$.01--The Denver Broncos are at the top of the news for the wrong reasons. And their experience with two now-ex Broncos could rock the NFLPA and the way business is done.
A little background…
The NFLPA has stressed to players that they should not participate in any team-led offseason activities. Broncos players were the first group to state they would follow the union’s advice and work out on their own instead. Several other teams have followed suit, with returning players opting to train individually instead of attending the voluntary team OTAs.
It’s quickly become a big problem for the NFLPA with what has happened to two Denver players. Offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James tore his Achilles while working out on his own on May 5th, away from the team facility. The Broncos quickly cut their likely starting right tackle after he suffered the injury. It gets worse for James, unfortunately. Because he was hurt away from the football team’s facility, his injury is classified as a non-football injury. That technicality means the Broncos get out of having to pay James any of the money he was due, even guaranteed money.
Lightning struck again when wideout DaeSean Hamilton tore his ACL while working out on his own this past week. As was the case with James, Hamilton was waived with non-football injury designation. He’s out of a job, out any guaranteed money, and also out for the 2021 season with the injury.
The NFLPA has yet to formally react, but they are expected to file a grievance--at least in the case for James, who was (allegedly) injured while doing a league-designed workout for players.
Pay very close attention to how the NFLPA handles this issue. The players suffered injuries away from the team facility precisely because the NFLPA itself directed them to not be there. Would James and Hamilton have suffered the same injuries if they were working out at Broncos facilities? Would they have attended the voluntary sessions on their own without being directed to boycott them by their own union? If the NFLPA doesn’t step up and support the players for following the orders of the union leadership, will it fracture the player’s association? Will players see what happened to their brethren and defy NFLPA leadership and report for the remaining OTAs?
This is a very big deal for the NFLPA and its revamped leadership under executive director DeMaurice Smith and president (and Browns center) JC Tretter. If the union doesn’t shoulder some of the responsibility and culpability for the non-football injury issues here, it’s going to be very difficult for the NFLPA to sell its constituency on anything else safety or contractually with any sense of credibility.
$.02--It’s Tim Tebow time again! The former Mets minor league prospect is trying to come back in the NFL, and his college coach is throwing him the football lifeline. Tebow has signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, led by ex-Gators coach Urban Meyer, to try and play tight end.
Tebow hasn’t played in the NFL since his ill-fated “Wildcat” role with the New York Jets in 2012. Of course that was at quarterback, a position he proved beyond any doubt he could not perform at even a capable backup level in his three seasons. The playoff magic in Denver aside, Tebow was a decidedly substandard quarterback.
He wasn’t exactly missed in the NFL. Stints in minor league baseball and on ESPN, where he generally made folks feel as awkward as his throwing motion, should have ended the Tebowmania phenomenon. But Meyer didn’t get that memo.
It’s an absurdly tone-deaf move by Meyer, the first of what could be many rookie mistakes as the coach attempts to transition from collegiate legend to the very different world of the NFL. Nobody asked for this. There was no clamoring for more Tebow Time, not from anyone outside of his immediate family, or apparently the college coach who molded him into a national storyline almost 15 years ago.
Tebow is now 33 and is attempting to play a position he’s never played before. Ironically enough, Tebow wanted nothing to do with a position switch 10 years ago to try and salvage his NFL career. He’s got the size and athleticism to thrive at tight end, potentially. But he steadfastly insisted he was a quarterback and only a quarterback. Had he made the switch to TE back then, Tebow might have been both good at it and someone to root for to make it work.
Now he’s neither, and a flurry of other players who can’t even get calls returned by their own agents stare at him in aghast disgust at the poster child for good-ole-boy entitlement. That neither Meyer nor Tebow expected that reaction, or care about it, is a very bad sign for the Jaguars as they attempt to climb out of the NFL’s cellar.
$03--Justin Fields was one of the most fascinating stories in the 2021 NFL draft, and his career is off to a rousing start in Chicago. Well, as rousing as a three-day rookie minicamp can be.
Reports out of Halas Hall heaped praise upon Fields, the No. 11 overall pick. Observers noted how well-prepared he seemed, how easily Fields picked up the offense and commanded his new Bears teammates. His all-business demeanor is earning all the right praise and attention in a city that is desperate to have Fields be the long-term solution to a problem that has plagued the franchise for most of the last 70 years.
Chicago aggressively traded up in the draft to land Fields, who slid out of the top 10 for reasons that aren’t entirely clear beyond him playing for Ohio State and perhaps the color of his skin--though each of those theories are difficult to prove despite being individually credible (and terribly disappointing). And while the Bears can say they don’t need to thrust him into the starting lineup after they signed capable but underwhelming Andy Dalton this offseason, it’s pretty clear there is a push to get Fields on the field as soon as possible.
Based on the opening weekend, Fields is closer than many expected. It’s foolish to read too much into three days of non-contact drills against fellow rookies, but it’s no more foolish than raising up a quarterback’s stock and profile for throwing carefully choreographed passes against no defense in a pro day. If Fields can keep up the impressive offseason, don’t be surprised if Dalton winds up being his backup in Week 1.
--Not so long ago, this time of year was filled with news of potential rookie holdouts and bitter negotiations for draftees looking to cash in on the NFL’s salary structure that rewarded rookies who’d never taken a snap over perennial Pro Bowl veterans. Those days are mercifully as dead as the final big bonus baby, Sam Bradford’s career. The NFL and NFLPA don’t get many things right together, but the change to the CBA that effectively slotted every single rookie salary and standardized deals for draft picks was a stroke of long-lasting brilliance.
--A report this week from Indianapolis Colts in-house writer Andrew Walker calculated the average age of the players on all 32 NFL franchises. Interestingly, the presumptive worst team in the league is also the oldest.
The Houston Texans, who appear destined for the bottom of the AFC pending any radically advantageous resolution on the Deshaun Watson front, have the NFL’s oldest roster on average. That’s a very bad combination. Houston signed over 30 free agents this offseason. They are still one of the weakest rosters and they lack the youthful promise of some of the other teams that project near the bottom.
--I attended the 2021 NFL draft in Cleveland and the event was a great success despite some dreary weather and the harshly regimented COVID-19 protocols in place. The staffers did a great job dealing with both and handling everything with a smile. It was great to see so many fans from all over the country braving the 40-degree weather and steady downpour on Thursday, the primary night of the draft. Good job, Cleveland. Next year: Las Vegas.
--The NFL held the schedule release event last week. The fact the NFL fabricates the release of the schedule into a primetime event is truly astonishing. The fact so many people get sucked into the vortex of the schedule release hype is even more astonishing.
We already knew all the opponents for all teams, home and away. We just learned the sequence of the games. I understand that it’s important for season ticket holders and fans who want to travel to a road game or two, but for fans who will watch all 18 (yes, 18!) weeks of the season on their couch, I have no idea why it matters so much. The overkill only grows every year, oddly enough. Get off my lawn, too :)
$.05--I cover the Detroit Lions as the managing editor of USA TODAY’s Lions Wire, a job that, quite frankly, has not been a lot of fun in recent times. Beyond the team just not being very good, the Matt Patricia era viewed fun as something that got in the way. They were a dour, lifeless group by the exacting demands of their former head coach.
Any players with more spice to their personality than table salt were sent packing. Good players and fun personalities like Quandre Diggs, Golden Tate, Darius Slay, Damon Harrison, Devon Kennard, all made football too enjoyable for Patricia’s liking. The soul-sucking was complete at the end of the pandemic season of 2020.
This weekend was the Lions rookie minicamp, the first real chance to see new head coach Dan Campbell and his staff chock-full of former NFL players in action with the players. And the energy was absolutely palpable. Even over Zoom--press conferences are still conducted remotely--the joyful spirit poured from Campbell and the players. Players smiled and talked about one another. They answered questions with candid, honest answers that weren’t stifled in an effort to not say anything that might rub the authoritarian Patricia the wrong way. Rookies Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike and Jermar Jefferson all made light of Campbell and his staff’s hands-on, balls-to-the-wall approach. They loved it. Patricia’s false tough-guy coaching persona never gave any player that sort of reaction.
In talking with some folks who have been in the building with both Patricia and Campbell, the change is beyond night and day. There was a dark shroud enveloping the Patricia Lions, a strong negative aura that permeated everything about the team. I don’t know if Campbell will be a good coach, and I don’t expect his first Lions team to win many games. Detroit has one of the least talented rosters in the league, notably at WR and safety. But they’re going to be fun, energetic and competitive to a man under Campbell. That’s already a huge win for Lions fans, a necessary purging of negativity that could not have happened soon enough.