Mailbag, Part I: How big of a problem is the NFL's wave of bad news?
It's been a bad stretch from Deshaun Watson to Marion Barber. Also, who steps up at WR for the Packers? How crazy were those 2015 Bills? And... ads on NFL jerseys?
Happy Fourth! Hope everyone has a phenomenal holiday. Blast that country music. Enjoy the beer, the cornhole, the good times with family, and if you’re lining up those fireworks? Be careful.
Your questions for our latest edition of the mailbag were so outstanding we needed to break this into two parts.
First up? We dig into everything from CTE to Deshaun Watson to ads on jerseys to that batch of Green Bay Packers wide receivers to… that utterly ridiculous 2015 Bills season.
Thanks, everyone. Feel free to shoot me an email with a question or just to shoot the bull any time. Let’s get to it…
Hey Tyler, hope all is well!
My question is … what needs to be done to make the NFL better for society? Lots in that question, but I’m thinking specifically of recent events:
-Deshaun Watson guaranteed contract despite allegations of sexual harassment
-Death of Marion Barber, and in general the way the league takes care (or doesn’t) of its retirees
-Investigation into discriminatory culture of Washington Commanders
-General safety of the game
All my moral senses are tingling in a way that’s like, “don’t support this.” And then the child in me who loves the game and watching the Chiefs says, “Whatever, keep watching.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels queasy about all this.
You are most certainly not alone, Peter. With you 100 percent. This is such a good question to start off with because I think we all grapple with the same moral dilemma.
This Deshaun Watson saga only gets worse… and worse… and I’m glad you bring up Marion Barber’s death because — for some reason — this tragic story registered on Page Q11 in the back of our collective minds. I don’t get it. We all shouldn’t so easily motor right past a tragedy. Frankly, we need to do more at Go Long of covering what retired players are enduring once they’re finished. Last season, we sat down with Don Majkowski, Erik Kramer, and Ryan Leaf definitely spoke for many more retirees when he was near tears after Vincent Jackson’s death. We’ll do more, I promise.
Plainly put: this sport is different. This sport can do serious long-term damage to your brain, in addition to a lifetime of pain. It’s worth reading in full, but in the League of Denial prologue, authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru perfectly detail how the brain of a woodpecker can withstand the constant banging into a tree thanks to evolution. Their brains don’t slosh around within the skull. When football players bash into each other, on the other hand, there is such sloshing. It really doesn’t matter what type of helmet you strap around the skull. Our pal Doug Whaley wasn’t wrong when he caught heat as an NFL GM in saying football is a violent game that humans were not designed to play.
This isn’t to say the whole sport should be abolished. Hardly.
The beef here has always been that the NFL doesn’t own its violence. The decades-long denial. Maybe Roger Goodell and all of the owners aren’t actively trying to cover things up and discredit doctors, such as Bennet Omalu, but they sure have mastered the beautiful art of distraction. The league does a fine job of getting us to blab about anything but its own product doing serious damage to its participants’ brains and bodies. When people on both sides grew angry through the kneeling controversy of 2017, sure, the league’s power brokers knew they had to do some major PR damage control. But the suits probably weren’t too upset that we were all talking about something other than concussions. They got around to painting “End Racism” in end zones and — wouldn’t ya know! — it’s been a full nine years since the league’s $765 million concussion settlement. Since then, the public’s attention and interest toward CTE has gradually waned and the NFL’s deft ability to head-fake us all doesn’t hurt.
This doesn’t mean players are all doing A-OK in their post-playing lives. Not even close as Majkowski and Kramer explained.
Then, there’s Barber. The body of the former Cowboys running back was found in his Frisco, Texas apartment underneath a running hot shower. His father told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he believes his son was there for a number of days due to the decomposition of his body. In case folks missed it, here’s what Terence Newman said about his former Cowboys teammate in our recent Q&A. We were talking right when Newman found out Barber had died:
It’s been a rough offseason for all of the reasons you bullet.
How can the NFL be made better for society? All 32 teams could do more, starting with not giving someone accused of such vile behavior the most guaranteed money ever. That seems like a logical first step. Let’s not forget the Browns were not the only team pursuing Deshaun Watson. The Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints were courting the QB to the end. It’d sure be swell if teams all shared a moral compass or, bare minimum, some common sense in realizing this was such a god-awful look for everyone associated with the league. All outrage is completely justified because the entire courtship was ass-backwards from Day 1. Watson should’ve been the one trying to convince NFL teams to give him a chance. Not the other way around.
Instead, teams fawned over a player central to a litany of disturbing allegations.
Of course, we’ve heard this song before. Repeatedly. Owners, coaches, scouts, front-office execs all effectively become robots staring at a screen with a clicker. Devoid of human emotion. If a talent like this can get you wins and keep everyone gainfully employed, hey, that’s the bottom line. Wins. Wins. More wins. Teams will look past almost anything if it means a shot at a Super Bowl and no employee determines the employment of everyone else in an organization quite like the quarterback.
Since Watson was lights out the last time we saw him, he was in high demand.
The Browns aren’t rogue renegades. We’ve seen such soullessness before. This Watson ordeal is a symptom of a larger problem.
At what point, does this become a problem for the almighty shield? Suppose the same logic applies to hurting retirees. How much does anything contribute to the current product and the current pursuit of bigger TV contracts? Very little. Unless it gets so bad that people are actually refusing to watch NFL games (a 0.0002 percent chance), the NFL will remain a freight train plowing right past any bad press a potential CTE-related death, a Commander investigation, a Watson accusation gets. After all, fantasy football drafts are around the corner and there are dozens upon dozens of television shows telling you who to take.
Go Long is an independent newsletter bringing you real football journalism and analysis. Subscribe today right here to get all stories and ask questions for the mailbag:
Been a subscriber since last season and zero regrets. Your stuff has given me a depth of knowledge that I was really missing, being from a country where football isn’t as ingrained in the culture (I live in London).
Anyway, my question. It’s a heavy one, so apologies in advance. I was really struck by the fact that Marion Barber didn’t want his brain to be used in CTE research, and am tempted to conclude it’s because he already knew the answer but for whatever reason didn’t want to be associated or remembered in that way. You and Jim talk to players all the time, current and former — are physical and mental problems down the road just the price of doing business, and if it makes their lives (and perhaps more importantly the lives of their loved ones) better, then it’s a price worth paying?
Here’s a bonus one for Jim - any news on XFL coverage over here, are they thinking of a Game Pass-type product?
Keep up the great work and all the best,
London! Wow. Appreciate you subscribing and reading from across the pond, Ben.
We’ll stay on this topic because, damn, that struck me as well. For those who missed it, Barber’s father said his son was “real specific in his will” on not wanting his brain examined. He added that it would’ve been a “moot point” given the decay of the body.
It’d be worth polling 100 or so players on that exact question — Are physical and mental problems a price worth paying? — but I think you’re right.
The majority of players in pro football would tell you brain damage is a cost of doing business. When the scary details surrounding Mike Webster’s demise became known nationwide and when CTE was evident in the brains of players like Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk and Junior Seau — with League of Denial spreading as must-read and must-see material — players could finally start making this decision for themselves. For decades, they could not. Nobody knew what a string of concussions could do to you later in life. That’s the good that comes out of such bad. Still, most active players view a pro football career as a short window of time that can be unbelievably beneficial financially, and it’s worth the risk. It’s true that many retired players live perfectly fine lives. And it’s also true that this sport is viewed as a golden ticket for kids across America — a large swath of the NFL’s workforce hails from extremely rough upbringings. Football serves as a divergent path away from gangs, drugs, poverty.
So, heck yeah, these players will throw themselves into football. The risk of brain damage often doesn’t compare to the horrors they’ve seen. Football can set up their entire families for life.
The NFL is squarely in the fight for Mom’s approval. Especially in the suburbs. Again, it’s hard to quantify, but there have to be plenty of kids choosing sports that do not beat their body and brain up to this degree. When recognizable players like Vincent Jackson and Marion Barber die under such bizarre circumstances, it does not help the NFL’s cause. All of us wrestle with this, right? Here at Go Long HQ, we have a son who’ll turn one year old next month. Sonny is years away from deciding whether or not football is for him, but it’s something that crosses our minds as parents.
And despite writing all of this above, despite the sport’s inherit risks, I’d absolutely still give him the green light if he wanted to play football. Football is imperfect. Football has its problems. But football teaches so many life lessons that, in my opinion, other sports cannot. (Judging by these motor skills, I’m seeing a future nickel corner blitzing off the edge.)
Overall, you know what would be nice? If the NFL could acknowledge its faults more often instead of sprinting the other direction. Before hitting publish on this mailbag, I was flipping ahead on our guide to record “America’s Game” docs running on NFL Network. The league’s television network is running a marathon over this holiday weekend and it’s always great to learn something about a past Super Bowl winner — these are always well done. But for some reason the “1995 Cowboys” edition is missing. The marathon will skip right from the 1994 49ers to the 1996 Packers. That seems quite odd until you realize that one of the primary narrators of the ‘95 Cowboys doc is the team’s since-disgraced head of PR: Rich Dalrymple.
Like the Dallas Cowboys themselves hardly noting the longtime exec’s exit before the accusations of his voyeurism went public, the league is simply taking an eraser to the matter.
And wouldn’t you know. The 2002 Buccaneers are suspiciously missing on the marathon, too.
Nothing to see here.
As for your XFL question, I’m sure the league will have international plans. We’ll grill Monos and Whaley on the pod as we close in. Speaking of, the XFL just held several showcase events that were overflowing with players trying to make it. Maybe that fact alone answers our question.
My question is about Mike Smith the ex-linebacker coach of the Packers. How normal is it for a coach asking out of his contract and that team grants him his release, only to see him a week later going to the Vikings?
Admittedly, I’m not sure what compelled Mike Smith to leave and then join a division rival. Coaches looking to leave isn’t abnormal. Several under Mike McCarthy were hoping for promotions elsewhere but weren’t granted permission, the downside of the job security their head coach was granting. Others just want out. It sure would’ve been interesting to see what Brian Daboll would’ve done if he didn’t get the head job in New York. Within the Brian Flores lawsuit back in February, it’s noted that Daboll wanted to leave Buffalo whether or not he got the Giants job.
To jog our memories, here’s what was written in the suit:
Ironically, during their January 11, 2022, text exchange, Mr. McDonnell also suggested that if Mr. Flores were hired as the Giants Head Coach, Brian Daboll might be interested in leaving Buffalo to serve as his Offensive Coordinator (“Heard Daboll isn’t happy with Sean (McDermott) in Buffalo . . . might be able to get out if he doesn’t get a head job. . . thoughts?'”).
The “Mr. McDonnell” refers to Tim McDonnell, the Giants’ co-director of player personnel who also happens to be the nephew of the team’s owner. It pays to know him. All signs point to McDermott not seeing eye to eye with his OC. Rifts aren’t uncommon, but it’s harder to actually get out and land with a rival.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Chances are, something was up in Green Bay.
How are receiver rookies going to get any reps if we sign all these available free agents? Everyone keeps telling them to sign when their production was down the last few years.
When it comes to those Packers, it’s a fair debate. Our resident Hall of Famer, Bob McGinn, made this excellent point last season on Randall Cobb. After Cobb’s clutch third-down reception in Cincinnati set up a game-winning field goal, most of us viewed that single play as justification for giving Aaron Rodgers’ buddy a roster spot. Not many players are willing to venture into that area of the field. To this day, many Packers fans probably still cite this play as the reason you keep Cobb on your roster for 2022.
And yet, there were many other plays not discussed. Take Green Bay’s final offensive possession of its final game. Knowing Cobb was zero threat to go deep, cornerback K’Waun Williams squatted right on the receiver’s out route and nearly picked Rodgers off. Cobb is a small, slow receiver who’ll turn 32 next month. To your point, his presence stunted the growth of Amari Rodgers. Who knows if the 2021 third-round pick out of Clemson will last? His rookie season wasn’t impressive but he barely had any opportunities. Eight targets in 16 games to be exact.
In 2022, the Packers welcome three more draft picks to the receiver room. It’ll be a free-for-all. Roles and roster spots should be up for grabs, and it will pay to know where Rodgers wants you to be. Particularly for a team that’s all in. Perhaps Juwann Winfree or Sammy Watkins are two vets who can stretch the field unlike Cobb. How Green Bay divvies up reps in training camp will be crucial because the quarterback is essentially starting from scratch with Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs and Samori Toure.
It’s a tricky balance. If any of the rookies impress, the coaching staff should take a lesson from last season. I know the Packers are alllllll in. Aaron Rodgers’ contract is structured in a way that makes this a Super Bowl-or-Bust season. He could easily retire next offseason and the Packers are in salary-cap hell. Even then, the Packers can do better than Cobb eating up 33.24 percent of the offensive snaps as he did in 2021.
We know how important a QB is for winning games. It’s obvious, tangible on Sundays. How important though is a great QB — or a good backup QB — in improving a team’s defense day after day in practice? Conversely, could a great QB like Rodgers have a negative impact on his own team’s defense, ripping them up in practices and demoralizing them, especially a rookie.
What made me think of this bit was Jaire Alexander saying he’d make it tough on Watson to make him better. But would a veteran let a kid make a few plays here and there to bring up their confidence?
The first thought that comes to mind here is Super Bowl LIII between the Patriots and Rams. The game itself was a 13-3 snoozer, but it was all by design. Bill Belichick’s gameplan was masterful in holding Los Angeles to 260 yards, 14 first downs and three points. An offense that had averaged 32.9 points per game that season was forced to punt nine times. If you read one story about this game make it this one from the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore. On deadline, he explained in great detail how Belichick neutered the Rams’ offense.
Yet there was another factor, too: Brian Hoyer.
In addition to Belichick’s mind, the Patriots benefited from a spectacular week of practice from the career backup. After the win, vet Devin McCourty explained how Hoyer acted like he was making checks at the line of scrimmage, audibled and, all in all, played a complex game of chess with the Patriots defense. The defense felt particularly confident in its ability to confuse Jared Goff on a play call that led to a crucial Stephon Gilmore interception.
In the AFC Championship that year, Hoyer did a stellar job as Patrick Mahomes on the scout team, too. He’s exactly what you’re looking for in a backup. Hoyer studies for scout-team snaps like its a game. More teams should place such an emphasis on a reliable backup quarterback. No question, one reason Belichick isn’t freaking out over his offensive coaching staff nearly as much as everyone else is the fact that Hoyer is essentially another coach for Mac Jones.
This is more so what practices resemble during a season. A starting offense will face a scout-team defense, and vice versa. To your point, the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense duke it out through training camp and I have heard about the negative effect you describe. That same 2018 season that New England won it all, Mike Zimmer was doing his offense zero favors in the spring. He’d intentionally blow up the RPO plays his Vikings offense was trying to run. A team that was just tasered by an RPO-heavy offense in the NFC title game (Philadelphia) was trying to incorporate its own version and the stubborn Zimmer was having none of it. With the offense’s play script in hand, he called plays to intentionally screw them over. They couldn’t even practice RPOs.
Afterward, Zimmer then ripped the offensive staff for being too gimmicky. It takes an ego to ruin the competition in this environment.
My best guess? The best-case scenario is what Jaire Alexander describes. If Christian Watson — mano a mano — can find a way to beat Alexander in coverage, there’s a good chance he’ll be able to beat most any corner in NFL. That’ll harden him more than any sense of accomplishment gained from beating up on a UDFA.
Thanks for including my question in the first mailbag! My question this time:
Most NFL players jerseys are pretty “clean” with just the shirt manufacturers logo, the team logo, and the players name/number on it. In a lot of other sports we see sponsors logos everywhere on a jersey (both sleeves, the bottom of the jersey below the players name, and on the front too). In the revenue-first NFL business model, how soon do you think it will be before we go down that path, or will we be able to hold it off for a while longer?
It’s all about the benjamins. We know that. Owners have the audacity to raise ticket prices after losing seasons and threaten to leave cities just so they don’t have to fund their own stadiums. They also place their trust in an extremely litigious commish. Owners pay Roger Goodell $30 million per year while simultaneously doing their best to pay retired players as little as possible.
So, why wouldn’t this league slap ads over player’s jerseys? The NBA started doing this in 2017 by permitting individual teams to strike deals with their own sponsors. The value of the jersey patches for the 2021-22 season, per Boardroom, was $225 million.
It’s a lucrative source of revenue the NFL has flirted with. Thirteen years ago, they put ads on practice jerseys.
Part of me is surprised we haven’t seen it yet on gameday. Maybe it’s naivety but this strikes me as one area where the league is trying hard to remain at least a little wholesome. Everywhere you look on an NFL Sunday — be it on TV or live inside a stadium — the league sells out worse than Krusty the Clown. The cleats. The socks. The sideline visors. The Gatorade bottles. Even instant replays must be conducted with Bose headphones and a Microsoft Surface tablet. And you’ve got a better shot at seeing Bigfoot out your window than a network forgetting to sponsor its ever-captivating “three keys to the game.” Remember teams: Start fast. No turnovers. Play physical.
Yet, even the owners understand football is the ultimate primetime event in America. Visuals matter. The slightest tweak of a camera angle tends to freak people out. Pushing the envelope this far — to ads on jerseys that are an objective eyesore — would be a step too far. Something like dropping a needlessly dumb character or plot twist into an addictive TV drama.
One more thought here. The bond between team and city is stronger in football than any other sport. Polluting a sacred uniform like that Steelers’ black or Cowboys’ white with McDonald’s golden arches or Amazon’s swooping arrow contaminates that bond to a degree. Millions of people find their self-identity in a football team and the NFL knows this.
Thanks for the awesome content and community!
In your recent pod, you and Monos were laughing about your days covering the 2015 Bills for The News and how you almost had enough material for a book.
Well I'll just ask, do you have a favorite or crazy story from those days you can share that we all may not have heard?
Thank you for listening, Ryan! You’ve got that right. Still kicking myself for not logging the madness in a more organized fashion that fall. Those 2015 Bills could’ve been the best documentary of an 8-8 football team we’ve ever seen. I had just moved back to Western New York from Wisconsin to cover the team for the Buffalo News and, holy heck, where do you begin?
At the top of my head…
Before games were even played, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer allegedly punched a minor in the eye and threatened to kill his family over a beach chair. The team’s new star running back (LeSean McCoy) advertised a private “females only” party on his Instagram the eve of training camp and those who RSVP’ed were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. McCoy cancelled the party and assured all “it was no weird orgy thing.” Head coach Rex Ryan signed IK Enemkpali one day after the linebacker punched his own QB (Geno Smith) in the jaw. Fun!
Rex sauntered on up to the podium in a Clemson helmet once.
Marcell Dareus, pining for a new deal, told me after a preseason game that the Bills were acting like they didn’t even want him. The team, he said, was treating him like “a dime a dozen.” Dareus soon inked a six-year, $108 million extension. (BTW: Dareus’ life story is wild. He opened up for this.)
Ahead of a Week 2 showdown with the Patriots — when Guinness World Records came to town to capture the crowd noise — Rex said he didn’t even know Dion Lewis’ name. Lewis then kill the Bills, playing a massive role in a 40-32 Patriots win.
Sammy Watkins demanded the ball 10 times a game.
Percy Harvin shined. Percy Harvin disappeared. Nobody knew why he abruptly quit.
Defensive players openly trashed the defensive scheme.
The EJ Manuel-led Bills fell into a 27-3 hole against the lowly Jaguars in London and stormed back to take the lead before losing, 34-31, after a phantom DPI flag on Nickell Robey-Coleman.
Karlos Williams, an explosive rookie back, suffered a concussion that kept him out for a full month and led to terrifying symptoms. Williams couldn’t sleep, struggled to eat and his eyes were always in pain. His head was constantly “pounding” and “throbbing.” After the season, his girlfriend got pregnant and Williams admitted he put on sympathy weight. He never played another down.
McCoy returned to Philly for the first time, as an opponent, and kissed the logo at midfield. This after McCoy vowed he would not be shaking Chip Kelly’s hand. (“Chip can’t shake shit,” he said.) The Bills lost. McCoy chucked his helmet in the visitor’s locker room with a loud “F--k! F--k!”
Richie Incognito was back in the league after his exile from the sport and it was roughly the 41st craziest storyline.
OK. To your question. Maybe Bills fans remember this one, but toward the end of the season I did a story on Mario Williams. He was the unofficial emblem of this bust of a season — one of the NFL’s best pass rushers, a $100 Million Dollar Man, suddenly nothing more than a placeholder. There were teammates who did believe Rex was misusing Williams. But there were more players irate over what they deemed a player outright quitting on the team, about the worst thing you can say about a teammate.
Said one player: “It’s been clear to me that Mario doesn’t care about anybody but himself. He followed that up by not giving any effort during the season and complaining about the scheme instead of manning up and saying he played like crap and doesn’t care.
And: “Those guys have to be your team leaders and bell cows. To not give a crap like that shows why teams need to think twice before investing that much in one guy. We could easily have five solid players contributing than one guy who doesn’t give a f--k.”
This player told me Williams cared more about his remote control cars than actually producing as a football player. All while Williams made $11 million more than anybody else on the team that season. While he wasn’t necessarily wrong to criticize the scheme, Williams’ apathy through that wild 2015 season might’ve been worse than anything.
We’ll have to have an ex-Bill on for a Happy Hour sometime to discuss, eh?
That’ll do for now but we’ll have Part II up soon. Thanks, everyone!
Miss our first mailbag? On the Giants' QB plan, the Packers' new formula & those poor NFL running backs