Thursday, July 18, 2024

NFL insider notes: Broncos sale and the prospects of overdue Black ownership, plus fits for Jameis Winston

At some point the NFL will have Black ownership of a franchise. But I am far from convinced that will be the case this year. At least not unless billionaire Robert Smith has an abrupt change in plans about his interest in the Denver Broncos.

There has been a (calculated?) groundswell about entertainment mogul Byron Allen in recent weeks, reaching a crescendo around the Super Bowl. The buzz seemed to come out of nowhere, and quickly reached a fever pitch. However, in my experience covering these franchise sales, when all of a sudden a fairly well-known name from outside the traditional scope of perspective owners develops this much media heat (Jon Bon Jovi’s attempts to land the Bills, for instance), it usually ends up serving more of a purpose for optics than anything else.

The league fully realizes, now more than ever, that it must improve its track record on diversity and inclusion. Having someone of color purchase the Broncos at this moment in time – with the Brian Flores lawsuit having been filed just a few weeks ago – would be the cause of cartwheels and backflips at league headquarters on Park Avenue. But the more I hear about Allen’s candidacy the less inclined I am to believe that his bid would prevail.

When it comes to issues of ownership, money talks above all else. Like, even more than it does when it comes to everything else related to the world of pro football. This is all about wringing every last penny out of the value of this franchise to reset that post-pandemic market for NFL teams and to appease a quiet but growing group of owners who have at least one eye on selling in the next few years themselves. This is about making a massive statement about how robust the business of football is, and how rewarding the spoils of ownership are, especially with another decade of labor peace secured and those new broadcast contracts still fresh and with the gambling revenue streams starting to flow in like never before imaginable.

It’s time for a flex.

And such a flex is most likely to come from the usual coterie of billionaires that the league and the financial institutions that oversee these gigantic transactions have been winking at and grooming for years. It’s about luring in an uber-whale who doesn’t need partners and who can put a ridiculous sum of the price tag upfront. And, from the people I talk to who are generally plugged in about these sorts of things, I would be surprised if Allen landed the Broncos.

However, should Smith change his mind about his interest in the franchise, these same sources could see him quickly heading back to the front of the class. He’s long been viewed by the right people on Park Avenue and at the investment banks as someone who could be quickly vetted (the reality is he essentially comes pre-vetted) and who has more than enough personal wealth to stroke a record-setting check without it making a real dent in his liquidity. He is the richest Black person in the country, he has Rocky Mountain roots and he already knows all the key players in such a transaction.

But, alas, Smith’s heart and bank account don’t appear interested in pursuing this option. And there is a very real sense in league circles that this transaction will be a heavy topic of conversation at the spring ownership meetings at the end of March, and that the entire process will be wrapped up by the October meetings, if not sooner. And I’d be surprised if that results in Allen owning the Broncos, though I think it would be welcome and long overdue.

Don’t expect Dolphins, Commanders to change ownership

The owners of the Miami Dolphins and Washington Commanders are at the center of scandals, and there is plenty being written about the sorts of stern consequences they might face. And if the allegations against them are true – and if we get an actual transparent investigation into them – then neither has any business owning an NFL franchise.

But never lose sight of the fact that the owners are the league, and that short of an outside probe by a Congressional committee of The Department of Justice or something like that, the odds of either Dan Snyder and Stephen Ross facing anything close to actual discipline through whatever inquiries are conducted by the NFL are slim at best.

For starters, what is being largely ignored by those who believe they could be forced to sell their franchises is that both already have approved succession plans in place. And to this point there isn’t anything that Tanya Snyder, wife of the Commanders owner, has been accused of that would jeopardize her ability to steward the franchise. Even if Dan Snyder was found to be unable to taking back the reigns – if you recall he has already been in essence suspended from day-to-day ownership of the club – the NFL has shown it is comfortable with that family still being in charge. It would be difficult to envision a scenario under the current scope of the investigation into that franchise where the league would tear up the existing plan to keep the franchise in the family (especially as now Virginia and Maryland are exploring stadium plans for the team) and force a sale to outsiders.

That’s not how it’s done. That’s not how it works.

Remember, when former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was forced to sell after media reports about sexual harassment and disgusting conduct towards women, he was already nearing the end of his tenure, he had stripped his family of potentially inheriting the franchise and he was already closer to selling than not. None of that applies in the case of the Washington franchise. Even if Dan Snyder is cast aside, there aren’t ownership sources I am aware of who actually believe that team will hit the market unless Tanya Snyder opts to sell.

Similarly, Ross already had his succession plan approved by NFL ownership years ago. His business partner, Bruce Beal, is already seen by many as part of this exclusive club, he has the right relationships and connections and Ross’ plan to turn the franchise over to him was met enthusiastically by other owners and the league office. Barring something coming to light about him allegedly incentivizing losing, the future of the Dolphins has already been approved and if anything, the specter of some of Ross’ family joining the ownership group is far more likely than the Dolphins are to actually going on the market.

Where Jameis Winston might fit

The more I study the group of free agent quarterbacks and trade-chip quarterbacks (excluding Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers) and the more people I talk to about this draft class of quarterbacks, the more I would focus on Jameis Winston if I was a team in need of a 2022 QB upgrade. He spent two years with Sean Payton, the gains they made were reflective in his start to the 2021 season, he has not been injury-plagued in the past, he has a huge arm and his laser eye surgery seems to have paid dividends as well. He can help a decent team get better. And the price tag won’t be prohibitive. I was shocked the Steelers didn’t make a play for him a few years back. Draft a few offensive linemen and with that defense and the speedy receivers they have, I could see them making a step forward next season.

More NFL insider notes

  • If the NFL doesn’t budge on its current plans for combine participants to exist in a “bubble” in Indianapolis then I expect the number of players and agencies skipping the process to actually rise. Very few things can get the NFLPA, agents, draft-eligible prospects not yet covered by the union, and current players aligned, but this has seemingly threaded that needle. I was surprised issues with the combine didn’t come up more in the latest CBA talks — it’s become a revenue maker for the league while the participants risk potentially losing untold millions based on injury/poor results — but no time like the present, I suppose. …
  • The Chiefs have to franchise Orlando Brown, right? They had $20M/year on the table for Trent Williams a year ago before acquiring Brown to play left tackle, they parted with a first-round pick as part of the deal with Baltimore, and while the cap situation ain’t great they have navigated more daunting paths in the past. If they were budgeted for the highest paid left tackle in football a year ago in Williams, I have to think there is already a plan in place to fit Brown in, even if a tag is required initially to do so.

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