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Football Morning in America reader Hugh Royal shares NFL culture in small-town America

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Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Hugh Royal of Richfield, Idaho, who was selected out of a few hundred readers who submitted essays on why they wanted to be an FMIA guest columnist.

RICHFIELD, Idaho — I learned early in my work career about NFL fan extremism. As a production manager at the Avonmore Whey Plant in Idaho, I traveled for the job and once visited Wisconsin. The first night, I stayed at a local hotel with a lounge. I stopped for a beer before dinner. The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings were playing on TV, and the Pack was losing, and I made what was probably a disparaging comment about Green Bay. Every head turned toward me and gave me a look like, “Who the hell are you and do you want to live?” When I got back from dinner that night, the desk clerk stopped me. He was pointed. He suggested for my own good that tomorrow I move to another hotel. I couldn’t believe he was serious, but I did move the next day. And was VERY careful about what I said after that.

It’s not like that where I live. I live in Richfield, Idaho. Richfield is a town of about 400 in south-central Idaho. We have blue sky and can see all the stars at night. We can see nearby snow-capped mountains. We’re 50 miles northeast of Twin Falls, and about a two-hour drive southwest of Boise. Richfield was established as a railroad town in the late 1800s. The total population of Idaho is still under two million.

We like keeping Idaho a secret. I am sure I will get some mail calling me bad names for letting the world know what a gem Idaho is. We are much more than just potatoes. But we’re small, and we make no apologies for it. The Richfield High School Senior class numbered 11 students this year. Nine graduated. Out of the nine, eight are going to college. Once you leave the township, your nearest neighbor is usually a mile or more away. It is quiet. Real quiet.

We don’t really have an NFL home team in Richfield. It’s difficult to call a team a “home” team and take it to heart when the closest league market is nine-and-a-half hours away by car. Think of our geography: We’re 630 miles southeast of Seattle, 700 miles from both Denver and Oakland, 840 miles from Phoenix, and don’t even think about making a car trip to see the Vikings in Minneapolis. They’re 1,300 miles east of us, and Montana’s pretty wide.

So in Richfield, there are fans who pledge allegiance to Seattle, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Arizona, San Francisco, Denver, Green Bay, Dallas, and the L.A. Rams—a veritable potpourri of NFL fandom.

Much of NFL life in Richfield happens around the bar named the Little Wood Saloon. The official bar motto is: Where the beer is cold and the BS is free. The saloon was originally a hardware store built in the early 1900’s. The original ceiling, hardwood floor and some doors are still in place. There are pictures on the wall of cowboys and their activities. There is a chandelier from a Nevada whorehouse on the ceiling. There are no NFL team pennants on the wall, no autographed football pictures or helmets. Quite a few people in the bar, and those “interviewed” for this column, are related either by blood or by marriage. That’s just the way it is in a small town.

During the NFL season, after a Sunday or Monday night game, or after the Super Bowl, the economy does not improve or get worse. No one calls in sick, no fights occur, and a baby boom does not happen nine months later. The season schedule is on the wall and people use it to see when their team is playing. We don’t know what a Cover 2 is. We can probably tell the difference between a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense by watching the game, but we don’t try and identify it as such.

We don’t watch the draft. We do track trades. Some play fantasy football. I don’t think any of us have actually watched an NFL game on our phones.

We know when someone throws for 400 yards or runs for 200 yards. We know when upsets occur, especially if New England gets beat. But the NFL isn’t exactly an obsession in Richfield.

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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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