Until April, this man was employed as an NFL VP of Operations.
That’s Merton Hanks, former San Francisco 49er and the man in charge of monitoring on-field behavior and meting out fines and discipline from 2011 until he was shuffled off the NFL’s premises in the spring.
Hanks was one of several operations guys given the gate as Troy Vincent, the NFL’s Executive VP of Football Operations, continues to drastically change personnel in the department that deals most closely with the on-field product.
On Thursday, I asked Hanks if he believed his Chicken Neck Dance would have drawn a flag.
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“No question about it,” he laughed. “One person’s fun is someone else’s taunting penalty.”
Hanks now works as Senior Associate Commissioner for Conference USA. For 13 years, Hanks worked in the league office. Our conversation started with the NFL’s 2016 crackdown on excessive celebrations but ended with Hanks taking stock of the league’s Operations Department, an oft-overlooked layer charged with overseeing everything from officiating to field conditions, technology to discipline.
“The league has a problem,” Hanks said when asked about the cascade of flags this year. “The league has set itself up as an entertainment piece as well as an athletic piece. But its rules inherently skew toward the athletic piece, even though its presentation is an entertainment piece. So when you have athletes who have a clear picture of what the NFL is and understand part of its great nature is entertainment -- as the league likes to brag on, the top-rated shows in the history of television and so forth -- every player understands part of his athletic duty is to entertain the crowd. The way the rules are written, they’re not allowed to do that. So it’s almost as if the player is put in a position where he cannot fulfill his contractual duty within the larger scheme of the National Football League.”
There are myriad theories about what precisely is causing the NFL’s ratings malaise. My opinion is this: The obsession with micromanaging the product so it’s aesthetically but antiseptically pleasing to everyone and -- hence -- more marketable and profitable is the root of the problem.
How willing are they to chip away at the integrity of the games in the name of the integrity of the game?
When you think about how many games come down to seconds and inches, how hard players and coaches fight for them and the butterfly effect a 15-yard nonsense penalty for celebrating can have, it’s obvious they are going too far. But they just can’t help themselves.
There have been six more penalties for excessive celebration and 10 more penalties for taunting this season than in 2015. The excessive celebration flags included one on Vernon Davis for pretending to shoot a jumper with the football after a touchdown and another for Josh Norman for pretending to use a bow-and-arrow.
Asked Wednesday about the glut of unsportsmanlike calls, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said:
“It comes down to balancing a lot of issues, the professional standards that we want to uphold. We do believe that our players are role models and others look at that at the youth level. So that’s important for us to hold that standard up. And it’s part of being a professional. So that’s one element of it.”
Part of being an adult is being able to use discretion and differentiate between truly unsportsmanlike conduct -- like stomping on a fallen player’s leg or taking out a receiver’s knees from behind when he isn’t even thrown the ball -- and having a little fun.
“Discretion and consistency are incompatible,” countered Hanks. “What’s offensive to you may not be offensive to me in an official capacity as a league official. The safest way to deal with that from an officiating standpoint is to flag everything and coward the player back into obeying whatever rule is being emphasized and right now that’s sportsmanship. Sportsmanship, clean play and exciting play are not incompatible. But the NFL by nature, by its own design, is an entertainment vehicle. And when you strip away that all you have is just talented people playing football.”
As with so many NFL initiatives, there was a kernel of sense in what it set out to accomplish. Some of the ugliest incidents last year -- Odell Beckham’s cheap shot on Josh Norman and the Bengals-Steelers playoff meltdown -- were preceded by smaller incidents of jawing, demonstrating and agitating. The NFL enacted a rule mandating ejections for multiple unsportsmanlike fouls in the same game. But they went overboard with their edict to flag with impunity normal post-play reactions.
“It’s an issue of control. It always has been,” said Hanks. “The NFL wants their players to be dynamic individuals from the start of the whistle to the end of the whistle, stop exactly what they’re doing on a dime, go back to their huddle and then do it again. After being in the league office and now being on the outside looking in after being in the league office for 13 seasons, there is a real line of demarcation that the NFL product inherently harms itself when it devalues its characters, when it doesn’t live up to the entertainment entity that in itself claims it is . . .
"Sportsmanship is a worthy goal. I’m not minimizing that. That’s the line the NFL is taking. But they are throwing out the baby with the bath water. They are stripping away what makes the league a must-watch event.”
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When railing against “the league,” the targets of fan and media bile are most often Goodell, the NFL’s Competition Committee and whatever official is walking the beat in a game that goes South.
But NFL Operations oversees it all, as the gaudy website ordered up by the department’s overlord Vincent brags.
As we cast about wondering what ails the NFL, it’s important to note the timeline of Vincent’s ascent.
In December of 2013, former EVP of Football Ops, Ray Anderson stepped down and soon took a job as AD at Arizona State. In March of 2014, Vincent was installed as Anderson’s successor.
It’s been one disaster after another with Vincent working shoulder-to-shoulder with Goodell.
There was the Ray Rice case, which had Vincent testifying before Congress that the league "didn't need" to see more than one tape before imposing its original two-game suspension. There was Vincent’s admission on 60 Minutes that he didn’t read the independent investigation report from former FBI Director Robert Mueller regarding the Rice case.
Vincent was there the night Deflategate began and let his game operations lieutenants, like Mike Kensil, start a witch hunt that Vincent -- if he knew what the hell was going on -- would have been able to at least rein in before it got ridiculous.
How far removed was Vincent from even knowing the purported backstory the Colts passed on to Kensil and Dave Gardi about their suspicions? So removed that he testified at the appeal hearing he hadn’t heard a thing about it – despite scads of e-mails flying around in the days prior to the AFC Championship Game – until Colts GM Ryan Grigson invaded the box containing Vincent and Kensil and said, “We’re playing with a small ball.”
The Hall of Fame Game fiasco in August? A Troy Vincent production.
The in-game technology that Bill Belichick threw his hands up about this week? That’s under Vincent’s purview.
Interestingly, this seemingly distracted, disinterested, overmatched individual in charge of the product we watch was actually on the brink of being the NFLPA’s Executive Director back in 2009.
NFL owners and Goodell desperately wanted Vincent to succeed the late Gene Upshaw so that the cozy relationship between the league and union would continue. For years, Upshaw was criticized for rolling over too easily for NFL commissioners Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue. Vincent was Upshaw’s heir apparent until an alleged coup attempt by Vincent to have Upshaw ousted backfired. Despite the controversy, Vincent was still the favorite to be named.
When DeMaurice Smith was selected instead, the stage was set for the rancorous NFL-NFLPA relationship we’ve seen develop. Smith has tried to advocate for a group that for decades had the sorriest labor agreement of the four major professional sports. Vincent, meanwhile, was hired by the NFL as a player engagement executive and began his quick climb to where he currently sits – right next to Goodell. And, tellingly, he now criticizes the NFLPA for spending too much money to advocate for players -- which is what the union’s there for.
Asked about Vincent, Hanks said, “He’s made some moves that you want to question. I’m part of the party that’s moved on doing other things so I certainly don’t want to come off as someone who is trying to attack their current leader. But at the same time, the facts are the facts. Look at what’s happened. Look at why it’s happened and I think you will start drawing certain parallels, certain conclusions.”
A big part of what’s happened is the department has been transformed under Vincent. Hanks is gone. Kensil, whose name is mud here in New England but who had more institutional knowledge about how to put on an NFL game than anyone on the planet, has been reassigned out of Ops. Myriad other lieutenants and operatives in the multi-tiered department have been moved around or let go.
“I think (operations) is something, for the most part, your average fan may have to have explained to them,” said Hanks. “They may not care, quite frankly. They’re about the business of showing up on game day, tailgating and having a good time. But when you talk to the 32 clubs and associated personnel, it’s very interesting when you talk to those folks vs. your average fan. For those folks, it really is a different deal.
“It’s a cliché, but the trains have to run on time,” continued Hanks. “Every time. The basic mechanisms of putting on the game have to work every time. It’s inherently your job. So that when something fails in operations -- and something can always fail because there are so many aspects -- but you take the hit on it. It’s a very bottom-line deal in that regard. If we get 1,000 things right on any given day and two or three go wrong, we have to figure out what to do to correct it. Immediately. That’s regardless of sport. Any sport. Operations is a tough and unforgiving business. It’s an interesting challenge but those things are exacerbated when you’re either missing key people or you haven’t developed key people to the point where they can pick up the ball and run with it and make it seamless. It appears some of that has taken place.”
I asked Hanks if Vincent was part of the problem.
“On the record, you could not find a greater leader of men than (Vincent’s predecessor) Ray Anderson,” was Hanks’ telling response. “A tremendous leader in all facets who understood the game from having been in all facets. Agent, club side, league side. I would say there’s tremendous amount of institutional knowledge that is not there right now. They are missing quite a bit of pure institutional knowledge because you don’t have people who’ve been through the fire and seen it all in football operations. I think that’s fair to say and totally undisputed. It’s almost when you go young as a team you’re going to have some growing pains. I think the football operations team is experiencing a little bit of that.”
Could Hanks say whether or not Vincent is doing a good job?
“That’s for Roger [Goodell] to say,” Hanks replied. “My concern is to make sure my (Conference USA commissioner) thinks I’m doing a good job. There’s a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge not in place (with the NFL). And when you’re missing that, some things may fall through the cracks.”