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Peter King reflects on Bart Starr’s determination, NFL legacy

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In his last interview—and that is a stretch, really, because the “interview” was 23 courageous and arduous words long, and it lasted well over an hour—Bart Starr tried to accomplish his goal just as hard as he tried to burrow in for the biggest touchdown in the history of the Green Bay Packers in the Ice Bowl. Two strokes, a heart attack and a brain-scrambling disease called aphasia can make uttering 23 words like climbing Kilimanjaro. I know. I witnessed it, late last August in Starr’s office south of Birmingham, Ala.

The effort that day said so much about Starr the man. I had come to Birmingham to convey the level of the relationship between Rodgers, 34, and Starr, 84. Though they were a half-century apart in age, they had a bond. When Rodgers took over the Packer QB job in 2008, Starr wrote Rodgers a letter, and Starr kept writing him. Encouraging things. “It meant so much, coming from a man who had been in my shoes with this team,” Rodgers told me a few days later. “I was a big football fan, and big Packer fan. Here was Bart Starr, writing to me. It always meant a lot to me, because I knew I had the support of one of the greatest players of all time.”

Bart Starr died Sunday morning at 85. He was a great player, a Hall of Fame player, quarterbacking the Packers to the NFL championship in 1961, 1962 and 1965, and the larger Super Bowl championship in the 1966 and 1967 seasons. Pretty good for the 200th pick in the NFL draft in 1956, exactly 44 years before Tom Brady was the 199th pick in the draft.

You know what I really wanted to ask Starr that afternoon in Birmingham? You completed 14 of 24 throws in minus-46 wind chill in the Ice Bowl, against that great Dallas defense, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and a rating over 110. How? How’d you do it? But it wasn’t the place or the time; the memory bank just wasn’t there. But I did want him to know how good he was if no one reminded him about it much anymore—his 104.8 career rating in NFL playoff games has never been surpassed in the last half century by the greatest of the quarterback greats. But he didn’t care.

What he cared about that day was doing something nice for his friend. These 23 words were his Bob Lilly, his big foe.

I, and an NBC crew, had come to Birmingham, and would proceed to Green Bay a few days later to speak to Rodgers, for an NBC story on the warm relationship between the great Green Bay quarterback of the sixties and the great Green Bay quarterback of modern day. Starr and his personal assistant, Leigh Ann Nelson, had written a short note for this story. Starr would tell of his relationship with Rodgers. Nelson knew the message had to be short, because Starr simply didn’t have the ability to say much, at any volume, because of the strokes.

When Starr walked in, steadied by Nelson, he sat down on a couch and I told him how much I appreciated him making this effort.

He stared at me, opened his mouth. “Glad,” he said, and then it took a few seconds, “for Aaron.”

This was for Aaron. Anything for Aaron. Bart and Cherry Starr, his wife of 64 years, loved Aaron Rodgers.

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NFL fans apparently don’t want an 18-game regular season

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In the news this week, as the league gets back to business for the 100th season of American professional football:

• The owners and players meet Wednesday in another formal bargaining session for a new CBA. A three-day meeting is scheduled between the NFL’s Management Council and the NFLPA’s Executive Committee (a 10-player unit including president Eric Winston and VPs Richard ShermanBenjamin Watsonand Adam Vinatieri). This will be the fourth bargaining session between owners and players this spring/summer, with the hope being the two sides can reach an agreement on a new bargaining agreement in 2019. (The CBA has two more seasons to run, and expires in the spring of 2021.)

Commissioner Roger Goodell recently told CNBC that it is “certainly our intent” to try to get a new CBA before the start of the season. In a round of calls Saturday, I got some optimism from a team source who felt the chance of making a deal on a new CBA was 50-50 this year if the union would stick with the current economic formula of the game; currently players get about 47 percent of the game’s gross revenue.

But I talked to a source on the player side who wasn’t nearly as hopeful, in part because he felt the players need a bigger cut of the pie to agree to a new deal two seasons out from the end of the current CBA. This person called the first three meetings positive, but baby steps toward a deal. I do know that there have not been any significant discussions on a change in the revenue split yet. Those talks will have to progress for anything to get done.

• The 18-game schedule is nowhere near a reality. I heard that one or two teams are interested in what the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday the NFL has proposed discussing with the players as part of the CBA talks: an 18-game regular-season schedule, with each player eligible to play a maximum of 16 games. This is not a new idea—it’s been thrown around at league meetings as one idea to expand the inventory and enrich the league’s TV deals for years.

“I can’t see it,” one plugged-in club official told me. “Imagine you pay to see Tom Brady and the Patriots, and the Patriots announce that week it’s one of the two games he’ll sitting out this year. Now you’re seeing Brian Hoyer throw to some practice-squad guy. I don’t see any way we could ever do that.”

I’ve always thought in an era when the reduction of head trauma is job one in everything the league does, the only way the NFL could even consider 18 games is with teams playing players a maximum of 16 weeks. But the details make it too hard. How would a team divvy up the starts, say, for the starting offensive line? Would they figure the starting tackles should play every week with the starting quarterback, and thus doom the backup in his two games to a run-for-your-life offensive scheme?

The continued pursuit—or the continuing broaching—of an 18-game schedule is such a short-sighted and greedy thing. The NFL paid each team $275 million out of the league share of total revenue in 2018, and teams paid about $215 million annually in player costs (cap plus benefits). After that, teams can reap major raw profits over what they did in local team revenue.

Someone in the NFL seems determined to kill the most golden of geese by pursuing, even in a passing way, this stupid idea. Greed, in this case, is not good.

• Fans don’t want 18 games either. I put out a Twitter poll Saturday and Sunday, asking if readers preferred a 16 or 18-game schedule. Of 13,533 voters, 79 percent said 16. Great comment from a Vikings fan, Jason Altland: “If I pay out the nose for decent tickets in Baltimore or New York to see my Vikings, I want to see all the healthy stars play. I don’t want to pay and end up with a [Stefon] Diggs or {Adam] Thielen bye game.”

Pro Football Talk also polled its readers over the weekend about the 16/18-game idea, with more options than I offered … and 62 percent said they favored 16 games—with 8 percent saying they favored 18 with a maximum of 16 games per player per season.

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Why Melvin Gordon’s holdout with the Chargers could get ugly

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I think this Melvin Gordon-Chargers impasse could get ugly. The Chargers running back, entering his fifth season, could hold out from training camp into the season if he doesn’t get either a new contract or a significant raise from his $5.6-million salary in 2019. There’s a few reasons the holdout could last a while, starting with the fact that Chargers GM Tom Telesco, who grew up in the Bill Polian front office of the Colts, is not afraid to take a hard line. But mostly, it’s about what happens in recent years when teams have either paid runners or drawn a hard line with them. Examples:

• Le’Veon Bell balked at the Steelers’ offer of $14.5 million on the franchise tag last year. James Conner wasn’t quite as productive as vintage Bell—270 touches, 1,470 yards, 13 touchdowns—but he was close. And Conner, who made $754,572 last year, cost 1/19th of what Bell would have commended. No one in Pittsburgh is bemoaning the loss of Bell, though he’s a great player.

• Todd Gurley is a great back too, and the Rams paid a guaranteed $45 million last year. They’ll say they aren’t regretting what they paid Gurley, but an odd and persistent knee problem last year limited him to 88 carries in the Rams’ last nine games—including a 35-yard rushing performance in the Super Bowl. The Rams picked up C.J. Anderson off the street in December, and in five games, he rushed for 488 yards.

• David Johnson of the Cardinals responded to his new $13-million-a-year deal on the eve of the 2018 season by rushing for 940 yards (3.6 yards per carry).

• Devonta Freeman signed with Atlanta for $22 million guaranteed in 2017. He’s missed 16 of the Falcons’ last 32 regular-season games and averaged 58 yards per game in the 16 he’s played.

In 30 games over his two NFL seasons, Charger understudy Austin Ekeler has proven elusive and reliable, averaging 5.3 yards per rush and 10.3 yards per catch, with just two lost fumbles. I don’t think Telesco will be afraid to take the slings and arrows of a holdout. So if you’re drafting your fantasy team very early, I’d give a long look at Ekeler.

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