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NFL finally adjusted to the modern game with 2019 Hall of Fame class

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Moral of the story to the eight-man class for the 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame: We’re finally catching up to how the game of this new century is being played. In the last three classes, the Hall’s 48 selectors (I am one) have elected six defensive backs (safeties Kenny Easley, Brian Dawkins, Ed Reed, Johnny Robinson, and corners Ty Law and Champ Bailey) who have played in the modern era, which we define as post-1960. In the previous four classes, only one DB (Aeneas Williams) was enshrined. That’s progress … and I thought Denver safety Steve Atwater had a heck of a shot to make it after our discussions in the 7-hour, 41-minute meeting Saturday in downtown Atlanta.

It’s the first time in Hall history that a class has included four men who played the defensive backfield exclusively. I saw Williams, class of 2014, Sunday morning at my hotel, and asked him his reaction to the DB-heavy class of 2019. “You mean besides jumping up and down, celebrating?” he said. “I love it. It shows the recognition of what an arduous task it is to play in the defensive backfield, and how important it is to winning in modern football.”

Speaking of arduous tasks, this year’s election process was brutal. I thought at least 13 of the 15 modern-era candidates were excellent candidates. Takeaways from a long and rewarding day in the voting room at the Georgia World Congress Center:

• The offensive line logjam got busted up. As a group, I got the sense that we went into the room trying to get in at least one of the four deserving offensive lineman (Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca, Steve Hutchinson, Kevin Mawae), and I hoped they wouldn’t all cannibalize each other. Mawae made it—confirming the respect the committee has for all-decade players; he was the first-team all-decade center for the 2000s, and each of the previous four first-team all-decade centers had previously been elected. An ironman, he played every game in 12 of his 16 seasons, and he was a Pro Bowler at 37 and 38. I do think Boselli will make it, despite playing only 97 games (recent inductees Kenny Easley and Terrell Davis played fewer), and I also think it’s a matter of time for Faneca and Hutchinson. No zits on their records.

• Just a guess, but I think Law edged Atwater. Both players have Hall of Fame résumés. I feel for Atwater, who failed in his 15th year of eligibility but had tremendous support in the room. It was Law’s fifth year eligible, and I think his big plays in huge games in the early Patriots dynasty (his 47-yard pick-six in the first New England Super Bowl win, over St. Louis, and his three interceptions of Peyton Manning in the AFC title game prior to the second Super Bowl win) propelled him. We are not privy to vote counts, but I bet Atwater was quite close to Law.

• Tony Gonzalez and Ed Reed, as suspected, were easy. Combined time of discussion for Reed and Gonzalez: eight minutes.

• Rick Gosselin is a big impact player in the progress of defensive players. You may not know Gosselin, a longtime sports columnist, NFL writer and Hall of Fame voter based in Dallas. But for years, he’s kept exacting statistics about the Hall, and he’s harped on the imbalance between offense and defense in Canton. He was thrilled Saturday night that the defensive numbers of modern-era candidates have now crept up over 40 percent. (There have been 236 modern-era players enshrined, 138 on offense, 95 on defense and three on special teams … which continues to shrink the offensive edge. Now it’s 58.5 percent offense and 40.2 percent defense. That includes 30 defensive backs now and 27 wide receivers. Kudos to Gosselin for harping on this, and making us keep it in mind as we vote. We can’t discuss outside the room what is said inside the room, but suffice to say Gosselin was superb in the case of Seniors candidate Johnny Robinson—who became only the third AFL-era defensive back to make the Hall.

• Love fest for Gil Brandt. I wasn’t positive Brandt would make it; as a Contributors subcommittee nominee, he wasn’t competing against the 15 modern era candidates, but rather needed a simple 80 percent of the room (at least 38 of 48 voters) to say yes for him to make it. This was the one time I felt, sitting there listening to the Brandt discussions, “I wish someone was recording this and could play it for Brandt, just to realize the impact he’s has on so many aspects of football.” To me, Brandt has spanned 75 percent of the NFL’s 99-year history: He got his first job in football, a part-time scouting job with the Rams, in 1955 at the urging of Rams star Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, who knew Brandt from shared acquaintances in their Wisconsin home area. Hirsch was a first-round NFL pick in 1945, a Hall of Famer who got Brandt his start in scouting/writing/combine-czaring/radio-hosting, a career now entering its 64th year.

• On Tom Flores. Lots of online queries from Tom Flores fans. A few things: The two Super Bowl victories are a major plus in his candidacy and could get him enshrined one day. But I think he’s hurt by his three-year record in Seattle (14-34) and the perception that he was a caretaker with the Raiders, took over a team that was 33-11 in the three seasons preceding him—and did an excellent job piloting a ship between Oakland and Los Angeles, but that it wasn’t enough, particularly with the strong modern-era class he was competing against. The Hall may consider a separate coaches category at some point, which also could help Flores.

• My ballots. The voting system works this way: We vote yes or no on Seniors and Contributors candidates. I voted yes on Pat Bowlen, Gil Brandt and Johnny Robinson. On the 15 modern-era candidates, we first cut to 10 by secret ballot. Then the top 10 is tabulated, and we cut to five by secret ballot. Then the top five are tabulated, and we vote yes or no in secret on each of the five, one by one. My cut to 10: Atwater, Bailey, Boselli, Faneca, Gonzalez, Edgerrin James, Law, John Lynch, Mawae, Reed. My cut to five: Atwater, Bailey, Gonzalez, Law, Reed. I voted yes on all five of the finalists.

Why Texans need to trade for Redskins’ Trent Williams now

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Three Things I Think

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Three quick thoughts:

1. I think my everlasting memory of this trip will be watching J.J. Watt steam in from Aaron Rodgers’ left side on a live pass-rush drill (well, full-speed, but no hitting the quarterback in a camp practice) in the Texans-Packers joint practices. He jousted with left tackle David Bakhtiari, dipped to the outside, got half a step on the left tackle, and sprinted at Rodgers. Watt meant it. As did Rodgers, who sprinted up the right side and evaded Watt. First time Watt ever stepped foot in Wisconsin to play pro football (though a practice), and he got emotional about it, and it meant a lot to him. Two Hall of Fame players going at it on a Monday morning in northeast Wisconsin. Loved it.

2. I think the Texans need to trade for Washington left tackle Trent Williams, who is unhappy in Washington and threatening to not play this year. Houston’s time is now. Watt turns 30 this year. So much of this team is in its prime. They could get three or four more years out of Williams, who turns 31 next Monday, and he’d strengthen the only true weak point of this team.

3. I think I marvel at DeAndre Hopkins and found it compelling to just watch him practice in Green Bay. He even dropped a pass over the middle. Consider that last year he became the first receiver since drop stats were kept—at least 13 years—to catch at least 110 balls without a drop. “Why do you think people don’t really know that?” he asked me after practice, a bit annoyed. I don’t know, but I do know Hopkins is the best wideout in football by almost any measure. “There are games, like against Philly last year, when he gets his jersey ripped off,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “Teams are so physical with him. What makes him special is so many plays are contested. People are draped on him, and he comes down with it.” With wideout injuries last year, Houston saw a weird three-man coverage at times on Hopkins, “cut coverage,” O’Brien called it, with a linebacker undercutting him near the line of scrimmage before he would get out in the open field and face two cover guys. I asked Hopkins how he worked on his hands as a kid. Jerry Rice tossed and caught bricks with his dad, a mason. Hopkins: “This is something I haven’t told many people, because it’s embarrassing,” he said. “We always used to catch flies with our hands. I was the only one who could catch ‘em. One-handed, two-handed. I actually studied flies. I’d watch ‘em. How do you catch flies? They fly up. If I can catch that, I can catch anything.”

Why Antonio Brown is crazy to fight NFL over helmet issue

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Regarding the Mike Silver/Adam Schefter-reported stories Friday about the melodrama surrounding the Oakland receiver—or, I should say, the receiver employed by Oakland who is not currently playing for Oakland—the overriding thought I have is a simple one. The NFL and the NFLPA have teamed up to research helmet safety and helmet technology through exhaustive, independent studies since 2016. All players were told in 2017 they’d have to wear new helmets—league and union-approved—by 2018, with a one-year grandfather period pushing the absolute deadline to don correct helmets to 2019. I did a podcast about the helmet in May, and over the previous seven months talked to 14 players about the helmet issue. Several of the players weren’t crazy about making the change, including 49ers tackle Joe Staley, who’d worn the same model of helmet for 15 years (though it had been updated at least once) and admitted to me he would not have changed unless forced.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Staley told me last fall, “and I think I’m a perfect case study of why it needs to be done. I wouldn’t have changed my helmet unless they made these rules changes.”

For Brown to be fighting this is just crazy. According to Schefter, Brown had a two-hour grievance hearing Friday with an independent arbitrator, arguing that he should be able to wear a helmet he has been wearing for more than 10 years. (That, in itself, makes the helmet illegal; the NFL mandates that helmets worn for at least 10 years be replaced, regardless of their condition.)

There isn’t much the league and players union agree on without reservation, but the current helmet protocol, the outgrowth of a $60-million investment by NFL owners in 2016 to improve helmet technology and reduce head trauma in players, is one of those things. If Brown wins, he would be the lone player out of 2,016 active and practice-squad players in the NFL this season who would be wearing a helmet—the Schutt Air Advantage, in his case—not approved for use by NFL and NFLPA testers. And this helmet is so old that it’s not even been tested by the league and the union. I’m told unquestionably it would fail any test for helmet safety, as would virtually any helmet not made in the last four or five years.

A few other thoughts on this nutty story:

• Brown has to grow up, or he’s got to get some help. Someone in his life, if anyone has a scintilla of influence over him (and that is in doubt), needs to say to him: The Raiders could void your contract for this behavior, and you’d be out $30.1 million in guaranteed money, and what team would pay you even a fraction of that after? You walked out on the Steelers and then turned into a child on the Raiders and boycotted them too—in the span of nine months!

• The Steelers have to be the happiest team in the league right now. They don’t have a great player, but they do have a sane, undivided training camp.

Jon Gruden has to defend Brown, which he did Saturday night after the Raiders’ preseason win over the Rams. But anyone who knows Gruden knows he’s got to be frustrated over his best offensive weapon being disabled because of the freaky frostbite injury and fuming at Brown being AWOL because the NFL is trying to make football safer for him.

• To be a fly on GM Mike Mayock’s wall. He’s a football purist, and his first season piloting a storied franchise might be sent over a cliff by the weirdest controversy in years that has incredibly little to do with real football.

• Mike Silver’s 20-tweet thread detailing the Brown story Friday was exquisite. Best football thread I’ve seen, full of rich detail and information about the dysfunctional Brown/Raiders/helmet thing. What was great about Silver’s long social screed: It was essentially an 800-word news story, broken in real time on Twitter instead of being broken on NFL.com with a Twitter link to the story. Whatever the reason for doing it that way (NFL.com I’m sure now regrets the loss of traffic on a heavily read story), I found it easy to digest just by scrolling up on my phone. Silver had the helmet stuff solid, and this piece of information that can’t go on in team meetings: “Brown, according to witnesses, typically glances at the screens of several tablets and his smart phone during meetings, distracting himself by engaging in activities which include perusing his bank accounts and ‘liking’ photos on Instagram.” Social media is still the Wild West, but Silver showed you can break news with a story broken into 20 easy bites.

• “Hard Knocks” is either going to show a slice of this Brown story this week, with some real video and team reaction, or it’s Pravda. And I know Ken Rodgers of NFL Films, the curator of this show. He will want to show the real story, very much.

I’ve been around a lot of crazy stories in the NFL in my 35 years covering the league. But the last nine months in the life of Antonio Brown is right up there.


One more thing from Kearse: “The NFL changed the rules to prevent more head injuries and more head contact. But at the end of the day it’s a full-contact sport and guys are kind of making quick decisions, and you want to be able to have a product that’s going to be able to protect you. I think the NFL wants this league to last. They’re going to have to continue to keep digging deeper to improve. It’s an uncontrolled environment where things can happen and for me personally, I want to have the best protecting me out there.”

Someone’s got to get to Brown, and fast.