AROUND THE NFL

The AAF kicked off this week.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com liked what he saw.

 

The Alliance of American Football is underway, and the early verdict is this: It’s pretty good.

 

The football was fun and fast-paced, they’re trying some new innovations like transparency on instant replay that might translate well to the NFL, the TV production was well done, the fans sounded like they thought they were getting their money’s worth, and, most importantly, it’s football at a time of year when we otherwise wouldn’t have any to watch.

 

The quality of play is comparable to the second halves of preseason games, with players who look like they’re about good enough to be on NFL practice squads. That might sound like a product you wouldn’t want to watch, but the players on NFL practice squads are better than most college football players, and tens of millions of fans watch college football every autumn Saturday.

 

The difference, of course, is that college football has a long history and tradition that makes those tens of millions of fans feel connected to it. The AAF doesn’t have that. But the fans in the two home stadiums, San Antonio and Orlando, seemed to be into it. The AAF will obviously have to grow its fan base, but the fans it has now seem enthusiastic.

 

Both home teams won the two premiere games on Saturday night, with the Orlando Apollos beating the Atlanta Legends 40-6 and the San Antonio Commanders beating the San Diego Fleet 15-6. Neither game was particularly close or competitive, and in both games we saw breakdowns on the offensive line and with quarterback-receiver communications that led to some shoddy offense. Fans like high-scoring and close games, and neither of the first two AAF games were that.

 

Still, this was a solid start. Saturday night won’t be the last time I watch the AAF.

 

This from Kent Somers in the Arizona Republic:

 

The press box at Sun Devil Stadium apparently wasn’t used much between the end of Arizona State’s season and Sunday evening, when the Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football debuted.

 

I know this because the bat found behind my chair before the game appeared to have been dead since at least Christmas.

 

Spring typically has been a slow time at the stadium, but that’s changed this year with the advent of the AAF and the Hotshots. It’s the first time professional football has been played at ASU since 2005, the year before the Cardinals’ stadium opened in Glendale.

 

The Hotshots took the field at 6:02 p.m. and were greeted by a smattering of cheers from a smattering of fans. Attendance had not been announced at press time, but there were plenty of empty sections.

 

In that way, it looked like Sun Devil Stadium often did when the Cardinals played there.

 

Some of the folks there were passionate, however, already wearing Hotshots apparel. This requires some gumption since the predominant team colors are yellow and green. But they are just different enough to catch on.

 

The worst outfits in the AAF are worn by the officials, whose shirts makes them look like they are wearing black halter tops over the traditional stripes.

 

But apparently everyone in the AAF is just happy to have a uniform and a job in professional football.

 

It was 62 degrees at kickoff on Sunday, so it was a pleasant evening to do most anything outside, including watch football.

 

The AAF’s hope is that the league catches on this month, and crowds will grow.

 

That’s possible because the actual playing of football was entertaining. Of the 52 players on the Hotshots roster, 49 have at least signed an NFL contract before, so the quality of football was better than an average preseason game.

 

The Hotshots’ first touchdown came on a pass from John Wolford, who was in the Jets’ camp for a short time, to tight end Gerald Christian, who was drafted by the Cardinals in 2015 and also has been with the Bills.

 

The Hotshots’ second touchdown was a 36-yard touchdown pass to receiver Rashad Ross, also a former Cardinal.

 

The Hotshots could catch on as fans see more of them. Wolford for instance, threw four touchdown passes in the first three quarters and looked better than many quarterbacks who play in the NFL preseason.

 

One of the league’s main goals is to develop players, coaches and officials for the NFL. At both the college and NFL levels, rules limit practice time. NFL coaches have complained for years that those restrictions hinder the development of players, especially quarterbacks and offensive linemen.

 

Hotshots General Manager Phil Savage, who held that same job with the Browns, saw that for himself as he toured NFL training camps last summer in search of players for the Hotshots.

 

“The guys I was looking at were at the back end of the roster,” Savage said, “and there were certain practices I’d go to where they’d get two reps (repetitions) in individual (drills) and maybe two in a team period.

 

“Now, how is a guy ever going to get better standing there for 2½ hours and getting four reps? It’s tough.

 

By the end of the AAF season, many players will walk off this field 10 to 12 weeks from now and go to an NFL team. They won’t have missed anything.”

 

Financially, the AAF has a model that can work. The league owns the teams, which means there are no individual owners tempted to do their own thing.

 

A television contract with CBS is in place, and the Hotshots’ game Sunday evening was shown on the NFL Network.

 

AAF players make about $80,000 a season, and while they are under contract, they are free to sign with NFL teams.

 

Spring leagues have been tried before. The USFL folded after Donald Trump tried to force a move from the spring to the fall. The XFL, which was started by Vince McMahon, faltered after one season because it was football’s version of jumping off the top rope.

 

Judging by its first weekend, the AAF has a chance because it’s respectful of the game but also willing to innovate.

 

There are some new rules being tried, such as the elimination of kickoffs. And parts of the broadcasts are different, too, such as letting us see and hear replay officials as they watch video and make decisions.

 

Coaches might be willing to be make bolder decisions than their NFL counterparts, but they aren’t going to off “willy-nilly,” said Hotshots coach Rick Neuheisel.

 

“I don’t think anybody is treating it like it doesn’t matter if you win or lose,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is going to go that far. Once you get into a competitive endeavor the work that goes into it requires you be steadfast in trying to attain victory.”

 

The Hotshots, and the AAF, have clearly put in the required work. If Week 1 was an indication, the league might have found a home in the spring, and in Arizona.

 

As might have been expected, the level of play in the AAF looks to be too good for CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG. Charlotte Carroll of SI.com:

 

Former NFL quarterback Christian Hackenberg made his first Alliance of American Football appearance Sunday, struggling in a profanity-laden debut.

 

Hackenberg started for the Memphis Express and his team lost to the Birmingham Iron, 26-0. He went 10–for–23 with 87 yards and one interception.

 

The 23-year-old Hackenberg also forgot he was mic’d up during the game, offering a selection of profanities.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

With CAM NEWTON on the mend, David Newton of ESPN.com thinks the Panthers could be looking for a higher profile back-up quarterback.

 

The Carolina Panthers believe quarterback Cam Newton’s right shoulder that was scoped last month will be healed in time for him to start the season. Newton says on his new YouTube channel that critics suggesting they’ve seen “the best of Cam Newton” will make him more dangerous than ever.

 

But there are no guarantees.

 

Remember, Newton was considered as healthy as he’s been in years entering last season, and after six games began experiencing soreness in the shoulder that originally was repaired surgically prior to the 2017 season. He was so ineffective down the stretch, admitting he couldn’t throw more than 30 yards, that the Panthers shut him down for the final two games.

 

So while everything appears to be trending in a positive direction for the 2015 NFL MVP, the Panthers have to be prepared for any what-ifs.

 

Finding a veteran quarterback who can take reps during the offseason while Newton is rehabbing and who would be available should there be a setback would be a good insurance policy.

 

The only other quarterback under contract is Kyle Allen, a second-year, undrafted player who started the 2018 finale against New Orleans and helped the Panthers end a seven-game losing streak. Though Allen looked good against the Saints, completing 16 of 27 pass attempts for 228 yards and two touchdowns before leaving with a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter, he’s still a project.

 

Taylor Heinicke, who started in Week 16, is a free agent with potential. But he’s coming off surgery to repair a torn triceps and also is somewhat of a project even though he has experience in Norv Turner’s offense.

 

The Panthers likely will use a draft pick on a quarterback in an attempt to find a long-term replacement for Newton, who turns 30 in May.

 

But what they don’t have is an experienced player — like they once had in Derek Anderson (2011-17) — a player they are confident can step in and win if Newton isn’t available.

 

This year’s free-agent quarterback class isn’t great outside the top couple of candidates, and those players are looking for starting jobs at a high price tag.

 

Here’s what the Panthers likely are looking at:

 

Not happening

Nick Foles, 30, Philadelphia: The Super Bowl MVP following the 2017 season paid the Eagles $2 million to void his 2019 option year. He’ll either become a free agent or Philadelphia will franchise him and trade him to a team looking for a starter. The Panthers aren’t looking for a starter.

 

Teddy Bridgewater, 27, New Orleans: He would be ideal since he played under Turner at Minnesota. The two were 11-5 together in 2015. But Bridgewater wants to be the starter and the Saints likely will do what they can to keep him as Drew Brees’ long-term replacement. Or Bridgewater will go to another team needing a starter.

 

Worth kicking the tires

Tyrod Taylor, 30, Cleveland: He’s 23-21 as a starter, including 8-6 with Buffalo in 2017. An injury in Week 3 and then the emergence of Baker Mayfield cost him the starting job with the Browns this past season, but there’s enough upside that he could be the kind of security blanket the Panthers seek.

 

Ryan Fitzpatrick, 36, Tampa Bay: He’s a lot like Derek Anderson in that he is an older veteran who still can win. He played well enough at Tampa Bay last season that he earned the nickname “Fitzmagic.” He threw four touchdown passes in a 42-28 loss at Carolina in October. Probably a reach for the Panthers because of his age.

 

Brock Osweiler, 28, Miami: He is 15-15 as a starter, including 8-6 at Houston in 2016. A 2012 second-round pick out of Arizona State, he’s still young. He showed potential for the Broncos in 2015 when he replaced an injured Peyton Manning during the season the Broncos beat the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

 

Trevor Siemian, 27, Minnesota: He also was a backup for the Broncos team that beat Carolina in the Super Bowl. He’s 13-11 as a starter with 30 touchdowns to 24 interceptions. He didn’t play a down with Minnesota last season after being traded to the Vikings, but he’s young enough to develop and experienced enough to win now.

 

Mark Sanchez, 32, Washington: He’s 37-36 as a starter and led the New York Jets to two AFC title games. He’s at a point in his career when he likely would settle for a backup role. Accuracy has been an issue. He has a career 56.6 completion percentage. But Newton had a career percentage of 58.5 before Turner got him to 67.9 this past season.

 

Sean Mannion, 27, Los Angeles Rams: This would be purely as a project. He has only one start and lost that one. But he is a 2015 third-round pick and, like Anderson, played at Oregon State.

 

No thank you

 

Matt Cassel, 36, Detroit: He has the experience with 73 starts. He has postseason experience with one start for Kansas City in 2010 when he was 10-5 during the regular season. But he has started only two games the past three seasons and was 1-6 as a starter at Dallas in 2015.

 

Robert Griffin III, 29, Baltimore: ESPN actually had him rated higher than Newton after the 2012 season in which Griffin led Washington to the playoffs as a rookie. He hasn’t been the same since then because of knee and ankle injuries.

 

Geno Smith, 28, N.Y. Giants: He’s still young and has 31 starts, but only 12 of those were wins and he has thrown 36 picks to 29 touchdowns.

 

Joe Webb, 32, Houston: He was with the Panthers from 2014 to ’16 but played mostly wide receiver and special teams. He’s completed only two passes in the past seven seasons.

 

Brandon Weeden, 35, Houston: A former first-round pick by Cleveland (2012), he has five wins in 21 starts.

 

Josh McCown, 39, N.Y. Jets: He’ll be 40 in July and has a career record of 23-53.

 

Wild card

Colin Kaepernick, 31: He is intriguing. The Panthers gambled last season on safety Eric Reid, who like Kaepernick has a collusion grievance against the NFL because teams wouldn’t sign them after they began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest social injustice. Reid paid off, enough so that the Panthers would like to re-sign him. While signing Kaepernick would cause quite a stir and would be a distraction at first, the experience with Reid shows owner David Tepper is willing to take chances. Kaepernick was 28-30 as a starter, 5-2 in helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl in 2012 and 12-4 with a trip to the NFC title game in 2013. If Carolina re-signs Reid, Kaepernick at least would have a strong ally.

 

Keeping options open

Former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco (Ravens) and Ryan Tannehill (Miami) could be released or traded at some point. Flacco, 34, likely is looking for a place to start. He’s started all 163 games in which he’s played since 2008. Tannehill, 30, has 42 wins and has completed 62.8 percent of his passes. If there is any doubt Newton might not be ready, they would be potential win-now options when surrounded by a solid supporting cast, and the Panthers have that with Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore and Greg Olsen.

 

AFC WEST

 

THE RAIDERS

Peter King seems to forecast some draft day manuverings between the Raiders and the Patriots:

 

The owner of the 2019 NFL Draft? Oakland, with rookie GM Mike Mayock, who counts Bill Belichick as one of his best friends in football.

 

The power broker, potentially, of the 2019 NFL Draft? New England, which will have the ammo to move up, down and sideways—and Belichick has always loved wheeling and dealing on draft weekend.

 

The Raiders have four picks in the top 35. The Patriots have one pick in the top 55. But that’s a misleading part of the story. There’s great depth in this draft from pick 25 to 100 and even deeper, some scouts at the Senior Bowl thought. So there could be fine value in the Patriot picks when they are slated to choose five times in a 45-pick span from 56 to 101.

 

Raiders and Patriots picks in the top 110 overall choices of the draft, as of today:

 

• New England: 1st round, 32nd overall; 2-56; 2-64; 3-73; 3-97^; 3-101^

 

• Oakland: 1st round, 4th overall; 1-24; 1-27; 2-35; 3-66; 4-106

 

^ Projected compensatory picks for the losses of Nate Solder and Malcolm Butler in free agency, as calculated by Over the Cap’s Nick Korte.

 

The hint seems to be that New England can move up to get a key piece while allowing Oakland to get multiple lesser picks to help replenish the roster.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CINCINNATI

Katherine Terrell of ESPN.com outlines the reasons she thinks that LB VONTAZE BURFICT has played his last game with the Bengals.

 

The Bengals shake up the linebacking corps, and that could mean parting ways with Vontaze Burfict.

 

The linebackers were a disaster in 2018. The three starting linebackers at the beginning of the season never played together due to suspensions and injuries. The biggest question mark is Burfict, who hasn’t played a full season in years and has sustained an alarming number of concussions. With a new coaching staff in place, it makes sense that the Bengals might move on from Burfict and look to draft a linebacker. — Katherine Terrell

– – –

Peter King gets this from the Bengals new coach Zac Taylor on why the job in Cincinnati is the right job for him:

 

New Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor, on what he learned about Cincinnati, and about the arch-conservative Bengals organization, that convinced him that this was the head-coaching job he wanted above all:

 

“So I’m an Oklahoma guy, a midwestern guy, and [in 2016] I coached a season at the University of Cincinnati, and my wife and I fell in love with the city. It’s the place for us. And after my interview with the Bengals, I knew this was the job for me. A couple of things I learned. It’s a loyal organization. The Brown family is very big on loyalty in a cut-throat, bottom-line, dog-eat-dog league, when often you might just get two years to turn a program around. I just felt this was the right place at the right time. They hadn’t changed coaches in 16 years, and if they were going to change, this organization had the values I embraced.

 

“A lot of coaches wouldn’t look at this place the way I did among the jobs that were available this year. For me, this would be close to the number one job.

 

“No. This IS the number one job. It’s exactly what I want in a coaching job, everything I hoped for.

 

“One of the things I learned in my time as an assistant is you need to prepare this book about what you’d do if you got an interview to be a head coach. Your staff, your schedules, your philosophy, everything. You put it together, and it becomes a big book. So in this process [interviewing for the Bengals job], I sat there … and I never opened the book. I just talked to them. No, wait. I did open it once, in three interviews—to pull out a schedule I would be using. They just wanted to know what I believed, and how I’d be standing in front of 53 men, in front of 90 men [at the start of training camp].

 

“My father-in-law is [former Packers and Texas A&M coach] Mike Sherman. His best advice to me: ‘Be yourself.’ That’s what the Bengals are going to get.”

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

This from Peter King:

 

Head coaches in the AFC East since January 2000

New England: 1.

Buffalo, Miami, Jets (total): 26.

 

And an excerpt from King’s look at Super Bowl MVP WR JULIAN EDELMAN:

 

The triumph of the end of this season comes in stark contrast to the beginning of it. Actually, longer than that. Edelman missed 19 New England games (16 regular season, three postseason) after tearing his ACL in August 2017, and then four more from a PED suspension in September 2018. Twenty-three missed games, in what should have been the prime of his football life … that still bugs Edelman.

 

The suspension is a sore subject, and I could not tell whether it’s because of the embarrassment of getting caught or because he disagreed with the findings of his NFL-administered positive test. Edelman discussed it with me, but I didn’t leave thoroughly enlightened.

 

“After going through this whole year,” he said, “these last 24 months of my life have been a roller coaster. You go out and you tear an ACL. Then all of a sudden you have a suspension that you’re facing. A lot of things go down and then you end up … a huge low of your life. Because football is life. That’s what people don’t understand with me. This is what I am. This is what I was put here to do. This is what I sacrificed all my time for—my friends, my family, everything like that … And then when you’re told you can’t play football for four weeks because of something that happened that you really can’t get into because you really don’t know what happened, it’s tough. You learn a lot from that.

 

“When that happened, I had a strong corner behind me. My father and I kind of just sat back and said, All right, we have a problem here. What’s this problem? Let’s make sure this never happens again. Let’s own up to it. Let’s take your penalty like a man, regardless of the circumstances.’ … From this whole thing, I’ve learned that you’ve just got to stay in your routine, and you’ve just got to work your way out of it.

 

“People don’t know what happened. I can’t sit here and [due to] the league rules say what happened.”

 

(Actually, a player has the freedom to say what he wants about a league suspension, but he may open himself to an NFL challenge if he alleges something the league disagrees.)

 

“Do you feel like the suspension was at all unjust?” I said.

 

“I’m not going down that road. I served what I had to serve and I accept that. I know a lot of people were disappointed in me for it. I apologize. It’ll never happen again.”

 

Edelman said he knows many people will look at his accomplishments this year as tainted. Nothing he can do about that now. He said, “They’re going to feel that way. I’m not going to worry about that … Everyone goes down a road that they’re not supposed to go down. You can do two things from it. You can keep going down that road and go to a dark place. Or you can turn and go up the hill and go to the top—try to go to the top.”

 

Coming off the ACL tear, Edelman had a strong training camp. But the month in exile from his team—Labor Day, Sept. 3, to the Sunday of Week 4, Sept. 30—was important not just because he wanted to stay in football shape, but because he wasn’t mentally 100 percent a year after the ACL surgery. The Patriots expected Edelman to come back ready to play in Week 5. And the Patriots had a Thursday night game that first week.

 

So Edelman didn’t just do weights and ball drills and cardio in those four weeks. He got an old friend, and a fellow Patriots Super Bowl winner, to help.

 

For four weeks, daily, Edelman went to the Boston Celtics training facility near dawn—coach Brad Stevens is friends with Belichick and McDaniels—to work out, often with Celtics trainer Brian Dolan. Then, also daily, Edelman would go to one of several local fields (the Harvard football complex, or the Boston College soccer field, mostly) and go through the kind of practice work he’d be getting if he were in Foxboro.

 

Edelman wore pads. He asked one of ex-mates, former New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich, to come to the workouts and play him physically, the way he might get banged around during real games when he returned. Ninkovich played eight years for the Pats, walking away after the Super Bowl win over Atlanta two years ago.

 

“The first day it was 90-something degrees, and you’re in pads, and it’s tough,” Ninkovich said Sunday. “I’d be tough on him. I’d lean on him, not like maybe he’d get hit in a game, but he’d feel my body presence, and that’s important when you’re coming back from an ACL. He wouldn’t just catch two or three in a row. He’d keep going. Like, 10 passes in a row. Once he dropped one and I said, ‘Bro! Catch it! Concentrate! Squeeze it!’ “

 

“Just trying to simulate drives,” Edelman said. “Leaning on a guy, getting tired, blocking, doing 10-play drives, throw, throw, throw, block, block, block, throw. You know what I mean? … Being able to go out and run routes on air [with no defenders], that’s fun; that’s cute. But when you have a 240-pound linebacker hitting you after you catch a ball, twisting, you can’t simulate those types of things.”

 

Edelman needed that. “It helped me keep my mind out of the gutter. It’s easy to go there, that route. Especially nowadays with all this social media and this noise. If you want to find noise, you could find noise.”

 

Ten catches (eight for first downs), 141 yards. MVP numbers in the Super Bowl. Edelman would have been surprised, honestly, if the day produced much less. In his previous 11 playoff games, he caught 10, 8, 9, 9, 10, 7, 8, 8, 5, 9, and 7 passes from Brady. Edelman: “Did I think I’d have 10 catches? Going into the week, with the game plan we had, and how they played defense and going against [Rams defensive coordinator] Wade Phillips a few times … the running back or guys in my position have a lot of catches. You go in thinking that there’s a possibility you could have a game. With a solid week of practice, two weeks of practice that we had, I felt great. Confidence was high. Thinking on it right now, I wasn’t surprised. The MVP? Didn’t really think about that. Didn’t really think that that was gonna come to fruition.”

 

But he had a game-week conversation with McDaniels in which, according to Edelman, the coordinator said to him: “You’re going to have to perform well for us to win.” Edelman didn’t have a signature catch, but he did convert four catches into first downs on Rams ace corner Aqib Talib. But Edelman did say he’s got too much in front of him as a player to back-pat about the MVP.

 

“Down the road, when I’m having a beer in Tahiti when I’m 44 and my daughter’s running around on the beach, that’s when I can probably sit back and think about that,” he said.

 

Now life interceded, and here came that daughter, 2-year-old Lily, into the room, and Edelman talked about the coming months, which will included a trip to Brazil. He lifted Lily, said, “Let’s go change you,” and left. Not before saying music to the ears of a region that can’t get enough championships.

 

“Ultimately,” Edelman said, “I can’t wait to jump back on the horse.”

 

This about Edelman was noted by Mike Rosenstein of NJ.com:

 

History was made in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga., when the New England Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Rams, 13-3.

 

By now, most everyone knows that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the first player in NFL history to win six Super Bowls. Same goes for New England head coach Bill Belichick, who also picked up two rings as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants.

 

Yes, it was the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever. And yes, it was perhaps the most boring Super Bowl ever. But don’t tell that to Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who pulled in 10 receptions for 141 yards to become the first Jewish player to win Super Bowl MVP in league history.

 

After Super Bowl LIII (53) between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams, let’s take a look at our way-too-early 2019 NFL power rankings. Will the Patriots remain No. 1 after their 13-3 win on Sunday, February 3, 2019 (2/3/19) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga.?

 

Here are some details, per the Jerusalem Post:

 

Edelman, 32, is one of only a few Jewish players in the league, embracing that side of his identity over time. He has a Jewish father but was not raised in the religion, and through the Patriots front office often would defer on questions about his religion.

 

 

Since then, he has shown his Jewish pride on a number of occasions. In a 2014 game, for instance, he wore a pin featuring the Israeli flag. He has tweeted about Jewish holidays. He even went on a Birthright-style trip to Israel, and has written a children’s book that references modern-day Zionism founder Theodor Herzl. After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in the fall that killed 11, he wore special cleats with Hebrew on them to honor the victims.

 

 

NEW YORK JETS

Rich Cimini of ESPN.com on the personal drama of the Jets coaching staff as the Vitt and Williams families come together.  As hard as it is to imagine, DC Gregg Williams may be the most presentable member of his family.

 

Adam Gase’s new coaching staff with the New York Jets contains enough potential family drama for a reality TV show.

 

The full staff, announced Friday by the Jets, includes longtime NFL assistant Joe Vitt, Gase’s father-in-law, and Blake Williams, the son of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

 

This is where it gets interesting.

 

Vitt and Gregg Williams were members of the New Orleans Saints’ coaching staff implicated in the 2012 BountyGate scandal. In the bounty hearings, conducted by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Vitt accused Williams of lying in his testimony.

 

Vitt also said the players didn’t take Williams seriously because of his “false bravado” and “schtick.”

 

Williams wound up being suspended indefinitely (then reinstated 11 months later), while Vitt received a six-game ban. And now they’re together on Gase’s first staff.

 

Gase saw plenty of his father-in-law last season. Gase coached the Miami Dolphins while Vitt worked in the front office as the team’s director of player development.

 

Despite having no background with Williams, Gase hired him on Jan. 15 because he wanted someone who could be the “head coach” of the defense. Williams, known for his aggressive scheme and edgy coaching style, went 5-3 last season as the interim coach of the Cleveland Browns.

 

Enter Blake Williams, who served as the Browns’ linebackers coach and called the defensive plays during the second half of the season.

 

Initially, Gase balked at the idea of adding Blake, according to a person familiar with the situation. Gregg Williams, who once called his son “the best young coach I’ve ever had on my staff,” became frustrated with Gase, the person said.

 

Eventually, Gase came around, making Blake Williams a defensive assistant, not a position coach.

 

Blake Williams, 34, has a reputation for rubbing people the wrong way. As a St. Louis Rams assistant, he upset people in the organization by screaming at a draft prospect in a scouting-combine interview, a source said. He also was reprimanded multiple times for sitting in the wrong seat on the team bus; he kept sitting in a seat reserved for a senior member of the staff.

 

The Rams fired him after the 2013 season. Williams has only worked for NFL teams in which his father was on the staff.

 

The Jets also announced the hiring of 16 other assistants, most notably former Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who will coach the running backs.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

MADDEN CHECKS

The NFLPA is not going to let players spend the money they earn through the NFLPA for licensing rights, not until after the upcoming round of collective bargaining is over.  Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com outlines what seems to be a sensible plan:

 

NFLPA executive committee president Eric Winston stressed the need to prepare just in case there is a 2021 lockout, including saving up funds from Madden likenesses and other marketing ventures.

 

Winston explained how the “Madden checks” collected over the next three years could equate to $60,000 per player, maybe not a significant number when weighed against lucrative NFL contracts but an amount that would offer some fallback in case of a work stoppage.

 

“So every year, [NFL] Players Inc. makes a distribution to the players in the form of a check,” Winston said Thursday. “It’s a little over $17,000. The players decided a couple of years ago, ‘Hey listen, in an effort to get ready [for a lockout], one of the streams we want to do is, we’re going to withhold those checks and keep them in a fund for each player coming down the road.’

 

“Again, this is fund money. This isn’t something that they’re living their life on. But we’re going to hold them for three years. And we’re going to make sure that they have one small part of a bigger piece. But they’re going to have a small fund that they can draw on in the event of a work stoppage. It’s not the silver bullet. It’s not the end all to be all. But again, we start stacking those bricks, and we start stacking those solutions, and hopefully, that’s a small part of it.”

 

Winston said it is referred to as the “Madden checks” because EA Sports is one of the most significant contributors. There are other contributors such as Fanatics and Panini America.

 

Executive committee member Mark Herzlich, like Winston, emphasized how saving the Madden check is just a small part of the preparation process.

 

“It could even be something like — who knows what happens with their health insurance — a way for them to purchase health insurance if there happens to be a lockout,” Herzlich said. “Yes, it doesn’t seem like the amount of money that’s necessary to live on an NFL salary, but if we can’t control the situation, players can be like, ‘Look, my family comes first. I’ve got to protect the health of my family.’ Little things like that are where that money will help.

 

 

THE NFL’S FIGHT FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE

Peter King notes with approval the latest developments in the NFL’s efforts to help some of its players achieve “social justice” and “change.”

 

During Super Bowl week, the group of player activists known as the Players Coalition—the Malcolm Jenkins/Anquan Boldin-led organization advocating action on civic and political and police issues mostly in inner cities—gave out six grants totaling $2 million to non-profit organizations fighting for change. It’s rewarding enough for the Players Coalition to see things like member Devin McCourty fight—and succeed—to raise the state prosecution age in Massachusetts from 7 to 12. It’s another thing to see players be involved in funding groups promoting better police/community relations; in helping restore voting rights to some 1.4 million former prison inmates; in meeting with legislators to spur criminal-justice reform; and in working for educational opportunities in schools where few exist.

 

Jenkins’ involvement is not about pushing his brand, but rather pushing civic idealism in areas that often go ignored. The publicity of having football players doesn’t hurt. “We’re finding that our brand of advocacy and activism helps situations we think are important,” Jenkins said. “Some of these causes are not likely to get a lot of attention from the public, but where we go, cameras often follow. And if that helps, good.”

 

One of the six grantees by the Players Coalition is The Justice Collaborative, a non-profit organization asking public to reform part of the justice system it deems unfair to minorities. This year, the Justice Collaborative is working to put into office prosecutors and district attorneys who won’t continue the practice of mass incarceration. The senior legal counsel for the Justice Collaborative, John Matthews II, said there were 200,000 Americans in state and federal prisons 40 years ago; that number is eight times higher today.

 

“Today is very big day for us,” Matthews said, on the day the Players Coalition grant was announced. For the money, yes; but for the partnership too. “Partnering with the players involves activism we haven’t seen from athletes in a long time. When we’re with the athletes, we’re putting public officials on record in a different way than we’re able to most often … Some of the legislators we’ve met with along with players thought it was going to be a meet-and-greet, but these players had very specific questions for them. They had to respond, and act.

 

“Every non-profit in the world is struggling. Some causes are sexy—the 2020 election, for instance. But we have big issues too. We are gearing up for district attorney elections in California, Texas, Florida—and the opportunity to shift the conversation on mass incarceration and to make a difference in how many people get sent to prison. This money from Players Coalition helps our fight immensely.”

 

Stick to football? We should all be glad these players care enough not to.