The Chiefs broke the rule. They are not even denying this. They broke the rule, and they did it sloppily enough to be caught, and there’s an old line about not doing the crime if you don’t want to do the time.
If that’s as far as you want to go with this story that currently has the Chiefs fined, losing two draft picks, and dug in for a fight against the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell, then cool. Good for you. It’s easier that way.
But this is the beginning of something bigger. This is the NFL coming down unprecedentedly hard on a franchise and leadership group without prior convictions. And this is Clark Hunt — one of the league’s most respected owners — firing back at Goodell without the baggage of, say, Patriots owner Robert Kraft talking about deflated footballs.
“We believe that the penalties proposed in this case are inconsistent with discipline informed in similar matters — particularly given the league’s inconsistent communication of its policies on contact with potential free agents,” Hunt said in a statement.
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On this point, Hunt is absolutely right. The NFL’s methods in discipline lack credibility, and there have long been indications and many within the league (most of them players) who believe Goodell’s version of justice ranges from reactionary to damage control to vindictive to random.
The Chiefs have essentially been accused of contacting then-free-agent Jeremy Maclin directly, instead of through his agent, during a period when such contact was prohibited. That’s it, by all indications, and then the Chiefs cooperated with the NFL’s investigation and have a clean record in following rules — and still they were slapped with a heavy-handed punishment.
The Chiefs are (for now, anyway) losing a third-round pick this year and a sixth-round pick next year. In addition, the team ($250,000), coach Andy Reid ($75,000) and general manager John Dorsey ($25,000) are fined.
What makes this particularly curious is that what the Chiefs are accused of happens all the time, with many teams and many free agents. That’s not a defense of the Chiefs. If anything, it’s an indictment, because getting caught on something like this requires sloppiness, arrogance, or both, along with some bad luck.
One thing to keep in mind — the natural speculation is that the Eagles turned the Chiefs in. Maclin has said his decision came down to staying in Philadelphia or going to play for his old coach in Kansas City. But here’s an indication the Eagles were not involved — they are not receiving compensation in the punishment, as is customary in such matters.
But still, why is the NFL’s punishment here so disproportionate?
The 49ers lost a fifth-round pick for contacting the agent of Bears linebacker Lance Briggs during the 2008 season. Two years later, the Lions lost a seventh-round pick and had to swap fifth-round picks for tampering with Chiefs players. Two years ago, the Jets were fined $100,000 for owner Woody Johnson’s tampering with Darrelle Revis.
If there is an example of a punishment as harsh as the Chiefs’ for a violation this common, two league sources could not think of it Wednesday night.
Goodell’s self-serving and self-contradictory history in discipline demands that we wonder what else is going on here.
If we can take NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent at his word, that the punishment could have been more severe if not for the Chiefs’ clean record and full cooperation, perhaps the punishment is a message to other teams.
Maybe this is the NFL tiring of its rules being flaunted, and a desire for teams — particularly those with new leadership — to know the landscape is changing.
In that way, the Chiefs’ clean record and Reid’s long history (including some time in charge of personnel with the Eagles) make for a symbolic defendant.
But if that’s the case, it seems like a strange hill on which to take a stand and presents even more questions, for instance: Why shouldn’t teams be able to contact players directly, instead of going through the agent?
Also: If the league wanted to send a message, why did it wait until the 2016 tampering period was over to announce an overzealous punishment for 2015 tampering?
What we have, then, is a story without winners. Nobody involved looks good here.
The Chiefs look bad for being the ones getting caught breaking a commonly broken rule, and what’s even worse, the whole thing was so unnecessary. Maclin and Reid have a terrific relationship, and Maclin surely could’ve waited for the NFL’s bizarre gatekeeping to allow for direct contact.
The NFL looks bad for another example of inconsistent punishment, for a combination of fines and forfeited draft picks that appears to be grabbed from the commissioner’s imagination. Goodell’s insistence on handling discipline himself has exposed his own inadequacies. Worse, he’s damaged his league’s credibility with both players and owners, and in the process created drama, infighting and bad feelings that a more competent leader would’ve avoided.
It’s enough of a mess that even if the Chiefs did what the NFL is accusing them of doing, the organization is still on the right side of an ugly and ultimately unnecessary fight with a misguided commissioner over the equivalent of jail time for a broken headlight.