The Rams Are Unleashing Jared Goff, and Not a Moment Too Soon

Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times

For a guy who doesn’t know how the sun works, Rams quarterback Jared Goff played extremely well in Week 3.

We should probably forgive Goff by this point for his lack of knowledge about as minor a topic as the universe. We should let him off the hook because he doesn’t appear to be nearly as confused by NFL defenses this season.

In this week’s installment of Thursday Night Football, Goff and the Rams defeated the San Francisco 49ers in a game that had all of the makings of a snooze-fest but turned out to be a fantastic contest. The 2016 #1 pick finished 22-28 with 292 yards and three touchdowns. The 41-39 victory was the highest-scoring game in the NFL this season, and if before the season you had quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Jared Goff leading their teams to a combined 80 points in the most exciting game of the NFL season to date, please collect your winnings. You’re probably crazy but you’re definitely right.

Goff, though, is the quarterback I want to talk about here.

Last year, Goff started just seven games for the Rams in their return to Los Angeles. When he was handed the reins to the offense in Week 11 of last season, he struggled mightily. The game before Goff was named the starter, the Rams defeated the Jets by a score of 9-6. It was L.A.’s last victory of the season; Goff’s squad went winless in the final seven games of the year.

And Goff was one of the main reasons for the Rams’ late-2016 failures. Last year’s #1 pick only eclipsed 200 yards twice in the last seven games and the Rams averaged all of 12.1 points per game in that span. Goff finished the year with five touchdowns and seven interceptions; among players with at least seven starts last season, Goff came in 31st in passing yards per game. His passer rating of 63.6 would have put him dead last in all of football, and yes, he would have been behind both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brock Osweiler. Those are two names you never want to be associated with as an NFL quarterback.

Of course, part of the problem was the weapons, or lack thereof, at Goff’s disposal. Last year, the team’s two leading receivers were Kenny Britt and Brian Quick. This year, Britt is playing for the Browns and Quick is playing for the Redskins. Despite their services to the team last year, they simply didn’t get the job done, as neither were able to create the separation that Goff needed to get them the ball. We’ll revisit the wide receiving corps in a little while.

The other issue for Goff and the Rams was, to be quite frank with you, the coaching staff. Head coach Jeff Fisher, who was one of the longest-tenured and most mediocre coaches in NFL history, simply did not provide his franchise quarterback with the right coaching for him to succeed. Last year’s offensive coordinator was Rob Boras, who was in his first year as the team’s permanent offensive coordinator. It showed, as the Rams scored the fewest points (224) in the league a season ago. In fact, the Rams’ offensive futility was almost impressive; their 224 points in sixteen games was the fewest points scored in an NFL season since the 2012 Kansas City Chiefs, who were spearheaded by Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn, put up all of 211. Fisher was fired with three weeks to go in the season; to show how much things have changed, last week, a Twitter user spotted Fisher at his local grocery store. Much more importantly, Fisher was reportedly seen by multiple patrons shopping in the vicinity of aisles seven and nine. I just got off on a tangent and I apologize. Actually, no I don’t.

Anyway, the Rams hired Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay in January; at the time, McVay, an offensive wunderkind who spent three years as Washington’s offensive coordinator, was just twelve days short of his 31st birthday, making him the youngest head coach in NFL history. Under McVay’s tutelage, Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins finished in the top seven quarterbacks in passer rating for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The new Rams coach hoped to do the same with Goff, and the front office, for a change, helped the offense’s cause.

Remember the depleted wide receivers group from last year? Los Angeles and general manager Les Snead signed former Bills wide receiver Robert Woods to help the passing game. Woods is a perfectly acceptable second option; he’s never had more than 700 yards in a season but he would help the Rams this year. Until August 11, however, Woods was set to be the team’s number one pass-catcher, a role that likely did not suit him. But on that August day, the Rams traded for Woods’ Buffalo counterpart, Sammy Watkins, to provide Goff a legitimate downfield threat. While this put some pressure on Goff to perform, it also gave him a significantly better supporting cast than he had a season ago.

That newly-potent offense has been on full display in the first three weeks of the season. Goff’s passer rating, which ranked dead last in 2016, is third in the league this season among passers with multiple starts. He’s currently first in the league in yards per attempt, a category he would have also finished at the bottom of had he qualified for the statistic last year. The high-flying Rams are averaging 35.7 points per game in the first three contests of the season. Granted, there are defenses far better than the Colts and the 49ers in the NFL. But this isn’t the 2016 Los Angeles Rams.

And that has a lot to do with the play of Jared Goff. To show you how he’s utilizing his new offensive toys, I give to you this absolute dime from Goff to Watkins in the third quarter of Thursday night’s game:

I don’t remember the last time I was a downfield passing play that was that perfect on both the passing and receiving ends. More to the point, though, the 2016 Rams’ offense has no chance of making that play because it doesn’t have Watkins. That offense also didn’t have as good of an offensive line; this offseason, Los Angeles signed veteran linemen Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan, both of whom, ironically, are older than head coach Sean McVay. This offensive line has been more than effective; Goff has been sacked just three times in as many games. Last year, the Rams offensive line conceded 49 sacks, the second-most in football. This is consistent with McVay’s offense, one that emphasizes the quarterback releasing the football quickly after the snap. To support this, McVay’s Washington offense finished in the bottom four in the league in 2015 and 2016 in sacks allowed. That is as much a function of the teams’ offensive lines as it is a function of McVay’s offense.

That offense is now one of the best in football, and, improbably, Jared Goff is its centerpiece. While Todd Gurley has been more effective this year and the Rams’ offensive line has done a far better job protecting its franchise QB, Goff has been the most impressive and surprising part of the team’s success.

That being said, he hasn’t been perfect. The Rams lost their Week 2 game to the Redskins in large part because of this mind-numbing fourth-quarter pick-six from Goff to Redskins linebacker Mason Foster. The Rams also have accomplished defenses such as the Seahawks (twice), Giants, and Texans on their schedule for later in the season. All of those defenses are far better than the Colts and 49ers. But the Rams’ resurgent offensive is strikingly stellar this year; the team has scored 40 points in two of the first three games of the Sean McVay era. The Rams crossed that threshold twice in 77 games under Fisher.

The Los Angeles Rams have gone from being the NFL’s worst offense to one of the league’s best. That has everything to do with the new offense of head coach Sean McVay and second-year quarterback Jared Goff.

The combination of the two has meant offensive success for the Rams. And regardless of whether the sun goes down in the east or the west, know that it will be setting on one of the best young quarterbacks in the game, one who finally has the weapons around him to be successful.

The NFL’s Hard Knocks Problem

David Kohl/USA Today

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently being featured on HBO’s annual Hard Knocks series. The show takes a look at a different team’s training camp exploits each year and has aired intermittently since 2001, when the then-defending-champion Baltimore Ravens starred on the show. The series provides access you can’t find almost anywhere else, from meetings with players and coaches to the day-to-day minutiae of being on and running an NFL team.

Hard Knocks is a good show and almost always an entertaining watch. The high point in the history of the series was undoubtedly in 2010 when the New York Jets, led by head coach Rex Ryan, were on the show. The most legendary scene in that year was this speech from Ryan in which he called out his team’s lack of leadership, said, “I’m not a great leader”, and ended his diatribe with “let’s go get ourselves a g–d—- snack”. The speech is, simply put, one of the funniest things I have ever seen. And that’s not the only hilarious/ridiculous moment the show has spawned; Hard Knocks has given us Ryan Mallett blaming his alarm clock for his lateness, Vince Wilfork’s overalls, Chad Ochocinco, and, possibly most unforgettable of all, Antonio Cromartie floundering to the finish line of barely naming all of his children (at the time). In 2010, he had eight kids and he’s had another five since then. Antonio Cromartie now has thirteen children. More importantly, Antonio Cromartie is just 33 years old.

You would figure that with all this, Hard Knocks is the occasionally serious laugh factory that keeps on giving. Unfortunately, though, that’s not all there is to the show; in fact, it sometimes shows the dark side of football training camp. This was never more evident than in this past week’s episode.

Some background: in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Bucs traded their third and fourth-round picks to the Kansas City Chiefs to jump to the 59th pick in the draft and select Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round, making him the earliest-selected kicker in the draft since 2005. The team, clearly not following the fantasy football precept of waiting until the last round to take your kicker, likely based their decision on his college career, one in which he made nearly 90% of his field goal attempts over three seasons. That success, however, didn’t quite translate to the pros.

Last season, Aguayo ranked dead last in the league in field goal percentage as he went just 22-of-31 with no made field goals past 43 yards; he also missed two extra points. To make matters more interesting, Tampa Bay signed former Jets kicker Nick Folk in the offseason to challenge Aguayo after his disastrous 2016 campaign. Folk is a ten-year pro who has made at least 80% of his kicks in each of the last four seasons. Folk is a better kicker than Aguayo and he was clearly brought in to push Aguayo and ultimately steal his job, assuming the latter’s fortunes didn’t change in a hurry. And after Aguayo missed an extra point and a field goal attempt in the team’s first preseason game against the Bengals, the outcome became clear for all parties; Aguayo was going to be released.

And, because of the presence of HBO’s cameras, one of the worst days of his life was about to be watched by millions of Americans.

On Tuesday’s episode of Hard Knocks, Aguayo learned his fate in a heartbreaking moment between player, coach, and general manager. The team’s GM, Jason Licht, explained to Aguayo that he needed to make more of his kicks to be of service to his team. No, really.

The good news for Aguayo is that he was acquired by the Chicago Bears after Tampa Bay cut ties with him. And, to be fair, Aguayo was likely compensated for his being featured on the show; NFL Films, the production arm of Hard Knocks, has paid certain players who appear on the show dating all the way back to 2001. But still, the only people who didn’t watch Aguayo get fired either weren’t interested or didn’t have basic cable.

And even those people may have had the chance to see it because the NFL’s Twitter account proudly trumpeted the video of his release to only, let’s see, 23.9 million Twitter followers.

In fairness to the league, the NFL is not necessarily in the real world and has never pretended to be. After all, this is the same league that suspended Josh Brown for one game after he admitted to abusing his wife but banned Josh Gordon indefinitely for substance abuse violations. That’s not to defend Gordon’s actions, but it’s not like the league operates like any other company would in this type of situation.

But let’s say we were dealing with a real-world enterprise here. Let’s say that a McDonald’s employee was fired for inconsistent performance and cameras caught everything on tape. Let’s then say that in addition to a TV show airing the employee’s ouster, the McDonald’s Twitter account proudly tweets a video showing the same scene as the show. That would be pretty embarrassing for the employee, right? It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it’s not necessarily unlike what happened with Aguayo and many other members of the team who have been cut in the first two episodes of the show.

And yet, scenes like Aguayo’s demise make me want to watch Hard Knocks. Think about it: two men are signed to the active roster and you absolutely know that one of them is not going to make it to the end of camp with his job. The other will win the starting job but is not guaranteed success and will face continued scrutiny from the media and his team. If the Oscars were like that, I’d watch.

Here’s the problem, though: getting fired is a humiliating, degrading experience and having cameras around to capture it and display that to people around the world can’t help, either. Getting traded is a similar ordeal; one of the most memorable moments in the history of Hard Knocks came courtesy of the Miami Dolphins in 2012. Near the end of camp, the team traded cornerback Vontae Davis to the Indianapolis Colts for two draft picks. The seminal moment of the show’s seventh season was general manager Jeff Ireland telling a dazed, confused, and possibly blindsided Davis about what had just transpired. Davis has since turned in five excellent seasons with the Colts, but the scene was completely cringe-worthy and difficult to watch.

This is also a discussion that goes beyond Hard Knocks; Amazon’s original series All or Nothing is a behind-the-scenes look at an NFL team during the regular season. Season 2 of the show was filmed last season with the Los Angeles Rams and it showed Jeff Fisher’s firing on December 12 of last year. Like the Aguayo and Davis clips, watching Fisher explain to his assistants that he’s just been canned is awkward. And, like they did with Aguayo, the NFL’s Twitter account used a grown man losing his job as an opportunity to plug a TV show. Lovely.

Just so we’re on the same page here, I’m not telling you not to watch Hard Knocks or, for that matter, All or Nothing. Frankly, I watch the former because it’s good television and it gives us a look at the inner workings of a team that we would not otherwise receive. I’m not even suggesting that HBO and NFL Films shouldn’t have shown Aguayo getting released; while you know what the outcome is going to be, the tension and drama surrounding the occasion plainly cannot be replicated.

But when you watch the show next week and beyond, think of the players as human beings instead of numbers that will be quickly removed from the Buccaneers’ training camp roster.

Jay Cutler and the Dolphins Make Sense for Each Other

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

On Sunday, the Miami Dolphins, not long removed from learning that starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill may be done for the year with a knee injury, decided to replace him with former Bears quarterback and recent retiree Jay Cutler. The deal is for one year and $10 million, which allows Miami to get out from under it if Cutler falters. This is good leverage for the Dolphins to have, as they’re dealing with the man who was once benched for none other than Jimmy Clausen. Yes, that really did happen.

Invariably, with Cutler’s signing came the renewed calls for an NFL team to sign former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, as you’ll recall, has not been signed in free agency after spending last season protesting the national anthem in response to his concerns about what he views to be racial inequality and police brutality in the United States. Politics and social issues aside, Kaepernick, who threw for sixteen touchdowns and just four interceptions last season, is objectively one of the 64 best quarterbacks in the league and deserves to be employed. In fact, his supporting cast was so bad last year that his best receiver was once released by the Jets.

With the Dolphins bringing in a walking, talking meme as their starting quarterback, many are using this opportunity to bash the league for not being inclusive of Kaepernick’s social activism. Here is what Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman had to say on the matter:

That brings us to the other, unavoidable part of this story: Colin Kaepernick.

I’ve tried to not make every football conversation about Kaepernick, but damn if the NFL makes that impossible.

And now the Cutler signing, once and for all, exploded any and all myths about why Kaepernick isn’t signed.

The number of excuses made by pro-NFL forces, both in the league and the media, has been extensive and ridiculous.

Freeman is right that teams have seemingly looked for reasons not to sign Kaepernick this offseason; after all, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, Brock Osweiler, and Jay Cutler are all currently employed while Kaepernick still isn’t. The anger and discontent around his NFL shunning are both so great that we have now reached the Spike Lee support rally portion of the Kaepernick proceedings.

And while it’s absolutely true that Kaepernick should have a job right now, this is the one situation in which a team bypassing his services looks to have made the right decision. Let me explain.

The head coach of the Dolphins is Adam Gase, who was once the offensive coordinator of the Broncos and Bears. Gase’s one year in Chicago (2015) was spent with Jay Cutler as his starting quarterback. These were the numbers Cutler put up in fifteen games with Gase calling plays for the Bears:

COMP% TD INT YARDS QBR
64.4 21 11 3659 65.9

The 2015 season was the best of Cutler’s career and he threw a career-low eleven interceptions that year. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, consider that before Gase’s arrival in Chicago, Cutler twice led the league in interceptions. In seasons in which he played at least fifteen games before 2015, Cutler averaged nearly eighteen picks per year. Gase undoubtedly led Cutler to the best season of his career and that logic assuredly played into the Dolphins’ decision to sign him.

Let’s assume that Miami will get something similar to the production Cutler gave the Bears two years ago. And let’s assume that the team will lose something along the lines of Tannehill’s average production over his first five NFL seasons. What is an average Ryan Tannehill season, exactly? Well, based on his first five years in the league, it would look something like this:

COMP% TD INT YARDS QBR
62.3 21 13 3691 54.7

If this is to be believed, then the Dolphins may have just gotten better. Of course, there are other factors at play here.

The first of these facets is that Cutler was retired until 48 hours ago. He was slated to be a color commentator for FOX’s NFL coverage this year and was reported to have had reservations about leaving that gig for the Dolphins. While he has insisted that he is in good enough shape to still be an NFL quarterback (even without having the slightest conception of what that means), he still needs to ensure that he is in shape, learn the Dolphins’ playbook, and get to know his teammates and in particular his wide receivers. All of those things could take significant amounts of time, and the Dolphins’ regular season begins in just 33 days.

The second component of this is rather simple: we’re dealing with Jay Cutler, the man who once cursed out a ball boy, refused to talk to his offensive coordinator, and treated NFL officials like children. Another true story: while it has nothing to do with his football exploits, Cutler proposed to his wife, reality star Kristin Cavallari, by sending her a wedding ring through the mailHe literally mailed it in! When you think about it, though, Jay Cutler mailing in something incredibly important makes perfect and complete sense. And the fact that there is proof he did all of these things should give Dolphins fans at least some pause when it comes to his arrival.

And yet, after all of that, I’m still inclined to think that his signing was a good move for both he and the Dolphins. Cutler had the best season of his career with his current head coach calling the plays two years ago, and his return to Adam Gase’s offense should signal something of a return to form provided that he can develop chemistry with his wide receivers.

And as for that pesky Kaepernick question? If this were literally any other team and any other organization, signing Colin Kaepernick would have made far more sense. This, though, is the one time and place where a team made the right decision by signing someone else. While Kaepernick would have helped Miami, he doesn’t have the familiarity that Cutler does with Gase’s offense. That’s not his fault (Kaepernick never played under Gase) but it is the reality of the situation.

One more thing to consider: even if Ryan Tannehill was healthy, the team likely would have been relegated to being the AFC East’s second fiddle behind the gargantuan monolith that is the New England Patriots. The Dolphins’ main goal this year should be getting one of the AFC’s two wild card spots and reaching the playoffs.

The Dolphins suffered a significant blow to their team with Ryan Tannehill’s knee injury. In response, they’ve formed a union with Jay Cutler, an old friend from head coach Adam Gase’s celebrated offensive past.

It’s an arranged marriage that could work out for both sides.

Odell Beckham, Jr. Deserves the Huge Raise He’s Been Asking For

Al Bello/Getty Images

In case you haven’t heard, Odell Beckham, Jr. is requesting a massive raise in his next contract.

The fourth-year wide receiver will be making just over $3 million this season and $8.46 million in 2018. Based on his production over his first three NFL seasons, he would be more than deserving of becoming one of the highest-paid wide receivers in the NFL. That’s not all he wants in his next deal, though.

In fact, not only does the Giants standout want to be the highest-paid wide receiver in the league but he also wants to be the highest-paid player in the NFL. For next season, the highest-paid player in football will be Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who will be making exactly $25 million. A more realistic bar for Beckham to clear would be that of Antonio Brown, who is currently the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver and will earn nearly $20 million in 2017. And while such an investment may be a taxing endeavor for the Giants, Beckham could be that rare player who is actually worth the astronomical sum of money he’s about to receive.

Here’s something to consider: this is the complete list of players who have had at least 1300 receiving yards and 10 receiving touchdowns in each of the last three seasons:

  1. Odell Beckham, Jr.

That’s right: Beckham is the only player in the entire league to amass that many receiving yards and touchdowns in every year since he came into the league. Keep in mind that he missed the first four games of the Giants’ 2014 season before averaging a truly bonkers 108.8 receiving yards per game for the rest of that year to finish with 1305 yards. Beckham also pulled off that 1300-yard feat in the next two seasons. Only one other player (Antonio Brown) has done this twice, and only eight other players were able to do it just once.

Of course, Beckham hasn’t necessarily been the most prolific receiver in the NFL since his arrival. Let’s look at the full list of players with more receiving yards than OBJ since 2014:

  1. Julio Jones (4873 yards)
  2. Antonio Brown (4816 yards)
  3. Odell Beckham, Jr. (4122 yards)

Additionally, Brown tied with Beckham for the most touchdowns (35) of any pass catcher in the league during this period. Beckham may not have been the most statistically eye-popping wide receiver over his first three seasons (even if he was the most visually impressive) but, in some ways, he’s been the most consistently productive.

Most will agree that the three best wide receivers in the NFL over the past three years have been, in some order, Beckham, the Steelers’ Brown, and the Falcons’ Jones. The quarterback play complementing each receiver, though, should be taken into consideration when looking at the performance of each player. Let’s take a look at that, shall we? These are the average statistics over the past three seasons of each player’s primary quarterback. See if you can detect which one of these is not like the others:

Matt Ryan (Falcons)

COMP% TD INT YARDS QBR
67.3 29 12 4743 73.6

Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers)

COMP% TD INT YARDS QBR
66.5 27 13 4236 71.2

Eli Manning (Giants)

COMP% TD INT YARDS QBR
62.9 30 15 4291 59.6

Two notes here:

  1. QBR is shorthand for Total Quarterback Rating and was created by ESPN in 2011 to measure a quarterback’s performance. 50 is considered average.
  2. Roethlisberger has missed six games over the past two seasons.

Matt Ryan is the defending NFL MVP and Ben Roethlisberger has won two-thirds of his starts in his NFL career. In case you haven’t figured it out, Beckham has been saddled with Eli Manning, the worst quarterback out of the three, for the vast majority of his young NFL career. Last season, in the category of QBR, Manning ranked 27th among qualified quarterbacks; this put him behind accomplished players such as Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, and Carson Wentz. Among all qualified signal-callers, Manning’s 2016 QBR was higher than those of just three quarterbacks: Blake Bortles, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Case Keenum. You probably didn’t think about it this way, but Manning was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL last year.

And yet, these are the numbers Beckham produced with Manning at the controls:

TARGETS CATCHES YARDS TD YARDS/CATCH
169 101 1367 10 13.5

That’s absurd. Just imagine if Beckham had an even more talented passer to complement his ridiculous receiving abilities. Even with Manning at the helm, Beckham had the third-most catches in football last season despite having the lowest catch percentage of any of the top five players in receptions. Not to disrespect Manning, but on many occasions, Beckham has been insanely good in spite of his quarterback.

And as for that massive contract he has been angling for? If I were in the Giants’ position, I’d just give it to him. While giving one player north of $25 million per year will handicap the front office’s ability to fill the rest of the roster under a $167 million salary cap, the ability to lock up a potentially generational talent should not be met with apathy. In fact, I’d go as far to give Beckham a metaphorical blank check and let him and his representatives decide how much he wants to make. He’s really been that good and, in some respects, he has been the best wide receiver in football over the past three years.

Fortunately, the Giants seem to understand Beckham’s worth. Yesterday, Giants co-owner John Mara said that the team will extend Beckham’s contract and made it seem like a matter of when, instead of if, a deal will get done. The Giants are one of the best-run organizations in professional football and it doesn’t look like they’re going to let their best player slip away because of a contract dispute.

Odell Beckham, Jr. wants to be paid like the best player in the NFL. While he may not necessarily be that, he deserves to get all the money he possibly can.

His performance has clearly demonstrated that he’s earned the right to an enormous payday.

The Cowboys Picked the Wrong Time to Draw a Line in the Sand

Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

Nowadays, we hear about fake news rather often. In today’s world, nary a day goes by without someone using the phrase, whether it’s used to describe the American or foreign media. Over the last couple of days, though, fake news has dipped its toes into the waters of sports, and the results have been ugly.

Wide receiver Lucky Whitehead, now formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, was arrested on a shoplifting charge in Woodbridge, Virginia on June 22. He then supposedly compounded matters by not appearing at his arraignment hearing on July 6, which resulted in another charge. This led to the Cowboys releasing Whitehead on Monday and adopting a hard-line stance against the pass-catcher. From the beginning of the story, though, Whitehead and his agent denied any wrongdoing on the player’s part and accused the Prince William County Police of mistaking Whitehead’s identity for another offender. You could say that Whitehead was using the Wawa robbery equivalent of the Shaggy Defense here, but it was noteworthy that Whitehead was so quick to deny any wrongdoing on the basis of mistaken identity.

As it turns out, Whitehead was right to defend himself.

Yesterday, the Prince William County Police confirmed that they were pursuing the wrong guy in the June 22 Wawa theft. The police department apologized to Whitehead and his family; of course, they didn’t offer him his job back, but that’s another story. The Cowboys cited a pattern of behavior when deciding to release Whitehead, and from that point of view, they could be justified. Last year, Whitehead was kept away from the team’s Week 14 game against the Giants for skipping the walkthrough the day before the game. He has also never scored a touchdown in the NFL and his somewhat lackluster performances could, in a vacuum, justify his release.

For most organizations, this would be a one-off mistake that we could move on from in a swift manner. After all, though, these are the Dallas Cowboys.

And the Dallas Cowboys are having a rough offseason. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott may miss the first two games of the season on an accusation of domestic violence. To be fair to Elliott, he was not charged with a crime for the incident (which occurred in 2015) and the NFL has taken its dear sweet time investigating the matter. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the same man who released Whitehead for a crime he didn’t commit, has defended Elliott by saying there was “nothing” having to do with domestic violence in his situation. This may be true, but there was also no evidence of Whitehead’s crime other than what the Prince William County Police Department told us. Just saying.

Elliott’s possible suspension isn’t the only disciplinary cloud currently hanging over the Cowboys organization. Defensive end Randy Gregory was suspended for the 2017 season on January 5 for repeated violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Gregory failed another drug test in February for his absurd-if-it-wasn’t-true seventh flunked test in, at the time, the span of just under 22 months. That, my friends, is a troubling pattern of behavior.

So what did Jones say at the time of Gregory’s sixth failed drug test? Let’s see for ourselves:

He’s genuine in his rehab process. I do have reason to be encouraged about his future. I hope and expect Randy Gregory to be back on the field.

What? Before you say that Gregory’s performance warrants this impassioned defense, remember that he has all of one sack in fourteen NFL games. Even when he has played, he hasn’t been productive. Most of the time, however, he’s been nothing but dead space on the team’s roster.

The most concerning thing about this fiasco, though, is what happens when you put it side-by-side with the team’s handling of former defensive end Greg Hardy. Hardy was convicted of two counts of domestic violence in 2014; he later had the charges dropped after his accuser failed to appear in court. Hardy was accused of, among other things, throwing his victim, Nicole Holder, on a couch laden with guns. The Cowboys reacted by signing Hardy, who had previously played for the Carolina Panthers, to a one-year contract, even as he was suspended for four games by the NFL (the league initially suspended him for ten games but an arbiter later reduced the ban to four games). Hardy was later interviewed by ESPN’s Adam Schefter and wasn’t exactly remorseful for his transgressions. Hardy had pulled the rare triple play of committing a crime, not apologizing for it, and being employed by the Cowboys. Impressive.

By now, you’ve seen that the Cowboys aren’t exactly the no-tolerance organization they want us to think they are. They’ve consistently put up with repeated offenses from their players in exchange for their prolific performances; in some instances, like that of Randy Gregory, they haven’t even gotten serious production for their troubles. (Side note: this is the same organization whose players may or may not have taken horse meds in the 1990s. The Cowboys won three Super Bowls in the decade. Since 1996, though, they haven’t been back to the big game.)

Yesterday, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett gave a press conference in which he tried to defend the organization’s decision to release Lucky Whitehead. In it, he said the decision was “in the best interests of the Dallas Cowboys” on ten different occasions. Garrett essentially morphed into Marshawn Lynch when trying to defend his team’s rash and possibly inappropriate decision.

Lucky Whitehead may have been released later in training camp due to his struggles in his first two NFL seasons. That would have been completely understandable; every team will be parting with much of its current 90-man roster by the time the regular season starts. Instead, the Cowboys released him in the name of a crime he never committed. In some ways, it’s what the team deserves for taking a tough stance on a fringe player it may have later cut anyway.

The Cowboys decided to draw a line in the sand with Lucky Whitehead’s “misconduct”. All the while, the team has turned a blind eye to other, more serious, legitimate offenses. The organization tried to appear tough in dealing with a player who didn’t actually do anything wrong and treated him far more harshly than other players who have committed actual crimes.

Treating those players the same way they treated Lucky Whitehead would truly be in the best interests of the Dallas Cowboys going forward.

Draft a Quarterback at Your Own Risk

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

If you think you’re having a bad week, consider this: an NFL team may risk everything next week and draft a quarterback in the first round.

To be fair, a team may draft a quarterback and make it work. After all, I’ve been wrong before. But the organization that pulls the trigger first on its franchise QB in round one better be right. If not, they could be setting themselves back for the next five to ten years. It’s sports’ equivalent of Russian Roulette, and sometimes, it’s even more of a life-or-death game.

For a look at all the teams who may be looking for a quarterback early in the draft, we must obviously start with the team that has needed one as long as I’ve been alive: the Cleveland Browns. The Browns have the first and twelfth overall selections in the draft and it would make perfect sense for them to try to trade up from the latter spot. There was a buzz in the league last week when ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Cleveland is torn between Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett and North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with the #1 pick. Trubisky started for one season at North Carolina and threw for 3,748 yards, 30 touchdowns, and just six interceptions. Garrett was a three-year starter at Texas A&M and looks like one of the best defensive prospects to come into the draft in a very long time. Charley Casserly, who knows a thing or two, says that Garrett is the best defensive prospect he’s seen in fifteen years. Your choice, Cleveland. Of course, the Browns could be conjecturing to get a Godfather offer for the first pick. I’m going to sincerely hope that’s what’s really going on here.

There are other teams who could potentially take a quarterback early in round one. The 49ers sit with the second pick but may trade back for more picks later in the draft. The Bears have the third pick but they signed Mike Glennon to an absurd $15-million-per-year deal earlier in the offseason and probably aren’t looking at a quarterback. The team we turn to next, then, is the New York Jets.

Bypassing the Titans and Jaguars, neither of whom should be looking seriously at a quarterback in the first five picks, the Jets represent the most likely team to fall for the QB ruse. After all, this is the team that once fell for Johnny “Lam” Jones. And Roger Vick. And Kyle Brady. And Blair Thomas. And Vernon Gholston. And Mark Sanchez. The list goes on and on.

But just remember this: GM Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles are likely in make-or-break years after last year’s 5-11 trainwreck that saw the Jets’ five wins come against four different teams with 18 wins between them. If you’re new to the NFL or mathematics, that’s not good. Drafting Trubisky, most likely the first quarterback to go off the board in this year’s draft, would be a last-ditch effort at saving both of their jobs. Incompetence, desperation, and the Jets’ needs are meeting in the exact same place. This never ends well. The Jets actually have needs at most of their positions, so drafting a quarterback makes little to no sense for them. But, if Trubisky is still available at six, don’t be stunned if the Jets pounce.

Of course, part of the Jets’ current problem is ownership. Team owner Woody Johnson will soon turn over day-to-day control of the organization to his brother once he is officially appointed as President Trump’s ambassador to Great Britain, a move that was reported as early as mid-January. It remains to be seen what attitude (and how much patience) Johnson’s brother, Chris, will have with the team. Crazy as it sounds, that may dictate what the Jets do with the sixth pick, and whether or not Bowles and/or Maccagnan are in their current roles at this time next year.

But then, there’s this: if Trubisky (or any other quarterback, i.e. DeShaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, or Patrick Mahomes) bombs in the NFL, the team that drafts him, particularly if they do so in the first round, will face major consequences.

In 2002, the expansion Houston Texans, the NFL’s equivalent of the state of Hawaii, were making their first pick in franchise history at the very top of the draft. They had a choice between North Carolina defensive end and basketball standout Julius Peppers and Fresno State quarterback David Carr. Houston’s general manager who, ironically, was Charley Casserly, chose Carr. It took the expansion Texans ten years to make their first playoff appearance; granted, part of the problem was Peyton Manning’s unwavering presence in the AFC South, but another significant part of it was the selection of Carr over Peppers. Two years later, Houston took South Carolina corner Dunta Robinson with the tenth pick in the draft. With the next pick, the Steelers took Ben Roethlisberger. To say that Casserly speaks from a place of experience on Myles Garrett is an understatement.

In 2007, the Oakland Raiders possessed the first overall pick and had a choice between LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, and Wisconsin offensive lineman Joe Thomas. You know how that went. Thomas is still in the league and Johnson may be enshrined in Canton in a few years. Russell has tried and failed two comeback attempts, including one in which he offered to play on a one-year, $0 contract. No one took him up on the offer.

Of course, there are also examples of teams getting it right with quarterbacks later in the draft. For example, the 2014 Raiders took defending Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack with their fifth overall pick. The organization then waited for their second round pick and took David Carr’s brother, Derek, at pick number 36. The lesson? Instead of reaching for Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, or Teddy Bridgewater earlier in the draft, the Raiders patiently waited for the right time to draft Carr, the quarterback they had wanted throughout the draft process. While they were waiting, they may very well have drafted the best linebacker in football. Those two picks are the reason why the Raiders are currently one of the best teams in the league, no matter where they play.

That is the opportunity awaiting the Cleveland Browns next Thursday. While Garrett may be a bust, his hypothetical lack of success would be far less damaging to the franchise’s plans than someone like Trubisky’s. And if Garrett lives up to his potential, he could change the direction of the Browns’ franchise, even if they don’t resolve their quarterback situation this year. Also, don’t forget that Cleveland also has the twelfth pick and could use it on Trubisky, Watson, Mahomes, or whoever they are set on as their next franchise quarterback. Another option that exists for the Browns and every other team is to wait until later rounds to snatch a quarterback like California’s Davis Webb or Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman. The Patriots selected their franchise quarterback in the sixth round of the 2000 Draft. He’s still going, seventeen years and five rings later.

The Browns, Jets, 49ers and others have the opportunity to draft their franchise quarterback if they so choose. But they face a daunting gamble:

Get it right, and be successful for the next ten years. Choose incorrectly, and not sniff the playoffs for at least the next five.

Is that a risk worth taking? One team may be about to find out.

Making Sense of Why Colin Kaepernick is Still Unemployed

Gerry Melendez/ESPN

Who ever thought the most-publicized quarterback on the free agent market would be one whose team went 2-14 last season and is 4-20 in his last 24 starts? Well, when you consider who the quarterback is, you won’t be surprised.

It’s Colin Kaepernick. And in a market that still contains Tony Romo (not a free agent but he’s not staying in Dallas), Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Jay Cutler, Kaepernick has received by far the most attention.

If you want to know why he has received the scrutiny he has, the answer is obvious. Last season, Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem before each game as a protest of what he views as racial inequality in the United States. There have been billions and billions of think pieces about the merits of his protest and his political beliefs; for what it’s worth, Kaepernick has announced that he will stand for the anthem next season (if he’s on a roster, that is) because he feels that the protest is detracting from his original message. This article won’t be about examining Kaepernick’s activism or his beliefs because seemingly everyone has an opinion on it and if I shared mine, it would assuredly be something you heard already.

This article will be an examination of Kaepernick’s value to an NFL team strictly as a quarterback and nothing more.

First of all, his performance last season should be taken with a large grain of salt. In 2016, the 49ers were the least-talented team in the NFC and their only two wins came against the Los Angeles Rams, who, frankly, were not much better than San Francisco. In fact, the Niners were so bad last season that their most exciting moment of the year was this:

It’s clear to see why Kaepernick’s performance last season may have been hindered; after all, the team’s two leading wide receivers last season were Jeremy Kerley and Quinton Patton, and together, they barely scraped together 1,000 receiving yards. But here’s another question: was Colin Kaepernick really all that bad last year?

Consider this: in Kaepernick’s 11 starts, he threw for 2,241 total yards, which comes out to slightly over 200 yards per game. That number is not good; the 49ers were involved in many a blowout last season, and it’s telling that Kaepernick was not able to inflate his numbers in garbage time. Some of that is due to his supporting cast, but you should probably throw for more yards if the defense plays a soft zone against you for an entire quarter in just about every game.

Still, we should look a little deeper at what Kaepernick did last season. In those same 11 games, he threw for sixteen touchdowns and just four interceptions. Before you dismiss those numbers, think about it this way.

Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is generally regarded as the best game manager in the league. That reputation is warranted, as Smith has not thrown double-digit interceptions in a season since 2010. And for, as good as Smith was last season, his touchdown-to-interception ration last year was 15:8, or roughly half as good as Kaepernick’s. Also, Smith had one of the best tight ends in the game (Travis Kelce), a game-breaking wide receiver (Tyreek Hill), and one of the most consistent pass-catchers in the NFL (Jeremy Maclin). Kaepernick had Kerley and Patton.

Kaepernick did, however, post mediocre numbers in other areas, as he threw for under 200 yards in five of his eleven starts and posted a less-than-stellar 59% completion rate as well as a very average 6.77 yards per attempt. Those statistics are a warning sign for what Kaepernick brings to the table, and they show that the quarterback has significant work to do in several areas.

There’s also this: Kaepernick, for reasons only known to Colin Kaepernick, opted out of his contract with the 49ers and gave up $14.5 million in guaranteed money. In essence, he decided to make himself the Dave Chappelle of the NFL. No one knows what Kaepernick will get in his next contract, but I somehow don’t think he’ll get as much as he was making in San Francisco. I understand that Kaepernick wants to bet on himself, and that’s completely fine. But, from a business standpoint, it simply wasn’t smart for Kaepernick to opt out of his deal, and that part of his current situation falls squarely on him.

Another thing to think about here is that teams could sign Kaepernick without the requirement that he be their starting quarterback. There are plenty of teams that could use a backup quarterback, and as last season showed, having a good second-string QB can be vital to a team’s success (see: Prescott, Dak). Kaepernick could do that for a team, even if he isn’t good enough to be a starting quarterback.

I’m not saying Colin Kaepernick is an elite, or even good, NFL quarterback; watching him for just one series in a game clearly proves that he is not. But consider this: out of the three best quarterbacks still, for all intents and purposes, on the market (Romo, Cutler, Kaepernick), only one has started in a Super Bowl. Here’s a hint: it’s not Romo or Cutler. Even though Kaepernick isn’t an overly skilled quarterback, his playoff experience should be a feather in his hat for teams looking to add a signal-caller.

Colin Kaepernick should be able to find work sooner rather than later. While the sports media is currently panicking about his state of affairs, there are a handful of teams who could use a quarterback of his caliber. A team like the Browns could assuredly use Kaepernick’s experience, and, frankly, his talent, to fill their quarterback void in the short term. And many other teams could use some additional depth at the quarterback position, and Kaepernick could be just the man to help them out.

Despite this, though, Colin Kaepernick is still a free agent. His ability to play the position shows that he probably shouldn’t be.

The Browns May Actually Know What They’re Doing

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The standards for the Cleveland Browns and their front office are not exactly high.

The Browns have made bad decision after bad decision since their return to professional football in 1999. The team has cycled through nine coaches in the last 18 seasons and only one (Butch Davis) reached the playoffs. Most amazingly, Cleveland has started a whopping 26 different quarterbacks during the franchise’s most recent incarnation, and the debate over which one was most successful is likely a two-horse race between Kelly Holcomb and Derek Anderson. The Browns have had so many quarterbacks that someone made a jersey with all of their names but retired it because, well, there was no more room. So it’s easy to understand why one would be skeptical of just about any move the Browns would make.

Their most recent decision, though, shows that they may have a clue as to what they’re doing.

Yesterday, the Texans traded 72-million-dollar quarterback Brock Osweiler to Cleveland in exchange for the Browns’ fourth-round pick in this year’s draft. The Browns also acquired a second-round pick in next year’s draft and a sixth-round pick in the upcoming draft. The move frees up $18 million in cap space for the Texans to try to get Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who happens to be a massive upgrade over Osweiler. It’s what the move does for the Browns, though, that makes this trade so interesting.

As for Osweiler’s future in Cleveland, the Browns are reportedly expected to trade or release him before the start of next season, meaning that Osweiler will never play a snap for the Browns. As for his $16 million salary in 2017, the Browns will have to pay some portion of it even if Osweiler does not play for the team this season. If he is traded, the team that acquires him will likely pay part of his salary with Cleveland footing the bill for the difference. If he is cut and signs with another team, the Browns would pay the difference between his $16 million salary for this season and his new salary (likely much lower) with his new team. And if you don’t think the Browns can pull this off, just remember that they are literally sitting on over $100 million in cap space.

So, to recap: the Browns took Osweiler’s salary off Houston’s hands, acquired two draft picks in the process, and will never have to deal with Osweiler’s mind-numbingly bad quarterback play. Not bad at all when you think of it in those terms.

Last January, the Browns hired longtime baseball executive and analytics guru Paul DePodesta to head their front office as Chief Strategy Officer. At the time, the moved seemed like a desperate shot in the dark, and frankly, it probably still is. After all, why in the world would you hire a baseball executive to head a football front office? The logic seemed shaky at best, but for a franchise that, at the time of his hiring, had won only 30.5% of its games over the course of nearly 20 years, bringing in DePodesta signified that the Browns had very little to lose.

Sure enough, just like DePodesta’s teams did in baseball, the Browns have embarked on a rather unconventional approach to rebuilding their team. In last year’s draft, Cleveland led the league with 14 selections, and this was in no small part due to their trading of the #2 overall pick to Philadelphia. The Browns have also avoided reaching for quarterbacks in both the draft and the free-agent market, and it’s hard to argue with this strategy; after all, the Browns have needs at just about every spot on their roster and reaching for another potentially disappointing quarterback would set the franchise back for years to come.

This year, Cleveland has the #1 pick in the draft. Pretty much every report out of Cleveland says that the team will take Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with their selection. Personally, I would do the exact same thing if I was Cleveland; Garrett posted one of the best Combine performances in history and looks like a surefire choice at number one, assuming he doesn’t tell the Browns he wants to play for the Cowboys. Assuming they do take Garrett, the Browns could potentially be getting a franchise-altering game-wrecker who could single-handedly improve a defense that ranked second-to-last in the league in total defense a season ago.

Yesterday’s trade pretty much falls in line with what DePodesta and General Manager Sashi Brown are building with the Browns. Acquiring Osweiler for basically nothing allowed the team to stockpile more potential assets for this season and beyond. The Browns know that they are still at least another year away from contention and their strategy of building assets for the next couple of years seems prudent. Yesterday’s trade was merely a means to that end; Osweiler has no future in Cleveland and the Browns only used him so they could acquire selections in the next two drafts.

In fact, it’s probably easier to think of yesterday’s deal in basketball terms. Many times, contending teams, particularly at the trade deadline, will trade away players to give up cap space to make other deals. The team acquiring that player will then immediately release him, as they have no real place for him on their roster. That is what the Browns are doing with Osweiler. The deal works out for everyone except Osweiler, but it’s hard to feel bad for him when it’s blatantly clear he is not worth one-third of his current salary.

This trade is one that only the Browns front office would even think of making. After all, it would probably make Sam Hinkie blush. The Browns’ strategy here is similar to Hinkie’s as GM of the 76ers; stockpile assets for the future, don’t be in a rush to win, draft well, and be very patient. Hinkie was removed as General Manager last season but many of his decisions (i.e. drafting Dario Saric and Joel Embiid) have paid off, and Philly’s new front office has reaped the benefits of Hinkie’s genius.

But Hinkie didn’t get to see his process through. Hopefully, the Browns’ front office team does.

After all, it’s clear they just may be on to something.

Zeke Elliott, the Salvation Army, and the NFL’s Fun Problem

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 18: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates after scoring a touchdown by jumping into a Salvation Army red kettle during the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at AT&T Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

On Sunday, the Cowboys played and defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a score of 26-20. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott jumped into AT&T Stadium’s famous Salvation Army kettle after scoring a touchdown in the game. The internet may never be the same.

If you are living under a rock haven’t seen the play yet, this is what Elliott did after a second quarter touchdown:

The celebration was easily the best part of the play, as Elliott casually flipped himself into the kettle and played hide-and-seek with a couple of his Dallas teammates. The act was the seminal act of this NFL Sunday, as it was a fun, harmless moment that even brought attention to a good cause; the Salvation Army has reported a 61% increase in donations since the jump. While it was flagged, even the most jaded football fan could see the goodness in that moment.

And yet, amazingly, it underscored the NFL’s issues with fun and individuality. And yes, this is a discussion many in the sports community have had before.

This is why we’re talking about it: when Elliott did the deed on Sunday night, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell voiced his displeasure with the NFL over their handling of the incident. The league opted not to fine Elliott (and rightfully so) because he jumped in the pot and drew attention to the object (and a worthy cause) instead of himself. That judgment is more than fair and the league made the right decision. However, this is what Bell said about the NFL’s treatment of him as compared to Elliott:

First of all, we should probably take Bell’s opinions with a grain of salt; after all, he once tweeted this about a “random” drug test he received this past April 20th. Ironically, Bell was suspended for four games roughly three months after sending out that tweet because he missed several drug tests. Interesting.

Anyway, Bell actually does have a point here. On Thanksgiving, he and wide receiver Antonio Brown engaged in a celebration after Brown caught one of his three touchdowns on the game. Bell was fined $12,154 and Brown was docked $24,309 for the incident (Brown had been previously fined for his infamous end zone twerking exercises).

However, there is an argument to be made in favor of Bell’s point. If it’s okay for Elliott to do what he did, why are other stars fined for similarly harmless acts that may not necessarily draw attention to worthy causes? I’m not arguing that Elliott was wrong to jump in the kettle; actually, I’m doing quite the opposite. I’m arguing that players should feel empowered to express themselves like Zeke did this past weekend. However, that clearly isn’t going to happen under the NFL’s current operating system.

And there’s also another point that needs to be covered here: why does the NFL support Zeke’s celebration while undermining the efforts of other players to bring attention to their own causes?

For example, take current Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Marshall has gone through well-documented issues in his life with borderline personality disorder. He’s had a troubled past that includes domestic abuse incidents and disturbances with police. Since coming out in 2011 about having the disease, though, Marshall has turned his life around and used his platform to voice support for mental health awareness. Along those lines, Marshall decided to wear neon green cleats for several games during the 2013 season (bright green is the color of mental health awareness). And shortly thereafter, Marshall was, wait for it, fined a total of $25,500 by the league over the course of the season for being in violation of its dress code. Yes. Seriously.

Two weekends ago, the NFL briefly changed course on their stingy uniform policies, allowing players to wear custom cleats as part of their “My Cause, My Cleats” week. The initiative was met with praise but also with one question: why doesn’t the league let players do this every week? There were no fines during “My Cause, My Cleats” week, with the exception of Dorial Green-Beckham. He was fined for wearing custom cleats in honor something called the “Yeezy Foundation”, which is essentially Green-Beckham’s lame attempt to convince the NFL that Kanye West is a charity and not a rapper. He was fined slightly over $6,000. I personally don’t think it’s possible to legislate stupidity, but I’m happy to amend that opinion in this case.

Anyway, did you notice something? This is what I took from that anecdote: Marshall was fined more for promoting his cause (mental illness) than Green-Beckham was for promoting his (this dude). But that’s not the point. The point is that the NFL has exercised hypocrisy over the past few years when it comes to players and their charitable causes. It shouldn’t be a fine for players like Brandon Marshall who only wish to express support for their causes in their choice of footwear. In essence, “My Cause, My Cleats” should be the NFL’s policy, not just a one-week promotion.

And that brings us back to Elliott. While the league did the right thing when it comes to his incident, that does not fix the league’s mistakes in past years. While it was the right decision, the NFL now has to explain to some of its other players why their actions were finable offenses and his weren’t. Based on precedent, the league should have fined Elliott. Thank God they did not make their ruling based on precedent.

Here’s one final example. Every October, the NFL forces all of its players to wear some pink article of clothing in an incredibly showy and somewhat gratuitous display of breast cancer “awareness”. In fact, the league is so all-in on this cause that much of the memorabilia is sold in the NFL shop on the league’s website. This sends the message that breast cancer is important… but only in the month of October. I’m not saying that breast cancer isn’t an incredibly important cause that should be addressed and honored. What I am saying is that the league should allow players to honor that cause all year long and not shut down their efforts, just like they did to DeAngelo Williams.

Hopefully, in light of the Kettle Hop Heard ‘Round the World, the NFL can re-examine its policies in regard to letting players express themselves and support their own causes.

Unfortunately, something tells me that’s not going to happen.

Shocker: The NFL Once Again Abuses Its Powers with the Al-Jazeera Four

Photo Credit: Scripps Media

I’m sure this will come as an absolutely shocking development, but Roger Goodell is abusing his powers again. I know; surprise, surprise.

Last December, Al-Jazeera news released the results of a months-long investigation into doping in sports (the American wing of the organization folded three months later). The reason why you heard about it was because then-Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (and others; more on them later) was implicated in the exposé as being affiliated with Dale Guyer, the head of Indianapolis’ Guyer Institute. It is known that Manning visited Guyer’s anti-aging clinic multiple times in 2011, which also coincided with the season he missed because of four neck surgeries. Why he went to the Guyer Institute is not known; what is known is that Manning never failed a drug test and there is no credible evidence that he was doping. Frankly, it’s none of our business why Manning went to the institute. Guyer did send drugs to the Manning household under the name of Ashley Manning, Peyton’s wife. And it’s none of our business if she was the one taking drugs, either, which is very plausible.

Of course, Manning retired into the sunset after last season’s Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers. Where this story (which is nearly 8 months old) pertains to today’s events is that four current players were implicated in the report. They are Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews, both of the Packers, James Harrison of the Steelers, and Mike Neal, who is currently a free agent. An unpaid intern at the Guyer Institute, Charlie Sly, attested to giving Delta 2 (or D-2 for short), a banned substance, to every player but Matthews in various instances. Sly said that Matthews was not on D-2 but requested Toradol from Sly in a text message shown in the documentary. (Toradol is so dangerous that it is banned in several countries; it is legal to obtain it in the United States.) Another doctor, Chad Robertson, also claimed to give Matthews Percocet before the 2015 NFC Championship Game. Sly says that Matthews used to take HGH and was on Ipamorelin at the time of the documentary. Robertson also claimed to have given Neal, then a linebacker for the Packers, medication that helped increase his salary from $400,000 to $2 million in the span of a season.

If you’re reading all that and your head is about to explode, I don’t blame you. The documentary features many damning claims about quite a few of the league’s best players; it also implicates Ryan Howard, Ryan Zimmerman, and Taylor Teagarden, all of whom played (or are still playing) professional baseball at the highest level. There is a lot of juicy information packed into 49 minutes and 13 seconds of video. There’s just one problem that I found with the investigation:

There is absolutely zero hard, credible, concrete evidence that the players implicated actually used performance-enhancing drugs.

Teagarden is the one exception to this rule. In the report, aptly titled The Dark Side, Teagarden is seen talking to a British runner named Liam Collins; Collins was visiting with Sly to pick up medication he will never take to help his chances at making the Olympics. Collins was hired by Al-Jazeera to carry out his fake story and is most famous off the track for swindling would-be customers out of nearly a million dollars in a property scheme. Anyway, Teagarden speaks about his years of testosterone use and how he evaded multiple drug MLB drug tests. My gut feeling is that he wouldn’t be talking so openly about this if it was all a lie. Then again, four United States Olympic swimmers are in the news for straight-up lying about being robbed at gunpoint, so I don’t know who to believe anymore.

And that’s where the NFL and Goodell come in.

Last week, the league threatened to suspend the current players involved in the Al-Jazeera report. To be clear, the threat of suspension would only come true if the players didn’t cooperate with the league’s investigation. Ironically, this same NFL investigation exonerated Manning of any wrongdoing three weeks ago. However, the league used the suspension threat as a way of getting the players to cooperate with the investigation. Apparently, it worked; it was announced today that Harrison, Matthews, and Peppers have agreed to meet with investigators associated with the NFL.

But that’s not the problem here. This is the real issue: the NFL clearly overstepped its bounds in threatening suspension for players who refused to speak with the league. To be completely honest, abuse of power has been Roger Goodell’s legacy in his ten-year (!) tenure as NFL commissioner. We saw this abuse in Deflategate, Bountygate, the Ray Rice saga, and almost any other incident involving NFL players and coaches. He is slowly turning the league into his own totalitarian regime and has made himself judge, jury, and executioner in disciplinary matters.

The NFL overstepped its bounds because it needs credible evidence or a failed drug test as a basis to interview the players. It has neither of those things. And while the league has told the Players’ Union that it has evidence “beyond what’s been reported publicly”, it hasn’t been willing to come forward with that new information. So it may be an honest, independent investigation. Or it could be a nontransparent witch-hunt. I’d say the lack of an in-between option might be an issue here.

And yet, the players are partially to blame for this. I feel like a broken record in saying this, but the players did negotiate away key rights in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement. Among those rights was Roger Goodell’s policy power; the players had the opportunity to hold out and have Goodell’s all-encompassing disciplinary faculties either severely reduced or eradicated completely. They didn’t do that, and that’s a very large part of the reason we’re sitting here talking about this today. And while the players have the right to complain about Goodell’s power, those who were around in 2011 contributed to the growth of Goodell’s empire.

And I’ll also say this: I’m somewhat surprised the players decided to agree to the interview. While they believe answering questions will improve their chances of avoiding suspension (and rightfully so), I honestly thought they would take a stand against the league. Albert Breer of The MMQB made the case for the players doing this today:

Don’t show up. Don’t go to New York. Block Adolpho Birch’s number if you have to. Sit on your hands, dare the NFL to suspend you, and see what comes next.

After union losses in the cases of Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson, if these four players answer Goodell, there’s no way to conclude that the commissioner powers are going to change before 2021. It also wouldn’t bode well for what’s to come in the next round of labor talks, given that it would score another union-busting win for the NFL’s barons and another blow against player solidarity.

Adolpho Birch is one of the league employees who helps Goodell oversee the league’s disciplinary policies and drug enforcement. He was also the poor gentleman rolled out by the league to defend the commissioner in the wake of the Ray Rice incident; it didn’t go too well.

The NFL players are not without blame in this situation; just today, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said that there was no relationship between the Players’ Union and Goodell. But while the players aren’t without reproach here, it’s clear that Goodell overreached in his powers by forcing the players into an interview.

But is that even a surprise anymore? It shouldn’t be.