The Daily Briefing Thursday, December 14, 2017

AROUND THE NFL 

Everyone is putting a happy face on events in Dallas on Wednesday as The Commish secures power through 2024.  Jarrett Bell of USA TODAY:

Jerry Jones sees some measure of victory in the structure of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s new contract, in which 90% of the five-year, $200 million deal is tied to performance-based incentives.

“If Roger comes in and knocked it out of the ballpark, he’ll really be rewarded,” Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner, told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday. “You’ve got to hope that he has that kind of performance.

“There are no easy layups here on his bonuses. He’s got to come in there and lead the division in high scoring.”

Pardon the mixed-used sports metaphors, but Jones – who so passionately fought to delay or prevent an extension for Goodell – seemed somewhat pleased that the new contract that will expire in 2024 includes the structure with heavy, non-guaranteed bonuses and that a new form of oversight that will include most of the league’s owners will determine if the incentives are met.

Goodell’s previous deal, which has two years remaining, included a much higher percentage of guaranteed money.

“Those nuances were very important,” Jones said during a 10-minute chat before he headed into an   afternoon session among owners gathered for one day of league meetings. “And what was also important was for other owners to be a part of the process.”

Jones spoke for about 40 minutes during the morning session, according to one team owner who contended, “There was a lot of bluster.”

Still, there’s a sense of relief that the matter has reached a conclusion with the contract that was finalized last week, although there’s potential for more internal strife in the future regarding the bonuses. Specifics of how the process will proceed to be determined, as the incentives will be based on factors such as league revenues and TV ratings, in addition to more subjective dimensions such as how the Commission handles off-the-field controversies.

To this point, the league’s six-member compensation committee, now headed by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, negotiated the Commissioner’s contract and determined whether incentives were struck. Jones was concerned that Goodell appointed the compensation committee chairman, who in turn selected others to the committee.

“Just by the nature of it, if you have one group set it up,” Jones said, “it’s nice to have another group determine how to execute it.”

The owners will set up a committee, probably by the NFL spring meetings, and include input from existing groups to evaluate the bonuses in what Goodell sees as his last contract.

 There’s a certain subjectivity to the process as Jones maintained that it’s possible that if every owner had an individual scorecard, no two scores would be identical.

“In a word, it’s accountability,” Jones added. “Not suggested accountability, but real accountability.”

The Commish says everything is hunky dory:

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says he has a “great” relationship with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and that disagreements are part of the process of trying to make the league stronger.

“That’s how we operate in the league. We have different views that make us stronger,” Goodell said at the Winter League Meeting in Texas on Wednesday. “I respect that, I respect Jerry, I respect everyone else in that room. They all have strong views about the way we do things, and I think that’s made us successful.”

Jones said some of the disagreements he’s had with Goodell stemmed from a desire to see the league make certain changes moving forward.

“I know how much Roger Goodell loves the National Football League and he should love it even more right now,” Jones said. “He does love this league, there’s no question of that in my mind. He’s been very good to league.

“As with any organization of any type whether it be business, social or otherwise, you have to evolve and make changes. And frankly this has been about.”

Goodell’s new contract, which expires in March 2024, will be his final extension with the league, NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart confirmed to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport at the Winter League Meeting on Wednesday.

Lockhart added that Goodell will spend time helping the league identify his potential successor at commissioner over the next seven years.

“The job changes,” Goodell said about his stint as commissioner on Wednesday. “I think the challenges are different … I think there is a limit to how many years that you should serve in this, but that’s a determination that’s made, obviously, with the ownership and also by yourself and your family. And that’s something that we’ve done. And I’m prepared and ready to go.”

Goodell signed a five-year contract extension with the league last week, according to a memo sent to NFL owners from Compensation Committee. In the memo, the Compensation Committee stated the contract “has been signed by the Commissioner and by [Falcons owner] Arthur Blank, on behalf of the League entities.”

Goodell, 58, succeeded Paul Tagliabue in September of 2006. He first joined the league as an intern back in 1982.

“I haven’t made any determinations,” Goodell said about the next six years. “This is something that I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to the challenges. I think our league is in a great position. We obviously have challenges just like any other industry. And we’re excited about addressing this as a league, and I think we’re doing that from a position of strength.”

Charles Robinson of YahooSports.com claims victory for Jerry Jones:

The fact is, Goodell will end up making somewhere between $100 million and $200 million down the   stretch run of his career as NFL commissioner, which is expected to conclude in 2024. But he’ll do so under an immense bonus structure that is controlled by the owners on the compensation committee, a group whose chairman, in a significant change, will now be installed by the owners and not the commissioner.

In essence, Goodell will no longer have the power to name the chairman of the committee that holds his salary in its hands. With that tweak, Goodell’s paycheck will be a year-to-year bonus bonanza completely resting in the hands of owners on a committee that he can’t influence. When only 10 percent of your contract is guaranteed and the rest relies on you proving your worth, that’s a massive deal.

It’s exactly what gives Goodell the incentive to listen and implement whatever Jones and his fellow owners want. Which means all that talk about Goodell being commissioner “of the game” and not “for the owners” just went out the window. At the end of the day, Goodell’s money will be tied to the health and performance of the NFL. And the health and performance of the league will be dictated by the owners, who will lean on Goodell to make changes and decisions the group sees fit.

That’s exactly what Jones wanted. An infrastructure that puts more of the influence over the commissioner’s paycheck in the hands of the entire ownership group. That’s why Jones was grinning Wednesday. He won the battle. He went at Goodell and a majority of the other NFL owners with a singular message: To move more control of this league into the hands of the billionaire fraternity and put the commissioner into a space where he will feel pressured to answer to the franchises that make his job possible. It’s a campaign that is getting underway, from the sound of it, with changes coming to the NFL constitution and an open debate about some of the commissioner’s powers. That may very well mean some cuts in the league office, too, with senior-level positions being eliminated by the dozens.

The NFL has already extended more than 80 retirement packages to a swath of highly paid employees in an effort to cut back a bloated balance sheet in the league office, according to one league source who spoke with Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. That movement for a slimmed-down executive branch is expected to continue in the coming years, the source said, adding that portions of the disciplinary budget could also take a hit. More specifically, the league is expected to review the NFL’s role in player investigations – with special emphasis on the commissioner’s involvement – and potentially curtail some of the efforts in hopes of beating back the massive legal billing that has mounted in recent years.

As the source framed the focus, “There needs to be fewer ‘lawyer layers’ ” in the league office.

Jones seemed to relay part of that message. Though he seemed to take issue with the Ezekiel Elliott suspension being his sole reason for striking out at Goodell, Jones instead painted it more as a problem with the investigative process as a whole.

“We all know that we’ve had problematic aspects to our discipline [and] our investigations,” Jones said. “We all know that those have been there. What is a misnomer is that I’ve known Zeke the better part of two years. I’ve known Roger Goodell for 30. I’ve known the rest of the people in that [ownership] room for 30 years. I know them a lot better than I do [Elliott], and we all know I wasn’t there [when Elliott was accused of domestic violence]. And you weren’t there. Nobody was there. Roger wasn’t there when that happened with Zeke. … The thing that I probably had the biggest issue [with] was how we got to the point to where that kind of decision could be made [by Goodell]. It’s how we got there and the circumstances were there that I want to talk about. We’re going to get to do that in that period of time when we’re talking about the commissioner’s responsibility and the constitution.”

When Jones uses the phrase “commissioner’s responsibility,” he’s referring to the commissioner’s power. Specifically, the power to unilaterally act on issues without the dialogue of owners. Whether that’s discipline or protests during the national anthem or marketing or hiring a slew of executives, Jones is trying to pull back on the ability for the league office to operate a fiefdom that doesn’t fully answer to the owners. And that’s where this entire campaign will go next.

At one point Wednesday, Jones even praised the entire schism over Goodell’s contract for the one thing it provided: an entry point to change the league’s structure. As Jones put it Wednesday, the NFL is going through some turbulent times with players and fans and viewers. The politics and debate around the game are changing. Now the league – and its constitution – have to change with it. And in Jones’ mind, the people who need to shape that change are the owners. Not the commissioner.

The owners are “the most qualified people I know to set the course … for the future of this league,” he said. “That’s going to take some constitutional changes. One of the things that we’ve agreed to – and this process did or didn’t influence it – but we’ve agreed to really address this league for some constitutional changes. … There’s nobody that doesn’t see the need for changes in the NFL in several areas. We’re doing a lot of things good. But there’s some areas we need to change. It’s an antiquated constitution, an antiquated situation as to the power of the commissioner – this will address that.”

– – –

Dan Graziano of ESPN.com fails to detect any interest in NFL ownership circles to downsize Thursday night football:

It’s Thursday again, which means there’s an NFL game on TV, and it’s probably one that a lot of people aren’t going to like.

Forget the fact that this week’s teams are out-of-contention messes starting backup quarterbacks whose fans are more focused on the 2018 draft than the standings. The Colts-Broncos matchup is just this week’s Thursday Night Football face — the ugly final 2017 edition of TNF — a nettle we won’t have to fuss with again until next September.

Regardless of who plays or how good they are, the teams that play Thursday night always have players who aren’t healthy enough to play or aren’t at full strength because they just played Sunday and four days isn’t enough recovery time. And it’s a certainty at this point that some player or players — most likely on the losing team — will complain after the game about what a travesty it is, how it shows that the league doesn’t care about player safety, how it’s all just a business, etc.

Fair points all. If it were all about player health and safety, there wouldn’t be Thursday night games. The NFL says the injury rates on Thursdays are in line with (or better than) those of Sunday and Monday games, but that’s a semantic argument. It doesn’t take into account those who can’t answer the bell for the game but could if they had three more days to get ready. And it doesn’t take into account the long-term toll that playing a game on a short week of preparation can have on players’ bodies. You don’t have to be a doctor, a physical therapist or a psychiatrist to figure out that it would be better for NFL players to get six days off between games than three. Especially by this point in the season, when they’re all battered and bruised from the long season anyway.

But that’s the thing, right? It isn’t all about player health and safety. There’s another consideration, and you don’t have to be an economist or an advertiser or a network TV executive to know what that is either. It’s money, of course. The reason the league plays on Thursday night is that it draws immense financial benefit from doing so — at least $500 million over the last two seasons. Not only does the league’s own TV network benefit from a subscription standpoint by televising a live event once a week, the league has in recent years managed to sell the broadcast rights to Thursday night games to NBC, CBS and Amazon, so it’s getting a double benefit for this product.

So we arrive at the heart of the matter. As a potential collective bargaining matter, Thursday Night Football is a microcosm of the tug-of-war between the concepts of (A) revenue generation and (B) player health and safety. You’re naïve if you think (A) doesn’t matter, and you’re probably overly cynical if you think (B) it doesn’t. The discussion gets oversimplified when someone frames the goals as mutually exclusive. If your question is whether the players can succeed in doing away with Thursday Night Football in the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations, the answer isn’t “yes” or “no.” It’s that it depends on how important it is to them.

The comparable high-profile issue from the 2011 negotiations is, of course, the personal conduct policy. One of many things the body of players told union leadership it was interested in during those negotiations was neutral arbitration for discipline, but when it came up in negotiations, the players learned that the owners and the league office weren’t interested in offering that unless the players were willing to give significantly more on the revenue split. So when the NFL Players Association went back to its members and asked, “Is neutral arbitration worth another 2 percent or 3 percent off the revenue split?” the answer, of course, came back, “Heck no,” because for the vast majority of players the personal conduct policy will never be a problem.

The players and their union get ripped in the court of public opinion for “giving the commissioner that power” when someone such as Tom Brady or Ezekiel Elliott runs afoul of the policy, because those cases are high-profile and people like to oversimplify. The reality is that the players decided that wasn’t a hill on which they wanted to die, and they are much happier with the relaxed offseason work rules, the expansion of post-career health care and the injury guarantees in contracts they got from those negotiations.

So, fast-forward to this next round of CBA talks — the current CBA runs through the 2020 season — and project what will matter to each side. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the players want to talk about eliminating Thursday night games. And let’s further posit that the league still likes Thursday games for financial reasons — that its broadcast partners haven’t grown convinced that football is on too many nights a week and should be cut back.

Hypothetically, the owners respond, “No, those games make us all (owners and players!) too much money. If you want those gone, we will need major financial concessions.” If that happens, what do the players do? Do they say, “Yes, Thursday night games are so odious that we’re willing to give financial concessions to make them go away.” Probably not. But then a negotiation takes place. “If you want to keep Thursday games, what can we do to make them more sensitive to player health and safety? Greater reductions in practice time? A shorter regular season? An extra bye week? No expanded playoffs?”

The point is, even if everyone gets together and agrees Thursday night games are the pits, that doesn’t mean they’ll be going away anytime soon. It’s not going to be its own issue in the next round of negotiations — only one part of a big sliding scale of issues around which discussions will be had and concessions made.

And yes, after this latest Thursday night game, some player or coach is going to talk about how wrong it all is that they have to play on Thursdays. And it’ll get a big headline.

But once you hear the inevitable question that follows: “What are the chances the players can get this thing killed?” — know that no one has the answer yet, and that it will depend on what it’s worth to the players. It would probably have to be a lot.

NFC NORTH

GREEN BAY

Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com on the impending return of AARON RODGERS:

Coach Mike McCarthy doesn’t want the Packers to have “a bunch of false confidence” just because Aaron Rodgers is back.

Yes, the Packers’ locker room was abuzz on Wednesday after Rodgers began preparations for his return Sunday at the Carolina Panthers after missing nearly two months because of his broken right collarbone. But the quarterback stressed it will take more than just his return to get the Packers into the playoffs.

“Hopefully it gives a lift to some of the guys, but I’m not coming back to save this team,” Rodgers said. “I’m coming back to play quarterback the way I know how to play it. Hopefully, we all raise the level of our play collectively and find a way to win these three games.”

NFC SOUTH

ATLANTA

The Falcons founding player Tommy Nobis has passed away.  The AP:

Tommy Nobis, the first player drafted by the expansion Atlanta Falcons and a hard-hitting middle linebacker who was never fully recognized for his talents on a struggling franchise that failed to make the playoffs during his long career, died Wednesday. He was 74.

The team said he died at his suburban Atlanta home after an extended illness with his wife of more than 50 years, Lynn, at his side. Nobis was among hundreds of ex-NFL players who struggled with physical and cognitive ailments after their careers ended, having played in an era when no one paid much attention to the lingering impact of concussions nor thought twice about groggily going back on the field after a shot to the head.

When the Falcons reached the Super Bowl last season, his wife told the Houston Chronicle she wasn’t sure if Nobis had any idea what his former team had accomplished. 

CAROLINA

When it comes to rushing TDs, QB CAM NEWTON dominates among QBs and his numbers stand up well against RBs.  This from Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is one of the greatest rushing quarterbacks in NFL history. But when it comes specifically to running for touchdowns, Newton isn’t just great compared to other quarterbacks. He’s even great compared to running backs.

Newton has five rushing touchdowns so far this season. And he’s had at least five rushing touchdowns every season of his career, which began in 2011. How rare is that? Newton is the only player in the NFL with at least five rushing touchdowns in each of the last seven seasons. Not the only quarterback — the only player.

Only one running back, Mark Ingram, even has six seasons with five or more rushing touchdowns since 2011. Four running backs — LeGarrette Blount, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray — have reached the end zone at least five times in five of the last seven seasons.

Newton has 53 rushing touchdowns in his NFL career. Only Lynch and McCoy have scored more rushing touchdowns than Newton since 2011. Newton’s 53 rushing touchdowns are the most for any quarterback in NFL history, 10 more than second-place Steve Young. He runs for touchdowns like no other quarterback ever has, and like few running backs have.

– – –

Is CB CAPTAIN MUNNERLYN upset about his planned role on Sunday?  Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:

The Panthers are going to need their entire secondary to be sharp Sunday, since they’re expecting to see a fresh Aaron Rodgers.

But one member might be a little grumpy about his role in it.

According to Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer, Munnerlyn left practice Wednesday because he was unhappy about his role in the Panthers game plan. Munnerlyn referred questions about his departure to coach Ron Rivera, who said it was “personal” but declined further comment.

The Panthers brought the veteran nickel cornerback back this offseason with a four-year deal, as part of their get-the-band-back together strategy. But while Munnerlyn has value in their nickel package, they’re also using other personnel groupings which don’t feature him as much. He’s mentioned confusion about his role previously this year.

Munnerlyn seemed to dispute the report on Twitter yesterday.

Captain Munnerlyn

@captain_41

Wow   so people just start to make up story’s smh come on people who came up with this one 

Regardless, he’s playing fewer than 50 percent of the snaps this season, which he didn’t expect when he came back.

The Panthers have enough to worry about with Rodgers this week, so Rivera can’t let any potential issues gain traction.

TAMPA BAY

The DB was chatting with some NFL insiders yesterday – and they brought up a comparison between third-year QB JAMEIS WINSTON and another first overall pick in QB MATTHEW STAFFORD of the Lions who was not beloved at the same stage of his career for much the same reason – spotty play and nagging injury.

And now, yet another first overall pick QB, David Carr, weighs in:

Over the weekend, it was brought to the football world’s attention that there’s tension in Tampa Bay between quarterback Jameis Winston and head coach Dirk Koetter. Even though Winston has since denied the rift — about the offense’s poor performances this season — with his head coach, there’s definitely some trouble in the water. And let me remind you that the Buccaneers fired Lovie Smith just to keep Koetter as Winston’s guy in the organization.

Honestly, I get why there’s frustration in the building. While Winston has talent, leadership ability (although that is not always delivered well) and a desire to win, the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draftlacks in decision-making, accuracy and knowledge of situational football. In his first two NFL seasons, Winston threw a total of 33 interceptions and didn’t complete more than 61 percent of his passes in either year. During “Hard Knocks” in the 2017 preseason, we saw this issue come to the fore once again when Koetter got after Winston on the sideline:

“Jameis, you’re f—–‘ playing a great game. You’re playing a great game. And then your greed takes over. If this is real football, that’s so f—–‘ stupid. … You’re so much better than that. You’re so much better.”

Four months later, nothing’s changed. The Bucs were one of the most hyped-up teams in the preseason. Now, Winston’s inconsistency has defined the Bucs’ 4-9 record. The quarterback — who also missed three weeks with a shoulder injury — is completing just 62.6 percent of his passes (19th in the NFL), with a 14:8 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating of 89.7 (18th). Even with all of the weapons at his disposal (Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard), the Bucs have struggled to get into the end zone (23rd in scoring).

Winston’s lack of on-field growth under Koetter might lead to an organizational makeover far before the Super Bowl is played in Tampa Bay in 2021. If Winston doesn’t show improvement over the final three weeks of this season, with both parties not seeing eye to eye, something’s got to change, and it’s likely Koetter will be the first to go (possibly after this season). Winston will get another chance to improve in these aspects under a new coach/mentor, but he must do it quickly.

Winston will be on his rookie contract through 2018 (with a fifth-year option in 2019). I think the Bucs will give him one year with a new coach to prove he’s their franchise quarterback for the long haul. For Winston to get rid of old habits and make the changes that’ll take him to the next level, he’ll need to work with someone whose offensive scheme is structured. Winston’s a solid quarterback, but he will never be great until his situational football is better than his physical play.

Winston’s running out of time. If there’s not a noticeable improvement, he could have a new home before too long.

So here are some numbers from the first three seasons of the career of Carr, Stafford and Winston:

                               W-L                   YDS      Comp%     YPA    TDs     INTs    Rating

Carr, 2002-04        15-29 (44 GP)   8,136       56.8         6.75      34        42       72.5           

Stafford, 2007-09  13-16 (29 GP)    7,840       59.8        6.90      60        37       84.7           

Winston, 2015-17  17-25 (42 GP)  10,607        60.3         7.41     64        41       86.2           

Pretty good comparison between Stafford and Winston.

NFC WEST

ARIZONA

The ADRIAN PETERSON signing has been a mixed bag for the Cardinals, and now it looks like its 2016 grade will be incomplete. NFL.com’s Marc Sessler:

Will we see Adrian Peterson again this season? That prospect remains in doubt.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians told reporters Wednesday that he has “no idea” if the veteran running back will return after missing the past two games with a neck injury, per the team’s official website.

Peterson won’t require surgery, but needs more time to heal after tweaking his neck in a Week 12 victory over the Jaguars. In his absence, Kerwynn Williams has plowed for 170 yards off 36 carries and looked especially spry against the Rams two Sundays ago.

The 6-7 Cardinals rest at farthest reaches of the NFC playoff picture. Barring a handful of teams vanishing into a time-altering vortex, the end is near for Arizona.

Whether Peterson returns for another season, though, remains a mystery for the offseason.

AFC WEST

KANSAS CITY

Adam Teicher of ESPN.com looks at Saturday’s big game:

When the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers last parted, the last thing on anyone’s mind was that the distant rematch between the teams would carry such big stakes.

The Chiefs beat the Chargers 24-10 then, in Week 3 in Los Angeles, to raise their record to 3-0 while the Chargers fell to 0-3. A week later, the Chiefs won and the Chargers lost again, stretching Kansas City’s lead over L.A. to four games.

The fortunes for both teams have reversed dramatically since, giving Saturday’s rematch at Arrowhead Stadium (8:25 p.m. ET, NFL Network) significant implications in the AFC West race. The Chiefs and Chargers are both 7-6 overall and tied for the division lead with three regular-season games remaining.

“This is about as big as it gets for a regular-season game,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “Division opponent, tied for first, only a couple games left. The ramifications are huge. It doesn’t get any bigger than this.”

The AFC West standings were a topic on the agenda at the Chiefs’ first team meeting of the week.

“I mention those things every once in a while,” Reid said.

But he didn’t need to. The Chiefs’ once-commanding lead in the AFC West dwindled quickly and the   Chiefs by last week were tied with both the Raiders and Chargers for first place.

“I think the players, they knew that,” Reid said. “We always say if you’re in the last quarter of the season or so and you’re within shooting distance, you get to the month of December and you’re in the mix, then every game becomes very important.”

The Chargers are 7-2 since their slow start. They’ve won four straight, three by at least 17 points.

Meanwhile the Chiefs broke a four-game losing streak with last week’s 26-15 win against the Raiders. They led 26-0 heading into the fourth quarter, giving them something positive to work with heading into their most important game of the season.

“The statisticians, if you talk to them, they’ll tell you there’s no such thing as momentum,” Reid said. “But it doesn’t hurt to play well and come off a game like that. You also know at this level that you’ve got to bring it every week, every practice and every play you’ve got to do those things. A lot of hard work goes into it.”

AFC NORTH

PITTSBURGH

Steelers WR JuJu SMITH-SCHUSTER is ready to continue playing just the way he always has despite his suspension.  Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com:

— JuJu Smith-Schuster is back from his one-game suspension and ready to be the Pittsburgh Steelers’ X factor against the New England Patriots on Sunday.

Even if that means more big hits 

“I’m not going to change my game,” Smith-Schuster said Wednesday 

The rookie receiver acknowledged that he has to be more careful after his vicious Week 13 block resulted in a concussion to Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cost Smith-Schuster a game check.

 Smith-Schuster said he regrets taunting Burfict by standing over him after he knocked him to the ground with an upper-body shot.

 “That’s not me,” he said.

Smith-Schuster didn’t realize Burfict, a Steelers nemesis in recent years, was the player he hit until he looked down.

“‘Oh, wow, that’s Burfict,'” Smith-Schuster said he thought to himself. “And I looked at him and I was [like], ‘Oh, damn.’ That’s when I realized, ‘Here we go.'”

Teammates and coaches have lauded the rookie’s imposing blocking since Week 2, when he took Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith to the ground. Smith-Schuster appreciates that support and plans to give the Steelers what they want.

“I am still playing physical,” Smith-Schuster said. “That’s not gonna stop my game. And that’s how I’ve always been, since I was a kid. Keep moving forward, I am still going to make those blocks. Yes, I am going to be more careful. I’m going to aim for the shoulder and lower, just be more protective of the game.

Smith-Schuster, who turned 21 last month, is one of the most colorful personalities in the locker room, which he showed by tweeting a picture of himself wearing a Steelers helmet while watching last weekend’s Steelers-Ravens game on television.

He said he took off the helmet only for bathroom breaks and commercials in order to “stay locked in.”

Now he’s coming for teammate Antonio Brown, who yelled from his locker after the Bengals game that “Touchdown Brown” would cover his fine. Brown suffered a concussion on a hit from Burfict during the final minute of a playoff victory in January 2016.

“He still owes me for my fine,” said Smith-Schuster, who lost 1/17th of his $465,000 salary, or $27,352. “I’m going to try to get him [Wednesday].”

– – –

Kevin Patra of NFL.com reminds us that the Steelers did not have the real RB Le’VEON BELL the last time they confronted the Patriots:

The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers faced the New England Patriots, Le’Veon Bell played just 11 snaps in a 36-17 blowout loss in the AFC Championship at Gillette Stadium.

The running back hurt his groin early in the playoffs and re-injured it after six carries in the defeat. Sunday is a redemption for the dual-threat Bell.

“I just felt like I missed an opportunity to get to a Super Bowl,” Bell said Wednesday, via ESPN.com. “When this year came around, we saw the schedules and everything, I knew had another opportunity if I was being healthy and playing the Pats again. It’s good. The opportunity is here.”

Bell called it a “terrible feeling” watching his team from the sideline last postseason. During the Super Bowl, the back told NFL Network the Steelers could have beaten the Pats if he was healthy.

Bell looks forward to a chance to make amends as the Steelers could put a stranglehold on the AFC’s No. 1 seed with a win at Heinz Field.

“This is the game everyone has been waiting to see,” Bell said. “It’s the No. 1 and 2 teams in the AFC going at it head-to-head. This is obviously a game that a lot of people, even before the season started, probably circled on their calendars. I’ll definitely embrace the game. The Patriots are the team that’s always in the hunt for the Super Bowl.”

While Antonio Brown is the jet fuel propelling Pittsburgh to breathtaking victories, Bell has been the engine, churning out yards and keeping drives alive. The running back ranks first in the NFL in touches (358 — 71 more than the next closest player), carries (283), rushing yards (1,105) and scrimmage yards (1,684). Bell has 100-plus scrimmage yards in five consecutive games.

While he compiled just 20 yards due to injury in the last meeting with New England, in his two other tilts versus Bill Belichick’s defense Bell averaged 144 scrimmage yards and 4.25 yards per carry.

“I think it’s gonna be more so of whoever executes better,” Bell said of Sunday’s tilt. “They got players who can make plays. We have players who can make plays. It depends on who makes the plays and when they make them.

“I want to make sure I’m the guy always making a play when the opportunity presents itself.”

 

AFC SOUTH

TENNESSEE

Last week, QB TOM BRADY of the Patriots apologized for being surly.  This week, it is QB MARCUS MARIOTA of the Titans:

If the NFL had a Lady Byng Trophy for most gentlemanly player, Marcus Mariota would be a yearly finalist.

The Tennessee Titans quarterback apologized on Wednesday for his curt post-game press conference following Sunday’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

“Real quick, I want to say I am sorry for the way handled the press conference,” Mariota said, via the team’s official website. “I know not everybody that was there is here. But I was rude and inappropriate, and I just want to say I apologize for it.

“It’s funny, because I got an earful from my mom. That’s how I was raised and I appreciate you guys for understanding.”

First off, shout out to Mariota’s mother. She raised a good man.

Second, Mariota’s press conference on Sunday was about as “rude” as asking your neighbor to turn down the loud music. Sure, the Titans’ quarterback said he was “pissed off,” which could have triggered his disappointed mother, but nothing Mariota said was outrageous for a quarterback who didn’t play particularly well in a loss.

More important for the struggling Titans than Mariota’s otherworldly manners is the quarterback’s left knee, which he sprained in the loss. He was a full participant in practice, and coach Mike Mularkey said his signal-caller looked normal.

“We were going to let him do as much as he wanted, and he took a normal amount of reps,” Mularkey said. “It was good to see.”

As for the press conference apology, the coach likes his quarterback’s emotion after a loss.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing (he was upset),” Mularkey said. “I like that about a lot of guys on our team. I can tell you a couple of years ago it wasn’t emotional after a loss. It is now. And I think it’s a good thing the way this team is reacting.”

Now the Titans need to turn those emotions into wins to keep their playoff plans alive.

AFC EAST

NEW YORK JETS

WR JEREMY KERLEY is back with the Jets after getting a 4-game suspension about which he claims no knowledge.  Lauren Theisen of Deadspin.

Jets receiver Jeremy Kerley is back at practice after serving a four-game suspension for a positive PED test. At the time of his ban, Kerley said he was “shocked,” as he had never knowingly taken steroids.

A month later, Kerley’s just as confused, though the experience has apparently led him to explore the possibility of realms beyond our own.

I think I need to reread A Christmas Carol, because I completely missed any chapters where Scrooge takes a drug test. 

THIS AND THAT

 RGIII

Like Social Justice Activist Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III is a once highly-regarded QB with a now middlin’ resume’ who has not been signed.  But he says he had a couple of offers, which he declined.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

Robert Griffin III hasn’t found a new NFL home since the Browns cut him in the offseason, but he says he could have played for the Cardinals and Ravens.

“I had an offer from Arizona, and also from Baltimore,” Griffin said on ESPN’s SC6.

So why did he turn down those offers? Griffin said the Cardinals had too many quarterbacks on the roster and he didn’t think he would get any practice time as a fourth-stringer. And he said Baltimore made him an offer right before its preseason opener against his original team, Washington, and wanted him to start in that game. Griffin said he didn’t think he would have adequate time to prepare in the Ravens’ offense, so he turned it down.

Griffin understood that he might have been turning down his only offers.

“I had interest in the offseason,” Griffin said. “It just wasn’t the right fit and I had to make that decision for myself to say, ‘Look, if I don’t accept this offer, there’s a chance I won’t play football this year.’ And I would talk to my family, and I was OK with that, OK with the fact that it might happen.”

Griffin did say, however, that he would love to sign with a team right now and hopes to do so.

BROADCAST NEWS

ESPN buys a bunch of FOX assets, including the regional sports networks.  Peter Kafka of Recode.net:

For the past couple years, ESPN has been stuck with a seemingly unsolvable problem: It is on the hook for expensive sports deals that keep getting more expensive. At the same time, its subscriber base, and the revenue that generates from subscription fees and ad sales, has been melting.

ESPN’s proposed solution is a surprising one: It is going to put itself on the hook for even more expensive sports deals.

That’s what will happen if Disney gets the go-ahead for the $66 billion Fox deal it wants to make. Because included in the deal are the rights to Fox’s big regional sports networks.

Fox has 22 RSNs across the country, which have deals with 44 pro sports teams to deliver local games to cable TV subscribers that carry the networks.

If you want to watch a Yankees game in New York, you do via it Fox’s YES network; if you want to watch a Timberwolves game in Minnesota, you do it via Fox Sports North.

The deals to secure that programming cost a ton of money. And just like the national programming deals, they keep getting more expensive. Up until now, it has been worth it for Fox. Pay TV subscribers pay more for RSNs — generally, whether they want them or not — than any other network. Except for ESPN.

But if locking into big-ticket sports deals at a time when pay TV subscribers are swapping out big subscription packages for skinny ones, or simply dropping subscriptions altogether, is a problem for ESPN, why sign up for more of the same?

Some of the commentary I’ve seen suggests that adding Fox’s sports deals to ESPN is good for ESPN Plus, the digital subscription service it will (finally) launch this spring.

But that doesn’t make any sense.

None of the valuable stuff Fox owns can go into ESPN Plus, for the same reason none of the valuable stuff ESPN owns will be in ESPN Plus — it’s all tied up in pay TV deals, and will be for years to come. The stuff you’ll see on ESPN Plus will be the stuff ESPN doesn’t think is worth putting on TV. Adding more leftovers from Fox won’t make it much more appetizing.

There are more compelling arguments. For instance, buying up the Fox sports channels means those local deals won’t end up in the hands of someone else, like Comcast’s NBCUniversal*, or a theoretical tech bidder like Amazon or Apple.

Another decent argument: Scale. Adding dozens of teams and territories should make life better for ESPN’s sales force, who can tell advertisers they can deliver even more valuable sports eyeballs. In theory, it could also give ESPN more leverage when it comes to negotiating future rights deals.

In other words, if you’re going to be in sports TV, why not really be in sports TV, and go all in? There are lots of hardcore sports fans in the U.S. (and around the world, where Disney will also be buying some Fox sports assets). So why not direct more of their dollars your way?

Except: Local sports aren’t different than national sports, which aren’t different than anything else on TV — they’re having a hard time hanging onto eyeballs. And if you’re the kind of person who wants to pay for TV but doesn’t want to pay for ESPN, you won’t want to pay for a Fox sports channel, either.

So the most logical argument would be that at some point, the number of people who want to pay for sports will stabilize, and that number will be pretty big, and sports rights deals will eventually rationalize to fit that number.

Fair enough! Except that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t think so:

John Ourand

@Ourand_SBJ

Source says Murdoch has not been high on the RSNs for several years. Same old media story: rights fees rising at a faster rate than affiliate revenue.

10:33 AM – Dec 5, 2017

 8 8 Replies   36 36 Retweets   33 33 likes

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And if Rupert Murdoch is selling, I’d think very, very carefully about what I’m buying.

 

 

2018 DRAFT

Todd McShay of ESPN.com offers a Mock Draft with SAM DARNOLD and JOSH ROSEN, a pair of LA-based QBs going 1-2:

1. Cleveland Browns

Sam Darnold, QB, USC*

The Browns have a really good chance to have two picks in the top 10 of this draft. With the No. 1 pick, they must address their QB situation. I believe Rosen is the more polished quarterback right now, but Darnold has the higher ceiling at the next level. We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on Darnold’s questionable decision-making and poor footwork (as well as his being turnover prone), but   that was behind a porous offensive line and with a pass-catching corps with a lot of youth. Darnold played very well down the stretch, with nine TDs and only two INTs in his final five games. It isn’t easy to turn down guaranteed money and the potential of being the No. 1 pick, but most talent evaluators think he’d benefit long-term from another year at USC. Darnold will have to make a difficult decision after the Cotton Bowl.

2. New York Giants

Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA*

This is another team with a lot of holes, but none is more glaring than at QB. Eli Manning will be 37 at the start of the next season, and the Giants’ offense hasn’t scored 30 points in a game since the 2015 season (30 straight games). Davis Webb hasn’t been able to get on the field, and Geno Smith isn’t the long-term answer at the position. Rosen outplayed Darnold in their recent matchup, and I came away impressed from watching him from the sideline. Rosen is the most NFL-ready QB in this class. The biggest challenge for him will be selling teams on his love/need for the game and his “coachability.”

3. Indianapolis Colts

Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State

This team has needs all over, but it is one of the few in the top 10 that should be set at QB, with a (presumably) healthy Andrew Luck coming back next season. Without an offensive tackle worthy of such a high pick, I’m looking for edge help here. Chubb has a great skill set and a nonstop motor, and he has played his way into being a top-10 pick. He is a plug-and-play starter.

4. San Francisco 49ers

Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama*

Saquon Barkley could make sense here, but the 49ers have Matt Breida and could re-sign pending free agent Carlos Hyde. Just like his dad did throughout his career, Shanahan has always believed in his ability to identify RB talent that fits his system in later rounds; I’m guessing he and John Lynch will employ a similar strategy. The 49ers have invested heavily on the defensive line in recent drafts, but they need an infusion of talent in the secondary. Fitzpatrick is a true shutdown cornerback who has the versatility to play safety as well.

5. Denver Broncos

Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming*

Even after taking Paxton Lynch No. 26 overall in 2016, the Broncos are clearly still in need of a franchise QB. Lynch has thrown only 97 passes in two seasons, and he was beaten by Trevor Siemian for the starting QB spot this season. If Denver doesn’t address the position in free agency, Allen should be the pick. There’s no question that he struggled this season at Wyoming and needs to improve his decision-making, but he lost four of his skill position players from 2016 to the NFL. Allen has an elite arm and is a physical freak in terms of his skill set. His stock should rise in the postseason process.

6. Cleveland Browns (from Texans)

Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State*

The Browns have plenty of needs but can afford a luxury pick after taking their QB at No. 1. While Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson are a nice pairing, Barkley is a far superior player to both. My No. 2 overall prospect, Barkley is clearly the best running back in college football. He’s also the best running back to come out of college since Adrian Peterson, and he would do well behind Cleveland’s strong offensive line.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson*

There is still some hope for an edge rush in Tampa Bay with Noah Spence (on injured reserve), but the Bucs are dead last in the NFL with 17.0 sacks this season, and the defense has been porous (31st in total points). Ferrell is a hard worker, and the light has come on recently. He has been steadily rising up my board after a terrific performance against Syracuse (3.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL) and is explosive off the edge. A third-year sophomore, he could also return to Clemson.

8. Chicago Bears

Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

Mitchell Trubisky has had an inconsistent rookie campaign, but the Bears have been plagued by injuries at the wide receiver position in recent years. Ridley is the clear top wideout in this class, with outstanding foot speed and good acceleration. He has averaged 16.2 yards per catch this season, but his stats in Alabama’s run-heavy offense don’t reflect his true talent 

9. New York Jets

Arden Key, DE, LSU*

The Jets are another QB-needy team, but in this mock, the top three QBs are all already off the board. This is a spot where Baker Mayfield could be considered (or Allen if he’s still available). The pass rush needs help, though, and Key is the most talented natural edge rusher in the draft. He left LSU this summer for personal reasons and has been banged up this season (only 4.0 sacks), so his   draft stock could slip a bit, but the talent is there. 

10. Cincinnati Bengals

Connor Williams, OT, Texas*

The Bengals have had a disappointing season, and the offensive line is a big reason for that. Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher (out for the season with an irregular heartbeat) haven’t played up to their draft potential, and Cincinnati is in the bottom third in sacks allowed (33) after giving up 41 last season. Guard Quenton Nelson could help here, but Williams is the best offensive lineman and is a better value proposition at No. 10.

11. Arizona Cardinals

Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame

This is another potential landing spot for Baker Mayfield, as Carson Palmer’s status for the 2018 season is unknown. But if it’s not QB (or CB), offensive line makes sense for a Cardinals team that has allowed the second-most sacks (44) in the NFL this season and needs upgrades at several spots. McGlinchey doesn’t have elite tools, but he has good experience and is a well-rounded player. He is a high-floor pick.

12. Oakland Raiders

Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State*

The Oakland passing defense has been a sieve this season, allowing 7.7 yards per attempt (27th), and 2017 first-round pick Gareon Conley is still an unknown after playing only two games this season. Ward lacks ideal starting experience but has been exceptional this season at Ohio State. He’s the best pure man-to-man cover corner in this class.

13. Washington Redskins

Derwin James, S, Florida State*

This is one of the tougher picks to predict, as the direction will be dictated by what happens with Kirk Cousins. If he’s back, the best player on the board is James, who is an extremely versatile safety and will likely test well at the combine. In a division with Alshon Jeffery, Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryantat wide receiver, you can’t have enough secondary help.

14. Miami Dolphins

Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame*

Guard is a glaring need for the Dolphins, who need to protect whomever is at QB and get more push in the running game. Nelson is the most NFL-ready offensive lineman in this class and a road-grader (listed at 6-foot-5, 325 pounds). He’s ready to start right away.

15. Buffalo Bills

Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia*

Another team with potential QB issues, we’ll know more about the Bills’ commitment to Tyrod Taylor (and Nathan Peterman) after this season and free agency. Linebacker is another clear area of need, though, and Smith is the most athletic off-the-line linebacker in this class. A true sideline-to-sideline player, he can do it all and is a perfect fit for the modern NFL.

16. Dallas Cowboys

Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson*

The Cowboys have generated good pressure up front, thanks to DeMarcus Lawrence’s 13.5 sacks, but he’ll be a free agent. Last year’s first-round pick, Taco Charlton, should help as well, but the Cowboys need to bolster the interior of that defensive line. Wilkins has experience both inside and outside on an outstanding Clemson D-line, but I believe his best fit is inside as a 3-technique. He has the foot speed and quick hands to slip blocks and is a stout run-defender.

17. Green Bay Packers

Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College

Depending on what happens with pending free agent Davante Adams, wide receiver could be a need here. I’m going defense for Green Bay, though. Landry was my No. 4 prospect going into the season, but he might fall in the draft a bit due to an injury-riddled senior season. He is a naturally gifted edge rusher who led the nation in 2016 with 16.5 sacks.

18. Detroit Lions

Tremaine Edmunds, DE/OLB, Virginia Tech*

Detroit has plenty of needs on defense but must be encouraged by the play of 2017 first-round LB Jarrad Davis. Regardless of whether the Lions re-sign pending free agent Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit needs more edge rushers. Edmunds has the versatility to cover and rush the passer, and he is a gifted athlete at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds. He’ll likely test well at the combine.

19. Los Angeles Chargers

Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

Orlando Brown is an option at offensive tackle here, but this is a good time for the Chargers to take a successor to 36-year-old Philip Rivers. Los Angeles passed on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson last draft, but Mayfield is too intriguing to pass on here. Perhaps no prospect has improved his stock more in 2017 than Mayfield, who was my ninth-ranked QB coming into the season, with a midround grade. The Heisman winner is an exceptional leader and could play himself into the first round with a good showing in the College Football Playoff.

20. Tennessee Titans

Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa*

The Titans have spent a lot of recent draft capital on the offensive side of the ball, so I’m looking defense here. They need an edge rusher, but there isn’t one to match the spot, so I’ll look to the secondary. Adoree’ Jackson has looked the part, but Tennessee needs more help on the outside. Josh Jackson is a long CB with natural cover ability and tremendous ball skills. He flashed with three INTs against Ohio State.

21. Buffalo Bills (from Chiefs)

Vita Vea, DT, Washington*

After trading Marcell Dareus to Jacksonville midseason, Buffalo’s run defense has suffered. Listed at 6-foot-4, 346 pounds, Vea is a former high school running back and an absolute block-eater in the middle of Washington’s defense. However, he also has the quickness and athleticism to get into the backfield. He could continue to rise with an impressive combine performance.

22. Baltimore Ravens

Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M*

Former first-round pick Breshad Perriman hasn’t been able to stay on the field, and this offense really lacks playmakers. Kirk has been inconsistent, but he has the speed to take the top off a defense. He is also a great punt returner.

23. Atlanta Falcons

Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama

Help on the defensive line is an option with Dontari Poe and Courtney Upshawboth free agents and Derrick Nnadi and Mo Hurst still available. However, in today’s NFL, you can’t have enough playmakers in the secondary. Harrison is an underrated prospect and has star potential in the NFL at the free safety position. He has been all over the field for a very good Alabama defense.

24. Seattle Seahawks

Derrius Guice, RB, LSU*

Seattle has seemingly had a revolving door at RB and needs some stability at the position to take pressure off Russell Wilson. Guice definitely isn’t Leonard Fournette, but he has great quickness and the ability to break tackles. He dealt with some nagging injuries but has been a workhorse for LSU down the stretch, averaging 22 carries and 132 yards per game in his past six. Offensive line is also an option here for the Seahawks.

25. Carolina Panthers

Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma*

Carolina is another team that is looking for an edge rusher, but it might struggle with value here. Brown is the son of the late Orlando “Zeus” Brown, and he played left tackle at Oklahoma, but I think he might be better suited at RT in the NFL. He has tremendous talent but will benefit from shedding some weight and improving his foot quickness. He would give Carolina some insurance for Matt Kalil.

26. Los Angeles Rams

Billy Price, G/C, Ohio State

A plug-and-play starter, Price will help an improved Rams offense line on the inside. A four-year starter, Price is playing center for the Buckeyes this season, but I see him at guard for Los Angeles. He should be a steady starter.

27. Jacksonville Jaguars

Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU*

The Jaguars need help at tight end and potentially quarterback, but there aren’t any worthy of being drafted here, in my opinion. Sutton would offer another pass-catching weapon for Blake Bortles (or a new QB) to go with that ferocious defense.

28. New Orleans Saints

Mo Hurst, DT, Michigan

New Orleans could use more depth and versatility on an improving defensive line, and Hurst would be a good value at this point in the draft. The Saints could also go for Mayfield here if he’s still available.

29. Minnesota Vikings

Martinas Rankin, OT, Mississippi State

The depth of this roster is showing this season, as Case Keenum has stepped in at QB, and the Vikings haven’t missed a beat. There aren’t many glaring holes on this team, but Minnesota could still use reinforcements on the offensive line. A former JUCO transfer, Rankin performed well against good SEC competition.

30. New England Patriots

Ben Banogu, DE/OLB, TCU

Bill Belichick loves to collect versatile edge defenders, and Banogu fits the bill. A former transfer from Louisiana Monroe, he didn’t get much national attention this season but was always around the ball on the tapes I studied and was highly productive (15.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks).

31. Pittsburgh Steelers

Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State*

This is a bit of a reach for the top tight end in this class — I have a mid- to late-second-round grade on him — but Goedert is an underrated talent who has dominated his small-school competition. He has the athletic ability to give linebackers issues, and his size (6-foot-4, 258 pounds) is trouble for CBs. The postseason process will be big for him to prove he belongs.

 32. Philadelphia Eagles

Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama

The Eagles have one of the most complete rosters in the NFL, though offensive tackle could be an issue if 35-year-old Jason Peters isn’t the same coming back from his knee injury. Another versatile linebacker such as Evans, who has had a strong senior campaign, is a good pick to help bolster an elite defense.