Roger Goodell, Unplugged
PHOENIX — Roger Goodell’s season from Hades is over, and don’t expect him to share many memories of the nightmare. I tried the other day, and got nowhere. The 56-year-old Goodell preferred to elaborate on where the league is going, not where it’s been. On the eve of this week’s annual NFL meetings, the commissioner defended the work the league has done to repair the NFL’s broken domestic-violence policies and said he didn’t think the Chris Borland retirement would prompt a line out the door at all levels of football.
In a 75-minute interview with The MMQB in his Park Avenue office in New York, Goodell seemed at ease and not wounded by the raging torrent of criticism that hounded him from the time he made his decision last July to suspend Baltimore running back Ray Rice for two games for knocking his wife unconscious in a New Jersey elevator. If he is wounded—and how can he not be—he’s not saying.
Asked what his hopes are for 2015, Goodell said: “To some extent it’s that the things that we’re doing are working. The changes that we’re making to the game are making it better and safer. The changes that we’re making to our policies to keep our stadiums full are working. We need to continue down those paths. You can’t get complacent. It’s working. The changes that we’re making to our personal conduct policy are working. Let’s keep down that path … We’re seeing the quality of the game continue to improve to be safer. So it’s working. That's the optimism that the owners feel, that I feel, that we all feel about the game going forward."
But Goodell is savvy enough to know there’s been damage to the league office, and a lot of it, and he’s going to have to have a damn good 2015 to restore faith in the league—and in him. “We have to meet the expectation of our fans,’’ he said. “They deserve it. We have to show them that their faith and trust in us is well placed.”
As the league meetings open this morning, owners and top club officials and coaches will gather at the posh Arizona Biltmore to discuss weighty matters such as the future of football in Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and St. Louis—and in London. But the league still has some 2014 remnants to deal with. I’m going to run an edited transcript of Goodell’s remarks to me on Page 2 of the column. But first, a Cliff’s Notes version of the notable things from our conversation:
• On whether he ever considered resigning last year: “No. N-O. No.”
• He said teams not only will be required to report violations of the personal conduct policy, but also have a “continuing obligation” to report what they’ve learned from the team's own investigation of the incident to the league office. “So it’s not just the initial incident," Goodell said, “but if new information is something that they become aware of, they need to share that with our investigators."
• Goodell is “leaning toward” splitting the job of his new discipline czar, possibly with responsibility of one person lording over investigations, and another responsible for discipline. (In a related note, the New York Post reported Saturday that the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Todd Jones, is stepping down and that sources said he would be joining the NFL. The NFL declined comment on that on Sunday evening, but word at the Biltmore on Sunday was that Jones would be joining the league in the coming weeks.)
• Goodell didn’t comment on any possible candidates for a split job. But I’ve heard reliably that if he does hire two people, Jones would run discipline, and former New York district attorney’s office investigator and prosecutor Lisa Friel—who has been a league consultant on domestic violence since September—is likely to run the investigative side.
• Goodell said he thinks league-hired investigator Ted Wells “is getting near the end" of his probe into the inflation levels of footballs in the AFC Championship Game, a story that’s hung over the Patriots and the league for the past nine weeks.
• One storyline during the deflated-balls saga was that the league was trying to catch the Patriots in the act of using the balls, and suspected prior to the AFC title game that the team was taking air out of the footballs before using them in games. Countered Goodell: “I was not personally aware of it until after the game."
• He said he thinks “there’s a chance” there will be a rules change this week involving the extra point—either moving the PAT attempt from the two-yard line to the one-yard line, or perhaps back to the 15- to make the extra point less of a sure thing, or possibly changing the width of the uprights.
• Playoff expansion from a four-game wild-card weekend to six games (with an extra playoff team per conference) is probably at least a year away. Interesting note: If the playoff field expands from 12 to 14 teams, the league could move the final wild-card game to Monday night—but not at the expense of a conflict with college football’s national title game.
• The NFL is “looking at more games" in 2016 in Europe than the three scheduled in 2015, he said.
• Goodell said he’s “not concerned" with Jameis Winston, the possible first pick in the draft, staying home in Alabama with his family on draft night instead of being at the draft.
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Here’s the edited Q&A with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
The MMQB: What’s the lesson you take from easily your most trying year as commissioner?
Goodell: I don’t know if you could put one or two … One of the things we always focus on is, What do we learn and how do we get better? I think in this case there were several factors. One is, Do we have the right expertise around us on specifically difficult issues that are complicated and complex? Two, in this case, at least in the personal conduct area, we were too reliant on law enforcement. We were completely reliant on law enforcement. We can’t be in this circumstance, because our criminal justice system has to make different types of decisions on different standards. We have to have personal conduct that represents the standards in the NFL. That’s the third point, that we always have to make sure that our standards and our policies are advanced, well thought-out and represent the highest standards that people expect of us. That wasn’t our learning from last year, but it was clear that people expect the NFL to do the right thing and when we don’t, they’re disappointed. We’re disappointed.
The MMQB: What would you say in 2014 was your low point?
Goodell: I don’t know. I wouldn't. I haven’t even thought about that.
The MMQB: You had a few of them.
Goodell: I just said, I haven’t thought about that. I think when you’re doing this job, you’ve got to do this job and you take highs and lows and you work to address them as quickly as possible and as thoroughly as possible.
The MMQB: Was there any time in 2014 that you considered, even for a moment, resigning?
Goodell: No. N-O. No.
The MMQB: How difficult was it personally on you?
Goodell: You know, when you’re trying to fix the things you need to fix, it’s not as difficult as it is on the people around you. Fellow employees. Our fans. I’d start with my family, the people who know you. Those are the people you worry about. But for me it was, we had a job to do and we had to get it done. I’m proud of what we did. I think what we did in developing a new personal conduct policy and making the changes that we made in education and making sure that people understand this issue, the things that we did more publicly about bringing to light this issue I think will be beneficial long-term to society—those things are things that we’ll look back and be proud of those accomplishments. We’re sorry we got to the place we got to [and] the way we got to it, but that is something that we now can look back at and build on. ... We’re actually starting to see it. People are saying, "People should adopt the personal conduct policy of the NFL in other institutions and other industries." That’s rewarding to some extent.
"We’re sorry we got to the place we got to [and] the way we got to it," Goodell says, "but that is something that we now can look back at and build on."
The MMQB: Did you use anybody in 2014 as what you would call a sounding board, an advisor, to help you through the tough times?
Goodell: ... Well, one of the good things about having those is that you don’t tell people who they are, because then they aren’t quite as open … I think that’s how you develop relationships that are valuable.
The MMQB: Do you feel that, in terms of the personal conduct policy—whenever you pick your discipline czar, will you be handing over a clearly defined way to handle personal conduct and discipline to whoever this person is?
Goodell: No. One of the reasons I created a conduct committee is that you constantly have to evaluate your policies. You have to understand what’s going on. Not only what trends might be happening in your own league as far as types of infractions, but also what’s going on in the broader society. That includes the criminal justice system. We have to adapt when we can sense a trend is occurring or when changes are afoot and you have to get ahead of those issues. One of the things we want with a conduct committee is to make changes to the personal conduct policy. In fact, at the league meetings, after the last two conduct committee meetings we already have a change that the committee is going to recommend.
The MMQB: What is it?
Goodell: It’s actually something that came out of the Mueller report (the NFL-sponsored investigation by former FBI czar Robert Mueller on the Ray Rice case), which was that there’s not only an obligation to report an incident, but there’s an obligation on behalf of the clubs to report and keep us informed if new information develops. So it’s not just the initial incident but if new information is something that they become aware of, they need to share that with our investigation.
The MMQB: So if there’s a team that has an incident that’s similar to what happened with Rice …
Goodell: It doesn’t have to be similar. If you have an incident that would be in violation of the personal conduct policy, you not only have to report the incident, but you have to report any information that you have at that time, or that you may get going forward. It’s what we call a "continuing obligation."
The MMQB: Why do you think this is important?
Goodell: It’s just an example of the fact that you have to constantly look at your policy and improve it—make sure that everyone understands it. Whether it’s the clubs, the individual employees of the league, the media, the fans … You have to be clear and as simple as you can possibly be.
The MMQB: Where are you in hiring someone to run that division?
Goodell: Well, we are at the final stages. We have not only talked about the individuals who could be involved but also the structure. One of the things that we evaluate is whether it’s a single individual or should the responsibility be split in any way, [such as] investigations versus discipline.
The MMQB: What do you think is the smartest way to do it?
Goodell: We’re at the final stages of that. ... I’m leaning towards splitting them.
The MMQB: Speaking of investigations, we’re at the two-month anniversary of the AFC Championship Game and the investigation into allegations that the Patriots deflated the football or footballs in that game. How much thought did you give that you needed to get it resolved so it’s not hanging over the league? It seems like it’s been hanging over the league for two months. Was there any thought in your mind to try to get it resolved that week so that it didn’t mar anything associated with the Super Bowl?
Goodell: No. I think the most important thing is to get the right information, to get the facts and to get the truth. And not to make any judgments until you get that. We have been very careful on that. We followed the facts. We took the information. We determined that we should bring Ted Wells to further the investigation. We haven’t given him a timetable except to be thorough, be fair and get to the truth. When he’s completed his report, that will be made public as well as to all of us.
The MMQB: Any indication when that will be?
Goodell: I haven’t spoken to him for several weeks. I think he’s getting near the end, but there’s no requirement when. ...
The MMQB: Is two months to investigate that too long?
Goodell: Again, I think that if you’re going to be thorough, it takes time. You’re having to meet with a lot of people. I guess it’s always too long, because you want to get to that issue and deal with it. It’s important not to exert any pressure to short-circuit or do anything other than be fair and transparent.
The MMQB: Can you say that the first time that you heard about this was after the game?
The MMQB: You know that there’s a storyline out there that you knew about the deflating and wanted to catch them in the act.
Goodell: Let’s just short circuit this a little bit. I’m not going to get into what we knew and when we knew it because that’s part of what he’s investigating. … I can tell you that I was not personally aware of it until after the game.
The MMQB: You had a surprising event last week with a 24-year-old linebacker for the 49ers, Chris Borland, retiring. What was your initial impression when you heard it?
Goodell: You have to respect his decision. It’s his judgment. As you point out, players retire all of the time. They make those determinations. They balance a lot of issues that are sometimes personal to them.
The MMQB: Do you view it as a singular issue? Are you in any way concerned that moms and dads of America will look at this and be concerned about the future of football?
Goodell: This isn’t something that came up yesterday for us. We’ve been working on the safety of our game throughout our history—with an incredible focus on it in my personal time as commissioner … We’ve seen a reduction of concussions by 25 percent just last year. That’s continuing a three-year trend on that issue. We saw a lot of those techniques in the reduction of those penalties, and it hasn’t impacted the quality of the game. You’d have to admit that the quality of the game is outstanding. There was a lot of criticism several years ago that we were changing the game. We are changing the game, for the better. The game has never been better or safer. And I think that the statistics bear that out.
We also are very focused on making sure that we provide the best medical care. I think you’ve seen recently that we hired Betsy Nabel. For the first time ever, we have a chief medical advisor, and she’s someone who I think will bring a great deal of experience, independence and thought to all the work that we’re doing to make sure that our players get the absolute best medical care ...
I go back to something else that I think is very important—NFL players are living longer than the average American male. And quite a bit—two to three years on average, according to the Niosh study. ... And we’re also seeing very positive results in youth football and high school football. High school football went up this year in terms of participation, despite all of the coverage.
What we want are facts to be out there. … When they hear the facts, they’ll realize that the game has an awful lot to offer. While there’s risk of injury, there’s risk in any physical activity. The way the game is being taught is making it a safer game and a better game.
The MMQB: But you obviously see the stories of the broken-down old players …
Goodell: I'm hearing about the changes we made in the collective bargaining agreement four years ago. I can’t tell you how many retired players came to me, including players that I was the intern for [Goodell was a PR intern for the Jets in the early ’80s], and said, "I wish those rules had been in place when I was playing, because I’d still be playing." I’ve heard players talk about the quality of the fields as an example. "Had the fields been at the quality that they are now, I’d still be playing the game." So I think you’re overlooking a lot of the improvements that have taken place—not just in medical, but in the fields and the rules and the training.
The MMQB: Do you think Borland is an outlier?
Goodell: Again, players are making the decisions whether to play or not play every day. They'll be making it for a variety of reasons—injury, career … If they have all the facts and are making a personal judgment, you have to respect that. People are going to make those decisions based on, we hope, facts and whatever their personal judgment is.
The MMQB: Let me ask you about the rules. It strikes me that if you tangibly change the rule on what is a catch, it could lead to a reversal of some of the progress that the numbers say has been made on concussions—just because there will be an increased emphasis on trying to knock the ball out.
Goodell: ... You’re talking a little bit about a hypothetical. That’s why the competition committee reviews this for weeks and looks at what we call the unintended consequences. So I think you’re somewhat referencing that. ... I think that’s true. We had that when we initiated the defenseless player hits. Everyone thought, Well, that’s going to increase knee injuries, and they're going to start going lower and that's going to cause a different type of injury. So that’s the unintended consequences we look at. That hasn’t proven to be true by statistics. So I think you can make the game safer and better, but those issues of what could happen if you change a rule are exactly what the competition committee really balances.
As far as defenseless players, that was one of the big things defensive backs coaches said—part of the job is to dislodge the ball. Well, what we’re seeing is that with the proper techniques you can still dislodge the ball. And it’s safer not only for the player being struck, but the player who is striking the individual. We’re still seeing that. So I think has been culture change, and frankly the change in techniques that you see with coaches and players is that they’re seeing the proper techniques, the safer techniques, actually can lead to the same outcome of breaking up the play. It doesn’t have to be the hit to the head where you’re launching.
"The expansion of the playoffs will be discussed," Goodell says. "We think it has a lot of merit from a competitive side, because it would actually add more teams to the race at the end of the season."
The MMQB: Do you get involved much with things like that with the competition committee?
Goodell: I just spent 45 minutes on the phone with [competition committee co-chair] Jeff Fisher last night. I talk with Rich McKay or other committee members, John Mara. ... I’m meeting with them in advance of Sunday.
The MMQB: The ‘what is a catch’ question was huge in this country in the playoffs. What’s your opinion—should the rule be changed?
[Editor’s note: At the Arizona meetings, it’s not going to be proposed as a rules change and will only be advanced if teams bring it up.]
Goodell: Well, this was also huge with Calvin Johnson [in a game in 2009]. The stage was bigger [this time], right? That’s why it’s so important for the competition committee to take the time away from that and to evaluate all of the consequences, including the officiating side of it, which is very important. One of the reasons they moved to the rule the way they did is so that it could be officiated consistently. That’s a big part of the decisions that they make. They bring officials in and also get input from the officials. You would want to try to develop that consistency so that a catch is a catch for everybody and it’s clear and you can see it.
The MMQB: What about giving each team a guaranteed possession in overtime?
Goodell: I think our overtime rule is really working well. I think it’s got the right balance. It keeps the sudden death nature of the game but … you have the opportunity to win the game and not give the other team the ball if you score a touchdown. ... I think that maintaining the sudden death nature of the game is very important. ... I think the extra point will be something that gets a fair amount of discussion—whether we move it back to the 15, as we experimented last year. Could you combine that potentially with putting the ball at the one [-yard line] so that you incentivize them to go for 2?
The MMQB: Is there a chance that you do something this year with the extra point?
Goodell: Yes … I think there’s a chance. I think that we’re going to have some pretty healthy discussions about it.
The MMQB: What do you think is the most logical thing? Moving it back to the 15 or moving it up to the one?
Goodell: Well, there’s another alternative that’s been discussed a lot which goes well beyond the extra point, which is would you change the uprights? We had some pretty healthy debate about that in Indianapolis [when Goodell met with the Competition Committee]. The accuracy of the kickers is so good right now. And on the extra point, it’s virtually an automatic play. Should there be some excitement or some consequence whether they can really make the extra point? ... I think the ownership feels pretty strongly that we need to create excitement in all of our plays. It could be some combination. I think the other thing that I would add that is related both competitively and medically is the medical timeout. If we see a player in either distress or disoriented in some fashion, should we stop the game and how do you stop the game and make sure that the individual gets evaluated properly?
The MMQB: Who calls the medical timeout?
Goodell: That’s what we’re going through the debate on. We have this eye in the sky—the ATC spotter—that would likely be the best position, because they’re all former trainers and they have the ability to identify somebody.
[Editor's Note: Independent certified athletic trainers have been positioned in the press boxes for every game since 2011. They have the ability to communicate with the sidelines and mandate that an injured player be taken off the field if they see signs of distress that medical people on the sidelines have not seen, or have ignored.]
They're looking at the entire field. If you’re relying on someone on the sideline, the medical professional might not see it. The coaches might not see it, because they could be talking to other players. So that’s why we brought in the ATC spotter. ... You can go to the video on the sideline, which has been what a lot of our medical professionals tell you is one of the great advancements. ... As a matter of fact, last year I think it was in Pittsburgh—[LeVeon] Bell’s injury—they were actually showing him the injury on the sideline [with the video unit on the bench]. That’s our core—making sure that the medical professionals make the decision and have the opportunity to make it.
The MMQB: Other topics of business at the league meetings …
Goodell: The expansion of the playoffs will be discussed.
The MMQB: Why has that cooled?
Goodell: I don’t think it’s cooled at all. There are a lot of factors that go into it. One, we want to be right when we do it ... It’s something that we think has got a lot of merit from a competitive side, because it would actually add more teams to the race as you get toward the end of the season. There’s the broadcasting side of it. When would you play that extra game? [A seventh playoff team in each conference would leave] one bye for the first seed in each conference.
The MMQB: What about playing a wild-card game on a Monday night?
Goodell: You could. Potential conflict that comes in there is the national championship game, because that would interfere in some years with that. We’re respectful of college football.
The MMQB: Theoretically doesn’t it make a lot of sense, if you don’t have to worry about college football, to have six games on wild-card weekend? You play two Saturday, three Sunday, and one Monday. Is that the most logical?
Goodell: Sure. But again, you have to consider college football, which is important to us.
The MMQB: What are the odds this year that you change playoffs from 12 to 14?
Goodell: You know we don’t deal in odds around here. [Laughing.] Here’s the other thing from the television partners—with the addition of [full-season] Thursday Night Football last year, we put a lot more of additional advertising inventory in the marketplace. Usually it takes a couple of years to absorb that. Then if you add in the fact that the college football playoff came in, it gave us a lot more inventory that time of year. And ticket sales, I think that’s another big issue. We want to advance this postseason policy a little more effectively so that we have confidence. You know, you could have a situation where a team ends up with two home games at the end of the season and you could end up winning your division and then play three home playoff games. You could have five home games in five weeks at the end of the season and into January. If you have a northern climate, that’s a lot to ask of your fans. So we have a lot to balance.
The MMQB: Is it logical to think that you would propose an 18-game schedule at any point in the near future?
Goodell: I think it’s one of those things that we’ll continue to evaluate the season structure. … The real short-term focus is on the quality of the preseason. Do we need four preseason games anymore—for competitive reasons or any other reason? And I think that there’s a growing sentiment that you don't. That’s including football people. If you have four games to evaluate players and develop your team, that’s a plus. I think most coaches would say that. But can you get this done and can you do it in two or three games? I think that people are more comfortable with three. So do we need that? Okay, that’s one part of the schedule. The rest is the regular season and the rest is the postseason. So I think all of these are interrelated. You have to evaluate all of them. We haven’t spent a lot of time on 18 games in the last couple of years.
The MMQB: Let’s get to the obligatory London and Los Angeles issues.
Goodell: I can see your enthusiasm.
The MMQB: I mean, L.A. is going to happen … As you look at the landscape, what has changed to make it logical and likely that there will be football in Los Angeles?
Goodell: I’m not saying it’s likely. I think a couple of things are positive. One is our long-term labor agreement. I would say that when someone is making the kind of investment that you have to make in the Los Angeles market as well as a lot of other markets—you need the long-term stability so that we can invest back in the business. Ultimately that will pay you back. That’s why we’ve seen the salary cap increase by $20 million per team over the past two years. That investment is paying back. I think the long-term labor agreement has given us the ability to evaluate a long-term investment in Los Angeles to make it work successfully—because it’s a challenging market. It’s competitive. The stadium is a critical component of that. They’re not getting cheaper.
The MMQB: Doesn’t it make the most sense to have Oakland and San Diego combining in a stadium in L.A. and the Rams staying in St. Louis?
Goodell: Our first objective will be to make sure that those markets have had the chance to get something done—that they can get a stadium built to secure the long-term future of their franchise. San Diego has been working 14 years on a new stadium. Oakland is not in a new debate either, for the A’s or the Raiders. Same with St. Louis. ... These are long debates about what is the right solution for the community and what is best for the team. We’re looking to see if we can create those solutions locally. If we can’t, we obviously have to look at long-term solutions for those teams.
The MMQB: Gut feeling—football in L.A. in 2016?
Goodell: I really don’t know, Peter. I’m not relying on my gut, I guess. I’m relying on if there is a real alternative where we can return to the market successfully for the long-term; that is the biggest priority in Los Angeles. And the other one is obviously making sure that we’re doing whatever necessary in the local markets to keep our teams successful and give them every opportunity to create a solution that works for the team long-term.
The MMQB: One other thing about L.A.—Stan Kroenke and the cross-ownership rules. Several times the league has told Kroenke to divest the ownership of his hockey and basketball teams. What can the league do to make him get rid of those teams?
Goodell: The finance committee has been working on this. They’ve given him periods of time to correct it and different ways in which to correct it. I think progress is being made on that. Stan hasn’t said, "I’m not going to be in compliance with the rules." He wants to make sure that if we’re going change our rules, he can get consideration for that. If we’re not going to change our rules, how can he do it in the appropriate way?
The MMQB: London. Three games a year there now. Is there any progress toward a more permanent solution—whether it be a team or more games every year to get a more established toehold?
Goodell: Yeah, we’re looking at more games. Again, I think every year we’ve learned something from our experience, which is the objective. First and foremost is the passion of the fans—they want more. ... What we’re getting from authorities is that, "We’d love to have a permanent presence here." Stadiums are another big part of it.
The MMQB: Does it make any sense to branch out from London, to have a game in Dublin, Barcelona, Munich …
Goodell: Well, it depends on what your objective is. Just to play those games? Sure. But we’re not out to just prove whether or not we can play a regular-season game. We’ve proven that. What we’re looking to do is: Can we develop a market? Can we develop a fan base that is long-term and sustainable? What we’re seeing are very positive signs for that. We’re seeing a tremendous interest. We also had to get through a lot of logistics. Playing a regular-season game and not compromising the integrity of the game and the competitiveness of the game is really important. I think we’ve been able to do that. But we still have more work to do if you were going say, Well, now a London-based team is going to play [a full season there]. Those are different factors that you have to consider.
The MMQB: What would you say would be your hope for the league for 2015 overall, in the wake of last season?
Goodell: Well, to some extent, it’s that the things that we’re doing are working. The changes that we’re making to the game are making it better and safer. The changes that we’re making to our policies to keep our stadiums full are working. We need to continue down those paths. We need to continue to work at it. You can’t get complacent. It’s working. The changes that we’re making to our personal conduct policy are working. Let’s keep down that path. The changes that are happening in the media world are significant. We have strategies. We have approaches that we think are positioning us very well for that future. We’re seeing more fans engaged with the game. We’re seeing the quality of the game continue to improve to be safer. So it’s working. That's the optimism that the owners feel, that I feel, that we all feel about the game going forward. The work that we’re doing in youth football, as I said, the numbers of participation—for the first time in five years, high school football is up. We think the same kind of results are happening on the youth football level. Those are the kinds of positive changes that are [coming] because of a lot of the efforts that we’ve all made. Whether it’s investment in USA Football or some of the research, we’re pushing the right buttons. None of us can get complacent. The expectations of the NFL continue to rise, whether they’re internal or external. We have to meet that bar. We have to meet the expectation of our fans. They deserve it. We have to show them that their faith and trust in us is well placed.
The MMQB: Do you think the draft is logically a road show now?
Goodell: We want to make sure that this event is a success for our fans and for our clubs. Obviously it’s an important offseason event for us. I’m confident it will be. The reaction we’re getting and the excitement that is building around the draft is really extraordinary. We’re really thrilled with our plans. We have to execute on that, and then we’ll make that evaluation. There are so many markets that want this … I don’t know if I’d say logical. One of the reasons that we’re doing this is because we couldn’t get into the current facility [Radio City Music Hall in New York] until June. ... Now we’ll find out—is it really something that there’s a great deal of interest in other markets? We think the answer is yes. … Will we move it every year? We’re not ready to make that decision.
The MMQB: Is there one city that is really aggressive about having it?
Goodell: Canton, Ohio. It’s awesome!
The MMQB: What was your meeting with Jameis Winston about, and are you concerned that the possible first pick in the draft is likely not going to attend the draft?
Goodell: Well the first answer is that it was a meeting at his request. We certainly welcomed the opportunity to sit with Jameis and his representatives. We had several people affiliated with our office that met with him. It was a good opportunity for us to make sure that he understood the expectations that we have of him as a player in the NFL for him to ask questions of us, and to make sure that there is clarity about the importance of the personal conduct policy and the expectations we have of everyone—whether you’re a player, whether you’re a first-round draft choice, or whether you’re the commissioner. We have a responsibility to live up to them.
The second part is he was clear that he wanted to spend time with his family. We’ve had that occur on several occasions over the years.
The MMQB: But rarely, if ever, with the first pick…
Goodell: I wouldn’t know because I’m not part of those invites, but I’m not concerned with that. I think that it’s something we respect when a player says, "I’d like to be with my family on that day." It’s an important day for them also.
The MMQB: What leads you to believe that 2015 is going to be a better year for the NFL?
Goodell: Well, I think the first part is that we implemented a personal conduct policy in December which we think is responsive to addressing very complex issues where we acknowledged that our policy didn’t deal with those things [domestic violence issues] effectively. We brought in expertise to help us make those decisions going forward. I think there’s clarity to those issues. We’ve also worked very hard on educating all personnel in the NFL—whether you’re a player, a coach or a front office executive, or someone who works in the NFL offices—to understand the importance of this issue and why we take this so seriously. So I’m confident from that perspective that there’s great progress that we made. And from an on-field issue, we had an extraordinary season. It was a competitive year that ended with the most-watched show in the history of television. So fans engaged with our game at an incredibly high level last year. We have to continue to focus on the game of football while making sure that we’re doing the right things off the field—and I’m confident that we will.
* * *
Not much to report from the first NFL veterans combine.
Takeaways from the inaugural event at the Cardinals’ practice facility in Tempe, where 105 players worked out on Sunday, picked from among 1,800 to 2,000 applicants (according to the league) for workout slots:
1. There’s a reason why a lot of these vets are unsigned. Even on a relatively slow track, the 40 times were plodding. Former Cowboys running back Felix Jones, who once was speedy, ran 4.79 and 4.85 times in his 40-yard dashes. Michael Sam couldn’t crack a 5-flat 40. There was talk that one of the 105 ran the 40 in six seconds. You know, Rich Eisen time.
2. “There may be a few back-end-of-the-roster training-camp players," said one GM on hand, “but that’s it."
3. Players had to pay a fee to work out for NFL teams. There’s something tawdry about that in the first place, for a multibillion-dollar enterprise such as the NFL. If the “prospects” were truly prospects, why are they paying to be seen? If it’s programming for NFL Network, or just another slow-day news story for the league to drag out (some 40 media members covered the show on Sunday), then the veterans combine is not being done for the right reason—the right reason being the league is looking for prospects. Visitors to the event walked away with one overriding thought: That was sad.
* * *
In the wake of the Borland news ...
With the surprising news last week that 24-year-old Niners linebacker Chris Borland was retiring, fearful of what football could do to his long-term health, I think it’s premature to forecast the death of football. But there’s no question the Borland news is a caution flag for the league. To me, the big question is how Borland quitting at his peak and at such a young age will affect the future of the game. There have to be more parents out there questioning whether to let their sons ever play football now. Our Greg Bedard is one of them; he wrote eloquently about Borland’s decision and the effect it had on him and his wife.
On Friday, I spoke with the coach of the best high school football team in the Bay Area, De La Salle High’s Justin Alumbaugh, to ask him about how his players, and the parents of his players, were reacting to the stunning news about the bright 49er prospect.
"One of our best players was heartbroken about it," said Alumbaugh. “He seemed sad all day when it happened."
Aside from the anecdotal story, Alumbaugh said he hoped the Borland news would drive the health-and-safety discussion about football to an even more prominent level. “This is important," Alumbaugh said, “because it could be another building block in modernizing the sport. It creates more discussion about how much we’re doing now to improve the safety of the game, and how the future of the sport should look. I wouldn’t call it a wakeup call, because we’re already addressing with our medical staff so much about the health and safety of our players. Each year, in the preseason, all of our players takes an IMPACT test [a baseline cognitive test to judge against brain function after a suspected concussion]. We have a neurologist meet with every player. When the season starts, anything approaching a concussion, that player is out of the coaches’ hands. It’s all up to the medical professionals. Last year, among our 67 varsity players, we had one concussion.
"One of the other things we’ve done is to really go to school on tackling technique. We studied the Seahawks’ tackling video, where they teach never to use your head. We immediately implemented that. The results were awesome. We have cleaner tackling now, less vicious tackling."
Alumbaugh has not see a decline in participation numbers at De La Salle. Then again, it’s not likely that one of the great football schools would see kids quit, or new kids not come out for the team. What I found the most encouraging about Alumbaugh: He sees football coaching as continuing education. On Sunday he planned to show his coaches tape of the University of New Hampshire coaches teaching full-speed tackling with players wearing no helmets. “It’s our responsibility as coaches, when new information comes in, to pay attention and incorporate that into what we teach,’’ he said.
* * *
Chuck Bednarik, 1925-2015.
I say this with confidence: There is no football player of a certain age who dictated the future ethos of his franchise, who put a lifetime imprint on a franchise and a city, the way Chuck Bednarik did with the Eagles and the city of Philadelphia.
Bednarik, who served nobly as a machine-gunner in a B-24 bomber in World War II and came out to be the first player picked in the 1949 draft, died Saturday. He’s famous because he was the last full-time two-way player in NFL history—as late as 1960, he started at linebacker and center regularly for the NFL champion Eagles. He’s also famous because he hit like a Mack Truck. And because he was the heart and soul and modern precursor to what the Philadelphia Eagles became.
The play that will live in the hearts of so many Eagles fans—including the thousands not alive to see it when it happened—occurred on Nov. 20, 1960, when the Eagles led the Giants late in the fourth quarter, trying to hang on to a 17-10 lead and secure their place atop the Eastern Division of the NFL. The Giants were driving, and New York hero Frank Gifford, the Jeter of his day in the big city, caught a pass and headed upfield. Bednarik ran at Gifford and exploded into him chest-first, Gifford falling to the cold turf just as cold as the ground. Then, Bednarik stood over Gifford, and in a rage that would have cost his team 15 yards today, gesticulated at Gifford and screamed something like, “This game is OVER!”
Fast-forward to 15 years ago. I was in Andy Reid’s head-coaching office with the Eagles, and there was a huge rectangular photo on the wall—the shot of Bednarik exulting over the prone and motionless Gifford. Bednarik signed it for Reid.
"This game is f------ over!
Chuck Bednarik, HOF 1967’’
"I loved Chuck," Reid said. “When I first got the job, he came to meet me at training camp. Said he wanted to show me around the area. So me and Harold Carmichael got into Chuck’s old Cadillac and drove around. Chuck was blasting polka music on the radio. He was going around 100 miles an hour! Harold’s in the back seat, petrified. ‘We’re gonna die!’ But Chuck was great. He just wanted me to get to know the area. He took me to meet to meet his wife. What a great memory."
Bednarik wanted Reid to know what Eagleness was about: You have to win, but you have to play, and win, with honor, and toughness, and the willingness to do whatever is asked, even if it means playing both ways for 60 minutes. Reid loved Bednarik’s passion, and they talked often about it.
I saw Bednarik at Yogi Berra’s golf tournament in New Jersey a few years ago. He was just riding a cart that day, shaking hands with everyone. I shook his hand. It was gnarled. The fingers were going in different directions. “How ya doin’, young fella?" he growled. He was a big and intimidating figure then, at 80.
"Wow," I said. “Chuck Bednarik. You’re just like I imagined you would be.”
"Is that good?" he said.
Yes. Yes, it was.
Quotes of the Week
“With the passing of Chuck Bednarik, the Eagles and our fans have lost a legend. Philadelphia fans grow up expecting toughness, all-out effort and a workmanlike attitude from this team, and so much of that image has its roots in the way Chuck played the game.”
—Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, on the passing Saturday of the game’s last two-way player, the legendary Chuck Bednarik.
“For me it’s wanting to be proactive. I’m concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it’s too late. There are a lot of unknowns. I can’t claim that ‘X’ will happen. I just want to live a long, healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”
—Chris Borland, who quit pro football last Monday, to Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru for ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” show.
“I don't think there's any going back. I know it seems like a really brief career. But I think 10 years for me, counting high school, college and one year in the pros, is a full football life."
—Borland, on “Outside The Lines.”
“For the most part, I thought it was a mediocre free-agent class. I think a lot of guys got paid more money than maybe they would have … because there was a lot of cap room.”
—Giants president and co-owner John Mara.
For those who missed it this week, I wrote a companion piece of anecdotal evidence on the over-rating of free agency.
“Football is on trial, and the evidence against it is mounting. The speed with which America’s favorite game has gone from celebrated to excoriated is breathtaking. Just as stunning, no one seems to have a solution to reverse the trend. Where is the perfect helmet, the rule changes or the unexpected Solution X that heals the sport now that its essential nature is known? Could football really just go away? Or wither rapidly, just as boxing fell swiftly from a popular American sport to a disreputable guilty pleasure with a limited audience?"
—Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell, after the Chris Borland retirement.
“Do you know what happened the last time a Ravens player got a DUI? I’m getting cut tomorrow, not like you care.”
—Running back Bernard Pierce, to the officer who arrested him on a charge of driving while intoxicated on Wednesday. He was right. Pierce was cut later in the day, and picked up by the Jaguars.
Times change quickly in the NFL. Two years and one month ago, the key Baltimore backs in the Super Bowl were Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
Stats of the Week
Average time of game, 2013: 3:07.37.
Average time of game, 2014: 3:05.53.
Time cut: 1 minute, 44 seconds.
Average accepted penalties per game (both teams), 2013: 12.26.
Average accepted penalties per game (both teams), 2014: 13.24.
Very interesting time-cut stat. It would have been well over two minutes per game if accepted penalties had been flat compared to 2013.
The 2014 NFL season was the 25th in a row with at least four teams making the playoffs that hadn’t made the postseason the previous year.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
On July 28, 2006, agent Mike McCartney negotiated two rookie contracts. He did a deal for the fifth pick in the draft, A.J. Hawk, with the Green Bay Packers. And he negotiated the contract for the 12th pick in the draft, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, with the Baltimore Ravens. Two big deals, agreed to about three hours apart.
In 2011, Hawk, starting at linebacker, won a Super Bowl with the Packers. In 2013, Ngata, starting at defensive tackle, won a Super Bowl with the Ravens.
In nine seasons with Green Bay, Hawk started 136 games. In nine seasons with Baltimore, Ngata played in 136 games.
Hawk was a Packer for 3,144 days. Ngata was a Raven for 3,144 days.
Hawk, born in January 1984, is 31. Ngata, born in January 1984, is 31.
Hawk was cut by the Packers this month. Ngata was traded by the Ravens this month. On the first day of the league year, Hawk left the Packers in free agency for Cincinnati. On the first day of the league year, Ngata left the Ravens in a trade with Detroit.
“Those two moves," McCartney said, “happened within an hour of each other."
Disappointed to see the New Britain Rock Cats moving to Hartford—I liked that little old ballpark in New Britain—though I am very pro-Connecticut, and it will be good for the economy of the capital city of the state of my youth. But I am not disappointed at the nickname of the new Double-A team of the Colorado Rockies, to begin play in 2016.
The Hartford Yard Goats.
Big 12 Conference Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Kansas State's Clayton Dalrymple, son of Cowboys PR czar Rich Dalrymple, hit an RBI single in Austin on Sunday afternoon off Texas pitcher Kacy Clemens, son of Roger. Clemens otherwise shut down K-State, 6-1, with five innings of two-hit ball.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Three thoughts about my spring training visit to the Cubs’ new stadium, Sloan Park, in Mesa, Ariz.:
1. Love for spring training baseball is boundless. The park was bursting at the seams—15,323 fans, and so many scalpers outside I thought I was at Wrigley Field. That’s eight fans fewer than saw a Friday afternoon game a couple of weeks ago. Stadium capacity is 14,156, and in eight of the 10 home games this spring, the Cubs have exceeded capacity.
2. Saw a most prodigious home run by Kris Bryant, the star of spring training. He golfed a moon shot deep to left field in the first inning against the Mariners. Off King Felix. Which prompted a fan behind home plate to turn to the press box, presumably where the fan thought GM Theo Epstein would be sitting, and screamed: “Hey Theo! YOU’RE NOT SENDING THIS KID DOWN!” The Cubs can get an extra pre-free-agency year out of Bryant if he starts the season in the minors, which seems patently absurd. Then Bryant hit a second homer. Don’t want to be a relentless optimist about the Cubbies, but that teams has some great young bats. Addison Russell, the shortstop acquired in the Jeff Samardzija trade with Oakland last year, also homered.
3. At so many baseball games—I really noticed it here—it's like the ticket is a cover charge for the bars around the park.
Tweets of the Week
There are many NFL players thinking today, "Man, I wish I could do what Chris Borland just did".
— Mike McCartney (@MikeMcCartney7) March 17, 2015
The veteran agent, on the day news broke of Borland quitting football because he didn’t want to take the long-term health risks of playing pro football.
Anyone worried about the future of football should see the amount of calls & emails we get from kids literally begging to get into pro days
— Eliot Wolf (@eliotwolf46) March 17, 2015
The Packers’ director of player personnel, in the wake of the Borland news.
Note to all NFL players. Think ahead 10 years
— Adrian Wilson (@adrian_wilson24) March 17, 2015
Words of advice from the longtime Cardinals safety.
Wonder how many women out there are named Ann Arbor
— Chris Long (@JOEL9ONE) March 21, 2015
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think the best things that will be considered by the 32 team owners this week are:
a. Chicago’s proposal that both teams be guaranteed at least one possession in overtime. (A turnover on the opening kickoff of overtime would count as a possession.)
b. The placement of cameras on all boundary lines to guarantee precise sightlines on replay reviews along goal lines, end lines and sidelines. Long overdue.
c. Moving the extra point back to the 15-yard line. (At least.)
d. Narrowing the goal posts.
e. Making the line of scrimmage for the extra point or two-point conversion the one-yard line.
f. Though I supported the Patriots’ right to put a fifth “lineman” reporting as eligible to play anywhere on the field when it was used in the playoffs in January, I think a clearer rule is preferable. “We’re proposing that if an eligible player reports ineligible to the referee, that he must report and then play in a line in the tackle box," said competition committee co-chair Jeff Fisher. “There was a concern on behalf of a number of clubs and number of coaches and coach [John] Madden’s subcommittee that unless we had some guidelines in place, that this thing may get out of hand." So, a running back wouldn’t be able to play split wide, ineligible. But a tight end would be able to line up as left tackle. That tweak of the rule was proposed by the competition committee.
g. The Colts’ proposal to allow a retractable roof to be opened at halftime, under certain circumstances. If the weather’s crummy before the game but clears with a good forecast by halftime, the roof should be open.
2. I think for those of your cursing me for loving the both-teams-get-a-possession proposal, my thought: The coin flip at the start of overtime still takes on too much significance, even with the receiving team needing a touchdown to win the game instead of simply a field goal. I agree that having to score a touchdown on the first possession of overtime for the game to be over is progress, but it’s still a fact that the vast majority of teams with a choice at the start of overtime are going to choose to receive, not kick off. That’s because having the ball, regardless how good the defense you’re facing, gives a team a better chance to win than playing defense. And the games are too important to give a coin flip such influence. The Packers lost the coin flip of the NFC title game and never saw the ball. I’d make the argument that the odds of Green Bay scoring a touchdown on the first possession of overtime with Aaron Rodgers quarterbacking were more than 50 percent. Remember’s Seattle’s other marquee overtime game last year? Won the coin flip against Denver, went 80 yards on the first possession for the touchdown. Pretty significant factor, the coin flip. Kept the ball out of Aaron Rodgers’ and Peyton Manning’s hands in those two games.
3. I think it’ll be interesting to watch this contract dance between Philip Rivers and the Chargers as the march to Los Angeles continues for San Diego. It’s apparent Rivers does not want to be a Los Angeles Charger. “What I can control and all I know as of today, I am signed up for one more year," Rivers told UT-San Diego. “I guess things could change, but with all the uncertainty in many aspects, I don’t see it changing before camp gets here, and when camp gets here I’m even more certain to play it out. What we’ve established here with my growing family is hard to recreate. I know that moves are part of life. But that certainly is fair to say that [a possible team move to Los Angeles] is part of it. The good thing is I’m not under contract in a year where we’d potentially be in Los Angeles.” Ouch. Rivers’ contract expires after the 2015 season, his 12th as a Charger. He will be 34 this season. Rivers and his wife have seven children.
4. I think the way the Chargers will handle things with Rivers is smart. They’re not going to put any full-court press on him to sign this offseason—though they very much want to sign him to be a Charger for life, wherever the franchise plays long-term. But the club also knows there’s no sense in pressuring Rivers, so they’ve left the ball in his court, basically. He knows they want to talk extension, and if he changes his mind, they'll let him come to them.
5. I think Chris Borland cemented his honorable retirement Sunday with the announcement on “Face The Nation” that he’d voluntarily given back 75 percent of his signing bonus from his four-year rookie contract.
6. I think the fair thing for Greg Hardy and the Cowboys would be a six-game suspension to start the season. I have no problem with the Cowboys signing him, but his case should be a perfect example of the way the league deals with cases of domestic violence where there is significant evidence that abuse occurs. Even though Hardy sat 15 games last year, he was paid for them, and though I realize that’s a very gray area, imagine if Hardy isn’t suspended. That would mean he’d never missed a paycheck while being found guilty by a North Carolina judge for domestic violence. (The case was never heard by a jury because the victim did not show up for the subsequent trial.)
7. I think the coolest part of the design for the prospective new Inglewood, Calif., stadium planned by Rams owner Stan Kroenke is the roof. According to the Los Angeles Times’ Sam Farmer, the roof will be 275 feet above the field, and it will be transparent, and it will allow breezes to flow through the stadium. It doesn’t sound like Kroenke wants a second team to share the site with him (though, as Farmer reports, the design does allow for it), and it certainly doesn’t sound like he wants to keep the Rams in St. Louis. Lots to discuss here in Arizona this week with franchise moves and stadium news.
8. I think it is likely, after Michael Sam ran slowish 5.07 and 5.1 times in his 40-yard dashes at the NFL veterans combine on Sunday, that his next football will be played in Canada, with the Montreal Alouettes.
9. I think this could well surpass the $7 million guaranteed to Dwayne Harris (Who?) by the New York Giants on the Teams Do The Damndest Things In Free Agency Dept.: Charles Clay will make $24.2 million in his first two seasons playing tight end for the Buffalo Bills. Not bad for a guy with three touchdowns in Miami last year—and who averaged 4.1 receptions a game.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Want to feel good about the players you root for? Read this gem of a column by The Oregonian’s John Canzano. Great job, John.
b. I, like a jillion other college basketball geniuses, had Iowa State going far and thus wadded up my bracket and tossed it 2.5 hours into March Madness.
c. Wisconsin over Iowa State for the national title. What a basketball savant!
d. Great point by Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com: Dan Uggla played four games for the San Francisco Giants last year, committed three errors, went 0-for-11 … and will get a World Series ring from the Giants. Classy organization.
e. Uggla will make $13 million from the Braves this year. Part of an old guaranteed contract. (As every veteran in the NFL vomits while thinking, Why not us?)
f. Great cross-country writing music: "Songs of Innocence," the most recent effort by U2. “Song For Someone" is the hidden gem of the album.
g. Are they still called “albums?"
h. Coffeenerdness: illy espresso is underrated. Very smooth and strong.
i. Beernerdness: Sloan Park sold a good variety of microbrews. I tried Johnny’s American IPA, from Moab Brewery in Moab, Utah. Served in a tall-boy can. Distinctive, strong and hoppy. Enjoyed it.
j. You go, Princeton. The women’s basketball team is 31-0 after beating Wisconsin-Green Bay (from the eighth seed in the women’s bracket) Saturday.
k. My Ohio U. Bobcats were taken out of the NCAA women’s tournament by Arizona State on Saturday. A couple of familiar names on the Sun Devils: senior guard Promise Amukamara and junior guard Peace Amukamara. Sisters of Prince, of course.
l. Curious if the other three Amukamara sisters—Precious, Passionate and Princess—were at the game.
m. John Oliver needs to make his show nightly.
The Adieu Haiku
March Madness. Fun times.
NFL playoffs fun too.
But can't match Madness.