Kyle Allen has not, historically, been the guy who gets the job.
Sure, five years ago he was a red-hot quarterback recruit out of Scottsdale, Arizona, who signed to play at Texas A&M and looked to have it all set up in front of him. But from that point, it has not been the smoothest of rides. Let’s recap:
Allen lost a competition for the Aggies’ starting job to Kenny Hill at the start of 2014, got the job back later that season, opened the 2015 season as the starter but lost the job to Kyler Murray, transferred to Houston, sat out 2016, opened the 2017 season as Houston’s starter, lost the job to Kyle Postma, went undrafted in 2018 and got cut from two different practice squads — the Panthers’ and the Jets’ — before landing back on the Panthers’ practice squad a little over one year ago.
This time he stuck. Allen was elevated to Carolina’s active roster last December and started the Panthers’ final game of the season. He played well enough to return this season as Cam Newton‘s backup and assumed the role of starting quarterback in Week 3 after Newton reinjured his foot. This week, the Panthers put Newton on injured reserve, which means, at long last … Allen has the job.
“I told him after the Arizona game [in which Allen threw four touchdown passes to lead the Panthers to their first win of the season], ‘I’m glad I was smart enough to re-sign you after I was stupid enough to cut you off the practice squad,'” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said.
The 5-3 Panthers are trusting Allen with a lot of responsibility the rest of the season. They believe they can be a playoff team. And while, yes, the main keys to their success will be their defense and their Christian McCaffrey-based running game, they need only cast their eyes to Chicago to be reminded that poor quarterback play can sink an otherwise solid roster. Allen might not need to be Patrick Mahomes, but the Panthers need him to be much more Jacoby Brissett than Mitchell Trubisky.
If he pulls this off — if Allen establishes himself as a viable and successful NFL starting quarterback — that’s huge for Carolina not just this year but next year and in the years to come. The Panthers can release Newton in 2020, eat only $2 million in dead money and save $19.1 million against next year’s salary cap. That money can be put to good use as part of McCaffrey’s inevitable mega-extension as well as other deals the Panthers have coming up for guys such as linebacker Shaq Thompson and cornerback James Bradberry.
Dianna Russini says that Cam Newton being placed on injured reserve gives the Panthers players an opportunity to get behind backup Kyle Allen.
Now, financially, Allen is most definitely not Brissett, who got the Colts’ starting job after Andrew Luck retired and received a sparkly new contract because he was a season away from unrestricted free agency. He’s closer to being Dak Prescott, the fourth-round pick who got the job as a rookie because of a Tony Romo injury. But the undrafted, twice-cut Allen — who is at least three seasons away from unrestricted free agency — is in a far different category than either of those guys. As it pertains to the NFL’s economic system, the category in which Allen finds himself could be labeled “Out of luck.”
Allen’s contract expires at the end of the year, but that won’t put him in position to hit the market and score big in free agency, no matter how he plays over the next couple of months. Players whose contracts have expired but have not yet reached three years of service time are, under NFL rules, “exclusive rights free agents.” This is a misleading term, because they are not free agents in any meaningful way. The team has the right to tender an exclusive free agent at a very low number — often the league minimum — and the player then either has to accept that offer or sit out the season. He is in no way “free” to sign with any team if his current team still wants him.
For this reason, regardless of how Allen performs, the Panthers will have the right to hold him in place for 2020 on a one-year, $585,000 contract. Assuming the same or similar rules under the new CBA, they also would — regardless of how he performs — have the right to hold him in place for 2021 on a one-year, $675,000 contract. If he were to complete that season with Carolina, he would be eligible for restricted free agency in 2022, which means the team could give him a first-round tender for something like $5.5 million and still hold him in place unless another team came with a big contract offer and a willingness to give Carolina a first-round pick for him.
So unless the Panthers hypothetically just decided to do the right thing and pay Allen like a starter, he could start all of their games for the next three years and earn less than $7 million total. Then and only then, in time for the 2023 season, would he be eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Now, if the Panthers decide, at the end of this season, that they’re moving on from Newton and Allen will be their starter moving forward, they could offer him a three-year, $7 million deal, guarantee a portion of it and pack it with incentives that pay out if he starts and wins and has success throughout the deal. But they are in the driver’s seat here, and they also have third-round rookie Will Grier as a possible option if Allen flops.
If Carolina makes the difficult decision to move on from its franchise icon quarterback in the offseason, part of the upside could be the ability to move forward with a significant cost-control advantage over the rest of the league at the most important position.
Some other thoughts from around the league this week:
A lot of people have had a lot of negative things to say about Newton since before he was even drafted. He has contributed to some of it with his own mistakes and missteps, no doubt. Please do not think I’m here to defend things like “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes.”
But Newton also has been the subject of a mountain of unfair and unsubstantiated criticism on other matters. In 2011, around the draft, there was a debate about the sincerity of the young man’s smile. Come on.
Former Panther DeAngelo Williams is angry at the team’s coaching staff for asking Cam Newton to do too much, while it asks Kyle Allen only to be a game manager.
Personally, I’ve loved watching him play and sincerely hope we all get to see it again — whether in Carolina or elsewhere. This is a completely unique player in NFL history who started setting records in his rookie year and, I firmly believe, is three or four more years’ worth of high-level production away from a legitimate Hall of Fame case. I wish he were more open and accessible because (a) I want to know more about him, and (b) I think it would broaden the deserved appreciation of him. But he is who he is, and the brilliance of who he has been as a player shouldn’t be lost in the injury cloud under which his 2019 season never got going.
The I-told-you-so-ers who revel in believing they were right that the way he played would cut his career short are missing the point. Even if he never plays again, this is a tell-your-grandkids-about-him player.
Another impact Cowboys deadline deal?
A year ago, right before the trade deadline, the Cowboys traded a first-round pick to the Raiders for wide receiver Amari Cooper. This trade revitalized the Dallas offense and propelled the team to an NFC East title. The Cowboys were 3-4 when they made the deal and ended the season 10-6. The Cooper deal was ballyhooed, picked apart, criticized and analyzed at the time because it was the Cowboys and everything they do is.
This season, the Cowboys were 4-3 at the deadline and made only one move — a 2021 seventh-round pick (that could turn into a sixth-round pick) to the Patriots for defensive end Michael Bennett. This trade was far less ballyhooed, picked apart, criticized and analyzed because they basically gave up nothing and we haven’t thought much about Bennett in a while. He didn’t make much of an impact in New England.
But he made a heck of an impact Monday night in his first game as a Cowboy. Bennett took apart the (admittedly overmatched) Giants, rebounding from an early offside penalty to record a sack, a couple of tackles for loss and a whole bunch of general disruption behind the Giants’ offensive line. He did a lot of his damage as an interior pass-rusher, demonstrating the kind of versatility the Cowboys believe will help free up DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn on the outside.
Ahead of the deadline, Cowboys decision-makers were concerned that their pass rush hadn’t been as consistently good as they’d expected it to be. New England was giving away Bennett, so they took a shot. If his Dallas debut was any indication, he has a chance to pay off in a big way.
Think again. One of the many quirky, surprising things I learned about the Giants in the time I spent covering them was how much it means to ownership to beat the Jets. I swear, I had members of the coaching staff tell me ownership was more keyed up during Jets weeks than in the time leading up to big division games against the Cowboys or Eagles. The only time I remember owner John Mara addressing the media after a game was when the Giants beat the Jets on Christmas Eve 2011. It’s a rivalry that goes beyond the field, and it matters to these guys on non-football levels.
The Giants enter Sunday’s game with a 2-7 record and a five-game losing streak. The Jets are 1-7 and have lost their past three. The two New York teams have been outscored by a combined total of 194 points this season. This is not a game, ladies and gentlemen, with postseason implications. But I promise you it matters to the people who own the teams — especially to the ones who own the Giants.
I absolutely do not think the Giants will make a move with coach Pat Shurmur in season, if they do at all. But a loss this weekend would not help his case in January if ownership is trying to decide whether he’s the right man for the job. And defensive coordinator James Bettcher might not be on the most solid ground, since I’ve been told by several people that the Giants expected their defense to be better than it has been this season (though I still don’t know why they thought that). I’m not saying, but I’m just saying: Don’t think this is a meaningless game Sunday in East Rutherford. There’s a ton of pressure on the Giants to win.
Inside the Rams-Chargers marriage as the NFL fights for Los Angeles
THE SKELETON OF a stadium sits at the center of a construction site three times the size of Disneyland. It is a futuristic mass of steel and concrete that appears to have both risen from the earth and descended from space. SoFi Stadium — the name sounds from the ether — will house a football field 100 feet below ground level and is surrounded by mammoth mounds of excavated Inglewood, California, soil piled like peaks in a range around the development. When it opens next summer, its backers hope SoFi will mark the end of one NFL era in Los Angeles — defined by rotting venues and teams that have drifted in and out over 73 years — and the beginning of another. The $5 billion-plus project will feature a translucent roof that appears to hover above the stadium, as if allowing it to breathe, and will be home to 298 acres of retail space, including a theater, a concert venue and a new NFL Media headquarters. Now, though, seven days a week, it is surrounded by cranes and trucks and an army of hustling workers in white construction helmets bearing the logos of two home teams: the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers, an arranged marriage of clubs whose high-level executives barely speak with one another.
SEPARATED BY MINUTES, Dean Spanos and Stan Kroenke walk into a Ritz-Carlton ballroom in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It’s the final day of the NFL’s fall owners meeting in mid-October. Spanos, in khakis and a navy blazer, arrives first, with commissioner Roger Goodell. Spanos is a conservative, risk-averse man whose Chargers are still trying to get on the radar in L.A. Kroenke, tall and thin with a thick mustache, follows shortly after in a black suit, black dress shirt and black sunglasses. The Rams’ owner is a shrewd real estate mogul who has found changing the Los Angeles sports landscape more challenging and expensive than he’d imagined. Both L.A. teams suffered losses the previous weekend. The Rams drew an announced crowd of 75,695 to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but it was half-empty at kickoff and contained so many San Francisco 49ers fans that the Rams’ offense was forced to use a silent snap count. The Chargers, on national television against the Pittsburgh Steelers at the 25,300-seat Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, 16 miles south of downtown L.A., felt as if they were playing on the road — again. Steelers fans either outnumbered Chargers fans or came close, as did Denver Broncos fans at the prior home game, as did Houston Texans fans at the home game before that, as did Indianapolis Colts fans in the season opener. In the fourth quarter against the Steelers, the opening of the Styx song “Renegade,” a Steelers anthem, blared from the stadium’s sound system, the setup to a failed Chargers joke that got the visiting fans even rowdier. Overhead, as with most Chargers home games, a plane dragged a banner that read: “Impeach Dean Spanos.”
L.A. has always been a Lakers town. On a cool September evening in Chavez Ravine, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a Dodgers town. When Wayne Gretzky arrived in 1988, the Kings joined the mix, and when USC was hot under Pete Carroll more than a decade ago, the city became a college football capital. Was it ever an NFL town? If so, can it still be? Something strange happened in the 21 seasons between when the Rams and Raiders left after the 1994 season, and when the Rams returned in 2016. Angelenos, burned by a league that seemed to view the city more as a focus-grouped market than a layered and complicated region, showed little desire for a team of their own.
Jerry Jones thought he could win them over. Now 77, the Dallas Cowboys‘ owner and Hall of Famer is the NFL’s most powerful person and maybe the most influential power broker in American sports. He has been the most passionate evangelist for the NFL to make a splashy return to Los Angeles, the city where he was born, envisioning a near-future with more money in it for everybody. In 2015, the Rams’ Inglewood project, then estimated to cost $1.86 billion, was competing against a Chargers-Raiders $1.8 billion option in Carson. Few outside the NFL knew it, but Jones positioned himself to profit from either proposal. Concessions for either project — and the construction, in the case of Inglewood — would be managed by Legends, the company co-owned by Jones and the Steinbrenner family. The competition between the proposals was bloody and toxic given the high stakes, pitting owners against one another. Ultimately, Jones sided with Kroenke because his stadium and project proposal had what Jones called the wow factor. “We had good insight on its vision,” Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan says. “It was spectacular.”
At an owners meeting in a posh Houston hotel in January 2016, Jones helped to resolve the L.A. relocation scrum by persuading fellow owners to endorse a compromise that he had sold as a blueprint for success. Two teams would return to Los Angeles: the Rams — and, if they chose, the Chargers. The red flags that are obvious now were visible then. League research indicated neither the Rams nor the Chargers had an overwhelming reservoir of support in the L.A. region, with fewer local fans than the Patriots, Steelers, Packers, Cowboys and even the Raiders, according to some team and league studies. What’s more, the accommodation wouldn’t make the Rams and Chargers equal partners, like the Jets and Giants at MetLife Stadium, which the teams jointly built with private funds. Kroenke — one of the NFL’s wealthiest team owners, worth an estimated $9.7 billion — would pay to build the stadium, perhaps the only option in California, whose legislators and voters rarely approve a single public dollar for new stadiums. Spanos, a long-respected owner with a reputation for putting the league first, would be given the first option to be Kroenke’s tenant, for $1 a year, and if the Chargers decided to remain in San Diego, the Raiders could join the Rams in L.A. — an outcome nobody around the league wanted, owing to Al Davis’ burned bridges and the co-opting of team apparel by gangs.
Almost all owners believed Jones’ resolution to be the best business decision among the available options, and most supported it under the cover of a secret ballot, which allowed them to vote for Inglewood without Spanos knowing who had turned on him.
Spanos felt burned and betrayed by the vote and the entire L.A. decision process, and therefore few expected him to exercise the tenancy option. But he did, and now these unequal partners are locked in a bitter fight, stoked by Kroenke’s fury over cost overruns exceeding $3 billion, questions over the Chargers’ long-term viability in the market, a lawsuit seeking billions over Kroenke’s departure from St. Louis that has engulfed the entire league, and an increasingly fractious and sometimes petty civil war between Rams and Chargers officials, according to documents and nearly two dozen interviews with owners, league and team executives, and lawyers.
SoFi Stadium has become a vessel for each figure’s motivations and goals, and a repository for the hopes and vanities of the NFL. Spanos wants to secure once and for all his family’s fortunes and establish his team as more than an NFL version of the second-rate Clippers, embarrassment and awkwardness over being Kroenke’s tenant be damned. Kroenke is driven by the chance to build a monumental legacy for both himself and the NFL, despite the huge bill. Jones wants what he always wants: for the league to flex, show off and “grow the pie” of annual league revenues now edging toward $17 billion a year — and to walk away with a healthy cut. But SoFi Stadium is also a bet — a multibillion-dollar wager that in a market of 22 million, the world’s most spectacular stadium will inspire 70,000 people to show up every Sunday and cheer. For two teams.
A PHONE CALL between Kroenke and Goodell in the autumn of 2015 was a harbinger for the current impasse. On Nov. 4, Kroenke was on his cellphone on the small patio of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in the heart of Beverly Hills. The secret ballot in Houston was still two months away, and the Carson project seemed to be gaining traction with owners, mostly out of loyalty to Spanos, who believed at the time he was close to the votes he needed. Kroenke was willing to do whatever it took to return the Rams to L.A. — including partnering with Spanos. “I want you in L.A. with Stan,” Jones had told Spanos. Normally quiet and reserved, Kroenke was hot.
“No. No! No, Roger!” Kroenke said. “I’ve been out there, spending millions, and everybody else is piggybacking on everything I’ve done, not spending a dime, letting me take all the heat, and then they think they’re going to get to step in? I don’t think so.”
“I’ve been out there, spending millions, and everybody else is piggybacking on everything I’ve done, not spending a dime.”
The call continued for 10 minutes, until Kroenke realized people were staring at him. He stood up and said, “Roger, we’re going to have to continue this conversation in a few seconds. I need to get somewhere a bit more private to discuss some of the things I need to say to you next.”
The following month in San Francisco, Spanos dined with a small group of owners who were convinced his project would prevail. “We got you,” said Jerry Richardson, the Carolina Panthers‘ then-owner who had tried to bully owners to vote for Carson. They raised a glass, and Richardson spent the rest of the dinner trashing Kroenke. But Richardson had overestimated his power of intimidation — and underestimated Jones’ persistent charm. Twenty-four hours before the vote in Houston, Spanos walked into a conference room where a clutch of owners had been deliberating. On a whiteboard, the two options that had been on the table for a year — “STAN/LA” and “CHARGERS-RAIDERS/CARSON” — were crossed out. A new option, a Jones-driven last-minute compromise, had appeared: “STAN-DEAN/LA.” Spanos knew he had lost.
Before the secret ballots were counted, Colts owner Jim Irsay pulled Spanos aside and said, “This is for the best.”
FEW IN THE league felt that way a year later, especially Spanos. In December 2016, he stood before a room of owners and league executives at the Four Seasons in Irving, Texas, looking like a man who had lost much more than a vote. He was 66 and at the low point of his 22 years running the Chargers. After losing to Kroenke, he had returned to San Diego and lost again, blowing $15 million on a long-shot ballot initiative for a new stadium, destroying any remaining goodwill and trust with a loyal fan base. A broken man, Spanos was out of options.
“I don’t want to go to L.A.,” Spanos said. “I want to stay.”
Many owners sympathized with Spanos, but some were also frustrated by him. The league’s $550 million relocation fee that Spanos would need to spend to move to L.A. might have been better invested in a new stadium in San Diego, where the Chargers would collect most of the revenue. Why move to a city that showed little interest in them? “It wasn’t rational,” a high-level league source says.
But Spanos had his own rationale, frustrated by years of wars with San Diego officials over public financing for a new stadium. The league-first guy was gone. He was determined to do what was best for his club and for his family, several of whom worked for the team, and in L.A. he saw “a favorable, low-risk deal,” a Spanos confidant says. In L.A., the value of Spanos’ team might increase by $1 billion from the Forbes-estimated $2.08 billion value it had in San Diego in 2016. He’d play in a glistening new park, with no stadium debt. His biggest expense would be the $550 million relocation fee, and Spanos intended to borrow to pay it.
After the Irving league meeting, brass from the Chargers and Rams met with league executives and lawyers for a series of negotiations to finalize the term sheet, whose broad stipulations were set by owners and league executives the night before the secret relocation vote. Spanos and Kroenke, both of whom declined to comment for this story, had enjoyed a strange relationship, both cool and occasionally friendly, once playing gin rummy together on a private jet a decade ago. But the term-sheet sessions were awkward and “the body language horrible,” according to one attendee. Spanos and his executives surprised Rams officials by drawing a hard line, demanding a cut of all revenue streams, input over design elements, and approval over all decisions made by Legends and by StadCo L.A. LLC, the stadium company controlled by Kroenke. Rams officials tried to be cordial, but they seethed. The way they saw it, Spanos had the entire Southern California market to himself for 21 seasons with little to show for it, but now he felt entitled to a chunk of revenue on a project to which he would contribute one dollar a year. Says one high-level executive involved in the negotiations: “The Rams felt like Stan was taking all this risk and would appreciate it if Dean would recognize what he was bringing to the table.”
“I don’t want to go to L.A. I want to stay.”
Spanos was keenly aware of the imbalance, but he also knew the league, a trade association at heart, would ensure him a share of stadium cashflow enjoyed by other teams. The Chargers ended up with a sizable 15% share of all revenue streams, including joint luxury suite sales, sponsorships and SoFi Stadium’s naming rights, which is estimated at more than $600 million over 20 years.
Spanos also won a major concession on the most divisive issue: stadium seat licenses, the tens of thousands of dollars NFL teams often charge for the right to buy season tickets. All the revenue from both teams’ sale of SSLs would go to Kroenke to help defray the cost of the stadium. But per the term sheet, the Chargers neither had to meet a revenue target nor even sell a single SSL. All the Chargers had to do was try to sell the SSLs, at whatever cost they determined, until one year after the stadium opened, after which they wouldn’t even have to try to sell any.
The NFL sets SSL targets for all teams, often forcing owners to open escrow accounts through the league as part of a complicated process to ensure that no owner defaults on stadium debt. League research had predicted that the Chargers and Rams could each sell $400 million in SSLs, but because Kroenke was paying for the stadium himself, neither the Chargers nor the Rams were required by the league to meet those sales targets. While there were no penalties if the teams failed to hit the goal — all involved were careful not to violate antitrust laws — the Rams expected the Chargers to reach the $400 million mark as a way to contribute to their new home. The terms were favorable to Spanos, and Kroenke had little choice but to accept them. League executives wanted the Chargers to have a friendly deal — and also knew that in the long run the Inglewood stadium and project would probably appreciate by billions, making Kroenke’s investment more than worthwhile. Kroenke took Spanos at his word that the Chargers would be a full partner, while aware that Spanos had no financial incentive or obligation to help. It was a fragile trust forged by two teams suspicious of each other.
On Jan. 18, 2017, the Chargers held a fan rally at the Forum in Inglewood to officially announce the move to L.A. Only a small section of the arena was open, and it was nowhere close to full. On a huge screen, Chargers highlights played, accompanied by the soundtrack from “Top Gun,” which was set in San Diego. Superstar quarterback Philip Rivers looked dour on stage, like a child who had been dragged to a party by his parents, and would later proudly refuse to move his family to L.A. Twice, Goodell praised Kroenke, who was not in attendance, and his vision for the palatial new stadium before mentioning Spanos, who was seated nearest to the commissioner. When it was Spanos’ turn to speak, he surveyed the scarce and scattered Chargers fans. “This is surreal!” he said. A group of fans flipped him off.
JERRY JONES HAS always believed in the transformative power of a new home, having witnessed it firsthand when he went big on AT&T Stadium. In 2009, Jerry World opened in Arlington, Texas, and a decade later it still shines with a modern, fresh-paint gleam. Jones even believes in the transformative power of a practice facility. He turned The Star, the Cowboys’ training center, into an entire football ecosystem, with high-rise apartments, restaurants and a high-end club. How big can the NFL become? Jones loves to test his own “tolerance for ambiguity,” as he often says. But L.A. is not North Texas in its hunger for the NFL and he knew it. To get L.A. fans off their phones and into a stadium, Jones told everyone that the league had to build something unforgettable. At an August 2015 owners meeting, Jones said Kroenke was the only one who had the “big balls” requisite to reintroduce the league after two decades away. This year, at least half a dozen owners and team executives have toured the new stadium. “It’s going to be a phenomenal building,” 49ers CEO Jed York says. “It’s going to be a place that you need to see a game.”
Problem was, the Rams couldn’t move right into their new stadium after the relocation vote, forcing them into a holding pattern until it opened. They tried to market their homecoming after 21 years in St. Louis by dusting off throwback uniforms and the team’s classic “Whose house? Rams house!” chant. A crowd of 91,046 showed up in September 2016 for the first regular-season home game, a win over the Seattle Seahawks. But the Rams learned that just because fans show up doesn’t mean they root for the home team, especially if it’s a loser. They finished 4-12. After less than a year in L.A., the reboot required a reboot. The team fired longtime head coach Jeff Fisher, and in January 2017, Kroenke signed Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay as head coach, a perfect West L.A. combination of precocious and attractive. Still, league executives were worried. McVay was only 30, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history. If he failed, the entire return to L.A. might too.
McVay didn’t fail. He led the Rams to the playoffs in 2017 against the Atlanta Falcons, a game at the Coliseum that sold out in less than a week. In November 2018, the Rams appeared to break through for good at the Coliseum on Monday Night Football against the Kansas City Chiefs. Jay Z, Robin Thicke and Goodell were in attendance. The Coliseum was packed and electric. Quarterbacks Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes combined for 891 total yards and 10 touchdown passes. The Rams’ 54-51 win felt like something real, a connection between a city and a team after years of stops and starts with various clubs that used Los Angeles as leverage to build new stadiums in their home markets. The Rams shot up 9% in local TV ratings after that Monday night, a bump that continued as they reached the Super Bowl. But there was no second bump. This year, the Rams are less exciting and less dominant, with uneven fan support. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 29, a photo went viral of a mostly empty Coliseum at kickoff. It was ugly, and it served as a reminder to Chargers executives that no matter how embarrassing their team’s own crowds are, L.A. is still up for grabs.
OF COURSE, JUST because L.A. is up for grabs doesn’t mean the Chargers are well positioned to grab it. In 2017, the Chargers also tried to reinvent themselves upon returning to the city where they last played in 1960. They went small. For a temporary home, they chose a soccer stadium in the middle of the California State University, Dominguez Hills campus, shaving its 27,000 seats to 25,300. The idea was to start fresh by offering a premium experience and, not incidentally, premium ticket prices. League executives loved the idea: an entirely new experience of fans climbing fences to get in. Spanos hosted pregame parties for family and friends not in a walled-off suite but under a low-key tent next to the stadium. Want to boo him? Shake his hand? Spanos was accessible.
But few fans tried to get access to him. The Chargers struggled to fill the tiny venue with home-team supporters, a fact first obvious against Philadelphia in Week 4 of 2017, when the Eagles recovered a Rivers fumble on the first drive and the crowd roared as if at the old Vet. Still, new head coach Anthony Lynn, a budding star who was hired one day after Spanos announced the move, led the Chargers to a 9-7 record. After wasting much of 2017 with relocation logistics, the Chargers made some modest marketing strides. They partnered with KABC, the top-rated TV station in L.A., announced a deal with iHeartRadio to reach 10 million listeners, and cooperated on a show in the style of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” with Spectrum SportsNet. The team sold all 11,000 season tickets in 2018, but the stadium still felt more like a neutral-site college bowl game than the NFL.
In March 2018, the Rams and Chargers launched their SSL programs for the new stadium. It was harder than expected for the Rams and couldn’t have gone worse for the Chargers. Most teams hire at least a dozen staffers to handle SSL sales for a new stadium, in addition to hiring a company like Legends. The Chargers, which outsourced most of the work to Legends, were flying blind in L.A., with no analytics department or sophisticated method of reaching fans. The Rams had a huge head start; they had sold 70,000 season tickets for the 2016 season in the Coliseum in six hours. All the Chargers had was “a couple of email addresses” of potential ticket holders, in the words of a team executive, and a slogan — “Fight for L.A.!” — that sounded less like a rallying cry and more like a schoolyard challenge to their future landlord, which did not go unnoticed by Rams executives, who mocked the slogan. The Chargers spent $3 million marketing “Fight for L.A.!” — including $2.3 million on Facebook ads that didn’t move the needle.
That fall, Chargers executives reviewed a bracing study that was available only to a handful of teams, league and Legends executives. It confirmed what some around the league had predicted all along: There was practically no market for Chargers season tickets, no matter the price. Legends officials later told league executives and those from other teams that it was the worst feasibility forecast they’d ever seen. In 2018, the Chargers were in the middle of a season in which they would finish 12-4 but rank 30th in revenue, one spot down from their final year in San Diego, owing largely to the small stadium. The team had sold only $60 million worth of SSLs, far behind the league’s $400 million goal. “The projections were made before anyone had a clue,” one Chargers executive says. “They were completely unrealistic.”
Spanos and Chargers COO Jeanne Bonk then made a controversial decision. They slashed prices for 26,000 upper deck seats, lowering tickets to the $50 to $90 range, and dropped the SSL rate to $100 — up to 15 times less than the Rams were charging for the same seats. The Chargers’ reduced prices were higher than options suggested by Legends, which included the idea of abandoning the SSLs altogether. But for a bottom-line league, it was an unmissable flare that L.A. might never be a two-team NFL town.
The Rams got a heads-up one day before the Chargers’ fire sale was announced.
THE RAMS WERE furious. Spanos had potentially cost Kroenke hundreds of millions. In the Chargers’ news release, president of business operations A.G. Spanos, one of Dean’s sons, wrote, “A family of four should be able to buy season tickets for the entire family and not need a second mortgage to do so.” It felt like a subtle shot at the Rams.
Other owners and executives were stunned by the Chargers’ deep discount and asked the league to intervene. The NFL had considered asking its senior vice president Brian Lafemina, trusted and respected by both the Rams and Chargers, to move to L.A. and serve as peacemaker. But before the league could officially offer the job, Lafemina left to run business operations for the Washington Redskins, and instead a host of league executives were assigned to help manage L.A. Kroenke and Spanos remained cordial with each other — both are nonconfrontational — but relationships between their staffs collapsed, becoming petty and personal, with both teams’ executives ripping each other to confidants. “The Chargers were trying to save themselves,” a high-level source involved in relations between the two teams says. “They want to be seen as a full partner, yet they did something that hit their partner hardest.”
“They want to be seen as a full partner, yet they did something that hit their partner hardest.”
High-level source involved in relations between the two teams
Spanos insisted the price drop wasn’t a spiteful move but a reflection of weak demand, indicative not only of the larger problem of selling the Chargers in L.A. but also of the concept of SSLs in Southern California. There was no tradition of SSLs in L.A. No Lakers fan had to pay extra for the right to buy season tickets to watch LeBron James at Staples Center. It sounded to some fans like a racket, making an already tough sell even tougher. Everyone started pointing fingers, with owners mad at the league office for allowing a toxic relocation process and the league reminding owners that most of them voted for two teams in L.A. In the end, most owners rooted for the Chargers to not piggyback off Kroenke but try to duplicate the success of the soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders, who have sold nearly $400 million in SSLs, double their projected number, for their new stadium opening in September 2020 off the Vegas Strip. What’s more, a “fair amount” of the Raiders SSL buyers live in L.A. and will hop on I-15 on weekends, an executive with knowledge of the sales says. It has left a few owners and team officials worried and irritated that the Raiders have siphoned off part of an already wary L.A. fan base.
Chargers executives were convinced the Rams were lashing out because stadium construction was billions over budget. In the eyes of Chargers brass, the Rams had every right to be angry. But blowing up at Legends was tricky for the Rams because Jones had delivered the L.A. vote — and Kroenke and Jones have become pals, a power clique of two. Still, Legends had never managed a project so massive — and it had “gone off the rails,” a source close to Legends says. It began in 2016, when the Rams realized that both initial estimates — $1.86 billion in early 2015, which rose to $2.4 billion by late 2015 — had been poorly calculated. Vendor costs ballooned because of competition with LAX’s $14 billion renovation. The infrastructure was unexpectedly pricey, with a massive retaining wall required 100 feet below grade for the field. A record amount of rain in early 2017 complicated matters even more, filling the hole of the field with up to 15 feet of water that needed to be drained and costing the Rams 40 work days. And so the Rams announced in May of that year that completion would be delayed until 2020. In March 2018, the project had hit a cost of $5 billion, but the price continues to go up. StadCo officials now refer to it to owners and executives around the league as “our $6 billion stadium,” although some executives insist it won’t be that high. All the construction complexities have turned SoFi Stadium into “the eighth wonder of the world,” Khan says. “It’s amazing how much earth has been moved.”
Kroenke was livid when his legacy project veered so badly off course, with no guarantee that SoFi will be filled once the novelty wears off. The Rams have joked to owners and confidants they’d happily accept extra financial donations from the league, but they haven’t submitted a formal proposal and don’t plan to. Kroenke is intent on delivering on his promise and not cutting corners. But Kroenke didn’t become one of the richest men in America by spending cash without any limits, and unfortunately for him, a lawsuit has no hard cap.
AT A HOTEL bar last spring in Key Biscayne, a few owners and executives discussed a lawsuit that had not only failed to fade away, like most inevitable litigation following a team’s relocation, but had mushroomed into a leaguewide headache, shoving the L.A. mess into each owner’s email server and threatening everyone’s bottom line. A group that included the city of St. Louis, the surrounding county and the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority were suing the NFL, claiming in a 52-page state court complaint that Rams officials and league executives violated the league’s own relocation bylaws by failing to negotiate with the city in good faith, among other issues. The suit argued that the Rams induced the city to spend more than $17 million on plans for a new stadium that the team never intended to consider because Kroenke had planned long earlier to move to L.A. The complaint alleged breach of contract, unjust enrichment, fraudulent misrepresentation and business interference. The city is seeking billions in damages.
The NFL publicly dismissed the case as baseless and privately saw it as retribution from a city angry at Kroenke, whose departure forever destroyed his relationship with his home state. In his 2016 relocation application, Kroenke had written a scathing indictment of St. Louis both as a football city and as an economic engine, ignoring the loud and loyal crowds during the Greatest Show on Turf. But so far, the St. Louis plaintiffs have quietly won every court motion and decision, including a devastating defeat in the Eastern District of the Missouri State Court of Appeals, in a St. Louis courthouse, on June 12, 2018. The Rams’ lawyer, Andrew Kassof, argued for the lawsuit to be sent to arbitration, corporate America’s venue of choice. Kassof’s argument hinged on what he saw as a clear and simple technicality: The NFL relocation policy was moot because the Rams had the right to relocate whenever they wanted, due to their year-to-year lease in St. Louis’ then-Edward Jones Dome. The lease had expired in 2016, Kassof argued, so the Rams were free to leave.
Judge Philip Hess sounded suspicious. “Do the Rams have the ability to move without the NFL’s approval?” he said.
“No,” Kassof said. “They need the NFL’s approval, and …”
Hess cut him off. “Isn’t that what this is about? The relocation policy of the NFL?”
It was a stunning moment in a nearly empty courtroom. Hess’ question had forced Kassof to undermine his own case. Christopher Bauman, representing the plaintiffs, seized on it, winning the argument and keeping the case out of arbitration. Last month, the Rams petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a stay, and the high court denied it. Teams have been forced to provide eight years of phone records and emails for discovery — and had to hire legal teams and data experts to sift through them. Kroenke has had to foot all the legal bills for the teams and league, part of an indemnification agreement the league presented to the Rams, Chargers and Raiders on the morning of the L.A. vote. The legal bills have reached eight figures for some teams.
St. Louis is now seeking each owner’s cut of the Rams’ and Chargers’ $550 million relocation fees — about $35.5 million per — as restitution, infuriating owners. Over the past year, the league has dedicated a full hour at owners meetings to debating the merits of “Hard Knocks” but hasn’t formally addressed the St. Louis case in depth, irritating some owners even more. The lawsuit has even reopened old wounds from the relocation process. Discovery turned up a damning email from a Carson project official outlining to St. Louis authorities all the ways the Rams seemed to be in violation of the league’s relocation policy, providing a blueprint for the city of St. Louis’ lawsuit. The email enraged league and Rams executives and undermined Spanos’ reputation as the consummate company man, even though he didn’t write it. “The perception was that Dean always put the league first and Stan was only out for himself,” a team executive says. “Neither was ever completely true.”
It has all served as a reminder that before the shotgun marriage there was an ugly divorce, ensuring nobody gets out unscathed.
THE FIGHT FOR L.A. has carried a cost. The needs of the Chargers and Rams are as different as the personalities of their owners. The Chargers still have to find a way to matter in L.A. Late in the summer of 2018, the team hired Fred Maas, a longtime Spanos adviser, as chief of staff. His mandate was clear: increase team revenues. His first order of business was to kill the useless “Fight For L.A.!” slogan, preferring instead small steps to seek out L.A. Chargers fans. The team has sharpened its social media feeds, held a dog rescue day, and hired a Hispanic outreach coordinator who, unlike a predecessor, actually speaks Spanish. On the first day of the 2019 draft, the Chargers held a ticketed fan rally at the Santa Monica Pier, drawing a beyond-capacity 6,000 fans. Still, even executives playing the long game knew getting traction was a big challenge. “We were the most successful 7-11 in San Diego,” a high-ranking Chargers executive says. “Now we’re just another Whole Foods in L.A.”
The Rams, meanwhile, need the stadium to reshape Inglewood and southwest L.A., while luring fans to show up, not just watch on TV. The Rams’ 2018 TV ratings in L.A. were higher than the Giants and Jets in New York, the only comparable market and situation. And a prime-time game against the Seattle Seahawks this year outdrew a Dodgers playoff game head-to-head on TV. The Rams ranked 11th in total home paid attendance in 2018, despite playing in the league’s oldest stadium. But at any given game, roughly 40,000 fans are theirs, 30,000 root for the visiting team — as was the case when the Chargers played the Rams at the Coliseum in 2018 — and the rest seem to be wearing Tony Romo or Bo Jackson jerseys. It’s a leaguewide problem in the age of the secondary ticket market but an acute problem in L.A. The Rams’ goal is to be the top choice in the region, knowing full well that an entire generation of fans might have been lost in the past two decades. If that fails, their goal is to be every L.A. NFL fan’s second-favorite team, and to be the top choice for the next generation. The Rams are leveraging everything, paying all of their star players, trading away future picks — they sent two first-round picks to Jacksonville for cornerback Jalen Ramsey in October — to not only win now but also ensure SoFi Stadium is full, preferably in blue and gold.
“We are fighting over relatively penny-ante things. It’s unfathomable.”
Executive involved in Chargers-Rams spats
In the end, it’ll fall to Legends — and, by extension, Jones — to nudge L.A. into embracing the Chargers and the Rams. Jones declined several requests to comment for this story; a Cowboys spokesman said “a lot is still happening and Jerry would prefer not to discuss it.” A lot of what is happening involves the teams’ staffs at war, mostly in a passive-aggressive manner via emails and texts. There have been spats over the types of golf carts the stadium will use and over the number of office spaces Chargers suite sales staff are entitled to, per the term sheet. “We are fighting over relatively penny ante things,” one executive involved says. “It’s unfathomable.”
The disagreements inevitably return to the most divisive and, not coincidentally, most expensive issue: the Chargers’ SSL prices. In October 2018, when the Chargers announced the price drop, the Rams felt burned, but Kroenke’s StadCo — to which Legends reports — still pledged to the NFL that it would hire 20 new Chargers SSL sales staffers, along with administrators, bringing each team’s SSL sales staff to 40. The Chargers believed staffing parity would give them a chance to succeed or, at least, have a fighting chance. But over the next four months, nobody was hired on the Chargers’ side. In December and January, Legends presented a proposal with a Chargers sales staff number lower than 40, explaining that the Chargers didn’t warrant as many staffers because there was so little SSL demand — a low blow, in the minds of Chargers executives. So the Chargers invoked the nuclear option by appealing in writing to the league, forcing Goodell into the role of mediator. There was a conference call with Goodell, Kroenke and Spanos in mid-April, followed by a meeting of team executives in New York on June 20. The staffing issue, among others, was finally resolved — the Chargers now have 35 SSL salespeople — but it’s still a sore spot with both teams, the Chargers feeling marginalized and the Rams resentful of carrying the financial burden of two teams, one billionaire indefinitely subsidizing another.
Jones has told associates he feels a deep responsibility to make sure Kroenke and Spanos are not only successful but feel taken care of. But the Chargers have sold a weak 25,000 season tickets to date, and the Rams have sold a nascent 40,000, with the hope from both clubs that sales will improve after the stadium opens. “People are not going to spend a fortune on something they haven’t seen yet,” a Chargers executive says. Sources from both teams insist there isn’t any friction with Jones, which is either true or simply what they’re saying to avoid getting on his bad side, hoping not to test strained relations. By all appearances, Kroenke and Jones are just fine, hanging out at the hotel bar at various owners meetings, sipping wine and Johnnie Walker Blue Label scotch. In August in Chicago, Jones and Spanos had dinner together after a session of bargaining with the players’ union. In negotiations with the union, Jones has raised the so-called LA Exemption, a proposal calling for owners and players to consider diverting tens of millions outside of the normal stadium credits to help Kroenke defray the cost of the stadium. NFL team owners move in self-selected packs and cliques, and Jones will always gravitate toward an owner who can keep revenues spiraling in the right direction.
Nobody in the NFL is spending more to make more than Stan Kroenke.
DEAN SPANOS HOLDS a microphone at the center of a crowded, well-appointed room. It’s a late September evening, at a Chargers reception at Luxe, a membership-only office building and high-end restaurant in Beverly Hills. Clad in his usual attire — blazer over polo shirt — Spanos appears relaxed before suite holders, business partners, elected officials, team employees and media, despite facing another tough season. The Chargers have played hard but haven’t won as much as in the past, the fatigue from playing without any home field advantage for virtually four years perhaps starting to take a toll. The rare high moments have been tough to enjoy. After a dominant home win over the Packers on Nov. 3, the Los Angeles Times published a long column imploring the Chargers to leave for a market that appreciates them.
By midseason, Spanos would seem exasperated over periodic rumors and reports that the team will be sold or relocate again, responding to a report from The Athletic that the Chargers had discussed moving to London as “total f—ing bulls—.” At the reception, a flat-screen TV behind him flashes a Chargers logo. “Everything we do, we do as a family,” Spanos says.
His family still loves San Diego. Spanos loves San Diego. His father, Alex, a legendary businessman who died at 95 in October 2018, loved San Diego. It still isn’t easy to say Los Angeles Chargers — Fox broadcaster Troy Aikman slipped up on a recent Thursday Night Football telecast — and NFL executives believe the Chargers could have raised $250 million a year in SSL revenue if they’d stayed, a figure that team executives dismiss as preposterous. If Kroenke had lost the L.A. vote to the Chargers and Raiders, he might have petitioned to move the Rams to San Diego, a source close to him says. But Spanos has told associates that he cut a better financial deal with Kroenke than most had initially given him credit for — and he insists privately that he really doesn’t mind being a tenant. The Los Angeles Chargers are here to stay, whether the city’s fans want them or not.
“The stadium is going to redefine Los Angeles in that area for the next century. It’s going to be incredible and we’re very proud to be part of it.”
Spanos gives a stump speech of sorts about SoFi Stadium, offering to set up tours. The Chargers are trying to remain optimistic. Team executives are hopeful they can hit $320 million in SSL sales for Kroenke and climb from 31st in revenue to the middle of the pack in the next few years. But others wonder if there’s any real opportunity for the Chargers. In the annual Forbes list of NFL franchise valuations — an imperfect ranking that nonetheless tickles owners’ egos — the Rams were fourth, at $3.8 billion, for the second consecutive year. The Las Vegas-bound Raiders jumped six spots to 12th. The Chargers ticked up only one spot, from 22nd in 2018 to 21st in 2019, and their valuation has increased only $420 million, to $2.5 billion, from 2016 in San Diego to now. The team hasn’t added the envisioned $1 billion in value — at least not yet. The Chargers’ lack of popularity and inability to monetize however many SSLs they sell will always give them a low ceiling in a high-ceiling league.
“The stadium is going to redefine Los Angeles in that area for the next century,” Spanos tells the crowd. “It’s going to be incredible and we’re very proud to be a part of it.”
Kroenke is very proud to deliver it, associates say, giving the league something to celebrate in 2020: a glistening venue that might start to heal the relationship between a city and league, not to mention the rift between the two teams. The strained relations with the Rams seem to be on Spanos’ mind as he speaks at Luxe. He thanks his future landlord, calling the Rams “great partners.” No matter their differences, Jones, Kroenke and Spanos are in this fight for L.A. together, bound by the mandate that a stadium with the wow factor will, in fact, wow enough people to fill it.
“If I could have one wish this year, I’d wish that we could play them in the Super Bowl,” Spanos says of the Rams. “But if I can’t play them, we’ll play anybody.”
JERRY JONES STANDS at the 50-yard line of AT&T Stadium, not far from the sideline, pacing in tight semicircles, ringing his hands and looking anxious. It’s an hour before the Cowboys play the Eagles on Sunday Night Football in late October, and the stadium is buzzing and frenzied, its own football energy field — exactly what he has promised to deliver to L.A. As always, Jones is at the center and absorbing it all, wearing his typical game-day attire of a navy suit and powder-blue shirt with a Cowboys star pinned to his left jacket lapel.
“I’m nervous but feel good,” he says with a grin. “This one we really need.”
A few days earlier, Jones had stood with Kroenke outside a ballroom at the league meetings in Florida. Other owners drifted in and out of the conversation, but it was mostly just the two of them, a pair of power brokers who will take the league on a journey next fall. The Cowboys will be one of the Rams’ 2020 home opponents, and it’s easy to imagine a prime-time season and stadium opener between them. There are venues more iconic and louder than AT&T, but until SoFi opens, it’s the standard for the power and potential of a new big-ticket stadium, a destination not just for football but for the profit-churning celebration of football grandeur. Nobody in the modern NFL has understood showmanship better than Jones, and he has never failed when he has gone big on vision. Next year will clarify whether there’s such a thing as too big.
Jones lingers on the field a few more minutes. He moves to his private suite, flanked by his two sons and surrounded by 91,213 screaming fans as the Cowboys rout the Eagles, an iconic American evening in an iconic American city that might or might not transfer to another next September, when two L.A. teams kick off from underground and into the domed air.
All the NFL running backs who could get paid in 2020, and why recent deals look like disasters
The 2017 running back class is something special. Five of the league’s seven leading rushers — Christian McCaffrey (first), Dalvin Cook (second), Marlon Mack (fifth), Leonard Fournette (sixth), and Chris Carson (seventh) — are from the 2017 draft. McCaffrey is tied for the league lead in touchdowns with Aaron Jones, who is also from that 2017 class. Alvin Kamara and James Conner have struggled with injuries, but they’re also 2017 studs. Throw in undrafted free agent Matt Breida and 10 of the league’s 32 starting backs are from the 2017 class, and that’s without getting to secondary options such as Tarik Cohen, Kareem Hunt and Austin Ekeler.
Many of those backs are going to get paid. The 2017 class becomes eligible for extensions for the first time this offseason, but it’s a strange time to be a running back. Running back salaries were grossly depressed before a recent run, but in 2019, virtually every back on a significant long-term contract has struggled to reproduce his prior form. Contracts few would have argued with at the time they were signed are now underwater. Backs who looked like stars have turned into ordinary, replacement-level runners.
I find this juxtaposition interesting. It’s easy to talk about not paying running backs in the abstract, but just about every team knows it can probably get away with shuffling players in at the position, and many still hand out multiyear deals to veterans anyway. A draft class full of successful backs in the mid-to-late rounds is about to ask for a lot more money. Teams that have witnessed expensive backs fail in 2019 are going to have to decide whether they’re going to rely on academic principles or fall in love with their guy as the exception to the rule.
Let’s look at the backs who are playing on contracts worth more than $15 million and see what has happened to them, both over the course of their current deal and specifically in 2019. Then, I’ll get to the backs from 2017, project what their teams will do, and try to give some insight into what each organization with a 2017 draftee should do with their existing starter. Naturally, let’s start with the most expensive running back in football.
The big-money backs
The deal: Six years, $90 million
I covered Zeke’s season in my column on Monday, when I noted how he has created far fewer big plays and hasn’t been as efficient in 2019. The arguments that Dak Prescott needed an effective Elliott to move the ball as a passer weren’t supported by past evidence and look downright foolish now.
Elliott isn’t holding the Cowboys back by any means, but they have actually been slightly more efficient on offense with backup Tony Pollard on the field than him. Elliott has been on the field far more frequently, but the offense has generated 0.21 points of additional expected points per play with Pollard on the field and 0.17 points with Elliott in the lineup.
That doesn’t sound like much, but over the course of a full game’s worth of snaps, it factors out to about 2.6 points for the Cowboys. That stat doesn’t tell the whole story, but the most expensive back in football should look more productive than a rookie fourth-rounder who will make $3.2 million over the next four years. (Elliott, by comparison, is penciled in for just over $50 million over that same time frame.)
The deal: Four years, $57.5 million
Gurley’s enormous volume as a runner and receiver and gaudy touchdown totals made him a fantasy darling and an MVP candidate during 2017 and the first half of the 2018 season. He seemed like the most important part of the Rams’ offense, which is why it was no surprise when Los Angeles signed him to a massive extension after his third season. If any player was an argument against the idea that teams could just plug any running back into a scheme and succeed, it was Gurley.
Well, when he got hurt in November 2018, the Rams signed C.J. Anderson off the street and saw the burly former Broncos starter play just as well for the minimum as Gurley had. After Gurley returned, the Rams used Anderson as the focal point of their timeshare during the playoffs. With the offensive line struggling and Gurley dealing with a long-term knee issue, his role in the offense has been reduced, and he has been far less efficient. After nine games last season, Gurley was averaging 4.8 yards per carry, 136.7 yards from scrimmage per game, and had 16 touchdowns. In 2019, he’s averaging 4.1 yards per carry, 71.3 yards from scrimmage per game, and has eight touchdowns.
The deal: Four years, $52.5 million
The famous phrase surrounding Bell was that the Steelers wanted to “pay the position, not the player.” The implication, of course, is that Bell transcends the running back position. While he attracted a ton of volume as a receiver in Pittsburgh, the argument that he deserved to be paid like a combo of a running back and wide receiver didn’t stand serious scrutiny. The Steelers did just fine at running back without Bell in 2018.
Bell’s stint in New York has been a disaster. Surrounded by a dismal offensive line and with a coach who might not want him altogether, the three-time Pro Bowler has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and has yet to top 70 rushing or receiving yards in a game. His longest play of the season has gone for only 21 yards, and while he was incredibly efficient in Pittsburgh, Bell ranks dead last in DVOA and 28th in success rate, which measures how frequently a back keeps his offense on schedule. DVOA doesn’t tell the whole story for running backs, but Bell hasn’t remotely moved the needle in his first season in the Big Apple.
The deal: Five years, $41.3 million
Freeman spent 2015-16 as the primary back in a Kyle Shanahan offense, which is a license to print money. After racking up 3,175 yards from scrimmage and 31 touchdowns during those two seasons, the Falcons locked him up by giving him $17.3 million in guarantees and just over $22 million in 2017-19.
Over that time frame, Freeman has totaled 1,926 yards from scrimmage, with 11 touchdowns and seven fumbles. After a lost 2018 season, he was averaging 3.5 yards per carry this season before going down because of a foot injury. He already has missed 17 games over the past three seasons and might miss Sunday’s game with the Bucs. The 27-year-old will almost surely be a cap casualty for the Falcons this offseason.
The deal: Three years, $39 million
The Cardinals guessed wrong. After a brilliant 2016 season in which I thought Johnson should have been an MVP candidate, the Northern Iowa product suited up for only 46 snaps in 2017 before going down because of a season-ending wrist injury. With Johnson entering the final year of his rookie deal in 2018, the cap-strapped Cardinals responded to the Todd Gurley deal by signing Johnson to a three-year extension with $24.7 million in guarantees, despite the fact that he had really been a productive starter for only one year at the pro level.
It hasn’t gone well. Johnson racked up 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns in 2016. He has produced 2,011 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns in 2018-19, but that has come over 24 games and required 48 more touches. He has averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and lost his starting job to Kenyan Drake, who only arrived two weeks ago. Disconcertingly, the Cardinals will owe $10.2 million in guaranteed money to Johnson for 2020, which will trigger an additional $2.1 million in guarantees for 2021.
The deal: Four years, $31.2 million
The undeniably gifted Barkley is on a fully guaranteed deal after being taken with the second overall pick by the Giants in 2018. While he has shouldered a huge workload amid dismal quarterback play from Eli Manning and Daniel Jones, he hasn’t been able to single-handedly propel the offense forward. Barkley has been the ultimate boom-or-bust back, ranking 41st out of 47 backs in success rate in 2018 and last out of 35 qualifying backs this season.
In 2018, Barkley had seven runs of 40-plus yards on 261 runs. While slowed by a high ankle sprain this season, he has only one in 101 carries. If you need to break 40-plus yard runs once every other week to create value, the track record of guys in the NFL who have been able to pull that off for an entire career is mostly just Barry Sanders, and that’s in part because he was able to stay healthy.
The Giants and hog-molly enthusiast Dave Gettleman passed on Quenton Nelson to draft Barkley, and Nelson is arguably the best interior lineman in football. They passed on Lamar Jackson, and Jackson is the most valuable runner in the league. The Giants ranked 16th in rush offense DVOA last season and are 20th this season. Barkley is an incredible athlete and has little to work with, but that doesn’t mean he was the right pick.
The deal: Four years, $30 million
A bizarre signing when it went down in 2018, McKinnon will end up collecting $16 million without ever taking a regular-season snap in a 49ers uniform after tearing his ACL during workouts in 2018 and aggravating the injury this summer. The 49ers have done just fine with Tevin Coleman and a trio of undrafted backs in Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson this season.
The deal: Four years, $27.2 million
By virtue of being drafted with the fourth overall pick, Fournette ended up with one of the largest running back contracts in football when he was signed. The Jaguars drafted him after throwing asset after asset at running back and hoped to solve their problem for good. In the process, they passed on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. That alone makes the Fournette pick a disastrous example of opportunity cost. As you’ll see, he might be the 10th-best runner in his own draft class.
Fournette was drafted as an Adrian Peterson clone, a runner who was supposed to win between the tackles, overpower defenders and keep the chains moving. He hasn’t done that on a consistent basis. Fournette ranks 33rd out of 35 backs in success rate this season. That’s actually worse than he performed in 2017 and 2018, when he ranked 26th out of 47 qualifying backs in each season. His yards per carry have spiked from 3.7 in 2017-18 to 4.6 this season, but that’s a product of four long runs in which he broke a total of three tackles. Those runs matter, but given Fournette’s previous track record, they’re not likely to be a sustainable path to success.
The deal: Four years, $26 million
Miller has missed all of 2019 because of torn ACL and MCL, which obviously has made this season a waste for the Texans. This was the final year of the deal he signed in free agency, and while he made the Pro Bowl in 2018, he played only one full 16-game season in his four years in Houston.
Miller was about as efficient for the Texans as he was in Miami, converting 38.4% of his runs into added expected points for the Texans after hitting on 39.8% of his runs in Miami, but the big plays mostly vanished. He generated seven plays of 35 yards or more on 755 touches with the Dolphins. He had only three such plays on 808 touches with the Texans, with one 97-yard run as an outlier.
The Texans essentially paid Miller to be one of the best backs in football and got league-average play before getting nothing in 2019. Teams make worse mistakes, and I sympathize with Miller playing behind a porous offensive line for much of that time, but it’s also hard to argue with the idea that the Texans would have been better off committing this money to their line and going with a cheaper option.
The deal: Four years, $19.8 million
During his time in New England, Lewis was either wildly productive or injured. In Tennessee, strangely, he has been neither. Signed to be the 1A to Derrick Henry‘s 1B, Lewis flopped when the Titans made him their main back during November 2018, starting six straight games and carrying the ball 72 times for only 200 yards. Henry won the role back with some impressive performances in December and has subsequently become the focal point of Tennessee’s offense. Lewis finished last season with the league’s worst success rate.
In 2019, Lewis has almost disappeared from the offensive game plan. He has touched the ball only 41 times in 10 games, serving mostly as a low-efficiency dump-off option to Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill. He’s averaging just 4.8 yards per catch, which is the worst figure in football by nearly a full yard for receivers with 20 catches or more. He’s likely to be cut after the year, at which point he will unquestionably go back to the Patriots and look like the game-breaking back we saw in 2015-17, because football is unfair.
The deal: Three years, $15.6 million (signed with Browns)
Johnson originally signed a three-year extension in June 2018 with the Browns, but he seemed to fall out of favor with Hue Jackson and then Freddie Kitchens. With his touches nearly cut in half, Johnson requested a trade after the Kareem Hunt signing and was eventually sent to the Texans for a third-round pick.
He has been a useful back with the Texans, averaging 5.5 yards per carry on 60 rushes, but it’s telling that the Texans signed Carlos Hyde after Lamar Miller went down because of a torn ACL and didn’t turn the starting job over to Johnson, even given what they traded to acquire him. I’d like to see the Texans — or another team — give Johnson something close a starting role, but this is a lot to pay for a secondary back, especially given that the Texans haven’t featured Johnson as a receiver.
The deal: Four years, $17.2 million
McCaffrey, obviously, has been a wild success and the exception to the 2019 malaise on this list; I’ll get to him in a minute.
The offseason to come
Many of the running backs I mentioned in the introduction are in line to get new contracts this offseason. For the Class of 2017, this spring will be the first time they become eligible for extensions. Players from 2015 and 2016 draft classes who don’t have deals will be hitting free agency. There also will be a number of veterans on the market, including both natural free agents and likely cap casualties.
Let’s sort them all out, starting with the running backs who are likely to be free agents before getting to possible extension candidates. And given what we know about the players who are struggling on more expensive deals, let’s see if we can apply the mistakes teams have made in the past to free agents-to-be.
Class of 2015
2020 status: Unrestricted free agent
Could the Chargers keep Gordon around next season? I thought he was a surefire goner after his holdout failed and he struggled mightily upon his return, but the former first-round pick has looked more impressive in recent weeks, generating an average of just over 110 yards from scrimmage per game since the start of November. At the same time, Philip Rivers has seemingly fallen apart, and if the Chargers do start over at quarterback next offseason, they might prefer to have Gordon around.
The franchise tag for running backs in 2020 should come in somewhere around $12 million, and if the Chargers do let Rivers and his $23 million cap hit fall off the board without an expensive replacement, they would be able to afford Gordon. After a disappointing season, he might be better off taking a one-year deal to try to get the long-term deal he craves in 2021, after guys like McCaffrey have signed their own contracts.
If Gordon does leave, it’s difficult to see much of a market forming for him north of the $10 million-per-year deal the Chargers reportedly offered Gordon during his holdout.
Class of 2016
2020 status: Unrestricted free agent
Henry, who won the starting job for good at the end of last season, is set to hit free agency for the first time in 2020. After racking up 395 carries in his final season at Alabama, the Titans might have done Henry a favor by using him as a part-time back for most of his first three seasons in Tennessee. He should end his fourth season with about 835 carries as a pro, which is still a lot for a back in 2019, but not quite as much as it would have been if the Titans had handed Henry the full-time job earlier.
My first instinct was that backs with Henry’s size (247 pounds) and physicality probably don’t age well, but it’s not that simple. When you go back through the past 30 years and look at the backs who were 240 pounds or more and carried the ball at least 600 times through their first four seasons, the chances of those backs playing effectively through another deal were about 50-50. For every Natrone Means or Eddie Lacy, there was a Jerome Bettis or Steven Jackson.
The issue with Henry, instead, is that he’s strictly a last resort in the passing game and comes off the field on third downs. He has played just over 75% of Tennessee’s snaps on first and second down this season, but only 11.5% of the snaps on third downs. Even if he is an effective runner, that’s going to cap his ceiling and limit his market in a league that leans more and more to the pass. The Titans have grown quite comfortable building their offense around Henry and are likely to be installing a new quarterback in 2020, so unless a regime change sweeps through Nashville, I wouldn’t be surprised if general manager Jon Robinson locked up Henry this offseason.
2020 status: Unrestricted free agent
Drake has looked like a different player in Arizona, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and making an instant contribution as a receiver. A long-term future with the Cardinals seems unlikely, though, given that David Johnson has more than $10 million guaranteed in 2020, Chase Edmonds is under contract and looked impressive before going down with an injury, and Kliff Kingsbury’s team has major holes elsewhere on the roster.
Drake’s big-play ability, versatility and relatively fresh legs could net him a multiyear deal, albeit likely as the lesser half of a rotation.
2020 status: Unrestricted free agent
There was little interest in Howard when the Bears put him on the trade market last offseason, although the former Pro Bowler ranked eighth in success rate for the Eagles before going down with a stinger. The closest comparable for Howard is Alfred Morris, who racked up huge numbers for Washington during his rookie deal but then had to settle for relatively modest, short-term deals in free agency.
Howard will have a roster spot in 2020, but as a back who doesn’t offer much as a receiver and doesn’t play special teams, he’s really closer to the fringes of the league than his track record suggests. He’s probably looking at a one-year deal in the $2 million range.
Class of 2017
2020 status: Under contract ($5.5 million cap hit)
The Panthers will obviously pick up McCaffrey’s fifth-year option for 2021, which helps increase their negotiating leverage as they try to come to terms on a long-term deal. History tells us, though, that he and the Panthers will likely sign a new deal next offseason. The two contract comps McCaffrey’s camp will bring up in negotiations are Elliott and Gurley, both of whom signed extensions before their fourth seasons in the league began.
Given how McCaffrey has played this season, he has a credible claim to top Elliott’s contract and become the highest-paid running back in football. The Cowboys typically give out longer deals than any other team in the league, mostly to help them restructure their cap, but the Panthers don’t usually hand out anything longer than five years. McCaffrey won’t have the largest overall value, but the key number to look for is $50 million in new money. He will likely get there through the first three new years of his contract, topping Elliott (at $48 million) and Gurley ($47.1 million).
Of course, the Rams might very well not have signed Gurley if they had waited a year, and the Rams star is the closest comp to McCaffrey. Should the Panthers wait? Probably not. McCaffrey is likely to get only more expensive as he gets closer to free agency, and he doesn’t appear to have the same sort of knee concerns that Gurley did when the Georgia star signed his deal. Barring injury, my guess is that McCaffrey signs a five-year, $85 million extension sometime next summer. Given two years of top-level production and no injury history to speak of, I don’t see a strong argument to let McCaffrey play out his deal and move on.
2020 status: Under contract ($8.6 million cap hit)
If you read the blurb on Fournette earlier, you can probably guess that I’m not quite as optimistic about him. The Jaguars will likely pick up Fournette’s fifth-year option, given that he doesn’t have any catastrophic injuries in his past, although an unexpected wrist issue that would have caused Blake Bortles to likely fail his physical was part of the calculus in Jacksonville’s foolish Bortles extension in February 2018.
It would take a massive turnaround from Fournette to justify a long-term extension, the sort of turnaround that lasts through 2020.
2020 status: Under contract ($2 million cap hit)
Cook’s breakout this season has been nothing short of phenomenal. The Vikings thought the former Florida State star had this sort of ceiling in him when they traded up to grab him in the second round of the 2017 draft, and while a torn ACL sidelined him after just four games in his rookie year, he has shown no signs of the knee injury this season. Cook seems equally capable of gliding past defenders or running over them, and he has averaged more than 10 yards per reception as one of the league’s most devastating screen backs.
All of that is true. And yet, there are so many red flags when it comes to signing Cook. The knee injury hasn’t bothered him this season, but that ACL tear is ominous. He then missed five games in 2018 with hamstring issues. If he plays all 16 games in 2019, it will be his first full campaign as a pro. His breakout has come after moving to a Kubiak/Shanahan scheme in an offense that seems to turn every back it finds into a superstar. Indeed, both Cook and third-round pick Alexander Mattison are averaging 4.8 yards per carry, although Mattison has offered nothing as a receiver and has been less impressive by expected points metrics.
In so many ways, this has been an outlier season from Cook. Signing him this offseason off that outlier season in an incredibly back-friendly scheme could turn out to be just fine; I would expect Cook to stay productive as long as he stays healthy and the duo of Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski remain in charge of the Vikings’ offense. History suggests the Vikings are likely better off going with less expensive options and using the savings elsewhere, though.
2020 status: Under contract ($1.2 million cap hit)
You can make a case that Kamara is, on a play-by-play basis, the best back the Saints have had on their roster during the Sean Payton era. They have gone through all different kinds of permutations in terms of their running back usage over the past 13 years, but even when they used the second overall pick on Reggie Bush, he was typically the secondary running back behind Deuce McAllister or Pierre Thomas. Kamara is really the first one to take over as both the primary runner and receiver over a multiyear span, although he cedes plenty of touches to Latavius Murray.
The Saints are doing just fine, but 2019 has been a disappointing season for Kamara. His touchdown rate has finally regressed toward the mean, as the runner who racked up 31 touchdowns on 476 touches from 2017-18 has just two on 154 touches this season. I wouldn’t attribute that to much more than randomness and opportunity. Thanks in part to missing time with an ankle injury, Kamara has just three carries inside the 5-yard line after racking up 16 in 15 games last season.
Kamara’s efficiency has dropped from his spectacular rookie year — he became just the third player in league history to average 6 yards per carry on 50 or more runs and 10 yards per reception on 50 or more catches — but he’s still a wildly effective back and a true second option behind Michael Thomas in the passing game. After letting Mark Ingram leave in free agency, the Saints are likely to extend Kamara this offseason. The down year might depress his value a tiny bit, but he’ll likely top the Gurley deal and come in somewhere around four years and $60 million.
2020 status: Under contract ($839,912 cap hit)
Still just 23, Mack was firmly entrenched as Indy’s starting back before going down with a fractured hand during Sunday’s game with the Jaguars. The injury will likely keep him out for several weeks and ensures that the South Florida product will enter his fourth pro season in 2020 without ever completing a full 16-game campaign. The good news, I suppose, is that Mack’s injuries as a pro have been relatively minor.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard has shown a desire to build around the players who fit into Indy’s culture, and Mack was one of the first players Ballard drafted after arriving in 2017. Mack has been a productive back who rarely fumbles, although he offers little in the passing game. The Colts will enter the offseason with more than $100 million in cap space for the second consecutive year, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they extended Mack this offseason before the midtier running back market goes up. Without a 1,000-yard season on his résumé, Mack’s market value is probably somewhere around McKinnon’s four-year, $30 million deal.
2020 status: Under contract ($785,487 cap hit)
The most efficient running back in football might be Jones, whose 61% success rate leads all backs. I covered the difference Jones makes on the Packers offense in my Monday column; in short, the Packers are the best offense in football with Jones on the field and something closer to the 2019 Giants with Jamaal Williams at running back. Over his past 16 completed starts, Jones has carried the ball 215 times for 1,043 yards and a staggering 17 rushing touchdowns, throwing in 54 catches for 491 yards and four more scores.
He has done all this while the Packers have refused to even use him as an every-down back for most of the past two years, which leads to a fascinating negotiation. Jones looks like one of the best running backs in football when he’s on the field. There will certainly be teams that want to pay him like a franchise back if he hits free agency. The disconnect between his success and his usage rate makes it difficult to judge what happens next. If any of these situations has a chance to turn into the next Bell or Gordon standoff, it’s this one. With that in mind, the Packers seem likely to let Jones play out the final year of his rookie deal in 2020.
2020 status: Under contract ($934,572 cap hit)
Having luckily avoided a Bell extension, the Steelers instead enjoyed a breakout season from Conner in 2018, who made the Pro Bowl in his debut campaign as a starter. Injuries capped Conner’s season at 13 games, and shoulder, ankle and quad injuries have alternately sapped his effectiveness or kept Conner out altogether this season. The 24-year-old ran for 145 yards in a game against the Dolphins and hasn’t topped 55 rushing yards in any other game this season.
Conner is a talented back, and the Steelers would surely prefer to get ahead of the curve instead of letting an extension linger and creating another Bell situation, but I don’t see how the Steelers can realistically offer Conner a market-value deal this offseason given his injuries. Pittsburgh also has just $5.7 million in cap room in 2020, a figure that rises all the way to $95.6 million the following year. For those reasons, the Steelers should (and likely will) let Conner play through the final year of his deal in 2020.
2020 status: Under contract ($751,283 cap hit)
No team is prouder of its run-first offensive identity than the Seahawks, and while general manager John Schneider used a 2018 first-round pick on Rashaad Penny, his 2017 seventh-round selection is the team’s best back. Carson has averaged an even 20 carries per game and still ranks fourth in the NFL in success rate. The only player who has carried the ball more frequently per game than Carson is Nick Chubb, who ranks 32nd in success rate. Even McCaffrey, who comes close in rushing usage, is 17th in success rate. It’s impressive to combine this level of rushing volume and efficiency.
The growing problem for Carson is fumbles. No back in football has more fumbles than his six, and it’s an issue that doesn’t appear to be going away. After fumbling in each of the first three games this season, he has fumbled three times over his past two contests. It dramatically reduces Carson’s value, dropping him to the middle of the pack in DVOA. The Seahawks rank fourth in the league in win probability added on running plays when you leave out fumbles for everyone. When you mix in their fumbles, many of which have come from Carson, the Seahawks drop to 12th in the same category. Seattle has plenty of cap room, but given Carson’s fumble woes, I have to imagine the Seahawks wait on giving him a new deal.
2020 status: Under contract ($1.7 million cap hit)
Sunday was Mixon’s best game of the season, as the second-round pick scored for the first time inside the 5-yard line all year while topping 5 yards per carry. That’s not a particularly high bar, but in toiling behind a dismal Bengals offensive line, Mixon has been anonymous in 2019.
Stephania Bell, Mike Clay and Field Yates discuss Joe Mixon’s recent improvement and what fantasy managers can expect from him vs. the Steelers.
The Bengals typically reward their own core contributors with extensions, and there are teams that wouldn’t consider signing Mixon after the Oklahoma back was caught on video punching a woman in the face in July 2014. Mixon will likely end up re-signing with the Bengals, although both sides could prefer to wait to see Mixon behind a more effective line in 2020 to establish a fair market value.
2020 status: Under contract ($893,616 cap hit)
While the most disappointing member of the Bears’ offense in 2019 has been the guy at quarterback, Cohen has been anonymous for most of the season. Where’s the playmaker who took over games at times last season? Matt Nagy started the season essentially employing Cohen as a full-time slot receiver, but regardless of how the Bears have used Cohen, it hasn’t worked. Cohen has just 367 yards from scrimmage and ranks near the bottom of the league in both yards per rush (3.1) and yards per reception (5.8).
Cohen’s prototype is Darren Sproles, who never got the credit or contract he deserved, short one year with the franchise tag in San Diego. The league is more enlightened now and finds more of a use for players with Cohen’s skill set, but the 5-foot-6 halfback is still likely to be undervalued. His best chance of getting a significant deal is likely with the Bears, given that general manager Ryan Pace may want to try to make a badly fading 2017 draft look more successful than it actually was.
Eddie Jackson is playing better than the “crap” the safety compared himself to earlier this month, but Cohen, Mitchell Trubisky and second-round pick Adam Shaheen have all had wildly disappointing 2019 seasons. Of the three, Cohen has the best chance of again looking the most like the player the Bears envisioned heading into the year.
The best of the rest
In addition to the players I mentioned, there are three restricted free agents from the class of 2017 worth mentioning. Third-round pick Kareem Hunt was cut by the Chiefs after he was caught on video assaulting a woman; he has since signed with the Browns and served a suspension. Hunt has taken over a significant role as Cleveland’s third-down back since returning to the lineup, but he’ll be a restricted free agent in 2020.
Hunt will be joined on the RFA market by Matt Breida and Austin Ekeler, both of whom were undrafted free agents who worked their way into starting roles. In all three cases, the most likely scenario is a return to their current teams for 2020, although C.J. Anderson serves as a recent example of a back being tendered too low and getting an unexpected offer sheet.
There also will be a number of veterans on the market. Lamar Miller is an unrestricted free agent and should have no trouble finding a roster spot, although the 28-year-old is probably looking at a one-year deal with incentives coming off his ACL tear. Likely cap casualties include Devonta Freeman, Dion Lewis and Jerick McKinnon, each of whom will likely also be looking at one-year deals.
Can the XFL really make spring football work? How its draft showed the way
STAMFORD, Connecticut — The clock hit 10 a.m., and the side discussions stopped. The window blinds were closed. Oliver Luck took his seat at the table in a conference room decorated with artificial green turf and guarded by a sign that read “XFL Draft In-Progress. Silence Upon Entry!” Luck cleared his throat to kick off the most important event yet in the birth of a new football league.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he intoned toward a camera. “Welcome to the XFL draft. This is a historic moment for all of us, and we appreciate the hard work that’s gone into getting us to this point. Good luck to everybody.”
And that was it. There were no fireworks. No music. No cheering crowds. Not even a live internet stream. Just 35 words of serious business from the league commissioner followed by two days of drafting 561 players — the starkest indication yet of the XFL’s determination to avoid buzz and project itself as a serious football enterprise. The XFL draft, which began last month and will continue Friday with a supplemental round, was structured for maximum efficiency and parity, at the expense of pageantry and recognizable names that would have drawn more attention.
“Football is kind of a serious game,” Luck said, “and what I’ve been saying all the time, so much that people think it’s tongue-in-cheek, is that we’re doing this for the love of the game. It’s for the love for football. And that really is it. That’s what we want to be for. I’m not a gimmicky person.”
When he launched the league in 2018, XFL owner Vince McMahon made clear that he would not replicate the renegade conceit and general swagger of the XFL’s first incarnation, which folded after its only season in 2001. A day spent in the XFL’s offices last month, observing the draft and talking to executives, demonstrated how buttoned-up this league intends to be.
The draft established, for instance, that the XFL will not market itself using big names. Its signature signing was quarterback Landry Jones, a backup for parts of six seasons in the NFL. The league was thrilled to sign quarterback Cardale Jones, best known for leading a 2015 championship run at Ohio State. Most recently, Jones was released from the Seattle Seahawks‘ practice squad. Many of the recognizable names in the player pool — from running backs Trent Richardson and Matt Jones to quarterback Zach Mettenberger — went undrafted. And the league had no interest in Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, a 2014 NFL first-round pick with experience in the CFL and AAF.
Among the top XFL player profiles, Luck said, is a sizable chunk who spent multiple years on an NFL practice squad but failed to earn a promotion. Those players could use the XFL as a springboard to better opportunities. As an example, Luck pointed to the path of a cornerback named Keith Reaser, who spent parts of 2017-18 with the Kansas City Chiefs, starred in the AAF last spring and then re-signed with the Chiefs for a guaranteed $75,000 bonus. (Reaser is currently on injured reserve after tearing his Achilles in training camp.)
“That’s what I think we can do for players,” Luck said. “There are plenty of talented players out there for us who are a hair too short or get an injury here or there that sets them back. But I think arguably that’s more attractive than saying, ‘Hey, there’s Jim Kelly playing for the Houston Gamblers or Doug Flutie playing for New Jersey.’ The USFL, back in the day, they had some players as their calling card. That was their strategy: to get a star or two on each team. For us, it’s going to be more about the collective.”
The league’s focus on process over stars was evident in the smallest details of the draft. Rather than a traditional round-by-round sequence that would have immediately identified its best players, the XFL used position-specific rounds with a “snake” order that was more difficult for fans to follow but almost certainly better for dispersing talent equally.
In the preceding days, executives from the league office and each team had practiced and polished the wording of each draft announcement, repeating it over video conference software to ensure accuracy and efficiency. A pick wasn’t official until Doug Whaley, the XFL’s senior vice president of football operations, intoned “confirmed” after team representatives repeated their selection.
This sober approach to the draft, the most NFL’s most popular event with fans other than the Super Bowl, served as confirmation that there will be little tangible connection to McMahon’s swaggering World Wrestling Entertainment. Speaking from a red-brick office building across the street from WWE headquarters, Luck said he expects little to no crossover promotion. In the absence of a crosswalk between the buildings, the company hired an off-duty policeman to escort employees safely across East Main Street in Stamford — an appropriate metaphor for the separation of the two enterprises.
There are certainly ways to draw short-term attention, but the XFL appears intent on avoiding that kind of market disruption. Compensation levels are low enough for non-quarterbacks — a base salary of $27,000 for 10 games, with available bonuses that could bring it to $55,000 if a player is available for every game and his team has a 5-5 record — that at least one drafted player, defensive end Corey Vereen, decided to stay in his current job (software developer) rather than play.
Although the league’s rules allow it to recruit college stars who are less than three years removed from high school, and thus ineligible for the NFL, Luck has downplayed that tack. There was only one player in the original draft pool who had college eligibility remaining: West Virginia safety Kenny Robinson, selected by the St. Louis BattleHawks. Robinson is essentially using the XFL as his combine for the NFL, a path the league would like to popularize. It is possible that there will be more college players in Friday’s supplemental round.
To this point, the XFL’s play has been as unassuming as McMahon promised, with a focus on the football product, one it believes will sustain the interest of serious football fans through a series of tweaks that will minimize objectionable delays. Some, such as an official whose only job is to spot the ball, will go unnoticed by most fans. Several more radical ideas were shelved, including one that would have made every offensive player an eligible receiver. Perhaps the most noticeable change from traditional football will be a kickoff alignment in which the coverage and blockers must stand still until the returner catches the ball, an approach the XFL hopes will minimize touchbacks and promote a return on nearly every kick.
“We’re going to have a fast-paced, action game, but it won’t be basketball on grass,” said Whaley, who served as the Buffalo Bills‘ general manager from 2013 to ’17. “If we can get a 34-28 game and get you in and out in under three hours, without the stalls and the replays and timeouts that can kind of dishearten you about the game, that’s the kind of game that we want. It has to be real football, but it has to be something that people are enjoying watching and are entertained by.”
Is there truly a national market for football performed largely by unknown players, starting in mid-February, when fans typically take a post-Super Bowl breather? The XFL’s future largely depends on the notion that there is.
McMahon’s $500 million investment is based in part on a McKinsey Global Institute study that suggested that there are 40 million people who crave more football after the Super Bowl. Although Luck’s background as an NFL and NCAA executive led him toward a traditional approach, the XFL’s focus on game quality is also backed by data. According to Luck, the average television viewer of the ill-fated AAF was approximately 50 years old — hardly the demographic that would respond to loud buzz or radical changes to the game.
“My sense of our opportunity,” Luck said, “is that it comes from two buckets. One is people who love football. The second will be people in places like Dallas who can take their family to a three-hour event for $100. That’s where we have our chance. I hope people will want to see good football played during an up-tempo, fast-paced game that’s done in three hours or less.
“That’s what we think will work.”
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