From the conclusion of mandatory minicamps to the beginning of training camp, covering specific NFL teams presents a number of unique challenges. Customary mid-summer stories are a haphazard complication of hot takes, bold predictions and public interest stories about team executives who have yet to enable two-factor authentication on their Twitter accounts. The line between newsworthy and interesting becomes increasingly blurred.
(And I think this is awesome, by the way. During this dead period, on this site in particular, we’ve seen several regular contributors expand their creativity and present fresh narratives in a way that is engaging but not overtly hyperbolic. Sorry for the unconventional lede. I just wanted to pay tribute to the writers here (the contributors, those of you who are writing Fanposts) who are doing a great job to keep the site full of good content.)
The NBA is very much the inverse to the NFL when it comes to offseason happenings. While the NFL takes a six-week vacation from mid-June to late-July, the NBA becomes by far the most visible of North America’s four major sports leagues.
This is due in large part to the ever-ballooning NBA salary cap and star players’ penchants for changing teams to chase wins or dollars. LeBron James, objectively one of the three or five best players in NBA history, left Cleveland to join Miami in 2010 and then left Miami in 2014 to rejoin Cleveland. AND THERE IS A REALISTIC POSSIBILITY THAT HE LEAVES CLEVELAND AGAIN IN 2018 (James is signed through 2019, but there is a 110 percent chance that he exercises his player option in 2018 and becomes an unrestricted free agent). Kevin Durant, objectively one of the 10 best offensive players in NBA history, signed with Golden State last offseason after correctly realizing that sometimes it is better to join ‘em than beat ‘em. Chris Paul, objectively one of the five best point guards in NBA history, demanded a trade from the Clippers and ultimately joined the Houston Rockets, who already boasted the second-highest vote getter in the MVP race, James Harden. Paul George, a prototypical three-and-D forward with unlimited shooting range, made it very clear that he hopes to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers when his contract expires next offseason, and he still leveraged a trade to a Western contender.
And this has all occurred within the last couple of years. With two dominant superteams and a seemingly-predetermined championship match-up in place until James leaves Cleveland again or the Warriors’ front office refuses to pay a billion-dollar luxury tax, the NBA offseason is infinitely more compelling than the actual on-court product.
The NFL, however, is not nearly as chaotic. Who are the five best players to actually reach free agency in NFL history? Reggie White, maybe. Probably Deion Sanders. Charles Woodson, obviously. Steve Hutchison. Either way, it is an extremely short list, and no franchise quarterback has ever reached free agency. (This point needs some context, since Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Rich Gannon and Brett Favre all signed with new teams as free agents. When Warner signed with Arizona, it was after an unceremonious stint in New York and he was widely considered to be washed up. Brees is a great signing in retrospect, but at the time of signing Brees was both very young and apparently not as good as Phillip Rivers in the eyes of Chargers management. Manning was cut by Indianapolis after missing the entire 2011 season (and after the Colts drafted Andrew Luck). Gannon was a bit of a journeyman at the time of signing and far from a sure thing, while Favre only became a free agent because he voided his retirement. Point being: no team has ever allowed a good quarterback to hit the open market without a contingency plan already in place).
If Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins do not sign long-term deals with their respective teams by July 17, it could be argued that they would become two of the five or so best players ever to become unrestricted free agents.
Now, the NFL certainly isn’t without its splash signings (Albert Haynesworth, Mario Williams, and Ndamukong Suh all come to mind), but these have become increasingly rare. Blockbuster trades are even more infrequent (the trade between the Patriots and Saints that sent Brandin Cooks to New England is one of the biggest surface-level trades that I can remember).
What we are left with in the NFL offseason (which, it should be noted, is the longest of any sport) is a “no news is good news” mindset. I do not accept this. Therefore, let’s throw out a few ideas that could make the NFL offseason more interesting:
Steal Ice Cube’s thunder
Ice Cube (of NWA and “Are We There Yet?” fame) pioneered what I believe to be the greatest sports league of all time. This league, the Big3 League, is eight teams that are composed of former NBA players. Essentially, it is a professional recreational league. And so far, it is every bit as good as it sounds.
The opening slate of games attracted 15,000 fans to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which means that it is very likely that more people watched the George Gervin-coached Ghost Ballers than the average Brooklyn Nets game. Most impressively, the Big3 attracted a bunch of viewers, which is remarkable considering that the one-day tape delay and that the game appeared on FS1.
The NFL needs to copy this formula! Obviously, current NFL rules would need to be augmented substantially to protect the old guys, but if you’re telling me you wouldn’t tune in to watch Favre throw bombs to Chad Johnson in a touch football game, then I’m calling you a liar.
Invest in a developmental league
Or a modified minor league, if that is more palatable. Sports Illustrated suggests that over 16,000 players were eligible to be drafted in 2017, though only 253 found their way onto NFL rosters by way of the draft. If you consider the numerous NFL hopefuls still attempting to forge a career in professional football, there are thousands of chip-on-the-shoulder guys who would be more than happy to get in front of some coaches and scouts in mid-July.
If the NFL attaches its name to something and televises it, people are going to watch. The Pro Bowl is perhaps the greatest example of our insatiable and borderline masochistic desire to consume as much professional football as possible. This event, which is mocked relentlessly by media, fans and the players themselves, still drew a 4.6 rating last season. While this marks the sixth consecutive year that Pro Bowl viewership has declined, this rating indicates that the Pro Bowl is still attracting significantly more attention than the average television program. People will watch a mid-summer scrimmage between the Akron Skinspankers and the Albany Wetfarters if it means they are consuming an NFL product.
Re-think the current contract structure
Doing this would be very difficult logistically, but I think adopting fully-guaranteed contracts (like every other league does) would be a prudent move for the NFL. Not only would it allow them to reduce cap salaries, but it would put more money in players’ pockets. (Before you jump into the comments, I realize this will never happen. The NFL’s remarkably high injury rate would make teams totally unwilling to adopt this procedure, and even if they did, the total value of the guaranteed contracts would probably take a considerable nosedive).
Another idea would be to give players more leverage. The NBA’s current model, which gives many veteran players the opportunity to opt out of their current contracts with up to a full year remaining on their deals, is a good system because it gives players the freedom to kind of dictate how their careers will turn out. The NFL’s tagging system is far more antiquated and, frankly, unfair to the players. Bell, for instance, was tagged this season and could be tagged again next year, as well. While that would give him a solid two-year payday, it gives him virtually no long-term security, which, given the league’s high injury rate, is a desirable trait in superstar contracts.
The NFL still reigns supreme in North American sports, and it will continue to do so regardless of what changes it makes to its current organizational structure. If the league wants to keep itself at the forefront year round, however, a few tweaks here and there could make it happen.