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Let The NFLPA’s Reviews Of Every NFL Franchise Confirm Your Suspicions

The Arizona Cardinals doing OTA's at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center. The NFLPA survey suggests that it "smells crazy in there."
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If treating players well while they sacrificed brainboxes, chests, and limbs for the entertainment and enrichment of strangers had a direct correlation to victory, Comrade Magary would be the happiest lad in the Defector playroom. According to the NFL Players Association, which went all Trip Advisor in evaluating and ranking all 32 teams by how their endangered employees were treated on the job, your 19-time Super Bowl champion would be the Minnesota Vikings.

On the other hand, if treating those players like diseased swine in hopes of inspiring them to greater heights of near-homicidal fury was the key to glory, your 19-time Super Bowl champion would be the Arizona Cardinals.

The NFLPA's employee survey doesn't link team treatment to team performance so much as it tells free agents where to go if they prefer heaven to hell, or at least pleasant workplace amenities to “there is a family of belligerent possums living in the weight room and no one can get them to stop shrieking.” The best thing about the survey is that fans can't offer a single educated opinion on any of it, and therefore can't call scoreboard on their apostate pals at the tavern. In other words, a Cincinnati Bengals fan can't exactly take pride in saying, "Well, we got Joe Burrow, but the union says the team makes his family travel to games by tandem bicycle."

The methodologies employed in generating these grades can probably be questioned, if only because we don't know how many players from each team responded or how many of those held deep and abiding grudges against their position coach. But that's the fun in a non-scientific poll. It slags indiscriminately, and allows us to separate the various NFL sweatshops by the comfort of the chairs in their training room.

But first, a mission statement. Football is inherently cruel, brutal, and corrosive for its players, and so excellent treatment in any and all ancillary areas ought to be a minimal standard. The days when owners made their players stay in kennels, wear cardboard helmets and burlap uniforms, and play doubleheaders in hot-tar-and-gravel pits are over. The last bit went out in ... 2007, I think. Any team that gets an F in anything to do with taking care of its players should seriously consider its working practices, and by that standard the Cardinals should be closed for health and safety reasons as well as the obvious competitive ones.

The players like their strength and training staffs well enough, as they should; San Diego Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove just dropped a kettlebell on his toe and will miss several weeks, and that was his own fault. Imagine a scorned strength coach's ability to wreak creatively weighty revenge and you’ll see why this group tends to grade out well. The players seem partial to their athletic trainers either, for even more obvious reasons: "Coach, he has a dislocated sternum and a fractured face, plus a weird skin disease that the bathroom caulking we applied to it doesn't seem to help, so yeah, he's good to practice." In these two areas, even the Cardinals got A's, and they also got a B for travel, which presumably means that when they play at New Orleans they don't have to stay in Little Rock.

But the Cardinals also got F's for nutrition and treatment of families, and F-minuses—a new grading concept, but a promising one—for the state of their weight room, training room, and locker room. An F-minus amounts to something more than just complaining about conditions; it is instead a particularly pungent inference that the players who come there aren't so much signed as sentenced. By this report, we can infer that the team eats day-old fast food, their families are treated like glorified steamer trunks, and they apparently have team meetings in the waiting room at the South Phoenix Greyhound station.

These are of course exaggerations for effect on my part. Or, well, I'm pretty sure of that. Which is to say that I actually have no idea. But I do know that the Cardinals players have an issue with somebody, and that new coach Jonathan Gannon can win the players' loyalty off the top by fixing the team’s physical plant. Does that get the team itself past their 6-11 ceiling, or make Kyler Murray more fun to be around? Maybe not, but these are grades that owner Mikey Bidwill can only be proud of if he's telling his fellow overlords, "Watch how they scream when we make them do two-a-days when the temperature passes 120."

On the other hand, in that same owners' meeting scenario, Zygi and Mark Wilf will be condemned for the Vikings' systematic coddling of the mules—er, employees. Their grades were all A's and A-pluses except for nutrition, when one slightly oversalted lunchtime paella Valenciana dropped the nutrition grade to an A-minus. Between these marks and the local weather, it is hard to imagine that the Vikings players ever want to leave the facility, and yet the franchise hasn't appeared in a Super Bowl since Fran Tarkenton roamed the earth. Evidently player treatment is reflected in performance only randomly, which we figured would be the case.

For the most part, the report cards are most gratifying when they reflect or echo a team’s broader public profile. The do-your-job New England Patriots got high grades for their trainers and strength staffs, and players were allowed to eat food, but otherwise it was C-minuses and D's, which would gratify Bill Belichick if he cared about such trivial things as players. The Jacksonville Jaguars always kind of seem like they should have some kind of vermin issue at their facility, and it turns out that they actually do.

The Washington Pawns In Game Of Life, predictably, were nearly Cardinals-level dreadful across the board, with only a C-plus for the strength staff and an A-plus for the weight room. We can assume from this that Danny Snyder knows how to be a total load even to his players, and that the players know how to efficiently lift those loads when the strength guy tells them to. That said, the strength component got high grades across the board in 30 of the 32 cities—the Falcons and Ravens dealt out a D-minus and F-minus respectively—and trainers were also uniformly regarded well in all but two places. One is the Commanders, and we'll tell you the other in a minute.

And because you're curious, the Bills' training staff got an A-plus, because yanking a player from the jaws of the reaper with the whole world watching will boost your score a bit. One wonders what the reaction might have been had they been given a C-plus—"Defied death itself, but otherwise needs improvement."

And so on it goes, confirming and disconfirming the sort of vibe-based assessments that fans tend to formulate while half-sozzled on a couch or barstool. The Raiders are well regarded by their employees except on draft day, the trade deadline, and game days. The Cowboys excelled at everything except travel, as Jerry Jones's SUV caravans to road games scheme has not yet created player satisfaction. The Lions scored well at everything but nutrition, as Dan Campbell's Kneecaps Florentine regime has failed the players' collective palate. The Packers got A's and B's even though they have not yet implemented the ayahuasca vending machines requested by some prominent players. The Jaguars suck at most things outside the strength and training staffs, but they also got high marks for travel because they get to go to Europe every year. The Dolphins got all A's except for treatment of families and the care and feeding of Tua Tagovailoa's brainbox, which again was something people already knew about. The same can be said of the news that the Chargers pretty much suck at everything.

Oh, and the other team with a poorly regarded training staff? In fact, with absolutely rancid grades for everything besides its treatment of families and the strength staff? Your semi-dynastic Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. It seems impossible for a team that plays in a city with top-flight barbecue in every convenience store to get a D-plus in nutrition, but I guess getting to play with Patrick Mahomes makes cold beans-n'weenies go down well, too. Maybe that's why they drank all that beer at the parade—to kill the taste of the team meal.

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