PHOENIX – The two topics I was most interested in at the now-completed NFL Annual Meeting at the Arizona Biltmore hotel had nothing to do with the agenda items that would draw the most attention. Rule changes and replay debates would dominate the public discussion at the meetings, but some of the more meaningful conversations were reserved for decidedly private forums.
I came into these meetings fixated on whether the momentum building towards a new CBA with the NFLPA, and towards the NFL fully embracing and profiting from the legalized gambling craze would be as strong after these meetings as it was before every owner, coach, GM and team president assembled along with all of the league's top brass from Park Avenue. And the answer is: yes and yes.
You won't hear many soundbites about either topic, aside from Giants owner John Mara divulging the league hopes to begin formally negotiating a new labor pact with the union next month, while also confirming what I have been reporting since the combine – there has already been a back and forth "at the staff level" to facilitate widespread discussions and to share some preliminary thoughts and ideas.
Readers of this space already knew there was abundant, quiet optimism that there is a deal to be done here, well before the start of the 2020 season, and some high-ranking sources I spoke to in Phoenix said they wouldn't be shocked if a deal was in place by the May 2020 owners meeting – well ahead of the start of that season. While things have been preliminary, I continue to get a sense from both union and management sources that the sides understand how much money is out there to be harvested through the influx of gambling money and new broadcast and streaming deals, and they want to have secured labor peace well ahead of those negotiations.
Of course, things could break down and there is always the chance of setbacks – especially once the owners and players get in the room together. But I am more hastened than ever that green will prevail in this instance. I continue to hear the NFL is very prepared to listen to alternatives to the current marijuana policy and is going to be flexible on issues like the commissioner's powers to handle off-field violations of the personal conduct policy.
"There is a deal to be done here," said one ownership source. "There has been a lot of momentum building behind the scenes. If you are hearing there are positive vibes to that end, you would not be wrong."
Of course, you won't hear much of this expressed on-the-record. Both sides have to manage the expectations of their rank and file, and the NFLPA needs to continue to prepare for the worst-case scenario – a lock-out or work stoppage of some sort – for obvious reasons. Players have to be urged to save money now for later and prepare for a rainy day, lest it come. Even if the forecast is for sunnier skies.
But within the NFLPA I get the sense that as much as the union would love to achieve fully guaranteed salaries and the end of the franchise tag, I expect them to prioritize other economic beacons that are more realistic to attain (eliminating the fifth year option on first-round picks, for instance). Getting a bigger piece of the overall revenue pie is always at the forefront of the NFLPA's goal – as it should be – and roster expansion is another issue that there would seem to be some common ground on.
Bottom line is there is a ways to go. This process is only just (formally) getting started. But in the past, when owners have gathered – with all of their disparate ideas and philosophies – it has tended to exaggerate their differences and the potential for in-fighting has tended to stall momentum. This week in Arizona was the opposite. I'm more bullish than ever on a new CBA getting done well before the start of the 2020 season – the final season covered under the current CBA.
Patriots eyeing QB?
I'm hearing more and more about the work the Patriots are doing on this class of quarterbacks and the potential for them to perhaps even move up to select one. Obviously, they were going through a very similar process a year ago, but no trade-ups made sense and several of the QBs they coveted were off the board very quickly.
Could Dwayne Haskins escape the top 10 and be a target for them? What about a more moderate move up for Daniel Jones? Expect to hear plenty about this in the coming weeks. Other teams are convinced the intent is real.
News and notes
- The gambling side of the equation was a heavy topic of conversation behind closed doors at the annual meetings. The league continues to invest heavily in getting the best IT and real-time scoring system as possible and these owners are embracing, fully, the concept of all of the sponsorship, advertising and other revenue the sports books have to offer. The push continues to have all the necessary strata in place by the start of the 2019 season, though that may prove to be ambitious. The league knows that once it starts to take money from these sources and has an official sports book etc, then the stats and scoring need to be fool-proof. But it's coming, and sooner rather than later. "The owners see the money that is out there to be had," said a high-ranking official from one club: "The league wants to get it right and make sure the technology is where it needs to be, but it's a game-changer, economically, and they all know it. They are all going to make a boatload of money."
- The sense among general managers I spoke to is that the decision to make non-calls and calls of offensive and defensive pass interference reviewable is just the beginning of a larger movement. If this goes relatively smoothly, then more and more infractions will fall under the replay umbrella. "This is just the start," one GM said as leaving the meeting room on Tuesday. "This is going to be huge." The owners listened to the football people – a rarity in this business – and Sean Payton is getting huge props for politicking and lobbying and getting this change agreed to despite steep odds. It will be remembered as the Sean Payton rule, and, if the football people are correct, will be the first major step towards eventually getting to what's referred to as "The (Bill) Belichick Proposal" approved – every play is reviewable at any time. "If you ask me, that's where this is heading," another GM said. Of course, coaches would still only have a limited number of challenges to utilize, so game-time shouldn't be a huge issue.
- Along those lines, during the debate about replay proposals during these meetings, Belichick was at the center of one of the more notable exchanges. Troy Vincent, head of NFL football operations, was leading a discussion and the matter of length of game was on the floor in regards to expanding replay. Belichick made the point that more actual time is wasted by full-scale player celebrations than is often dedicated to replay review. He brought up entire groups of players running from the sidelines to the opposite end zone to celebrate and groused about how much time that ate up, and made his case for why that should be regulated more. Not exactly out of character for him.
- Does not sound like the Seahawks will be coming to market anytime soon. In the immediate aftermath of the passing of Paul Allen there was some chatter about the team being sold sooner rather than later, but at this point anything could be years away based on what I was picking up in Arizona.
- While the NFL, officially, tabled the Chiefs' proposal to alter overtime until the May meeting, I would be shocked if that actually went anywhere. Sure, the owners did just let the coaches and GMs prevail on the replay issue, but there are limits to everything. "The owners don't want to change overtime," said a source who was in those discussions. "That's not happening."