won a bunch of games and been to a Super Bowl recently? Hell yeah. Any athlete would love that opportunity, to get into a situation like that. I’m definitely excited by it. But I know what my role is going to be. My role is going to be to play at a high level, to get our team, our offense, in the end zone as much as possible, and help lead these guys.”
All of which is to say, yup, Stafford is pretty excited to get going.
But as we talked about how perfect all this is—you can throw the fact that his high school buddy, Clayton Kershaw, happens to also be a star athlete in his new professional home, and that he and Kelly already had a place a couple hours away in Orange County—there was also an appreciation for the city and the team he’s leaving. And a pretty clear feeling that he’s thankful for their role in this.
“I don’t want it to be lost how important the Lions’ role was in that situation and that whole process,” he said. “They were incredible to me. I went to them and talked to them and we hashed out a plan. I’m not a social media guy. This was not going to come out from me, that I was seeking this. They obviously were gonna do whatever was best for them. And we wanted to make sure that everybody in that situation was taken care of.
“And I do have a lot of respect for the Lions and the Ford family and everybody in that organization, so I wanted it to be done the right way. They obviously were great to me, had a bunch of respect for me, and we honored each other’s wishes, went about our business, and when it’s all said and done Southern California, for the L.A. Rams, to be able to be their quarterback is something that’s special to me.”
He then added, “That’s nothing against where I spent the first 12 years of my career in Detroit, because I’ll always love that place as well. But it is an exciting new opportunity for me, the family, everybody, we’re excited about it.”
I think the Deshaun Watson news of this week freezes his trade market. And I can sum up why with two assumptions I feel fairly comfortable making.
1) The Texans would need a historic haul to justify letting him go.
2) Any other team will want clarity on this matter before yielding a historic haul.
And from there, I’ll say this: There’s no way to have a “take” on the allegations that Houston lawyer Tony Buzbee says 22 women are bringing in a slew of civil lawsuits without either a) indicting Watson, or b) not taking the allegations seriously enough. So I think all of us need to let this play out, and I think any team interested in trading for Watson, and there are a lot of them, will have to as well. In fact, I talked to a couple over the weekend that conceded this puts any pursuit of Watson on hold for the time being. Which, really, doesn’t change much, since Houston GM Nick Caserio has said to teams that have called varying versions of, “You can ask me about anybody but the quarterback.” This week, the Texans signed Tyrod Taylor and traded for Ryan Finley, and I saw the Taylor addition not as finding the future replacement for Watson, but more so building solid depth, giving Watson a veteran resource at the position, and building some holdout insurance into the roster. But all of that feels a little trivial right now.
In a lot of way, where things are with Watson, and Russell Wilson, is why I have no issue with the Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick signings. Because, really, what were Chicago and Washington going to do from here? Both were in on Stafford. The Bears kicked tires on Wentz, and Washington didn’t even go that far. Both teams were in the playoffs last year and have defenses with championship potential. And this, I think, would be the key: Neither Dalton nor Fitzpatrick preclude their teams from making another move at the position, should some opportunity pop up, be it in the draft or via trade. As for the money, here’s what the one-year deals look like.
• Dalton: $7.5 million to sign, $3 million base salary, up to $3 million in incentives tied to individual performance, playing time and playoff wins.
• Fitzpatrick: $6 million to sign, $3 million base salary, $1 million in per-game roster bonuses, up to $2 million in incentives tied to playing time, starts, wins, playoffs and statistical markers.
Dalton’s $10.5 million base pay ties him with Taysom Hill for 19th highest among quarterbacks; Fitzpatrick, at $9 million, is 21st. That leaves 11 teams paying quarterbacks less. Nine of those 11 (the Browns, Jets, Ravens, Bills, Cardinals, Giants, Bengals, Chargers and Dolphins) have first-round picks on rookie contracts. Which leaves the Jaguars, who are about to have one of those, and the Patriots, who could too. And that should illustrate where Washington and Chicago are, looking to lock down a starter they like (Washington targeted Fitzpatrick immediately after striking out on Stafford, and the Bears and Dalton’s old OC Bill Lazor had their eyes on Dalton going back to around then too), without giving up too much flexibility in the process. And Fitzpatrick and Dalton are plenty capable of leading teams in contention. So while I get the panic from those fan bases, I don’t really think it’s warranted.
I’m surprised Kenny Golladay is a Giant. And I’m surprised he’s one at the rate they landed him at—$18 million per year, mostly because the market Golladay expected cratered. It’s been no secret that things didn’t end well in Detroit. Golladay, a quiet, reserved type, had issues in 2020 that really hadn’t surfaced as much before, issues probably best illustrated by the star receiver missing a Saturday meeting, less than 24 hours before a game prior to his hip injury. There were some internal questions on whether or not he could’ve returned from the injury (he missed the last nine games of the year), and those sorts of questions can, obviously, create friction on both sides of the table. And all of that came after an altercation he had over the summer, which led to the police being called, an incident the league looked into. A couple things here helped Golladay overcome all this with the Giants. First, his agent got a letter the league wrote seven months ago clearing him completely, as the police had, in that incident, and declaring its investigation closed—the Lions actually helped in that process, and the letter was important mid-week. On top of that, the incident wasn’t an issue for Detroit; it came before the Lions offered Golladay a multi-year deal at a pretty significant number. Second, the Giants did a lot of homework. GM Dave Gettleman has ex-Lions exec Kyle O’Brien on his staff, and coach Joe Judge has close relationships with a decent number of Golladay’s Detroit coaches and teammates, and Judge canvassed both for intel. The third piece was Golladay’s free-agent visit—notable because visits generally don’t happen for top free agents in the NFL. The Giants spent a solid 24 hours with Golladay, from dinner on Thursday through a full day of meetings Friday. They wound up really liking him. He decided to stay another night in the area, went to dinner with Giants safety Jabrill Peppers and a few others, and on Saturday the deal was done. So here’s my read: Ownership has wanted a No. 1 receiver since Odell Beckham was traded, Gettleman wanted to get Daniel Jones that help, and Judge, while particular on who he’s bringing into the building, wants to get to a place where the culture he’s building can absorb some level of risk. And the truth is, after the Giants did all that work, it seemed like less of a risk anyway. The Giants’ own faith is reflected in what is a very strong deal. Basically, it assures the receiver $28 million over one year or $40 million over two if he doesn’t make it to a third year with the team. If he does, he’ll pull down $54 million over that period. And, again, I was surprised that the Giants and Golladay got here. But, really, I think it’s credit to the team (for being open-minded), to Golladay (for winning what was basically a job interview), and to his agent, Todd France, (for the contract) that they did.
Golladay’s deal is more impressive when you look at the rest of the receiver market. And I say that with the caveat that Chris Godwin and Allen Robinson getting tagged took two top earners off the market. Still, when you look at the top players available, you’ll see a lot of one-year deals (Will Fuller, JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Green, Marvin Jones) and that the biggest multi-year agreements (Corey Davis, Agholor, Curtis Samuel) landed between $11 million and $13 million per year. So … why? It’s pretty simple.
1) Again, Godwin and Robinson were removed from the party early.
2) The salary cap crunch affected the receiver position, like it did other positions.
3) It hit receivers harder because of the strength of the draft class.
Here’s the easiest way to tie those last two points together: Let’s say you’re a team that came into this offseason with an edge rusher need and a receiver need, and you were in a win-now position. Looking at the receiver class, you’d find high-end players like Ja'Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Rashod Bateman, and real depth behind them, where (like last year) the second-round group is nearly as enticing as the likely first-rounders. And then you look at the edge rushers, and you see athletes like Kwity Paye, Gregory Rousseau and Jayson Oweh, who need development. So what’s the smart play if you’re a contender? Probably to sign a free-agent edge rusher and draft a receiver, right? I really do think much of the issue receivers had out there was that simple.
The Niners really nailed it with Trent Williams. And this goes all the way back to Joe Staley—the team’s left tackle for a dozen years—retiring last April. That left San Francisco in a really difficult position, which made landing Williams, for a 2020 fifth-round pick and a 2021 third-rounder a massive win. Then, Williams played, at 32, like he had in his prime in Washington, and that left the Niners with more work to do, with his contract up and a no-franchise-tag provision being a part of it. They got one done last week (with the Chiefs giving them a real run for the left tackle), and the details of what was reported as a six-year, $138.06 million deal (which put Williams $10,000 past the NFL’s previously highest-paid tackle, David Bakhtiari, in APY) make it an even bigger win. We told you last week that the Niners were willing to go to $20 million per to keep Williams. The truth is, even with others bidding on him, they didn’t have to go much further than that. Check these numbers out …
• Williams gets $32.4 million in Year 1.
• The deal then averages $20.25 million over its first two years.
• And $20.25 million over its first three years.
• And $20.41 million over its first four years.
• And $21 million over its first five years.
Williams’s $33.06 million number in 2026 brings the average way up, and makes the deal look groundbreaking. The truth is, it’s not. It’s a really good deal for a guy who turns 33 in the summer. But it’s simply a market deal, not a market re-setter. Which, again, illustrates how San Francisco is winning here, and really has been since Staley retired, in managing a very important position.
I think Urban Meyer’s comments to the Jacksonville media last week highlight something, but it’s not what you’d think. Here’s what Meyer said about the free-agent process: “Yeah, that was awful. I don’t agree with it but no one asked my opinion. ... I guess in the old days you could bring them in and meet them, have dinner with them, you find out the football intellect, find out their character.” Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio did a nice job on Sunday of laying out why free agency works at a frenzied pace in football—too few players are truly unique to the next guy, so any free agent who wants a protracted process risks letting the market pass him by. Maybe having a week-long tampering period would fix that. But probably not, and I don’t sense any huge appetite in the league to make that happen. Which brings me to my takeaway here: This is why the work of scouts is so important. Both at the college and pro scouting level, their jobs have evolved over the years into part evaluator, part private investigator. And the best know their area of expertise beyond what can be seen on tape, because they’re able to leverage relationships and gather valuable information on who a player is, why his original team is letting him go and if there are any tripwires to look out for. That stuff is gold for teams this time of year, and it’s how the best at it check the boxes that Meyer’s referencing in what’s been lost as the pace of free agency has become more and more frenzied.
I hope you read what Buccaneers GM Jason Licht said to me last week. If you didn’t, here it is again: “I think head coach and quarterback are the two most important parts, keys, components of an organization. And you’ve got two guys that are kind of on the same timeline here. They want to win now. They’re not interested in rebuilds; they’re not interested in a slow burn. Bruce isn’t gonna be coaching and Tom isn’t going to be playing for another 10 years. You never know how long Tom’ll play—could play another five years, wouldn’t shock me. But they both want to win now. They both have the same mindset, the same goals.” And Tampa Bay, without question, has followed their lead organizationally. Forever, Bucs cap chief Mike Greenberg has been lauded for doing contracts in a balanced, pay-as-you go way that keeps the team out of cap jail (or cap hell, if you prefer that term), and that’s part of what allowed for the Brady pursuit last year. This year, the team has done a 180 on that—using void years to push cap charges past the years on players’ contracts. Between Brady ($24 million), Shaq Barrett ($3.75 million), Lavonte David ($3.6 million) and Rob Gronkowski ($5 million), there’s $36.35 million in cap charges lined up for years those four won’t on the team, and it’s certainly possible bringing guys like Ndamukong Suh and Leonard Fournette back could add to that bill. But you know what? It’s 100% worth it. If the Bucs have to eat it for a year down the line cap-wise, so be it. Getting to pursue another championship or two would matter more than responsible accounting to me, too.
I hope Isaiah Wilson has someone tell him what he needs to hear, and soon. Wilson was the Titans’ first-round pick last April. Over the summer, when he was supposed to be quarantining to protect himself and his teammates ahead of camp, he was busted partying at Tennessee State. Weeks later, at the end of camp, he was cited for DUI. After that, he was suspended for violating team rules, got sent home for the season and caught, again, partying in Miami on New Year’s Eve maskless, while his team was preparing for a playoff game. The Titans had clearly had enough—they packaged him with a 2022 seventh-round pick and traded him to Miami, and what the Dolphins unwrapped was the same lemon of a prospect that the Titans had left on the corner. Per the Miami Herald’s Adam Beasley …
• Wilson was late for his physical.
• Wilson was late for his orientation.
• Wilson skipped two optional workouts he’d committed to attend.
So the Dolphins cut him Friday, hours after more video of Wilson getting after it (in a non-football way) started popping up on social media again. Clearly, Wilson doesn’t get it, and it sure sounds like he needs someone to be the bad guy in his life and tell him that. Thing is, this really follows a pattern from Georgia that prompted plenty of teams to proceed cautiously when considering him in last year’s draft. Going through that file, one AFC college scouting director told me the info he had on Wilson went like this: “Major concerns about maturity, work ethic and love for football. Big, talented kid with a huge lazy streak and lack of urgency to work on his craft.” So this wasn’t unexpected, and these problems aren’t new. We’ll see if Wilson can work his way past them. This much, though, is for sure: He’s running out of chances to resuscitate a once-promising football future.
Two Bills’ signings further the point that Buffalo’s becoming an NFL destination. One was the decision by Emmanuel Sanders to sign a one-year deal there, which shows how veteran players view Buffalo as a contender and Josh Allen as a quarterback. The other was Mitch Trubisky, who’s choosing to go through a career rehab year in Western New York, seeing the chance to work behind Allen, and with Sean McDermott, Brian Daboll and Ken Dorsey, as his most appealing option—his version of what New Orleans was for Teddy Bridgewater a couple years ago. So, in summary, a place that used to be seen as free-agent Elba, and a place where the search to find a long-term replacement at quarterback for Jim Kelly lasted two decades, is now where veterans are going to gravy-train rings and where signal-callers are going to revive their stock. Pretty remarkable.
I have 10 more thoughts from the week that was. Here they are …
• Four teams came into last week with more to spend than anyone—the Jags, Jets, Colts and Patriots. Only Indianapolis wasn’t aggressive, and that they weren’t is a great compliment to what Ballard and Reich have built. All that money they had? Earmarked to lock up homegrown, foundational pieces like Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard.
• I think Patriots corner J.C. Jackson might be worth someone signing to an offer sheet. Last week, New England tendered him at the second-round level, meaning if another team inks him and the Patriots decline to match the offer, that team has to send a second-round pick to Foxboro. I think giving him a reasonable contract, and sending off the two, makes sense if a you’re a team that’s not wild about the draft class at corner.
• The Bengals’ movement at corner was interesting—they let William Jackson walk, and brought in Dallas’s Chidobe Awuzie and Pittsburgh’s Mike Hilton to replace him. Jackson will make $13.5 million per year in Washington. Awuzie and Hilton are getting $13.25 million per combined in Cincinnati. My sense is the Bengals saw Jackson as more of a No. 2 corner, which is where the logic in shuffling pieces like this would come in.
• The Ravens’ signing of Kevin Zeitler fits into an interesting trend where Baltimore has pounced on older, third-contract guys. Eric Weddle, Earl Thomas, Calais Campbell, Mark Ingram and Derek Wolfe are other examples of it. The reason? I have two theories. One ties to the comp pick formula, the other to the fact that there’s less competition for these types and, therefore, better prices for them. One thing I know for sure is it’s not an accident.
• The Texans’ moves for guys like Tyrod Taylor, Shaq Lawson, Christian Kirksey, Kamu Grugier-Hill and Marcus Cannon aren’t going to grab headlines. But the way I see it, Caserio’s building out some competition on his roster, which is a good place for a new program to start.
• Ditto with Meyer and Jacksonville. Beyond Shaquill Griffin, the Jags signed or traded for a lot of complementary pieces who have background with guys on the staff, which should help get the new program there off the ground.
• It’s a good sign that new Broncos GM George Paton didn’t overreach and give up a draft pick to reunite CB Kyle Fuller with his old DC from Chicago (Broncos coach Vic Fangio). Instead, he waited for the Bears to cut him, and got him for $5 million less than he’d been on the books for in 2021, which shows Paton’s understanding of the market.
• Smith-Schuster coming back is a big deal for a Pittsburgh offense that has high hopes for Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool at his position. But I’d still be concerned about the offensive line there, with Maurkice Pouncey retiring and Al Villanueva a free agent.
• Speaking of offensive linemen, the Raiders have created some voids to fill with trades sending Trent Brown (New England), Gabe Jackson (Seattle) and Rodney Hudson (Arizona) out of town. The team’s hope is a strong draft class on the offensive line will help plug the holes. But here’s one name to watch: Andre James. The Raiders are very high on their third-year center, and excited to give him his shot at replacing Hudson.
• One low-key signing I liked: Anthony Harris. The Vikings tagged him last year, and he had just a so-so season after that. That he turns 30 in the fall doesn’t help him either. But at his height, he was a very, very good safety in Minnesota, and Philly bringing him in to be the centerfielder in new DC Jonathan Gannon’s defense at $5 million for a year is a pretty nice gamble that could pay off big.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1) Tough loss from my Buckeyes the other day. But I can’t imagine reacting like some “fans” did to E.J. Liddell. I hope Liddell knows that the great, great majority of us who actually went to school there have his back on this—and know he had a great year.
2) That said, spring ball started on Friday!
3) It felt like the first round was a little tame this year, and then I saw a stat that said this was the most double-digit seeds to advance (nine) since the tournament went to 64 teams. Which proves that we all come in with expectations a little too high, and memories only of the huge upsets, and not the 20-point routs in Round 1.
4) I love a lot of things about LeBron James—he’s done amazing things where he’s from, and for a lot of people elsewhere too, and has been a model citizen and an incredible athlete to follow. That’s why I wish things like this silly MVP campaign he and the Lakers seem to be on (or at least were on before his injury) wouldn’t happen. He doesn’t come off as the most self-aware person in the world at times like this.
5) Chik-fil-A remains the winner of the Chicken Wars, FYI.
6) I finally started to take down the backyard rink on Sunday, and I guess that means spring is here. After Year 1, and as I’ve told you before, I’ve learned that it’s impossible to have a backyard rink without becoming Backyard Rink Guy.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
I don’t get the text message thing.
I’m with Prisco on the drafting part. Let’s slow down on Belichick not being central to the dynasty that was built there.
This is good.
… and this.
… but this, from the Patriots themselves, was the real winner.
Mickey Loomis 1, Everyone Else 0.
This is perfect. Payton is to NFL quarterbacks as Nick Saban is to fired coaches.
Not sure where to start with this.
If your response is to turn the clock back to 1985, then I’ve already won.
A lot of what we’ve heard early on in Meyer’s time in Jacksonville reflects how he carried himself early on at Ohio State. Which, given the results, is a decent sign.
Fantastic. And while we’re here, Kyle’s done a really nice job with his podcast.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
We’re just two weeks away from the start of the offseason program for the seven teams that have new coaches, and there’s still not a plan in place for how that’ll work, re: COVID-19. So I figured we could wrap up the column with two things I’ve heard on that front.
One, I’ve heard that a plan under consideration now would, at least in the early parts of these programs (if they take place), limit teams to having 20 players in the building at once, with the hope that the vaccine might open opportunities to do more later in the spring. And two, I’ve heard that while the NFL can’t make anyone take the vaccine, it’s possible that they could leave stricter protocols (masks, etc.) in place for those who aren’t vaccinated.
All of this is likely to be a part of the upcoming (virtual) Annual Meeting, slated for March 30 and 31. Obviously, there’ll be a lot to work through there.