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How the NFL Really Works (And Doesn't)
By Mike Florio
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In recent decades, the NFL has simultaneously become an athletic, financial, and cultural powerhouse—and a League that can’t seem to go more than a few weeks without a scandal. Whether it’s about domestic violence, performance-enhancing drugs, racism, or head trauma, the NFL always seems to be in some kind of trouble. Yet no matter the drama, the TV networks keep showing games, the revenue keeps rising, and the viewers keep tuning in.
How can a sports league—or any organization—operate this way? Why do the negative stories keep happening, and why don’t they ever seem to affect the bottom line? In this wide-ranging book, Mike Florio takes readers from the boardroom to the locker room, from draft day to the Super Bowl, answering these questions and more, and showing what really goes on in the sport that America can’t seem to quit.
Known for his constant stream of new information and incisive commentary, Florio delivers again in this book. With new insights and reporting on scandals past and present, this book will be the talk of the League—whether the League likes it or not.
PICTURE YOURSELF WALKING out your door after dinner. The air is cooling after a hot day. There’s a bit of a breeze. You can feel it pushing your shirt against your lower back.
You’re standing in the driveway, seven feet away from the garage. The door is down. It’s painted off-white. You see the lines where the rectangular panels will separate as it slides up squeakily on the metal tracks, the dent from where your kid ran into it with his bike and then tried to deny it. A row of windows lines the top of the door, as if you (or anyone else) will ever climb onto a step stool to have a look inside. All you’d find is the Ford Taurus and the Subaru Forester and the weed whacker and the half-filled gasoline can with a rag stuck in the hole because you lost the nozzle. And a smattering of grimy and long-forgotten toys.
Now, run. Run right into the door. Run as hard as you can.
Get up. You OK? Who cares if you’re not? Go back and do it again.
Do it again.
And again. And again.
After you’ve done it about fifty times or so, you’ll feel like an NFL player feels after a game.
Now, do it every Sunday (plus maybe a Thursday or a Monday or a Saturday instead) for the next eighteen weeks. Don’t worry. You’ll get one of those weeks off to rest—until you get to keep doing it some more.
And if you do it really well, you’ll get to do it even more. Another three or four weekends.
Do that from September through January, and you’ll begin to understand life in the NFL.
We’ve become conditioned over the years to think it’s glitz and it’s glamour and it’s riches and it’s luxury and it’s whatever else is good and enviable to play in the NFL. It’s not. It’s pain and it’s agony and it’s surgeries and it’s pressure and it’s stress and it’s everyone you know wanting some of what you have, and it’s a far cry from the fun, thrilling life that a resentful nation of fans believes it to be.
Now, go back to your driveway. And before you run full speed into the garage door, pretend that you’re doing it in front of sixty-five thousand people. Half the time, when you’re on the home team, they’ll love you (unless they think you suck). The other half the time, when you’re on the road team, they’ll hate you with a flaming passion (especially if they know you don’t suck).
With millions more watching at home. With people who have get-rich-quick cash riding on the outcome of the game. With tens of thousands who “own” you in fantasy football needing you to score a touchdown, or three. With an unlimited number of assholes on social media who will hurl insults at you, your wife, your mother, your kids. Who will threaten to kill you, or them, if you fail to perform in a way that advances their financial interests, their rooting interests, or both.
Welcome to the real life of an NFL player. Welcome to the pain. The stress. The heartache. Welcome to the hours spent trying to mend a broken body to the point that it can keep running into that garage door. Welcome to the challenges of realizing your peak earning potential well before your twenty-fifth birthday and the demands from family and friends who believe that the fountain of cash will last forever, or at least a lot longer than it actually will.
Welcome to life as a candle that burns quickly and has an unknown supply of wax. One year? Two years? Three? Four? Five, maybe. And only a handful can stretch it out much longer than that.
And every year, there’s a new crop of players, younger, cheaper, healthier, fresher. They’re coming to take what’s yours. Eventually, one of them will. Until that happens, you get to worry about the inevitability of it.
Along the way, everyone is watching everything you do. The reward for success is a life led in public, with constant requests for photos and autographs and tickets and phone calls. It sounds great at first, but it gets old quickly. Very quickly.
There’s a story that has made the rounds for years in league circles that a female fan once approached Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp while he was eating dinner and said, “I hate to bother you, but can I get your autograph?”
Sapp pushed his chair back, as the legend goes, glared at the woman, and pointed at his meal.
“Do you see any peas on my plate?” Sapp said.
The woman, confused by the question, looked at the plate.
“No,” she said.
“Do you know why there’s no peas on my plate?” Sapp said.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“Because I hate peas!” Sapp exclaimed. “So if you hate to bother me, why are you bothering me?”
And that’s just a sliver of life as an NFL player. For nearly every player who makes it there, it’s the realization of a lifelong dream. That dream in many ways can quickly become a nightmare, especially after the players retire to face decades of worry about potential physical and cognitive problems that they’d never even have thought about if their boyhood wishes had been different. If their circumstances and natural gifts had led them to become chemists, or doctors, or even pro athletes in a far less grueling game.
Although success in any professional sport will invite many of the issues that NFL players confront, few exact a physical toll so extreme that some must wonder whether it was all worth it. Most will say it was, because what else can they say? Deep down, however, many of the men who emerge from a career in the NFL with mangled joints and scarred flesh and empty bank accounts and fingers that point in every direction other than the proper one and memories that, if they’re lucky, mix good and bad almost equally know that the reality simply didn’t live up to the dream.
So remember all of this the next time you’re inclined to heckle an NFL player, or to tweet insults or threats at him, or to otherwise mock or deride his performances. Most if not all NFL players are doing the best they can with the talents they have while facing the most talented football players in the world. For many players, the will required to handle the hatred and abuse without becoming jaded or cynical reflects a much rarer quality than the skill needed to make it to the highest levels of the game.
And be grateful that the lack of supreme physical abilities saved you from the realities of a life playing football. In all probability, it’s not the life you think it is.
This book covers a wide variety of topics about life in the NFL, or at least what it’s been about for the past twenty years. Although the players are the game and the game is the players, the game is much more than that. The game is a multibillion-dollar business that continues to thrive in many respects because of itself, and in many more despite itself.
The NFL loves to say, “Football is family.” Football isn’t family. Football is business, and it’s good for business to say, “Football is family.” This book is about the game, the business, the players, the coaches, and all other important aspects of the NFL.
Pro football has grown into a gigantic business, and at times it can be a strange one. Every other industry respects the notion that the customer is always right. For the NFL, the supplier has so little product (and the product has so much value) that if the customer does something the supplier doesn’t like, the supplier smoothly pivots to a new customer.
The networks that broadcast NFL games have learned that lesson, sometimes the hard way. In 2003, ESPN debuted its first-ever fictional show. The network, then and still now an NFL broadcast partner, called it Playmakers. It generated solid ratings and decent reviews. Given, however, the way it depicted controversies and misconduct involving pro football players, the league hated it.
“Everyone feels that it’s a gross mischaracterization of our sport,” then Commissioner Paul Tagliabue told CNN at the time. So the league huffed and it puffed, and ESPN blew its own house down, canceling the series in direct response to relentless pressure from the NFL. Since then, Tagliabue’s statement has often been proved prescient; the TV show was a gross mischaracterization of the sport because, in some respects, it was far too tame.
This version of Playmakers isn’t fictional. It represents, in many ways, a history of the NFL over the past twenty years. The sections are organized by broad subjects, and each one unfolds chronologically. The book looks at what the league gets right and gets wrong, driven largely by the individuals who have played significant roles, whether they realized it or not, in the events of the past two decades. It focuses on how the NFL has evolved and how change has happened more swiftly. It’s a series of anecdotes, surprises, and opinions. It focuses on a league that never stops making more and more money but that also never seems to be very far from actual or potential scandals—scandals that never seem to do much damage to the ever-rising bottom line.
The NFL does plenty of things well, as this book shows. The book also reveals some of the things the NFL doesn’t do well. Hopefully, it will nudge the league toward finding a way, over the next twenty years, to do things even better.
TOM BRADY PROVES THE DRAFT IS AN INEXACT SCIENCE
FOR ALL THE time and money and effort and anxiety devoted to determining the selection of incoming players by NFL teams, the process remains a crapshoot. The best proof of that comes not from the many high-profile busts but from the fact that the greatest quarterback of all time, and arguably the greatest player at any position of all time, fell all the way to round six, selection No. 199, in 2000.
Anyone who has paid any attention to the NFL over the past two decades knows that Tom Brady entered the league amid hardly any fanfare. A poor performance at the Scouting Combine, where he stood for a legendary photo that looks less like a future Hall of Famer and more like a middle-aged dad who had stumbled out of bed with a raging prostate, didn’t help matters. Indeed, it’s not as if the Patriots knew that they’d eventually pilfer an all-time great in the penultimate round of the draft. If they’d known who and what Brady would become, he would have been selected before their other draftees, such as Antwan Harris (round six), Jeff Marriott (five), Dave Stachelski (five), Greg Randall (four), J. R. Redmond (three), and Adrian Klemm (two).
Some have tried to say publicly that they knew what Brady would be. Hall of Fame Bills, Panthers, and Colts general manager (GM) Bill Polian, for example, has insisted that he had a first-round grade on Brady. Fine, so why not draft Brady before round six, keep him for a year or two as a Peyton Manning insurance policy, and then trade him? Privately, former Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh stood on the table for Brady to come to Baltimore—but former Ravens head coach Brian Billick ignored Cavanaugh. While the Ravens won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer that year, the ill-fated Elvis Grbac experiment happened in 2001, and the Ravens drifted at the position until they used a first-round pick on Joe Flacco the year after Billick was fired.
Brady’s case (beyond a level of confidence and a superhuman work ethic that didn’t register and likely didn’t exist when teams sifted through prospects in 2000) was ultimately aided by the fact that new coach Bill Belichick wanted to pivot from Drew Bledsoe, the team’s franchise quarterback, who had recently signed a market-setting nine-figure contract, in the hopes of finding someone who would consume less cap space and attention. Belichick found it in Brady, who for years took less money than he could have gotten, even long after he had supplanted Bledsoe as the face of the team and anyone/everyone else as the face of the NFL.
Many think Brady did it because he wanted to ensure that the Patriots always had sufficient cash and salary cap space to afford a roster full of competent starters and, more importantly, accomplished backups not consisting of low-level free agents who would be paid, and who would perform, accordingly. The truth, as told by multiple people with a thorough understanding of the dynamics in New England, resides elsewhere. Brady never wanted Belichick to feel compelled to get rid of him, so he never wanted to have the kind of salary-cap commitment that would cause Belichick to make an objective, dispassionate assessment of the roster and decide that the time had come to look elsewhere for a quarterback.
Whatever the dynamic, it worked. For two decades, it worked. And it delivered nearly perennial playoff appearances (they made it every year from 2001 through 2019 with the exception of 2002 and 2008, when Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week One), nine Super Bowl appearances, and six NFL championships.
It all started because every team—including the Patriots—repeatedly overlooked the fact that the player who would go on to become the GOAT sat in plain sight, while six other quarterbacks (Chad Pennington, Giovanni Carmazzi, Chris Redman, Tee Martin, Marc Bulger, and Spergon Wynn) exited the draft board. Look at those names again. While Pennington and Bulger had decent careers, they don’t even begin to mimic Brady. As for the other four, their NFL careers will be remembered for only one thing: a team needed a quarterback, and the team drafted one of them instead of Brady.
And so, as the hype and the pomp and the circumstance unfold in every given April, as the NFL uses the draft as a vehicle for selling plausible hope to every fan of every team that every pick can become a player who will change the franchise for years to come, well, that’s accurate. The problem continues to be that those franchise saviors won’t necessarily come from the first thirty-two names called. Or the next thirty-two. Or the thirty-two after that. Lurking at the bottom of the process could be a player about whom no one is talking and in whom no one has a high degree of faith.
The fact that a player like that could become one of the best players of all time proves conclusively that no one knows whether any of these players will thrive at the next level and that no one will know until they get there and start playing against NFL-caliber competition. For every Brady, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of guys who aren’t. The fact that a Tom Brady became buried so deep in the process shows that ultimately no one really knows what they’re getting when it’s time to put names on draft cards.
AT ITS CORE, THE DRAFT IS ANTI-AMERICAN
I DON’T LIKE the draft. Yep. I said it. I’ll say it again.
I don’t like the draft. I’ve come to hate the draft.
I’m supposed to like the draft since I make my living covering all things football, including the process for selecting incoming players and the incessant February-to-April run-up to it. Actually, I’m supposed to love the draft. Sure, it’s fun to watch round one play out. And covering how round one will unfold in the weeks, days, and hours before the draft has helped pay the bills for years.
I still don’t like it.
I don’t like the draft because young men embarking on their professional careers in any industry should have the right to choose where they will work, for whom they will work, and with whom they will work. In nearly every industry, the new wave of workers has that ability. When picking their colleges, football players have that ability. When it comes to professional football (and all pro sports, for that matter), the league always has utilized, and always will utilize, a process of allowing various independent companies to call dibs.
Despite the inherently American characteristics of sports leagues such as the NFL, the draft reflects anti-American values. It restrains movement and flexibility and the inherent realities of self-determination. It forces men not long removed from being boys to move to places they otherwise would never choose to live, often hundreds if not thousands of miles from the places they’d prefer to start their professional lives for any and all possible reasons.
The NFL nevertheless has crafted over the years a sense that it’s a privilege to be told where your playing career will begin. That it’s an honor to get a phone call from one of thirty-two teams and to have your name announced from a podium in whichever NFL city is hosting the draft that year. That it’s a good thing, not a bad thing, to be whisked away to a place where you would never reside and perhaps never even visit.
For most players, submission becomes necessary because the process provides no alternative. Rarely, and not nearly often enough, a player forces a different path by making it clear that he doesn’t want to play for the team that plans to draft him. The examples, however, can be counted on two fingers: John Elway in 1983 and, most recently, Eli Manning in 2004.
Both made a power play, and for both, it worked. It happens so rarely because it invites widespread criticism from fans, who have become even more conditioned than the players to accepting that the movement of the pawns on the chessboard is never controlled by the individual pieces.
For Manning, it helped to have a father who had played in the NFL and who was willing to take the flak on his youngest son’s behalf. When Archie, who had been drafted to a bad Saints team and therefore had never enjoyed the success his skills deserved, made it clear that Eli had no desire to play for the then San Diego Chargers, the Chargers eventually blinked. The truth was that Eli had visited the Chargers and sensed that the mortal enemies who ran the team—GM A.J. Smith and coach Marty Schottenheimer—didn’t agree on whether they wanted to pick Eli. He sensed that Smith did and Schottenheimer didn’t, so he found a way to take a stand.
The fact that no one has tried to do it since Eli Manning shows how hard it is to buck the system. (In early 2020, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow definitely considered the possibility. As one person with knowledge of the situation explained it, “If Joe was from Athens, Georgia, and not Athens, Ohio, he would have refused to play in Cincinnati.”) Not long before Eli, former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett tried to disrupt the draft not by fighting it directly but by attacking the artificial barrier to entry, a mandatory three-year waiting period after high school graduation, arguing that this makes college football a de facto minor-league system for which the players don’t get paid.
Clarett, who had been suspended by Ohio State for all of the 2003 season for receiving benefits beyond room, board, and tuition, sued the NFL for early entry to pro football through the 2004 draft. At the federal district court level, he won. At the appeals court level, he lost. Along the way, the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) formalized the three-year rule, strengthening the perception/reality that anyone who wants to play pro football must simply accept that he will play wherever he’s drafted to play.
The many who blindly support the status quo say that any other system would allow NFL teams to stock their rosters with talent, rounding up all the best new players and skewing the balance of power. This argument ignores the fact that great players won’t choose a team that will not give them a clear path to the starting lineup. Likewise, a hard salary cap for rookies, with the worst teams having more money than the best teams to sign college players, would equalize the playing field by allowing them to lure the best rookies by offering them better financial packages.
Those counterarguments fall on deaf ears as the draft becomes increasingly popular. The NFL will never abandon one of its primary offseason tent-pole events, and with only one player or so per generation becoming the aberration, the average football fan will never take a step back, stand in the shoes of a twenty-one-year-old who deserves options, and realize that the entire system contradicts the basic principles on which America was founded.
Even though it most definitely does.
THE DRAFT IS THE SAFEST PLACE TO FIND A FRANCHISE QUARTERBACK
THE NFL HAS three types of teams: those with a franchise quarterback, those desperately looking for a franchise quarterback, and those with a quarterback who may (or may not) become a franchise quarterback. For those teams hoping to find a franchise quarterback, the draft represents the best option for obtaining one.
Even though the draft has been, is, and always will be a crapshoot, every season of college football creates a new crop of high-level talent who emerge as consensus candidates for franchise quarterbacks. Over the span of a quarter century, the Pittsburgh Steelers learned this lesson both the easy way and the hard way.
In 1970, Terry Bradshaw arrived from Louisiana Tech as the first overall pick in the draft. Although it took him a while to find his footing (and to fend off the likes of Terry Hanratty and Joe Gilliam), Bradshaw eventually led the Steelers to four Super Bowl wins en route to the Hall of Fame.
Thirteen years after drafting Bradshaw, the Steelers had an opportunity to land Pittsburgh native Dan Marino, who plummeted to the bottom of the first round amid a haze of rumors that (insert gasp) he enjoyed partying, possibly with certain substances that enhanced the party experience. The Steelers, as those who know the story tell it, opted not to create an awkward transition year or two from Bradshaw to Marino. So Marino landed in Miami, and then Bradshaw suffered a career-ending injury later that season.
Over the next twenty years, the Steelers had a revolving door of so-so quarterbacks, never going all in for a franchise guy. Sure, players like Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart had their moments, but neither became franchise quarterbacks.
To their credit (but for draft purposes to their detriment), the Steelers rarely bottomed out in the standings and, conversely, rarely climbed to the top of the draft order. A 5–11 record in 1988 gave the Steelers the seventh overall pick the next year, but after top pick Troy Aikman (drafted by the Cowboys), the 1989 draft had no potential franchise quarterbacks. In 1999, a 6–10 mark again put the Steelers at No. 7; however, they selected receiver Plaxico Burress, passing on the only first-round quarterback taken that year (Chad Pennington, who never became a true franchise quarterback) and ultimately selecting Tee Martin one round before Tom Brady landed in New England. (It’s not as bad as when the Steelers cut Johnny Unitas in the 1950s, but it’s close.)
Then came 2004. A 6–10 season put the Steelers in the eleventh spot in a draft that had three highly regarded quarterbacks. The Chargers took Eli Manning, over his objection, and then traded him to the Giants, who had taken Philip Rivers with the intention of sending him to San Diego.
The third high-level prospect, Ben Roethlisberger from Miami (Ohio), remained on the board. And the slide began. At No. 5, Washington opted for safety Sean Taylor. (Washington had drafted quarterback Patrick Ramsey in the first round two years earlier.) At No. 6, the Browns went with tight end Kellen Winslow II. (Cleveland had the prior month given Jeff Garcia a four-year, $25 million deal to supplant 1999 first overall pick Tim Couch.) The Lions at No. 7 had taken Joey Harrington a year earlier with a top-three pick, the Falcons at No. 8 had Mike Vick, the Jaguars at No. 9 had selected Byron Leftwich a year earlier, and the Texans at No. 10 had made David Carr the first overall pick in 2002.
The Steelers pounced on the man known as Big Ben. (As it turned out, only the Steelers had brought Roethlisberger to town for a predraft visit.) It paid off. An injury to Tommy Maddox thrust Roethlisberger into the starting lineup in September. The Steelers won fifteen of sixteen games and made it to the brink of the Super Bowl that season. They won it the next year, they won it in 2008, they returned in 2010 (losing to the Packers), and they generally benefited from the presence of a franchise quarterback for a full generation.
Again, taking a top quarterback prospect high in the draft doesn’t guarantee the arrival of a franchise quarterback. However, with the 2011 rookie wage scale dramatically reducing the financial investment associated with top-ten picks, a team that lands near the top of the draft and needs a franchise quarterback should roll the dice. If it doesn’t work, that team will return to the top of the draft soon enough, and it can then roll the dice for another franchise quarterback.
The importance of the position more than justifies the risk. The potential longevity of a franchise quarterback makes it even more worthwhile, especially as quarterbacks increasingly play deep into their thirties and now into their forties, a dynamic that previously applied only to kickers.
Thus, the lesson for every team that needs a franchise quarterback becomes clear: hope to land near the top of the draft, and then take one of the best quarterbacks available. And if at first you don’t succeed, try, try (and if necessary try) again. Every year, another crop of potential franchise quarterbacks comes to the NFL. Every year, that quarterback taken in the upper portion of round one could become the answer at the position for up to two decades.
THE PREDRAFT PROCESS FOCUSES ON ALL THE WRONG THINGS
BY THE TIME the latest wave of players graduates to the NFL after three, four, or five years of college football, the thirty-two franchises have exactly what they need to assess the players. Specifically, they have anywhere from one to four years of game film.
- “Mike Florio is masterful at getting to the crux of any story. Playmakers is a grand tour of the modern-day NFL. And he pulls no punches, which makes every entry even more riveting. Front to back, this is one terrific read.”—Al Michaels
- “Playmakers looks at the NFL from all angles, and definitely from the player’s perspective. It will help fans understand how the League works, and what it means to play pro football in today’s NFL.”—Dak Prescott
- “I have been a fan of Pro Football Talk since Mike launched the site and was thus delighted to learn that he had written a book. I anticipated that it would be packed with fascinating insights and intriguing analysis, and it is. Anyone interested in League history, League business, and League controversy should read Playmakers.”—Amy Trask, CBS Sports
- “Mike Florio is one of our top three favorite writers at Pro Football Talk, and he is our favorite host of PFT Live. We thought this book was going to be about the ESPN show. It’s not, but it’s still good. If you have to read a book, this would be a good choice.”—Big Cat and PFT Commenter, hosts of Pardon My Take
- “[An] entertaining look beyond the gridiron.”—Kirkus
"When it comes to the NFL, Mike Florio has long been a source of both credible information and insightful opinions. Playmakers provides both the essential background and an informed take on just about every NFL issue and controversy."—Bob Costas
- “[A] highly informative, entertaining, and provocative examination of what makes the NFL work and why at times it doesn’t work… Florio explores some very well-known incidents, issues, or personalities. He revisits scandals both on and off the field, sometimes solving mysteries and correcting public misunderstanding. Owners, players, and coaches come under his microscope with praise for some and dismissal for others.”—New York Journal of Books
- On Sale
- Mar 15, 2022
- Page Count
- 384 pages