Feb. 25, 2019
NFL ICYMI: From The Super Bowl to Free Agency
This article is meant for a few audiences. There are some folks who have completely unplugged from football, not fully engaged in the sport until the latter part of summer. There are some (like your humble scribe) who have invested time in the new Alliance of American Football, a self admitted developmental league with an overwhelming majority of its players who have at least signed an NFL contract but are outside the Shield. And there are some who don't follow NFL religiously, those who catch blurbs on cable sports news tickers and internet suggestion results. Consider this as a one stop spot for the most salient stories revolving around the NFL and its persons therein. This will be a little long for my regular readers, but each piece does have future considerations as we go forward.
Antonio Brown and the Pittsburgh Steelers went through a messy public divorce, culminating in trading the wide receiver to the Oakland Raiders for a third and fifth round draft picks. This has been one of the more bizarre series of events involving a player looking to get away from his team in recent memory. The genesis of this can be pinpointed at the final month of the season, with any and all of the following factors contributing. 1) Steelers players electing fellow wideout JuJu Schuster-Smith as team MVP, breaking Brown's five year streak on winning that award from his peers. Reports suggested that Brown felt offended that his younger counterpart was rewarded. 2) The now infamous blow up between him self and QB Ben Roethlisberger led to Brown storming off the practice field and not returning to the team until Pittsburgh's Week 17 last gasp clash against the Cincinnati Bengals to try to qualify for the playoffs. As we learned later, Brown had grow weary and upset over Roethlisberger's public criticisms of both him and his teammates, all the while the veteran quarterback not taking responsibility for his actions. All this would lead to 3) Brown's deactivation from the Steelers game day roster against the Bengals. Head coach Mike Tomlin would state that Brown's absence from team activities throughout the week disqualified him from playing on that Sunday. It's hard to quantify which of these factors led to the dissolution of the relationship between Brown and the Steelers, but I ball was rolling nonetheless. What would occurred would be Steelers owner Art Rooney II saying in an interview that he did not see how the disgruntled wideout could remain on the team. Next up, Brown would make a formal request to be traded. After that, this is where it took a peculiar turn. In an Instagram post during a workout, Brown articulated his trade demands, primary among them was he was no longer going to play without guaranteed money, which meant any suitor who desired his services, they would need to rework his contract. Between that post and interviews afterward, he displayed abrasive behavior, the type that would make many NFL execs squeamish to take on such an explosive personality, and more notably, pay a premium price to acquire. This was on full display when it was announced that the Buffalo Bills had made a deal with the Steelers for Brown, surrendering a first round pick. Brown, in essence, vetoed the trade by telling both clubs that he would not report to Buffalo. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert still toiled away, able to move Brown for two mid to late round draft picks. In turn, the Raiders agreed to Brown's request, increasing both the overall amounts he will be paid (making him the highest paid wide receiver in the league today) and his amount of guaranteed money. In addition to picks, the Steelers are now saddled with a $21 million dead money cap hit for this year. OK, there is a lot to unpack here. When it comes to the Steelers, many of the talking heads knew, not believed or thought, but knew, that Pittsburgh would not eat that much dead money just to be rid of one player. This episode explains why those people are on the outside. Brown, for as talented as he is on the field, had reached a level of toxicity that the Steelers organization deemed intolerable. Retaining a player that does not want to be on a team only increases the likelihood of locker room turmoil to increase. Keeping Brown could have poisoned the entire roster by this same time next year. The viability of Roethlisberger's ability to lead aside, this was the best solution for the Steel City Stalwarts to go forward, even if the return was less than ideal. For the Raiders, this turn of events seems peculiar until one factors in who pulled the trigger on the trade. Why on God's green earth would they trade away their best receiver for a first round pick during the season but move to get an older (albeit more talented) pass catcher that costs more to keep? The answer is Jon Gruden. His penchant for collecting older veterans (a habit that dates back to hid first run as the Raiders' head coach) was on full display here. The big money question now is: With AB fat and happy, will he still produce at an elite level? Only time will tell, but Gruden has basically latched his fate as czar of the Oakland / Sin City Raiders to the 30 year old malcontent. The only saving grace for all those on that side of the trade is the Raiders have a long history of taking the undesirables of the league and crafting legendary teams and careers. We'll see if that becomes the case. And finally, to AB himself. He got what he wanted; out of Pittsburgh and into a more lucrative contract, but at what cost? His scorched earth campaign could have unforeseen consequences for his fellow players. The Steelers, for example, may be hesitant to dole out such a sum of money for a WR again, which could hurt Schuster-Smith when it comes time to sign his second pro contract. Plus, the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement ends in 2020. If you don't think a control freak of an owner (looking at you, Daniel Snyder) won't want to cripple a player holding that type of sway over their franchise, you're not paying enough attention. Brown took incredible risks to make his vision a reality. But for it gain traction amongst his peers, he must do one thing: exceed all heightened expectations. We'll find out in the autumn.
Le'Veon Bell and Nick Foles will unrestricted free agents. There was a little bit of scuttlebutt that the controlling teams of Bell and Foles (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, respectively) would do a franchise or transition tag square dance on either or both of them to try to retain their particular services. However, each club had a fatal flaw. For the Steelers, it would not be fiscally responsible to tag Bell for the third year, even under the transition tag. Bell sat out 2018 under the franchise tag of over $14 million. Under league rules, if Bell were slapped with a transition tag, it would come with guaranteed tender for Bell of $25 million. Were the Steelers to do that, it would make Bell virtually untradeable and leave Pittsburgh crippled from a salary cap standpoint. So Bell finally gets hid wish: to test the open market. As for the Eagles, it's their short and medium term cap situations. Concluding 2018, the Eagles were one of two clubs under water (meaning over the salary cap). EVP of Howie Roseman has been cutting players to get back in the black, holding onto about $10 million in cap space as of this post as we close in on the beginning of the league's new fiscal year. There was a clause in Foles' contract that the team could exercise a one year $20 million extension, but he could buy it out for $2 million to become a free agent. Philly exercised the clause, Foles bought out, then that left speculation that the Eagles would play the franchise tag game to keep Foles. With a second contract due for accepted starting QB Carson Wentz on the horizon, and a belief that the Eagles don't conduct business in such a way, Foles will be able to see if there are any takers. And some reports are saying that the Jacksonville Jaguars are looking to pick Foles up. The Jags, regressing from one game away from the Super Bowl to in the AFC South basement, are starting again at quarterback with the imminent release of incumbent Blake Bortels. There's no one linked to Bell yet, and his injury & suspension history may give some teams pause. But rest assured, these two men will be made, paid, & in the shade in relatively short order.
The Denver Broncos have decided cycle out quarterbacks, as two trades will alter the direction of three franchises. The Broncos, specifically executive vice president of football operations John Elway, have been looking for the successor to Peyton Manning for three years. They thought they had our figured out when Denver signed Case Keenum to a high dollar contract. After a season where Keenum regressed from his career year one campaign prior, it has become crystal clear that Elway is not content with standing pat. He pulled the trigger on a deal that will bring in Joe Flacco from the Baltimore Ravens for the price of a fourth round draft pick. While the Broncos bring in a playoff experienced veteran quarterback (one that upset the Broncos in Denver in 2012), the Ravens clear the way for Lamar Jackson to be their unquestioned starting quarterback. Flacco may be criticized for being a game manager, but he has led a team to a Super Bowl title, an accolade uncommon in the AFC. But Elway was not done. To ensure Flacco's legitimacy as the Broncos starter, Keenum was shipped out to Washington along with a seventh round pick for a sixth round selection and cap considerations. The Broncos and Redskins will basically split Keenum's 2019 salary cap number, which gives Elway the edge on getting the better end of the trade at this point. But the Redskins are (or were) in a bind at the quarterback position. Last year's starter, Alex Smith, may not even be able to play in 2019, if ever again. Plus, Smith's injury guarantee in his contract will serve as a punishing strain on Washington's salary cap. This left the 'Skins with journeyman Colt McCoy and Josh Johnson, who was slated to play in the Alliance of American Football before injuries led to his stay being extended at Washington's behest. What Keenum brings is higher ceiling of performance, as two years ago he and McCoy were different players without a distinction. But Keenum has shown the ability to win in pressure situation, which gives head coach Jay Gruden more options as his seat has been getting warmer due to a paucity of playoff appearances. This will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Is Jackson ready to handle the mantle of leadership without a veteran safety net? Can Keenum recapture lightning in a bottle once again in the nation's capital? Has Elway finally figured it out by bringing in Flacco to take the Broncos back to prominence?
Jason Witten has decided to rejoin the Dallas Cowboys in 2019 as an active player, eschewing the Monday Night Football broadcasting booth. Consider this one of the more surreal stories that have transpired in this cycle. Witten retired after the 2017 season, then accepted a color position alongside play by play man Joe Tessitore to call ESPN games in 2018. The team, which included sideline reporter/former player Anthony "Booger" McFarland, was largely panned by fans and critics alike. There was some rumors that the Worldwide Leader was contemplating making booth changes for next year, so it looks like Witten decided to be proactive and show himself out, but instead of going away into relative obscurity, he will be return to the field of play as a Hall of Fame worthy tight end. The one year layoff does leave one to wonder if Witten can just pick up where he left off. If he is able to come back close to his best, he will be an indispensable tool in QB Dak Prescott's toolbox as an outlet receiver when the rest of his receivers are locked out. But Witten will be 37 come September. Durability and effectiveness will be unmistakable concerns. The Cowboys will certainly benefit if Witten returns to form, but can they overcome him potentially being a handicap?
On the legal front, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid won their collusion lawsuit by virtue of the NFL settling out of court for an undisclosed amount. After all the bluster, all the grandstanding, all the accusations, the mountain of subpoenas, everything all said and done... the NFL blinked. Kaepernick and Reid, two former San Francisco 49ers players who had been free agents for an extended period of time, filed a collision lawsuit against the NFL that saw them blackballed due to their national anthem protests in 2016. While Reid did sign with the Carolina Panthers during the 2018 season, Kaepernick remained unsigned every since he opted out of his Niners' contract. The NFL & their legal team had fought tooth and nail to dismiss or scuttle these players' efforts to hold the league accountable for wrongly denying Kaepernick and Reid the opportunity to play pro football. And make no mistake: this settlement is a win for Kaepernick and a loss for the NFL. Your humble scribe would have relished witnessing the Shield's dirty laundry being aired out in a public courtroom, with the owners scrambling to appease the President of the United States by not caving to players like Kaepernick, whose protests led to a ratings dive for the NFL and a continuing rift forming between ownership and players. While this may not allow Kaepernick to resume his career as a pro quarterback, this gives the NFL yet another black eye in the public relations department. The NFL, from an image standpoint, has shot themselves in the foot for every toe they have. Between inconsistent application of player conduct policies, PR nightmares, wildly inconsistent sanctions on players (the Ray Rice flip flop, the Tom Brady #shrinkage suspension fought vociferously, etc.)... the scandals continue to stack up, with the only constant in that the NFL always looks worse at the end of each and every event. Speaking of which, that brings us to our final entry...
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was arrested for solicitation of a prostitute in Florida, one that was engaged a sex trafficking ring in multiple Sunshine State counties. The NFL is waiting to respond. Kraft has been one of the more influential owners in the league today, and certainly one of high profile because of the successes of his Patriots over his 25 year reign. And by many accounts, he has not been connected with anything controversial outside of his football dealings. That changed recently when authorities in Florida issued an arrest warrant on Kraft for paying for sexual services at a massage parlor on two occasions, one of them allegedly being on the morning of the AFC Championship game. While Kraft is not the first widower to reach out into the sex trade for particular purposes (and certainly will not be the last), the other component to this, being the establishment Kraft visited was a target in a multijurisdictional sting operation into a human trafficking ring, puts a sour taint onto this episode. Did Kraft know this at the time? Probably not. But in the eyes of some, he will forever be labeled as culpable in the illegal and reprehensible enterprise. Many legal experts have essentially agreed that the 76 year old Kraft will more than likely pay a significant fine and attend seminars explaining the truth and horrors of human trafficking. Which then begs the question: what does the NFL, specifically commissioner Robert Goodell, do to police their own? Goodell and his office has stated that no one is above the rules of the league. So what does the league and Goodell do? A fine is fairly meaningless to a billionaire. Suspension of interaction with his franchise? More than likely the Pats succession plan has already been implemented while Kraft sorts all this out. Revoke his membership as an NFL owner and force the Patriots to be sold? Not unless the league wants a protracted legal battle. There looks to be no happy medium in terms of sanctions: the ones currently available are either overwhelmingly inadequate or punitive beyond legal reason. Here is hoping that the women who were rescued by Florida law enforcement are able to put their lives back together. To the ringleaders, may justice be swift, decisive, and harsh for enslaving others (human sex trafficking is a euphemism for white slavery). And for Mr. Kraft, if you are the good man many have claimed you to be, may your conscience be proactive in finding redemption for this act, hopefully in the form of donating some of your vast resources toward efforts to stop this appalling practice and complying with the courts unequivocally in the legal punishment meted out for your actions. As far the NFL is concerned, this lifelong fan has no faith in that body's ability to hold anyone to account for their actions outside their realm. Whatever will be, will be.