On Tuesday night, at the Phoenix restaurant Tomaso’s, two groups were having dinner in large rooms—the Giants and the Steelers. The Giants finished first and a few of their people stopped by to say hi to the Pittsburgh contingent, which included Roger Goodell at owner Art Rooney II’s table. When Giants co-owner John Mara saw Goodell, he smiled wryly and said, “I should get out of here.” All’s fair in love and NFL debates.
Mara, maybe three hours earlier in a session of owners and top execs, was the strongest in arguing against the NFL’s proposal to make Thursday night games in weeks 14 through 17 on Amazon eligible to move to Sunday, with a corresponding trade of a more attractive game into the Thursday night slot. Mara, and others, were surprised when word about this proposal leaked to Sports Business Journal just days before the annual meeting in Phoenix. Mara’s strident complaint: It’s unfair to fans who make plans to travel to games to have them changed 15 days prior, it’s unfair to fans and teams planning on a 1 p.m. Sunday game to have the game played three days earlier on a weeknight at 8:20, and there’s no data on short-week Thursday games to suggest they can be interchangeable without consequences.
The Giants, Jets, Chicago, New Orleans and Green Bay were among those who opposed the flex. For Green Bay, a ton of fans both follow them on the road and make bucket-list pilgrimages to Lambeau Field for games, and the Packers felt it unfair to have potentially thousands of fans be stuck with travel issues should a game be moved from Sunday to Thursday, or vice versa. Carolina and Denver abstained. With 24 votes needed for passage, the vote was 22 to 8 with the two abstentions. The NFL will arm-twist, most likely, prior to the next league session in late May, and unless the anti forces can muster some momentum, it’s likely the measure will pass then.
Post-meeting, Mara said: “At some point, can we please give some consideration to the people who are coming to our games? People make plans to go to these games weeks and months in advance. And 15 days ahead of time to say, ‘Sorry, folks, that game you were planning on taking your kids to Sunday at 1, now it’s on Thursday night’? What are we thinking about?”
The NFL clearly is thinking of Amazon as a long-term partner, and streaming as a long-term way of getting more money in future media deals. What’s interesting here is that ESPN had the Monday night games for years before the league acceded—this year, finally—to give ESPN a minimal number of possible flex games. Amazon’s been a partner for one year, and the league bends over backwards for the streaming service after some weak late-season ratings on Thursday games.
Readers reached out to me about it, outraged. I spoke to Tim Thompson, the Cowboys fan from Nova Scotia. To get to an NFL game, he drives 90 minutes to the airport in Halifax, Nova Scotia (*in the far eastern part of Canada), flies two hours to Toronto, then connects for a four-hour (or longer) flight to see the Cowboys play.
Thompson heard Mara’s ire. “Those are basically my words,” he said. “I would be frightened to book anything now. It’s 100 percent a slight to fans like me. Going to a game early in the season would be a consideration now, but I’m not happy about it.”
If NFL owners really appreciate the fans who come to the games, they’ll vote no in May. A yes vote for Thursday flex is a vote for Jeff Bezos over the people who truly love their teams.
No new rule was put up for a vote on assisting the runner, as was reported in the column last week. I asked NFL Competition Committee chair Rich McKay what he sees when he sees 500 pounds of players line up behind the quarterback and push him forward in a huge pile of people at the line of scrimmage. McKay has to be neutral here, unless the Competition Committee is unanimously behind a proposal, and the committee was not unanimous in support of banning the play. The way he answered the question, I felt he was telling me a lot he really can’t say.
Said McKay: “I see a legal play that doesn’t feel like a play that if we were drawing up a play that this is the way we want it. It is one to talk about: Do we want it in the game?”
The one rule that passed that will be interesting to follow is one about impermissible use of the helmet. Last year, only four penalties were called for lowering the helmet and initiating contact with the helmet. Though 55 fines were issued for helmet violations, the league lost many of those on appeal because technically players didn’t lower their helmets to make contact. “We used wording from an old rule that’s been on the books for years—you can’t ram, butt or spear with the helmet, and it’s been on the books but we haven’t really called it,” McKay said. “So I don’t know if we’ll get any more flags thrown in games, but we should be able to affect conduct by fining players for using the helmet. I believe we can affect conduct. Players talk, and once a player gets a couple of those fines, he’s going to change the way he tackles. This was kind of a big change, but we absolutely think it’s the right thing to do—as did the membership.”
Cleaning out the notebook:
- The Patriots are 25-26 since Tom Brady left the team, with zero playoff wins, and listening to Robert Kraft talk like Belichick—we care about performance, not individual records—I’m starting to wonder what happens to Belichick, who turns 71 in two weeks, if the Patriots sink to the bottom of the AFC East. It’s certainly possible, with Aaron Rodgers likely to enter the division and the Patriots clearly inferior to the Bills and Dolphins recently. Say the Patriots go 7-10 each of the next two years, and Belichick is five wins from passing Don Shula. What will Kraft do? He may move on. If so, it would not surprise me to see Belichick coach another NFL team for a couple of years.
- Re: Rodgers, the Jets have made it clear they’re not going to be too demanding about the off-season program. Rodgers wasn’t enthusiastic about it in recent years, and he may get away with ignoring the Jets’ OTAs in May this year assuming the trade goes through. Robert Saleh was asked about getting nervous about the delay in the trade going through, and his answer was “If there’s a great rapport with the coordinator, there’s really no urgency…The quarterback, if he understands the system, if the quarterback knows it, it’s just a matter of just refining skills and doing all that stuff. So there’s no hurry.”
- Seeing some of the new NFL coaches in their first setting in front of the national media is instructive. I thought Houston’s DeMeco Ryans was impressive in Phoenix. He’s engaging and thoughtful, an excellent communicator. You can tell why the Niners’ defensive players liked the guy so much. He talked about falling in love with coaching when helping out one spring at an Alabama high school, and how he got turned onto it by the simple act of seeing his players play better with good coaching. Ryans on Bryce Young was interesting: “I know there’s a lot of talking about his size. The guy’s done it at the highest level in college football and size hasn’t seemed to be a problem. I watched the tape. You see the kid play and you see how smart he is. You see the anticipation. You see the accuracy. You see how this guy is calm in critical moments. Size definitely isn’t one of the factors that pop up on tape.”
- My conversation with Sean McVay on assisting the runner told me why nothing will happen to get rid of pushing the runner from behind until someone gets hurt. It’s simple: NFL coaches look at what the Eagles did and think: Wish I thought of that. And those coaches don’t want to see Nick Sirianni and his team punished for simply playing by the rules and excelling at it. I get it. My discussion with McVay:
FMIA: Do you think it belongs in football?
McVay: “Oh yeah. I do. I think there’s certain elements that they want to officiate differently … It’s one thing to be able to push a guy. It’s another thing when you’re pulling him in. Those are the things that they wanna be more intentional about in officiating. It’s a quarterback sneak; there’s just a little bit difference in terms of the formations and the way that it looks to us. That’s been a play that’s been consistent for a long time. What do you think?”
FMIA: I hate it.
McVay: “I can’t tell.”
FMIA: It’s not football. When you get two guys who are 400, 500 pounds behind a guy, pushing him, that’s not what the forefathers intended for this game.
McVay (not wanting to argue about it): “Right.”
FMIA: It’s like they’re waiting for an injury. I don’t know. I’m alone on that one, I guess.
McVay: “But I think you’re right though, that if there does show an increased level of injuries, that’s something that every single year we know protecting the health and safety of this game, if there are injuries, then I think you’ll see changes. It’s a play that because of the specific situations that it comes up, I think it’s a credit to Philly because they’re in so many tight scoring situations.”
FMIA: I do credit Philly for taking advantage of the rule. It’s not their fault.
McVay: “I hear you.”
- Whoever buys the Washington Commanders, please, please, please let it be a person or group who wants to return football the glory days in the District of Columbia. This NFL franchise has had nothing but heartache since abandoning D.C. for the suburbs in 1997 and since selling to Daniel Snyder in 1999. Now, one of the groups that has proffered a bid estimated at $6 billion is led by two men with significant D.C. roots, Josh Harris and Mitchell Rales, with a goal of returning the franchise to the site of RFK Stadium in the district. RFK used to shake as if in an earthquake in the Super Bowl seasons. And moving back would get families who’ve abandoned the team since the dour bummer of a stadium, FedEx Field, opened 26 years ago. If Snyder sells to a group determined to return the team to the District, it might be the only to save him from being an eternal enemy in the eyes of Washington sports fans.
- Great point by Seattle coach Pete Carroll on the free-agent acquisition of safety Julian Love from the Giants: “How many players in the league play over 1,000 snaps in the regular defense and over 200 on special teams? That’s extraordinary.” Love played 1,006 snaps on defense and 220 on the kicking teams, and had 124 tackles. “It’s very rare to have an opportunity to get a player like that.”
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column