At 27, Stills is in his seventh NFL season on his third NFL team—he was drafted by the Saints, traded to Miami in 2015 and then traded with Laremy Tunsil to Houston the week before this season began. Through it all, he’s averaged an impressive 16.0 yards per catch and missed only three games due to injury (including Sunday, when he sat with a bad hamstring and ankle.) As the feature guest on “The Peter King Podcast” this week, Stills talked football and social activism, his off-season trips to work on social-justice issues … and why, two years after the Colin Kaepernick blowup, he’s still taking a knee during the national anthem before every game he plays. One of Stills’ offseason habits: taking a driving trip through parts of the country he doesn’t know well, to see what people are going through today. One of the trips took near his first NFL team, in Louisiana.
“Being in Louisiana, and going to juvenile detention centers—they’re basically little-person prisons. It blows your mind to see 11, 12, 13-year-old kids in a prison-like environment. Like, we’re giving up on them already. It’s frustrating to think a young person makes a mistake, a real critical mistake, and for the rest of their life, they’re supposed to spend it behind bars … We need to do a better job at rehab and re-enter. We just can’t lock people up and leave them in there and expect them to change.
“We [Stills’ foundation] ran a mental-health summit before the season started. We had around 300 kids and their guardians or parents. We talked about feelings and emotions and healthy-living practices, just really trying to get the younger generation to talk about mental health, to talk about the feelings and emotions they’re going through. Give them positive, constructive ways to cope. Working with companies like Head Space, to introduce them to meditation … They can re-wire their brains by thinking positively, thinking positive thoughts and positive self-talk … The more we hold onto [issues], the more they fester and grow and turn into other problems. …
“I’ve still been taking a knee since I’ve been here. You hear people in the crowd who have things to say about it. I’ve gotten good at ignoring those things and trying to continue to do the work that I do. I get out in the community, and meet people, and do a good job of explaining why I’m doing what I’m doing. There are still, daily, issues of police violence … Officers abusing their power is something that’s been happening for a long time. People have had experiences with police brutality. [Some] people say, ‘Thanks for taking a knee. You haven’t forgotten where you come from.’ It’s an issue that still needs to be talked about. When I got here, I went and met with the Houston police chief [Art Acevedo] and we talked about accountability and trying to build strong relations between our community and our law enforcement and that’s what it’s all about.
“For everyone who disagrees with my stance—what I’m doing, what I’m saying—it’s important for us to try and be in another person’s shoes, to try and see their perspective and see where they’re coming from. Everything I’ve ever said or done has been out of love. I’m open to have conversations with people who don’t see or understand, and I think we’ve always come out of those conversations with a little bit more understanding.
“I don’t see the kneeling being something that stops.”
Stills told ESPN’s The Undefeated recently if the kneeling and the activism costs him his football career, he’d understand.
“I’d miss the game. I’m miss the competition, I’d miss the camaraderie and being around the guys in the locker room. But I’m okay with it. I’d rather be able to look myself in the mirror every night … I’m happy with the decisions I’ve made and the person I’ve become and the man that I’m trying to be. If that means I can’t be a part of the NFL or play football, it is what it is. But I’ve got to be able to live with myself and be proud of who I am.”
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PHOENIX, Az. – On the agenda here and elsewhere, 32 days before the next tentpole event, the draft:
1. The league really wants the Thursday flex. I’m dubious it’ll pass. We can all agree this seems insane. Moving a game from 1 p.m. Sunday to 8:20 p.m. Sunday is inconvenient, to say the least, for the fans in attendance. Moving it three days earlier, as is on the agenda for a vote here, is a punch in the face to the fans who’ve planned trips to see games and either won’t be able to see a game played three days earlier or will have lives turned upside down in order to do so. But I’m told this is something Roger Goodell really wants to have in his tool box, to prevent awful games for a partner already struggling with audience share, Amazon. But coaches hate the idea. “Really hate it,” one of them told me here Sunday. In discussions with those who want this to pass, one told me, “It might make sense to max it out at one per season.” It still will be bad for the product and for the fans in-stadium, but it is sensible to legislate not being able to do it more than once per year.
2. The Goodell contract. Roger Goodell, 64, is signed as commissioner through March 2024, and Adam Schefter reported last week he’s expected to get an extension. Whether that happens this week or at the May meetings, it seems to be a matter of time. Goodell is approaching a milestone in the annals of the 104-year-old pro game. By the time training camp begins, Goodell will have the second-longest tenure of any NFL commissioner since World War II. The longest tenures:
Pete Rozelle, Feb. 1960-Nov. 1989: 29 years, 9 months.
Paul Tagliabue, Nov. 1989-Sept. 2006: 16 years, 10 months.
Roger Goodell, Sept. 2006-present: 16 years, 7 months.
For those who will want Goodell replaced—for any of myriad reasons—remember four things: He works for the owners, who are mostly happy with his performance; he has kept the game from any work stoppages that resulted in lost regular-season or playoff games, and this CBA doesn’t expire till early 2031; he has lorded over a league that dominates the sports landscape even when it’s not playing games; and there’s the matter of franchise values. Average value of a franchise in 2006, when he took over: $898 million. Denver sold last year for five times that. Washington could sell this year for seven times that. Plus, flourishing through COVID-19. That’s why you won’t hear anyone, even Goodell’s occasional league rivals like Jerry Jones, lobbying for a change at the top. Goodell is in a power position for a three- or four-year extension.
Trolling the Biltmore lobby Sunday morning, I ran into one high-ranking club official and asked about the Goodell extension. “Think back to 2006. If you told any owner they’d have 16 years of labor peace, labor deals that lasted into 2030, two teams in L.A., a great stadium in L.A., franchise values way up, they’d all sign for that. They’d more than sign for that.” He’s right—even with the ham-handed handling of the Daniel Snyder ruination of the Washington franchise. Goodell isn’t perfect. But his predecessors weren’t either. Rozelle had labor stoppages and a nonstop war with Al Davis. Tagliabue was late to the party on head trauma. Commissioners must be judged on the balance of their tenures.
3. Noto contendre? So who will replace Goodell when the day comes? Speculation will center on Brian Rolapp, as it should, and Troy Vincent if the league looks internally for Goodell’s replacement, with Rolapp having an edge among active league office execs. Some club executives—Mark Donovan (Kansas City), Tom Garfinkel (Miami), Kevin Demoff (Rams)—could surface as well. My not-so-dark horse is Anthony Noto, the CEO of personal finance giant SoFi, and former CFO of the NFL (2008-2010). Strong profile: West Point grad, masters at Wharton, former COO of Twitter. Noto, 54, left the league on very good terms, is a huge football fan, and knows how to make money. Right up the owners’ alley.
4. The Snyder story. Most league people don’t expect a resolution here. The feeling is it’s somewhere between likely and very likely that Snyder ends up selling the entire franchise and not just a piece. Here’s an interesting thing I found out Sunday: One source with significant financial knowledge about the league said Snyder is highly unlikely to get his dream price for the team–$7 billion. Snyder, this source said, is more likely to sell the full asset for something just over $6 billion. Not bad. That’s still 7.5 times the price he paid for the franchise 24 years ago. How many businesses get that kind of returns over a quarter-century, particularly while running the business into the ground as Snyder has done?
5. I remember when punting mattered. Interesting that when Troy Vincent discussed punting on an NFL conference call Friday, his first comment was about how it is “the most penalized play, the most injurious play in the game.” Catch his drift? The NFL wants to significantly cut down on punts in the game. There’s a proposal here to have touchbacks on punts returned to the 25-yard line, not the 20-, in part to encourage teams with a fourth down near midfield to go for it instead of punting it away. But also because the returners parked around the 10-yard line might let more punts go in hopes that they bounce into the end zone.
6. Bryce Young helped himself more than C.J. Stroud in their pro days last week, from the sound of it. A rep of a team that will likely draft a quarterback this year told me Sunday: “If you watch Bryce Young, and you didn’t know he was 5’10”, you wouldn’t think about his height. It was a disadvantage from the tape I watched.” This team has Young as its top quarterback, for what it’s worth. I’d been told previously that Young, in not getting many passes batted down at the line, has a sense of playing bigger than he is. It’s just one of the factors that has to be weighing on Carolina as the Panthers consider what to do at number one—take Young, or take the quarterback five inches taller in Stroud. As of Sunday night, no team here had been in contact with the Panthers about trading the top pick, and it’d likely be a useless venture, at least now. Carolina has no interest in moving the pick.
7. The Lamar saga. Day 12 of Lamar Jackson on the rested free-agent market, and no news is bad news. Not a soul here is even whispering about the prospect of Jackson getting an offer sheet, and there’s no sign of talks between the Ravens and Jackson to try to rekindle contract discussions. All I can say is the Ravens had better, deep in the back of their pragmatic minds, start to consider veteran alternatives—and maybe even the rookie second- and third-round QB market.
8. Re the other rules proposals. I give the proposal to have a third QB active as an extra player on gamedays—call it The Brock Purdy Rule—a good shot to pass if the league can figure out a way to make it ironclad that only emergency QBs will be used as the third player. I am not optimistic about passage for the Rams’ proposal to make roughing-the-quarterback reviewable by replay. Solid point by Rams COO Kevin Demoff Sunday: “We’re not increasing the number of challenges per team, which stays at two. This is a call that often swings momentum in the game. I don’t understand why making it reviewable is so controversial.” He’s right, but too many teams in the league are against any expansion of replay.
9. Bobby Wagner. Some buzz here about the return of Wagner to Seattle on a one-year deal over the weekend for his age-33 season, his 12th in the league. This is not just Seattle bringing the highest-rated linebacker in football in 2022 (per PFF) back after his one-year detour to the Rams. It is a tribute to Wagner being mature and burning no bridges when he was a cap casualty with the Seahawks last spring, and to the Seahawks for knowing Wagner’s value to the franchise and the defense he helped become the Legion of Boom—and, frankly, to Wagner’s value to the 2023 team. Too often, long and valued relationships get thrown in the garbage because the business of football interferes, and Wagner was smart enough to understand the sport and the business to not burn those bridges. And it’s a tribute to Seattle GM John Schneider for how he handled Wagner since drafting him in the second round of the 2012 draft. The mutual respect drips from this return. Let it be a model for other great players and franchises.
10. On football as rugby. The NFL will very likely continue to allow ball carriers to be pushed from behind in 2023, defying the aesthetics of a sport that is not rugby and subjecting more quarterbacks to be treated like endangered objects in the middle of trash-compactors. Three reasons why the Competition Committee doesn’t have a proposal on the agenda to eliminate the play at this week’s meetings:
Despite some opposition to the play, I’m told the league and the Competition Committee knew there were at least nine teams solidly against changing the rule that allows runners to be assisted from behind. Committee chair Rich McKay said Friday there are “certainly not” 24 teams that think the rule should be changed. Since at least 24 teams would have had to vote to change the rule, it was fruitless to bring it to a vote here.
The Competition Committee was not unanimously for changing the rule. Under committee rules, that’s necessary to bring a rule out of committee for a vote by the 32 teams.
There’s also pro-Eagles sentiment I’ve heard, sentiment that goes like this: The Eagles did nothing wrong. They played by the rules that were on the books, succeeded, and we’re not going to punish them for that.
It’s counter to the NFL’s on-and-on emphasis on player safety to not adjust this rule, or to eliminate it. Frankly, it’s mind-boggling. The Eagles had incredible success (they were 37 of 41 last year on QB sneaks, many of which featured two players pushing Jalen Hurts from behind), and Buffalo, Cincinnati and Baltimore also experimented with assisting the runner from behind. Coaches in Denver and Seattle have said they’ll work on the technique for 2023. When one successful team has a 90 percent success rate, as the Eagles did on the sneak, well, why wouldn’t other teams adopt it?
My problem, aside from the fact that it’s not a football play, is that it’s only a matter of time before a quarterback gets hurt on the play. In the Super Bowl, on one Hurts sneak, Kansas City sent a defensive lineman, missile-like, over the scrum at the line of scrimmage. How dangerous is a 290-pound projectile hurtling toward a quarterback? How fortunate is it that he, or Hurts, was not concussed on that play?
“There are people within the committee and people within the survey that weren’t big fans of the play and were concerned about the safety aspect of it,” McKay said.
So the NFL will wait until a quarterback gets hurt. Then it will take action, presumably—after the position the league has sworn to protect is diminished by an injury to, perhaps, a marquee player.
On Friday, I called a defensive assistant coach on a team that played the Eagles last season and asked about how they coached to defend the play. He said there are four keys: try to get the offensive line to false start by studying the Eagles’ cadence and drawing them to jump; “submarine” the offensive line by getting lower than the blockers and fire off aggressively at the snap; if necessary, as Kansas City did, go over the top to be physical with the quarterback; and studying the formation to see which center-guard hole can be divided by a rusher with a linebacker assisting him from behind, if need be.
“I think other teams will try to employ it, yes,” this assistant coach said. “And then after you do all that, I still think it’s important to hit the quarterback. It can be dangerous, but if it’s going to be legal to do, we’ve got to do something to try to stop it.”
One other thing, this coach said: “It’s hard, almost impossible, to simulate the play at full speed in practice. Too much of a chance of someone getting hurt.”
I think the NFL’s going to live to regret this inaction.