Monday, July 03, 2023

Peeling Back the Curtain



 Some billion-dollar franchises are still getting away with penny-pinching measures; NFLPA team report cards aim to expose them



Photo by Kirby Lee – USA Today Sports


Vince Lombardi will forever be credited for popularizing “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” even though Lombardi felt his words were taken out of context. The Packers’ legendary head coach of the 1960s clarified sometime later that he had meant to emphasize “the will to win.” Regardless, the overall message remained the same: winning ranks above all else.

But does it still?

This offseason, the Washington Commanders were expected to sell for a record $6.05 billion. The club has not won a Super Bowl since the 1991 season and has claimed only three playoff victories in the 31 NFL seasons since (its most recent in January 2006).

The NFL is a brand — a very lucrative brand — whose teams sell tickets, merchandise and sponsorships, regardless of success on the field. When it comes to the business of pro football in 2023, winning isn’t the only thing; it may not even be the most important thing.

But one thing that did cast initial doubt for the Washington sale was the toxic culture that had been portrayed by media and former players. Turning a losing franchise into a winner can happen in a few seasons with the right changes and a little luck. But turning around a toxic workplace? It’s something NFL franchises have largely neglected up to now.

This offseason, the NFL Players Association released team report cards to assess how well franchises are being run off the field. It was a bold move — one that’s been in the works for some time — and it exposed where teams invest back into the workplace to benefit “the product” that is largely responsible for ever-growing franchise valuations.

Wrote NFLPA President JC Tretter in March to accompany the report: “ ... for the first time, we are peeling back the curtain on issues that we talk about among ourselves as players but have been unable to organize and publish in a centralized way.”



The more than 1,300 players surveyed were asked to critique their team’s performance in eight categories: treatment of families, nutrition, weight room, strength staff, training room, training staff, locker room and team travel. Players scored each category on a 1-5 scale and were encouraged to provide comments, where applicable. The only team to receive an A rating in all eight categories was Minnesota. Miami received A grades in seven of eight.

There was little correlation between overall team scores and recent on-field success. In fact, the top five-rated teams (Minnesota, Miami, Las Vegas, Houston and Dallas) were a combined 43-41-1 last season, with only the Cowboys winning a playoff game. The Texans’ 3-13-1 record brought the numbers down and the other four teams were a combined 40-28. Here’s a snapshot of some of the feedback collected from players surveyed for the report:


• Because the Jaguars do not offer a family

room, players’ wives have breast-fed their

babies on the floor of the stadium’s public



• If Cardinals players would like dinner,

staff will box one up, but the team charges

them via payroll deduction (apparently the

only club in the league to do so).


• Some Washington players complained

that there is a lack of warm water and poor

drainage in the showers.


• Cincinnati’s lockers do not have outlets

for players to charge devices.


• The Colts are one of only six teams that

require young players to have roommates

during road trips, and one of seven teams

that do not offer first-class tickets to any


To some, this may sound like entitlement, but others would argue multi-billion-dollar organizations can afford basic amenities for the lifeblood of these organizations.

When he heard of Washington’s valuation, Miami head coach and one-time Washington assistant Mike McDaniel quipped, “Wow, the organization’s worth that much? And I couldn’t get free coffee!?”

Agent Neil Cornrich has been representing his clients’ best interests for more than three decades. For Cornrich, that has always involved looking beyond what’s outlined in the player’s contract.

“We’ve always tried to tilt the playing field toward the player being selected by an organization which optimizes his best opportunity for success and longevity,” he said.

According to Cornrich, many of the clubs he deals with understand that little things can make a big difference in a player’s development and overall happiness. The report cards, he believes, could incentivize the other clubs to step up their game.

“These are $6 billion organizations now. There’s no reason they can’t invest in these areas to make it a healthier work environment.”



In his March letter, Tretter outlined the three primary objectives of the team report cards: highlight positive clubs, identify clubs that need improvement, and highlight best practices and standards.

Some clubs took offense to the exercise. “They didn’t want help; they wanted shock factor and embarrassment,” one league executive told The Athletic’s Kalyn Kahler this spring.

Motives aside, the team report cards illustrate that NFL players are largely underwhelmed by how much teams are investing in facilities and essential services. One-third of teams received a C grade or lower for their weight room, and one-half of teams received a C grade or lower for their training room. Only four teams received an A grade for their treatment of families.

Still, why should we believe that teams lagging behind the curve will succumb to peer pressure? Washington ranked 32nd in the NFLPA’s first-ever team report cards and the news broke before owner Daniel Snyder received the $6 billion-plus bid — a number more than seven times the $800 million he paid for the club in 1999.

The answer could be the NFLPA’s resolve. NFL management and labor have always been at odds. Prior to the 1970 season, as the NFL and AFL merged into one league and the two respective players’ associations did the same, the players threatened their first strike. But management still had a stronghold over labor, and the players were poorly organized and lacked clear purpose.

“The guess was the players were primarily concerned about pension, insurance, disability benefits and things of that nature,” said players’ union attorney Ed Garvey in 2011. The players made small strides in 1974, 1982 and 1987 until securing the right to free agency in the early 1990s.

That long journey has allowed today’s players to shift their focus from financial objectives to better workplace conditions. It fits the times we live in; a 2018 Gallup poll found millennials value working for an employer who cares about their well-being above all else.

But critics warn that unless players begin to weigh NFLPA report card findings heavily in free-agent considerations, this all will be nothing more than an annual news release.

Cornrich believes it’s something that has always factored into player decisions.

One of his former clients, eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, was a third-round selection by the Ravens in the 2007 NFL Draft. He spent his entire 13-year career in Baltimore, and many believe Yanda will soon be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“He had opportunities twice in free agency to go other places for more money and chose to stay in Baltimore because they were always successful and they treated people right,” Cornrich said.

The Ravens scored favorably in several areas, but ranked near the bottom of the league in the weight room and strength staff categories. Just prior to the report card’s release, the team fired strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders.

Perhaps more than anything, the NFLPA report cards provide a glimpse into how players feel about ownership. Every Ravens player surveyed gave owner Steve Bisciotti a positive grade, probably because Bisciotti has been one owner who has consistently responded to the needs of his organization.

“It all comes from the top,” said Cornrich. “Eddie DeBartolo is in the Hall of Fame for a reason, and Robert Kraft will be shortly.”



Tretter suggested the NFLPA will collect player feedback annually to measure progress and incentivize teams to invest in the workplace. At least a few teams have pledged they’re prepared to do so.

The reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs ranked 29th in the report, scoring no higher than 12th in any single category. Kansas City owner Clark Hunt told reporters during 2023 NFL Draft weekend: “Nobody likes criticism, but you know, from my standpoint, feedback is always positive, and so you know we’ll take and learn from it.”

The Arizona Cardinals ranked secondto- last in the report, but owner Michael Bidwill quickly took note. When Bidwill hired Jonathan Gannon to be the team’s new head coach, the two talked at length about improving many of the areas that were later outlined in the report.

“The directive (from Bidwill) was, ‘I want a fresh set of eyes on everything that we’re

doing with football operations, and I want to know between you and (general manager Monti Ossenfort), how it can be better and how we can improve that,’” Gannon told reporters. “So, not really concerned about what went on in the past. I’m concerned about how we move forward to help our team win.”

Later, at the league meeting in March, Gannon said some “big-time changes” had already occurred.

“I’m not going to get too much into it,” he added, “but food, weight room, facilities, contracts, Michael has been fantastic. He came in my office the other day saying he wanted technology (talked about) and graded. We had a couple meetings with the heads of departments and we said, ‘We need this, this, and this; we don’t need this,’ and he’s pulled the trigger on all of it.

“Everything I’ve said that I felt we wanted or needed has come to fruition.” Some have suggested there is a need to refine the next round of the report cards’ criteria and add categories. Said Cornrich, “One thing these report cards don’t mention, which I think they should, is medical staff. That’s different from training staff.”

There really is no limit to what the players can evaluate — practice and playing field conditions, team traditions, community outreach — but ultimately change will come when teams believe that a better work environment is marketable to prospective free agents, coaches and corporate sponsors. Those elements lead to wins, franchise stability and revenue.

Speaking to reporters at the Combine, second-year Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell said his team’s high scores are a reflection of the organization’s commitment to building the right culture and connecting with players.

“Culture is people and it’s something we strive to work on every single day, and I think our players feel that,” O’Connell said.

He added, “One of the things that I look back on a year ago and I think about using words like connecting with our players and the collaboration that goes into what pro football should be at this level. It goes so much beyond those words and people kind of chuckle sometimes as you use some of these cliché-like words; well, they’re not cliché when you go to work every day and try to join with a great group of people and a great support staff at every level of our organization. It’s not a cliché when people make that our mission statement, to provide the premier place to go to work and improve both personally and collectively as a team in our league means a lot to us.”

The Vikings didn’t lure any high-profile talent to the Twin Cities this offseason selling culture, and they aren’t among the favorites to compete for the Super Bowl. But nothing happens overnight in pro football. A few years from now, the March release of the NFLPA’s team report cards could be necessary reading for players heading into free agency.

And while no one is arguing that state-ofthe- art training rooms and first-class tickets lead to more wins, or even higher franchise valuations, what the NFLPA is saying is that taking better care of the players (and those around them) will lead to better management/labor relations and possibly a higher probability for prolonged success in the league.

“Happy, healthy players usually have happy, healthy careers,” said Cornrich. “Everyone should be in favor of that.”

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