The Daily Briefing Wednesday, May 24, 2017
AROUND THE NFL
The Pro Bowl is heading back to Orlando and it will be shown on two networks, although both owned by Disney:
The Pro Bowl will be played in Orlando again in 2018, with an earlier start time of 3 p.m. ET, the NFL announced Wednesday.
The game will be played at Camping World Stadium on Jan. 28. It will feature the traditional AFC vs. NFC format.
It will be televised by ESPN and simulcast on ABC, making it the first Pro Bowl to air simultaneously on cable and broadcast television.
For the second consecutive year, there will be a week full of activities held around the Orlando area.
“The Pro Bowl is not only a time to watch NFL greats compete live, but it is also a unique opportunity to inspire youth and the next generation of stars,” Peter O’Reilly, NFL senior vice president of events, said in a statement. “We received tremendous feedback from players, coaches, and fans about Orlando’s first Pro Bowl, and we are excited to build upon that enthusiasm with a week-long festival that celebrates the entire football community.”
The Pro Bowl moved to Orlando last year from Honolulu, where it had been played all but two years since 1980.
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Ben Fawkes at ESPN.com with the current odds to win Super Bowl 52:
Super Bowl LII Odds
TEAM CURRENT ODDS
New England Patriots 3-1
Dallas Cowboys 8-1
Green Bay Packers 10-1
Pittsburgh Steelers 12-1
Oakland Raiders 12-1
Seattle Seahawks 12-1
Atlanta Falcons 16-1
Denver Broncos 25-1
New York Giants 20-1
Kansas City Chiefs 25-1
Arizona Cardinals 25-1
Carolina Panthers 25-1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 25-1
Baltimore Ravens 30-1
Indianapolis Colts 30-1
Minnesota Vikings 30-1
Miami Dolphins 30-1
Houston Texans 30-1
Philadelphia Eagles 30-1
Detroit Lions 40-1
Tennessee Titans 40-1
New Orleans Saints 40-1
Cincinnati Bengals 60-1
Washington Redskins 60-1
Los Angeles Chargers 60-1
Jacksonville Jaguars 80-1
Buffalo Bills 100-1
Chicago Bears 100-1
Los Angeles Rams 100-1
New York Jets 200-1
San Francisco 49ers 300-1
Cleveland Browns 300-1
Five teams that the bettors like more now than they did a couple of months ago:
Oakland opened at 20-1 and has been bet down to 12-1.
Tampa Bay is now 25-1 after opening at 40-1.
Detroit is now 40-1 after opening at 60-1.
With DeSHAUN WATSON drafted, the Texans are 30-1 down from 60-1.
The Eagles have also gone to 30-1 after being at 60-1.
Some progress from QB TEDDY BRIDGEWATER. Josh Alper at ProFootballTalk.com:
The Vikings released video of Teddy Bridgewater taking snaps, dropping back and throwing passes during Tuesday’s practice, but they still aren’t ready to talk about when Bridgewater may be able to take on a full workload after last year’s knee injury.
General Manager Rick Spielman met with the media on Wednesday and said that the team will “take it a day at a time” with Bridgewater while adding that the quarterback hasn’t been cleared for full practices at this point. Spielman declined to comment on when that might happen and said it was “still the unknown” whether he’ll play in 2017, but acknowledged that it’s “very encouraging” to see Bridgewater doing things on the field.
“Very limited in what he’s able to do at this point, but it’s progress,” Spielman said.
Bridgewater is not at Wednesday’s practice for a previously scheduled doctor’s appointment and Spielman said the release of the video from Tuesday’s closed practice was partly because the media wouldn’t be able to see him working. If all goes well at the doctor and the progress continues, it shouldn’t be too long before they get that opportunity and the Vikings have to make a call about when he moves to the next step of his football work.
After an auto accident, RB EZEKIEL ELLIOTT is on the sidelines at Cowboys OTAs. Mike Florio at ProFootballTalk.com:
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott currently isn’t participating in Organized Team Activities, for reasons unrelated to football. According to ESPN, Elliott was a passenger in a Sunday automobile accident.
Via Todd Archer and Adam Schefter of ESPN, Elliott did not suffer significant injuries. The Cowboys have opted to keep him out of the first two OTA sessions in the exercise of caution.
This implies that Elliott has injuries, but that the team doesn’t currently believe the injuries are significant. In January, Elliott was involved in an automobile accident that coach Jason Garrett dubbed a “fender bender.”
It’s unclear how many of the 10 OTA sessions Elliott will miss. Each team is permitted to conduct up to 10.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Nike is convinced that WR ODELL BECKHAM, Jr. is the perfect vessel for selling shoes. Paul Schwartz in the New York Post:
It is never a bad thing for a professional athlete when he gets to sit back and watch Nike and Adidas try to outdo each other for the right to sign an endorsement deal with the player.
That is the desirable situation Odell Beckham Jr. found himself in, with his original rookie agreement with Nike set to expire. On Tuesday, Nike officially retained Beckham with a five-year deal that is worth more than $29 million, according to nicekicks.com, which should nicely augment Beckham’s rather meager superstar receiver salary for 2017 of $1.83 million.
It is the most lucrative shoe deal ever for an NFL player, according to nicekicks.com. The website also noted Beckham’s desire to become a “brand icon.’’ There is a clause that can escalate the contract to make it an eight-year deal worth $48 million. Nike reportedly fully matched a counter-offer from Adidas.
Beckham signed a four-year, $10 million rookie contract with the Giants, who picked up his fifth-year option to make his 2018 salary $8.45 million.
The Seahawks are going to conduct QB auditions – and COLIN KAEPERNICK is one of the candidates for the backup role. Kevin Patra at NFL.com:
Colin Kaepernick will finally get a chance to show he can and wants to play football.
NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Wednesday morning that the Seattle Seahawks are slated to work out reserve quarterbacks soon, barring a change of plans, and Kaepernick is expected to be among them, per sources informed of the situation.
Seattle is interested in bringing in a veteran backup behind Russell Wilson. Coach Pete Carroll said last week that Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III were two quarterbacks the team was in contact with about a backup role.
The potential workout is the first chance Kaepernick would get this offseason to show that rumors that he lacks the desire to play were a fabrication. The 29-year-old quarterback would also get a chance to display he’s back in shape after losing weight last offseason due to injury.
Mike Sando of ESPN.com has kept meticulous notes on conversations with NFL personnel types about Kaepernick for the last five years. He has a report that notes the changing scope of views about the QB over the years. You can read the whole thing here, but we are picking up the chronology late last year:
Dec. 2, 2016
The 49ers have a 1-10 record, including 0-6 with Kaepernick. Kelly will bench him during a game at Chicago two days later. Conversations with league insiders turn to Kaepernick’s future. One insider says that he could see a team such as the New York Jets giving Kaepernick a two-year deal similar to what Robert Griffin III got from the Browns. Instead, the Jets sign Josh McCown in March.
“If I am him, I’d try to stay where I’m at,” this director says of Kaepernick. “He struggled a little bit. There is still the Kap who has done some good things in this league, but some of the stuff the last two seasons has not been good. Was it scheme, how they played him?”
March 1, 2017
Kaepernick opts out of his contract, allowing him to become a free agent. Reports suggest that the 49ers would have cut him if Kaepernick had not opted out. A conversation from December with a league insider suggested that there would be little interest in him.
“Who wants that headache?” a personnel director asks. “Low market.”
Kaepernick ranks 30th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks in Total QBR over the past two seasons. The market for him is indeed low. It’s also low for several veteran players ranked higher than him on that QBR list. Cutler (20th) retired. Ryan Fitzpatrick (22nd) remained unsigned until recently. Brock Osweiler (23rd) was exiled to Cleveland. Still, shouldn’t a player with Kaepernick’s credentials have a job by now?
“I think the protest stuff gave people a little pause because anytime you did mention his name, it is a little polarizing,” a personnel director says. “I think that added to it, but the tape itself wasn’t as good. Now, granted, there are some lesser quarterbacks who got with teams, so [the anthem protest] had to be the reason, in my opinion, why some people shied away from him.”
“I do think he is getting kind of screwed,” a team exec says.
Yet, remember: Before the anthem protests, people in the league were questioning Kaepernick’s commitment to the game. It has been percolating for a while.
“Although, at that time, the commitment questions were around, ‘Is he so into himself?’ and the other things and kissing the biceps,” an exec says. “Then it became about social justice.”
These things all seem connected to what people in the league have been sensing, symbolized by his wearing headphones to news conferences, appearing taciturn during interviews and generally becoming less agreeable. The anthem protest added a politically polarizing dimension.
“I don’t think it is much the anthem stuff,” an exec says. “You heard some stuff: Was he a worker, as is required at that position at the top level? And then, this is all kind of third-hand at best, that he was not ready to play coming off the surgeries last year and then obviously was not physically at his playing weight, his playing strength, those types things.”
Colin Kaepernick has yet to find any suitors on the open market. Harry How/Getty Images
The coordinator who lauded Kaepernick’s impeccable character in July 2014 is no longer a fan.
“I thought he was fabulous [coming out of college],” this coordinator says now. “I thought he had an ‘it’ factor to win a game. This was a guy I wanted. His technique was jacked up from the beginning, but as a kid, I really liked him. I bet that kid is still in there somewhere. I think he went the wrong way, and then people got mad at him for it, so he burred up his neck and dug his heels in, and now he is trying to kiss everybody’s ass to get a paycheck now that he ain’t getting paid, so I’m not buying any of his s—.”
League insiders see Kaepernick having value in offensive systems tailored to his initial incarnation as a dynamic running threat, but they question his ability — anyone’s ability, really — to hold up physically for the long haul in such an offense. These insiders see several other factors working against Kaepernick in combination.
“The difficulty with that guy or a quarterback with a different skill set is how you structure the offense around him if he is a [backup],” an NFL team exec says. “You have to incorporate the skills of a certain player the more he plays. The less he plays, it is harder to do that.”
“You bring him in, and it is a media onslaught,” a personnel director says. “It is not good or bad. It’s just, every time there is a social issue or anything that comes up, they are going to call him, they are going to want his feedback. Is that wrong? No, it’s not wrong. But he has thrust himself out there, much like Tim Tebow has with other various items or agendas. Is it really worth it?”
“Let’s just say he’s Tim Tebow,” an offensive coordinator says. “Do you want that circus coming to town?”
You do if the payoff is big enough.
“There you go,” the coordinator replies. “What sets him apart? … He is not a real accurate thrower. His arm is a very strong arm, but it’s not a real supple arm. Like if we are talking about Wilson, we are talking about throwing it from a number of different platforms. He can get it out sideways, over the top, can run left and throw right. I just don’t see that with Kaepernick — the greatness in his arm, aside from having a gun. That is not what you need all the time.”
Bringing a Tebow-like circus to town would be worth it, and then some, if Kaepernick still projected as a starting quarterback with upside. The reality is that even before the anthem controversy, 46 league insiders voted Kaepernick the 29th-best starter — barely ahead of Mark Sanchez, who was cut by Denver before the season.
“You watch him on tape, and he never has been able to progress,” a quarterbacks coach says. “Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh really made him. He needs to run that system. And that system lasted for two years. Washington took the idea and did it with RG III. Colin thrived in that. And then it took defenses one offseason to figure out how to shut it down. That is why you don’t see it any more. You get your quarterback belted, so it just isn’t a viable option. And then with Colin now, he is slimmer, and he has never been an accurate passer. You take away the element of being able to run the ball, and he can’t throw it, I mean, then what do you have left? There are many other better options.”
After going Hamlet for a while and answering the question “to play or not to play”, QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER wants you to know he is now all in for 2017. Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
One day short of exactly four months since Ben Roethlisberger publicly let it be known he was considering retirement, the Steelers longtime quarterback was back on the practice field with teammates at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Tuesday.
“I am here on Day One,” Roethlisberger said after the Steelers’ first organized team activities session of the year. “You saw me out there taking every rep I am supposed to take — and then some. I actually took some of the rookies’ today. I am 110 percent committed, like I said I was.”
Speaking to the media for the first time since he openly mused about calling it quits on a 13-year career two days after an AFC championship game loss, Roethlisberger brushed aside concerns about his commitment level to the Steelers in 2017.
It was April 7 when Roethlisberger announced via his personal website that he would return for this coming season.
“I am happy to be back with the team,” Roethlisberger said. “I love this city. I love these guys. I love being out here. Football is a passion of mine. It’s what I do, and it’s what I love to do.”
For a while, Roethlisberger was sending signals he didn’t love football as much as he used to anymore. Citing health, time with family and a desire to consider all options as he turned 35, Roethlisberger left the Steelers in limbo for 10½ weeks.
While most didn’t take the threat of retirement seriously — after all, Tom Brady is 5 years older and just won a Super Bowl — former teammate Willie Colon last week publicly said otherwise, that Roethlisberger indeed had retirement serious consideration.
“What, did you think I was lying?” Roethlisberger said to a reporter Tuesday.
Linebacker Bud Dupree admitted he spent the offseason “preparing for the worst” when it came to his team’s most important player.
“I didn’t know what was gonna happen,” Dupree said.
Tight end Jesse James, though, said he “never doubted” Roethlisberger would be back.
“Obviously, when you play as many years as he did, you have to think about that,” James said. “But I never had any doubts in my mind. I knew he was going to back with us, in my mind at least.”
Roethlisberger, the team’s second-oldest player behind 39-year-old linebacker James Harrison, has three seasons and $12 million annual salaries remaining on a contract he signed in 2015. But, Roethlisberger said Tuesday, that doesn’t necessarily mean he will fulfill those years.
“I never commit to anybody more than one year,” he said. “I think that’s what you should always commit to this sport, because if we look past this year, then we are cheating ourselves. We are cheating other people. We need to give this year everything that we can and everything that we have. Because, ultimately, that’s what we have, right here and right now.”
OT DUANE BROWN wants more money. Aaron Wilson in the Houston Chronicle:
Texans veteran offensive tackle Duane Brown skipped a pair of organized team activity practices due to displeasure with his contractual situation, according to league sources with knowledge of the situation.
It’s unclear when or if the three-time Pro Bowl blocker will report after being absent from voluntary practices Monday and Tuesday. Brown can’t be fined unless he misses a mandatory minicamp in June.
“Nothing,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said when asked if he could shed any light on the absence of the Texans’ top offensive lineman.
Brown has two years remaining on his six-year, $53.4 million contract extension that includes $22.081 million guaranteed, a $12.5 million signing bonus and an average annual compensation of $8.95 million.
NEW YORK JETS
DT SHELDON RICHARDSON, not known as a choir boy, bids WR BRANDON MARSHALL a fond farewell. Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork.com:
Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson says the New York Jets’ locker room is a better place without wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
Richardson, who nearly came to blows with Marshall last season after a Week 3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, took a belated parting shot Tuesday on the first day of OTA practices.
“The locker room is a whole lot easier to get along with now,” Richardson told reporters. Asked to elaborate, he smiled and said, “Man oh man, y’all are thirsty. Let’s just say I’ve got 15 reasons why it’s better.”
That was a reference to Marshall, who wore No. 15.
Marshall requested his release after the season and signed with the New York Giants. He didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Marshall did, however, say that the 2016 season was “extremely difficult” in a text message sent to Newsday.
“Last year was an extremely difficult season for all of us,” Marshall told the newspaper. “Players and coaches fought their tails off trying to get our season turned around and it didn’t happen for us. It was disappointing, but now it’s a fresh year for Sheldon, for myself, for the Jets, and now I’m a Giant and I’m so excited for this opportunity.
“I’m working my butt off to learn the plays. It’s like I’m starting all over again from scratch. I feel like a rookie, and I kind of like that feeling. And hopefully, I can do my job this year to the best of my ability to bring that Lombardi Trophy back where it belongs. That’s my only focus right now and I’m excited to be a New York Football Giant.”
The heated altercation between Marshall and Richardson became a turning point in the season, players said. The feud continued throughout the season and might have fractured the locker room.
In December, Marshall publicly chided Richardson for posting a profane Snapchat video from the locker room before a game, and Richardson responded by ripping Marshall to reporters after a Christmas Eve loss to the New England Patriots.
Coach Todd Bowles said he had no reaction to Richardson’s comment on Tuesday. Asked whether the locker room chemistry will be better without the outspoken Marshall, Bowles said, “Our chemistry is still developing. We’ll see how it goes.”
Asked whether Marshall hurt last season’s chemistry, Bowles said simply, “No.”
The Jets tried to trade Richardson before the draft and still could look to deal him before the midseason deadline. He’s coming off a down year (1.5 sacks) and is due to make a guaranteed $8.1 million in the final year of his contract.
Richardson, addressing the trade speculation for the first time, shrugged it off. He said he’d like to remain with the Jets, the team that made him a first-round pick in 2013.
Defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers said Richardson has “something to prove” this season, expressing hope that using him more in his natural position — the 3-technique defensive tackle — will lead to more production.
Richardson didn’t exactly agree with his coach’s sentiment.
“I’m proven, honestly,” he said. “I just have to get more stats. It’s my contract year.”
Also on Tuesday, Jets safety and former No. 1 pick Calvin Pryor did not show up to the first day of OTAs. Bowles wouldn’t comment, saying, “It’s voluntary.” The Jets drafted two safeties in the first two rounds of this year’s draft.
THIS AND THAT
AARON HERNANDEZ BEHIND BARS
Dan Wetzel of YahooSports.com examines the prison records of the late convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez:
His death stunned his family and attorneys, who say they saw no indications of pending suicide. Letters left behind offer varying hints. Speculation has ranged from a plot to enrich his fiancée and their 4-year-old daughter via some lost bonus money from the Patriots (still a long shot) to the hiding of personal secrets (still lacking any proof). Jonathan’s statement certainly only fuels the latter theory.
The release in recent weeks of hundreds of pages of records detailing Hernandez’s time behind bars in Massachusetts, however, may point to a far more likely motive.
Hernandez’s life was awful. And it was unlikely to improve with 50 or 60 years still to serve.
That prison is hard is not news, but Hernandez entered into incarceration with a cocksure attitude and tried to present a hardened edge throughout his nearly four years in custody.
“This place ain’t [expletive] to me,” Hernandez once told officers at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts, according to an incident report. “I’ll run this place and keep running [expletive]. Prison ain’t [expletive] to me.”
His truth on this matter was not so bold – his life was marked by violent fights, attempts by other inmates to extort and intimidate him and outbursts of frustration at the arbitrary strictness of inmate life.
Hernandez, who traded in a 7,100-square-foot mansion and a $40 million NFL contract for a 7-by-10-foot cell was not running anything in prison.
He was surrounded by danger, pressure and, at times, just pathetic ridiculousness.
On the night of Nov. 20, 2013, Aaron Hernandez received a delivery from the jail commissary to his cell in Bristol County [Massachusetts] Jail, where he was housed as he awaited trial for the murder of Odin Lloyd in near by North Attleborough, Massachusetts. (He would be convicted of that crime). The delivery included some cakes, breakfast bars, cosmetics and a whole bunch of honey buns, two dozen in total.
Hernandez was on Disciplinary Detention Status at the time, a common occurrence during his imprisonment. This one was 30 days for possessing 15-feet of “fishing line” used to pass notes, and threatening to beat up the officer who discovered it if the two ever met outside the jail.
Hernandez knew part of his punishment called for a prohibition of commissary. He also knew the mistake – he shouldn’t have received the delivery – would soon be discovered, and corrections officers would confiscate his food. So Hernandez, who once lived a life where he could, and often did, have anything he pleased, sat alone in the middle of the night, as the 20th turned into the 21st, and began to eat, desperately stuffing his face before he lost what little he was allowed to possess.
He ate one honey bun and then another. And another. And another. Each was individually wrapped, so the trash began to pile up, as Hernandez plowed through his order. He alternated sleep with more and more of the pastries. This was Man vs. Food, Bristol County House of Corrections Edition.
By the time the guards realized the delivery error, Hernandez had polished off 20 honey buns. Just four remained.
“I’m a smart dude,” Hernandez told Major James Lancaster, according to a jail incident report. “I knew you’d be coming for this stuff … that’s why I ate as much food as I could.”
Hernandez then promptly asked if he could eat the final four honey buns. The request was declined. The honey buns were seized.
“I am so hungry,” Hernandez said.
Prison-grade confectioneries were the least of Hernandez’s problems behind bars, but they revealed how far a once-glamorous life had fallen. According to jail and prison records, Hernandez struggled with everything from routine disciplinary checks, to getting along with other inmates, to frustrations about having so few people to talk with.
In Bristol County Jail, where he served about 22 months, Hernandez was charged with 21 disciplinary offenses stemming from 12 separate incidents, according to records. At the Souza-Baranowski prison, where he spent two years, there were 78 more disciplinary offenses and 12 major incidents, according to records.
There were at least four physical altercations, with Hernandez often challenged by other inmates. He was caught with a nearly 6-inch shiv at one point. At times he was treated for cuts, bruises and reddened fists after battles so intense guards couldn’t pull the men apart without using mace.
“Hernandez struck [name redacted] with a closed fist to the face and both men engage[d] in a physical altercation,” one Souza-Baranowski incident report detailed. “The combatants ignored several direct orders to cease their actions and chemical agent was utilized to separate the inmates.”
Another time, in Bristol County, he and an inmate were placed in individual cages in the “yard” for their designated hour outside their cell. An argument ensued and, unable to get at the other man, they proceeded to spit on each other through the fencing.
After fights, Hernandez could appear despondent, according to guards. While prison records labeled Hernandez a member of the “Bloods Street Gang,” many inmates told authorities that he mostly “kept to himself” and tried to engage in spiritual behavior. If he thought being a football star would endear him to others, it often worked the other way, with convicts challenging him.
His fame made him a target for everything. In Bristol County he once received a note, later confiscated by guards, from another inmate offering to “look out” for him if he would use his resources and connections to bail the inmate out. The offer made little sense – once bailed out, how would the inmate be able to “look out” for Hernandez?
In other incidents, Hernandez complained about his mail being read by prison officials, letters he wrote being seized and other mundane tasks. He once physically tore up a letter in front of guards and then ate it so they couldn’t keep it. “I’ll eat the [expletive] and then you don’t get [expletive],” Hernandez shouted according to an incident report.
He complained about body cavity, strip and cell searches. He often called the jail “corrupt.” He argued guards were unnecessarily intrusive in his life. “You’re overdoing your job,” he shouted at one, according to a report.
He was known, in fits of extreme frustration, to kick and pound his door and shout for assistance.
“His aggressive tone … has become an excessive habit when he does not receive what he wants, when he wants it,” one Bristol County guard wrote in a report. “He is constantly kicking his cell door and screaming at the top of his lungs utilizing profanity at times when he wants something, regardless of how miniscule it is. It is not uncommon for Hernandez to kick his cell door constantly until an officer approaches his cell merely to ask the officer for the current time.”
As angry as he often got with corrections officers, he also seemed to seek them out. Prison is filled with high school dropouts and the mentally unstable. Despite the tattoos and criminal acts, Hernandez, who grew up in a two-parent, working-class home, attended three years of college and thrived in the demanding world of Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Mentally, at least, corrections officers were more of a peer group.
At one point during his stay in Bristol, Hernandez was ordered to stay away from the guards’ area during his time outside his cell, as they were not there to socialize with him.
During his two murder trials, Hernandez regularly bounced into court with a smile. He hugged and chatted with his attorneys. He was a happy-go-lucky defendant, seemingly grasping on the brief respite of normalcy – if a homicide case can be deemed normal.
His life in prison was anything but, though. There was no respect there, not from other inmates, not from guards, not from the system. Hard time didn’t appear to harden him. His requests for more food, a cellmate he liked or anything else was always summarily dismissed. He was a nobody.
With the possibility of winning an appeal for a new trial on the Lloyd murder unlikely, and subsequently earning an acquittal even less likely, Hernandez’s challenging and dispiriting reality must have set in.
The motives for suicide are complicated, personal and perhaps never fully understood. Maybe Jonathan Hernandez’s promised “truth” will shed further light. One simple answer, though, is at 27, with nearly four years inside and a lifetime to go, Hernandez’s reality had become unbearable.
He was a former superstar now under constant threat of violence, petty harassment and so bottomed out that stuffing his face with honey bun after honey bun was, at times, the only option to fend off starvation.
Bryan Curtis of The Ringer notices that a lot of folks have it in for ESPN.
Last week, I clicked over to my local college football message board and found a victory party that had nothing to do with recruiting. A group of sports fans were savoring ESPN’s decline. The occasion wasn’t even a bad day for the Worldwide Leader, by recent standards — just an announcement about talent-shuffling on SportsCenter. Still. Some posters clucked about ESPN’s politics. Some focused on race. (“I wonder who the token white will be.”) One poster wrote: “Die, ESPN, die.”
It has never been hard to find a sports-media type who secretly rooted for ESPN to get some comeuppance or another. But the idea that the public at large would be in on this — that it would relish ESPN’s struggles in a karmic way — is fairly new. It’s a condition newspapers and the “Big 3” broadcast networks know well. Welcome to the age of ESPN schadenfreude.
Historically speaking, it’s stunning that sports fans would root against ESPN. Fox Sports’ Clay Travis claims “middle America” is culturally alienated from the network. But for the better part of three decades, what just about every fan felt toward ESPN was intense cultural identification. If ESPN had fans, not viewers — in Bob Ley’s formulation — it’s because the network seemed to love sports as much as fans did.
Programmed into ESPN’s best shows was a populist streak — a sense that it was taking the piss out of sports. In 1996, Spin noted that “the articulate and acerbic anchors of SportsCenter speak for that most ignored element in the sports equation: the fan.” Keith Olbermann told the magazine that ESPN hosts were like the idiot fans that had run out onto the field but, in a weird twist of fate, were asked to stay.
Before ESPN was accused of being “liberal,” conservative columnist George F. Will was one of the network’s most vocal admirers. “If someone surreptitiously took everything but ESPN from my cable television package,” he wrote in 1994, “it might be months before I noticed.” Now, critics are saying the opposite: that if all ESPN’s TV offerings disappeared except for a handful of big games, no one would much miss them. In fact, they would smile.
Why would anyone be smiling about ESPN’s decline? Well, the biggest reason is the simplest: ESPN was too big to fail — or so we were told. Just four years ago, an Atlantic article called “The Global Dominance of ESPN” reported that the network was thriving thanks to high subscription fees, savvy rights deals, and a lustrous brand. “Other networks need to create hits,” Artie Bulgrin, an ESPN executive, told the magazine. “We don’t. We are a destination network, not a network with destination programming. People tune in to ESPN without even knowing what’s on.”
Jack Shafer — a Politico press critic who doubles as my spiritual adviser — noted that this kind of chest-beating makes media schadenfreude all the richer. “They make ’em build their own gallows and string ’em up,” he said. Perhaps ESPN’s gallows are built in its $125 million studio.
ESPN schadenfreude is further enhanced by the way the network behaved in its world-domination phase. It wasn’t great about crediting competitors with scoops. When the NFL was displeased with its reporting or original programming, ESPN sometimes rolled over. And since adding print to its purview, a wide swath of sports journalists can claim to have been fired, laid off, or ignored altogether by ESPN, creating an army of eager critics. (This is probably the place to note that The Ringer is populated by writers who worked at Grantland.)
ESPN schadenfreude is also infused with ESPN nostalgia. The network’s loudest critics are 30- and 40- and 50-somethings. As with summer-movie reboots, what the ESPN generation seeks is less a bygone editorial standard than an unrecoverable time in their lives. To compare the “new” ESPN to the Star Wars prequels would be too harsh. But if you listen to the way haters describe The Force Awakens — as a remixed, less satisfying version of the original — you hear echoes of the way critics talk about ESPN.
All those feelings are understandable, up to a point. But ESPN’s critics tend to mention these things only in passing, if at all. Their critiques basically amount to: Whatever thing I already hated about ESPN is what’s causing its decline.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Jason Whitlock wrote that ESPN lost its “risk-taking” spirit when it succumbed to a code of political correctness enforced by Deadspin. Whitlock listed eight hosts or shows that were bedrocks of the older, jauntier ESPN, from Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd to the World Series of Poker.
It’s worth considering the list in full. Bayless and Cowherd left ESPN for FS1 … after ESPN reportedly offered them millions to stay. The other six hosts or shows on Whitlock’s list are still on the air. (Last week, ESPN announced a deal to keep poker on the network until 2020.) It almost looks like ESPN has done everything it could to maintain its former glory.
Also: What does “risk-taking” mean? For me, opening SportsCenter with a tribute to A Different World seems like a pretty wild idea. Maybe Whitlock prefers Woody Paige chewing scenery on Around the Horn.
Clay Travis’s piece about the layoffs contained another tenet of ESPN schadenfreude: using the network’s decline to boost one’s own fortunes. Travis bragged that his Outkick the Coverage empire “is growing like gangbusters” while ESPN has been “firing people left and right.” If one of ESPN’s problems is its expensive rights deals with the NFL and NBA, then, yes, it’s true that Outkick the Coverage has skillfully avoided such deals. So, point to Travis, I guess.
Other critics aren’t smiling about ESPN’s decline but nonetheless have their own diagnoses of the aftermath. The Nation’s Dave Zirin rightly noted that the May layoffs claimed some of ESPN’s most dogged reporters. He also argued: “The line between entertainment and journalism at ESPN has never been fuzzier.”
See, I disagree. ESPN has walked that fuzzy line for its entire existence. “One of the things they tell you when you start at ESPN is to think of what you do as ‘infotainment,’” the anchor Linda Cohn has noted. What was Dan and Keith’s “Big Show” if not a journalism-entertainment hybrid? What’s 30 for 30? College GameDay? Mike & Mike? PTI? In his magazine work, Wright Thompson is the epitome of a capital-J journalist. But what about the times Thompson supplies opening narration (“Miami is, at first light, a series of islands …”) for events ESPN pays millions to televise?
Moreover, I think the fuzzy realm between journalism and entertainment is where ESPN does some of its best work. SportsCenter didn’t become a national obsession because it was the PBS NewsHour. It became that because anchors were clever and one of them did a Scarface impression.
Author Jeff Pearlman offered a similar theory of decline. ESPN cast its lot with Stephen A. Smith instead of dozens of workaday journalists, he argued, and “we (as a people) decided we prefer personalities and pizzazz over substance and detail.”
This theory was a real crowd-pleaser, especially for workaday journalists. But look at ESPN’s newly announced schedule to see what “personalities and pizzazz” really means. You won’t find many Stephen A.’s. Instead, you find journalists like Scott Van Pelt, Pablo Torre, Bomani Jones, Jemele Hill, Michael Smith, Bob Ley, Rachel Nichols, and Dan Le Batard. ESPN has also given pushes to Mina Kimes, Bill Barnwell, and Zach Lowe; it has funded the long-range reporting of Don Van Natta Jr. and Steve Fainaru. Thompson, who has reached the Operating Thetan level of longform, was one of the stars of ESPN’s upfront.
I’d be interested in hearing an argument that the above cast lacks “substance,” or that writers like Barnwell and Lowe don’t draw us a warm bath of “detail” every time they write. The idea that “personality” gives a media member an edge — or, at least, a better shot at hanging on to their job — is as old as ESPN. Hell, it’s as old as sportswriting.
ESPN isn’t the first media entity to be visited by schadenfreude. For decades, newspapers and the TV networks have bled publicly while critics chuckled at their fate. If you look at their example, you can more or less predict how ESPN will be perceived by the masses.
First, it’s going to be an incredibly long, grueling period. Consider the networks. Books chronicling the Big 3’s diminishing profits, viewership, and editorial standards (like Ken Auletta’s Three Blind Mice or Peter Boyer’s Who Killed CBS?) have appeared regularly since the 1980s. All the while, network PR departments claimed that even if the Big 3 would never be as big again, they still commanded a giant audience in a fragmented world. But who wants to write that story?
Every new cord that’s cut will allow ESPN critics to further grind whatever ax they were already grinding. As the media world shifts, fewer people will subscribe to cable TV and Bomani Jones will keep tweeting. Someone — probably Clay Travis — will try to connect those two events.
ESPN executives will be treated like battlefield generals. An exec who didn’t cause, but nonetheless inherited, tough circumstances will become a scapegoat. Another who stanched the bleeding, even temporarily, will be hailed as a visionary.
Finally, even ESPN’s critics will get tired of schadenfreude. They’ll be inclined to have the opposite reaction: to cheer on ESPN’s “rebirth.” Look at the way the Times and Washington Post — whose own declines were once lovingly chronicled — are getting high-fived for filleting Donald Trump. Only when you read a nostalgic, slightly patronizing piece called “The Worldwide Leader Rises!” will you know the age of ESPN schadenfreude is finally complete.
PEYTON MANNING AND THE UMPIRE
Butch Hannah is retiring as an NFL umpire at age 66. He has a story to tell Mark Wiedmer of the Chattanooga Times Free Press:
To his surprise, (Hannah, a former coach) soon became a zebra. By 1984 he was officiating Southern Conference football games. He graduated to the Southeastern Conference in 1991. He worked Tennessee’s 1998 SEC championship game win over Mississippi State inside the Georgia Dome on the Volunteers’ march to that year’s national championship. Then he headed for the NFL.
Over 18 seasons, he worked 14 playoff games and was an alternate at two Super Bowls (XLI and 50).
“No one got hurt, thankfully, so I never got to actually work a Super Bowl,” Hannah said. “But I was an alternate both times Peyton Manning won his Super Bowls.”
Like most folks in the Volunteer State, Hannah has a favorite Manning story. Unlike almost everyone else, his is truly a one-on-one moment.
“Peyton’s next-to-last year, the Broncos were facing the Dolphins in Denver and the whole game was a struggle for them,” Hannah said. “I called back two Denver touchdowns. But they pulled it out by two or three points (39-36). But late in the game, the clock about to run out, Peyton mistimed a snap and they had to run one more play. Peyton said something off-color to me, which was not at all like him.
“I told him, ‘Peyton, you’re better than that.'”
But the story was just beginning. A few weeks later, a FedEx package arrived at Hannah’s doorstep. Inside it was a letter originally sent to the NFL’s offices in New York City. The letter was from Manning.
“He said he wanted to apologize for his reaction to me that day against the Dolphins,” Hannah related. “Would I please accept his apology? That’s the only time that’s happened to me in all my years of officiating.”
Even then, the story didn’t end. A few months later, Hannah was about to umpire a preseason game between the Broncos and Seahawks in Seattle. He felt someone put an arm around his shoulder.
“It’s Peyton,” said Hannah, who’s known Manning since both were in the SEC in the mid-1990s. “He asks me, ‘Did you get my card?’ I said, ‘Peyton, you’ve got to let this go.’ He says, ‘You have no idea how upset I was with myself.’ That’s the kind of son Archie and Olivia raised. Pretty impressive.”
21st CENTURY RUNNING BACKS
Mike Clay of ESPN.com studies the role of the running back in today’s NFL:
It’s more difficult than ever to run the ball in the NFL. The four lowest league-wide yards-per-carry marks of the past decade have been posted during the past four years. And this despite a 2016 campaign that saw Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard look occasionally unstoppable.
With those stars in place, we now also enter the 2017 draft class — one of the deepest at running back we’ve seen in years — led by potential superstars Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey and supported by potential workhorses Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Samaje Perine and D’Onta Foreman, as well as a hybrid type in Curtis Samuel (172 college carries).
The NFL is now loaded with talented backs. Can that fix the current yards-per-carry dive? It’s not that simple.
In short: These guys need help.
A deeper look suggests it’s not the backs who are to blame, and that an influx of young talent might not be the antidote. To wit: While yards per carry have been down, average yards after contact has remained steady — an identical 1.74 in both 2009 and 2016. What the data shows is a progressive drop in blocking help for running backs over the past decade. The key numbers:
— Less blocking help: An average of 7.0 available blockers in 2007 to an average of 6.7 in 2016.
— But no less run D: The numbers of players lined up in the box defensively has remained roughly the same. In fact, it reached its second-highest total of the past decade in 2016 (7.56).
In a nutshell, 21st-century offensive schemes are taking help away from running backs to get additional receiving threats on the field. The problem is defenses are still motivated to stop the run from a personnel standpoint.
Teams are also throwing more than ever before, having called pass 61.4 percent of the time last season. That’s up from a 10-year low of 57.2 percent in 2008. Tailbacks accrued 11,267 rushing attempts during the 2016 regular season, which was 790 fewer attempts than what we saw during that 2008 campaign. So teams aren’t running as often and aren’t providing their backs with as much help, but to what extent does this impact the run game, and what can we learn?
The numbers and themes are fairly telling. Here are some facts:
— Defenders are progressively added to the box at a higher rate than backs are provided with blocking help, which leads to inefficiencies as both the offense and defense get heavier. Running against five-man (5.8 YPC) and six-man (4.9) boxes is quite beneficial. On the other end of the spectrum, backs average 2.4 YPC against 10-man boxes, and 0.7 when there are 11.
— Of our sample of 122,716 carries, the back has had an “edge” (more blockers than defenders in the box) on 5,887 carries (or 4.8 percent) of the sample. The field has been “level” on 50,286 (41.0 percent) and has resulted in a healthy 4.59 YPC, which is well above the tailback league average on all carries of 4.20.
— No coach uses more three-wide sets than Giants head man Ben McAdoo (NFL-high 69 percent of runs last season), so it’s hardly a surprise that Paul Perkins and Rashad Jennings were best positioned for rushing success in 2016. In fact, Jennings averaged a league-low 6.1 blockers per run, and Perkins was second at 6.2. Perkins faced a league-low average of 6.57 defenders in the box, and Jennings was second at 6.61.
— With Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, the Steelers also sport a pair of backs who ran with an edge often. This is super intriguing, as Bell is undoubtedly one of the game’s most electric and productive backs, but defenses were clearly more intimidated by Pittsburgh’s passing game. The Steelers had a second tight end on the field for 45 percent of their running plays and averaged 6.87 blockers per rush, both of which ranked sixth in the league. And yet, their rushers faced an average of 7.54 defenders in the box, which ranked 18th. That gap between sixth and 18th was the largest in the NFL last season.
— Matt Asiata (-1.23) tops the chart of backs who faced the biggest disadvantage in terms of blocking personnel during the 2016 season. David Johnson (-1.02) sits eighth, which is notable considering that the eight-lowest 2016 marks are also the lowest eight of the past decade. Digging even deeper, 34 of the 50 lowest marks of the past decade came in 2016.
— Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in rushing as a rookie, and the data shows that, although the Cowboys’ offensive line was terrific, he still achieved the feat despite his blockers being outnumbered by in-box defenders at an extremely high rate. Elliott averaged 6.8 blockers per rush (17th-highest) and faced 8.0 in-box defenders (fifth-highest). Those rates were the same for Dallas as a team, and that 1.2 gap was largest in the NFL. Because their offensive line could provide large running lanes without much blocking help from other positions, the Cowboys were able to keep three-plus wide receivers on the field often — a huge boost to the passing game, considering how often teams were stacking the box to stop Elliott.
— Derrick Henry was afforded a league-high 7.3 blockers per rush, and DeMarco Murray ranked third at 7.2 in Tennessee’s exotic smashmouth scheme. Defenses weren’t caught off guard, as Henry faced an average of 8.2 in-box defenders (third-most) and Murray faced 8.1 (fourth).
It’s easy to be intrigued by the latest wave of young NFL running back talent, especially after the likes of Elliott, Jordan Howard, Jay Ajayi and Rob Kelley burst onto the NFL scene by dominating after initial contact last season. However, this study shows us that tailbacks now need to overcome modern offensive schemes designed to increase passing-game weapons at the expense of rushing efficiency.