Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Defense Is Becoming a Luxury Item in Modern NFL

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterAugust 29, 2018

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 03:  Defensive end Aaron Donald #99 of the Los Angeles Rams reacts after a tackle against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half of the NFL game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 3, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Rams defeated the Cardinals 32-16.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Defense is becoming a luxury for which many NFL teams no longer want to pay, the Khalil Mack-Raiders standoff is about more than money, and can the Patriots find anyone for Tom Brady to throw to? All that and more in this week's 10-Point Stance.

         

1. The defense dilemma

There's a theory floating around about what the game of football will look like in the future. Part of it is fueled by conspiracy theory, and part is pure prophecy. It goes like this...

In a few years, professional football will become almost a strictly offensive game. Rule changes will continue to lopsidedly target defensive players, which will wind up diminishing their value. As a result, offensive players will expand their influence on the field and gain an ever-widening financial advantage over their defensive counterparts.

Some teams see this thinking already taking hold in the concurrent contract standoffs of Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack.

To players and team officials, there are two different philosophies playing out. The Rams, they say, still see the value of defense. The Raiders, on the other hand, don't believe in paying defensive players big money because the rules are already hurting them.

At least, that's what a handful of players and teams believe about the Raiders.

As teams watch the disparate ways in which both the Raiders and Rams deal with their defensive stars, there's a growing belief that investing big money in defensive players might be a mistake.

"The rules could make guys like Mack and Donald, and a bunch of other defensive NFL stars, far less powerful," one NFC team executive said. "This isn't 10 years down the road. This is a few years down the road."

Translation: How do you prioritize big money in a violent sport increasingly trying to pretend it isn't violent?

In some ways, the trend has already begun. Of the top 20 average yearly salaries, only one is a defensive player, according to Spotrac: Denver's Von Miller. Even if Donald and Mack break into that top 20, that's still quite the imbalance.

And the scales soon could tip even more.

Team executives and assistant coaches who spoke with B/R envision a league where new rules, like the use-of-helmet guidelines in place this season and others on the horizon, tilt the balance of power so far in favor of offenses that defenses become background noise.

Maybe that's why I've been told some teams have quietly held discussions about whether they should pony up for their defensive players, no matter how talented they are. If the rules make defensive players less aggressive, more prone to penalties and reduce their overall effectiveness, are they still worth big money?

Defensive players are already questioning their place in this changing football universe. Safeties are both publicly and privately questioning whether the new helmet rule will change the position. Some are openly mocking it.

If Aaron Donald can't be Aaron Donald, is he worth Aaron Donald-esque money?

               

2. Mack-Raiders standoff becoming a turf war

BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 29: Khalil Mack #52 of the Oakland Raiders warms up before the start of NFL game action against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on October 29, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson reported star defensive end Khalil Mack is likely to miss part of the regular season as he and the Raiders remain at a stalemate over his contract. It's the latest turn in a saga that has been going badly for some time, as a number of us have reported.

Two things are primarily in play here. One is Mack's desire for a new contract. Second is new Raiders head coach Jon Gruden.

As I reported back in May, Gruden is not just the coach of the Raiders. He's also operating as the general manager, whereas Reggie McKenzie is only the general manager in name.

You're seeing the result of this now. Many around the league believe if McKenzie was running the show, Mack would be in camp now. While Gruden also wants Mack back, I'm told the coach sees this as a power struggle between him and perhaps the most powerful player on the team. And he doesn't want to lose.

The Raiders are thus left with a fight that has become ugly, with few signs it won't stay that way for a while.

         

3. The method behind the helmet-rule madness

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

When Jon Runyan was a left tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, he would duel with Giants defensive lineman and Hall of Famer Michael Strahan in some of the most epic line battles in NFL history. Their tussles were hard-fought and entertaining. Runyan was one of the few players (really the only one) I ever saw consistently block Strahan.

"He was the litmus test twice a year," Runyan told B/R. "Now that he's in the Hall of Fame, it validates some of those battles we had. The way Michael tells it, he never lost a play to me."

Runyan would go on to other battles after his 14-year NFL career, including a stint with the U.S. House of Representatives from 2011 until 2015. As of late, he has sought to bring awareness to a longtime passion of his: the importance of prostate health.

But that doesn't mean he is done with football. As the NFL's vice president of policy and rules administration, Runyan has been extensively involved in the new helmet rule.

Well-aware of the grumbling heard throughout the league about the new rule, Runyan made an important point that has largely gone overlooked.

"One thing everyone is forgetting is why we put the rule in place to begin wit," Runyan said. "We're trying to protect players. We want to fix the game and make sure it's safe. If we rely on my former colleagues in Washington to fix it, it will be a mess. Trust me."

And by "colleagues in Washington," he isn't talking about the football team. He means Congress.

The NFL may see the helmet rule as an additional safety measure, but it's also one to keep those Washington "colleagues" out of the game.

         

4. You get what you get and you don't get upset

FOXBOROUGH, MA - AUGUST 9 : Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots looks on before the preseason game between the New England Patriots and the Washington Redskins at Gillette Stadium on August 9, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meye
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

No position in football has churned this offseason more than the Patriots' receiver spot.

Julian Edelman was suspended for four games. Eric Decker just retired. The Pats released three others receivers (Jordan Matthews, Malcolm Mitchell and Kenny Britt).

Team officials across the league believe the Patriots will add a big-name receiver via a trade, but I don't see it.

They could still go out and sign Dez Bryant. The free-agent receiver did recently post a message on Instagram saying Tom Brady has long been his favorite player, according to Jim McBride of the Boston Globe. And New England has signed veteran receivers before, most notably Randy Moss and Chad Ochocinco.

The question is what Bryant has left. For months, teams have said they think he is done. Then again, teams thought the same about Moss and Ochocinco. (Granted, they were right about the latter.)

Still, it seems unlikely the Patriots would sign Bryant, and Brady downplayed the possibility during a radio appearance Monday, per McBride. That likely leaves them doing what they've almost always done: rely on Brady to make magic no matter who the receivers are.

         

5. Now that's un-American

I will not eat ice cream in helmets.

I will not add sprinkles and sugary pellets.

Football is a sport for the tough and mean.

It is not made for ice cream.

                

6. Another reminder that preseason games are trash

Jason Behnken/Associated Press

The problem with preseason contests isn't just the injuries to players in worthless games. It's that teams charge fans exorbitantly to attend them.

The big question is: How long will fans put up with it?

At some point, I predict fans will stop attending the games. They'll stop in large enough numbers that owners will be forced to react. And when if (when?) that happens, our long national nightmare will come to an end, as the NFL will reduce the number of preseason games from four to two.

Take heart, that time is coming.

For now, though, the games remain an eyesore.

        

7. High Wattage

Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

Perhaps one of the most anticipated returns this season will be that of Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt. Several teams are eager to see him back in action, I've been told.

Watt has only played eight games over the past two seasons, as a back injury shortened his 2016 season and a broken leg limited him to five games in 2017.

We shouldn't have to wait much longer. Watt played this past week, and he told reporters afterward that he felt good.

It will be good to have one of the league's true stars and most respected players back. Lots of people will be watching.

          

8. A thin line between competence and disaster

DAVIE, FL - JULY 26:  Bryce Petty #14 Brock Osweiler #8 David Fales #9 perform passing drills during Miami Dolphins Training Camp at Baptist Health Training Facility at Nova Southeastern University on July 26, 2018 in Davie, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/
Mark Brown/Getty Images

Whether you believe in Ryan Tannehill or notI, for one, am not falling for the banana in the tailpipe trick againone thing in Miami is certain: The backup quarterback situation is awful.

David Fales has thrown all of 48 regular-season passes in four years in the league. Meanwhile, Brock Osweiler couldn't make it in Cleveland, which is traditionally the thirstiest quarterback spot in the league.

If Tannehill gets hurthe's coming off a torn ACLthe Dolphins' season will be over.

         

9. Two books, two different eras, two worthwhile reads

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 12:  Joe Namath #12 of the New York Jets drops back to pass against the Baltimore Colts during Super Bowl III at the Orange Bowl on January 12, 1969 in Miami, Florida. The Jets defeated the Colts 16-7. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Im
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Here at 10-Point Stance central, we don't consider ourselves book reviewers. That's for the fancy types with "esquire" in their name.

Two tomes, however, caught my attention. They are about completely different eras, but they have one thing in common: They are both about the value of team.

The first is Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Bowl Team That Changed Football by Bob Lederer. Tons of books understandably focus on Joe Namath's role on that 1968 championship team. What makes this book special is that it examines the entire team in an in-depth way I haven't read before. It's smart, and it reflects on a key part of that time period, which to me was the last fun era of football in the NFL.

The second book is Fearless: How An Underdog Becomes A Champion by Doug Pederson with Dan Pompei. (Full disclosure: Pompei is a B/R colleague, but I'd write about this book regardless).

Most books by NFL coaches aren't good. They're notoriously fearful of being honest, so they rarely take readers inside the team or their own minds.

Pederson's book is different. He lets his guard down and reveals things about the Super Bowl champions that haven't been previously discussed in the media. Readers get a nice look at the brain of one of the more innovative coaches in the sport.

Take this quote (one of my favorites), for example:

"I'm a big believer in keeping it fresh, keeping it exciting, and keeping it fun so it doesn't get stale for the players. Stay aggressive. Why be normal? Sometimes people don't understand that. They question why I do some of things I do in the course of a game. They say, 'You can't do that in football; you aren't allowed.'

"As I've said, I do it because I trust my players, I trust my coaches, and I'm not like everybody else. I'm going to do things my way, not the way others think it should be done or have been done..."

             

10. The last word

COLUMBUS, OH - AUGUST 6:  Supporters of Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer sing Carmen Ohio at a rally at Ohio State University on August 6, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. Meyer is on paid administrative leave after a reports alleging he knew of a 2015 a
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Bryant Gumbel regularly ends his Real Sports program with a short commentary, and his latest is a must-watch. HBO was kind enough to provide a transcript, and it's worth reading, as it touches not only on the NFL, but applies to the entire sports world:

"Finally, tonight, as if our presidential politics weren't already embarrassing enough, our recent sports headlines should be cause for some serious soul-searching.

"Consider this: In Columbus, we've seen locals turn out to cheer a coach who lied and knew about a wife-beater on his staff. In San Francisco, fans filled the ballpark to offer unconditional love to their former hero, despite the taint of steroids. In Houston, there were folks applauding the acquisition of a star reliever even though he was coming off a lengthy suspension for domestic abuse. And in Milwaukee, they gave an ovation to a pitcher whose past racist and homophobic slurs had been exposed.

"In city after city and sport after sport, fans more than ever before now seem willing and eager to put aside their morals and their values for the sake of misguided pride, the slightest victory, or the meaningless chance to yell 'We're No. 1!' at anything.

"Back when decency and moral clarity used to be prized by the speaker of the House, the late Tip O'Neill famously said that all politics is local. Well, these days, he could say the same of sports...and all too often, that's nothing to be proud of."

                

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.  

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