Wednesday, August 5, 2020

First look: Defensive ends

Simply put, the main goals for the respective coordinators of a football team are to (a) protect the quarterback and (b) make certain opposing quarterbacks are as uncomfortable as humanly possible.

It has been established here that the Browns have improved markedly in the first department. It’s the other one that needs to step it up to keep pace, at least on paper.

There is absolutely no question the Browns’ pass rush is overly dependent on the performance of one dynamic young man. Myles Garrett is clearly the best – and most important – player on a defense loaded with question marks. Therein lies the problem.

When Garrett is on the field, bad things happen to opposing quarterbacks. (And I’m not thinking Mason Rudolph.) He alone makes the Cleveland pass rush downright dangerous. But he needs more help.

Last season, Garrett played 10 games – the Browns were 4-6 in those games – before sitting out the final six serving a suspension. And the Browns’ pass rush just about disappeared. No one stepped up.

It registered 30 sacks in those 10 games, a clip that would have landed them near the 50-sack plateau. Garrett had 10 of them, a sack-a-game pace. In his absence, the rush collected just eight more, four in one game and a pathetic one in the final three games.

Olivier Vernon, acquired with Odell Beckham Jr. in the deal with the New York Giants, was expected to take the heat off Garrett, but missed six games with a knee injury and contributed just 3½ sacks. He has now missed 15 games in the last three seasons.

The Browns believed they were getting one of the steady pass rushers in the NFL. Instead, it appears they traded for someone who has become an injury waiting to happen.

As insurance, the Browns signed nine-year veteran Adrian Clayborn, a situational edge rusher clearly on the downside of his career, to a two-year contract. You’ll see him only in passing situations.

Then there is Chad Thomas, the club’s third-round choice in the 2018 draft who has not come even close to becoming a difference maker. The 6-5, 280 pounder saw some action in Garrett’s absence last season and tallied four sacks after a rookie season that saw him tethered to the bench.

So who is going to step up and become Garrett’s partner in crime in opposing backfields? Or will he remain a solo act anxiously looking for a partner in an effort to get rid of the double and triple teams with which he frequently has to deal?

Could it be Vernon? Can he stay healthy enough long enough to finally justify the trade? Maybe Thomas? Perhaps a diamond in the rough if given the opportunity? Inquiring minds . . . aw, never mind.

It’s going to be Garrett and your guess is as good as mine. And he will play every game this season, if there is a season. having learned a valuable lesson with regard to better handling his temper.

Three others in camp realistically have no shot at making the final roster: Rookie Jeffrey Whatley, second-year man Charles McCray and Porter Gustin, who played sparingly last season.

Next: Defensive tackles

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

First look: Offensive Line

The biggest difference on offense between the disappointing 2019 Browns and the 2020 edition resides in the trenches. Yep, the offensive line.

Last season’s unit struggled to protect the quarterback, struggled to open up holes in the ground game and struggled in general when it came to coming through in the clutch. That’s way too many struggles.

If last season’s offense had this season’s revamped offensive line, the Browns would not have finished 6-10 and Freddie Kitchens might still be the head coach. Shrewd free-agent moves and drafting by General Manager Andrew Berry made it happen.

Signing tackle Jack Conklin away from Tennessee in free agency and making Alabama tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. the club’s top draft pick took care of the flanks just like that. Last season’s turnstile tackles are a mere (bad) memory.

No longer is the Browns’ offensive line considered less than mediocre with Wills now protecting Baker Mayfield’s blind side and Conklin, a Pro Bowler whose strength is the run game, beefing up the strong side of the formation.

Add the reliability of center JC Tretter and left guard Joel Bitonio and you’ve got a solid base to work in front of arguably one of the most talented and star-studded offenses in the National Football League.

The only weakness of the unit, if you can call it that, is at right guard, where Wyatt Teller is considered the favorite to win the job now that second-year man Drew Forbes has opted out for the season.

Teller started the final nine games last season due mainly to the inefficiency of everyone else tried at the position and performed reasonably well. The big difference this season is he will play beside Conklin, a considerable upgrade over Chris Hubbard.

If there is any concern along the unit, it lies at left tackle, a position quite foreign to Wills, who was a career right tackle at Alabama. The Browns insist making the switch to the other side will not be a problem for the rookie.

What makes it a little edgy is Wills will make his professional debut in Baltimore without the benefit of exhibition games. Because the league and players association agreed to forego all the exhibitions because of the pandemic, Wills’ work will be only in intra-squad scrimmages.

If coach Kevin Stefanski and offensive line coach Bill Callahan are smart, they will make certain defensive end Myles Garrett, one of the elite pass rushers in the NFL, lines up opposite the rookie as much as possible during drills.

The coaches will have only 14 padded practices and game-plan week to get Wills ready. A steady diet of Garrett might drive the kid batty, but he’ll emerge a better tackle. If he survives Garrett, he’ll be prepared for just about anybody.

An offensive line functions much smoother and efficiently when working in concert as a unit. All it takes is one mistake or blown assignment to blow up a play. Wills is the likeliest candidate for that to occur unless he is a quick study.

Plugging in a rookie at the second-most important position on offense is a gamble to begin with. But when that rookie has never played that position at any level, the odds rise he’ll encounter early problems.

Switching from right tackle to left tackle is not as easy as some would believe. Everything is exactly the opposite. Muscle memory is the most important key to pulling it off.

When Wills was protecting the blind of side of left-handed quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for two seasons at Alabama, his first move in pass protection was moving his right foot back to initiate a drop step. With Mayfield, a right-hander, it becomes his left foot.

Not easy. Don’t believe it? Try doing something with your less dominant hand. Like eating. Or writing. Shooting pool. It’s not easy. That’s where muscle memory factors in with extra repetitions, so much so it becomes second nature. It also helps playing next to the veteran Bitonio.

Backing up this unit most likely will be rookie Nick Harris, Kendall Lamm, Colby Gossett, Ohio State’s Malcolm Pridgeon and Hubbard, who was surprisingly retained. Others in camp are Alex Taylor, Willie Wright and Evan Brown.

The fondest hope for Browns fans is the first unit remains healthy all season long . . . if there is a season.

Next: Defensive ends

Monday, August 3, 2020

First look: Tight Ends

For the first time in a very long time, tight ends will be major contributors to the Browns’ offense this season. Not since the days of Ozzie Newsome will the position be a major focus of the attack.

That became obvious when they targeted Atlanta’s Austin Hooper in free agency and rewarded him with a four-year, $44 million contract. Then they exercised David Njoku’s fifth-year contract option.

If that wasn’t enough, new head coach Kevin Stefanski convinced new General Manager Andrew Berry the position needed more fortification. That paved the way for the drafting (in the fourth round) of Harrison Bryant, the best college tight end last season.

The latest move prompted Njoku, who withered in coach Freddie Kitchens doghouse last season, to declare he was through with the club and wanted out. Pronto. He went public through his agent.

That’s when Stefanski and Berry kicked it into scramble mode because they didn’t want to lose him and launched a campaign to convince the fourth-year tight end that last season was a mirage. They still wanted him.

As speculation mounted throughout the National Football League universe as to where Njoku would land via trade, Berry and Stefanski doggedly kept after him and ultimately convinced him to stick around. He went public with that declaration the other day.

Stefanski is so tight end centric, it would not be surprising to see all three on the field at the same time on more than a few occasions, which means Hooper and Njoku will get plenty of reps, especially against teams that struggle against tight ends.

Both men are big, strong, quick, fast and don’t shy away from blocking. Hooper has better hands than Njoku, who can make the spectacular catch, but has occasional problems with concentration on the easy ones. Inconsistency is his biggest enemy.

In an effort to spread the ball around in his multi-purpose offense, the tights weigh heavily in Stefanski’s scheme. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Hooper, Njoku and Bryant will rack up in the neighborhood of 140 to 150 receptions.

The big question now is who becomes the fourth tight end, the guy who can come in and provide solid blocking in short-yardage and/or goal-line situations. Returnees Pharaoh Brown and Stephen Carlson and undrafted rookie Nate Wieting are the candidates.

Brown is the best blocker of that trio. At 6-6 and 260 pounds, the Brush High School product is the biggest tight end on the team. Carlson flashed on occasion toward the end of last season. If the club keeps four tights, Brown should be the man.

Next: Offensive line

Sunday, August 2, 2020

First look: Wide Receivers

There are 10 wide receivers on the Browns’ training camp roster. No more than six, probably more like five, will suit up for the regular season should there be one.

Under normal circumstances, that number might reach as high as seven. Not this season with Kevin Stefanski’s mad love for tight ends. As many as four of the six on the TC roster will make the final cut.

That means something’s got to give and that translates adversely to the wide receivers corps. Outside of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., that is. In the grand scheme of things, that portends a potential problem.

Landry and Beckham love to roll up targets on the stats sheet. Beckham, in particular, grumbles when the number of targets does not meet his goal, which is usually double digits. Landry not so much. All he wants to do is win no matter how many times he sees the football.

With Stefanski’s extreme fondness of utilizing the tight end in his relative button-down offense, which features a 50-50 mix of run and pass, some area is going to get short shrift. Yep, the wideouts.

Last season, Landry and Beckham combined for 217 targets, or about 17 a game. In his first three seasons with the New York Giants, OBJ averaged 10.6 targets a game on his way to becoming a National Football League superstar.

That will change this season as Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will be challenged in distributing the football to arguably the best overall set of receivers the Browns have had in a very long time.

The new head coach’s toughest job just might entail mollifying Beckham and his frail ego and, at the same time, making certain everyone else is content with his role in the offense.

When the Browns are forced to go with more than two wides, look for Rashard Higgins, who flourished under Baker Mayfield in 2018 before disappearing into Freddie Kitchens’ enormous dog house last season, to resurrect his 2018 magic.

Battling for playing time will be rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones and returnees Damion Ratley, D. J. Montgomery, KhaDarel Hodge and Taywan Taylor. JoJo Natson, who played his college ball at Akron, is listed as a wide receiver, but the 5-7, 153-pounder was brought in to do just one thing – return kicks.

Look for Stefanski to feature a lot of two wide receiver, two (maybe three) tight end looks in early downs before opening up should drives stall. It worked nicely for him in Minnesota last season and the personnel he inherited in Cleveland should, at least on paper, produce similar, if not better, results.

The biggest hurdle is ball distribution and keeping everybody happy.

Next: Tight ends

Saturday, August 1, 2020

First look: Running Backs

It’s so tempting to call the Browns’ ground attack this season one of the best, if not the best, in the entire National Football League.

With Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt operating behind – sometimes next to – Baker Mayfield in the backfield, the possibilities of generating the best Cleveland offense since the halcyon days of Jim Brown and Ernie Green are limitless.

Better than the Pruitts, Greg and Mike? Yep. Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner? Absolutely. They are potentially (hate that word) much better.

These guys are just getting started working as a tandem with the Browns. Chubb established himself last season as one of the best young runners in the NFL, moving into elite territory

They aren’t just two bullets in the gun belt of whoever calls plays – head coach Kevin Stefanski or offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt – this season. They are major weapons for a coach who loves to run the football.

Both young men (Chubb is 24, Hunt will be 25 in a week) have unique qualities that will serve this season’s offense nicely. Chubb, who lost the rushing title to Tennessee’s Derrick Henry in the final week of the season, is your ultimate warrior.

He gained a remarkable 1,055 of his 1,494 rushing yards (70.6%) after contact, many of them with his dazzling speed and ability to maintain his balance. He also contributed 36 pass receptions for another 278 yards. All this despite being forgotten in a few games by coach Freddie Kitchens.

Hunt, on the other hand, is your Swiss Army knife. He can do it all and do it well. He is one of the league’s best runners – he led the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 2017 with Kansas City – and an accomplished receiver out of the backfield.

The Cleveland native (Willoughby South High School) is extremely reliable with the football, fumbling only once in his career – ironically on his first play from scrimmage as a rookie – and is a willing blocker.

Hunt, who played the final eight games last season after sitting out a suspension in the first half, and Chubb combined for 414 touches (80 by Hunt), 2,236 yards and 11 touchdowns. That’s a stunning 5.4 yards a touch.

And that was for a clueless head coach who mishandled his offense that ultimately paved his way out of town. One can only imagine how well and how often Chubb and Hunt will be utilized by whoever calls plays this season.

The mind boggles at the possibilities, especially when Chubb and Hunt line up together, whether in the backfield and/or lined up outside or in the slot. Given Stefanski’s fondness of the ground game, it wouldn’t surprise to see them total close to 600 touches and 20 touchdowns.

And when Stefanski gets close to the opposing goal line or faces a crucial third-and-short situation, he can call on fullback Andy Janovich, whose main role will be to clear paths for Chubb and Hunt.

Sure beats using hybrid tight ends the Browns have employed the last several seasons. A true fullback like Janovich fits the head coach’s schemes much better.

Returnees D’Ernest Johnson and Dontrell Hilliard, rookies Benny LeMay and Brian Herrien and fullback Johnny Stanton fill out the running backs room. LeMay is an intriguing player. The 5-8, 220-pounder rushed for more than 2.300 yards and 20 touchdowns at Charlotte the last two seasons and could challenge for a backup role.

Next: Wide receivers

Friday, July 31, 2020

First look: Quarterbacks

With members of the Browns roster in the midst of undergoing COVID-19 testing, time to begin a position-by-position look at the 2020 team as it ramps up for training camp. First, the quarterbacks.

This will be an interesting season for Baker Mayfield, whose reputation and standing throughout the National Football League will be put to a stern test, fairly or unfairly.

The big question: Is he the franchise quarterback the Browns have yearned for the last two decades, the one who stunned the league with a record-breaking rookie season and gave birth to excitement for the future?

Or is he the mistake-prone passer who time after time let down the fans in a highly disappointing sophomore season that eventually led to yet another housecleaning by the flummoxed ownership?

That’s the mystery new head coach Kevin Stefanski and his brand new coaching staff will try to unlock in a season where, under different circumstances, he would have a chance.

Without the benefit of minicamps, OTAs and exhibition games, the new coach is operating from way behind with a player he knows little about and is expected to whip him into an effective weapon tout de suite, rolling right into the season without the benefit of exhibitions.

Stefanski and new offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt are undoing all Mayfield learned in his first two seasons – good, bad and otherwise – and molding him in their image, one they believe will take the offense in the right direction.

Mayfield, assumedly, will be at the end of a very long leash; assumedly for two reasons. Not knowing exactly what kind of a head coach Stefanski will be factors into the equation is one.

Will he be an impatient head coach when the offense goes stale in a game and become trigger-happy with his starting quarterback? Or will patience be an ally in an effort to create stability?

Stefanski is quite comfortable with Case Keenum entrenched as Mayfield’s backup. That’s because the well-traveled veteran knows Stefanski’s offense and offensive philosophy well enough to help Mayfield learn it quickly.

With Keenum on board, the Browns now have their best quarterback tandem since . . . well, can’t remember when. There is a certain degree of comfort Stefanski has should Mayfield be unable to play for whatever reason. The drop-off in talent will be negligible.

All Stefanski wants from Mayfield this season (should there be a season) is to be the antithesis of the gunslinger of 2018 and 2019. Be the caretaker of the offense. Minimize mistakes. Do not beat yourself. It’s that simple.

His run-first philosophy is designed with that in mind. And with talents like Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt running behind an improved offensive line, Mayfield will come nowhere close to facing the kind of pressure he experienced last season with a dim-witted offense.

Now it will be up to him to back up his normal braggadocio with positive results, not the kind that led to a disastrous 2019, which left him uncharacteristically humbled.

Keenum, if Stefanski so chooses, probably will be the so-called quarantine quarterback, the guy in the bubble, shielded from the virus and ready to take over at a moment’s notice should the occasion arise.

Garrett Gilbert, who backed up Mayfield last season, most likely will be the third quarterback this season unless Stefanski chooses to gamble and go with just two quarterbacks.

If so, Gilbert and rookie free agent Kevin Davidson, who is merely training camp fodder for the time being, will battle it out to land on the practice squad.

Next: Running backs

Monday, July 27, 2020

Buckle up for the unknown

In about 24 hours, the most interesting and daring experiment in the history of the National Football League will commence.

Summer training camps will open Tuesday for 30 of the league’s 32 teams as the last of the four major sports leagues in the United States steps into the 2020 battle against a global virus pandemic.

It does so with zero preparation for what lies ahead. No minicamps. No OTAs. No meetings, at least in person. It is nothing more than a virtual run-up to a season that has – and will continue to have – many, many more questions than answers.

The NFL, much like the NBA, NHL and MLB, is flying blindly and defiantly into the unknown against an enemy that has confounded a planet. All in the name of returning to some sort of normalcy the way we have grown accustomed to living our lives.

The NFL has laid down a stringent set of rules for teams to adhere to in an effort to provide what it hopes will be a smooth path to Super Bowl LV (55) in Tampa, Fla., next Feb. 7.

Without going into the specifics of the protocols, training camp for the Browns starts Tuesday in Berea and lasts 41 days, concluding on Sunday, Sept.  6, exactly one week before the season opener in Baltimore.

There will be no exhibition games, agreed to in arbitration between the league and NFL Players Association in an extraordinary concession by the owners. It will be the first preseason with no games in the history of the Browns, maybe even the league.

Camp begins with COVID-19 testing and virtual meetings and concludes on Sept. 6 with padded practices (just 14), which begins with what is called a “contact integration period.”

A vast majority of teams in the league don’t have to worry about preparing for this season with strategic and tactical philosophies already in place. Adjusting to the league’s new virus protocols should not be a problem for them.

Not so with the Browns, who have a rookie head coach and brand new coaching staff. It’s going to be hard enough plugging in a whole different system on both sides of the football, let alone making certain the club adheres to the new off-the-field protocols.

Kevin Stefanski will have to be a magician to take arguably the most talented team (at least offensively) this franchise has fielded since 1999 and mold it into a winner.  Fairly or unfairly, much will be expected of him and his staff.

Establishing a winning culture is hard enough to begin with, especially with this franchise in the last two decades. Doing so with a team he has never coached before is a challenge that might take more than one or two seasons to achieve.

Among the new protocols are strict social behaviors. Players will be urged to stay at home when not practicing. No indoors nightclubs. No indoors parties. No indoors concerts. In other words, no fun. All in the interest of staying safe from the virus.

The league is determined to beat this virus. Caving to the NFLPA’s demands to cancel all exhibitions is a sign it will cooperate to the nth degree to pull this off.

That, and the pandemic, definitely make this one of the most interesting and fascinating seasons in the history of this storied league.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

A bad feeling

The pandemic that has created a new normal in the last several months seems to be affecting my thought patterns. No, I haven’t tested positive for COVID-19. In fact, I haven’t been tested at all.

By taking self-quarantining to exaggerated levels, I discovered relatively early that I miss my sports. Shocking, I know. Professional basketball and hockey seasons were interrupted. Major League baseball shut down midway through spring training

The National Football League has thus far escaped what lies ahead due to exquisite timing. It closed down at the onset of the virus after the Super Bowl. More on that situation later.

The loss of sports in my world is what’s messing with the aforementioned thoughts. I worry their attempts to come back will not end well. Color me skeptical that those sports will not reach the finish line. After all, I’ve got a reputation to live up (down?) to.

I’m a glass half empty guy. Have been for as long as I can remember. I do not have a good feeling about this at all.  It’s a feeling I wish I didn’t have.

This enemy is like a ghost. It is stealthy, relentless, virulent and deadly. You cannot see it. At least with the naked eye. It can be seen only when placed under a microscope. And it’s showing no signs of going away anytime soon.

The NBA and NHL, in seeming desperation, will conduct their playoffs in a bubble in an attempt to achieve closure to their respective seasons. They have thrown down the gauntlet to the virus. So, too, have MLB and the NFL.

I believe it will fail on all fronts despite stringent protocols to stave off the inevitable. In baseball, for example, there will be no high fives, no hugs and no spitting.

In the NFL, post-game hugs and jersey trading are prohibited. What’s next? A ban on gang tackling? After playing 60 minutes of in-your-face football, it’s nonsensical to legislate against those traditional post-game activities. Players are mocking the decision.

As for game officials, it’s all but set: NFL officials (average age 53 years old) will wear facemasks in the performance of their duties. It’s anyone’s guess what else is in store.

The amount of work required keeping every team healthy for an extended period of time is more hopeful than anything else. Each team will need to walk a razor-thin line in order to prevent a team outbreak.

All it will take to seriously rethink the situation is one team outbreak of the highly contagious virus. The odds of accomplishing that on a league-wide basis have to be astronomical.

Players in the NBA, NHL and MLB have also been given the option of opting out of the competition, in some cases because they do not want to gamble they will catch the virus. Others are for more personal reasons. Most are veterans who have been well compensated..

The NFL is negotiating with the players association with regard to the opt-out and has yet to come to an agreement. The league has already taken steps to head off possible trouble by cancelling the Hall of Fame game and first and fourth exhibition games.

Players have indicated they would not be unhappy if the entire exhibition slate is scrubbed, preferring to prepare for the regular season with an extended training camp that might include intra-squad scrimmages.

Baseball’s truncated 60-game regular season, scheduled to begin later this month, will provide the earliest indicators as to whether this whole exercise in avoidance will actually work.

Considering the strict protocols set forth by the various sports, I’m having a difficult time believing it will work. This pandemic has wiped out all in its path thus far and shows no signs of relenting. If anything, it is gaining strength,

And here is the worst part. Scientists predict phase two of the virus, a more virulent strain, is inevitable when the weather cools down in the fall, significantly affecting baseball and football. That’s an ominous sign, considering phase one of the pandemic has yet to be tamed.

Social distancing will be the greatest deterrent in all sports. The very nature of basketball, hockey, baseball and football dictate the antithesis. Contact is inevitable. With football, in particular, the idea of social distancing is laughable.

Football is not a contact sport. It is a collision sport. No protocol can cancel out that fact. And because of that, the notion the league actually believes it can squeeze in a 17-week regular season and a postseason is folly.

In order to keep at last six feet apart, will offensive linemen correctly social distance themselves from each other? Can you imagine line splits of seven and eight feet? Right there, social distancing flies out the door.

As we get closer to the start of the NFL season, unforeseen little bumps in the road will emerge that need to be smoothed out. For example, some players are pushing back against the use of vinyl face shields as a deterrent to the virus,

The big difference now is NFL players, quite likely for the first time in their careers, realize they are targets for a deadly virus that is indiscriminate in whom it strikes. The fact it is contagious adds to the fear.

Injuries have always been part of the sports, but much more likely in the NFL. They are a known and accepted hazard to the profession. This virus quite likely will exacerbate the situation.

So will the game be played differently as a result in the NFL? More cautiously, perhaps? Of course not. It wouldn’t be football if they did. That’s what makes this all the more intriguing.

I can’t stop thinking something will go terribly wrong in all four sports in the attempt to pull off the impossible in the face of this pandemic. An outbreak can occur at any time in any of the four sports. All it takes is one to seriously consider a shutdown.

My feeling – and I hope I am wrong about all this in so many ways – is this calendar year, I fear, will go down in history as the year sports surrendered to an unknown enemy and robbed its fans of so much escapist pleasure.

So color me extremely skeptical that by the end of this year, sports fans will have an NBA champion, Stanley Cup champion, World Series winner and an NFL playoff season to look forward to.

The year 2020 is teetering on the brink of becoming the year the sports world was completely brought to its knees by an unseen foe. And there was nothing that could be done to stop it.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

NFL owners on the spot

The National Football League is headed toward the precipice of a civil war, of sorts, as it methodically reopens for business in the wake of a global pandemic.

In the midst of that exercise, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stunningly reversed course with regard to his league’s stance on race relations in this country in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis policemen.

In what amounts to a watershed statement and moment, Goodell without warning told the nation, “We, the National Football League condemn racism and the systemic oppression of black people.

“We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.

“We are listening, I am listening and I will be reaching out to players who have raised their voices and others on how we can improve and go forward for a better and more united NFL family.”

Turning a blind eye after all these years stopped just . . . like . . . that.

The jackpot question is whether Goodell’s message also reflects the feelings of the owners, those 32 billionaires who are his bosses. Right now, we don’t know what they think or where they stand. At least not publicly. And that’s where the civil war aspect lies.

Will there be a division among the owners? A division between owners and players?

Strongly attached to Goodell’s frank admission is a move initially exercised by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2017 when he kneeled during the national anthem before a regular-season game.

Interpreted as a slight against the American flag and the military, Kaepernick insisted it was not a slight, but a silent protest to the socially perceived mistreatment by law enforcement against African Americans.

That was the only way he believed he could bring attention to the matter. It became a cause célèbre when the president of the United States weighed in and took it as an insult.

It resulted in the president all but demanding the kneeling must stop and caused NFL owners to scramble in search of an equitable solution. During that season, the subject became a daily staple on not only sports talk radio, but cable television political programs.

The president admitted being emboldened by his stance on the subject to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who detailed a conversation he had with the him regarding the matter in a 2018 deposition.

Said the president, “This is a very winning, strong issue with me. Tell everybody you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.”

Television ratings for games suffered as a result as fans zealously argued. The brouhaha eventually simmered down the next couple of seasons with just a handful of players continuing to kneel as owners basically set the tone on an individual team basis

That brings us back to the now part of this drama. Will the owners deal with the situation differently than they did a few years ago? Bear in mind a significant number of influential owners contributed greatly to the president’s successful election in 2016.

How will they handle the situation now? How much of 2017 will be dragged back into the spotlight? Questions seeking answers with the 2020 season rapidly bearing down.

The owners must see the landscape changing rapidly with highly visible and extremely influential athletes in the three major professional sports joining in on the cause. The groundswell has ballooned to well over 1,000 voices.

Those voices are being heard. Among them is Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. His response to a recent Instagram plea by a fan to “please tell Browns fans you’re not going to be kneeling this season” was terse: “Pull you head out. I absolutely am (going to kneel). I’ve always spoken my mind. And that’s from the heart.”

Wonder what Jimmy Haslam III is thinking about the face of his franchise saying that. Wonder what stance the Browns owner and his wife take when the media finally asks him that very question.

And just how will Browns Nation react? The answer to that probably won’t be gleaned until after the Haslams share their thoughts publicly.  

Another important voice sides with Mayfield, as well as the myriad others who have remained silent for now. “If you still think it’s about disrespecting the flag or our military,” said Houston Texans star defensive end J. J. Watt, “you really haven’t been listening.”

Goodell works for the owners. Not the players; not the paying public. The owners. That’s why his historic pronouncement was so incredulously stunning.

One would think all his moves are made with full knowledge of the owners. Logical thinking then suggests they are in accord with this. But logic sometimes tends to swerve in unexpected directions.

It is entirely possible the president might not be a factor this time. He is currently in the middle of a reelection campaign. The NFL situation has obliquely caught his attention, but he has other more important concerns about which to be worried.

After learning the U. S. Soccer Board of Directors will now allow its players to kneel during the national anthem if they desire, he tweeted: “And it looks like the NFL is heading in that direction also, but not with me watching!”

The owners are on their own this time. Their commissioner has spoken. It’s time they did, too.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

News & Views

News: The National Football League tables a possible solution to the onside kick problem.

Views: Now that it has defanged the onside kick by making it almost impossible to successfully convert one, the league has gone to great lengths to make a mockery of the game with a nonsensical proposal.

Onside kicks caused too many injuries, a league study found, so the rules were changed (in 2018) to the point where the success rate of converting this seldom-used tactical maneuver was reduced to roughly 10%. Took the drama right out of it.

League owners were then presented with a solution, a rule giving a losing team the option of converting a fourth-and-15 from its 25-yard line instead, rewarding success with control of the football. Fail and you turn the ball over.

Fortunately, the owners saw how ludicrous it was and tabled it for the second year in a row. Thankfully.

The NFL’s competition committee, which forwards crazy thoughts like these to the owners, appears to have taken leave of its senses in bringing this one up for a vote. It is nothing more than a gimmick and an embarrassing one at that. The NFL does not need gimmicks to improve its game.

The rules of football have changed over the years, mostly for the good. But every once in a while, common sense takes a holiday in the interest of bettering the game.
This is one of those times.

This is the result of reducing the possibility of recovering an onside kick to the point where desperate measures called for desperate actions. The only other possible solution would be to eliminate the maneuver entirely. The onside kick used to be an exciting staple of the game. It is just a few steps from becoming a football dinosaur.

Here’s a suggestion: Don’t try to ram it through a third time because a solution to the problem is so perplexing, it will never get solved. Leave it alone as is and learn to live with it. Stop trying to gimmick the game. It’s beneath the dignity of the league.

News: The league is also taking under consideration the appointment of an eighth game official, a sky judge located in the press box area to be the backup in the event of an egregious error by an on-field official. 

Views: This one has more potential to become a reality, although it is off to a rough start. Once it is eventually installed, it will make the product better. It will be a strong effort to conform to the notion the most import thing is to get the call right.

Through the widespread use of replay, that’s what this has all come down to. It’s okay for players to make mistakes. Game officials are held to a much, much higher standard. And that’s where another set of eyes comes into play. Give the fans  (bettors, too) as close to a perfect game as possible.

It never used to be that way. Up until about 25 years ago, football was arguably the best officiated sport – at least on the professional level – of all the major sports. Multitudinous rules changes in that time have made it almost impossible to operate as efficiently as in the old days.

Veteran Philadelphia sportswriter Les Bowen many years ago noted, “The real problem here isn’t with (referee) Tony Corrente or any other zebra. The bigger problem is either out of concern over concussions or just wanting to codify every little nuance of the game, the NFL has passed so many rules, the game has become impossible to officiate consistently.”

It has become even more difficult since then. To make it somewhat easier to officiate on the field, the side judge became the seventh man of the crew in the NFL in 1978..

The owners never placed the latest proposal on the table because it was not expected to pass. Speculation was they did not favor the addition of an eighth official because it would not justify the added expense. In other words, it would be cost prohibitive.

Imagine that. A multi-gazillion dollar enterprise worrying about doling out what would amount to chump change to add 17 more employees to the payroll, not to mention improve the product.

Additional speculation suggests the league eventually will try it experimentally, perhaps during the exhibition season. That would be a gigantic step forward. It worked in the defunct AAF and XFL. Why not the NFL?

Stay tuned on that one. The fourth-and-15 in place of an onside kick, on the other hand, should perish in peace and never be revisited.