From my days as a "slappy" with the Cleveland Browns in 1992, making lunch and airport runs, to the years I spent helping build one of the most successful franchises in NFL history, I woke up grateful for each day of the 27 years I spent in the NFL. I have been fortunate enough to be part of a New England Patriots championship dynasty and I have also performed poorly enough to fail and be fired. The bubble of NFL privilege affords us opportunities and blessings, but it also immerses us so deeply in competing that we can become oblivious to the realities of the world around us.
Over the past several weeks, I've watched some NFL club personnel transition from panic and resistance about the challenges of this unprecedented offseason to acceptance. They voiced concerns about the start of free agency, player physicals, the draft and offseason programs. From the beginning, most head coaches, general managers, personnel directors and scouts that I spoke to quietly talked about taking these challenges head-on and trying to find solutions even as the landscape changed almost every day. Those people are the real leaders in our game. They understand the same issues exist for all 32 teams in this recently agreed-upon "virtual offseason," and they are ready to compete.
However, I also heard about some leaders that were trying to frame their challenges -- many of them anonymously -- in a more intentional way. Some leaked passive-aggressive narratives about how difficult their jobs are going to be during this draft, while some called on the NFL to postpone or cancel the draft. In the end, the league stood firm, and we are moving forward -- as are millions of individuals in our country who are facing far greater challenges.
I was disappointed with the people who initially complained behind the scenes. There was a small but vocal minority of NFL professionals who were positioning the challenges in a myopic way, the wrong voices saying the wrong things. However, they were making enough waves to create reasonable doubt about the process; in my experience, these kinds of narratives are often little more than a built-in excuse for potential failure.
Football culture doesn't condone players speaking publicly about injuries. The primary reason is not a fear of losing competitive advantage or players making themselves targets to be injured further, which rarely happens. Instead, the main concern was that players were creating excuses. If an injured athlete plays well, he is the ultimate warrior. If he doesn't, the explanation for failure is already out there.
We all have our own "game days," our own times to perform on our individual professional playing fields. I'm not being critical of the natural impulse to take pressure off of ourselves. It's a very human reaction, and we have all done it at some point in our lives. The challenges posed to the NFL by the coronavirus pandemic are real, but let's please keep them in perspective. There will be technology issues, not enough in-person interview time, canceled pro days, no chance for a team doctor to visit with an injured prospect, and no ability to take the owner's private plane to in-person private workouts and meetings.
I have lived in the NFL bubble and understand how real-world tragedy can intrude on our routine. I was the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs when one of my favorite players shot himself in the head right in front of me and our head coach one Saturday morning in 2012. We still had to have meetings that night and ask our players to play the next day. As privileged as an NFL career can be, it can also be brutally unforgiving.
So I understand that the concerns being voiced now have a degree of validity. But I also think people need to be reminded of reality and perspective. Let's look at a few of these challenges in more detail.
Not enough in-person interviews
Since last August, every NFL team employs dozens of scouting personnel who spend the entire football season focused on evaluating and gathering information on draft prospects. There also were no less than five All-Star games in January, with 80 participants each meeting with coaches, scouts and executives. The NFL Combine ran as per usual in February, with about 330 prospects in attendance.
Every NFL team had the opportunity to meet with these players, to measure and conduct interviews and scout them. All of those players are now available to meet online with all 32 NFL teams. Will these interviews be perfect, or what you're used to? Maybe not, but you have hired, trained and taught your process to a staff, and they should be able to provide you with good information. All of the leaders out there giving speeches about "collaboration" and "inclusive decision making," here is your chance to master it.
No chance for team doctors to visit with injured prospects
Every NFL team also had a small army of medical personnel at the combine, collecting medical data. Of course, some of the players coming off of postseason surgery would also need to get a second look at the "Indy Recheck" in late March, but doctors have been sharing X-ray scans and imaging via digital file sharing for years. Doctors and trainers have been watching videos of players working out and running around to confirm that their functionality matches what the medical reports and images show. I have sat in final pre-draft medical meetings with team doctors and trainers for over 20 years, and we were not able to get an in-person recheck on every player.
Each team has to assign a medical grade or risk assessment to each player based on their own standards. In 2016, Jaylon Smith was on pace to be a top-3 pick until he had a gruesome injury in a January bowl game. He tore the ACL and LCL in his knee and had significant nerve damage. Medically, he was off the board for more than half the league. The lingering uncertainty caused some NFL medical personnel to quietly say that he'd never walk without a limp. The Dallas Cowboys surprised a lot of people when they picked Smith in the second round. He became a starter in 2018 and made his first Pro Bowl this past season. The Cowboys took a risk that could have gone in either direction, and they won this one.
My sister, Lisa, is a high school educator in our hometown of Washingtonville, N.Y. Each time we talk about the pandemic, she tells me about the many kids in the school district who are without computers or internet service. Many homes that actually do have a computer also have multiple children who need to use it, as well as parent(s) who are forced to work from home every day of every week.
Families across America are figuring out ways to adapt and accept that it's not going to be perfect. The folks at NFL teams who are adapting to their new work environments and technical challenges fear glitches. They would do well to consider the millions who were living paycheck-to-paycheck before this crisis and are now literally fighting for their lives. Those are the same people paying those NFL salaries -- and NOT just the players' salaries. Perspective ... Your work will get done.
Canceled pro days and no private workouts
College pro days are a relatively new phenomenon. The entertainment value for the football industry is enormous, but the information and work done at these events is slightly overhyped. It's simply another impression of a player in the overall evaluation. Does having more opportunities lead to better decisions? It should, but there are no guarantees.
The reality is that the hit-miss ratio by decision makers is no different in the era of private planes than it was when the Steelers drafted four future Hall of Famers in 1974. I'm pretty sure there weren't any pro days, private workouts or private planes prior to that draft. I'm not completely dismissing these events as invaluable, I am simply saying they are not a necessity. Every team is playing by the same rules.
So let's keep these challenges in perspective. Opponents, the league office, fans and media don't give a head coach a free pass when he has four or five injured starters. Players are expected to play when they are banged up or sick. Have you ever watched a player clench hands with teammates and trainers and bite a towel before a game so doctors could inject his groin and get him on the field? I have, and I can tell you the player was pretty uncomfortable and inconvenienced.
Listen, I get it. This draft is going to have new rules of engagement -- an unfamiliar and uncomfortable way of executing a draft -- but the whole world is uncomfortable and unfamiliar right now. Our country has real problems. Problems that we are going to be feeling for years. Problems that are going to shape the emotional makeup of our children's generation. Millions of people have been affected by this. Thousands have died. More than 1 in 10 workers have lost their jobs in just the past three weeks. Many who still have jobs have had their salaries slashed. One of my closest lifelong friends is a small business owner and is now shut down for good. Many people won't ever recover, and if they do their lives will be forever changed.
There are people on the clock right now doing heroic things. Grocery store workers and truck drivers keeping us supplied with necessities. Health care professionals, emergency room staff, police, firemen, first-responders. They are making extraordinary sacrifices, fighting off exhaustion as they put their lives on the line every day. There are people taking their last breaths of life in isolation who can't even say goodbye to their loved ones, or receive a proper burial.
The great football people I know are leaders and problem-solvers -- not excuse makers. They assess situations, create a game plan and try to execute. They eliminate distractions for themselves and their teams while understanding there will be something to adapt to. They expend their energy finding ways to do it better than the competition. They don't hedge their bets by offering excuses in advance in case they fail. Fortunately, this is what most of our league is doing now.
I'd also like to be clear about something: My intent is not to publicly shame or wag my finger at the folks who were not seeing things clearly amidst the pressure of the moment. Again, I have been there.
I remember the early morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I was coming out of back-to-back-to-back meetings with Bill Belichick, our trainer and other coaches. It was an in-season Tuesday, which meant it was game plan day for the coaches and free agent workout day for the personnel department. Tuesday also included early morning roster conversations with Bill based on our injury status and the results of the game from the previous Sunday.
Like most Tuesdays, I was locked in on thinking, planning, meeting ... wondering how we could get better and how I could serve the head coach and the organization. That was my job. We were 0-1 and coming off of a 5-11 season. At one point, I felt something was off as I bounced from meeting to meeting. I walked out of Bill's office past the Patriots' director of football/head coach administration, Berj Najarian, who was oddly speechless, staring at his television. As I talked with a few coaches and trainers and headed up to my office in old Foxboro Stadium, I noticed people ignoring their tape monitors and watching their televisions. When I walked past longtime director of scouting administration Nancy Meier's desk, I noticed that she had her television on, too. I thought it was strange, so I glanced quickly at her screen. The visual did not register. I thought, "What's going on this morning?"
In my office, I sat down to work on the issues of the day. Nancy came in almost immediately and asked if I had seen what was happening. She said, "I think you need to turn on your TV and stop working for a second."
I tell that story because this is what happens sometimes in our crazy NFL bubble. We get so caught up in our world, our pursuit of victory, our competitiveness. We are consumed by the desire to win, or the fear of failing. We want to do our job better than everyone else, to be king for a day or to fight off the humiliation that comes with getting fired and we have blinders on. We temporarily become oblivious to the real world, or we are selective with the real world problems we choose to acknowledge.
We are all blessed to work in and around football. I love this game and have made it my life's work, and I know the intense focus it demands at its highest level. To those working hard in NFL offices to adapt to this unprecedented moment in our history, I give my full respect. I ask that you continue to be thankful for the game and the people who make it possible through their passion, support and resources. This is a time for fortitude and gratitude, not excuses. "For of those to whom much is given, much is required."