AROUND THE NFL

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com has an update on the PI in the Last 2 Minutes conundrum:

 

The March solution to the Rams-Saints outcome from January created a major problem for the league, specifically in the final two minutes of either half, in overtime, after a touchdown, or after a turnover. With replay review available for pass interference calls and non-calls, and with a fairly low standard for activating automatic replay review, the rule change sets the stage for a rash of automatic reviews.

 

In all situations, a ruling on the field is overturned only if replay review finds clear and obvious evidence of an error. Under current rules, the replay official calls for an automatic replay review in the absence of clear and obvious evidence that the ruling on the field was correct. For pass interference calls and non-calls, which typically entail plenty of hand-fighting and other contact between receiver and defender, this creates a potentially broad range of plays that would be subject to automatic replay review, but that would not be overturned.

 

So here’s where the application of the new rule is heading, per a source with direct knowledge of the discussions: The replay official will apply a higher standard for determining when to activate automatic replay review in cases of offensive or defensive pass interference, called and not called.

 

The current plan (subject to change) is that the replay official, working with the in-booth replay assistant, will make a decision as to whether a clear and obvious error occurred in a case of pass interference, called or uncalled. If they see a clear and obvious error, based only on the real-time play and/or full-speed replays, they will activate an automatic replay review. The replay official and the replay assistant won’t employ the kind of slow-motion, frame-by-frame assessments that currently are used by the in-stadium replay booth to determine, for example, whether a receiver gets two feet inbounds after making a catch. The replay official and the replay assistant will have only full-speed replays available for the assessment of whether pass interference did or didn’t happen.

 

So, basically, the replay official becomes the primary gatekeeper for automatic replay review of pass interference. Before the replay official sends the play to New York for a full-blown review regarding whether the video contains clear and obvious evidence of a mistake, the replay official must preliminarily conclude that clear and obvious evidence of a mistake exists — based only on the real-time play or full-speed review of it.

 

This approach limits the number of stoppages for replay review while also providing the element that was missing in Rams-Saints: Someone who can act on a clear and obvious error made by the on-field officials, when a blatant incident of pass interference occurred. It also protects NFL senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron from, well, NFL senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron, restricting the situations in which he would be scrutinizing every nook and cranny of the screen for evidence that the ruling on the field may have been incorrect. (Those situations may still happen, if/when a coach throws the red challenge flag. But those situations won’t happen in situations where automatic review is available.)

 

This approach also makes irrelevant the question of when and if Hail Mary plays will be subject to replay review. As the source explained it, separate Hail Mary rules become necessary only if replay review at the end of the first half or at the end of the game is driven by the red-flag challenge mechanism. The procedure for initiating automatic replay review will apply to all passes thrown during the windows for automatic review; if on a Hail Mary pass the replay official sees clear and obvious evidence of a blown call or non-call of pass interference, the replay official will call for a full-blown replay review.

 

Basically, the NFL will be adopting the video official/sky judge concept for pass interference. Instead of talking directly to the referee, however, the video official/sky judge (i.e., the replay official) will alert Riveron as to an egregious OPI or DPI call or non-call. Riveron then will review the visual evidence and, if the mistake is clear and obvious, fix the ruling on the field.

 

It may not be the perfect solution, but it’s the best one the NFL has identified to date. The last two minutes of either half won’t entail multiple replay reviews, and protection will be put in place for those situations where a defensive back wipes out a receiver and the on-field officials fail to see it.

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

Dare we say that one of the candidates blew it in his tryout for the Bears kicker position.

Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune:

 

At the end of Wednesday afternoon’s practice inside the Payton Center in Lake Forest, Bears kickers Elliott Fry and Eddy Pineiro each had opportunities to take advantage of a closing-seconds, tie-game scenario.

 

Fry missed his first “game-winning attempt” from 53 yards, pushing a kick wide right and a bit short. But he rebounded a few minutes later by drilling a second 53-yard attempt. Pineiro’s lone attempt in that situation — also from 53 yards — sailed through.

 

The Bears’ hunt for a kicker is a long way from over, obviously, a reality that was clear again Wednesday morning when the team cut Chris Blewitt with two minicamp practices remaining. Blewitt was signed in March after showing promise at an open tryout and was one of eight kickers who participated in the team’s competition during rookie minicamp last month.

 

At this point, though, seven of those kickers are no longer around. Fry is the lone survivor from that original group. And while he is joined on the 90-man roster by Pineiro — who came over in a conditional trade with the Raiders in May — it would be grossly inaccurate to say the Bears’ kicking competition is down to two finalists.

 

To the contrary. The search remains wide open. And coach Matt Nagy emphasized as much after practice, acknowledging that a new face or two could be in the mix when the Bears get to training camp later this summer.

 

“If we don’t feel like we have the answer, we’re always going to look,” Nagy said. “We’re going to do that with every single player. … We’re going to keep moving with this thing and let (our kickers) know that we’re going to keep supporting them. But in the end, it’s about production. So with every position, we’re always going to try to stay open.”

 

Blewitt was waived a day after he, Pineiro and Fry all missed kicks at practice from just beyond 40 yards. Following that practice, Nagy expressed his frustration and impatience.

– – –

Blewitt went undrafted out of Pitt in 2017 after becoming the Panthers’ all-time leading scorer. He had heard all the obvious jokes about his last name and understands it is a tad ironic, maybe the worst possible name for a kicker outside of Charlie Brown.

– – –

Word is that QB MITCHELL TRUBISKY is showing significant improvement.  Jeff Dickerson of ESPN.com:

 

The Chicago Bears haven’t been shy about talking up third-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky throughout their offseason program.

 

Bears receiver Taylor Gabriel took it a step further on Wednesday, calling Trubisky’s offseason transformation “drastic” as compared to this time last year, when the 24-year-old signal-caller was admittedly in the learning phases of head coach Matt Nagy’s offense.

 

“Mitch is confident back there,” Gabriel said. “He’s confident in switching the playcalls. He’s confident in, I mean, giving us a double move. We’ve got a lot of double moves out there. He’s confident in what he’s looking at. He’s not just trying to figure out what the play is. Now, he gets to look up and look at the coverage. So I feel like, like I said, it’s just a drastic change from last year.”

 

Trubisky thrived last year under Nagy, who rescued the team from the predictable and mundane offense that the Bears ran in Trubisky’s rookie season.

 

Nagy brought the Andy Reid system from the Kansas City Chiefs to Chicago, but he sprinkled in enough wrinkles in the weekly game plan to keep defenses off balance. The creative nature of Nagy’s playbook also afforded the opportunity to sometimes cover up for Trubisky, who started just one full season in college.

 

The Bears also added offensive firepower that did not exist under the previous regime, signing wide receivers Allen Robinson and Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton in free agency. Chicago later drafted promising Memphis wideout Anthony Miller in the second round, and it further expanded all-purpose threat Tarik Cohen’s role on offense.

 

Trubisky passed for 3,223 yards, 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and posted a 95.4 passer rating (he also rushed for 421 yards and three touchdowns) during Chicago’s ascension from worst to first in the NFC North to finish 12-4. The Bears lost a first-round home playoff game to the Philadelphia Eagles, but Trubisky’s overall sophomore campaign was a success.

 

The expectations for Trubisky will be even higher in Year 3, a reality he understands and embraces.

 

“I got a lot better grasp of the offense,” Trubisky said on Wednesday. “We’re way ahead as far as timing, operation, getting to the line of scrimmage, getting in and out, adjustment on all of our plays and just knowing where to go with the football, especially against all of these different looks that we’re seeing that the defense is throwing at us. So I feel like we’ve done really well. I feel like I have improved my game. We just have to keep getting better.

 

“But I think just knowing the offense a lot better, knowing the plays that we are already installing and just going back through them and becoming even more detailed with them, I think that gives you confidence as a player — because when you know where to go with the football, you can kind of control the defense more with your eyes and rhythm and anticipate throws as opposed to reacting to throws. That is something I have been working on. It’s given me a lot of confidence, and just my guys believing in me gives me the most confidence.”

 

 

DETROIT

The Patriots have taken a tight end off the hands of the Detroit Lions. Justin Rogers of the Detroit News:

 

The overhaul of the Detroit Lions’ tight end room is complete. According to a league source, the team is trading Michael Roberts to the New England Patriots for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2020.

 

Roberts was the remaining holdover from last year’s group, which fell well short of expectations. The team already allowed Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo to depart via free agency.

 

Given the resources the Lions put into revamping the position this offseason, Roberts’ path to sticking on the roster had been cloudy. The team invested a first-round pick in T.J. Hockenson, snagged Georgia’s Isaac Nauta in the later rounds of the draft and signed Jesse James and Logan Thomas in free agency.

 

Roberts, a fourth-round selection by the Lions in 2017, struggled to establish a consistent role during his two-plus years with the team. After catching 16 touchdown passes his senior year at Toledo, the Lions focused on building up his blocking during his rookie year. He caught just four passes for 46 yards in 15 games and was suspended for the season finale after missing a team meeting.

 

He shined through the early stages of the offseason program a year ago and appeared primed for a breakout, but his momentum was derailed by a training camp injury. He flashed some potential during the regular season, including his first three touchdown receptions, but was ultimately limited to eight games after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.

 

The deal with the Patriots is the latest in a series of trades general manager Bob Quinn has made with his former employer. In 2016, he sent a conditional draft pick to the Patriots for linebacker Jon Bostic. A few months later, Quinn shipped a linebacker back, trading Kyle Van Noy in a pick swap.

 

Additionally, Quinn traded former special teams standout Johnson Bademosi to the Patriots for draft consideration. The teams also have made a couple of deals during the draft, one trade up and one trade down, resulting in Detroit’s selections of Kenny Golladay and Kerryon Johnson.

 

Roberts enters a great situation to contribute in New England, following the retirement of All-Pro Rob Gronkowski this offseason. Additionally, veteran Ben Watson, who re-joined New England this offseason, is suspended the first four games of the year. The team’s other four tight ends have combined for 63 career catches.

 

NFC EAST

 

WASHINGTON

JP Finlay of NBCSports.com with an update on the health of T TRENT WILLIAMS:

 

Since Trent Williams missed mandatory minicamp last week his status with the Redskins has been anything but clear.

 

Multiple reports stated that Williams was holding out for a new contract, and one report said that the seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle was actually angry with the team’s medical staff and that he refused to again play for the Redskins organization.

 

While Williams and his representatives have not spoken or issued a statement, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden talked about wanting Williams back with the team but understanding the player is frustrated due to the timing of a diagnosis of a non-cancerous tumor on his head.

 

Washington Team President Bruce Allen explained to NBC Sports Washington that he knows the truth about the situation with Williams and that the two have spoken, but would not reveal the circumstances behind Williams’ absence (see above video).

 

All of that is a long way to say the situation between the Redskins best offensive player and the team are anything but stable. Then, Thursday morning, Williams posted a picture to his Instagram story revealing what looked like another medical procedure.

 

UPDATE: Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported on Williams’ picture: “This latest surgery is to clean up the area where the original scar was. Not considered major, not related to a setback.”

 

To be clear, there is no explanation with the picture, but it seems obvious Williams is being tended to by medical professionals and in a medical facility.

 

Numerous league sources said that Williams’ holdout might stem from being upset with the Redskins medical personnel, but that his contract is the real issue. Williams has two years remaining on his deal that will pay him more than $25 million, but little of that money is guaranteed. Further, since Williams signed his current deal in 2015, the marketplace for offensive linemen has exploded with much higher salaries.

 

Williams is the team’s best offensive linemen, and without him, the unit could be in big trouble. Veteran backup Ty Nsekhe signed with the Bills this offseason, and the ‘Skins have little depth at the tackle spot.

 

What William’s Instagram story means remains a mystery, but it’s just one more layer in the current saga between the star left tackle and the Redskins organization. 

 

AFC WEST

 

THE RAIDERS

Unlike some divas, there is no question about how hard WR ANTONIO BROWN works.  Another tribute is collected by Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders says the hardest-working player in the NFL is now a rival in the AFC West.

 

Sanders said on 104.3 in Denver that his old Steelers teammate Antonio Brown, who was traded to the Raiders this offseason, is the single hardest-working player he’s been around. Sanders admitted that even he can’t match how hard Brown pushes himself.

 

“There’s nobody in the NFL who can match how hard Antonio works. If I can’t match it, nobody can,” Sanders said.

 

Sanders’ comments echo those of Raiders coach Jon Gruden, who said Brown is the hardest-working practice player he’s ever seen. There have been questions about how easy Brown is to get along with, but no one questions how hard he works.

 

AFC NORTH

 

BALTIMORE

Will first round WR MARQUISE BROWN be ready for the start of training camp?  The Ravens hope so.  This tweet from Mike Garafolo of NFL Network:

 

@MikeGarafolo

John Harbaugh is hopeful #Ravens rookie WR Marquise Brown will be ready for training camp. Says he doesn’t know that for certain but no setbacks and they’re optimistic.

 

Brown had Lisfranc surgery in February.

 

This from Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Ravens first-round draft pick Marquise Brown hasn’t been cleared to practice fully, but he has done drills for the first time.

 

Brown, a wide receiver out of Oklahoma who is recovering from foot surgery, participated in his first drill on Wednesday, according to Jamison Hensley of ESPN.

 

The video of the drill shows it was very low-impact, with Brown doing little more than walking in place and catching a football. But it’s a positive first step that Brown was participating at all.

Brown had Lisfranc surgery in February and is hoping to be ready for training camp.

 

The cousin of Raiders wide receiver Antonio Brown, Marquise Brown was a first-team All-American at Oklahoma last year, when he caught 75 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

HOUSTON

The Patriots says the Texans have tampered by jumping the gun in the pursuit of Nick Caserio to be their new GM.

 

It seemed like a fight possibly was coming between the Patriots and Texans over Nick Caserio, and the gloves officially have been dropped.

 

The Patriots have filed tampering charges against the Texans, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.

 

The charges relate to Houston’s attempt to hire Caserio to be the team’s next General Manager. Schefter notes that the NFL will commence an investigation, gathering information relevant to whether and to what extent the Texans communicated with Caserio absent permission from the Patriots to do so.

 

One potential source of information/evidence could be, in our view, last Thursday night’s ring ceremony at the home of Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Former Patriots executive Jack Easterby, now a key member of the Texans’ front office, attended the event. Communications between Easterby and Caserio could become proof of impermissible discussions regarding the job — especially since the job became vacant the very next day.

 

The league also will surely look at records of any phone calls or electronic communications between Caserio and Texans employees or intermediaries. Contact between Caserio’s agent and the Texans also become potentially relevant.

 

Even if the tampering charges prompt the Texans to abandon their pursuit of Caserio, the Texans could face punishment if it’s proven that they indeed talked to him about the job without permission from the Patriots to do so.

 

Or another possibility would be the Texans having to cough up a draft pick to sign him.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

Knee surgery, minor perhaps, for RB SONY MICHEL.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

The reason for Sony Michel’s absence from offseason workouts is finally clear.

 

The New England Patriots running back underwent a knee scope, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported. The Athletic first reported the news.

 

The procedure is considered minor and Michel should be fine for training camp at the end of July, Rapoport added.

 

The running back was not seen at any of the Patriots practices open to the media this offseason, including last week’s minicamp.

 

Michel has a history of knee issues, dating back to high school when he tore his ACL, and he suffered another knee injury in college. The running back missed the season opener last year after undergoing a knee procedure at the start of training camp. The history makes any news about Michel’s knees noteworthy, even if the latest surgery was considered minor.

 

Despite missing three games over the course of the season, Michel led the Pats with 209 regular-season carries and became the focal point of the offense down the stretch and into the playoffs. In the playoffs, Michel toted the rock 71 times in three games for 336 yards and a rookie-record six postseason rushing TDs as the Patriots rode the ground game to the Super Bowl title.

 

Missing offseason workouts isn’t the worst thing for a running back, but did hinder his chances to expand his pass-catching acumen. Assuming he’s healthy by training camp, Michel should enter the season as the lead back. The Patriots drafted Damien Harris in the third round, and the Alabama product looks ready to help take some of the load off Michel’s knees, along with James White, Rex Burkhead and re-signed Brandon Bolden.

 

 

NEW YORK JETS

Rich Cimini of ESPN.com on the odd pairing of Gregg Williams and Joe Vitt on the same coaching staff.

 

Gregg Williams didn’t want to go there. Neither did Joe Vitt.

 

The New York Jets’ assistant coaches, reunited seven years after they were adversaries in the New Orleans Saints’ Bountygate scandal, bristled Thursday when asked about their relationship.

 

“Is this a National Enquirer question?” Vitt snapped. “I like Gregg. He’s a friend.”

 

Earlier, Williams offered a similar response.

 

“Not a question. Next question,” he said before the Jets’ final offseason practice. “He’s a great friend of mine. He’ll always be a great friend. I don’t care what you’ve written. Go ahead, somebody else [ask a question].”

 

Williams and Vitt were hired in February as the Jets’ defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach, respectively, but this was the first time the assistant coaches were made available to the media.

 

The reunion has sparked interest because Vitt testified against Williams in the Bountygate scandal when both were Saints assistants. In the hearings, conducted by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Vitt accused Williams of lying in his testimony.

 

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

 

Vitt also happens to be Gase’s father-in-law, adding another layer of intrigue.

 

Some also have wondered about the Gase-Williams dynamic because they are both alpha personalities and are working together for the first time.

 

Williams spoke glowingly of Gase, saying he has admired him from afar.

 

“Respect and trust [are] earned, and he has earned my respect and earned my trust now that we’re working together on the same thing,” Williams said. “It’s been fun, OK? He’s a very good coach, has a very good mind, has a challenging mind conceptually on what we’re doing [on defense].”

 

The Jets hope that Williams’ fiery coaching style will fuel a defense that finished 29th in yards allowed last season. They have high expectations after signing Pro Bowl middle linebacker C.J. Mosley and drafting defensive tackle Quinnen Williams with the third overall pick.

 

Williams didn’t make any bold predictions for the defense, but there is no doubting his self-confidence.

 

“My secrets get out,” Williams said. “The reason I keep getting hired is culture — and culture beats strategy any day of the week.”

 

“Attitude does come first,” he added. “I tell them, ‘Attitude is everything. Pick a good one today.'”

 

Williams, 60, has been coaching in the NFL since 1990, and he has no intention of retiring any time soon.

 

“People ask me all the time, How much longer am I going to do this? I love what I do. I’m a competition-aholic,” he said. “When I walk into a room and nobody will pay attention anymore, it’s time to do something else.”

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

THE AAF

Seth Wickersham of ESPN.com (along with Michael Rothstein) does another of his behind the scenes dishfests.  This one is on the AAF with the apparent deep cooperation of Charlie Ebersol.  The whole thing is here, excerpts below:

 

CHARLIE EBERSOL WOKE up in his San Francisco apartment just after 6:45 a.m. on April 2, his phone buzzing. He was running on four hours of sleep, as he had for months. In the previous two years, he had gotten married, become a father, founded America’s newest professional football league and overseen the hiring of more than 1,000 employees. His assistant scheduled his day in 7½-minute increments. He was 36 years old, with an easy smile under warm eyes, the filmmaker son of Dick Ebersol, one of television’s most celebrated and influential executives during his career at NBC, and Susan Saint James, the famed actress and activist. Charlie was always hustling, texting, hanging in powerful circles, flashing the caller ID on his iPhone when someone famous called, playing the part of salesman and brimming with confidence, at times too much.

 

Ebersol knew the call had to be about his league, the Alliance of American Football. The AAF’s newest controlling investor, Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, had telegraphed for weeks that the league might not finish its first season. The news was now breaking. Ebersol had worked frantically to talk Dundon out of killing the league while also searching for a new investor. But potential buyers needed more time, maybe weeks, to vet the AAF — or so they said. Ebersol didn’t have weeks. He had days. And as he answered his phone, Ebersol suspected he might be down to hours.

 

“We’re shutting down at 5 p.m. today,” a Dundon associate told Ebersol.

 

“We’re announcing we’re shutting down?” Ebersol replied.

 

“No, everyone is fired at 5 p.m. today.”

 

Ebersol called Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame general manager, who had signed on as an AAF co-founder, overseeing football operations. “What am I supposed to tell people?” Polian asked. Ebersol said he would try again to talk Dundon out of it. Trent Richardson called Ebersol next. The former Browns first-round pick now played for the Birmingham Iron and also served as a conduit between Ebersol and over 400 AAF players.

 

“We just got told that we are all fired,” Richardson said.

 

“I don’t know if that’s true,” Ebersol said. “Hang tight.”

 

Ebersol didn’t want to believe it was true. The Alliance, as employees called it, delivered where so many startup football leagues had failed, with good players and big-name coaches, watched by thousands in the stands and millions more on national TV and online. The AAF championship game was less than a month away. But the Alliance was also a mess, mismanaged on almost every level from the outset. Dundon’s team calculated the league’s total revenue in a year of existence at around $12 million, against estimated annual operating costs exceeding $100 million. Seven hours after the early-morning call from Dundon’s office, a three-paragraph letter announced the suspension of league operations. Polian then released his own statement, blaming Dundon for the failed league. Internal tensions that had brewed for months were spilling into public view.

 

“I’m going to sue!” Dundon told Ebersol. “It was his f—ing fault! I’m going to lay him out!”

 

Yeah, go say it was Bill Polian’s fault, Ebersol thought to himself. See how that plays.

 

Ebersol made and received phone calls all night. As long as he continued to work, some tiny piece of his dream lived on. Around 2:30 in the morning, his phone went quiet. He sat alone, processing how his football league, so real during games, had disappeared so fast, like it never existed at all.

 

VINCE MCMAHON AND Dick Ebersol dined in a restaurant in the final scene of a 2016 30 for 30 titled This Was the XFL, the story of the wild, oversexed and overhyped pro wrestling version of pro football. The two longtime friends and proud businessmen, whose joint venture failed spectacularly, lasting only one year in 2001, had been seduced by the enduring allure of spring football, a siren with a long lineage of wrecked dreams and wasted money, from the USFL to the A-11. During one of the film’s final moments, Dick Ebersol says to McMahon, “Do you ever have any thoughts about trying again?”

 

McMahon indeed was having thoughts about trying again. And the film’s director, Charlie Ebersol, was thinking about trying for the first time. One day during production, Ebersol had asked Tom Veit, the former vice president and general manager of the XFL’s Orlando Rage: If we learn from the XFL’s mistakes, could spring football work?

 

“Spring football will work when people learn not to screw it up,” Veit replied.

 

Three years later, the AAF would screw it up, in ways as novel as launching a faulty smartphone app for gambling and as old as failing to secure reliable investing.

– – –

Ebersol and Veit worked on a business plan for six months, taking what worked from the XFL — alternate camera angles, like the Skycam — and fixing what didn’t, such as the sloppy and unsophisticated football. Veit estimated that the AAF would need $300 million to last three years — an expensive undertaking. Charlie would later tell confidants that the XFL reminded him of something astronaut Neil Armstrong, who was a friend of the Ebersols, once told him: “If you’re an inch off on landing, no big deal. If you’re an inch off on takeoff, you miss the moon by a million miles.” Ebersol believed the XFL had missed takeoff by an inch and that he could get it right.

 

One day, Charlie ran the rough idea past his dad. You need to talk to two people, Dick replied: John Madden and Bill Polian.

 

Ebersol was too nervous to cold-call Madden, so he called Polian.

 

THEIR MEETING WOULD be known inside the Alliance as the Five-Hour Pancake Breakfast. Polian and Ebersol, casual friends, holed up at a Cape Cod diner in late summer of 2017. Polian was 74 at the time, retired from the NFL and working at ESPN as an analyst. In his heart, he was still a football architect. He had long dreamed of starting a minor league that would specialize in developing offensive linemen and quarterbacks. It would be a last gift, as Polian saw it, to the game that had given him so much.

 

Both Polian and Ebersol wanted a league that would complement the NFL, not compete with it, and serve as a farm system not only for players but also for coaches, especially women and minorities. Ebersol also envisioned an app that would allow fans to gamble in real time — gaming within the game. He would tout data, versions of which the spring-league dreamers have used for decades, that 150 million fans watch football on weekends, and half of those don’t watch sports at all after football ends. There had to be an opportunity to exploit.

 

Most of all, Ebersol said, their league would be a true alliance among “the fans, the players and the game.” The players would be cared for, with good salaries and funds to help them finish college. Everyone would be required to sign a morality clause to avoid scandals. “Provided you can get the capital and the television coverage, it’s workable,” Polian told Ebersol.

 

“Well, I think I can get both,” Ebersol said.

 

Polian’s deal to be co-founder wouldn’t be formalized for months. But Ebersol called his dad after the meeting. “Remember when you said if Bill Polian thought it was a good idea, it’s a good idea?” he said.

 

“You have a business,” Dick said.

– – –

He did have one vital partnership that the XFL lacked: a broadcast deal with CBS, which was brokered with help from Sandy Montag, CEO of a high-powered sports marketing firm and an adviser to the AAF. The deal was a time-buy, with the AAF paying for the slot and production, a template for partnerships with Turner and the NFL Network that would follow. But the arrangement would allow the AAF at launch to announce a major broadcast partner. That deal, Montag says now, “legitimized the AAF as an entity that could succeed.”

– – –

IN OCTOBER 2018, Ebersol flew to Bristol, Connecticut, to visit Polian, who was juggling ESPN and AAF duties. They met at their usual spot: the DoubleTree hotel, near the network’s sprawling headquarters.

 

“We gotta get this thing moving or we won’t make it,” Ebersol told Polian.

 

The league was behind schedule, with oversights at almost every turn. The Orlando Apollos would be forced to practice for 36 days in Georgia, qualifying players for workers’ compensation benefits there because the AAF had been unable to secure leaguewide insurance for players. The Salt Lake Stallions would move into their offices only after executives briefly worked out of a McDonald’s and the conference room of the team’s ticket broker. Team presidents found getting any piece of information, especially on budgets, needlessly difficult. Some stadium leases came together slowly, and stadium authorities exploited the AAF’s February start to overcharge by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even the AAF’s fundamental promise — to feed into the NFL — was in jeopardy. An AAF executive discovered that the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement prohibited players from being under contract with another league. If an AAF player went to the NFL but didn’t make the team, he would be free to sign with the XFL. It was a disaster; one of the primary reasons to launch a year before McMahon was to corner the market on marginal NFL players. As a workaround, AAF executives drew up a hodgepodge of four different contracts each player would have to sign.

 

Meanwhile, the Alliance wasn’t acting much like one, with football operations blaming business operations and business blaming football. It all came to a head at the DoubleTree. “You need to give me authority,” Polian told Ebersol.

 

Polian was deeply frustrated — and wondering whether the AAF was worth his time. His title was co-founder, but he was technically a part-time consultant, with no power to hire or make decisions. For instance, Polian felt the player wellness program — termed The Gymnasium and led by former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu — was well-intentioned but too expensive for a startup. It included individual and couples counseling, and three massages a week for players. Ebersol refused to cut back on his pledge to treat players well.

 

Polian wanted a bigger budget — and to spend as he saw fit. At the time, Ebersol displayed little concern over the league’s finances. His primary investor was Reggie Fowler, whom Willie Lanier, the Hall of Fame linebacker, had brought to Ebersol shortly after the launch. Fowler, a former USFL linebacker, had built a company, Spiral Inc., which once held more than 100 businesses. The question for Ebersol was whether Fowler could be trusted. He had been the top candidate to buy the Minnesota Vikings in 2005 and held a news conference to announce the purchase. In it, he was forced to apologize for false aspects of his biography sent out by his PR firm, which among other claims said he had majored in business administration at the University of Wyoming rather than social work, and that he had played in the NFL when he hadn’t. Later, the NFL questioned Fowler’s liquidity when it examined his finances, and he was reduced to a limited owner of the Vikings. He was bought out in 2014, amid media reports that he had lost control of his companies because of tens of millions of dollars in debt.

 

Ebersol knew that Fowler, who declined comment for this story through his lawyer, was a risk. He had researched him, asked various sports executives for advice and arranged meetings between Fowler and some AAF board members, lawyers, executives and even his father. In the end, Fowler’s offer was too good to pass up: $50 million in equity and a $120 million line of credit, drawn in $15 million increments at the league’s discretion. It was a three-year deal — and perhaps would persuade other major backers who had given Ebersol only contingency commitments. Fowler would own 31 percent of the AAF.

 

Ebersol’s legal team had reviewed Fowler’s finances. Altogether, his accounts totaled around $800 million, Ebersol later told confidants. Players, coaches and executives would later criticize Ebersol for partnering with Fowler, but at the time Ebersol didn’t think he could afford to be picky; it was his only chance against the XFL. He saw cash in Fowler’s accounts — $53 million in one, $60 million in another — waiting to be withdrawn. “As far as deals go, this one was unmatched — until it wasn’t,” Ebersol says now.

– – –

It was a crazy and exhilarating time for Polian, working all hours. Every week, he would lead a call with the football operations department — the most enjoyable moments of the job, he says — where they’d throw around crazy ideas. “It was a fun and great group of people,” Polian says now. “We were moving along and we put together the entire club staffing and personnel process within about three months, which is amazing.” And stressful. At one point during a meeting at CBS, McManus asked Polian: “Can you assure me that when we turn on the TV set we’ll see a game that looks like the NFL?”

 

“Yes,” Polian replied.

 

“WE HAVE SEVERE financial problems,” Ebersol told Polian. “We may not make payroll.”

 

It was shortly before Christmas. Fowler’s $15 million chunks weren’t coming in as expected. The cash would arrive in smaller amounts, at weird times, from various banks. Ebersol had been struggling to balance public optimism and private financial realities. He didn’t want staffers to worry, and so he would reassure anyone who asked about the league’s outlook, sometimes sounding like he was also trying to convince himself. Veit would remind Ebersol that all minor leagues have cash flow issues. But the Alliance was now $13 million short to start training camp. Ebersol was distraught about having to lay off people during Christmas week.

 

Polian struggled to retain optimism as well. Training camp in San Antonio was due to start in two weeks, and AAF corporate wouldn’t allow teams to book travel. Now Polian knew why.

 

“Look, Charlie,” Polian said. “There’s no dishonor in saying that we can’t make this work. We gave it an honest shot.”

 

Ebersol wanted to have two last-chance meetings. The first was held with Fowler in late December in the downtown San Francisco offices of Morgan Lewis, the AAF’s law firm. Enraged and on the verge of tears, Ebersol lit into Fowler. “This is not f—ing acceptable!” he said. “If you don’t start properly funding us, I will shut the company down! I don’t f—ing miss payroll!”

 

“Calm down, calm down,” Fowler said.

 

Ebersol was unhinged, and it embarrassed AAF executives. Few would have blamed Fowler if he had pulled the plug. But at the time, neither they nor Ebersol knew that months earlier, on Oct. 23 and Nov. 16, the U.S. government had frozen at least four of Fowler’s accounts as part of a forthcoming fraud indictment. The Department of Justice in April 2019 would arrest Fowler and allege that from February to October 2018, Fowler and his Israeli business partner, Ravid Yosef, operated “an unlicensed money transmitting business” by moving hundreds of millions of dollars through banks into cryptocurrency endeavors under the guise of a real estate investment. (Fowler would plead not guilty. Yosef, who the indictment said was at large, has yet to enter a plea.)

 

Ebersol’s outburst served its purpose. Fowler promised to live up to his agreement, offering to do so out of his personal account. But at one point, Fowler asked Ebersol, “What’s the Plan B?”

 

There was no Plan B, Ebersol said. “I’m going to shut it down.”

 

But there was a Plan B, at least in theory: It was McMahon. Soon after the Fowler meeting, Charlie and Dick visited McMahon in Connecticut. Charlie Ebersol had once tried to partner with McMahon, before the AAF had officially launched, pitching himself at the helm of an XFL sequel. McMahon declined and instead hired Oliver Luck, the former NCAA executive and father of the Indianapolis Colts’ star quarterback. Now the Ebersols once again asked to join forces with the XFL. Charlie argued that he’d already spent millions on staff and infrastructure. Why not merge?

 

McMahon loved the Ebersols, but business was business. He wanted the new XFL to live or die on his terms, and he was more than content to let the AAF live or die on its terms.

 

Ebersol returned to San Francisco for the holidays, ready to close the league on Dec. 26. But at 8 p.m. on Christmas, a deposit of $13 million from Fowler arrived in the AAF account. “It’s a Christmas miracle!” Ebersol told his wife.

 

At 4:36 p.m. on Dec. 26, Annie Gerhart, Ebersol’s assistant, emailed all league and team executives: “I am happy to report that everything with travel is squared away and we are ready to start booking training camp flights!”

– – –

A little over a week later, the two inaugural AAF games kicked off, the Orlando Apollos versus the Atlanta Legends, and the San Antonio Commanders against the San Diego Fleet. Ebersol was in the Alamodome, wearing matching sneakers with his infant daughter. At the Olympics, Dick Ebersol always had gifted special souvenir pins to NBC’s behind-the-scenes staffers. Charlie did the same, passing out football-shaped AAF pins. Against all odds, Ebersol had done it: He had produced an actual spring football game, on national television and before 27,000 fans, with a fraction of the funding of the XFL. A section of the crowd chanted his name. A brutal hit by Commanders linebacker Shaan Washington on Fleet quarterback Mike Bercovici went viral. The game beat a Rockets-Thunder NBA nail-biter in head-to-head overnight ratings, validating not only the AAF but the business of spring football. A text message to Ebersol from a friend said: “You landed on the moon.”

 

Within hours, the Alliance would miss part of its first payroll.

 

A FEW DAYS after the AAF’s opening weekend, Tom Dundon discussed the league over breakfast with Erik Anderson, founder and CEO of the WestRiver Group investment firm. Anderson knew that Ebersol was desperate; Charlie had called him that morning about a $100 million loan. Ebersol publicly insisted that the missed paychecks temporarily affected only 20 percent of players, owing mostly to a new payroll provider. But cash flow was an issue. All of the training camp bills had come due. After paying out around $28 million total, Fowler was late again. Ebersol couldn’t rely on him anymore. The league was about to go under. Anderson told Dundon that Ebersol needed a new top investor.

 

Dundon was intrigued by the AAF. He was 47 years old, with salt-and-pepper scruff. He had made billions running his own private investment firm, much of it rooted in subprime auto lending, but he didn’t carry himself like a rich man. He seemed most comfortable in Carolina Hurricanes sweatpants. He loved football and was well-regarded in NFL circles; the league had vetted him in 2018, when the Carolina Panthers were for sale. Dundon had watched the AAF’s opening weekend and liked its potential — and the potential of spring football. Anderson connected Dundon and Ebersol, and a deal came together over the phone. Dundon told Ebersol that he was in for $250 million — the amount both men believed it would take to get the league to profitability. But over the next hour, Dundon started digging into the business and was livid at what he found: The financial prospectus the AAF provided him was outdated and inaccurate.

 

“I’m out,” Dundon told Ebersol.

 

Then Ebersol talked Dundon back in, explaining that the prospectus hadn’t been updated and selling his vision for the AAF as a transformative league with transformative tech. Dundon called a few media and sports executives for advice. As always, the promise and potential of a spring football league captured their imagination. The heavy lifting of getting the league off the ground was already complete. Dundon concluded that if he could partner with the NFL or secure a remunerative broadcast deal, he might be able to flip the AAF, maybe for up to a billion dollars. Dundon had hours to decide. He decided to keep the AAF open on a weekly basis — even if he would publicly play up the $250 million to the media, vowing that it was good for the long haul. He figured that was best for business. “I’m buying the option on it,” he told a confidant. The four-page deal came together in 26 hours.

 

The marriage between Dundon and Ebersol was off from the beginning. Days after the transaction, they hosted a painfully awkward video chat for AAF employees, which began with Ebersol alone and Dundon nudging his way onto the screen — in a Hurricanes hat. When Ebersol introduced him as a “dream partner,” Dundon’s face didn’t move. He was already having buyer’s remorse. The AAF’s gambling app barely functioned. The players’ college fund had never been funded in earnest. Vendors from training camp hadn’t been paid. Security agents were traveling with teams to protect players nobody knew. Dundon had agreed as part of the deal that Polian and Ebersol would continue to run the league, but he removed both Charlie and Dick Ebersol from the board and sidelined most of the business staff. He liked Charlie, and admired his work ethic and charm, but felt that he would exaggerate the league’s outlook. The first time he met Polian, Dundon complimented him: “The only thing that’s working is football.”

 

Dundon and his staff held a meeting in Dallas shortly after he acquired the league, with the AAF principals in attendance. Dundon immediately ordered the league’s expenses of about $100 million to be cut in half. Polian initially balked, which irritated Dundon. He liked Polian but felt that he spent money as if he were in the NFL. Dundon later confided to Ebersol that he planned to move on from Polian if the league made it to a second year.

 

Dundon then raised the XFL. “Vince is a really strong adversary,” he said. “I don’t know if we can compete with them.”

 

We have better players, the AAF executives argued.

 

Dundon didn’t see players as a competitive advantage. He thought that the AAF had overpaid for coaches and players. “If we can operate this league at $50 million, we’ll have a league and a business,” Dundon said.

 

“I recognize that, but we can’t,” Polian said. “We’d have to cut the players’ salary.”

 

“Yeah, but if we don’t, we don’t have a business,” Dundon said.

 

The AAF executives raised the idea of paying a premium to attract better quarterbacks, which Dundon immediately dismissed. “Vince will just pay more,” he said.

 

Dundon later decided that he was in the AAF business up to $70 million, at $15 million a week. He instructed Ebersol to find new capital — but also tied Ebersol’s hands by refusing new investors until he had a grasp of the business, out of legal concerns. “Bill and Charlie started a league with no money,” Dundon later told a confidant.

 

After the Dallas meeting, Dundon, Polian and Ebersol flew to New York to meet with McManus, the CBS executive. Dundon told McManus he wanted CBS to chip in, as in most broadcast deals. McManus was clear: He’d give the league favorable broadcast windows, but the revenue didn’t support anything beyond a time-buy. Maybe next year we can discuss sharing production costs, McManus said.

 

Dundon left the meeting early to catch a flight, then called Ebersol and instructed him to leverage the threat of killing the league with McManus. Ebersol was embarrassed. McManus later told a confidant that he felt sorry for Charlie, who he believed negotiated in good faith. But he wouldn’t move. “A deal’s a deal,” McManus told Ebersol.

 

Dundon had one option left: to officially partner with the NFL. It would require both the league and the players’ association — two organizations that usually don’t move quickly unless profits are to be made — to insert unprecedented language into the CBA. It was a Hail Mary. Dundon was now deep in the morass common to most who’ve been smitten by spring football. “I did zero due diligence,” he told a confidant. “It was really stupid.”

 

A CONFERENCE CALL between union and AAF executives was set up for the afternoon of Monday, April 1. For weeks, Dundon and DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, had spoken daily. Smith was skeptical of both the chances of achieving a partnership and of the partnership itself. He had fought hard during the last CBA negotiations for players to have more time off, not less, and the AAF would play during the NFL offseason. Smith also worried that NFL teams could tacitly force players into the AAF by threatening their roster spot. “It was against our health and safety principles,” Smith says now. “It placed those players at the mercy of NFL GMs who could have pressured those players to play in the AAF and risk their livelihood.”

 

Getting the union on board was only half the battle for the AAF. The NFL was as much of a long shot, due to both the private opinion held by some executives that it didn’t need a developmental league — college football already provides that — and the long-standing effort to not violate antitrust law.

 

On the call, Polian was diplomatic. He suggested that Smith decide which NFL players could participate in the AAF. The idea went nowhere. Polian then offered his assurance that any NFL players in the AAF wouldn’t be forced into the league or seriously injured.

 

“You have my word,” Polian said.

 

Dundon found that statement absurd. It was football — how could the AAF promise nobody would get hurt? He felt that AAF executives weren’t leveling with the union, so he took it upon himself. Citing the likelihood of injuries, he said, “I understand why you’re not going to do the deal.”

 

Polian and Ebersol couldn’t understand the strategy. Was Dundon sabotaging negotiations? The call ended with the union executives promising to consider a deal, nothing more.

 

Dundon, though, knew the deal was dead. He had concluded as much from his conversations with Smith. Dundon and Polian, Smith says now, “realized that they couldn’t address and resolve” the union’s safety issues. The conference call itself was a courtesy. Dundon was ready to move on from the AAF, satisfied that without his investment, the league would have died earlier and players wouldn’t have gotten a second chance at the NFL. The business was a mess. Litigation loomed: A venture capitalist, Robert Vanech, had sued the AAF and Ebersol, claiming that Ebersol stole his idea for the league, which Ebersol vehemently denied. Dundon told Ebersol that he’d sell the league “for zero dollars,” but Ebersol still couldn’t find a major backer. Dundon made one last run at the networks — including ESPN, which along with Fox would later announce a partnership with the XFL — for a better deal but couldn’t get any takers. Spring football might be worth a billion dollars one day, but not the AAF. “It was a business problem, not a money problem,” Dundon says now.

 

On the phone after the union call, Polian swallowed his frustrations toward his boss, telling him that the meeting “couldn’t have gone better if we’d scripted it. We’re better than 50 percent there.” Dundon indulged Polian’s optimism for a few minutes, knowing that if not for a miracle the league would suspend operations the next day. He then said that he was getting another call.

 

“I’ll call you back,” Dundon said.

 

It was the last time they spoke.

 

ON A FRIDAY in late April, Ebersol sat in a downtown San Francisco members-only social club, trying to determine if he’d missed by inches or a million miles. His face in exile looked different than it did as the face of the AAF, a clean shave around a full mustache replacing his usual scruff. He had spent a lot of time alone after the league folded, tending to his garden and writing thank-you notes to many AAF folks. Furious AAF employees were left with little public explanation or guidance — and felt misled. A slew of former staffers and players filed three lawsuits claiming that the league broke the law by failing to provide advance notice before shutting down. They named Dundon, Ebersol and Polian, among others, as defendants, ensuring that litigation would be the AAF’s lasting legacy. It was all too raw for Ebersol to process.

 

After months of nonstop struggle to make the AAF go, none of the principals came away undamaged, their aspirations undone by the collective fantasy of spring football. In the weeks after the league died, Polian worked the phones from his North Carolina home, declining most interviews and trying to find NFL jobs for football operations staffers. Dundon tried to avoid the cameras but couldn’t because the Hurricanes reached the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals. Whenever he gave an interview, reporters asked about the AAF. He said little, letting Chapter 7 bankruptcy paperwork speak for him. Legendary Field Exhibitions, the AAF’s parent company, listed the league’s $11 million in assets against $48 million in liabilities. Its books and records were framed as a “best effort” in bankruptcy documents — a final repudiation of any notion that the league’s finances were ever buttoned up. All of the AAF football equipment, from helmets to shoulder pads to wrapping tape, was stored in a warehouse in San Antonio, waiting for auction.

 

Ebersol was eager to hustle back into the workforce, but he didn’t know what he would do. He suspected his reputation was shot. Though he estimated that he had lost seven figures of his own money in the AAF, he was paid $14,000 just before the league went bankrupt. It was a horrible look to the many employees who trusted him, who moved across the country, often leaving good jobs, to work for a league with a supposed three-year runway. The AAF drew comparisons to the disastrous Fyre Festival. That angered Ebersol, but it didn’t matter. He had failed in an endeavor many had failed in, and yet something about the idea remains so singular that other spring leagues aren’t dissuaded. The XFL continues to plan for a 2020 launch, and two others are in the works as well: the Freedom Football League, founded by Ricky Williams and Terrell Owens, and the Pac Pro League, co-founded by Don Yee, best known as Tom Brady’s agent. Like the AAF, all promise to develop NFL players and serve an untapped football audience, despite the odds.

 

Over tea in a private room near the bar of the social club, Ebersol was asked what he would have done differently. He started to answer — and then stopped. Nothing, he insisted. He refused to think that way. He had promised to be grateful for the good and the bad in his life, and if he was to live up to that promise, he couldn’t look back. “Would I do it all over again, knowing exactly how it was going to end?” he said. “Yes. A thousand times over. But that’s true of the plane crash too. To continue forward I have to find gratitude in the pain.”

 

In late May, he read a newspaper report that someone had placed a deposit to purchase the old AAF equipment for $375,000.

 

It was Alpha Entertainment, parent company of the XFL.