The Daily Briefing Monday, October 30, 2017

AROUND THE NFL

 

If The Season Ended Today in the NFC:

 

                                               Overall     Division       Conference

Philadelphia Eagles    NCE     7-1               3-0                6-0

Minnesota Vikings      NCN     6-2               2-1                4-1

New Orleans Saints    NCS     5-2              1-0                 4-1

Seattle Seahawks       NCW    5-2              2-0                3-1

Los Angeles Rams     WC       5-2               2-1                3-2

Carolina Panthers        WC     5-3              1-1                 3-3

Atlanta Falcons                       4-3              0-0                3-0    

Green Bay Packers                 4-3              1-1                 3-3

Dallas Cowboys                      4-3               2-0                4-2                     

 

Detroit, Washington and Arizona all 3-4.

 

The idle Packers fell out of the playoffs on their couches Sunday as the Eagles, Vikings, Saints, Seahawks, Panthers, Cowboys and Falcons all won.

– – –

As Mike Florio explains, FOX ruled Sunday – and it wasn’t the crazy World Series game that had the highest rating:

 

In the head-to-head matchup between baseball and football on Sunday night, baseball won in the TV ratings race. But Sunday night’s baseball game lost viewers compared to its Sunday afternoon football lead-in on FOX.

 

The classic 10-inning Game 5 between the Astros and Dodgers drew a 12.8 overnight rating on FOX, while the Steelers-Lions game drew a 9.4 overnight rating on NBC. This is the second consecutive year that the World Series game on Sunday night has out-drawn Sunday Night Football.

 

The highest-rated TV program in America on Sunday, however, was the Dallas-Washington game on FOX, which served as the lead-in to the World Series game and drew a 15.3 overnight rating.

 

Ratings for CBS, which had a great game between the Texans and Seahawks at the same time as that FOX broadcast, are not yet available.

– – –

The DB has wondered when Roger Goodell’s ability to turn molehills into mountains would catch up to him and cast his lucrative compensation and lofty position into doubt.  Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter are reporting the time is now:

 

The Cowboys’ Jerry Jones was a leading voice among 17 NFL owners on a conference call Thursday that discussed the possibility of halting commissioner Roger Goodell’s pending contract extension, sources involved with the call told ESPN.

 

There is a growing difference of opinion among owners about Goodell’s overall performance as commissioner, according to sources. The owners on Thursday’s conference call are generally unhappy with Goodell and the NFL’s front office for a variety of reasons, including the player protests staged during the national anthem, issues regarding the relocation of teams to Los Angeles and the league’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case, according to sources.

 

“You don’t get to have this many messes over the years like Roger has had and survive it,” one owner said during the call.

 

Despite the unhappiness, this group of owners is skeptical that it will be able to outright fire Goodell, according to sources. The NFL would need 24 owners to approve Goodell’s ouster. But one person involved in this past week’s conference call compared the NFL’s current situation with Goodell to Major League Baseball’s situation with Fay Vincent in September 1992, when baseball owners voted 18-9 to ask him to step down and replace him with Bud Selig.

 

“There is, and was, something that is an issue,” said a league source who was not on the conference call and didn’t learn about it until Saturday night. “I’d be very surprised about wanting to change Roger. I’d be shocked about that.”

 

Yet for all the prominent people who do support Goodell, a contract that was expected to be completed in September has not been finalized as November approaches.

 

“Maybe Arthur [Blank, the head of the compensation committee] and that committee think they’re on track,” an owner said about Goodell’s extension talks. “But they have a lot more resistance than they counted on — and maybe they don’t know how the resistance is growing as we speak.”

 

Goodell and the league are at a critical juncture, and those around the NFL have said they can sense that. And this was before Texans owner Bob McNair was quoted in an ESPN The Magazine story saying, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” causing some Texans players to leave the facility on Friday. Sources said they are discussing the possibility of staging a demonstration for Sunday’s game in Seattle. Texans left tackle Duane Brown told ESPN’s Josina Anderson on Sunday morning that he anticipates “up to 65 to 70 percent” of the team’s players could kneel.

 

“We just don’t have enough problem solvers,” another NFL owner said. “We gotta get it right or we’re just going to let it burn. Last time I felt like this was before the 1993 CBA settlement. That was just depressing, and Paul Tagliabue and Gene [Upshaw] stepped up and saved it in a spectacular way. We don’t have that feeling right now.”

 

During the owners’ most recent meetings on Oct. 17 and 18 in New York, much was discussed but little was decided, as Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta reported in their ESPN The Magazine story. It led owners to last week’s conference call that detailed some of the issues they have with the league and Goodell.

 

“That was our recurring theme, that there’s no leadership,” said another executive familiar with Thursday’s conference call. “Everyone [in the league office] is trying to win the latest news cycle, and there’s no long-term vision. It’s just, ‘How can we minimize the bad headlines, maximize the revenue and move on to the next day?’ And there’s an increasing frustration to that approach.”

 

McNair also expressed frustration with the league’s leadership when he sought to clarify his “inmates” comment in a statement released Saturday.

 

“I was referring to the relationship between the league office and team owners and how they have been making significant strategic decisions affecting our league without adequate input from ownership over the past few years,” McNair said in an excerpt from the statement.

 

Despite the criticism McNair has received for his comments, his statement put a prominent name to previous stories in which anonymous sources said there is unhappiness with the league office under Goodell’s leadership, although he did not specifically name the commissioner in his statement.

 

Jones, asked after Sunday’s Cowboys victory over the Redskins about last week’s conference call, said, “Anything about the content of any of our meetings . . . I wouldn’t get into nuances, I wouldn’t get into the content.” But he added that with regards to Goodell’s contract, all owners were asked for their input, “and so this was a part of leaving there and continuing to do your homework.”

 

Sources have previously said that Jones has tried to stand in the way of any extension for Goodell. Last month, ESPN reported that Jones was impeding the progress of contract negotiations aimed at an extension for Goodell. “If not for Jerry,” one owner said last month in regard to the contract negotiations, “this deal would be done.”

 

Blank, who is the point man for negotiations on Goodell’s extension, said he invited Jones as an ad hoc committee adviser. Blank said there remains “details to complete” on the extension for Goodell’s term, but he continues to express optimism.

 

A source said Blank was neither aware of nor invited to participate in last week’s conference call, as was the case with at least three other owners contacted this weekend.

 

Sources declined to identify the specific teams represented on the call but pointed out that the number of participants was further proof of the growing unrest after the previous week’s meetings in New York.

 

“There was good communication that we were going to have this next discussion … it was an appointment among owners who have serious concerns, ” one owner said. “Just because the league office isn’t involved or certain other owners, that doesn’t mean these things don’t happen.”

 

When asked whether the NFL is at the edge of a cliff with its mounting troubles and the uncertainty regarding the future of Goodell’s commissionership, the owner countered that it was a “great opportunity.”

 

“We’re not on the edge of destruction,” the owner said. “It’s an opportunity. It creates real energy, and it creates a great opportunity to get our leadership right going forward. You watch. We will come out of this as a stronger league, and our popularity will come back and increase.”

 

There was no firm appointment made for another call among the group, the owner added, but he said he had little doubt that the discussion would continue.

 

Peter King with more thoughts:

 

Last month, Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, the chairman of the league’s compensation committee, told me he believed the Goodell extension absolutely would get done. Another source said he believes Goodell could sign it at any time but has some minor points in the deal he still wants to address. But in the wake of rising discontent among owners over the anthem issue and what sitting and kneeling players are doing to the league’s bottom line with fans and advertisers, the dissatisfaction of strong owners like the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones cannot be discounted. It’s unclear whether the discord between the league office and some owners could lead to the dissolution of the Goodell pact, though it seems unlikely. But the fact that the past five or six weeks have gone by without a resolution of the contract makes it rise in significance as a story.

 

Jones is a leader and probably the leader against the extension, or at least against the extension in the way it has been presented. In the Wickersham/Van Natta story, Jones was quoted as saying the Goodell contract “is the most one-sided contract ever.” Goodell made about $65 million in salary and benefits in 2014 and 2015, and Jones said he wanted Goodell’s salary to be more incentive-based.

 

Because it’s uncertain now if Goodell’s contract is fit to be signed today, or if the owners can still try to negotiate the deal down, it may be a moot point. But as one ownership source told me Sunday, Jones wouldn’t be going to this extent if he didn’t think he could affect the final number on Goodell’s deal—or whether there’s a deal at all. This source also said he thought Goodell would react badly to taking any significant pay cut. The league’s total revenue has risen from about $6 billion when Goodell took over the job in 2006 to between $14 billion and $15 billion this year. The source said Goodell thinks he’s done the job the owners hired him to do: markedly increase revenues and be a discipline-minded steward of the game.

 

Jones is angry at Goodell for suspending the Cowboys’ star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, for six games, which Elliott has fought and won so far; but if he loses another appeal this week, Elliott could miss Dallas’s next six games. Further, it is believed that Jones feels Goodell is too iron-fisted with player suspensions. Until recently, Jones was a steadfast backer of Goodell. But the suspensions have made him increasingly angry. He also cannot fathom how Goodell won’t put his foot down and force players to stand for the anthem. If players don’t stand, Jones is said to think, then so be it—they shouldn’t play.

 

“Jerry [Jones] is on a mission,” said this ownership source. “I’ve been in the league a long time, and this is as passionate and vocal as I’ve seen him on anything. He wants players to stand, and he obviously wants to do something on Roger’s contract.”

 

What Goodell is trying to do with the anthem is simple—he’s trying to build some sort of consensus between a group of players who have different interests in civil-rights issues. He feels if he pushes for a consensus too hard and tries to force all players to stand before a deliberate partnership plan with players is agreed to, too many players would splinter off, and there’d be a much larger group of players standing or kneeling for the anthem. It’s a sticky problem.

 

It’s unclear which owners are among the 17 who participated on Thursday’s call. But it’s easier to make an educated guess which owners want Goodell to push harder to get players to stand: Dallas, Washington and Houston, certainly. Other teams with owners motivated to get players to stand: Detroit, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Cleveland, Carolina, Baltimore, Indianapolis and the Los Angeles Chargers. I repeat: Those are educated guesses, based on interviews with league people in the past few days.

 

I don’t believe any ownership effort has the 24 votes necessary to force out Goodell. I also don’t believe there are 24 votes to slash Goodell’s compensation right now. And however some owners feel about Goodell, it’s going to be hard in an era of huge NFL wealth to slash his compensation … particularly when the contract extension is going to cover the next labor negotiations, which could be hugely rancorous.

 

But I’ll repeat something that one owner told me before the last New York meetings 13 days ago: Goodell has so few friends on the player side—he has a cold relationship with union chief DeMaurice Smith—and he’s feeling the cold shoulder from more and more owners that he doesn’t have the chips to call in to make tough deals right now. And certainly not something as important to an increasing group of players and owners as the anthem issue.

 

On Sunday, one prominent club official said he’s reached out to owners and some executives in the league in the past few days, just to ask how they think this story—the anthem, and Goodell’s contract—is going to play out. He said he hasn’t gotten one definitive answer. Just guesses. And he said the other interesting thing is there’s no logical candidate who could build a consensus to be the next commissioner if Goodell is ousted. It’s a confusing time, in part because it’s unclear whether Goodell and his administration are going to be able to do enough to make the players actually trust the league.

 

Don’t think that the awful handling of Deflategate doesn’t linger as a factor in those questioning Goodell’s leadership.  Peter King with Chris Mortensen:

 

• Mortensen on the stiff sanction the league gave the Patriots—a four-game ban for Tom Brady, the loss of first- and fourth-round picks, and a $1 million fine—for Deflategate: “The bottom line is that the league—[people] I would call influential executives and people on the competition committee—agree with me: This should have gone to the competition committee as just a tweak, find what your rule is and it could have gotten off with just a letter or even if they want to dock them a fourth-round draft pick or whatever. But for what [the sanction] became, it wasn’t worth it.”

– – –

The activist players seem to have a name now – The Players Coalition.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com says that group ringleader/founder/inspiration Colin Kaepernick (not technically a player at this time) will not be coming face-to-face with Warden Bob McNair today:

 

The Players Coalition hoped to meet with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Texans owner Bob McNair, and unemployed quarterback Colin Kaepernick on Monday in Philadelphia. That won’t be happening. And it’s currently not known when the next meeting between the Players Coalition and the league.

 

“The league didn’t accept our invitation,” Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins said Sunday, via the Associated Press. “At this point, the ball is in their court. We’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing. Guys are working around the league.”

 

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Jenkins and retired receiver Anquan Boldin have been in constant communication with the league office, and the two sides remain interested in continuing the dialogue via a face-to-face meeting.

 

“They want to get back to football; we want to move past anthem demonstrations,” Jenkins said. “But to do that, we need to be able to replace the platform that we have.”

 

At some point, the players need to regard this issue for what it is — a rare item of significant leverage that can be traded for something else the players want, whether it’s a reformed disciplinary procedure, overhaul or elimination of the marijuana policy, or anything else that the league would be willing to give up in order to give the owners what they clearly want: An end to sitting or kneeling during the anthem.

 

This where Commissioner Roger Goodell needs to ditch the “enforcer” faςade and become a deal-maker. Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith should get together and develop a joint league/union policy that mandates standing for the anthem, in exchange for something for the players. That’s what former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the late Gene Upshaw would have done.

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

OMG.  TE ZACH MILLER is fighting to save his leg today.  Chris Mortensen of ESPN.com:

 

Chicago Bears tight end Zach Miller underwent emergency surgery Sunday night in an effort to save his injured left leg, league and team sources told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen.

 

The surgery, performed in New Orleans after the Bears’ loss to the New Orleans’ Saints, was to repair a damaged artery in Miller’s leg, according to sources.

 

Miller dislocated his knee in the third quarter of Sunday’s game against the Saints. Sources told Mortensen that Miller’s dislocated knee is considered “more significant” than a regular dislocation, which is a serious injury.

 

Vascular surgeons were called in in an effort to repair Miller’s leg, which including grafting tissue from the other leg to repair the damaged artery, sources told Mortensen.

 

Bears coach John Fox said Sunday that the team’s “thoughts and prayers are with him” after revealing that the veteran tight end would spend the night in the hospital.

 

Miller, 33, had made a nice over-the-shoulder catch from rookie Mitchell Trubisky in the end zone, but when he landed, his left leg bent awkwardly.

 

Sensing the serious nature of the injury, Bears medical personnel rushed onto the field to assist Miller, who stayed down for several minutes before being taken off the field on a cart.

 

 

DETROIT

We were having a discussion about “empty yards” even before Detroit kicked off on Sunday night.  Then this happened.

 

@NFLResearch 

This is Matthew Stafford’s second career game with 400+ pass yds & 0 pass TDs. No other QB has one such game over the last 20 seasons

 

Some other tweets about Lions futility:

 

@JABergman

On five second-half drives, the Lions punted just once, yet only came away with a field goal.

 

Chris Adamski @C_AdamskiTrib

17 snaps, 2 net yards for the Lions once they drove inside the Steelers’ 20 (counting penalties)

 

It was a tough night for kids from Highland Park, Texas on Sunday, but at least they didn’t go to bed poor:

 

@AndrewBrandt 

Players grew up together w/biggest contracts in their sport playing tonight.  Guaranteed $$:

Matthew Stafford: $60M

Clayton Kershaw: $215M

 

 

GREEN BAY

Peter King circles a date on his calendar:

 

I’d like to see Aaron Rodgers come back late this year if for no other reason than to see the Saturday night national game in Week 16: Vikings (and Anthony Barr) at Green Bay, Dec. 23.

 

 

MINNESOTA

Peter King with some love for Vikings OC Pat Shurmur:

 

Shurmur thought he’d have Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater playing quarterback for him this year. Through the first half of the season, the Vikings are 6-2, and Shurmur mostly has had the well-traveled/abandoned Case Keenum playing some of the best football of his itinerant career. What’s most notable is the varied play-calls with injuries (to Stefon Diggs, most notably, and of course quarterback), and the Vikings enter their bye week and the second half of their season as the clear favorite in the NFC North.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

RB EZEKIEL ELLIOTT headed to New York, not back to Dallas, after vanquishing the Redskins.  Much of the remainder of his season hangs in the balance as he takes on the forces of NFL Justice in U.S. Federal Court.  David Moore in the Dallas Morning News:

 

A cloud hung over the Cowboys on Sunday afternoon, dumping rain and making for a dreary few hours at FedEx Field.

 

That’s nothing compared to the cloud of uncertainty that has hung over Ezekiel Elliott and this franchise for the first two months of the regular season.

 

The running back’s expensive legal marathon won’t end anytime soon. But all parties can take solace in this: Elliott and the Cowboys should know in the next few days whether he will stay on the field for the remainder of the season or be forced to begin serving his six-game suspension.

What transpires in the Southern District court of New York on Monday afternoon has a greater impact on the team’s playoff fortunes than its sloppy 33-19 victory over Washington.

Let’s face it. This is a game the Cowboys should have won to nudge their record above .500 for the first time this season.

 

Three starters in Washington’s offensive line — left tackle Trent Williams, center Spencer Long and right guard Brandon Scherff — were inactive for the game. Every time Washington coach Jay Gruden looked up Sunday it seemed like he was losing another starter or key reserve.

 

Now, the Cowboys must hold their breath about Elliott’s availability.

 

Again.

 

Elliott said it didn’t cross his mind that this could be his last game until December. His concern was that he be himself and perform “at my highest level.”

 

He did. Elliott rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns and had a third score called back when left tackle Tyron Smith was called for holding. He gained 83 of those yards in the second half and ran the ball six times in the final 4:35 to protect what at the time was a precarious seven-point lead.

 

While the rest of his teammates headed home after the game, Elliott was on his way to New York to meet with his legal team before Monday’s hearing in front of Judge Katherine Polk Failla. If the judge grants his preliminary injunction, this contentious battle between the NFL and Elliott will be pushed into the offseason before it’s resolved.

 

If Elliott’s motion is denied, the suspension will begin with next week’s game against Kansas City. There will be precious few legal cards left to play to delay a suspension.

 

“We’re confident,” Elliott said. “We’re confident in our argument.

 

“We’re confident that I’ll be on the field for the rest of the year.”

 

Jerry Jones again maintained Elliott did nothing wrong in his interactions with former girlfriend Tiffany Thompson and questioned the NFL’s justice.

 

“What is important is that he gets a fair shake,” the Cowboys owner said. “Zeke has in no way, by any standard in this country, done anything wrong. He’s done nothing wrong.

 

“The league has tried to say that he’s done something that we disagree with. We all don’t agree with that. We don’t have the system in place for this, and we’re trying to make one up in a few short months, and it’s got too many ways to not be fair to a person like Zeke.”

 

Jones concedes it’s trite to proclaim the team needs Elliott. So don’t. Just look at the recent sample size.

 

The Cowboys have averaged 196.5 yards on the ground in the last four games after a slow start. Elliott has rushed for more than 100 yards in three consecutive games and averaged 124.5 yards rushing in the last four.

 

This team shows signs of returning to the dominant form it displayed for most of last season. Remove Elliott from the equation, and it’s difficult to imagine the momentum that’s starting to build will continue.

 

Still, Elliott expresses confidence that the Cowboys can get by without him.

 

“I mean, we have a great running back room,” Elliott said. “I’m not too worried about the guys who are behind me. There are a lot of great running backs behind me. All three of them can go be starters anywhere.

 

“I have a lot of confidence in the guys in that room, and I have a lot of confidence in this team.”

 

 

PHILADELPHIA

Some eloquence from RB LeGARRETTE BLOUNT when he was asked by TheMMQB.com about his most prized possession:

 

“That’s easy. In the history of the NFL, there hasn’t been but 51 super Bowls played, and I have won two of them. So it’s my two Super Bowl rings. I have the utmost respect for the Patriots, and I appreciate everything they did for me. It’s a world-class organization. Even though I am here [in Philadelphia] now, I hold no grudge. It’s business. That’s football. You move on. But those two Super Bowls rings are pretty important in my life. They’re put away safely. I bought the two replicas; I don’t wear the real ones. To understand what they mean, think of this: I was a big football fan growing up. As a kid you watch the Super Bowl, and you imagine, ‘I hope I can play in one of those some day.’ It’s pretty cool. I played in two.”

– – –

So Mike Trout sits in the end zone?  Blaine Schuster at YahooSports.com:

 

The Philadelphia Eagles have made a habit of incorporating baseball into their games. Mostly this comes in the form of celebrating touchdowns by hitting faux home runs. But more and more often Philadelphia has included native son Mike Trout into the action.

 

The Los Angeles Angels‘ superstar outfielder is a die-hard Eagles fan and has been present at many of their home games this season, usually sitting in the front row. And, usually, when the Eagles score a touchdown, Trout is the first person they look for.

 

That was the case again on Sunday as Zach Ertz caught a 1-yard pass in the end zone against the San Francisco 49ers and immediately ran to hand the ball over to Trout.

 

There’s long been speculation — mostly from Philadelphia fans — that Trout could home to play for the Phillies when his contract is up in Los Angeles. At some point you have to wonder whether all these game balls count as tampering.

 

It’s also fun seeing how excited Trout gets every time this happens. He turns into a kid again (editor’s note: he’s only 26 years old). Maybe it’s karma for all the souvenirs he has given fans around major league baseball.

 

.

 

 

WASHINGTON

The DB thinks a reasonably healthy Redskins team could compete for a playoff berth.   But that is not their status now.  Liz Clarke in the Washington Post:

 

The Washington Redskins trotted onto rain-slicked FedEx Field on Sunday missing three-fifths of their starting offensive line and two defensive starters, the odds stacked against them and the Dallas Cowboys lined up across from them.

 

On a stage set for unheralded backups to make a name for themselves, the patched-together Redskins did well to keep the game close early, cheered on by poncho-draped fans who stood for the duration as rain pummeled the venue all afternoon.

 

But after scoring first and clawing back to retake the lead, the Redskins lost the momentum on a blocked field goal that resulted in a 10-point swing with just under three minutes remaining in a seesaw first half. And they fell, 33-19, as the ranks of injured players mounted and a chance at sole possession of second in the NFC East slipped from their grasp.

 

With the defeat, the Redskins dropped to 3-4 overall and 0-3 in the division, including two losses to the Philadelphia Eagles.

 

Moreover, the tight end corps that has been invaluable amid struggles in the wide receiver ranks took a beating, further winnowing the playbook for a would-be comeback. Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Reed exited the game with a hamstring injury. And Niles Paul, the team’s best blocking tight end, was ruled out after suffering his second concussion in the past four seasons.

 

While it seemed impossible for the injury-ravaged offensive line to suffer further blows, it did. Already without left tackle Trent Williams, right guard Brandon Scherff and center Spencer Long, the unit lost a fourth starter, Shawn Lauvao, in the third quarter. He was soon followed by T.J. Clemmings, the third-string tackle who had been filling Williams’s all-important role protecting quarterback Kirk Cousins’s blind side.

 

With Dallas extending its lead one field goal at a time, dealing the Redskins what felt like death by incremental cuts, the proceedings were painful for Williams to watch from the sideline — proud of the fight displayed by the backups (including one rookie playing in his first NFL game) but frustrated he couldn’t help.

 

[Redskins Gameday: Analysis from all the key plays in Sunday’s defeat]

 

“It showed a lot of grit, a lot of competitiveness against all odds,” said Williams, sidelined by an injured right kneecap and an underlying bone bruise that, he said, makes it feel as if he’s being knifed each time bone grinds on bone where the cartilage has worn away.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

The Panthers are 5-3 and relatively healthy, so with LB LUKE KUECHLY back it may be too soon to discount them from your list of Super Bowl contenders.  Jordan Rodrigue in the Charlotte Observer:

 

In safety Kurt Coleman’s first year with the Carolina Panthers, he was 27 years old and had played in the NFL for six years.

 

That didn’t stop a then-24-year-old middle linebacker named Luke Kuechly, already known for his attention to detail, from coming right up to him at practice and telling him whatever he was doing wrong.

 

“You’re trying to do something, and he’s telling you to just go do something else. … You’re like, ‘All right, Luke said it. You don’t deviate from it if Luke says it,” Coleman laughed after Sunday’s 17-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in which Coleman and Kuechly returned from injury and combined for 17 tackles.

 

Coleman didn’t realize back then that he was being watched. But he soon got used to it – and missed Kuechly all the more whenever he wasn’t hearing him communicate.

 

The whole team did.

 

“It just makes you feel good, to see him out there,” said defensive end Julius Peppers. “I think that’s the main thing.

 

“Obviously the communication, and those type of things, the nuances and those things that he’s so good at, that’s a plus to having him out there. But more than anything, we just like to see him. When I see him in his uniform, it just makes me feel good. I think that’s the same for everybody in here.”

 

Kuechly, 26, has missed 10 games in the past three seasons after suffering concussions in each of those years.

 

While the Panthers have extraordinary linebackers in Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson to complement Kuechly and solid depth, there is a tangible difference in how smoothly the defense operates when he’s not on the field.

 

It’s almost like raising a hand to grab something, and then realizing the hand is tied down.

 

Getting it back is just … easier for the entire body.

 

As the only defensive player with direct line to the booth where coordinators sit, Kuechly is key to recognizing what an offense will do, communicating it to the defense, getting the front lined up and then coordinating pressure. The Panthers did all that well Sunday, holding Winston to season-lows in passing yards and disrupting him and his line early and often, including seven quarterback hurries and three sacks.

 

“The thing that’s good about this team is that Kurt and Mike (Adams) can do a lot of that themselves in the back end,” said Kuechly, deflecting, as usual, the attention to his teammates. “Mike’s been around for forever and Kurt’s a guy that has been around a long time too. We have three layers of the defense, and everyone kind of communicates. I just try to get everybody the play, and those guys are all smart enough to know what to do.

 

 “My job is easy. I get the call … and try to make sure everybody knows it. Make sure the front looks right, and then I just let those guys play.”

 

Kuechly, who missed one full game while in the NFL’s concussion protocol, and Coleman, who missed three games with a sprained MCL, returned Sunday to lead the team in tackles (with eight and nine, respectively). Kuechly also had an interception and Coleman fell on a fumbled strip-sack to get the ball back to Carolina’s offense.

 

“I think the communication is probably the biggest aspect of all,” said head coach Ron Rivera. “That’s probably the one thing you miss (when they miss time), when you have guys that have been in the system – Luke has been in the system for six years, Kurt is going on three now. Those guys communicate and help to get other guys lined up on the field.”

 

For quarterbacks, the game within the game is to try fool Kuechly.

 

Sunday, against Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, was no different.

 

“I think I saw Winston wink at (Luke) when he called out a play,” said Coleman.

 

Winks, sure. But it is rare that Kuechly gets hoodwinked.

 

Peppers, a 16-year NFL veteran, has seen many, many linebackers in his time. But he said there only actually two players to whom he compares Kuechly – and one isn’t even a linebacker.

 

The first is Brian Urlacher.

 

And the second is Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

 

“They all are very instinctive about the game,” said Peppers.

 

“And again, they all made me feel good when they put the uniform on on game day.”

 

 

NEW ORLEANS

Owner Tom Benson goes from the Saints game to the hospital.  Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

 

Tom Benson was taken to Ocshner Hospital on Sunday afternoon for precautionary reasons after the New Orleans Saints owner started to feel weak after the game between the Saints and Chicago Bears at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

 

Benson was expected to be released to go home after he is evaluated by doctors, Saints executive vice president of communications Greg Bensel said.

 

“He’s fine,” Bensel said. “He was just a little weak and worn out.”

 

Benson, 90, had a busy weekend. He attended the Saints Hall of Fame banquet on Friday night at Champions Square and was among the sellout crowd of 18,539 that watched the New Orleans Pelicans defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers 123-101 on Saturday night at the Smoothie King Center.

– – –

The Saints won again despite two fumbles by RB MARK INGRAM. Kevin Patra at NFL.com:

 

Mark Ingram was blunt when assessing his play Sunday: “I sucked.”

 

The New Orleans Saints running back used a variation of “sucked” 18 times to describe his performance in the 20-12 victory over the Chicago Bears, per beat reporters. The running back also threw in the adjectives “terrible” and “wack” for good measure.

 

Ingram starred for the first 52 minutes of the game, gashing the Bears on the ground and in the passing game. The hard-running tailback shouldered the load, powering the Saints offense to a double-digit lead.

 

Then disaster struck.

 

Ingram fumbled with 7:41 left and the Saints holding a comfortable 17-6 victory, looking to salt away the game. The Bears scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 17-12.

 

Fumbles happen. The Bears defense made a good play to punch the ball loose.

 

If only that were the only blip for Ingram. Four plays after the Bears TD, Ingram was again stripped, leading to a turnover.

 

“I let my teammates down. I put us in a bad position. The game was only close because I sucked. That’s the bottom line,” Ingram said, via ESPN’s Mike Triplett.

 

“I sucked. I sucked. That’s the bottom line: I sucked. Two possessions we’re about to ice the game, and I sucked,” Ingram added. “Let the ball go, hurt my team, hurt my coaches. That’s the thing about a family, that’s the thing about a team: They lift you up, they had my back, and we were able to get the W. But I was wack, I sucked, and I’ll be better.”

 

The fumbles were bad — the second nearly inexcusable — but Ingram hardly “sucked.” The running back blasted for 75 yards on 18 carries, including a touchdown, and added 24 receiving yards on six receptions. Without Ingram, there would have been no double-digit lead to almost fumble away.

 

The question is whether Sean Payton will be comfortable handing the ball to his best running back with the game on the line down the road. The Saints’ coach benched Ingram for nearly a full game last year after fumbling issues.

 

“The message to Mark will be between me and Mark,” Payton said after Sunday’s win.

 

The coach previously commented: “You turn the ball over like we did, and you don’t deserve to win games like that. You can’t do it.”

 

 

TAMPA BAY

Jenna Laine of ESPN.com on the challenges of JAMEIS WINSTON playing QB in the NFL with a bum shoulder:

 

The real question is, how productive can Winston still be with this sprained AC joint in his right throwing arm as the season wears on? Wide receiver Adam Humphries didn’t seem to think it was impacting their offense.

 

“He prepares, even the days he doesn’t throw, he is preparing like any other day,” said Humphries, who caught four passes for 26 yards. “He is right behind the huddle mentally taking every snap, so there is no difference. He is one of the toughest people I’ve ever met and for him to take some of those hits and keep plays alive with his feet, it says a lot about him and the heart that he has.”

 

To Winston’s credit, he did make some plays. That 17-yard pass on third-and-11 that went through multiple defenders and into Cameron Brate’s hands was excellent, but did little to offset the multiple passes sailing over receivers’ heads. He also had one of the best quarterbacking performances of his career in the second half against the Buffalo Bills last week, throwing three touchdowns.

 

How many more days of practice will Winston miss? He missed two last week after taking another jarring hit against Buffalo and two the week before. While he looked fine during the first 30 minutes of practice that were open to the media Friday, it was later revealed during Sunday’s broadcast on Fox Sports that in the full duration of practice, he looked inaccurate. For an offense that failed to score a touchdown this week and, as Winston said repeatedly, “I’ve got to get better,” it’s tough to do that on one day of practice per week.

 

“Well as I mentioned earlier in the week, that’s not ideal,” Koetter said. “But again, that’s where you have to rely on all the work Jameis put in in the offseason, puts in after practice. I still don’t think this will be an every week, all-season thing. But, that’s just my opinion. I’m not the medical guy and I don’t know what happened. If he’s hurt from today, I don’t know that yet.”

 

At 2-5 and three games behind the New Orleans Saints and Panthers, the likelihood of the Bucs winning the NFC South is already very slim, even with divisional play just beginning. Losing a franchise quarterback, like Andrew Luck with the Indianapolis Colts, who now has to have shoulder surgery, would be even worse.

 

NFC WEST

 

SEATTLE

It was WILSON vs. WATSON – and Michael Silver of NFL.com was glad to attend:

 

The loudest, brashest member of the Legion of Boom strode across the CenturyLink Field turf Sunday afternoon and came face-to-face with a rookie quarterback with a limp in his gait, and Richard Sherman’s eyes got wide with excitement.

 

Here was Deshaun Watson, whose steely play had helped steady the Houston Texans after a long, surreal weekend’s worth of strife and soul-searching — and this was Sherman’s chance to deliver a message. As the two players walked side by side during the changeover between the third and fourth quarters of Sunday’s spirited clash between the Texans and Seattle Seahawks, the veteran cornerback offered his young opponent some incongruous words of encouragement.

 

“He was limping because he had hurt his ankle, but you could see the poise and the fight in the kid,” Sherman recalled more than an hour after clinching the Seahawks’ 41-38 victory with his second interception of the game. “I told him, ‘Just keep fighting, man. You’re a great player. And I respect your fight. I respect your grind. I respect how prepared you were.’

 

“He said, ‘Yeah, I appreciate it, man. I look up to you.’ It was a cool moment. And it was a special game.”

– – –

In fairness, as awesome as Watson was on Sunday, it was the 5-11-with-boots-on Wilson who (at least figuratively) stood taller.

 

In completing 26 of 41 passes for a franchise-record 452 yards and four touchdowns — including an 18-yard game-winner to Graham with 21 seconds remaining, capping off his 23rd career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime — Wilson looked MVP-worthy. The Seahawks (5-2) moved into a first-place tie with the Rams, a team they defeated three weeks earlier in Los Angeles, and appear capable of making a run at a third Super Bowl appearance in five seasons.

 

Watson, meanwhile, connected on 19 of 30 passes for 402 yards and four scores while gaining 67 yards on eight carries. He did throw three interceptions, including a first-quarter miscue that All-Pro safety Earl Thomas took 78 yards to the house, tying the game at 7 with 10:08 left in the first quarter. Yet in showing a Wilsonesque ability to extend plays and deliver pinpoint throws under duress, and displaying the poise that carried Clemson to a national championship upset of Alabama last January (after a near-miss the previous year), Watson left a strong impression on his opponents, and left the Texans (3-4) feeling confident that they can mount a charge back to the postseason in November and December.

 

The Seahawks’ defense, after all, isn’t used to being shredded by anyone, let alone a rookie absorbing the wrath of 69,025 screaming fans in one of the sport world’s most menacing environments.

 

“He was magical,” Sherman said long after the game, in an otherwise empty locker room. “It didn’t matter if the friggin’ ’85 Bears were out there today. I mean, that quarterback, he was on point, he was executing, he was doing what he needed to do to get his offense down the field.”

 

In other words — he looked suspiciously like Wilson 2.0.

 

“I guess we got a taste of how it would feel to play against that guy,” Sherman continued, laughing.

 

Not so fun?

 

“Yeah, I see that,” Sherman said. “They were dueling, man. (Watson) made plays down the stretch, but so did Russell. Russell matched his every play with an equal or greater play, and that’s what you appreciate. He just does what he does. And Russell’s not ready to give those rings away quite yet.”

 

And the key to it all was Watson, from the 59-yard touchdown pass he delivered to Will Fuller on the game’s first drive to the short screen that Hopkins (eight catches, 224 yards) turned into a 72-yard, go-ahead score with 4:49 left in the game.

 

“I’m not that surprised,” Hopkins said of Watson’s emergence. “I saw him make some throws this offseason that I haven’t seen a quarterback make in a long time, especially not on my team. There are times when I’m like, ‘This guy can’t be a rookie.’ S—, the sky’s the limit with this guy.”

 

Said Brown: “Man, he’s special. I just had to sit back and just laugh a couple of times at some of the plays he made. Just his poise… this is as hostile an environment as there is. When he makes a mistake, he moves on.”

 

In other words, he’s emulating Wilson, whose one major miscue — an errant throw that Texans cornerback Marcus Williams picked off at his own 6-yard line with 2:49 remaining and the Seahawks trailing 38-34 — was erased by the four-play, 80-yard drive that the quarterback engineered on the Seahawks’ next possession.

 

To say that Wilson carried the Seahawks’ offense was a bit of an understatement. Put it this way: The quarterback ran four times for 30 yards; Seattle’s running backs carried 16 times for five yards, and receiver Tyler Lockett lost two yards on a fly sweep. Good times.

 

Wilson spread the ball to eight different receivers, including one — his starting tight end — who really needed the targets. Both of Wilson’s fourth quarter touchdown passes went to Graham, whose slump-busting performance came in the week of coach Pete Carroll’s pregame denial that the tight end was on the trading block.

 

Brown, for one, bought the Watson/Wilson comparison: “Yep, absolutely … same winner’s mentality. They find a way to make plays. To see him do this as a rookie, it’s crazy. It was a fun game to be part of.”

 

After it ended, Wilson and Watson had a brief, mutually supportive conversation on the field, and each man praised the other in his postgame press conference.

 

Watson: “I’m a big supporter of (Wilson) and I love his game and just the person he is. He’s a mobile quarterback that makes good decisions. Very good on the run, makes smart decisions, and he’s a leader. He’s passionate about winning and he’s going to compete.”

 

Wilson: “I think (Watson) is a phenomenal football player. You can’t get much better than how he is playing right now. I think he showed a lot of grit, a lot of toughness, a lot of great plays. He’s been a special player for a long time. I love watching great guys play.”

 

A similar sentiment compelled Sherman, who has forged a reputation as a prickly antagonist on Sundays, to go against-type and show some love to Watson as they switched sides following the completion of the third quarter.

 

“It was a cool conversation,” Sherman recalled. “He was great on film… and much better in person. Our guys were pressuring him, and they were hitting him, and he was not relenting. He was not relenting. That’s what you gotta respect about him. He was fighting, no matter what.”

 

And even though Wilson won this round, it’s abundantly clear that Watson will be back to fight another day.

 

AFC WEST

 

THE RAIDERS

A lack of big plays on defense is one reason the Raiders are struggling:

 

@AndrewSiciliano 

Raiders are the first @NFL team since 1950 to start a season without an INT from its defense in the first 8 games.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

Great stats of misery abound when you are talking about the Browns.  This today:

 

@ESPNStatsInfo 

19 – Pass TD by NFL leaders Carson Wentz & Deshaun Watson, both drafted with picks traded by Cleveland.

 

17 – Interceptions by Browns QBs.

 

But Coach Hue Jackson thinks the Haslams have his back despite 0-8 and 1-23.  Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer filing from Twickenham:

 

Browns coach Hue Jackson isn’t worried about the London Bridge falling down on the way home from Sunday’s 33-16 loss to the Vikings.

 

Granted, the London games haven’t always been kind to struggling NFL head coaches. Several have been fired over the years just after their chartered planes touched down in the States.

 

But Jackson isn’t going to fret on the transatlantic flight even though he dropped to 0-8 and is now just 1-23 in his second season.

 

Even the upcoming bye week, which gives teams a lot of time to tweak and regroup, doesn’t have him concerned about his job. Jackson said after a 1-15 season in 2016 that he would jump in Lake Erie if the Browns had the same mark this year.

 

Jackson believes that owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, who made the trip to London and served beer to fans at a Browns Backers event Saturday night, understand what he’s faced with. The Browns played their first game since 2006 without 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas; they were without star pass rusher Myles Garrett and three other defensive starters; they have a rookie quarterback feeling his way in DeShone Kizer; and the youngest team in the league.

 

At some spots, including receiver, they’re bereft of talent. The guy who’s supposed to be their No. 1 wideout right now, Kenny Britt, was benched and standing on the sidelines in uniform Sunday.

 

Jackson has tried to do the best he can with what he has to work with, and thinks the Haslams get it.

 

“I don’t think it was articulated here (in London), but I still feel that (support),” Jackson said. “I don’t sense — you guys would have to ask Jimmy that, but I totally have the support of Mr. and Mrs. Haslam. I don’t feel any change in that. I know everybody is concerned about the losing, my job, this — I mean, there’s all kinds of questions out there. I get all that.

 

 

PITTSBURGH

This very precise tweet from Scott Kachsmar after QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER found rookie WR JuJu SCHUSTER-SMITH for 97 yards last night:

 

@FO_ScottKacsmar 

Roethlisberger: first QB in NFL history with 3 TD passes of 94+ yards in his career.

 

So, wondered the DB, what about the round number of 90 yards?

 

Turns out Roethlisberger is one of four QBs with three TD passes of 90+ yards – the others are Joe Montana, Billy Wade and Len Dawson.

 

 

AFC SOUTH

 

HOUSTON

We put some of Michael Silver’s rambling comparison of Texans QB DESHAUN WATSON with Seattle’s RUSSELL WILSON in SEATTLE.  But here’s the part about the Texans’ reaction to their owner’s remark about inmates and prisons:

 

(Watson) and his teammates were clearly a galvanized bunch, having been jolted Friday by the ESPN report quoting McNair, at a league meeting addressing the controversy over continued anthem protests by players across the NFL, as having told fellow owners and league executives, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.”

 

Later that day veteran left tackle Duane Brown, who’d recently returned from a seven-week contract holdout, told reporters the Texans had considered walking out in response. Two players, Hopkins and rookie running back D’Onta Foreman, ended up going home and missing practice. Texans coach Bill O’Brien referred to Hopkins’ absence as a “personal day.” (On Sunday, a Texans source said Hopkins would not be fined because the receiver’s absence had been “excused” by O’Brien.)

 

McNair twice issued statements of apology, the second time insisting that he was referring to NFL executives — rather than the protesting players — when he used the expression. He also apologized in a meeting with Texans players that Brown, following Sunday’s game, told reporters had gone “not too well” from his perspective. McNair did not attend Sunday’s game; a team source said that even before the controversy, the owner had not planned to come to Seattle.

 

O’Brien, meanwhile, told his players during an emotional Saturday night meeting that he was behind them “100 percent.” His overarching message, according to a source who was in the meeting: “Play for each other. Play together. Play your f—– asses off.”

 

Previously in 2017, none of the Texans’ players had knelt for the national anthem. On Sunday, all but 10 of them took a knee, with a reported 36 players participating in the protest, including Watson. It wasn’t necessarily a one-off, either. When I asked Clowney if he thought the issue had been resolved following Sunday’s protest, he answered, “Nah, I’m not gonna say that, man… No. It’s not.”

 

Said Brown, confirming a report that the Texans’ players had considered removing the decals from their helmets: “We thought about it. I didn’t know if it was legal or not. Obviously, with everything that happened Friday, we wanted to make some sort of demonstrative statement. In the end, we chose (to kneel). And once that was over, we locked in.”

 

 

INDIANAPOLIS

The “recovery” of QB ANDREW LUCK is going backwards.  This from Chris Mortensen of ESPN.com:

 

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is seeking more opinions to determine why his surgically repaired shoulder is “not progressing as expected,” a team source confirmed late Sunday.

 

FOX Sports’ Jay Glazer first reported the news.

 

Luck had what the Colts believed was a mild setback more than two weeks ago, when he experienced soreness in his throwing shoulder after he was cleared to practice. He received a cortisone injection for the pain at that time and proceeded to have a good week of rehab, only to experience another setback, which the team does not believe is serious, a source said.

 

Nevertheless, Luck’s recovery from surgery to repair a torn labrum on Jan. 15 is clearly an unforeseen development and the quarterback finally decided to seek additional opinions. One of those visits to a specialist is scheduled for Monday, the source added.

 

The additional exams likely will determine whether he should resume his rehab in an effort to play this season, according to the source, but the prospect of Luck playing this season has unquestionably grown dimmer.

 

AFC EAST

 

BUFFALO

Peter King on Buffalo thriving Sunday behind RB LeSEAN McCOY:

 

McCoy reminded me of Emmitt Smith in the 34-14 rout of the Raiders. Not just because of his 151-yard day. If you recall when Smith was at his best, he was great in so many second halves. Jimmy Johnson would use him to bleed the clock in win after win after win. And it was McCoy, with 19 carries for 120 yards (including a 48-yard insurance TD run) in the second half alone, helping the Bills to a 35:37 time of possession and a dominant win. The Raiders knew McCoy was coming, play after play after play, and just couldn’t stop him. Don’t look now, but Buffalo is 5-2 and just a half-game behind the Patriots in the AFC East.

 

The Bills have a challenging November schedule with the Saints and visits to Kansas City and the Chargers after this Thursday’s visit to the Jets.

 

But if they go 2-2 to get to 7-4, they have 2 games with the Dolphins and one with Indianapolis that seem winnable at the moment.  So that’s 10-4 before two games with the Patriots – December 3 in Orchard Park and December 24 in Foxborough.

 

 

MIAMI

Peter King:

 

The Dolphins have to be one of the most lopsided 4-3 teams of all time. They’ve got a winning record, but have been outscored by 60 points.

 

In the three losses:

• Miami has been outscored 80-6.

• Miami has had 35 possessions and scored one touchdown and zero field goals.

• Miami has 202 average yards per game, punted 21 times and thrown five interceptions.

 

“We’re just inept,” said coach Adam Gase. “I’m pissed. I’m tired of the offense being awful.”

 

NBC opted to keep Oakland at Miami on Sunday night.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

JOE LOCKHART

The New York Times treated the readers of its Sunday edition to a long profile by Ken Belsen of the Democrat operative, Joe Lockhart, who is fashioning the NFL’s response to the players anthem protest.  The whole thing is here.  The finish after a recap of Lockhart’s upbringing and career experiences:

 

His skills in choppy political waters have been put to the test in the month since Trump lashed out at players who did not stand for the national anthem.

 

From the start of the crisis in late September, Lockhart used tactics he had honed in Washington. He has pushed the league’s case by reaching out to reporters with statements and near-daily conference calls. Through his bidding, the league has publicized positive things that the players are doing in their communities, promoted the idea that the players and owners are united (despite evidence on the field to the contrary), and tried to avoid addressing the president’s remarks directly.

 

Some of the tone and messaging of the league’s statements, which Lockhart helped craft, have also been in line with a Democratic progressive, a point some owners, a group that includes several staunch supporters of the president, have not missed. They seemed to seek a “third way,” a famously Clintonian way of compromise.

 

The league’s initial 87-word statement, issued the day after the president first attacked the league, came after Goodell, Lockhart and other league executives called owners to sound them out. Most N.F.L. statements are bland, but this one was notable for its directness as well as for what it left out.

 

Goodell’s statement did not explicitly defend the players’ right to protest during the anthem, or even mention racism, the core issue that started the sitting and kneeling demonstrations last season, but it included an unusually strong rebuttal to the president.

 

“Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the N.F.L., our great game and all our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities,” it said.

 

Many owners, including several who are donors to Democratic causes, soon followed with similar statements of their own. But other owners issued statements lamenting the league’s getting pulled into political debates.

 

After weeks of back and forth, and owners flirting with requiring players to stand, fewer players are kneeling during the anthem.

 

Lockhart has kept his assertive posture. In a talk with reporters, he was asked about the president, who said the N.F.L. should force all players to stand for the anthem. “He’s exercising his freedom to speak, and I’m exercising my freedom not to react,” Lockhart replied dryly.

 

As the N.F.L. and social media have grown, the league has become a lightning rod for a host of social issues, including bullying and domestic violence, that stretch its capacity to control the narrative.

 

Lockhart began advising the league as a consultant in 2014, after video surfaced showing the former running back Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée in an elevator.

 

When Lockhart’s predecessor, Paul Hicks, left the N.F.L. at the end of 2015, he was a logical replacement. Lockhart was interested in returning to New York and, he said, taking on a complex challenge to make the N.F.L. more fleet-footed and assured in responding to controversy. (It is unclear what he is paid, but according to N.F.L. tax filings, Hicks earned $1.5 million in his last year at the league.)

 

Lockhart, who worked on political campaigns dating to Jimmy Carter’s re-election bid in 1980, has quickly changed the metabolism in the league’s communications office. When The New York Times published an article last year that compared the N.F.L.’s approach to the concussion crisis to tactics used by the tobacco industry, Lockhart issued a long and detailed rebuttal, and said the league would consider taking legal action. (None has been taken.)

 

Some reporters are not buying what it is being pushed. Jim Trotter, the president of the Pro Football Writers of America, took exception to Lockhart’s assertion that the league had tried to become more transparent. Lockhart’s conference calls were initially not open to all writers, and Goodell and other top executives have not been made available, Trotter said.

 

“There’s no question they have been more proactive, and that’s part of Joe Lockhart’s approach to it,” Trotter said. “They will respond to things quicker than in the past. Does that mean it’s accurate? No, but it’s their opinion.”

 

Still, to a certain extent, he is still seen as a political animal, and a few owners, who by and large lean right, have questioned whether a lifelong Democrat like Lockhart (who sold his house in Washington to former President Barack Obama) is the best person to speak on behalf of the league.

 

Lockhart said his politics had little to do with his job.

 

“My work is about making sure that people understand what it is we’re doing, why that is and what impact it is having,” he said. “That’s devoid of a political agenda. It doesn’t mean I don’t have political views. But my overriding view when I come to work is, What’s good for the N.F.L.?”

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

This from James Andrew Miller writing in the Hollywood Reporter:

 

In a span of less than five years, industry giant ESPN has seen its narrative transformed from that of a mighty colossus into the hard-luck tale of a ragtag warrior.

 

As it struggles to regain heretofore heroic heights — levels of growth that are probably no longer attainable — ESPN has had to endure a slew of significant workforce layoffs (with more reportedly on the way) and a once-doting Wall Street that has turned a skeptically cold shoulder. Astonishing increases in earnings, previously viewed as faits acomplis, now seem like fantasies from another world, thanks to the now-familiar combo of cord-cutting and burgeoning rights fees.

 

With so much of ESPN’s universe asunder, it’s not outlandish now to entertain a previously unthinkable prospect: Might ESPN elect to go without rights to NFL games after the expiration of its eight-year deal for Monday Night Football in 2021?!

 

“Impossible”? Yeah, we know — NFL games have been the backbone of ESPN’s existence since 1987, and the biggest, most critical element of its financial dominance ever since. The network basically can’t exist without an NFL rights package.

 

Well, think again — like some execs at the network have started to do — and consider the following:

 

First, quietly, ESPN has been able to pull off a dramatic judo move in recent agreements with its affiliates, one whose importance cannot be overstated: There is no longer specific contract language that requires the cable giant to have NFL games in order to earn its lofty (and industry-envied) subscriber fees, currently more than $7 per household. This means the network would not face automatic decreases in that vital artery of its dual revenue stream. Sure, distributors would be aghast, demanding to negotiate lower fees probably immediately, but the point is, there would be negotiations, enabling ESPN to do everything it could to keep those numbers as high as possible.

 

Second, when ESPN agreed to pay $15.2 billion for its current Monday Night Football deal, some of its key executives believed they were buying the schedule of the previous MNF package, i.e., more often than not, the best game or at least one of the top games of the week. But Sunday Night Football got that pedigree, and Fox and CBS games since then have also generally been more desirable than ESPN’s matchups. With the advent of Thursday Night Football several years ago, ESPN’s Monday night schedule has been further diluted of quality matchups, and the network hasn’t been shy about voicing dissatisfaction.

 

NFL scheduling guru Howard Katz can keep more plates spinning in the air than anyone else in sports, and he’s done the Lord’s work trying to please everyone, but math is math, and there just aren’t enough good games to go around. Yes, Monday Night Football ratings are up about 5 percent this year over last year, but it’s still far behind 2015’s viewership, for example. ESPN is averaging roughly 11 million viewers for its games; given myriad challenges the network is facing, will parent Disney believe that an audience of that size for only 17 weeks a year is worth billions?

 

Third, ESPN pays a disproportionally steeper rights fee for NFL games than CBS, Fox and NBC, because ESPN’s deals give it access to NFL footage outside the games — NFL films and other NFL-related opportunities. So, when ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, for instance, wants to run a highlight, or SportsCenter and all the network’s NFL shoulder programming want to dissect games and plays till the cows wander home, ESPN producers can use all the NFL footage they want. At the time of ESPN’s last deal, industry experts estimated that 15 percent to 20 percent of its total cost could be attributed to those additional rights and privileges, and ESPN had no choice but to pay up. How could the network survive without those? The answer is they might not have to because of NFL Capitalism 101: Cash Equals Truth. Can anyone imagine the NFL turning down an offer from ESPN of $300 or $400 million for just those rights, even if ESPN didn’t have game rights? It’s doubtful.

 

Which brings us to a fourth consideration: Timing for the next round of NFL rights — beginning in a couple years — is turning out to be rather propitious for the NFL. By then, digital players like Twitter, Google and Facebook will have had time to decide if they want to make what will be a huge leap from limited deals they’ve done with the league, like Amazon’s $50 million deal for streaming Thursday nights to the multiple billion-dollar price tags for actual games. If they do, that increased competition could drive prices even higher and further push ESPN out of the game. The league could set aside Monday night as an experimental night for a digital player that would be thrilled to be in the arena and wouldn’t be as demanding, scheduling-wise.

 

Disney CEO Bob Iger was a key participant back in 2005 when ABC declined to keep its NFL package because it was losing money, and if Iger is going to fulfill the dreams of many in Hollywood and run for president in 2020, he’ll want to walk in the cornfields of Iowa with a track record as a financially responsible executive.

 

Finally, the NFL seems to be cuddling up closer and closer to a land that was once thought to be on the verge of extinction: broadcast networks. The league is worried about those cord-cutting numbers in the cable universe and turned on by news like CBS getting more than $2/household now for retransmission fees (Leslie Moonves, one of broadcast’s more tireless and formidable champions, recently estimated CBS might bring in as much as $2.5 billion a year by 2020; that will certainly get the NFL’s attention). With the league’s bromance with broadcast showing no signs of waning, ESPN’s chances of getting Sunday night or one of the other Sunday games will be difficult at best.

 

What might be the repercussions for ESPN if it decided not to seriously chase down another NFL rights package? There would be both bad and good news. Bad: it would be forced to come up with provocative and meaningful alternatives to replace 17 weeks of lost NFL games. But the good news is the network would have some serious spending money it hasn’t had in years. Take the $2 billion that it is now giving the NFL, subtract say $350 million for rights to highlights as described above, and another $250 million to send back to Burbank the way Henry Hill gave Paulie that “tribute” money after a big haul, and that still leaves a billion and a half dollars for ESPN to play the media rights version of Wheel of Fortune. While it’s true that nothing drives a sub fee like the NFL, ESPN could go on a spending spree targeting CBS’ college football deal with the SEC, a Big 12 deal, baseball post-season, rights to NHL hockey, EPL soccer and a whole buffet table of other properties that would prove beneficial in its negotiations with distributors who would want to lower their sub fees. 

 

Of course, there would be another added bonus of walking away from NFL games, and that is not having to deal with the ramifications of a story like that of the 6’1″ and 14-year-old quarterback who could throw a perfect spiral downfield to a receiver who didn’t have to lose a step. As he was going through progressions later in the game, his coach remarked he had never seen anything like this kid, and that he would have it all — a big D1 career, shoe deals and even, the coach predicted, a starring role in the NFL. Except that after the game, the quarterback’s parents shared the news that this was their son’s last football game. They had given him the choice of being a starting pitcher or playing basketball, saying a violent game littered with heavily documented brain injuries wasn’t on the list for their son’s future career opportunities.

 

 

TRUMP AND KAEP

Colin Kaepernick’s plan to destroy the NFL’s CBA is to find an anti-Trump arbiter and show him or her some tweets.  Charles Robinson of YahooSports.com lays out the strategy:

 

Of particular interest will be the periods of time surrounding league meetings or owner-related gatherings, the months since Kaepernick hit free agency, or other high-profile moments, such as when Kaepernick landed on the cover of Time magazine in October 2016.

 

Here’s what is clear from Kaepernick’s grievance – and also from speaking to members of his legal team – Trump’s involvement with owners and some of his public statements could become a useful tool in arguments.

 

 One pivotal moment that will draw interest in discovery occurred long before Trump’s railing on anthem protests during this season. Instead, it was March 20, when the president engaged in some apparently unscripted bragging to a crowd in Louisville, Kentucky, about his influence in keeping NFL teams from signing Kaepernick.

 

 “It was reported that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump,” the president said. “Do you believe that? I just saw that. I just saw that.”

 

Of particular interest about that moment is that it came one day after Kraft had joined Trump on Air Force One for a flight between West Palm Beach, Florida, and Washington. Kaepernick’s camp hopes to prove that Trump has been one of the pivotal unifying forces of collusion in the NFL, either through his relationship with Kraft and Jones, or through his influence using his public platform.

 

The most significant goal of forensically combing through the NFL’s private communications would be to find “cross-boundary” communications about the quarterback, according to sources close to Kaepernick. More specifically …

 

• Owners or executives from at least two different teams communicating about Kaepernick’s protests; his impact on the league’s brand; his free agency; or anything else relating to his previous or future job status in the league.

 

• Owners or executives from at least one team and the NFL’s league office communicating about Kaepernick’s protests; his impact on the league’s brand; his free agency; or anything else relating to his previous or future job status in the league.

 

• Owners or the NFL’s league office communicating with President Trump – or even indicating communications with Trump – about anything relating to Kaepernick’s job status.

 

There will be significant hurdles involving any such communications (if they indeed exist). Kaepernick’s legal team will have to convince an arbitrator that the grievance is valid and such a significant request for discovery is valid in the first place. As it stands, Kaepernick’s attorneys have already sent notice to the NFL and all 32 teams to preserve all communications for potential use in future discovery. Proof of the NFL or teams destroying any forensic evidence after receiving such a notification could be grounds for a grievance defeat for the league.

 

Even with the preservation of potential information, discovery actually coming to fruition is hardly a guarantee. The neutral system arbitrator, expected to be University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephen Burbank, will hear arguments from Kaepernick’s legal team and rule on whether the evidence is strong enough to compel the league to turn over communications. If Burbank rules against Kaepernick’s efforts for discovery, the grievance would essentially be crushed on the spot, leaving Kaepernick to file a federal lawsuit alleging collective-bargaining agreement violations. Some in the NFL already believe this is the real intent of the grievance and monster discovery request in the first place – to ask for so much that the grievance is shot down and ultimately forced into a courtroom.

 

If the system arbitrator allows Kaepernick such a wide net for discovery, his legal team will still have a second significant challenge of proving that different teams or elements of the NFL’s executive office worked together to either limit or eliminate Kaepernick’s employment opportunities.

 

Legally, proving Trump was the unifying agent of collusion could be a stretch. But all it may take is one pivotal needle lying in a massive communication haystack. And that’s what Kaepernick’s legal team will be fighting to find.