PHOENIX – Here are my five takeaways from this week's NFL meeting, which ended with Wednesday's NFC coaches' breakfast with the media:
* I'll take Terry Pegula at his word.
He insists the CBS report that Doug Whaley is nearing the end of his run as general manager of the Buffalo Bills is "erroneous." He talked about how well Whaley and new coach Sean McDermott are getting along, echoing comments McDermott made on Monday and Tuesday about having "healthy conversations" with Whaley. The right things are being said.
Nevertheless, it's hard to accept that all is well within the hierarchy at One Bills Drive. Whaley no longer is permitted to speak with the media, not that he did so all that often and not that he seemed to enjoy it all that much. McDermott does all of the talking on behalf of the team (except for those very rare occasions when Pegula addresses the media, as he did Tuesday with a small group of Western New York reporters here).
But putting Whaley in the shadows (he was seen, but not heard here) is awkward, especially when he won't be part of the annual pre-draft media briefing, the one time each year that every GM who has worked for the Bills is always heard. It's standard operating procedure throughout the NFL, despite the fact the GMs say almost nothing of substance.
Regardless of the owner shooting down the report, this is about perception. One NFC GM, who said that although he doesn't know Whaley well, he thought it was "pretty lousy for something like that to come out right before the meeting." He said he couldn't fathom not being allowed to speak with the media before the draft, let alone being silenced completely.
This is also about a major organizational shift for the Bills. This is about something trending in a direction that makes the exit of Whaley and the entire player-personnel staff easy to see as being inevitable, if it isn't imminent.
* I liked the fact Pegula took the time to meet with the few of us on the Bills' beat who traveled all this way.
For the most part, club owners make themselves available to their local media corps. That wasn't the case with Pegula last year, and it took some substantial coaxing to get him to do so with me in 2015.
The late Ralph Wilson always made the time to speak with reporters, locally and nationally. Each year, we would gather for lunch. There were no middle men necessary to make a formal appointment. On the first day of the meeting, Wilson and I would cross paths in one of the hallways, and one of us would say, "What day do you want to do lunch?" And if I needed to get him for a follow-up comment later, he would always be there.
Here are two of my favorite NFL-meeting-related Wilson stories:
The first took place in the late 1980s, when my older daughter, Kristen – who was about the age of her 4-year-old daughter, Emma – met him for the first time after my wife and I returned with her from a sight-seeing tour here. Kristen was wearing a cowgirl outfit, complete with a little western hat, and was not shy about telling Wilson all about our adventure. He took the time to listen, or at least did a good job of pretending to do so.
The second happened right around 2000 or so, when my Buffalo News colleague, Mark Gaughan, who was on the Bills' beat, informed Wilson that the newspaper wasn't going to send him to the meeting for budgetary reasons. As with me, Mark would always have his one-on-one gathering with the owner, and when he heard about the News' decision, he wasn't happy. He called the publisher and said if Mark wasn't at the meeting, Wilson would not make himself available for a phone interview later. I don't think he really meant that. I think he wanted to provide motivation for Mark to be sent on the trip. It worked.
I thought Pegula made an honest effort to deliver a sincere message to fans when, after being asked about the hardest part of owning an NFL team, he said: "I think the hardest part has been our fans not having a winner. It's very difficult. We're not happy with what we've been doing on the field. We need to get better. We're going to work harder and the whole organization is behind that philosophy -- work harder, day-by-day, week-by-week, Sunday-by-Sunday, and just try to get better."
I think he would help himself, and his teams, by being more accessible to the media.
* There's a lot about the NFL's approval of the Raiders' move from Oakland to Las Vegas that doesn't seem to have been thought through very well.
The biggest issue is the Raiders staying in Oakland for two and possibly three years while their new stadium in Vegas is being built. People there are, understandably, furious. At least one political leader wants the team to leave town immediately.
Raider fans are known as among the more passionate and hostile (previously towards the visiting teams). The Black Hole at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum isn't simply a reference to a location. It's a state of mind. Although the Raiders have a massive international following, I have a feeling league owners, in voting 31-1 to approve the relocation, grossly underestimated the impact the move is going to have on the community.
Or they simply didn't care, because of the additional millions of dollars in relocation fees they'll be getting on top of the cash pouring in from the moves of the Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles and the Chargers from San Diego to L.A.
Someone asked coach Jack Del Rio if he truly expected the Raiders to play at the Coliseum this season.
"Unless they put a pad lock on the gate," he said. He wasn't smiling, because he fully recognized that that was hardly out of the realm of possibility despite the club's lease still being valid.
* Here's another example of potential short-sightedness on the part of the NFL: The decision to replace the referee's under-the-hood sideline replay review of plays with an on-the-field review using a computer tablet.
The idea is to help speed up the pace of games by reducing the time it takes for the ref to jog over to a sideline monitor. The ruling also will be announced during the commercial break, rather than waiting for it to end.
The referee will supposedly walk away from the players on the field and will somehow be shielded, presumably by the other officials, from them. But can you imagine, when a particularly crucial call is being reviewed late in a game, what the scene might be like on the field? The previous review system kept the referee away from everyone as he looked under the hood, and then allowed him to walk to the middle of the field, where he flipped on his microphone to announce the verdict.
"It's going to be interesting," one long-time AFC coach told me.
* I don't love the extension of the defenseless-receiver protection to pass-catchers running routes.
It just looks like an opening for more maddening calls away from the actual play.
According to one veteran coach with whom I spoke, receivers running routes don't generally draw a tremendous amount of heavy contact beyond the five yards of the line, where it is allowed. The coach also said there wasn't much in the way of video evidence shown during the meeting to support the need for the rules change.