Why does Roger Goodell continue to ignore the mess from Rams-Saints?

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Hard to know where to start when discussing the eight-day-old officiating decision heard-round-the-NFL that played a major role in the Rams winning the NFC title game. I think we should start at silence … silence from the NFL, and from commissioner Roger Goodell, and (mostly) from vice president for officiating Al Riveron.

It is disconcerting that Goodell, who entered the league as a PR intern three-and-a-half decades ago, has been so weak-kneed in hiding from the onslaught of this controversy. It started with an obvious pass interference infraction that went uncalled in the Superdome eight days ago, advanced to the chambers of the U.S. Senate on Friday, and will dog Goodell till he acknowledges the momentous error, presumably at his state-of-the-league press conference Wednesday.

Goodell has a new high-powered PR team around him, but he’s never been one to take much advice in how to respond to public crises. That frustrated some of his now departed PR appointees, who found that he listened to their advice but usually did what he wanted regardless. But what seems so tone-deaf and arrogant about ignoring the no-call in New Orleans is … well, let me enumerate:

• It flies in the face of what the NFL has done for years. Searching the internet Friday, I found 15 occasions (I bet it’s closer to 30) since 2003 that the NFL admitted an officiating error publicly—either in a statement, or on the league’s in-house NFL Network, or on Twitter. The NFL has not commented publicly since Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams slammed into Saints wideout Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived with 1:43 left in a tied NFC title game at the L.A. 6-yard line. The Saints, had the obvious infraction been flagged, could have run the clock down to about 20 to 25 seconds, kicked the go-ahead chip-shot field goal, then kicked off to the Rams, who had no timeouts left. Suffice to say that it’s more likely than not that the Saints would have won the game. After the game, Saints coach Sean Payton said Riveron admitted the mistake to him over the phone. But that’s all we’ve heard about the most important officiating mistake in years.

It’s so different from recent history. The league’s three officiating czars in the last 16 years—Mike Pereira, Dean Blandino and Riveron—have publicly admitted errors large and small and often have apologized for them, including a huge missed defensive pass-interference error at the end of the 49ers’ 39-38 wild-card win over the Giants in January 2003. “The game [should] have been extended by one untimed down,” a league statement said. Take it all the way to last month, when Riveron admitted the officials blew a Bobby Wagner illegal leap to block a Vikings field goal in Seattle. “This is a foul,” Riveron said. But now, nothing. The sounds of silence, disgracefully, on the worst missed call in the league in years. The message: The NFL will admit mistake after mistake after mistake, significant ones, but when it comes to a colossal gaffe, league officials will hide in their Park Avenue fortress.

• What good would it do? Not much. But in a league that asks for the public trust and holds itself up as a sporting model of propriety, it’s called doing the right thing. It’s a simple public statement Goodell could issue; he should make it, because the buck stops with him. Or he could do it on camera with someone like Judy Battista or Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. He could deliver a simple message:

We appreciate the passion of the Saints and their fans, who are some of the best fans in the league. We’re lucky to have them. There was a mistake made by our officials at the end of the NFC Championship Game at a crucial point of the game, and it’s a mistake we don‘t take lightly. We regret the error. We know that doesn’t fix the mistake. But we want fans of the Saints and fans of our league to know we’ll work hard to improve our officiating. This takes nothing away from the efforts of the Los Angeles Rams, who deserve the victory and will be worthy representatives of the NFC in the Super Bowl. We’re now going to re-double our efforts to make sure we close the loophole that allowed this to happen. All options are on the table for improving officiating, and our Competition Committee will work immediately to figure out the best way to help our officials be even better in 2019 and beyond.”

• It’s totally disrespectful to fans—in Louisiana and across the country—to ignore the story. Let’s now count how many places Goodell must need extra security—if he even shows his face in public there. New England. St. Louis. San Diego. Oakland. Louisiana. Anywhere the draft is held. As for the Saints: It’s hard to go to New Orleans and not be wowed by the passion of the fans. When a third of the metro area population went away following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the fans of a bad Saints team responded by selling out the Superdome for 2006—and every year since. I go to all the cities and see all the teams. I can tell you there is no place more passionate than Louisiana about its team. They’re hurting. They’re angry. They’re despondent. What do they get from the NFL? The back of its hand.

I spoke to retiring Saints tight end Benjamin Watson the same day he issued his impassioned where-is-Roger statement. He echoed it to me, pretty much. “This an imperfect game, coached by imperfect people, played by imperfect people, reffed by imperfect people,” Watson said. “This is simply a case where one of those imperfect people made a huge mistake and impacted a team and a city and a lot of passionate fans. The commissioner should say something. This is an NFL franchise. These are some of your most passionate fans. This is not a franchise on the fringe, or an expansion franchise. For him to sit there and not say anything, for him to be silent, is disheartening for the fans. Not just for Saints fans but football fans. They want to know the game is not rigged. Plus, it is disrespectful to the men in both locker rooms, who deserve the truth. Instead, all we get is silence.”

• The league’s valuation of the vice president of officiating position is dumb, and should be re-thought, even if it means Riveron goes. Football Zebras, the NFL officiating watchdog site, estimates that the officiating VP post a salary of about $350,000 a year. From Labor Day to early February, a span of more than five months, the job is the second-most important in pro football administration, behind one person—Goodell. It is beyond ridiculous that the second-most important guy in the league office for the season, the face of the league in many weeks, makes 1 percent of Roger Goodell’s annual compensation.

Let’s say the NFL moves to strengthen the internal operations of officiating. Let’s say they begin to pay this job for what the headaches and brickbats and cover-the-NFL’s-rear part of the job are worth. My recommendation: Call Blandino and his employer, network partner FOX, and see if a signing bonus of $1 million and annual salary of $1 million could convince him to jump back to the league, where he is missed. Convince FOX it’s for the good of the game. (Blandino recently said he’ll stay in television, but I’d like to see what he’d do if offered $2 million for his services in 2019.) Keep Riveron, if he’ll stay, as Blandino’s number two, which he used to be.

One last thing: Put everything on the table for discussion at the league’s March meeting in Phoenix, but decide nothing. Give it the proper consideration. Then convene a week-long post-draft power meeting in New York with the Competition Committee and other influential league pillars, like Belichick. Put everything on the table. Bring in John Madden, Ozzie Newsome, Ed Hochuli and the respected idea people to figure out the best way to proceed on new officiating strictures.

With most every significant league figure in Atlanta for at least part of this week, this should be the start of an idea period. I’ll share one that I got from an active NFL coach last week, in a text. “Rules need to be changed for the playoffs,” the coach wrote. “Coaches need to have more challenge and be able to challenge more types of calls, like P.I. It’s too important to say, ‘Well, we’ve never done that before.’ It’s the playoffs. All that matters is we get it right!”

Well put.

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Why the New York Jets deserve the controversy, dysfunction surrounding them

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1. I think the Jets architecture job is not the one to take if you want to run a franchise, Peyton Manning. To be charitable, the Jets are not close to contention.

2. I think I won’t be the first to use this rationale for my opinion about what happened when Mike Maccagnan got dismissed the other day as Jets GM, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me: The Jets truly deserve this controversy. A few points:

• I have no sympathy for Maccagnan, who lorded over a 14-35 team since New Year’s Day 2016. Only Cleveland and San Francisco have won fewer games since then. But by my math, Maccagnan just spent $235 million in free agency this offseason, a gargantuan sum. He just had the keys to the draft and, apparently with minimal input from the head coach, made Quinnen Williams the third overall pick in the draft. He was fired 19 days after the draft. What owner in his right mind allows a GM he figures he may well fire run a crucial off-season? Christopher Johnson, that’s who.

• Adam Gase is going to have a major say on who becomes the next GM of the Jets. Gase was 23-26 in his three-year stint coaching the Dolphins, and, though the quarterback position was plagued by injuries while he was there, he’s supposed to be a quarterback guru, and the Dolphins, again, are starting from scratch at the position after firing Gase four-and-a-half months ago. I like Gase well enough. But what exactly has he done, first, to earn a head-coaching job after his three years in Miami … and, second, to play a significant role in picking the architect of the new Jets?

• I assume the reports of Gase not wanting Le’Veon Bell for $13.5 million a year are true. (I don’t blame him.) But the leaks in that building are never-ending, and in this case, the leaks could drive a wedge between a guy who doesn’t seem very happy to be a Jet in the first place, Bell, and the guy who’s going to be calling his number this fall. Gase better figure a way to tamp that down. I don’t know if he can.

• How do you have faith in the Jets to get this GM thing right now? And what smart GM-candidate type (Joe Douglas or Louis Riddick or Daniel Jeremiah) would want to take his one shot—because most GMs get one shot at running a team—working for Christopher Johnson?

• If I were Mike Greenberg, I’d be burying my head in my hands this morning, wondering why oh why did I get stuck loving this franchise? How can season-ticket-holders send in their money this year thinking they’re going to see the turnaround season of a team that’s won 5, 5, and 4 games the past three years?

• Sam Darnold doesn’t coach.

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The lessons Chris Long learned from playing with Patriots, Eagles, Rams

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Chris Long, who retired over the weekend after an 11-year NFL career that ended with two Super Bowl rings (in 2016 with New England and 2017 with Philadelphia), and an NFL Man of the Year Award (in 2018) for his work in U.S. social justice and building fresh-water wells for thousands in Africa, on the lessons he takes with him into retirement:

“I learned to never make a decision based on just one thing. The decision to retire was complicated. It was based on health, which is still very good, and family, we have two small children, and football fit, which includes a chance to win and my role and geography. Philadelphia is where I wanted to play a couple more years. I love Philadelphia. But as a player I learned the most important thing to me is Sunday, and having a chance to be a big part of it. It seemed like player-coach was kind of the role that was going to be carved out for me—maybe playing 10, 12, 15 plays a game. I’m a rhythm player. I need to set people up, I need to be in the flow of the game. If I sit on the bench for three series, I can’t get rhythm, and I’ll get cold and maybe I’ll hurt myself. Some people think that’s great—play less and you won’t get hurt. Man, I want to play ball. In Philadelphia, it didn’t seem there was much of a chance to compete there. But they were honest with me the whole time. I appreciate the honesty. I’ll always love Philadelphia and the Eagles, but I didn’t want Week 4, 5, to come around and people think, Whoa, where’s Chris? Did Chris retire? I’d rather do it this way than just fade out. And I didn’t want to start over again across the country somewhere.

“I learned so much in my career. Getting drafted second overall, and going to St. Louis, and the fact that we were losing, I just thought, I am not gonna fold. I am not a loser. I am gonna be a bright spot. I am gonna give these fans, who I deeply appreciate for their dedication, the respect they deserve . Anyone playing in that era in St. Louis knows how bad it was at times. It was carnage, in so many ways. It was a test of my will. Do I get irritated by the no-Pro Bowl thing, never making a Pro Bowl? Yeah, I do. Fifty sacks in the first six years, with no one watching, on a bad team. I just felt the narrative should be, That kid panned out. But that’s okay—it was a labor of love. I have zero regrets.

“In New England, I learned so much about football. I always thought I was a smart player, even though I never thought about anything but the six inches in front of my face. In New England, I was forced to learn so many schematic concepts. In my career playing football, nobody asked me to do as much as Bill Belichick did. I might be 3-technique, or a linebacker, or a linebacker dropping into coverage more than ever, or playing inside more than ever. I’ll always remember how much I learned watching Bill in practice. He can coach any position as good as any position coach in league. He can walk around the field and stop drills and coach each position—at the highest level. And the quality of the dudes. Solid men. The right kind of people.

“Tom Brady blew me away. Who’s the most famous athlete of our generation: Tom Brady? LeBron? Messi? Ronaldo? Serena Williams? Maybe I haven’t been around enough to know how the biggest stars really act. But Brady is a normal guy. When I got there, here comes Tom. ‘Hey Chris, I’m Tom, nice to meet you.’ Well, yeah, I know you’re Tom. A lot of people want to hate him for all the success, and I understand how you can dislike the Patriots, but I cannot understand how you can dislike Tom.

“That Super Bowl against Atlanta … when we were way behind, I’m thinking, ‘I waited my whole life to be here, and this is a nightmare. This is the worst nightmare I have ever had.’ If we lost that night, I very possibly would have retired a bitter man. But winning it breathed life into me.

“Going to Philadelphia, I felt I found a home. Best sports city in America. But how different my situation was. I went from team captain with the Rams two years before that to winning the Super Bowl in New England to starting on the bottom in Philly. I was an average Joe. I was challenged. I learned how much being a team, being together, really means. We were a case study for whatever you believe. Either we were an anomaly or we proved you could do good things and win in pro sports. We happened to have guys who were good players who cared. I remember winning a Monday Night Football game, falling asleep at 4 or 5 o’clock, and waking up for a train to Harrisburg to work with state legislators on policies. It just showed how much we could make changes in things that matter, and play really good football too. You can be a football player and a citizen. It’s gratifying when young players come up and say they’re inspired to do more because of things that Malcolm Jenkins or Torrey Smith have done, or me.

“I’ve always tried to be me first and a football player second. When I came into football, I didn’t want to be this piece of wreckage who couldn’t move or have a normal life. But I learned you can’t predict the future. I thought I’d play eight years. I thought I’d retire at 30. But I played 11, and now I’m 34.

“NFL Man of the Year … I never felt deserving of it. I am not the best person in the NFL. I never want to get up there promoting myself as some infallible person. I was very honored. But I was also conflicted that people saw me as this community service guy, not a player. Nobody saw me as the player I was in my prime. I don’t want to be known as Community Service Guy; I want to be known as a guy who busted his ass for 11 years at his craft. But I do appreciate the fact that people saw that I played for free for one year, that I was part of a group that built 61 wells for people to get fresh water in Africa, and that we’ve got 220,000 people drinking from our wells. I will not downplay that stuff. But I am not some angel, believe me. I don’t have a brand. My brand is me.

“Retirement is interesting. It is something I feared for a long time. It is an existential crisis. I’ve been doing something since high school, working toward a goal. I fantasize about crossing the threshold, but at the same time it’s something you can be deathly afraid of.

“I am excited about the next phase of life. I’m launching a digital media company. I will have my own pod. I’m just excited about being able to control the narrative. I like to create. Maybe I’ll work at a network. Whatever I do, I’ll be me.”

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