The NFL needs Malcolm Jenkins, a strike is coming, and if your football broadcast lasts longer than four hours, see a doctor.
1. One Man Can Make a Difference
The most important man in the NFL isn't Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. It's a player who was born in East Orange, New Jersey, who isn't a household name but has quickly become one of the game's most vital forces.
On the field, Malcolm Jenkins is a Pro Bowl safety for the Eagles, a fierce and intelligent player. That's one part of who he is. The other part is more complicated, but it's the reason Jenkins has become one of the leading voices for players in the league.
Jenkins is one of only about four or five players in the NFL who will speak publicly, and fearlessly, about issues regarding social justice, particularly those surrounding the shooting deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement. Jenkins' most prominent brothers in arms in this effort are few, consisting of Michael and Martellus Bennett, Torrey Smith and Richard Sherman.
This stands in drastic contrast to the NBA, whose players—including the game's biggest star—consistently address social issues. It was a year ago that Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police, and one day later, Philando Castile was shot and killed by police in front of his girlfriend and her daughter, and the aftermath was caught on Facebook Live. Those deaths led to an avalanche of social activism by NBA and WNBA players that lasts to this day, as chronicled by Carron J. Phillips for the New York Daily News.
In the NFL, Colin Kaepernick became the controversial face of protest. Others joined in, to be sure, but since that time, the shunning of Kaepernick has had a chilling effect on players, according to interviews with eight players over the past several weeks.
The players with whom B/R spoke described a player base that feels less free to speak out honestly than ever before, and individuals are fearful of being cut if they do.
"If I talk about my encounters with police officers, and how many times I've been unjustly pulled over," one veteran AFC player said, "I get cut. At the very least, I have my position coach pull me aside and say, 'Keep that stuff to yourself.'"
This is why what Jenkins is doing is so vital, and why maybe no player is more important to football now than he is.
He's visited Capitol Hill with other NFL players to discuss criminal justice reform. He's talked Donald Trump. He joined other players in penning an op-ed on halting the skyrocketing prison population. Jenkins has been so active it has led to speculation from teammates and other players that he's destined for politics.
Perhaps most importantly, Jenkins has become a beacon for a sometimes socially rudderless league that historically, and presently, encouraged its players to stay out of political issues. And he has done this with full knowledge of the cost.
"I get hate mail," Jenkins told B/R. "I get bad mail. People say they will boycott you or the team. But there are just as many fans embracing what I'm doing. What I'm seeing is the fans that oppose me doing what I'm doing are just louder. They make the most noise.
"For me, this cause is as important as football. It's worth me risking losing fans or an endorsement. ... My goal is to use football as a platform to speak out on things that need addressing."
That doesn't mean it has garnered him much public support. Some of those interviewed told B/R they have chosen to remain quiet because they fear reprisals from their teams. Further, the fact that Kaepernick has been unable to get a job also has served as a sort of warning to players.
"This was ownership's way of saying, 'You do what Colin did, you'll be unemployed just like him,'" one veteran defensive player said.
Said Jenkins: "There's definitely a climate that right now is a bit nerve-racking to jump into as an athlete."
For their part, the Eagles, and in particular owner Jeffrey Lurie, have backed Jenkins in his efforts and say they appreciate Jenkins' own unbreakable resilience.
"The Eagles haven't tried to quiet me," Jenkins said. "Mr. Lurie has told me he's proud of the things I'm doing.
"I'm learning the process of changing things. I'm not really sure where this is going to take me. But I know what I want before my career is over: I want people to remember me as someone other than a guy who just tackled people. I want to be remembered as someone that used football to raise awareness."
No one is doing that better in the NFL now than Jenkins.
2. Hopes Are High in Philly
Is it ridiculous to think this could be Philadelphia's year?
It would be tough, of course. The Eagles are in the same division as one of the most talented teams in the league, the Cowboys. They'd also have to pass the Packers and Falcons—a brutal mission but not an impossible one.
"Not crazy at all," Jenkins said of the Eagles' prospects of reaching the Super Bowl. "Our offense is better. Carson [Wentz] is better. Our defense is better. I think we've taken some big steps forward."
We'll see just how big this season.
3. Has the Best-QB-Ever Debate Finally Been Settled?
One week, I think Tom Brady is the best ever. A week later, I think it is Aaron Rodgers. Brady...then Rodgers...then Brady...then Rodgers.
Brady's Super Bowl heroics make him hard to beat, but a new bit of data from Scout.com may put the debate to rest:
"Rodgers ranks No. 1 all time with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 4.12. Tom Brady ranks No. 2 at 3.00. If Rodgers were to open the upcoming season by throwing 26 consecutive interceptions, he would still be ahead of Brady with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 3.03. Of course, that's not going to happen. Rodgers has thrown a grand total of 26 interceptions the past four seasons."
We all knew Rodgers was accurate, but this is phasers-locked-on-target accurate.
Enjoy him while he's playing; we may never seen anyone like him again.
4. Will NBA Riches Make for NFL Angst?
There are four years left in the collective bargaining agreement, but it seems all but certain the league is heading toward another strike.
Why? Blame the NBA, which handed out nearly $1 billion to players on the first day of free agency alone.
James Harden just got a $170 million extension over four years. And while few in the NBA blanched, players in the NFL were stunned. No one in the league comes close to that number.
It's no one's fault but that of the players, who agreed to the CBA, but I get the sense from speaking to a few that they want to, at least, get guaranteed contracts in the next deal.
Players generally feel they are being left far behind their basketball and baseball counterparts when it comes to salaries, despite the facts NFL players face more bodily harm (obviously) and the NFL's revenues continue to grow.
The SportsBusiness Journal reported in March that NFL revenues will total $14 billion in 2017, an increase of $900 million from 2016 and $6 billion from 2010 (according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk).
Owners, however, will never, ever—not in this lifetime or a 1,000 more—allow guaranteed contracts without a fight, no matter how vicious.
That sets up for an ugly 2021.
5. Have the Panthers Learned the Error of Their Ways?
The Panthers are one of the best-run franchises in football. They do an awful lot of things right, but protecting Cam Newton hasn't been one of them.
It appears, however, they have finally come to understand that Newton getting wrecked every game isn't a good thing, which is why they have tried to surround him with more talent, like rookie running back Christian McCaffrey.
In an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio, the coach of the Panthers, Ron Rivera, said they want to get the football out of Newton's hands earlier and run him fewer times. The Panthers have said this before, I believe, but this might be the first time they've meant it.
The channel tweeted some quotes from the Rivera interview, and they were telling:
If the Panthers actually do this, they'll be even more dangerous than they already are.
6. The World Beyond Football
Patriots owner Robert Kraft took 18 Hall of Famers to Israel last month on what was billed as a trip to experience the culture of that country. The trip, the second consecutive one Kraft has sponsored, went slightly under the radar, but it clearly had profound effects on the players.
"It exceeded expectations," former Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith told Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News. "The historical sites, the spiritual journey, the bonding, the love, experiencing the culture of Israel. These are resilient people and, in a lot of cases, there are some things that African-Americans have in common, that common denominator with the Jewish people. Having had the opportunity to spend eight days in Israel and particularly the last six days in Jerusalem [was] amazing. It has been a life-changing experience."
7. Overlooked but Not Unproductive
Cowboys tight end Jason Witten is good. Duh. But even after covering much of his career, I overlooked how much he has accomplished.
As Pro Football Talk pointed out, early in season, Witten is likely to become the No. 4 pass-catcher in NFL history. Fourth all time. He will enter the season with 1,089 career receptions, and with just 14 more will pass three Hall of Famers: Tim Brown (sixth all time), Cris Carter (fifth) and Marvin Harrison (fourth).
Does this mean Witten is as good as that trio? No, but it will be a remarkable achievement for a tight end, even in a passing league, and even in an era when tight ends are basically receivers, to reach those kinds of heights.
The only tight end ahead of Witten is the great Tony Gonzalez, who had 1,325 catches.
8. Eli Manning Deserves Better
Giants defensive tackle Damon Harrison on the NFL Network's Good Morning Football show was asked his feelings about teammate Eli Manning not making the network's top 100 players of 2017 list. Compiled based on votes by players, the list often gets bashed, but the choices generally are pretty defensible. Harrison, though, said leaving Manning off the list was a mistake, and he's right.
"When you look at Eli, it's kind of like when you look at LeBron," Harrison said. "I'm not saying they're the same, but look at Eli's numbers. Any other quarterback would have those numbers, it'd be an amazing year, but, it being Eli, nobody is respecting it as much, as we do LeBron. LeBron can average 30 [points], 15 rebounds and 12 assists, and it's like, 'He didn't do enough.' I don't know what's the deal."
The LeBron James comparison aside, pay attention to the substance of what he said. Last year, Manning threw for more than 4,000 yards and completed over 60 percent of his passes for the third consecutive year. If Manning isn't a top-100 player, then I'm Denzel Washington.
9. Will Washington Allow Its Front Office To Do Its Job?
Doug Williams remains one of the best stories in the history of the NFL, as Liz Clarke recounted last week in the Washington Post. He came up the hard way as a player and was mostly ignored by the league initially. Eventually, he landed with Tampa Bay, and later he became the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl.
Now, after working in the Washington front office since 2014, Williams has been appointed as the team's senior vice president of player personnel.
The hope here is that Williams, who is essentially third in command, is allowed to do his job. That's no sure thing in a front office considered one of the most dysfunctional in football. Williams has the ability to transform it for the better.
10. End of an Era
No more of the woman in the blue Lions knockoff jersey. No more explaining to the young football fan watching games: "Daddy, what's erectile dysfunction?"
We have reached the end of an era, as Cialis and Viagra are ending their advertising during NFL games. Pulling out, so to speak, as was first reported by Advertising Age.
This is a big deal in the football advertising world because NFL broadcasts have long been flush with these ads, which have become as common as beer ads and have generated massive amounts of revenue for the league. Even without them, the NFL won't be hurting for cash, of course, but this is one of those football television moments that will be remembered for a long time.
End of jokes.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @mikefreemanNFL.