One of the lessons my dad instilled in me at a young age was that it wasn’t always about what you said but how you said it. You can be right, but you can be wrong in how you frame it. When Steve Young was on the Monday Night Football pregame show this week talking about the situation with Jalen Ramsey in Jacksonville, the 49er legend was right, but he was wrong in how he framed it. Words matter. Tone matters more. The way Young spoke about Ramsey came across like he was co-commish with Roger Goodell. As a former player, an elite one at that, you would assume Young would come across as more empathetic towards Ramsey than he did. He was lecturing the viewers at home -- “This is why you’re wrong if you don’t feel the same about players exerting more force in getting their way in professional sports.” Nobody likes a lecture. Nobody likes a lecture after a long day of work even more.
But his concerns are valid.
The Ringer’s Ryen Russillo and Bill Simmons have been beating this drum for months now, that it’s gotten ridiculous how much of a pass we give players in 2019. You are expected to always take the players’ side, even if there is a strong case to be made that you shouldn’t. The hottest take you can have in today’s world is that “Player X Is Wrong, Team Y Is Right” because the worker is always right. Obviously, this is not always the case. Sometimes, a player is wrong and deserves to be criticized for being wrong. Sometimes, a team is wrong and deserves to be criticized for being wrong. Why the pendulum swung so far to the left, that I do not know. I have my theories, just watch that interview with the Houston Rockets’ new owner Tilman Fertitta on ESPN this week, and you can see why it has become a natural reflex to think, “Yeah, billionaires are insane.”
Young is not insane for suggesting NFL teams who set the precedent that if you act like Antonio Brown, you will be rewarded by ultimately winding up on the team you desired. Put yourself in Tom Coughlin and Dave Caldwell’s shoes in Jacksonville. You have allowed Ramsey to train with his dad in Nashville in the offseason away from the team, you drafted him in the top-5 because you believed in him as a special corner out of the gate, and you came this close to making the Super Bowl with Blake Freaking Bortles in 2018. That 2017-18 team was special, and Ramsey was a big part of why with his 90.6 grade per PFF that season. When Ramsey is quoted saying after the recent loss to the Houston Texans saying, “I just want to fucking win,” you scratch your head a little bit. Last season was a disaster, but this was still a team a year removed from being a quarterback away from being the best team in the AFC. Caldwell and Coughlin haven’t been perfect, they trusted Bortles too long, they have spent their money in questionable fashions, but this is not the Gene Smith-era Jags we’re talking about here. They just picked the wrong quarterback. Then, they tried to right those wrongs by signing Nick Foles, a Super Bowl winner, to get this team back where they belong -- atop the AFC South and contending with the Patriots in the AFC. Foles got hurt and the team is 0-2 and Ramsey wants out. I feel for Coughlin and Caldwell here. It should be noted as well that 2017-18 Ramsey hasn’t returned, as he posted a 72.8 grade in 2018 and is currently rocking a 48.9 grade in 2019.
But you still paid Bortles. You still drafted Leonard Fournette over Jamal Adams, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Malik Hooker, Jonathan Allen, etc. I can understand how frustrating it must have been for Ramsey and the rest of that 2017-18 defensive juggernaut to get that close to the Super Bowl without a competent quarterback -- this team had to take the keys away from their quarterback to win football games in the modern era. The front office believed in Bortles being good enough to win with that defense and they were wrong. If Andy Dalton is quarterbacking that 2017-18 Jaguar team, they’re in the Super Bowl that year, right? If you’re Ramsey and the rest of that unit you lose sleep over that season. You were so damn dominant, but you had the wrong quarterback and, two years later, Gardner Minshew is under center. All Ramsey has to say is, “Look, you could have fixed all of this by just drafting any quarterback in the top-5, but you chose a running back.” If you’re Ramsey and that collection of talent, doesn’t it only become harder to give a crap when you know you don’t have the quarterback on the roster to make having an elite defense worthwhile. I get it.
But Young also brought up the NBA as an example of another league bending over for unhappy players. Anthony Davis the poster boy for this -- he was under contract for more than one season, he quit on his team, and did everything in his power to screw over the Pelicans by forcing his way to the Lakers. It was a terrible look for Davis, and it was a terrible look for the league had Davis ended up getting moved before the NBA Trade Deadline. Player movement has become a staple of the NBA, and most rational human beings are fine with players moving on when they’re a free agent. Normal people understand that once a contract is up, you should be free to go wherever you want to go. When you’re still under contract, though, it gets more complicated. When you go the scorched-Earth method, like Davis and Brown did, normal people aren’t into it. Nobody likes to see a professional intentionally burn bridges to get their way. With Ramsey, unlike Brown and Davis, he’s not even at the top of his game. It’s one thing when you’re a top-5 player, like Brown and Davis, it’s another when you haven’t played like a top-5 player in over a year.
We also don’t know if player movement is good for the sport. Part of the reason the NFL is as popular as it is is that once you found your franchise quarterback, barring injury, you have him for years and years. When your team gets a superstar, you want to believe you get to keep watching that superstar play for your team for years. It’s the reason the NCAA Transfer Portal is so interesting for college football -- will this hurt the sport’s popularity? On a basic human level, you want everyone to find happiness. On a team level, you can understand why opening up more opportunities for player movement make things almost impossible for coaches and teams and universities. How do you plan years down the line if player movement continues to grow. Is it really good for the sport for its stars to play on 6 different teams throughout their career than 1 or 2? It’s a fair question to ask and it was fair for Young to wonder if giving Ramsey and other disgruntled stars what they want could have a ripple effect that ultimately hurts the league and rewards guys for being unprofessional and screwing over their team. I get it.
Ultimately, nobody knows if increased player movement is bad for sports. Kawhi Leonard hasn’t played for nine different teams in his prime yet. It is going to take time to see if fans turn their backs on sports that has more player movement than other sports. With the NBA, I have my doubts because so many people watch games for the player and not the team. With the NFL, I am not so sure. If more and more stars push their way out in their prime, in increasingly unprofessional fashion, couldn’t you see a sport built on unselfishness losing viewers because its players are becoming increasingly selfish? That’s all Young was getting at -- football is different from basketball. Nine guys matter in the NBA. It makes sense for the NBA to be the league built around player movement and player empowerment because its players matter more there than they do in the NFL. It doesn’t make sense for the NFL to be a league built around player movement. Steve Young was right, he was just wrong in the way he said it.