Finding the middle ground: tackling in the NFL

Another week, another major knee injury in the National Football League. This time it is Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski who has been ruled out for at least the rest of this season with a torn ACL. The defence of the (legally clean) hit on his knee is that defensive players have to tackle low, since they can’t hit high. But what about the middle?

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NFL to compel teams to appear on Hard Knocks

This week’s early contender for ‘Bad Idea of the Week’ is the National Football League (NFL)’s proposal to be able to compel teams to appear on HBO’s Hard Knocks.

According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the league may be able to force teams to appear on the show if there are no volunteers. There are some teams which will be exempt:

  • Teams that have made the playoffs in the last two seasons [EDIT: It is actually the playoffs in either of the two previous seasons]
  • Teams with a new head coach
  • Those teams that have appeared on the show in the previous decade.

This means that (if teams keep their ranking positions at the end of the season and there are no coaching changes) the teams that will be eligible for the proposal are: Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Jacksonville, San Diego, Oakland, Philadelphia, the Giants, Detroit, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Arizona and St Louis. [EDIT: with the correction above, some of these teams are now no longer included]

While some of these teams could be interesting to watch, the proposal is, overall, a bad idea. But why?

First of all, from the league’s point of view it makes total sense. After the Jets (read: Rex Ryan) appearance on the show in 2010 and the lockout in 2012 there were few teams willing to let the cameras in. The Dolphins season was not fantastic, though it did offer the producers the opportunity to show lots of slow motion shots of the Dolphins cheerleaders. There was a fair bit of filler of this type each episode.

This season the Bengals appeared on the show for the second time, and again couldn’t hold a candle to the interest of the Jets season. However, there was still an audience for the show, and the money brought in to the league is something that they will not want to lose. Under this proposal that risk has been totally removed.

With the criteria of only making poorly performing teams appear on the show, it will also help the league to get more people interested in whatever franchise is featured – as a marketing opportunity for the league, the idea certainly holds water.

For the teams, however, it is quite a different deal. Some teams, such as the Giants and Patriots, hardly seem interested in hosting the show, and as Andrew Brandt, former front office executive with the Packers revealed, they weren’t the only franchises totally unwilling to let the cameras in.

If the team is forced to let the cameras into their world, it quite likely that we’ll see more performances like that of James Harrison with the Bengals, who pretty much avoided the Hard Knocks cameras as much as possible (much like he has avoided being a factor on the field).

And finally, the audience. While the show can be interesting, and offer some insight into the world of NFL training camp, how much less interesting and enjoyable will the show be if no one wants the cameras to be there? For fans of the teams that appear, it could make their team look foolish, reticent or just like a bunch of assholes. It will be hard for any team that appears on the show against it’s will to build much of a neutral following if they clearly look awkward, uninterested or like they’re trying too hard (imagine an entire team made up of Taylor Mays).

While this idea can be seen as good business sense for the league, it could be a really poor move for the quality of the show, the reputation of the teams and the people who ought to be important when planning a reality TV show: the audience.

International Series offers London clubs opportunities for growth

The first of two National Football League (NFL) International Series games has been played at Wembley this past weekend, and as usual, discussion turns to whether an NFL team could be based in London.

One issue frequently cited is the competition for fans with other sports. With the capital already hosting athletics, cricket, rugby and several football teams during the year, is there really space for another sport? And will the NFL, with it’s glitz and swagger, have a negative effect on other parts of the London sports map?

One man who doesn’t think it will be a problem is Phil Alexander, chief executive at Crystal Palace. The influence of American football is something Alexander has plenty of first hand experience with: in 1991 he led the London Monarchs in points scored as they won the inaugural World League of American Football (WLAF)

Speaking before the first of the International Series games last week, he told me that rather than causing greater competition, the addition of an NFL franchise in London could offer local teams a wider audience to target:

“There could be a lot of cross-over activities to be had. I think if you’ve got a customer who wants to go and see live events they’re happy to go to more types of events.

“I think there’s room for another sport like American football in this country. I don’t think it would have any effect.”

He also moved to dismiss concerns whether the London sports scene would be over-saturated:

“No, because I don’t think the American football fans will come just from London. They’ll come from all over the UK and Europe. They would travel for that.

“Our catchment area’s very local, we’re looking at south London primarily, where I feel the American football would pull from a lot further afield. “

And if the league can continue to attract fans from across Europe to Wembley, then the increased number of fans that might be tempted to see London-based teams could benefit teams like Palace.

Fulham are, of course, the other team who could look to benefit from the NFL foot traffic, given their links to the Jaguars.

While the likeliness of the Jags moving to London any time soon is small (they would have to pay $100 million to get out of their lease in Florida before 2030) they are certainly in prime position to try and develop a UK fan base, given their ties to Fulham through their shared owner.

Cross-promotion, special offers and the increased marketing opportunities that the Jaguars enjoy in the UK (they can market the team as they would in their local region, unlike any other NFL side) could give them a real opportunity to grow their support. Being able to promote with and through Fulham at the same time could help them to tap into that customer base that Alexander mentioned.

English football on Saturday at Craven Cottage, American football on Sunday at Wembley. Premier League and the NFL, back to back. That’s a strong combination, and could be used as a draw for fans of both the round and oval ball games.

What Needs to Happen to Fix The Chiefs?

The Kansas City Chiefs are 1-5 and coming off their bye week have named Brady Quinn as their starting quarterback over Matt Cassel.

This isn’t a shock, given the ineffective play of Cassel so far this season, but is it all that is needed to rescue the Chiefs season? Looking at Quinn’s performances so far in his NFL career, probably not. So what is needed to fix the Chiefs and turn the team around for this season or next?

The General Manager?

Scott Pioli has drafted some decent players during his tenure in KC, but he has also not hit on several high picks, including the last two first round picks, Jonathan Baldwin and Dontari Poe. Neither of these two are ready to be big contributors to the Chiefs, and developing them is important to the future of the team.

One of the main problems though is that he has stuck solidly behind Matt Cassel on the basis of one good season in New England and one good season with the Chiefs. Backing Cassel as QB has meant that the Chiefs have passed on signal callers who could have been improvements, such as Andy Dalton, who is now the future in Cincinnati.

There hasn’t been much improvement in their record during his time in charge of the team. The team has gone 22-33 with Pioli as GM, and has not improved year-on-year. Pioli has also hired Head Coaches who have not been successful hires, whether it was Todd Haley or Romeo Crennel.

Firing Pioli would be a popular move with the Chiefs fans, but to do this would mean a full-blown reworking of the organisation, since it would mean a new GM, most likely a new coaching staff and a new quarterback. There is some talent on the team to rebuild with, as well as some high draft picks given the current record. If the team does stick with Pioli, how much will he do to change things? Possibly not a great deal. The team need to get away from the Patriots Superbowl era staff, with Pioli, Crennel, and Daboll all having been involved with the Pats in the early 2000s.

The Coaching Staff?

Romeo Crennel was described as a coach players want to play for after last season’s period as Interim Head Coach. This is something that either means the players will try harder for a coach that they like and respect (e.g. Dick Vermeil) or it means that the coach allows them to do whatever they want, and as soon as it gets hard the team doesn’t fight (e.g. Raheem Morris). At the end of last season the team pulled out all the stops for Crennel, but mainly because he wasn’t Todd Haley.

Also, Crennel is 65 and while he has got success as a defensive coordinator, he has not been convincing as the Head Coach with either Cleveland or Kansas City. A 27-46 record as a Head Coach in the NFL with one winning season seems to suggest that Crennel isn’t really HC material, and isn’t able to improve the team he is in charge of.

Combining the 2009 Browns offensive pairing of Brian Daboll and Brady Quinn is not likely to generate any real improvement on a poor offence that has not been able to put up a lot of points, especially through the air.

The Quarterback?

Matt Cassel has had enough opportunities to prove that he should be the guy in KC, and outside of the 2010 season, he hasn’t shown enough. When you get benched for Brady Quinn, I think it is a sign that it is time to move on. The other quarterback on the roster is Ricky Stanzi, who might as well get an opportunity to show what he can do, given that the two QBs ahead of him on the depth chart are pretty much known commodities right now. The quarterback of the Chiefs future doesn’t seem to be on their roster right now, and it is the position that is holding them back the most.

The Roster?

Offence: The Chiefs have a decent rushing attack, with Jamaal Charles one of the premier backs in the league this season. Having Peyton Hillis as the power back and change of pace gives a decent balance to the running game. Tony Moeaki is a pretty good tight end, and the combination of him and Kevin Boss at the position next season could be solid. Jon Baldwin needs to be developed faster, and Steve Breaston is not looking as effective as he was in Arizona, though this may have a lot to do with who is throwing the ball. What Dexter McCluster‘s role in the team is going to be also needs to be defined, otherwise they are in danger of falling into the Devin Hester trap: trying to get a player involved in the offence because of his athletic ability rather than his real skills.

Defence: There are some talented players on the defence. Up front Glenn Dorsey is a good player, at linebacker Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson and Justin Houston are all good players, and if the secondary can get better performance from Brandon Flowers and Eric Berry, there are pieces to build with on defence. It is understandable why Dontari Poe was drafted to fill the middle of the defensive line, but his play has not been good enough yet.

So:

If the Chiefs decide to fire Pioli it will mean a change of coaching staff, quarterback and some more roster adjustments. While this means essentially three Head Coaches in three years – which is certainly not a recipe for success – they need to define where the future of the team is. There is enough talent on the team to tempt good GM and HC candidates. While they are not on the same talent level as the 49ers, this is the model they should look at: some talented pieces who aren’t being well coached and need a strong coach who can bring real direction and purpose to the team.

This won’t happen until Pioli is gone though, since he does not seem to have a real idea of where this direction is going. Once they get to clean house, then they can rebuild. Until this happens, the holding pattern will continue and things won’t get any better.

Jerry Jones: In Danger of Becoming the New Al Davis?

Al Davis was the force behind the Oakland Raiders for the better part of 45 years as owner and general manger. With Davis in charge of football operations, the Raiders won three Superbowls (XI, XV, XVIII) in a seven-year span, and for a while were the dominant team and most recognisable teams in the NFL. They relocated from Oakland to Los Angeles and back again because of the facilities and finances involved in each location at the time. However, during Davis’ later years the teams struggled. In part, this was due to the draft choices of Davis, who picked players with speed to fit into his philosophy on football. It was also in part to poor hiring decisions on the coaching staff and loyalty occasionally taking priority over what was good for the team. The Raiders have not made the Superbowl since their defeat in 2003, and Davis passed away in 2011.

Jerry Jones is the force behind the Dallas Cowboys, and has been since he bought the team in the offseason in early 1989. With Jones as owner and general manager, the Cowboys have won three Superbowls (XXVII, XXVIII, XXX) in a four-year span. In the 1990s they were one of the dominant teams in the NFL, winning six division championships and making eight playoff appearances. Cowboys jerseys are among the most sold out of all the NFL teams, and they are one of the most watched on television. Forbes has valued the franchise as worth approximately $2.1 billion.

Since Jones took over Football operations in Dallas, the Cowboys rank 11th in win percentage (53.8%) in the league behind

  • Pittsburgh: 62.2% (2 Superbowls)
  • Green Bay: 60.6% (2 Superbowls)
  • San Francisco: 58.2% (2 Superbowls)
  • New England: 57.6% (3 Superbowls)
  • Philadelphia: 57.5%
  • Denver: 57.1 (2 Superbowls)
  • Tennessee: 55.2%
  • New York Giants: 54.9% (3 Superbowls)
  • Baltimore: 54.7% (1 Superbowl)
  • Indianapolis: 54.6% (1 Superbowl)
  • Dallas: 53.8% (3 Superbowls)

This is a decent, and a much better win percentage over the same time period than the other franchises that have or had owners as GMs, Oakland (45.7%) and Cincinnati (43.0%). The problem is that while Jones and the Cowboys have three rings and a massive new stadium, since they won their last title after the 1995 season they have won two playoff games, one after the ’96 season and one after the ’09 season. Over that period, they’ve lost seven playoff games and failed to reach the postseason in nine other seasons. As a side note, they’ve also collected six 10-loss seasons.

So what does this all come down to? Jones needs to consider bringing someone in to run the football side of the team, while he focuses on the business. Yes, he has had success in the past, but the recent team struggles have been down to poor drafting, some poor trades (Roy Williams, anyone?) and mistakes in free agency. This is where the GM can either make or break the team, and at the moment Jerry Jones the GM is making life hard for Jerry Jones the owner of the team. There needs to be a split made, or there is a danger that the poor decision-making and lack of touch that plagued the Raiders during the last decade of the Al Davis era will also come to haunt the Cowboys.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Should It Be More Than Pink?

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the United States. To support this, the National Football League runs the “A Crucial Catch” Campaign, involving players wearing pink accessories, shoes, gloves and so on, which are auctioned to raise money to fight breast cancer.

This is certainly a worthy cause, and it is good to see such a prominent business as the NFL getting involved. The question, for both the NFL and the American Cancer Society, is where are the other awareness months and events for other forms of cancer?

According to ACS statistics, breast cancer cases form 19.98% of new cancer cases across the US. This is the fourth highest percentage, and translates to approximately 229,060 new cases in 2012. Areas with higher numbers of new cases include the Respiratory system, where Lung Cancer is the biggest cause, Digestive system, where Colon Cancer alone causes 103,170 new cases, and the Genital system, where there are more new cases of Prostate Cancer alone: 241,740.

Given that there are a large number of men in the US and around the world who watch the NFL on Sunday afternoons, would it not be beneficial to use such an opportunity to raise awareness of prostate cancer? Breast cancer, partly due to campaigns such as the Awareness Month, is now one of the most well-known forms of cancer. Why not also try to use such an international platform to spread awareness for other forms of cancer, and raise money for treatment, prevention and cures? According to the ACS report, around 17.42% of breast cancer cases in 2012 are fatal. The number is high, but contrast this with colon cancer, which has a 50.10% death rate, or the 69.57% death rate of ovarian cancer.

There needs to be an increase in awareness of these forms of cancer as well. Possibly through different colours for each one, and then each team can support one cause per game for the month – for example, given the battle that their Head Coach Chuck Pagano is going through against leukaemia, the Colts could wear a colour that would raise awareness of that frightening disease. I would certainly support that. Then every team would be able to do their part, as well as helping to raise awareness of a variety of different forms of cancer, so that the fight can be taken to the entire disease, and there is not a hierarchy placed on which ones deserve more attention than others.

Helping to educate people to the existence of these diseases can be a big step in feeling comfortable enough to see your doctor if you are having health problems – especially for men at risk of prostate cancer. There is a global audience for the NFL, and it could be used to inform people every Sunday, Monday and Thursday night in October.

Racism in Football: Bring in The Rooney Rule

It has not been a good twelve months for race relations in football. John Terry and Luis Suarez have seen to that. Some of the fans have not been much better, with several players, Ashley Young, Ashley Cole and John Obi Mikel among them, being targeted for racial abuse on Twitter. And let us not forget the guy who sent abuse to Fabrice Muamba’s twitter account after he had a heart attack on the pitch. These are just a few examples of explicit discrimination against prominent sports figures because of their race.

But what about people not getting chances because of the colour of their skin? Out of the 92 Football League clubs, only 3 of them employ managers of an ethnic minority. That is 3.2%. In comparison, according to the latest Cencus, minorities make up 12.5% of the UK population.

One way to help to combat this inequality is to bring in a UK equivalent of the NFL’s Rooney Rule. Named after the head of the NFL’s Diversity Committee, the Rule is essentially a condition that for every Head Coaching opportunity that comes up at any of the 32 NFL teams, there must be at least one minority candidate interviewed.

While this might strike some people as tokenism, it the extra opportunities has been reflected by an increase in the hiring of minority candidates (remember, they simply need to be interviewed, not given the job).

The Rooney Rule was implemented in 2003. At the time there were 2 minority head coaches in the NFL (Tony Dungy of the Colts and Herm Edwards of the Jets). That is 6% of Head Coaches. Within 3 years, that had gone up to 22%, with Dennis Green (Cardinals), Art Shell (Raiders), Marvin Lewis (Bengals), Lovie Smith (Bears) and Romeo Crennel (Browns) all in head coaching positions.

Currently, 18.75% of Head Coaches are minorities: Lewis and Smith from the above list, as well as Crennel now with the Chiefs, Leslie Frasier (Vikings), Ron Riviera (Panthers) and Mike Tomlin (Steelers) – who was hired having had Rivera also interview for the position. Having minority candidates applying for positions means that while they might not always be hired, there is both a recognition of talent (Smith’s Bears were defeated by Dungy’s Colts in Superbowl XLI, and Tomlin’s Steelers won Superbowl XL and XLIII), as well as an increase in the visibility of minority coaches for younger generations. There is no suggestion that any of these men were hired because of their skin colour, rather that the Rooney Rule has helped to increase opportunities.

Why not apply a similar rule in football? It will not mean that suddenly there will be a flood of high-level minority managers, but there ought to be an increase in numbers – and hopefully this will mean that instead of every minority manager being “a role model”, they can be recognised for their skills.It will also mean that candidates will be able to go through interviews and improve on how owners can see the viability of appointing minority managers – rather than it being either old white English men or foreign managers.

For those who will say that this is an example of positive discrimination or affirmative action, I remind you that the rule says you need to interview one minority candidate, not always give them the job. But if there are no minorities interviewed, then the chances of them getting employed in management positions are negligible. This action would be massively preferable to the current inaction.