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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Revisiting Saints trading entire draft for Ricky Williams and the deals that almost happened

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“Twenty years ago—that’s crazy,” the Washington coach at the time, Norv Turner, said Friday. As was the deal. At the time, so much about it was revolutionary. The noted draft-value trade chart, invented by the Cowboys a few years earlier, had the Saints trading away 4,441 points of draft value in exchange for 1,700 points—the value of the fifth overall pick. “When the coaches were told about it that day,” Turner said, “we looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t real. You gotta do that.’ “ And GM Charley Casserly, negotiating with Saints GM Billy Kuharich, agreed to it eagerly.

Ditka was smitten with Williams after his 2,124-yard, 27-TD senior year at Texas, and he proclaimed at the league meetings a month before the draft that he’d trade his entire draft for Williams. “Put us in line,” Casserly told Kuharich. Except New Orleans didn’t have a second-round pick that year. So Casserly said he’d have to have a first and third in 2000 to make up for the lack of a second-rounder. The Saints did it. (Man, why not ask for Ditka’s first-born too?) “A generational trade,” Casserly called it.

From the moment the deal happened, there were problems. Big problems. Williams was intensely shy. The Saints flew him to New Orleans for a post-draft press conference. On the plane, he was given a Saints cap to wear. “I’m not wearing that,” Williams said. He was told he’d be doing the press conference from a podium. “I’m not doing that,” he said.

Uh-oh.

When the dreadlocked Williams got to the Saints offices, Ditka greeted him wearing a wig with dreadlocks, and a flowered shirt and shorts. Williams did the press conference, standing to the side of the podium, not behind it. There was a fan fest with maybe 5,000 fans there on the property, fans going crazy because they got the best player in college football, and they chanted for Williams. Someone with Williams that day said, “Ricky looked around, and he was in shock. This was not what he thought the NFL would be. The look on his face was, ‘What the f— is this?’ “

Ricky-mania was in full swing. Williams dressed in a wedding gown and Ditka in a wedding tux, and they posed as bride and groom for an August 1999 cover of ESPN The Magazine. Heaven knows why Williams did that, but the season started bad and got worse. Williams’ shyness bordered on the weird. I went into New Orleans to interview him, and though pleasant enough, he insisted on doing the interview with his helmet on, with the dark shield covering his face. The Saints went 3-13, and Ditka was fired.

Williams lasted three seasons with the Saints before being traded to Miami in 2002. Other than helping New Orleans win a division title in 2000, Williams’ tenure in New Orleans was more circus than football. I texted Ditka on Friday and would have loved to speak with him about the trade and the weird year, but he didn’t get back to me.

“Oh my God,” his assistant head coach, Rick Venturi, said the other day. “That trade was a sugar rush for the franchise. We were at a low ebb. Everyone makes fun of the deal, because we gave up the farm to get Ricky, but we really trusted Mike. He’d won before, and he gave us faith we’d win with him.”

Postscript I: The Bengals, picking third, had a chance to make the same deal Washington made. Eight picks to move from three to 12 with New Orleans. Nope, the Bengals said. We’re staying. We’re picking the guy we want badly. Akili Smith.

Postscript II: Casserly thought he had a deal with Chicago, picking seventh, to move from 12 to seven if the player Washington wanted was available. That player: Champ Bailey. So after the deal with the Saints went through, Casserly called the Bears back, ready to move up five slots in exchange for third, fourth and fifth-round picks. “We had a deal, but they upped the ante on me when I called back,” he said. The Bears wanted Washington’s third-rounder in 2000, or there’d be no deal. Casserly, fuming, took a deep breath and agreed to the ransom. “If you really want the player, you’ve got to take a step back and take the emotion out of it,” he said. Washington got Bailey at seven.

Postscript III: I didn’t ask Casserly if he got any satisfaction from the quarterback Chicago took to be its long-term QB solution at 12—Cade McNown, who won three games in two years for the Bears. McNown was a disaster, and was out of football after two seasons.

Postscript IV: Casserly’s reward for getting those eight picks and maneuvering to pick up Bailey, and following that with Washington winning the NFC East? He got fired at the end of the year after new owner Dan Snyder took over.

Postscript V: Bailey lasted only five years in Washington before a contract dispute prompted the team to trade him to Denver for Clinton Portis. Bailey played 10 of his 15 seasons in a 15-year career for Denver. After being elected to the Hall last February, Bailey got a call from Casserly. “You realize I never would have traded you,” Casserly said.

Postscript VI: Williams had a good NFL career, in between missing two years for a “retirement” and a marijuana suspension. He finished with 10,009 rushing yards in 11 seasons, 31st on the all-time rushing list. Interesting who is 32nd: Clinton Portis.

They don’t make trades like they used to. 

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It’s now or never for Seahawks to sign Russell Wilson to long-term deal

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I don’t think signing a boilerplate contract averaging $34 million a year—something Wilson never could have dreamed possible when he was the 75th player picked in the 2012 draft—will be enough for him, and for his representative, Mark Rodgers, a baseball agent with one football client, Wilson. I think Wilson actually would be content playing out his current contract and then working under the franchise tag for the next two seasons rather than taking a typical mega-millions contract. Playing year-to-year, Wilson would average $27.8 million a year over the next three years, rather than a solid $34 million a year over five or six.

That seems ridiculous. There’s a few reasons why it’s not.

But first, this deadline agent Rodgers has given Seattle. Today’s a big day in the Pacific Northwest if you take Wilson and Rodgers at their word, that—according to a source close to the talks—they say they won’t do a long-term deal with the Seahawks if it’s not done by tonight. Read that last sentence again. I didn’t mean they’d put off further talks on a new contract till 2020 if it’s not done by tonight. I meant Wilson and Rodgers don’t plan to negotiate further with the Seahawks, period. My source says they’ve told GM John Schneider it has to be done now, or not at all.

That’s why, with this being what Wilson likely believes is his last chance to get a truly market deal in Seattle, I would be shocked if he leaves this all to Rodgers, regardless how much he trusts his agent. Wilson’s an activist. I would bet he wants Schneider and/or Carroll to hear from him directly about why he wants to get this deal done now, and he wants to get it done differently than other quarterback deals have been done. I’ve known Wilson since training camp of his rookie year, and he’s one of the ultimate hands-on players I’ve met. He has never struck me as the type to hand a job this big to his agent and say, Good luck. Call me when it’s done.

If it does get done, my source says the contract would likely include devices to adjust future years of the deal based on how high the cap goes up year to year, or based on new revenue streams (gambling revenue, for example, or a TV contract that explodes). If it is not done, it means the Seahawks have determined Wilson isn’t worth setting such a precedent. (No NFL player’s contract fluctuates based on cap increases or increases in the league’s bottom line unknown at the time of signing.) That would be understandable, but would it be the right call for the Seahawks? It could be a potentially career-altering risk for Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

Of course, there’s no real reason why a deal couldn’t be done July 15 or Dec. 15 either. But waiting would be calling Wilson’s bluff. Maybe you win, maybe you lose. It’s a risk. Normally, talking about hard negotiations, I’d say big deal. Quarterbacks—all except Kirk Cousins—might play a year on the franchise tag, but they eventually sign long-term and stay with their teams. I think there’s a good chance Wilson could be different.

Like Cousins was, Wilson is not afraid to play year-to-year: this year at $17 million, and then as many as two years on the franchise tag, at $30.3 million in 2020 and $36.4 million in 2021. If the Seahawks chose to franchise Wilson a third time, the cost would rise to $52.4 million for 2022. Which would be a very difficult one-year salary for any team to digest, unless the cap skyrockets in 2021, when a new CBA is due to take effect.

Most players want the assurance of guaranteed money and long-term security. They’ll take significant guaranteed money in exchange for fighting for what Cousins got (a fully guaranteed three-year, $84-million contract) or what Wilson presumably wants (a fluctuating contract, based on the league’s future success). But from what I hear, Wilson and Rodgers feel the league could be on the precipice of major new revenue streams. Recently, Bills co-owner Kim Pegula said she wanted to have the opportunity to provide sports betting inside their stadium. What might the NFL’s take on in-stadium gambling be, and how would that be divided with the players? Could Facebook or some digital brand bid an unheard-of sum for the rights to part of the TV deal in 2022?

Because the game is so injurious, you don’t see many players going year-to-year. But Wilson’s durability is a big part of his football appeal. Since the day Wilson was drafted in 2012, the Seahawks have played 125 regular-season and postseason games. Wilson has started them all. Last year, he was the only NFL quarterback to take every offensive snap for his team. In the last two years, he has played 2,186 of Seattle’s 2,191 offensive snaps. That could change in an instant, of course. But Wilson is fine gambling on himself, and on his durability.

For those who would not put Wilson in the same stratum as Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Drew Brees, it’s understandable. But Wilson is the second-highest-rated quarterback in history (100.3). He has 83 career wins, regular-season and postseason, in seven years, an average of 11.8 a year.

Schneider, of course, has to worry about 53 players, not just one. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is due to hit free agency after this season, and he’s had the kind of career that one day will merit Hall of Fame consideration. If Wilson, the offensive leader, gets a precedent-setting contract, then what of the unquestioned leader of the defense, Wagner? He certainly wouldn’t get quarterback money, but Wagner might want to push for the kind of financial incentives Wilson gets.

A few other things, counter to the current rumor mill. I do not believe Wilson is pushing for a trade right now, to the Giants, or anywhere. I believe he wants to work out a deal with Seattle. I believe Wilson wants to know where he stands with the Seahawks long-term, which is one of the reasons why he is pushing hard for a deal to be done now. I believe if the Seahawks do not do a deal by midnight tonight, it doesn’t meant they don’t want Wilson to be their quarterback for the next decade—it just means they’re not willing to set a contractual precedent like tying his contract to how fast, and how high, the cap rises over the life of the deal.

Pragmatically, if I’m Wilson, everyone around the league views me as an Eagle Scout type, and as long as I step on the field, I’ve got to be all-in, and a team guy all the way. That is the only way he can maximize his value long-term, and perhaps post-Seahawks. And if I’m the Seahawks, I know the kind of person I have in Wilson, so maybe I feel: Let’s go year-to-year over the next three years, for reasonable money for a franchise quarterback, and hope at some point in those three years there’s a thaw and we can re-visit this contract.

Whatever happens, this is a dramatic day in Seattle. I don’t know which way it’ll go, but I don’t think it’s time to shred the “3” jerseys yet. Gut feeling: At the very least Wilson plays in Seattle three more years. And a lot can happen in those three years.

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