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WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — If declining TV ratings are a problem for the NFL, its players would like to know what can be done about them.

NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith told ESPN on Saturday that he has recently met with executives at several of the league’s broadcast partners, including CBS, NBC and Fox, to discuss issues related to the game. Entering his 10th year as leader of the players’ union, Smith is looking ahead to the next round of collective bargaining negotiations and wants the players to have a greater voice in what he describes as the league’s “macroeconomic” issues, including the way it presents itself to the public.

“I think that the ratings information is significant and important. If we don’t pay attention to it, I think that we do so at our own peril, from a macroeconomic standpoint,” Smith said Saturday in an interview before his son Alex’s lacrosse game at the University of Hartford. “Certainly, I recognize that we’re lucky that over 30 of the top 50 shows were NFL broadcasts. But I think that you ignore at your own peril not so much just the decline in football, but the overall decline in ratings for most television shows and particularly sports broadcasts.”

Smith pointed to the success the NBA is having right now and a desire to find out more about what’s behind it.

“I think that it’s important to take a look at what’s going on in basketball, because for the most part, I think they are the only sport that more and more people are watching,” Smith said. “And my hat’s off to what they do and how they do it in the NBA. I think that you could make the argument that a lot of their programming is fresher, hipper. They do, I think, a great job of marketing their individual players, sometimes at a time when the [NFL] looks for ways to take their star players off the field. I would be interested in better understanding the relationship between the broadcast partners and the NBA, what that relationship is like, how they do their TV deals, their rights deals.

“But I think that, given the year-over-year ratings issue in football, it begs the question, ‘Should we be doing something different?’ And that might mean the restructuring of the season in a way to make it more fan-friendly.”

Pressed on specific ideas to restructure the NFL season, Smith said he would like to find ways to better feature the best games and maybe even eliminate some that don’t hold the public’s interest.

“You look at the ratings, and you see that marquee matchups buck the trend on declining ratings,” Smith said. “And you also know that there’s groups of games, and let’s just say preseason games to start with. … It’s hard to find a fan that wants to buy a preseason ticket or wants to watch a preseason game. So to me, you’re being intellectually dishonest if you don’t want to look at both of those issues.

“When you do look at playoff games, when you do look at whether they’re division rivalries or games that have a level of significance, those games are not only exciting and people still want to watch them, but those marquee games are still big-time, high-viewership games.”

He suggested a model with fewer regular-season games and another round of playoff games.

“It doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily what you’re going to do, but we are at a point where we the union aren’t going to be this sort of silent other third party out there who’s not involved in the business of football from a stadium, media, Sunday, offseason standpoint,” Smith said. “We’re just not going to do it anymore.”

Smith’s point in meeting with broadcast executives is to establish the NFLPA as demanding a say in vital underlying issues central to the future of the game. He has yet to engage ownership in talks regarding the next CBA but seems to be announcing that, once those talks do start, he would like to be addressing issues more fundamental to the game’s structure and future than the players may have been invited to discuss in the past.

“The reason I’ve reached out is because I’m interested in finding out what our broadcast partners think about our game,” Smith said. “And I want to make sure that we have an environment where not only they are providing important input but so are we, and that we’re all thinking about long-term viability rather than just short-term impacts on revenue.”

“I think that it’s important to take a look at what’s going on in basketball, because for the most part, I think they are the only sport that more and more people are watching. And my hat’s off to what they do and how they do it in the NBA.”

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith

Smith held forth on a number of topics during a roughly 45-minute interview.

• On player health and safety, Smith said he wants to continue to looking at ways to incentivize coaches and teams. Smith said the NFL is very good at establishing punishment structures for players who violate rules, but less willing to look at the extent to which coaches and teams might be complicit.

“For example, if at the end of the year you have a team that’s got the largest number of penalties for X, Y and Z — unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct — should we start considering what’s the impact on the coach stakeholder or the franchise stakeholder?” Smith said. “And that might include what impact that might have with them on draft order. Then you have a regime where everybody’s incentivized.

“Take a defensive player who’s coached or taught repeatedly that, if you can’t break up the pass, separate the receiver from the ball — and we know they’re being coached that way. When the incident happens on the field, if it’s too early, too hard or too high, there’s going to be a penalty and the player’s going to get fined and blah blah blah, blah blah blah. But at the end of the day, it seems to me that you’re still leaving out two other stakeholders, right? The coach that taught him to do it and the team that wants him to do it. And you don’t necessarily take into consideration that the player has not only been told to do it, but he knows if he doesn’t do it, he may not be playing and somebody else who is willing to do it might take his place. That’s a lack of aligned incentives.”

• On the investigation into and pending sale of the Carolina Panthers, Smith said he wants the league to be transparent about the investigation and its conclusions as they pertain to the allegations of harassment against owner Jerry Richardson.

He also took the opportunity to take some further shots at NFL investigators who, he believes, have performed poorly in past disciplinary situations involving players.

“If it’s true that Mary Jo White is involved in the current investigation of the Panthers, I have a question because I know that she falsely accused players in Bounty[gate],” Smith said. “And things that she said to the press were either knowingly untrue or there came a time when we all knew they weren’t true. If it’s true that Lisa Friel is involved in the investigation of the Panthers, then I know for a fact that someone who ignored the conclusions of her own investigator [in the Ezekiel Elliott case] is involved in the investigation of an owner. Neither of those two things should give anyone a level of confidence in the integrity of the investigation.

“So at the very least, it seems to me that the league as a whole and their partners, the players, deserve to have the results of the investigation of the Panthers released publicly before the sale. And that’s simply because, if the premise of the personal conduct policy is the integrity of the league, why shouldn’t we have the same level of transparency that occurs in player investigations occur here?”

• On free agency, which begins in a couple of weeks, Smith said he has his eye on certain high-profile situations like that of quarterback and union rep Kirk Cousins but is also casting a wary eye at what has happened with Major League Baseball’s slow free-agent market this offseason.

“What is happening there can most charitably be described as an anomaly,” Smith said of MLB. “And so, have I been talking with agents in baseball and with our brother/sister union MLPBA to look at what’s going on there? Absolutely. Because anomalies like that in a quote-unquote free-agent market are disturbing.

“We have economic mechanisms like the [spending] minimums. But hypothetically, if the anomaly that is occurring in baseball is motivated by the desire of some owners and some teams, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you’ve got an economic mechanism to prevent it. No economic mechanism is going to prevent a deliberate decision to affect the market. So my takeaway from what’s happening in baseball is that it reminds you at that times, people can make decisions or might want to make decisions that are, in the short term, somewhat self-centered but might end up negatively impacting their sport in a significant way.”

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Texans coach David Culley tasked with changing culture, but will he have Deshaun Watson?

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HOUSTON — Before all of the trade talk, reports about his future and the hiring of new coach David Culley, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was asked what he was looking for in his next head coach.

“I mean, we just need a whole culture shift,” Watson said earlier in the month. “We just need new energy. We need discipline, we need structure, we need a leader so we can follow that leader as players. That’s what we need. We’ve got to have the love of not just the game of football, because that’s what we do, but the love for people and the people in this organization.”

“… We need someone that stands tall and [says] this is who we’re following and this is the way it goes … and we’re going to do it this way to win.”

Of course, Watson might not be with the Texans to play for Culley, as ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported on Sunday that the quarterback is expected to still want out of Houston regardless of whom the team hires. Watson wasn’t the only one who felt there needed to be a culture change.

By hiring Culley, the Texans hope they’ve found that person to build the foundation that Watson asked for.

But, for most Texans fans, Culley’s name isn’t a familiar one. So who is he and why did Texans CEO Cal McNair and general manager Nick Caserio pick him to be the franchise’s next head coach?

Who is David Culley?

Culley, 65, has spent the past three seasons in Baltimore as the Ravens’ assistant head coach, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. He just finished his 27th season as an NFL coach after 16 seasons in various college coaching roles. He’ll be the oldest coach in NFL history at the time of his head-coaching debut.

Culley has never been an offensive coordinator at the NFL level, but he has been an assistant head coach before his stint in Baltimore, for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Ravens were a run-first offense in 2020, as they led the NFL in rushing yards and ranked last in passing yards.

What does he bring to Houston?

The Texans were serious about fixing the culture within the organization, and they believe Culley is that person.

After doing a second interview with the Texans — this time in person — the team was impressed by Culley’s energy and believe he has the NFL experience to deliver that cultural shift within the building, even if he hasn’t been a coordinator before.

“The thing I would emphasize about Coach Culley, more than anything, is what an amazing teacher and communicator he is,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in 2019. “He’s probably the best — I would say he’s the best straight-up teacher, communicator, that I’ve seen coaching football one-on-one, not just because he coaches it so well, but because he’s so relentless and he coaches the important things.”

“You can be relentless, but if you’re coaching things that don’t matter, then that’s just a lot of hot air. He’s coaching the things that matter, and you see the guys getting better every day within his position group.”

McNair knew he wanted whomever he hired as general manager to take the lead on the coaching search. That is Caserio, who said the characteristic he was looking for most in a head coach was an ability to “lead people.”

“Because in the end, football is a sport but it’s about people, right?” Caserio said. “You have to make an investment in people. You have to be able to lead people. … Those are some of the things that will be important relative to whether or not they’re a good playcaller on their respective side of the ball. But whoever it is will have some competency in some area.”

“… I would say in our situation, relative to Deshaun, trying to put something in place that’s sustainable for him that can allow him and the rest of the team and the organization to go out there and perform to their maximum capacity on a week-to-week basis. That’s the goal.”

What does this mean for Deshaun Watson?

This is perhaps the most important question that only Watson can answer. If Watson still wants out regardless of whom the Texans hired, as Mortensen reported, then hiring Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy instead wouldn’t have made a difference.

Now that the Texans have hired their new coach, the question is whether Watson will be here to see the culture shift he asked for in Houston. The quarterback hasn’t requested a trade, but he could decide to do so once the hire is officially announced.

While the Texans could agree to trade terms with another team before the start of the new league year on March 17, a trade cannot be executed until then. The key timeframe to pay attention to is before the NFL draft in April, because if the Texans were to trade Watson, they would want to make sure they’re getting 2021 draft capital, when the pick slots are locked in.

What’s next in Houston?

Watson put up the best numbers of his young career in 2020 and the team won only four games. Houston’s defense struggled all season, finishing 30th in Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA. Of course, there are still a lot of holes on a defense that struggled primarily because it lacked young difference-makers, so whomever Culley hires as his defensive coordinator will have a tall task ahead.

Regardless of whether the Texans trade Watson or not, those holes on the roster will remain. The Texans’ first pick in this draft is No. 67, so they won’t be able to add impact talent at a team-friendly price, and they are currently $18 million over the projected 2021 salary cap (although that matters less than the cash they’ve already committed, which gives them some flexibility).

If Houston trades Watson, they will be able to plug in pieces on the defense and upgrade that side of the ball significantly, but then questions will remain at quarterback.

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Houston Texans hire Baltimore Ravens’ David Culley as head coach, sources say

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HOUSTON — The Houston Texans have hired Baltimore Ravens assistant David Culley to be their next head coach, sources told ESPN, confirming a report by the Houston Chronicle.

Culley, 65, who has spent the past three seasons in Baltimore, just completed his 27nd season as an NFL coach. Along with serving as the team’s assistant head coach, Culley was Baltimore’s passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. The Ravens finished the 2020 season ranked last in the NFL in passing.

“It’s a great opportunity there,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of the Texans’ opening in the week leading up to Baltimore’s divisional playoff game. “They have a heck of an organization. I do believe that David Culley would be a tremendous hire for any team; maybe, especially, the Texans with Deshaun Watson.”

Culley has never been an offensive coordinator at the NFL level. He was also an assistant head coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. When the Ravens hired Culley in 2019, Harbaugh said the coach was highly respected “as a teacher, game-planner and motivator.”

When the Texans fired head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien in October, Houston became the first team with an opening for either position. The Texans hired Nick Caserio as their new general manager earlier this month and gave him the reins to their head-coaching search.

Along with Culley, Houston interviewed Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, former Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell, Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and current Texans quarterback Josh McCown after Caserio took over. The Texans also interviewed Brandon Staley before he was hired by the Los Angeles Chargers.

Amid the Texans’ coaching search, sources told ESPN that Watson was not happy with the process the organization used to hire Caserio. And sources told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that regardless of whom the Texans hired as their next head coach, Watson’s desire to be traded was not expected to change.

The Texans are coming off a 4-12 season, one in which Watson played the best football of his NFL career. The fourth-year quarterback set career highs in touchdowns, passing yards and completion percentage. He also threw a career-low seven interceptions.

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Jason Witten retiring from NFL after 17 seasons, plans to do so with Dallas Cowboys

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FRISCO, Texas — After 17 seasons, Jason Witten is retiring from the NFL. He intends to sign a one-day contract and retire as a member of the Dallas Cowboys in March when his contract with the Las Vegas Raiders expires at the end of the league year.

Witten, 38, played 16 seasons with the Cowboys and spent 2020 with the Raiders. No tight end in NFL history has played more games than Witten’s 271, and only Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez has more receptions and yards at the position.

“A coach once told me, ‘The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example,'” Witten told ESPN. “As I hang it up, I walk away knowing that for 17 seasons I gave it my absolute all. I am proud of my accomplishments as a football player on the field and the example I tried to set off of it. Football is a great game that has taught me many valuable lessons, and I look forward to passing on that knowledge to the next generation.”

Witten first retired after the 2017 season and spent 2018 as an ESPN Monday Night Football analyst but opted to return to the Cowboys in 2019.

A third-round pick in 2003, Witten developed into one of the best tight ends in NFL history. He was named to the Pro Bowl 11 times, tied with Hall of Fame defensive lineman Bob Lilly for the most in Dallas history, and was considered a complete tight end because of his ability as a blocker in addition to his pass catching. In 2012, he was named the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year winner for the work he and his wife, Michelle, have done with their foundation.

Witten is the Cowboys’ all-time leader in receptions (1,215) and yards (12,977) and is second in touchdown catches (72). He had four 1,000-yard seasons, and in 2012 he set the record for catches in a season by a tight end (110) — a record that has since been broken (Zach Ertz, 116).

He played in a team-record 255 games, including a franchise-record 245 starts, missing just one game in his career because of a broken jaw as a rookie. He had 13 catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns for the Raiders but was lauded by coach Jon Gruden and fellow tight end Darren Waller for his mentorship.

Coaching has long been mentioned as a possibility for Witten’s next move. He has been linked to opportunities in the NFL and college levels immediately should he want to start down that path. Undoubtedly he will be inducted into the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor, and he will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2026.

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