By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
The NFL is continuing its progression through this the off-season, its latest event of note being the Annual League Meeting with the owners down in Phoenix, AZ.
League owners and personnel from across the NFL met to discuss a litany of items with perhaps the most notable being rule changes for the upcoming season. NFL teams individually have been busy at work getting ready for the draft which is less than a month away. But even with teams focusing on the draft, there was still some tasty Bears nuggets coming out of Phoenix.
Another big story in the world of football outside of the NFL making news this week regarded the bleak future of the Alliance of American Football. The football universe is still producing news in a somewhat quiet period on the calendar — move over MLB Opening Day, football is still king of the sports world mountain top.
Late Thursday night the Bears made news when it was announced the team had traded starting running back Jordan Howard to the Eagles in exchange for a 2020 sixth-round pick that could become a fifth-round pick.
Obviously a huge trade on multiple fronts, first and foremost it establishes that the team needs another running back. Recent free agent acquisition Mike Davis could be the starter, but at the moment he doesn’t really have competition, even from the gifted but slight runner Tarik Cohen, who is not an every-down back.
Whether Davis is the starter or not the team will have to either sign or draft another back to fill the roster hole that Howard is leaving behind. Howard has been a positive player ever since he joined the league in 2016, putting himself high in many team rookie and early year record rankings.
Howard also established himself among the elite running backs in the NFL, compiling the third most rushing yards in the past three seasons with only established star running backs Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott in front of him. Howard’s fit with the Eagles should be simple since he’s going to another similar-type system ran by Doug Pederson, who like Matt Nagy is a disciple of Andy Reid. Howard has been in constant trade speculation ever since last off-season and now he finally has a secure situation again.
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Many thought the Bears could get, at the minimum, a late round draft pick for this year for Howard, getting a future pick so low in the 2020 draft gives some the idea that general manager Ryan Pace got taken advantage of in this deal. Only time will tell in regards to that, but remember we are talking about the NFL’s Executive of the Year here.
It will be interesting to see what the plan is to fill the void left by Howard who had no less than 935 yards in a season with a total of 3,370 in his Bears career. Howard has declined in his production every year since his rookie season and is in the last year of his rookie deal. Perhaps the market wasn’t strong for Howard but at this point, the Bears need to be concerned with finding another running back.
Prior to the trade, the Bears were also included in national news when it was announced that Chicago will host its mortal rivals, the Green Bay Packers, to open the NFL season this year. Both the league and the Bears are celebrating their 100th year anniversaries this season and in recognizing the league’s most storied rivalry the NFL will forgo the recent tradition of having the Super Bowl Champions open the season in prime time. Instead the Patriots will open on Sunday Night Football against an opponent to be determined.
This upcoming Bears-Packers game has a plethora of story lines surronding it. The all time series favors the Packers 97-95-6 and both teams come into the season as relative unknowns and possible top contenders.
Chicago’s team looks to be one on the rise but player development and the coaches ability to improve the team will be key for any rise. Wisconsin’s team looks to be a team on the rebound with a brand new coach coaching healthy quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a remade defense with some big money free agents. The Bears and Packers opened Sunday Night Football last year and it was an incredible game even if the result was painful. The Packers will be trying to reclaim their division throne while the Bears are the target and will have to be able to adjust from being the hunter to the hunted.
Both Pace and coach Nagy spoke from the league meetings earlier this week. Both spoke about how excited they are about the players that are coming in along as well as their excitement for the draft.
Another topic they spoke about was the place kicker position and whether they may add some more bodies to the competition between Chris Blewitt and Redford Jones. Veteran kickers like Stephen Gostkowski and Matt Bryant are still available, but the Bears could still select or sign an un-drafted free agent once that time comes.
Both Pace and Nagy will be trying to brainstorm ways to simulate pressure for the kickers during practice to make this as difficult ac ompetition as possible. Expect the Bears to add another name to the competition before the start of training camp.
The Times, They Are A-Changin’
Most of the talk around the NFL on Tuesday centered on the revelation that the league will institute huge changes in its replay review process.
The change were urged after the NFC Championship game where a blatant pass interference call that should have been was not called on Rams corner Nickell Robey-Coleman after blowing up Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis well before the ball had arrived. The call was crucial because had the flag been called the Saints would have had a 99% chance of winning but instead the game went to overtime where the Rams eventually prevailed.
Saints head coach Sean Payton, much like his team’s fanbase, has been unable to let that play go and has been on the campaign trail to get a rule change passed. Payton was rewarded on Tuesday when the NFL announced that pass interference on offense or defense is reviewable as well as non pass interference calls. The rule change is only for this season before it will be re-evaluated at next year’s League Meeting. The rule is going to have a serious impact on the season because all pass interference calls and non pass interference calls are all subjective.
Coaches are allowed to challenge any play with pass interference in the first 28 minutes of each half then it will go to booth reviews for the remainder two minutes. The NFL has had issues with subjective calls in the past and its possible this change could be a nightmare like how the catch rule was. But on paper this does seem to make some sense since the pass interference call is one of the biggest fouls in the game, and certainly some of those flagged plays would greatly benefit from a second look like the no call on between the Saints and Rams.
Let’s just hope that this rule doesn’t become a hindrance to the pace and style of play. Some other note worthy rule developments, the Broncos proposal to provide teams with an alternative to the onside kick with a fourth and 15 was voted down. The Chiefs proposal for changes to overtime rules was tabled until the Spring League Meeting in May. Finally, the NFL voted to make permanent the kickoff rule changes that were implemented during the 2018 season.
The End of the AAF?
Having not even completed one season, the Alliance of American Football has recently given off warning signs that its alternative to the NFL may be coming to an end.
Like the XFL in 2001, the AAF is having issues generating revenue and its majority owner Tom Dundon revealed this week that discontinuing the league is an option. Dundon made a huge $250 million investment in the league last month, reportedly because the league would not have made payroll without it.
Dundon wants the NFL to allow assist the AAF in being a developmental league. He was quoted by USA Today saying “If the players union is not going to give us young players, we can’t be a development league. We are looking at our options, one of which is discontinuing the league.”
Interesting how the AAF, which has tried to stay separate from the NFL in many ways, is now saying they need the NFL’s players in order to survive and prosper. The XFL, which launches again next year, should take note of these issues for the AAF.
It is rare for any type of entertainment to be on the brink of cancellation and bounce back successfully. It may just be fool’s gold to try and supply football to the masses in this country unless your name is the NFL or the NCAA.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR