Hard Knocks ’22. The Lions will get the NFL Films treatment at training camp this summer. It’ll be the first time for Detroit on Hard Knocks, and I’ve got to think that while some teams have to be arm-wrestled into being the Hard Knocks team, the Lions under colorful second-year coach Dan Campbell will use it to their advantage–both in terms of fan engagement and bringing attention to a franchise that has been dormant. Campbell and his feisty, loud personality will be a natural for the HBO show. Hearing that Frank Reich’s experience on the in-season Hard Knocks was a good sales tool–Reich actually liked most of the late-season experience, even one that ended in week-18 disaster–and also hearing that Lions president Rod Wood was a big proponent of it. Why wouldn’t the Lions want it? They need the exposure. Interesting factoid: This will be the 17th edition of Hard Knocks, the hour-long weekly inside look at a team in training camp, and the first time an NFC North team has been featured.
Amazon football. Mystery is fun. And that’s what an Al Michaels-Kirk Herbstreit pairing is. The two men have no history, and as for how they’ll coalesce in the Thursday night booth this fall, I will guess pretty good. Michaels, 77, is a competitor; he’ll be intent on showing week after week he hasn’t lost his fastball. Regarding his partner, Michaels can make anyone sound good and smart. Herbstreit, the best college football analyst on TV, knows every eye and ear will be focused on him for the Sept. 15 opening game, and for a season of Thursdays after that. With the estimable Fred Gaudelli producing the games, it’s sure to be a seamless telecast on Amazon Prime, even if you might have trouble finding it. I won’t be surprised to see Amazon find a place for the growing importance of analytics on the Thursday telecasts. With the rise of analytics in 32 football buildings, it makes sense, when Brandon Staley goes for it on fourth-and-one from his own 18-yard line, to ask a top analytics person: “Was that smart?”
Roger Goodell. In his opening remarks to 700 club owners, coaches and top employees in Palm Beach on Sunday evening, Goodell celebrated the high the NFL is on—great competition in 2021 (each of the last seven playoff games decided by six points or less), playing well through the pandemic, with strong points about gains in diversity, equity and inclusion. If you were looking for him to say something strong about teams falling all over themselves to trade for a player with 22 civil cases involving sex charges, you’ll be disappointed. It went unmentioned. Lost opportunity there.
Bobby Wagner. Rams have legitimate interest, but not at Wagner’s price—he’s thought to be asking for about $11 million on a one-year deal. The 32-year-old linebacker is still playing very well, and he’d be a luxury item for the Super Bowl champs. If he wants to stay in the same division as the team that dropped him, Seattle, Wagner will have to recalibrate his asking price down. He may just find another team—Baltimore? Dallas?—with more money available.
Deshaun Watson. Not sure Watson changed any minds at his introductory press conference Friday. “I never did anything those people are alleging,” Watson said, one of three or four different ways of denying every sexual offense that he’s been accused. That’s a boldface clip-and-save in this story, particularly when a Houston police officer went on record after authorities investigated the cases and said the accusers were “credible and reliable.” Someone’s not telling the truth here. As for Watson’s fate, the NFL may do one of three things this year: put him on the commissioner’s exempt list (he’d be paid for a second straight season while sitting till the 22 sex-crime civil cases are decided); let him play while deferring discipline till the cases are done; or suspend him for some time this year regardless of the outcome of the cases. It’s a mystery as of this morning.
Jimmy and Dee Haslam. Not the most popular people at the league meetings on Sunday. I heard lots of grumbling from those who think a) trading six picks for a player who may be found guilty of heinous offenses or b) signing Watson to the richest guaranteed contract in league history and giving him an $80-million raise “stinks to high heaven,” as one team exec said. The Haslams had to know it was coming, and now that they’ve traded for and signed Watson, it’s not going away.
Tua Tagovailoa. Talk about pressure. No player in the 2022 season comes close to the weight on his shoulders that Tagovailoa has. After Miami‘s mega-trade for Tyreek Hill, Tagovailoa now has Hill and Jaylen Waddle as top-10-in-the-league receiving threats, along with ace tight end Mike Gesicki and a rebuilt backfield (Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert). Let’s get down to business with Tua and the deep ball. Last year, just 5.3 percent of his completions (14 of 263) were on balls thrown 20 yards or more past the line of scrimmage. Patrick Mahomes had 36 such completions. Tagovailoa was 30th in the league in 20-yard-plus attempts with 29. His two deep threats are 4.29- and 4.37-second 40 guys. And there will a microscope on the third-year quarterback to see if he can take advantage of their ability to break games open. Considering that Waddle cost Miami two first-round picks, and Hill cost five picks (including a first and second), Tagovailoa’s going to feel the hot breath of backup Teddy Bridgewater by Columbus Day if Waddle and Hill get off to mediocre starts.
Concussions. Since we clobber the NFL for all things head trauma, praise should be meted out when there is progress. I’m going to compare relative apples to apples here, using documented concussion figures from 2015 to 2019 and then 2021. (2020 is an outlier year because there were no preseason games due to the pandemic.) In preseason and regular-season practices and games in each year from 2015 to 2019, players suffered, in order, 275, 243, 281, 214 and 224 concussions; in 2021, the number was reduced to 187. My take on the biggest reason: Six years ago, about one-half of NFL players were using helmets strongly recommended by the league and players association. In 2021, that number rose to 99 percent of players using the highest-performing helmets.
Instant replay. Interesting data on replay from 2021: The average replay review took 2 minutes, 27 seconds—down 61 seconds from 2020. The league credits added authority given to replay officials and the New York command center—either can communicate with the on-field referee to point out a mistake—and the use in every stadium of “Hawkeye” video technology. The Hawkeye system allows desired replays to be seen much quicker instead being at the mercy of which replays are shown by the TV crews at games. That’s a big reason why there’s no rule change on the agenda at the meetings for anything involving replay.
A weird ABC/ESPN TV thing. Don’t know how I missed this. (I think we all missed it.) Part of the NFL’s new TV contract with the networks is that on one Monday night this year, ABC will telecast one game and ESPN will telecast a different one. It’s likely the starts will be staggered—perhaps by 15 or 20 minutes so there won’t be simultaneous halftimes, perhaps by a longer period of time to allow for each telecast to get maximum eyes on each one. Next year, ESPN and ABC will have three such Mondays. As to why, I really don’t know … but what seems the most sensible is to stagger the starts by, say, 75 minutes, so that the second game starts as the first is on the verge of halftime. No idea of the broadcast team on the second game, with of course Buck/Aikman on one of them. Might be a hoot to have the other game feature a Manningcast, with Peyton and Eli as the lone voices.
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. The new GM of the Vikings is an impressive guy. At his first league meetings as a GM, he took time Sunday to explain his philosophy about team-building in a time when the value of veterans stars and draft picks are changing drastically. I mentioned to him that I thought team construction was a continuum, with a GM having to constantly recalibrate how to build. “ ‘Continuum’ is a good word for it,” he said. “I think you’ve got to make sure you always know where your team is at all times. Sometimes you can deceive yourself.” I also liked two of the main things he was looking for when he interviewed head coaches: suppression of ego (“All that matters is what’s best for the team,” he said) and accountability for mistakes. You’re going to make some. In fact, you’ll make a lot. Admit them and move on, but don’t hide the mistake and then move on. Adofo-Mensah said he thinks the coach he chose, Kevin O’Connell, “has rare intellect and temperament.” Enjoyed my time with this Princeton grad you’ll be hearing a lot about.
An NFL record. If you watched much football last year, this won’t surprise you: Teams went for it on fourth down last year more than any other season. They converted 411 of 774 fourth-down tries, for an efficiency of .531. Talk about an explosion of risk-taking: In 2017, there were 1.89 fourth-down attempts per game. By 2021, that rose to 2.92 per game. I find this odd: The two teams with the fewest fourth-down tries last year both fielded mobile superstar quarterbacks. Seattle, with Russell Wilson, was four of 11 on fourth down. Kansas City, with Patrick Mahomes, was only 10 of 15. Andy Reid’s not a big fourth-down guy. In Mahomes’ four years as starter, KC’s gone for it an average of 14 times a year. That seems totally counterintuitive, doesn’t it?