STAMFORD, Conn. — The XFL says former Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley has been hired as the league’s senior vice president for football operations.
Whaley will report to commissioner and CEO Oliver Luck.
Whaley spent the majority of his career with the Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks. He was with the Bills from 2010-17 in a variety of roles before his promotion to GM from 2013-17.
Before joining the Bills, Whaley spent 11 years with the Steelers as the team’s pro scouting coordinator, where he won two Super Bowls.
Whaley is currently serving as the director of college recruiting for the NFL Players Association’s Collegiate Bowl through the end of the year.
The XFL kicks off in early 2020. The league will start with eight teams, 45-man active rosters, and a 10-week regular-season schedule, with a postseason consisting of two semifinal playoff games and a championship game.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Tom Heckert, a longtime personnel executive in the NFL who spent his final five years in the league with the Denver Broncos, died Sunday night. He was 51.
After beginning his career in 1991 as a scout for the Miami Dolphins, Heckert spent 27 years in the NFL, including stints as general manager for the Cleveland Browns (2010-12) and Philadelphia Eagles (2006-09). Heckert was hired by Broncos president of football operations/general manager John Elway in May 2013.
Heckert was the Broncos’ director of player personnel for four seasons and was a senior personnel adviser in 2017. After the 2017 season, Heckert, who had battled amyloidosis for several years, stepped away from the team for health reasons.
Amyloidosis is a protein disorder of the blood that can be difficult to diagnose, and there is no cure.
During his time with the Broncos, the team won three AFC West titles, played in two Super Bowls and won Super Bowl 50. Heckert’s father, Tom Sr., worked for more than two decades in the NFL as well.
Heckert got off to a rocky start with the Broncos when he was arrested in June 2013 and charged with driving under the influence and careless driving. At the time, Elway and Broncos president and CEO Joe Ellis expressed their disappointment in the arrest, but both stood by Heckert in the months and years that followed as he carved out what Elway has routinely described as an important role with the team.
“Tom was an integral part of our organization and we’re all incredibly saddened [Monday],” Elway said in a statement. “With his many years of experience and time as a GM, Tom was a tremendous resource and a key member of our team. He was a very good evaluator — he had an eye for talent, and we always trusted his voice. It’s easy to see why Tom was widely respected and had so many great relationships across the league. I’ll always be grateful for how he helped me transition into this position. My prayers go out to Tom’s family, friends and everyone he worked with during his career.”
Broncos director of player personnel Matt Russell, who also worked with Heckert with the Eagles, said in a statement: “Tom hired me in Philadelphia and was a beloved friend for many years. The biggest thing with Tom was his loyalty, how he cared about his friends and how good he was at his job. Tom was one of the best because he combined exceptional player evaluation skills with his incredible network of connections around the NFL. Those relationships he formed are a testament to how well he treated everyone. Tom was a loyal friend and my heart goes out to his family.”
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman also offered their condolences.
“Tom gave everything he had to this organization for nine seasons and played a major role in the construction and success of our team during that time,” Lurie said. “In addition to being a talented evaluator and respected voice, he was a mentor and friend to so many within our organization and around the league. He will be greatly missed by all who knew and worked with him and our hearts go out to his family during this difficult time.”
“His record as a GM was outstanding,” Roseman added. “When he worked here everyone wanted to be around him and listen to his stories about his time in the league and his experiences around the game. He was one of the first people to congratulate us all when we won the Super Bowl. Thoughts and prayers with his family, including his kids.”
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Tom Heckert and share our sincerest condolences with his family and friends, including the many lives he impacted with the Browns organization and throughout the entire NFL during his established career,” the Browns said in a team statement.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — John Elway will still be a part of the 2018 U.S. Senior Open. He just won’t be playing alongside the likes of defending champion Kenny Perry.
The Broadmoor’s notoriously knotty east course got the best of Elway in his Memorial Day attempt to qualify for the 39th Open championship, for which he’ll serve as the tournament’s honorary chairman next month.
Playing Monday for one of two qualifying spots, Elway, who is a 1.4-handicap golfer, shot a 10-over 80 on a drizzly and cool afternoon on the dazzling but demanding course. That left him tied for 18th.
Elway acknowledged that pulling double duty at the Open next month was a pipe dream but cherished his round nonetheless.
“I haven’t been playing very well. I haven’t been playing much, either,” Elway said. “But it was fun to be out here and compete. It’s a lot of work in that rough.”
Elway remained upbeat even after bogeying two of his last three holes following a 75-minute rain and lightning delay.
“It’s good for me to play in these conditions,” he said. “It makes me a better player.”
Elway started strong, but a double-bogey on the ninth hole sent him sliding down the leaderboard, where only one golfer broke par. Doug Rohrbaugh, an instructor at Snowmass, Colorado, shot a 1-under 69 to qualify for his fourth Open. Rohrbaugh also has NFL bloodlines: His uncle, John Meyers, was a defensive tackle for the Cowboys and Eagles in the 1960s.
Chris Johnson, of Castle Rock, Colorado, was the other qualifier, shooting a 2-over 72.
Elway’s long-shot hopes began to fade when he put a ball into the water and then missed a short putt on No. 9.
“I was actually playing probably as good as I can play,” Elway said.
His goal, he said, was to break 80, but the delay didn’t do him any favors. “Bad finish,” he lamented.
The 1-hour-and-15-minute delay wasn’t ideal for a man who celebrates his 58th birthday when the Open begins on June 28.
“I’m afraid to sit down. I’ll get too stiff,” Elway said as he signed golf balls and some of the No. 7 jerseys that dotted the 200 or so members of his gallery during the weather delay.
This marked just the fourth time that the championship course served as a sectional qualifying site.
Elway, who won two Super Bowls during his Hall of Fame playing career and another as the Denver Broncos’ general manager, took up golf during the springs of his playing career and refined his game after retiring in 1999. He hasn’t had as much time to work on his game since moving into the Broncos’ front office in 2010.
His golf résumé includes two Colorado Senior Open appearances, and he is a past president of Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver.
With its always unnerving setups, the Open is already considered the toughest challenge in senior golf. Add in the nearly 6,500-foot altitude and the unforgiving rough, and “it’s not going to be a birdie fest,” Perry, the defending champ, said after getting in a practice round on the east course three weeks ago.
“It tests the player in every facet of this game. I think it’s going to be a great championship. It’s going to be tough, and you’re going to see a lot of guys struggling out there,” Perry said.
Perry said during a recent visit to Broncos headquarters that Elway had his work cut out for him going from front office to the fairways.
“That course is going to test him mentally. He’s been in the draft room getting ready for the season. He hasn’t been practicing or preparing,” Perry said. “Just like anything you do, if you don’t practice or prepare, it’s hard to be successful.”
“He’s right. It’s difficult,” Elway said. “But like I said, it’s always fun for me to get to play in these conditions. Plus, when you play these, you realize how good those guys are.”
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — If declining TV ratings are a problem for the NFL, its players would like to know what can be done about them.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith told ESPN on Saturday that he has recently met with executives at several of the league’s broadcast partners, including CBS, NBC and Fox, to discuss issues related to the game. Entering his 10th year as leader of the players’ union, Smith is looking ahead to the next round of collective bargaining negotiations and wants the players to have a greater voice in what he describes as the league’s “macroeconomic” issues, including the way it presents itself to the public.
“I think that the ratings information is significant and important. If we don’t pay attention to it, I think that we do so at our own peril, from a macroeconomic standpoint,” Smith said Saturday in an interview before his son Alex’s lacrosse game at the University of Hartford. “Certainly, I recognize that we’re lucky that over 30 of the top 50 shows were NFL broadcasts. But I think that you ignore at your own peril not so much just the decline in football, but the overall decline in ratings for most television shows and particularly sports broadcasts.”
Smith pointed to the success the NBA is having right now and a desire to find out more about what’s behind it.
“I think that it’s important to take a look at what’s going on in basketball, because for the most part, I think they are the only sport that more and more people are watching,” Smith said. “And my hat’s off to what they do and how they do it in the NBA. I think that you could make the argument that a lot of their programming is fresher, hipper. They do, I think, a great job of marketing their individual players, sometimes at a time when the [NFL] looks for ways to take their star players off the field. I would be interested in better understanding the relationship between the broadcast partners and the NBA, what that relationship is like, how they do their TV deals, their rights deals.
“But I think that, given the year-over-year ratings issue in football, it begs the question, ‘Should we be doing something different?’ And that might mean the restructuring of the season in a way to make it more fan-friendly.”
Pressed on specific ideas to restructure the NFL season, Smith said he would like to find ways to better feature the best games and maybe even eliminate some that don’t hold the public’s interest.
“You look at the ratings, and you see that marquee matchups buck the trend on declining ratings,” Smith said. “And you also know that there’s groups of games, and let’s just say preseason games to start with. … It’s hard to find a fan that wants to buy a preseason ticket or wants to watch a preseason game. So to me, you’re being intellectually dishonest if you don’t want to look at both of those issues.
“When you do look at playoff games, when you do look at whether they’re division rivalries or games that have a level of significance, those games are not only exciting and people still want to watch them, but those marquee games are still big-time, high-viewership games.”
He suggested a model with fewer regular-season games and another round of playoff games.
“It doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily what you’re going to do, but we are at a point where we the union aren’t going to be this sort of silent other third party out there who’s not involved in the business of football from a stadium, media, Sunday, offseason standpoint,” Smith said. “We’re just not going to do it anymore.”
Smith’s point in meeting with broadcast executives is to establish the NFLPA as demanding a say in vital underlying issues central to the future of the game. He has yet to engage ownership in talks regarding the next CBA but seems to be announcing that, once those talks do start, he would like to be addressing issues more fundamental to the game’s structure and future than the players may have been invited to discuss in the past.
“The reason I’ve reached out is because I’m interested in finding out what our broadcast partners think about our game,” Smith said. “And I want to make sure that we have an environment where not only they are providing important input but so are we, and that we’re all thinking about long-term viability rather than just short-term impacts on revenue.”
“I think that it’s important to take a look at what’s going on in basketball, because for the most part, I think they are the only sport that more and more people are watching. And my hat’s off to what they do and how they do it in the NBA.”
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith
Smith held forth on a number of topics during a roughly 45-minute interview.
• On player health and safety, Smith said he wants to continue to looking at ways to incentivize coaches and teams. Smith said the NFL is very good at establishing punishment structures for players who violate rules, but less willing to look at the extent to which coaches and teams might be complicit.
“For example, if at the end of the year you have a team that’s got the largest number of penalties for X, Y and Z — unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct — should we start considering what’s the impact on the coach stakeholder or the franchise stakeholder?” Smith said. “And that might include what impact that might have with them on draft order. Then you have a regime where everybody’s incentivized.
“Take a defensive player who’s coached or taught repeatedly that, if you can’t break up the pass, separate the receiver from the ball — and we know they’re being coached that way. When the incident happens on the field, if it’s too early, too hard or too high, there’s going to be a penalty and the player’s going to get fined and blah blah blah, blah blah blah. But at the end of the day, it seems to me that you’re still leaving out two other stakeholders, right? The coach that taught him to do it and the team that wants him to do it. And you don’t necessarily take into consideration that the player has not only been told to do it, but he knows if he doesn’t do it, he may not be playing and somebody else who is willing to do it might take his place. That’s a lack of aligned incentives.”
• On the investigation into and pending sale of the Carolina Panthers, Smith said he wants the league to be transparent about the investigation and its conclusions as they pertain to the allegations of harassment against owner Jerry Richardson.
He also took the opportunity to take some further shots at NFL investigators who, he believes, have performed poorly in past disciplinary situations involving players.
“If it’s true that Mary Jo White is involved in the current investigation of the Panthers, I have a question because I know that she falsely accused players in Bounty[gate],” Smith said. “And things that she said to the press were either knowingly untrue or there came a time when we all knew they weren’t true. If it’s true that Lisa Friel is involved in the investigation of the Panthers, then I know for a fact that someone who ignored the conclusions of her own investigator [in the Ezekiel Elliott case] is involved in the investigation of an owner. Neither of those two things should give anyone a level of confidence in the integrity of the investigation.
“So at the very least, it seems to me that the league as a whole and their partners, the players, deserve to have the results of the investigation of the Panthers released publicly before the sale. And that’s simply because, if the premise of the personal conduct policy is the integrity of the league, why shouldn’t we have the same level of transparency that occurs in player investigations occur here?”
• On free agency, which begins in a couple of weeks, Smith said he has his eye on certain high-profile situations like that of quarterback and union rep Kirk Cousins but is also casting a wary eye at what has happened with Major League Baseball’s slow free-agent market this offseason.
“What is happening there can most charitably be described as an anomaly,” Smith said of MLB. “And so, have I been talking with agents in baseball and with our brother/sister union MLPBA to look at what’s going on there? Absolutely. Because anomalies like that in a quote-unquote free-agent market are disturbing.
“We have economic mechanisms like the [spending] minimums. But hypothetically, if the anomaly that is occurring in baseball is motivated by the desire of some owners and some teams, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you’ve got an economic mechanism to prevent it. No economic mechanism is going to prevent a deliberate decision to affect the market. So my takeaway from what’s happening in baseball is that it reminds you at that times, people can make decisions or might want to make decisions that are, in the short term, somewhat self-centered but might end up negatively impacting their sport in a significant way.”