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Welcome to “Week Under Review”, where we discuss hot topics, introduce new ideas and offer some surprises. Let us begin with a message to every NFL decision-maker…
Do not hire Art Briles. Don’t even consider it.
Hopefully this message does not need to be said. Hopefully the NFL’s teams understand what a grave mistake it would be to swap integrity for a more sophisticated view on the spread offense. But then there’s the precedent.
There has been a bevy of emotions and opinions stemming from Baylor firing its head football coach amid the school’s horrific sexual assault scandal. There are defenders of his character and leadership and, of course, idiots who are quick to point out the school’s 65–37 record under Briles. But no matter how staunchly Briles is defended—even though what went on under his watch is indefensible—the shamed coach is now synonymous with one thing: winning at ALL costs.
Coincidentally, this is the same mentality that has led to the current, continuing crisis in the NFL.
The examples are numerous. Rampant domestic violence was ignored for years until a video and subsequent media outrage at the commissioner’s inaction led to action. Gregg Williams, suspended a year for incentivizing players to intentionally hurt opponents while with the Saints as defensive coordinator, has weaseled his way to the same job with the Rams because he can scheme. Just this week alone, a Congressional report showed that the NFL withdrew NIH grant funds intended to advance research toward diagnosing CTE in the living because the researcher had previously criticized the league. Does the NFL even want its players to be able to detect CTE?
While many individuals around the league use their platform for good, and some of the NFL’s outreach is truly altruistic, the league as a whole has a win-at-all-costs mentality. The signing of convicted abuser Greg Hardy last year by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the NFL’s poster child for winning at all costs, is just one recent example. Integrity is thrown out the window because a player can amass sacks or run a fast 40.
The difference between this era and any other is that a growing faction of fans no longer can compartmentalize the collateral damage associated with that mentality. The shield has been tarnished because it can’t be trusted to protect its members. It has a lengthy history of turning a blind eye to serious issues, even those involving life and death, until it’s forced to pay attention and take action. Just like Baylor.
Briles has been discussed in NFL circles before—in particular, for the Washington job after Mike Shanahan was canned in 2013. But bringing him on in any role would be a grave mistake, no matter his track record of on-field success. The NFL can’t afford to keeping choosing winning games over losing the public conscience.
The NFL’s Smartest Man on a 22-week regular season
Last week I proposed a 22-week regular season schedule. You can read the full column for the entire structure, rationale and a sample schedule, but the gist is to continue with just 16 regular season games while sprinkling in five byes and a league-wide Christmas week break. The Super Bowl would be played in early March, just a week or two before Selection Sunday. Thrilled as I was to share my proposal, I was equally sure it would get panned since, after all, this is the Internet. Surprisingly, it was mostly well-received and discussed at length throughout the week, though many wanted to hear the players’ view. Naysayers thought there were too many byes and that it would destroy the season’s flow, but they also wanted to hear the players’ view. So for a player’s view, I turned to the NFL’s smartest man.
John Urschel, a Ph.D. student in mathematics at MIT who doubles as a guard for the Ravens, just completed his first semester and earned straight A’s in the process. He is also an advanced stats columnist for The Players’ Tribune, where he penned a great column this week on his return to school and the MIT football program. Urschel had read the 22-week proposal and was happy to share his thoughts. I asked him to be fully honest and not hold back any criticisms.
On the overall plan and the numerous byes: “It seems like a great idea. Why? A prolonged season works conditional on the fact that coaches will be smart. We can assume that if coaches aren’t smart initially, the ones that aren’t will very quickly have poor records, but smart coaches will rest their players and make sure they stay healthy, as opposed to some coaches who tend to run their players into the ground. I think for smart coaches it will show that resting players is important, taking care of their bodies is important, and I think conditional on that, it’s good for the players’ health.”
On the impact of weekly visibility: “I think it’s great that—look, there’s 32 NFL teams—why in most weeks are just about all of them playing when a lot of these teams are only shown regionally? The way [the proposal] breaks it up, it allows each game to reach a greater audience, and I think that’s a brilliant idea. These games count more, matter more and it’s more revenue for the league and the players. Especially in a league where with a first contract, in my instance, there’s not guaranteed money—it’s not like being drafted into the NBA. It would be good for all the players, I believe.”
His only criticism: “Wait, now I can’t go to school. This was my selfish, initial thought after thinking this was a good idea. There should be a rule within MIT’s academics that if you’re in the Super Bowl, you don’t have to be in class.”
At the risk of crushing a budding mathematician, I’m ready to meet when you are, Roger.
In the news this week
• Like 24 without Jack Bauer, ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown clock may be ticking down on the Chris Berman era. Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead reports that Berman will be retiring at the end of the 2016 season, ending a run at ESPN that began in 1979. (Berman’s agent denies this report.)
Like many of you, I grew up on NFL PrimeTime, the best NFL highlights show ever. Berman was in his prime then—smooth, personable with a near-perfect delivery and sharp interplay with Tom Jackson. Berman has clearly “lost a step” in the later Countdown days, and many more steps when it comes to the Home Run Derby and the late-night Monday Night Football telecast in Week 1, but I wish he were staying around for a few more years mostly for nostalgia’s sake. Besides, it’s not like Berman’s presence has taken away from the high-minded analysis that would otherwise occur on Countdown or any of the Sunday pregame shows. (Who will Frank Caliendo impersonate this week?)
• The Ravens welcomed a special guest to speak to their rookies this week: Ray Rice. Though the team oddly promoted Rice’s visit on its Twitter account, the concept was a smart one. According to the Ravens, Rice was there as part of a player engagement program that teaches life lessons and life management skills.
Last month I spoke with Rice and advocated for some team to give him a second chance, assuming his football skills were up to snuff. (And yes, that’s a big assumption.) Having a rehabilitated Rice as a regular presence in a locker room would serve as a constant reminder of how quickly a star can fall off his pedestal. More importantly, Rice has been proactive with his messaging, continues to participate with domestic violence awareness groups and is truly dedicated to using his experiences to help others make better decisions. At the very least, the NFL and NFLPA should be utilizing Rice for all of their rookie orientation programs.
• Wes Welker said on NFL Network this week that he is wrestling with his NFL future, in some part because of his extensive concussion history. Now 35, Welker has six known concussions over his 12-year career, including three in the span of just nine months. He’s also a free agent with presumably no offers on the table. Welker says he’s “weighing his options,” which means this week’s congressional report on the NFL interfering with concussion research and Bills GM Doug Whaley bravely admitting that “humans aren’t meant to play football” in regards to Sammy Watkins’s injury failed to definitely sway him. I’ve never earned anything remotely close to an NFL paycheck or regaled in the glory of a Super Bowl, but the current NFL doesn’t seem like a place I’d trust with my previously concussed brain.