NFL Nation: Inside Slant
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PHOENIX -- NFL commissioner Roger Goodell concluded the annual owners meetings Wednesday with a 20-minute news conference. He answered questions about most of the micro-issues facing the league, from Los Angeles relocation to the status of suspended players to updates on two internal investigations.
Left untouched, for the most part, was an acknowledgment that Goodell and the NFL's 32 teams spent three days digging at the root of their most damaging year in memory. It began Sunday night with a jarring keynote speech from New York Times columnist David Brooks, whose remarks about humility and character resonated throughout the league.
The owners meetings annually open with a guest speaker, but Brooks' tone was different than most, according to several league veterans I spoke with -- most on the condition of anonymity, given the private setting.
"Normally speakers come in and it's, 'Oh, the NFL is so great,'" said Mark Murphy, the Green Bay Packers' president/CEO. "This was, 'Well, you're doing things well in the league, but you're not really humble. So work on your humility.'"
Multiple people who were present for the speech said Brooks did not specifically reference any details of the NFL's year; he has not yet returned an email seeking further context. But after the league drew national criticism for its inattention to domestic violence and an ill-conceived scramble to address it, the message was clear.
"With what we've gone through this year, I think it resonated with everybody," Murphy said.
Brooks has taught a class at Yale on humility and is writing a book on the topic as well. In this 2014 speech posted to YouTube, which several people said was similar to what he gave Sunday night, he laid out his idea that Americans have grown too impressed with themselves, believing they are more important than they are. One passage struck me as particularly relevant.
"If you're modest in having an awareness of the limits of your own knowledge," Brooks said in the speech, "you know that you need people who disagree with you to correct for your own errors. If you think you have the truth 100 percent, then the people who disagree with you are just in the way."
Goodell referenced the topic in his Monday morning address to owners, a revelation in itself considering that reports of his tenure have suggested an increasingly insulated power structure that views itself solely in terms of enormous economic success. That assessment seemed accurate last summer when Goodell under-suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for only two games after an incomplete investigation and via a policy constructed without the assistance of domestic-violence experts.
Did the NFL lose an awareness of its own knowledge? Did it, in Brooks' words, grow "inarticulate in morality" and fall into a policy of "whatever feels good to you must be right"? You could certainly make that argument. The people I spoke with thought the answer was self-evident based on the league's invitation to Brooks.
Of course, it's fair to wonder whether the message, even if it resonated Sunday night, will effect any change within a corporation that expects its gross revenues to grow $1 billion year over year. When you're making money hand over fist, it takes work to suppress the urge of what Brooks called "self-advancement." Is it realistic to expect the NFL to operate as if it doesn't already have all the answers?
Why should the NFL do anything differently or change its base thinking when revenues and television ratings are at an all-time high?
It sounds as though Brooks provided an answer to that. According to Murphy, Brooks challenged owners to consider "your résumé values versus your eulogy values" with, clearly, an emphasis on the latter.
"It's kind of like your legacy," Murphy said. "When you're gone, what are you going to leave?"
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PHOENIX -- NFL head coaches meet with the lead referee a few hours before kickoff of every game. In his first season with the Houston Texans, Bill O'Brien brought a special assistant to each meeting. Jim Bernhardt's title is director of football research, but one of his key responsibilities, O'Brien recounted Tuesday, is knowing the monstrous NFL rule book.
"He'll advise me on things that are challengeable," O'Brien said. "He's got a rule book right next to him [in the press box during games]. I don't know if he ever uses it, but he has it there for a crutch. That's what I did. I hired somebody to help with that. He's involved in a lot of things, from situations to clock management and things like that. But one of the parts of his job is the rule book."
The NFL rule book may be the most complex set of rules in American sports. The 97-page document is full of exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions, vexing fans who want simply to understand what they see on the field. If it makes you feel any better, here's a dirty little secret: Not even the coaches know all of the rules. On Tuesday, in the relaxed environment of the NFL owners meetings, a few of them admitted it.
More importantly, the half-dozen I queried supported a long-term effort to streamline and simplify the rule book -- a project headed by NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent.
"I'm all for making the rule book more coach-friendly and more user friendly," O'Brien said. "... I don't even know the challenge rules. I mean, I should. I kind of know them, but the referees will come over. They do a great job. They won't [let you make a mistake]. They're good about that, and they'll come over and say, you can challenge this, you can't challenge that. But I just think that we're all in the business of trying to get it right. If we can just get to a system where we're all on the same page with that goal, I think that will help our league and it will help the officials.
"I think the officials in this league do a really good job," he added. "I really enjoy working with the officials. But I don't know how they do it. My wife is a lawyer, and I can remember her studying for the bar, and I would equate [learning NFL rules] to studying for the bar."
The nature of football makes some complexity unavoidable, according to Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. When I mentioned Vincent's project, Tomlin smiled and said: "Good luck with that."
Tomlin added: "I think we all search for clarity and simplicity, but I don't know that that describes our game in today's time, particularly with the inclusion of some of the technological advances that have become very much part of our game. I think what we're looking for is clarity and as much as we can find that, I think that's what we aspire to. I don't know that that ends up with simplicity, and that's just the reality of it."
Tomlin said he started studying the rule book in 2001, his first year as an NFL assistant coach.
"It's been a 15-, 16-year journey for me to gain a real understanding," he said. "I'm not going to pretend that I know every crevice of the rule book. We were talking in the coaches' meeting here the other day, and the reality is that we continually have discussions during the course of games about the specifics of the rules. It's difficult to have a detailed understanding of it at all times."
Indeed, O'Brien and Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak all joined Tomlin in saying they routinely ask officials for rule clarifications during games. Occasionally, of course, even the referee must hustle to keep up.
"The officials have the tough job," Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They're asked to do more and more every single year with the nuance. That's why anything we can do to keep it simpler for them, make it easier for them to identify formations and things like that, so they can do their job effectively and carry out their responsibilities, would be helpful. I know the officials want that. We should never be trying to make their job tougher."
Harbaugh's team fell victim to an unusual implementation of rules in the AFC divisional playoffs; the New England Patriots had an eligible player report as ineligible to confuse the Ravens' coverage assignments. Referee Bill Vinovich handled the twist the best he could, as we discussed at the time, but ultimately Harbaugh took a penalty to stop the game and draw Vinovich to the sideline for further discussion.
The Patriots' Bill Belichick isn't the only coach to dip into the nuances of the rule book for a potential competitive advantage. In 2008, then-Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt called for a "fair catch kick" in a game against the New York Giants.
Stay with me for a moment: If a team executes a fair catch, Rule 11, Section 4, Article 3 provides the option to attempt a free kick immediately afterward. The arrangement of players looks roughly like a kickoff with the exception of the holder. Because the defense is not on the line of scrimmage, the place-kicker presumably can line up a lower and longer kick.
Neil Rackers' 68-yard attempt was short, but there was no harm done as the half expired.
"When you're around it a long time, you understand some of the rules," said Whisenhunt, now the Tennessee Titans' coach. "There is always going to be something that comes up. Like the free kick. There's a lot of people that don't understand what a free kick is. It's a very seldom-used rule. We used it once in Arizona when I was there. Things like that are going to come up. You learn as you're in it, I guess."
Based on what Vincent has said, reorganizing NFL rules is a multiyear project. But when successful coaches acknowledge their own limited grasp of them, well, it seems pretty important. Kubiak has been an NFL player or coach for 32 years. His response to Vincent's idea? "I think it's a great idea."
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PHOENIX -- This is not a drill. They're not joking. The Minnesota Vikings really do want Adrian Peterson back on their team in 2015. Believing they have their best team of this decade, they won't allow a conflicted superstar, or his increasingly vocal agent, to dislodge their position.
The Vikings hold almost all the leverage in this standoff; Peterson is under contract through 2017, and the threat of a holdout is hollow given his 15-game absence last season. The only tool agent Ben Dogra has is to make a public spectacle, a strategy that continued forming Monday when he said he didn't think it was in Peterson's "best interests" to play in Minnesota. But after speaking with a number of people involved in the situation here at the NFL owners meetings, both on and off the record, it seems clear that the Vikings are dug in and prepared to wait out a public assault.
"The bottom line is that he has represented us on and off the field, and we're getting ready for the 2015 season," co-owner and team president Mark Wilf said. "We fully expect him to join his teammates and be part of what we feel is going to be a great season ahead. That's our view and our feeling as ownership."
General manager Rick Spielman tried to meet with Dogra here this week. That kind of outreach is for peacemaking, not arranging a trade. Dogra rejected the request. Speaking Monday, before Dogra's statement, Spielman said: "Adrian is a member of our football team. He is under contract. We are focused on the 2015 season and expect Adrian to be a part of that. Our whole focus is getting ready for the season with Adrian."
It would be fair to note that two years ago, Spielman made similar comments about receiver Percy Harvin -- right up until he traded him to the Seattle Seahawks on the eve of free agency. In this case, however, the Vikings' carefully constructed public statements are not designed to maximize Peterson's trade value, but instead to provide a consistent message. For lack of a better phrase, they're sitting on him. A true conflict requires anger on both sides; this episode is a concoction Peterson and/or his circle created amid a life-changing ordeal.
Think about it from the Vikings' perspective. The franchise has missed the playoffs in seven of the Wilfs' 10 seasons of ownership, including four of the past five. Team officials are eager to see results from a draft haul that includes seven first-round picks in the past three years. Spielman is in his third year as general manager and 10th as the team's top personnel figure. Coach Mike Zimmer is entering his second season. In this league, the clock is always running.
Picture Peterson in a Norv Turner offense with Teddy Bridgewater, Mike Wallace and Cordarrelle Patterson. It has playoff potential. On the other hand, a promising rookie feature back offers nothing but another season of hope for a franchise that is primed for something more than that.
"We as ownership are very excited about the 2015 season," Wilf said. "Probably as excited as we've been about any team since we purchased the team [in 2005]."
Earlier this month, Peterson traveled to New Jersey to visit with team ownership. Wilf confirmed he participated in the meeting but would not reveal details. Regardless, it's clear the Wilfs aren't feeling any concerns Peterson might have expressed.
"I've said what I've said about Adrian, and we've expressed to Adrian how we feel," Wilf said.
This isn't to say the Vikings would turn down all trade offers. It would, however, need to be the kind of franchise-altering deal that ESPN analyst Bill Polian outlined Monday on "NFL Live": two first-round draft choices. Suffice it to say, that sort of bounty is highly unlikely for a 30-year-old running back who would face severe NFL penalties for any future off-field mistakes.
The Vikings have long since forgiven Peterson's guilty plea connected to injuries his son suffered. "He served his suspension," Spielman said. "It's been through the court system. At some point, you move on."
Now, the franchise wants a return on its patience. The Vikings are confident in their position, dubious about Peterson's tolerance for missing more time and convinced that, ultimately, he would return rather than miss any installments of a $12.75 million base salary. It's not a ruse and, this time, I don't think I've fallen for much spin. Sometimes, the truth is too obvious to ignore.
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PHOENIX -- The NFL and its competition committee showed their cards last week, announcing 23 proposed rule changes and five new by-law proposals. I followed up by suggesting five common-sense rule changes. Now, it's your turn.
What follows is a cross section of ideas ESPN.com users submitted via Twitter, the Inside Slant mailbag and the comments section of our original post. I've followed up each with a few thoughts now that the NFL owners meetings are underway. Any changes for 2015 will be announced by Wednesday.
1. Change pass interference penalty
@SeifertESPN PI spot fouls changed to 15 yds,
— sportsfreak217 (@sportsfreak217) March 22, 2015
Comment: It's always important to keep in mind the possible consequences of any rule change. Limiting defensive pass interference would eliminate field-flipping penalties for even mild contact, but it would also incentivize defenders to maul receivers who are open for a big play beyond the 15-yard barrier. A 15-yard penalty is better than a 50-yard catch.
2. Allow each team possession in overtime
— Peter Binnie (@PeterBinnie) March 22, 2015
Comment: The NFL partially addressed this issue after the 2009 season, creating the existing rule that allows a possession to a team that limits its opponent to a field goal on the opening possession of overtime. A touchdown can still win it outright, as we saw most recently in the 2014 NFC Championship Game. The Chicago Bears made a similar proposal, but right or wrong, there is concern in the NFL that it would extend games at a time where the league is trying to shorten them. (It trimmed nearly two minutes per game in 2014 from its 2013 totals.)
3. The trident goalpost
@SeifertESPN I want an extra middle bar on the goalpost, like a big trident. 2 bonus pts if the kicker hits it on FGs or XPs
— Tronnie Dobbs (@TronnieDobbs) March 20, 2015
Comment: Why mention this idea? Pretty much for the mythological and medieval visions it generates, of course. You want to make the extra point more competitive? There you go. Nail the trident. How awesome would that be? And what's next? A two-point conversion for the quarterback who throws the ball through a tire?
4. Change the options after a touchdown
Jeffrey Jared via the mailbag: After a touchdown the coach has three options: Go for one (ball placed at the 20-yard line for a kick), go for two (ball placed at the 2-yard line for a play) or go for three (ball placed at the 35-yard line for a kick).
To make it more interesting, (1) narrow the goalpost and (2) should the team miss the field goal at the 35-yard line, the defense has the option to take over from where they attempted the kick without a kickoff or they must kick off from the 20-yard line. This would make end-of-game decision-making interesting for those coaches on whether they value the point or field position.
Comment: Another high grade for creativity and, in this case, nuance. In 2014, NFL placekickers converted 93.6 percent of field goal attempts under 40 yards. The 38-yard extra point is still a pretty sure bet. That discrepancy might be enough to elicit a handful more two-point conversion attempts, however, and the 53-yard three-pointer could come in handy in late-game situations.
On the other hand, of course, how annoyed would you be if your team were up by nine points with 10 seconds remaining and ended up going to overtime?
5. Change impact of a successful challenge
@SeifertESPN Allow teams to have unlimited challenges and only limited when they challenge two incorrectly
— Jason Price (@jsp2634) March 19, 2015
@SeifertESPN Don't take away challenges if the play is reversed. Succeed on the challenge, keep it too.
— Kris Steele (@KrisWD40) March 19, 2015
Comment: On the one hand, the NFL has the technology to correct a larger portion of missed calls than it currently does. A controlled expansion of challenges would help in that regard. But the proposal is tricky when you understand that the NFL has made pace of game a priority and doesn't want to grow the involvement of coaches in officiating (via challenges).
6. Eliminate half-the-distance penalty walkoffs in some cases
From Dean of Portland to the mailbag: When a team is backed up to their own 1-yard line (or 2, 3 or 4) and they commit an offensive penalty such as a false start, the half-the-distance punishment is really no punishment at all. Couldn't they move the first-down marker 5 yards further down field? That would make it first-and-15 just like it would anywhere else on the field.
Comment: Interesting. This shift might be inorganic. After all, when else do officials move the line-to-gain forward rather than moving the line of scrimmage backwards? But there's no doubt it would be a way to fully punish a team for breaking a rule in that part of the field.
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We've devoted plenty of virtual ink in recent months to the likelihood of an expanded NFL postseason and/or a substantive change to extra points. We've discussed the possibilities for growth in instant replay and wondered if the league could adjust its "process" mandate to align the rulebook with the naked-eye view of a catch.
None of that appears likely for 2015, however, at least based on the NFL competition committee's public preview of proposals for the upcoming owners meetings.
The committee endorsed no change to extra points, indicating instead it will continue preseason and Pro Bowl experiments. Individual teams offered 13 proposals to change to replay, but without endorsement from the committee, none seems likely to pass. Committee co-chair Rich McKay said it was possible that a tweak in the language of the "process" rule would clarify its intent; it seems doubtful that would force a philosophical shift away from requiring a receiver to maintain control of the ball en route to the ground.
And while McKay confirmed the committee sees "no negatives" to a 14-team postseason field, the issue appears stalled at higher levels of the league, according to a Washington Post report.
So what issues and rules will be addressed next week in Phoenix? Replay will get some attention, given the sheer number of replay proposals. But the competition committee's endorsed proposals are relatively minor, most notably putting guidelines on the ineligible-receiver formation the New England Patriots used in the 2014 playoffs. For the most part, the league appears set to focus on some of the larger off-field issues it faced during its tumultuous 2014 league year.
That doesn't mean we have to do the same, of course. Let's fill the substantive void by offering five common-sense rule changes that one day could and maybe should find their way into the NFL. The league has studied many of the issues below, of course, and could always revive them next week.
1. Add third-party timeouts. The NFL's enhanced concussion protocol, established in 2013, placed an athletic trainer in the press box and an independent neurologist on each sideline to spot and help treat potential brain injuries. The system is admittedly imperfect and relies on players to take themselves out of a game -- or to be removed by a coach -- before examination.
Under this idea, publicized earlier this month by NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent, one of the independent medical officials could stop play to remove and examine a player who is displaying symptoms. The timeout wouldn't count against either team's allotment and would reduce the medical burden on people -- players and coaches -- whose in-game focus and expertise are elsewhere.
2. Expand replay. We too often see plays upheld on review because no camera angle provided a definitive view of the play. Available technology suggests that should never be an issue.
The NFL should install cameras on the goal lines at least, and perhaps further up the sideline as well, to ensure that replay officials can at least see what they need to before making a ruling. (The New England Patriots have made a similar proposal.) As far as anyone can tell, the primary obstacle here is the financial investment required.
Meanwhile, improving technology and a more centralized replay system should allow for a wider swath of reviewable plays. The Detroit Lions proposed that all penalties be reviewable, a dramatic change that would have, say, officials watching replays to determine whether the center or nose tackle was the first to jump.
The primary objection to a significant expansion, according to St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, is that "your head coach is going to be the eighth official on the field." The competition committee doesn't want to burden coaches with a responsibility to "determine whether or not these are fouls or not fouls," added Fisher, who is also co-chairman of the competition committee.
As Fisher said, it's the responsibility of officials to ensure the best possible calls are made. But perhaps there is a less obtrusive way to provide recourse to coaches when an unavoidable but obvious mistake is made. One idea is to limit coaches to one penalty-based challenge (out of their total of two or three) per game. Pride and tradition shouldn't limit the goal of getting the obvious calls right, even if it requires a change in convention.
3. Incentivize two-point plays. The NFL experimented with 33-yard extra points in the 2014 preseason and narrowed the goalposts in the Pro Bowl. The Indianapolis Colts have proposed an "extra-extra point" if a team successfully converts a two-point opportunity, one that is so batty it makes you wonder if owner Jim Irsay is mocking the entire discussion.
How about something more simple to increase the entertainment value of the point after: Moving the ball from the 2 to the 1-yard line, which would likely prompt coaches to consider two-point conversions more often? NFL kickers made 99.3 percent of extra points last season, but according to ESPN Stats & Information, the conversion rate of two-point plays from the 1-yard line (after a penalty) is 69.7 since the start of the 2001 season. (The overall conversion average of two-point opportunities in 2014 was 47.3.)
Only time would tell if coaches would seek to capitalize on a near-70 percent chance to get two points. But the shift seems a simpler and more organic way to nudge the game away from automatic point-after kicks.
4. Expand game-day rosters. The NFL allows teams to put 46 of its 53 active players in uniform for games. The idea, I presume, is to ensure that each team has the same game-day resources. Many teams carry a few injured players on their 53-man roster, but from a competitive standpoint, it might not be fair if one team had 52 players in uniform for a game and another had 49.
Raising that limit, even if it's just to 49 or 50 of the 53, would have a positive impact in two ways.
First, it would reduce the possibility of teams running out of players at a position, or forcing players to play out of position, when in-game injuries strike. This is especially relevant when the current trend is to put only seven offensive linemen in uniform. It doesn't seem appealing to watch a team lose a game because its backup guard is playing left tackle, or while a rookie backup safety is manning left cornerback.
Second, it would at least partially reduce the external pressure on players to continue playing after an injury. It wouldn't alleviate those situations, and players apply their own internal expectations, but in some cases it would provide a better option in an era when the NFL seems more cognizant than ever about player health and safety.
5. Allow video replay on sidelines.
With great fanfare last season, the NFL allowed teams to replace sideline photographs with digital versions on a customized tablet. (A $400 million sponsorship deal with Microsoft didn't hurt, either.) That seemingly seismic shift drew some chortles from tech-savvy players.
Most recently, Cleveland Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins said: "We use tablets on the sideline, and we still look at still photos. So all you did is pay a lot of money to save paper. Why not look at the video? Eventually it will get to that point."
How about now? Why not give teams an opportunity to study video of plays -- the same video that will soon be available to fans on-site via enhanced in-stadium wireless service -- to make adjustments? The same video is available to both teams, and quality of play could only be enhanced with quicker coaching responses to schematic wrinkles.
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The NFL has spent much of the past year discussing its near-automatic extra point and experimenting with ways to make it more difficult. The Indianapolis Colts? They'll see your degree of difficulty and raise you some crazy.
Among the 23 playing rule changes proposed by teams this spring is one from the Colts that would, uh, change what happens after a touchdown. In essence, it goes like this:
A team scoring a touchdown would still get the option of a 1-point kick or a 2-point scoring opportunity from the 2-yard line. If the team goes for two and makes it, that team would then get a chance to kick an extra (extra?) point from -- yes -- its opponent's 32-yard line. If it converts what would amount to a 50-yard field goal, it would receive one additional point and a total of nine points between the touchdown (six), two-point conversion (two, obviously) and extra point (yeah, one).
Why such a convoluted suggestion? The Colts, according to the wording of their proposal, want to add incentive for teams to go for two points rather than an extra point. Is the chance for a 50-yard one-pointer worth going for two points? Discuss among yourselves.
For those who like numbers: NFL teams converted 99.3 percent of their extra points in 2014, 47.5 percent of their two-point attempts and 61 percent of kicks from 50 yards and beyond.
I wouldn't spend too much time figuring out the win probability of the possible "two plus one" extra point versus a single point-after-touchdown. Shockingly, the Colts' proposal was not endorsed by the NFL's powerful competition committee. That makes it unlikely to be approved by the NFL's general membership. But it was fun while it lasted, right?
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Is football finished? That's one question to ask while absorbing the unexpected retirement of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland. Here's another, one that's more realistic and more likely to lead to an informed answer:
How will football change now that a healthy, 24-year-old rising star has walked away from the game because of concern about future concussions?
The root of that issue is something I spent time pursuing last summer as part of a story projecting what the NFL would look like in 10 years. What I found surprised me. An idea once propagated only by modern philosophers -- that football's talent pool would shift along economic lines -- has penetrated at least some of the game's decision-makers.
I asked Green Bay Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy if he thought the demographics of football were changing, or would change, as awareness grew about concussions and their consequences. Murphy cited recent studies that have shown a drop in youth football participation, and then acknowledged an issue raised by author Malcolm Gladwell, among others.
"I think the league and USA Football is really doing a great job of breaking through a little bit of the hysteria," Murphy said. "But there's no question that it's an issue. Whether that trend reverses, I don't know.
"But there is an argument that you've probably heard, that eventually all football players are going to come from poorer backgrounds. It's that way a little bit now, for whatever reason."
Gladwell already has attached a name to the idea Murphy noted, calling it the "ghettoization of football," even though we have no firm data at the moment to back it up. In an appearance in the independent film "United States of Football," Gladwell proposed that NFL players would arise increasingly from disadvantaged backgrounds where sports are viewed as a singular salvation. In this theory, wealthier parents are more likely to steer their children away from football, and even those who play -- such as Borland -- will be more likely to move on before embarking on a long NFL career.
Gladwell compared the future of football to the U.S. Army, where recruits understand the risks and sign up anyway. Those with better options usually take them, Gladwell said. In football, he added, it has begun with wealthy parents.
"If I'm spending $30,000 to send my kid to a private high school," he said in the film, "am I going to let my kid participate in a sport with some unknown percent chance of permanently impairing him cognitively? No way. It's just not going to happen. That's over. So from there it's going to go slowly down the line."
To be fair, Gladwell has established himself firmly on one side of what many consider a multilayered issue; he refers to football as a "moral abomination" in which people pay to watch entertainers "maim" each other. That opinion doesn't reflect the sentiment of mainstream America, given the NFL's continued popularity, but his projection of the changing talent pool makes sense.
"Football will vanish much more quickly from Westchester County [in New York] ," he said, "than it will from Modesto, Texas."
This past fall, ESPN reporters surveyed 73 active NFL quarterbacks on a host of topics, including their economic background. Of the 69 who responded to that question, 56 (81.2 percent) said they grew up in a middle-class, upper-middle or upper-class home.
NFL quarterbacks are much different from typical football players given the unique nature of the position. But if Gladwell is right -- and it appears he is, since an NFL team president acknowledged the issue -- that percentage will shift toward the lower economic class in the coming years. That doesn't mean football will disappear along with Chris Borland, but it certainly could change.
Just Wednesday, Packers director of player personnel Eliot Wolf was tweeting about the "amount of calls & emails we get from kids literally begging to get into pro days." Indeed, it's difficult to imagine a time in the near future when the financial allure of playing in the NFL -- in 2015, the rookie minimum is $435,000 -- doesn't appeal to many families and young adults. But those who are more secure economically, or who believe they have options that make the football risk untenable, might be more likely to look elsewhere. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut: And so it will go.
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Attending smart-people events such as the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference introduces a regular person to all kinds of terms not otherwise encountered. One of them is "recency bias," which -- if I have my definition right -- is a good way to explain the perception that the value of NFL running backs took a sharp turn during the first week of the NFL's 2015 free-agent market.
It's true that teams have dished out more than $60 million in 2015 cash to nine veteran running backs in recent weeks, but sometimes we are guilty of employing recent news to suggest an unassailable trend.
The truth is that teams have devoted a smaller percentage of their payrolls to running backs in almost each of the past 10 years, according to figures provided by ESPN Stats & Information. Does one spending spree mean that the running back, once dead to NFL actuaries and decision-makers alike, has achieved a cyclical path and is now headed toward a new golden age? Or are we allowing a few eye-popping deals to cloud a larger picture about a position where production historically starts dropping at age 27?
From this vantage point, a confluence of relatively unique factors -- not a sea change in NFL thinking -- created an environment for deals that will pay two running backs at least $15 million this year. (A third, Adrian Peterson, can have $13 million from the Minnesota Vikings if he wants it.) Seven other veterans have received multiyear contracts that will pay them at least $3 million, as the chart shows.
Most important, however, is the graph at the bottom of this post. It shows how much cash teams have committed above or below the NFL average to running backs for 2015. (It does not include the New Orleans Saints' signing of C.J. Spiller.) With most of the big spending complete already, it's worth noting that a handful of teams are responsible for most of the spending, and that two-thirds of the league is spending below the average of $6.898 million per team. Last season's average? A nearly-identical $6.784 million.
So what can we say about the past week for running backs? Let's look at some factors culled from discussions around the league:
- Talent influx: It sounds simple, but arguably three of the NFL's top five running backs were either on the market or owed a new contract this spring. LeSean McCoy, who has rushed for nearly 3,000 yards the past two seasons, will receive $16 million this season from the Buffalo Bills. Marshawn Lynch, possibly the most critical offensive ingredient of the Seattle Seahawks' run of consecutive Super Bowl appearances, received $15 million to ensure he didn't retire. DeMarco Murray, the 2014 rushing champion, is on the Philadelphia Eagles' books for $9 million. The presence of elite players in the marketplace raised value, especially on quarterback-needy teams such as the Bills.
- Spread defenses: As more teams employ a version of the spread offense, the natural response is smaller, faster defenses that are vulnerable to -- yes -- the running game. It's now interesting to note something Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told me last summer in training camp when asked about the league's shift to passing offenses. "Defensively, because some of the college people coming out are smaller [to combat the spread], then at some point, the running back will come back," Zimmer said. "You get a powerful offensive line against smaller defenders, I think you'll have something. Some team will do it, kind of like Alabama does in college football. 'Everyone else is smaller, so we're going to go out and get physical guys.'" Compare that statement to what the Bills have done in signing McCoy, offensive lineman Richie Incognito and Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton, among others.
- Distributing carries: NFL teams have loosened their standards for identifying and utilizing a "feature" back. From 1998-2012, the average season featured nearly eight 300-carry running backs. In 2013 and in 2014, there were two apiece, even while the total number of carries leaguewide remained about the same. In other words, concerns about wear and durability are lessened somewhat by lower workloads.
- Specialization: In at least some cases, coaches and general managers are placing value on micro skills that could apply in their specific schemes. Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly has run 84.3 percent of his total plays out of the shotgun or pistol since the start of the 2013 season. Last week, the Eagles signed Murray and fellow free agent Ryan Mathews; they were NFL's top two runners in yards per carry out of the shotgun/pistol during the past two seasons. Those numbers weren't the only allure, but it's worth noting that the Eagles' first target -- veteran Frank Gore -- was one of the original pistol running backs in the NFL's current incarnation of the scheme. The 2015 draft offers plenty of options, but it isn't always as simple as plugging a young runner into a scheme.
- Increased salary-cap room: Let's not forget that the NFL added another $10 million to its salary cap in 2015 after a similar raise in 2014. As much as we would like to attribute each decision to a well-considered plan, we must remember that more available space -- and the looming conclusion of a four-year minimum spend window -- can engender less financial efficiency from some teams. Simply put, it could make some teams less concerned about following previous market trends.
And that, to me and some people I trust, is largely what caused last week's running back "revival." We had a few unique cases of availability combined with the advancement of some new thoughts on using tailbacks and extra financial flexibility, and the dominoes started falling quickly. Is this a sign of things to come? Let's, for once, step back from making sweeping statements. How about we just call it "2015?"
A steady stream of contract agreements over the weekend, followed by a frenzied Day 1 of the NFL's free-agent market, made for a relatively quiet Day 2. Let's take a spin around some of the more interesting developments, all while awaiting word on a running back market that still features DeMarco Murray and could include Adrian Peterson.
- One of the most buzzed-about contracts of Day 2 was defensive end/linebacker Jabaal Sheard, who signed with the New England Patriots on a relatively modest two-year deal worth $11 million. Almost immediately, Sheard rocketed to the top of every "best value" list circulating the Interwebs. Why so much excitement for a player whose sack totals dwindled in every season he spent with the Cleveland Browns? Here's what ESPN personnel scout Matt Williamson had to say: "He's a tough guy that has experience as a 3-4 outside linebacker and especially a 4-3 defensive end, and the Patriots will use both. He's a perfect rotational guy with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to keep those guys fresh on the edge. And they didn't spend a ton on him."
- Surely you've heard of "bridge quarterbacks," signed to hold down the position until a more touted alternative is ready to play. (And no, I'm not calling you Shirley.) Well, the entire 2015 season might be best viewed as a "bridge year" at the position. The New York Jets became the fourth team to trade for what could be a short-term starter while waiting out what is considered a deeply inferior draft class. Ryan Fitzpatrick could beat out Geno Smith to start for the Jets, and Matt Cassel could start for the Buffalo Bills. The Philadelphia Eagles say Sam Bradford is their starter, as do the St. Louis Rams about Nick Foles. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns signed free-agent Josh McCown as their starter, and the Houston Texans will pit Brian Hoyer in a competition against Ryan Mallett. Why will NFL fans be subjected to a season in which Fitzpatrick, Cassel, Bradford, Foles, McCown and Hoyer or Mallett comprise a fifth of the league's starters? Because, as we discussed earlier this week, early returns on this draft class suggest there are no starter-caliber options behind Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.
- That dearth of alternatives almost certainly played a role in the Chicago Bears committing to Jay Cutler for 2015, as general manager Ryan Pace confirmed Wednesday. The most significant factor here, of course, is that Cutler's $15.5 million salary was already guaranteed. If you're going to write off $15.5 million in cash, it needs to be for a clear upgrade. We've seen what teams needing help at the position have come up with. It's not pretty. Cutler's recent history doesn't conjure great optimism in 2015, but neither would any of the alternatives.
- That list includes Bradford, whose injury history has clouded any deep discussion about his sketchy performance when he was on the field for the Rams. Namely, his career completion percentage is 58.6, with only one season at 60 percent or above. Eagles coach Chip Kelly made a point Wednesday, during one of the most entertaining news conferences in recent memory, to note that completion percentage is not the same as accuracy. Kelly said that factors beyond a quarterback's control can impact statistics. That's true, but the undeniable takeaway from the news conference was Kelly's revelation that he has been offered a first-round draft choice for Bradford. (He repeated it for good measure.) Some would interpret Kelly's words as an ego stroke, demonstrating that at least one other team agrees that Bradford is a valuable asset. Unless further advised, however, I'll assume it was Kelly's way of letting the NFL world know that Bradford is available for another trade.
- For those who question reporters' cynicism in such situations, I'll point you to what Rams officials said last month when asked about reports that Bradford could be traded. "That's inaccurate," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "Let's don't delete him," general manager Les Snead said. Wednesday, of course, Bradford said he has known the Rams might trade him since about -- yes -- a month ago. We should know the drill by now. Decision-makers are not to be taken at their word this time of year.
- The Indianapolis Colts' decision to sign 31-year-old running back Frank Gore and 33-year-old receiver Andre Johnson brought to mind last year's post on the recent history of aging players at both positions. The analysis, similar to what NFL teams use in developing personnel strategies, shows that the decline of most running backs over the past 15 years has started at age 27. Production drops, on average, by 40 percent at age 30. Receivers, meanwhile, have produced about the same from a yardage perspective at age 31 as they did at age 27 and are still well above their career lows by age 34. It's worth noting that Gore is one of 23 players in NFL history to record a 1,000-yard season after his 31st birthday, a list that includes only three entries in the past 10 years. Only eight have done it after turning 32, most recently Ricky Williams in 2009. Gore turns 32 in May.
- Amid the NFL's annual spending spree, it's worth pointing out a case study of how routinely individual signings can fizzle. Take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who jumped out in free agency last year to sign defensive end Michael Johnson, offensive tackle Anthony Collins and quarterback Josh McCown to contracts that paid out about $27 million in cash over the past 12 months. The Bucs finished 2-14, earning them the No. 1 overall pick, and all three have been released. It's worth repeating: Nine of the 12 playoff teams in 2014 ranked in the bottom half of guaranteed money handed out the previous March. It's clear that the Buccaneers, under new general manager Jason Licht and coach Lovie Smith, were particularly brazen in 2014. Suffice it to say, there isn't a franchise owner in sports who likes wasting money.
The first day of the NFL's 2015 league year opened with the most unusual and intense scene imaginable: Three blockbuster trades almost completely unseen just minutes before.
There was a time -- oh, about two years ago -- when trades were a rarity in the NFL. Tuesday, in about 10 minutes' time, we saw the St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles swap quarterbacks, the New Orleans Saints unload tight end Jimmy Graham and the Detroit Lions find a replacement for defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Why so many trades? Let's sift through that and other takeaways from Day 1 of the NFL's free-agent market.
- NFL general managers used to limit player trades in part because of salary-cap implications. When a player is traded, the prorated portion of his cap figure -- mostly his signing bonus -- accelerates into the current league year. In some cases, that acceleration created an intolerable cap hit for a player no longer on the roster. Over the past two years, however, the salary cap has risen by $20 million. Surplus cap space is easier to find. Plus, teams have found other ways to limit proration in long deals. Long story short, trades are much less prohibitive now from a salary-cap perspective. Many of us want to attribute Tuesday's deals to a new generation of swashbuckling general managers, which might be true in some cases, but the trend has a more tangible base than that.
- Here's a secondary reason that trades have become more popular: When the opening bell rang Tuesday, the NFL announced 453 players on its official list of free agents. Based on records kept by ESPN Stats & Information, that's the lowest total since 2009. (There were 477 last year.) Teams are no less interested in adding players this year, so they have pursued other avenues amid the shrinking pool.[+] EnlargePeter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesThe unexpected retirement of quarterback Jake Locker is another hit to a woeful 2011 draft class.
- The unexpected retirement of quarterback Jake Locker is another hit to a woeful 2011 draft class. Think of it this way: Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder were three of the top 12 picks of the first round. Gabbert re-signed Tuesday night with the San Francisco 49ers, where he will compete to back up Colin Kaepernick, but he has no chance to start in a league starved with mediocre quarterback play. Ponder is a free agent and isn't expected to re-sign with the Minnesota Vikings. The obvious lesson: Find a way to draft the quarterback you like instead of drafting the best quarterback available when your pick arrives.
- Cornerback Darrelle Revis cemented his credentials as a pure football mercenary by leaving the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots for a superior offer from the New York Jets, who have missed the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. As a result, Revis has a chance to be the highest-paid non-quarterback in NFL history. Per Spotrac.com research, Revis earned $85.2 million in his first eight seasons. His agreement with the New York Jets will pay him $48 million over the next three years, bringing him to at least $133.2 million and as much as $155.2 million if he plays the duration of the deal. At the moment, according to Spotrac data, the richest non-quarterback in NFL history is defensive end/linebacker Julius Peppers ($138.4 million). Of course, Suh could eclipse Revis, Peppers and the rest of the field with the $114 million deal he is expected to sign with the Miami Dolphins. (The deal had not been officially announced as of late Tuesday night.) Suh has already earned $64.2 million in his career.
- While we have a moment, let's tally what the Lions paid to lose and replace Suh. First, they will absorb $9.7 million in dead money against their 2015 salary cap. Next, they sent their fourth- and fifth-round draft picks to the Baltimore Ravens for Suh's replacement, Haloti Ngata. They'll pay Ngata $8.5 million in the final year of his contract and either need to extend his deal or risk losing him after one year. The Ravens sent Detroit a seventh-round draft choice to complete the deal, and the Lions will probably get a 2016 compensatory draft pick as well. So in total, the Lions lost one of the NFL's best players, gave up two draft choices and will devote $18.2 million in 2015 cap space to the position in exchange for a declining (but still productive) player and a likely compensatory draft pick plus another throwaway choice. That's paying a premium to correct a mistake.[+] EnlargeAP Images/Stephan SavoiaThe Lions will devote $18.3 million in 2015 cap space to replace Ndamukong Suh with Haloti Ngata.
- The number of agreements that apparently occurred during the three-day "legal tampering" period preceding free agency has drawn NFL scrutiny. In the scheme of NFL problems, this one doesn't seem too high. But here is an aspect of the three-day period that blows me away: Teams can't speak directly to the player, much less host him on a visit, until the period expires and free agency begins. So the Dolphins, for instance, committed $60 million in guarantees to Suh without ever speaking to him directly about his long list of on-field antics. The Chicago Bears committed to signing linebacker Pernell McPhee (five years, $40 million) without discussing their new plans on defense with him. How much due diligence could a team possibly perform without a face-to-face -- or even phone-to-ear -- discussion?
- The Patriots frequently have been noted for cutthroat personnel decisions during the era of coach Bill Belichick. Over the years, they have replaced still-productive cornerstone players from Richard Seymour to Wes Welker to Logan Mankins. But let's not sell the Seattle Seahawks short in this regard. In consecutive years, they have parted ways with a key part of a Super Bowl team. In 2014, they showed little interest in re-signing veteran receiver Golden Tate, clearing the way for them to make Percy Harvin a bigger part of their offense. Tuesday, they inserted popular center Max Unger -- a starter for the past six seasons -- into the package that brought Graham from the Saints. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll's genial personality does not inhibit him from cold personnel decisions.
- Tuesday's frenzy left at least one sizable story untold: How will the Minnesota Vikings' standoff with tailback Adrian Peterson end? Peterson met Monday with Vikings ownership and has now had face-to-face meetings with all of the decision-makers in this process. All anyone can do is guess at this point, so here's mine: If the sides had an agreement for Peterson to remain with the Vikings in 2015, we probably would have heard by now. It still appears, from afar, that Peterson is trying to convince the team to give him something new -- either a new contract or a fresh start. My guess is the team would be more likely to facilitate the latter than the former.
For all the NFL's recent personnel dramatics, from the stunning dismantling of the Philadelphia Eagles to Ndamukong Suh's decision to move to Miami to the ongoing soap opera starring Adrian Peterson, the most important takeaway has been a clear expression of the depressing state of the quarterback position.
While Suh was preparing to accept a $114 million contract from the Dolphins, the Cleveland Browns were cleaning up after a bidding war for -- yes -- Josh McCown's services. After they acquired running back LeSean McCoy, whose new contract will pay him $16 million in 2015, the Buffalo Bills actually gave up a draft choice to secure Matt Cassel. With free agent Brian Hoyer reportedly close to signing with the Houston Texans, soon Jake Locker (!) will be the most attractive name available on the market.
The NFL's quarterback shortage is no secret, but this year's scramble originates from morbid fear. Teams are fighting over backup-quality starters because the 2015 draft class is one of the weakest in recent memory. No one -- save the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who own the No. 1 overall pick -- wants to enter the draft hoping to elevate its quarterback depth chart, much less find a starter.
I contacted ESPN's Steve Muench, who spends the year scouting college prospects for Scouts Inc., to get a better understanding of this class. To be clear, the drop-off is steep after Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota. No one else has a grade higher than the fourth round. "This is a bad, bad class," Muench said.
Because the position is so overvalued, of course, we can expect some of those fourth-round talents to rise into the second and third rounds. In recent history, that's the cutoff for finding a decent NFL quarterback in the draft.
As the chart shows, it has been 10 years since a quarterback drafted in the fourth round or lower has gone on to start as many as 20 games. The middle class of quarterbacks -- your Andy Daltons, Colin Kaepernicks, Mike Glennons and others -- are now going to be off the board no later than the third round, and probably before.
So who will push into that group? (Full disclosure: We collaborated on a similar exercise last year.) Muench suggested three prospects for this year, with a big qualifier: None measure up even to the incomparable Jimmy Garoppolo -- the 2014 sleeper whom the New England Patriots drafted with the No. 62 overall pick. Here they are, ranked by their Scouts Inc. grades, with Muench's extended thoughts:
School: Colorado State
Muench: "He's got a good build at 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds, and he's got bigger hands (10 inches), which really helps him get a good grip and spin the ball. When you watch his tape, you see good pocket mobility, more than enough arm strength with some streak throwing. But when he's in rhythm, he's accurate. He's got to work on how he handles pressure and be better at diagnosing pre-snap reads, but in the end he gets the job done a lot of the time. You look at his game last year against Boston College, and he throws two interceptions in the first quarter of the game. He comes back in the second half, makes better decisions, gets in a rhythm, and throws a touchdown to win it in the end. That's Garrett Grayson in a nutshell."
Muench: "He's a hot name for obvious reasons. He had those stats at Baylor, especially throwing for 510 yards against TCU. He's a leader in the locker room. From everything we've heard, you're going to be hard-pressed to find a guy you want in your locker room more than him, and that's really important for a guy coming out. You either have that or you don't. Most people know the other sides. He has to adjust to a pro-style offense after what he played in at Baylor, the way he reads the field. His decision making has to speed up, and he has to develop the footwork dropping from under center. So we see him as more of a project than some people might realize. He has great intangibles, is a great leader with slightly above-average arm strength, but I'm not sure he can drive the ball in certain situations. He's a good athlete, but not a great one. He'll have big issues getting his footwork down, and he has a lot to learn about playing in the NFL."
Muench: "He's a fascinating prospect. He's not quite Logan Thomas, who was the workout star last year with outrageous height-weight-speed, but he's that guy this year. He's got that 36-inch vertical, those 10 1/2-inch hands, the 4.6 speed. From a physical standpoint, he's everything you would want. And he can be very accurate when the first read is there. The concern with him is if you take away that first read, as NFL defenses do, how good is he going to be? How effective is he going to be checking down and finding the next guy? For whatever reason, he kind of regressed at the end of the season. His last two games, he struggled, and then he didn't go to the Senior Bowl. He ended his career about as poorly as you can heading into the draft evaluation season. But he did throw well at the combine. We've all seen teams reach for a guy like this. Maybe they learned from the Jake Lockers or the EJ Manuels, but he'll be intriguing to teams in the same way."
The next grouping, based on Scouts Inc.'s evaluations, includes Oregon State's Sean Mannion, East Carolina's Shane Carden, and Southeast Louisiana State's Bryan Bennett. It wouldn't be a surprise to see one of them move close to the fourth-round barrier as well. But the NFL has already spoken, in its own way. There is little expectation that a rookie not named Winston or Mariota will impact the league in 2015.
At 3:30 a.m., Todd Steussie got up from the table. He went to the fraternity house bathroom and splashed cold water on his face. Looking in the mirror, he thought to himself: "What am I doing here?"
Of all the moments, Steussie recalled in an interview this week, "that was probably the most surreal." Eventually, he collected himself and returned to the table. There, he and his classmates completed -- yes -- a group project due to their marketing professor at 8 a.m.
At 39, after a 14-year career as an NFL offensive lineman, Steussie returned to the University of California-Berkeley not for parties but to complete his undergraduate degree, beginning a journey that has brought him into the middle of football's looming technology boom. Aside from a few awkward generational moments, his story is a reminder that many players make a smooth post-career transition -- some, like Steussie, aided by NFL programs -- and serves as a balance to the often-justified hysteria surrounding quality of life for retired NFL players.
"I've had some amazing opportunities since retiring," Steussie said. "I can't complain. It's been a cool ride so far."
"When you're doing it on your own dime like that, you're going to be pretty committed," Steussie said. "I had an apartment with an inflatable bed and no TV, and pretty much all I did was study. I went all out."
He never received less than an A-minus in any class before graduating in 2010. Then, it was off to the Kellogg School of Management's executive MBA program before he began mining business contacts in St. Louis. Steussie ultimately bought into a company now called PotentiaMetrics, which was analyzing medical data to help doctors and patients predict outcomes for serious illnesses and various treatments.
With Steussie aboard, the company is expanding its range into sports. The first step is a free app called ScoutSight, to be released next month. Centered around the draft, it will incorporate advanced data to provide users with historic comparisons and other predictive tools on drafted players in real time.
The foundation of the app, and Steussie's belief in the marriage of football and analytics, originates from the mid-1990s. Then-Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach Mike Tice would issue a grade of 0, 1 or 2 on each play based on performance and post them for all players to see. The process, unique at the time, built in Steussie a certainty that football -- which might well be the ultimate team game -- can be assessed accurately based on a combination of individual analyses.
"Because there's so much complex interdependent relationships in football, people stray away from measuring things," Steussie said. "A lot of people throw up their hands in frustration. They think there's no way to measure the game in a predictive way, that it's just a black box, and it's the coaches and scouts that have the domain and we have to rely just on them. … To me it's far from impossible, though, and it's going to be fertile ground."
If all goes well, ScoutSight will lead to opportunities for marketing data analysis to NFL teams. ESPN's Great Analytics Ranking revealed that, among the teams committed to incorporating advanced data into decisions, only a handful are generating it internally. Steussie was among many vendors attending the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to network ideas and pitch products.
Steussie envisions a day when NFL teams and fantasy football players alike can mine historical data to project production for a receiver playing in a West Coast offense after returning from a sprained MCL. He sees value in knowing how a team's pass protection was impacted every time in the past 10 years when, say, its starting center has been sidelined.
That Steussie is envisioning a long-term future bucks the public narrative for retired NFL players. To be sure, there are thousands of men suffering from afflictions -- early dementia, ALS, joint replacement -- that can be traced to their playing careers. It is the most important issue facing the sport, but sometimes it's important to remember it does not carry a 1-to-1 correlation.
Steussie said he suffered no significant cognitive injuries in his career and has experienced no symptoms in retirement. He recently had his left ankle fused and has discomfort from a sternoclavicular joint injury that prevents heavy exercise.
"But that's like a lot of 44-year-old people," he said. "There are things I can't do now that I could do in my 20s. I have no complaints. I'm really excited for what's ahead."
BOSTON -- Andrew Hawkins can see it clearly. One day in the non-so-distant future, an NFL player will be called into the general manager's office. He'll sit down at a table ...
"... And they'll just slide the paper over," Hawkins said. "You'll look at it, get up and walk out. It will be pretty challenging to dispute."
Hawkins, a wide receiver who played last season for the Cleveland Browns, was outlining a scenario he believes will result from the NFL's looming technology boom. Speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Hawkins said the pending availability of performance data will make player evaluation "less of a conversation" and more of an objective assessment, one that can be displayed neatly on a line graph generated by software aligned with GPS-like chips embedded under their pads.
"It sucks," Hawkins said, "but you just understand the business. Whether you like it or not, it's going to get to that point. In football, philosophically, they would much rather use a rabbit's foot than actual data from wearable tech to win a football game. But it's a matter of time before it gets here. You just have to hope there is a balance."
Among the primary takeaways of the Sloan Conference was the quick saturation of wearable technology, in the NFL and elsewhere, that really entered the U.S. market only a few years ago. It has happened so quickly, however, that players would be wise to assess its full impact before joining in the excitement.
As we've discussed, more than half of the NFL's teams employ some form of player tracking during training camp and regular-season practices, ostensibly to monitor exertion and prevent injuries. And in 2014, the NFL for the first time tracked players during games in the same way. It doesn't yet release the data to teams, but it seems unlikely to remain locked in the digital vault forever.
As Hawkins alluded to, the NFL infrastructure is relatively change-averse. It celebrated the arrival of tablets on the sidelines about five years after they were available to the general public. ("And we still look at still photos with them!" Hawkins exclaimed. "So all we did is pay a lot of money to save paper. Why not look at the video? I'm sure we will ... someday.") But coaches are quickly adapting -- the New Orleans Saints' Sean Payton strongly endorsed wearable technology at Sloan -- and there already is some anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness.
Hawkins, for example, told the story of a teammate who had a history of hamstring injuries before last season. Browns coaches used tracking data to monitor his practice workload more efficiently, limiting his repetitions to the point where he made it through the season injury-free.
Data might provide NFL teams with advance warning of a player's decline, but according to Brian Kopp -- the North America president of Catapult Sports -- it should be able to enhance a career first.
"Hopefully your career is extended by two or three years with this before you start to lose it," Kopp said. "Your coach doesn't want to 'catch' you. He doesn't want to cut you. He wants to maximize you and the careers in the sports that they play. I know it's going to be a big issue: How are you going to figure out what the front office can use, and what athletes have access to. It's something that still needs to be worked out. But hopefully both sides know the benefits. Teams aren't looking to get rid of guys. They want them to help win."
Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, who appeared Friday at Sloan, acknowledged teams would probably be most interested in collecting data to avoid team-building mistakes. But, he said, players will ultimately appreciate the context it gives to decisions that probably were going to be made anyway.
"I really don't look at that as anything that would bother me," he said. "I would actually rather them give me hard-core analytics, tell me what have I lost, how have I changed, [than a generic explanation]. But the important thing is to remind them that whatever I lost, it was in winning games for you. Losing speed, for example, doesn't mean that I'm done in my career. It's just telling you what I am now."
Given the state of labor relations in the NFL, players should probably cast a skeptical eye on any additional methods of evaluating their performance. You wonder if at some point the NFL Players Association will seek to make its use a matter of collective bargaining. On the list of issues facing NFL players, the availability of data might not rank at the top. But it's coming, and it's worth a close examination from every angle.
BOSTON -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has an idea. And now, for the first time in NFL history, it's a realistic possibility.
Imagine a young quarterback walking into a room at the Saints' practice facility. He straps on a headset, flips a switch and plays a virtual game against the Atlanta Falcons' defense. His vision is filled with current Falcons schemes and players, who move and react based on data compiled by the NFL's "Next Gen Stats" program.
"The challenge we have all the time is that it's the one position where there's only one of them in the game the entire time," Payton said Friday during an appearance at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. "The game ends, and how do you get those guys snaps, real-time snaps? Much like we develop pilots -- they do a lot of simulator work -- I think the opportunity exists [in football]. Especially when you're able to accurately show movement with chips, exactly how it unfolds with the defense."
"The possibilities are endless," Matt Birk, the league's director of player development said. "[But] that's a discussion that's going to be had: What happens if we do make some or all of these stats available, maybe through the sideline tablets we already have? That's not something we would just rush into. Competitively, what kind of advantage or disadvantage would that provide?"
More than half of the league's teams are already using similar GPS technology to monitor player health and exertion during practice. It has led to some relatively big changes in practice structure -- the Green Bay Packers, for example, shortened their Friday practices and elongated their Saturday workouts based on data -- but to me the bigger issue is how it could directly impact games.
For one, as Birk suggested, teams could be much quicker to make in-game adjustments if they're getting data directly, as opposed to subjective information from the press box.
"During the week," Birk said, "coaches come up with the game plan. They'll say, 'We have this wrinkle this week, and every time we line [a player] up here, here's the play we're going to run.' The saying was, 'Let [the other team] figure it out on Monday.' They're not going to realize it during the game, but they'll figure it out Monday when they watch the film.
"Now, if you talk about where a guy is lined up with real-time data during games, they're going to have that, and you have to adjust. So you have to think about, responsibly, what does that mean for the way a coach's job is going to be [complicated]?"
Quipped Payton: "I think it means there are going to be more MIT grads coaching."
Turning serious, he offered a schematic possibility. In-game data, he said, could help determine whether to play "press" or "off" coverage by comparing a player's speed against press to his burst when defenders are off the line of scrimmage. In-game validation of a scouting report and game plan, he added, could "make for a more confident playcaller."
So why is the NFL hesitant to release this data to teams? For one, it wants to understand better how it could be used. Some franchises will always be better at exploiting a competitive advantage, but unleashing the information before knowing its true effect conceivably could upset the balance of power more than a league based on parity would like to see.
Second, frankly, is the impact on finances and contracts. How would this kind of data change the value of players? If it shows that a receiver is running 20 percent slower in his fifth year than his second, would his value be diminished? On the other hand, would an agent argue for more money when his player runs faster deep routes than any other in the league?
"It'll allow you to compare players in-game to players that have come before," Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk said. "That's not only for the fans, but for coaches and GMs. It's going to cut down on a lot of the conversations of, 'Does he still have it? Can he still play?' Well, here is the data. It doesn't lie.
"I have a feeling that this is going to be used. A GM and an agent, they are going to sit down, and those numbers we used to not know, they're going to have that information ... and it's going to matter."
For now, Birk said, the NFL is focused on three potential uses in the relatively immediate future. It can only help player wellness, much as GPS tracking has impacted practice structures. It could improve officiating by evaluating their movements in real time, and it could make drills at the scouting combine more relevant. (Here's Mike Rodak's news story on that possibility from ESPN.com.)
"Once the toothpaste is out of the tube," Birk said, "you can't put it back in. So it's tough to say where this is going. Those decisions will be made far above my pay grade. But no decisions are made in haste. The competition committee will want to look at this, and that will give us the historical perspective we need, which is important."
Yes, we might be a few years away from virtual quarterback development. But the baseline information is already available. It's just a matter of how the NFL harnesses it.
U.S. District Judge David S. Doty issued a ruling Thursday in the complicated legal case between Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson, the NFL and the NFL Players Association. Let's digest the situation, and its larger implications, by addressing a series of questions.
What does the ruling mean?
Peterson remains suspended, but he is in position for an early reinstatement from a suspension originally set to hold through at least April 15.
Doty ruled that arbitrator Harold Henderson violated the NFL's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in upholding Peterson's suspension after an appeal hearing in December. In Doty's words, Henderson "simply disregarded the law of the shop."
Among other things, Doty ruled that Henderson did not explain in his ruling why Peterson was punished under the terms of an enhanced personal conduct policy put into place after he was indicted for crimes related to injuring his son. According to Doty, the NFL and Henderson did not adequately justify why Peterson could be retroactively punished.
An NFL spokesman said the league is reviewing the decision. Ultimately, it must decide whether to appeal Doty's ruling, grant another internal hearing to Peterson or reinstate him and move on.
What's the likeliest choice?
The NFL's litigious ways leave all possibilities open, and ESPN NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt projects an appeal of Doty's decision. [UPDATE: The NFL has said it disagrees with the decision and will plan to appeal.] The smartest strategy, however, might be to reinstate Peterson and be done with this public fight and spectacle. Even in admitting legal defeat, the NFL would have succeeded in keeping Peterson away from its fields and facilities for more than six months. For now, it has also pocketed $4.15 million worth of Peterson's game checks from last season. Is it worth fighting over six more weeks of an offseason suspension?
How wounded is the NFL by this ruling?
Not as severely as you might think. It now seems clear that the league overstepped its labor agreement in its haste to remove both Peterson and former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice from the public eye. If its strategy was to act first and deal with repercussions later, it has largely worked. Neither Rice nor Peterson got back on the field in 2014. Their legal victories can't change that. Now the NFL can move forward and (legally) use its enhanced personal conduct policy for all future incidents.
You sure about that?
Look, legal defeats are embarrassing. And at some point, the NFL will be damaged by a labor relationship that winds up in litigation far too frequently. Something has gone wrong when the courts are determining the eligibility of players. But hopefully, the NFL has viewed its legal approach as immediate crisis management rather than a larger strategy to sidestep its CBA when convenient.
How will this ruling affect Peterson's status with the Vikings?
For now, not at all. The player and team are still prohibited from direct contact unless and until the NFL formally reinstates him. So for now, there is no change. The Vikings' public position is that they want Peterson back, although they won't comment on a contract that would pay him $12.75 million and count $15.4 million against the cap. When he last spoke publicly, Peterson told ESPN.com that he is "uneasy" about a return to Minnesota.
When will we know where Peterson will play in 2015?
The ball really can't start moving until Peterson is reinstated. Whenever he is, the Vikings will put their plan into motion. If they want to restructure or renegotiate his contract, discussions could begin immediately. If they plan to cut him, they could do that at any time, as well. They could trade him as early as March 10, which is also the earliest he could sign with another team as a free agent if the Vikings have released him.
What do you think will happen?
The Vikings have a history of trading star players when they are disgruntled. In the past 10 years, they have shipped away a Hall of Fame receiver (Randy Moss, 2005), a franchise quarterback (Daunte Culpepper, 2006) and arguably their best player (Percy Harvin, 2012). To add Peterson's name to that list would be an extraordinary litany.
There are people in the Vikings' organization who desperately want him back, but there are others who are conflicted. Add their uncertainty to Peterson's public uneasiness, and you have a relatively common template for parting ways. If the Vikings want to keep him, their one bit of leverage is money. They almost certainly can (and would) pay him more than any other team to play in 2015.